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Mohamed Mbougar Sarr: La Plus Secrète Mémoire des hommes (The Most Secret Memory of Men)

Yambo Ouologuem was a Malian writer, known for his novel Le Devoir de violence (Bound to Violence). This novel, when it first appeared, received considerable acclaim and it was even suggested that it might be the Great African Novel. Interestingly enough there was talk of it winning the Prix Goncourt, an interesting irony given that this book about it, did win the Prix Goncourt.

Le Devoir de violence (Bound to Violence) showed that, though the French colonisers were cruel so were their African predecessors. The novel was soon accused of plagiarism, accused of borrowing from Graham Greene, Guy de Maupassant and André Schwarz-Bart. The book was withdrawn and, to all intents and purposes Ouologuem disappeared from view. The Complete Review has more details on the controversy. Christopher Wise, who wrote an introduction to Ouologuem, wrote this interesting account of trying to find him.

This novel is about a fictitious Senegalese writer called T.C. Elimane. While Elimane is clearly not Ouologuem, his story is clearly influenced by Ouologuem’s story. Elimane, we learn from the beginning, had managed to achieve the three major achievements for a mysterious author. He had a name with initials, no first name; he only wrote one book; he disappeared without trace.

Our narrator is Diégane Latyr Faye. He is a young Senegalese writer, like his creator. He has a scholarship to study in France but, again like his creator, what he really wants is to be a novelist. Early on, three days before Aïda, a half-Colombian, half-Algerian woman broke up with him, he published his first novel. She wanted to join the revolution in Algeria.She did not want to remain in touch. The novel was no more successful than his affair with Aïda. He is now planning to write a great, ambitious novel.

He had always been interested in Elimane but it was impossible to find copies of his great work Le Labyrinthe de l’inhumain [The Labyrinth of the Inhuman]. Like Ouologuem, Elimane was accused of plagiarism. The publishers withdrew the book and, unlike Le Devoir de violence (Bound to Violence), it was never reprinted. Faye has searched high and low for it. He thought, when he came to France, he would find a copy in a second-hand bookshop but he did not.

In France he is able to visit archives and read about what happened. It was first published in 1938, thirty years before Le Devoir de violence (Bound to Violence). It got mixed reviews. Mbougar Sarr has great fun mocking the racism of the French reviewers. Elimane is called the Negro Rimbaud by one critic. Another suggested that it was so good that it could not possibly have been written by an African and must have been written by a Frenchman pretending to be African. There are several more racist critiques. Then come the accusations of plagiarism, which led to the book being withdrawn and Elimane disappearing.

Faye shares a flat with a Polish translator, Stanislas, who is translating Witold Gombrowicz‘s Ferdydurke (Ferdydurke) into French and, in his researches he learns that Elimane visited Buenos Aires, where he met Gombrowicz and Ernesto Sabato.

One day, entering a bar, Faye sees Siga D. She is a successful Senegalese novelist, old enough to be his mother. I would add that quite a few fictitious African novelists make an appearance and I have no doubt some are based, at least in part, on real novelists. Faye admires Siga as a novelist but when he sees her in the flesh, he is far more interested in her breasts. She is far too clever for him and, when they have gone back to her flat, she tells him that she does not like sex with writers as they are too busy imagining how to put the scene in their next novel, rather than focussing on her charms. However, she does show him a book. It is, of course, Le Labyrinthe de l’inhumain [The Labyrinth of the Inhuman].

He borrows the book and reads it all night and then reads it again. He is impressed. He shows it to various African writers, who are also impressed and agree that it should be republished. He copies the text into his computer, comparing himself to Borges’ Pierre Menard. He hopes to get it republished.

At this point, starting with Siga, we now get the story of how Siga, Faye and others try to track down Elimane and find out what really happened.

Several commentators referred to Mbougar Sarr’s superb command of the French language. There is no doubt that he writes a beautiful French, far superior to that of many French writers. However, he also tells a superb story.

Le Labyrinthe de l’inhumain [The Labyrinth of the Inhuman] was written in 1938, as mentioned. Its initial support came from its publishers, a small house called Gemini, run a by a Jewish couple, Thérèse Jacob and Charles Ellenstein. They were very supportive of it but it was they who had to pick up the pieces when the criticisms came. They withdrew all copies and had to compensate copyright holders, leaving them broke. We follow their continued support of Elimane, even though he has disappeared. However, they pass the flame to Brigitte Bollème. She wrote an early review of the book and then wrote a book about him, particularly her attempts to track him down. She passes on the torch to Siga, who appears to be related to Elimane. Siga, in turn, passes it on to our hero/narrator. Each one finds out some more information about what he and other key players did and did not do. All of this is relayed to us as it is relayed to Faye, when Siga fills him in.

If you are expecting a straightforward story of hunting for and finding the missing Elimane, as was the case with Ouologuem, simply having disappeared to some remote village, you will be very surprised on reading this book. It gets very complicated, involving Nazis, a Haitian woman poet, a strip club, lots of criticism of racism, a fair amount of (but not too much) sex, including at least one episode qualifying for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, polygamy, the use of mystic, otherworldly powers, World War I and World War II, blindness, the horrors in what was Zaire and unreliable narrators.

Though the focus is on Elimane, we are also following the story of Diégane Latyr Faye, including his not entirely happy love life and his not entirely happy literary life, as well as his association with other writers. Towards the end, he returns to Senegal to continue his hunt but also to visit his parents and friends. It is a time of considerable political turbulence in Senegal and though he tries to stand aside, when a friend makes a dramatic gesture, he becomes more involved, not least because an old girlfriend, who is politically involved, reappears in his life. He also gets criticised in social media. What do writers do? You are the voice of the voiceless. Why this silence? Don’t betray us! The Whites talk about you in France. But what do you have to say for your country? He is even accused of being the House Negro.

I have not read the other Prix Goncourt finalists (link in French) and, knowing of the authors, I have no doubt they were all excellent works. However, it is easy to see why this work was picked as it is certainly one of the best novels I have read for some time and probably one of the best if not the best African novel. Mbougar Sarr, as mentioned, writes beautiful French and tells a wonderful and complex story. But his aim is clearly to also write about being African and what that means in today’s world (and what it meant in Elimane’s world of 1938). It is interesting that he picks two Jewish publishers as Elimane’s publishers, obviously as representatives of another minority that suffered abuse, particularly, of course, in 1938. The book has not been translated into any other language but I am 99% certain that it will appear in English before long.

Publishing history

First published in 2021 by Éditions Philippe Rey/Jimsaan
First English translation in 2023 by Other Press
Translated by Lara Vergnaud