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Yambo Ouologuem: Le Devoir de violence (Bound to Violence)

When this book first appeared, it received a lot of acclaim. Most previous African novels had portrayed pre-colonial Africa as something of a glorious era, which had all been destroyed with the arrival of the colonising powers. Ouologuem shows what is probably the more accurate situation, namely that the pre-colonial period was marred by brutal violence, not just between men fighting, but also towards women and children, that the African chiefs enslaved large numbers of people, and also sold them to others, as well as requiring forced labour from their own people, and were generally very cruel towards women.

However, the book was not without controversy, as it was accused of plagiarism. Ouologuem was accused of plagiarising from Graham Greene‘s It’s a Battlefield, Guy de Maupassant and André Schwarz-Bart. The French edition was withdrawn and was only reissued in 2003, though is now out of print. The US edition, was also withdrawn, while the British edition, published by Heinemann, stated The Publishers acknowledge the use of certain passages on pages 54-56 from It’s a Battlefield by Graham Greene. It was reprinted, though is now out of print. Christopher Wise edited a book on the controversy. You can read an excellent summary of the main points at the Complete Review. Antoine Marie Zacharie Habumukiza published a book on the issue in French.

The novel is set in the fictitious Nakem Empire, clearly based on the Dogon and Toucouleur Empires of Mali, ruled by the Saïf dynasty. The early part show the brutality of the period, with continual wars between the Nakems and their neighbours and the cruelty meted out to the losers, including the women and children. We learn about slavery, incest, pedophilia, forced labour, promises made by the chiefs to reduce forced labour and other abuses. When the colonial powers come, in the form of the French, the Saïfs try to resist but the French get some assistance from other Africans, who see the French as the lesser of the two evils. However, despite their resistance, once peace is made, the Saïfs are accepted by the French and continue to rule, albeit in a subordinate position.

The Saïfs remain cruel towards their own and very devious in their actions. On three separate occasions, they manage to kill the French governor, without any blame being attached to them. Indeed, this part of the book is a continuation of the cruelties of the Saïf family, only slightly tempered by the French presence. There are still slaves and we follow the fate of the family of one of these slaves. Raymond Kassoumi is a cook. He falls in love with Tambura and they marry. She produces quintuplets, all of whom are educated. However, it is the eldest son, Raymond Spartacus Kassoumi, who does the best. He does so well that he is sent to Paris at French expense, qualifies as an architect and serves in World War II. He has a difficult time but is helped by a male lover. When independence looms, he is called back to Nakem to serve.

Ouologuem criticises virtually everybody. The Africans are cruel, the French coloniser cruel, the Saïfs cruel and devious. Even Raymond gets condemned for being a négraille, a word invented by Ouologuem, meaning a black man who tries to be a white. Indeed, other characters mock him for this. Despite the plagiarism, this is a very fine book and should be read. It is a pity that it is out of print.

Publishing history

First published by Editions du Seuil, Paris in 1968
First published in English by Heinemann in 1971
Translated by Ralph Manheim