A Malian Writer Finds a Postmortem Revival: How a French literary event in 2021 brought author Yambo Ouologuem back to life
In November 2021, a major event occurred in the French literary world: A 31-year-old Senegalese writer, Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, won the country’s most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt, for his novel “La plus secrète mémoire des hommes” (“The Most Secret Memory of Men”). It was the first time an author from sub-Saharan Africa had won the prize, and it stirred discussions pertaining to Francophone literature, colonialism, postcolonialism, as well as bringing to the fore the saga of a forgotten author.
Mbougar Sarr’s book tells the story of a young Senegalese writer living in present-day Paris who is captivated by the discovery of a novel published in 1938 by another Senegalese author, a mysterious T.C. Elimane. Hailed as the “Black Rimbaud,” Elimane experiences a fleeting moment of glory, but then, accused of plagiarism, he disappears, leaving behind an ill-fated novel.
The inspiration for Mbougar Sarr’s novel began with the tragic and true story of Malian author Yambo Ouologuem, who at age 28 won the 1968 Prix Renaudot, France’s second-most prestigious literary prize, for his novel “Le devoir de violence” (“Bound to Violence”); a first for an author from the African continent. The book, a sweeping portrait of African history with plenty of sex and violence, was hailed as a masterpiece and translated into more than 10 languages.
In 1972, after penning a few more books, some under pseudonyms, Ouologuem was accused of plagiarism for “Le devoir de violence.” After fruitless attempts to defend himself, he returned to Mali, devastated, never to publish again.
Here, we must introduce Christopher Wise, an American academic and a Fulbright professor at the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso in 1996, who had read texts by Ouologuem in graduate school when postcolonial studies didn’t exist in the U.S. “Chinua Achebe [a prominent Nigerian novelist] was read in anthropology and not in comparative literature classes,” he said.
Wise was one of the few Westerners to have met Ouologuem after the author moved back to Mali definitively in 1978. This encounter changed his life, he said, and led him to turn the focus of his studies on El Hadj Omar Tall and Sahelian culture for 25 years.