The tortured legacy of Yambo Ouologuem

by MMC
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In 1968, a young Malian author living in Paris published his first book to the greatest praise: critics described it as a “great African novel” and awarded it one of the most prestigious literary prizes in France. But soon, his rise gave way to a devastating fall from grace.

The author, Yambo Ouologuem, was accused of plagiarism, but he denied any wrongdoing and refused to explain himself. Its publishers in France and the United States have withdrawn the novel “Le Devoir de Violence” or “Bound to Violence”. After a crushing decade, Ouologuem returned to Mali, where he remained resolutely silent on the subject, answering questions about his aborted literary career with digressions or outbursts of anger, even refusing to speak French.

He died in 2017, forgotten by most, his novel read by few – until recently, when another award-winning novel by a West African author helped bring new attention to Ouologuem and the tortured trajectory of his book. “The most secret memory of men», by the Senegalese writer Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, follows a mysterious writer who disappears from public life after being accused of plagiarism in Paris — a vague reference to Ouologuem. It won the Goncourt Prize in 2021 and was published this week in the United States by Other Press, in a translation by Lara Vergnaud.

Along with Sarr’s book, Other Press is also reissuing “Bound to Violence,” translated by Ralph Manheim. The reissue comes as new thinking about Ouologuem’s work by readers and scholars brings old accusations back into focus: Should what Ouologuem did really be considered plagiarism? Or had hasty criticism, perhaps tinged with racism, destroyed one of the literary stars of his generation?

There is no doubt that Ouologuem copied, adapted and rewrote sentences, sometimes entire paragraphs, from numerous sources..

The borrowings probably begin with the novel’s opening sentence: “Our eyes drink in the radiance of the sun and, defeated, marvel at their tears.” » Critics found it heavily inspired by another award-winning novel published years earlier, “The Last of the Righteous,” which begins, “Our eyes record the light of dead stars.” Dozens of other similarities to “The Last of the Righteous” fill the pages of “Bound to Violence.”

But what would happen if, academics ask, these markdownsas Ouologuem described the borrowings, were an artistic technique – a kind of anthology that poured the canon of Western literature into an African context., or an assemblage or collage, like that used by visual artists like Georges Braque or Pablo Picasso, but using words?

“It’s not plagiarism, it’s something else,” said Christopher L. Miller, professor emeritus of African American studies and French at Yale University, who is working on a compilation of borrowings in the book. “I don’t think we have a word to describe what he did.”

Ouologuem was born in 1940, in central Mali, and moved to Paris at the age of 20. He entered the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, like the poets and politicians Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal and Aimé Césaire of Martinique, both champions of the anti-colonial Négritude movement. in literature, had done so decades earlier.

He wrote at a breakneck pace. At the age of 23, he sent his first manuscript to a publisher, Éditions du Seuil; in a little over a year he sent two more. All were rejected. “Bound to Violence” was his fourth attempt.

When the book was first published in France, critics were full of praise for Ouologuem, then 28 years old. Released in the United States in 1971, the book was described as “Skyscraper” by the New York Times – a work that deserved “much reading”.

The novel, composed of four parts, varies in style, drawing on West African oral tradition, ancient tales, theater and contemporary novels. This is a gripping expose of the centuries of violence that took place in parts of Africa, before and during European colonization.

From its first pages, “Bound to Violence” is crude and sarcastic: telling the story of the fictional Saif dynasty, which the reader follows from the 13th to the 20th century, would give rise to poor folklore, writes the narrator. Instead, readers discover a world where “violence competes with horror.” Children are slaughtered and pregnant women have their stomachs cut open after being raped, before the helpless eyes of their husbands, who then commit suicide.

Sarr discovered “Linked to Violence” as a teenager in Senegal, thanks to a teacher who lent him an old copy with missing pages. The book “fizzes,” Sarr said, even as it casts a harsh light on the continent, described as rife with slavery, violence and eroticism.

“This is an epic story of human cruelty set in Africa, just as it could have happened – and did – in the rest of the world,” Sarr said.

Even before accusations of plagiarism surfaced, Ouologuem’s portrait of Africa provoked outrage among African intellectuals. Among them were towering figures like Senghor, who called the novel “dreadful.”

Ouologuem ignored criticism from his peers. “It is regrettable that African writers have written only about folklore and legends,” he said in a 1971 article. interview with the Times.

The accusations of plagiarism came shortly after the book’s publication in English. In 1972, an anonymous article in the Literary Supplement of The Times of London highlighted multiple similarities between “Bound to Violence” and a Graham Greene novel published in 1934, “It’s a Battlefield.”

Researchers and journalists have spotted dozens of references and extracts borrowed, plagiarized, rewritten – the appropriate words are still debated – from sources as varied as the Bible and the Arabian Nights, from James Baldwin to Guy de Maupassant.

“What Ouologuem did was fabulous, but sometimes he was at the limit, and he even crossed that red line,” said Jean-Pierre Orban, a Belgian academic and writer. studied the correspondence of Ouologuem with his publisher and interviewed his former Parisian classmates.

“He was steeped in literature, quoting writers by heart as if he made their work his own,” Orban said. “He lived between reality and fiction.”

Some of the first revelations about Ouologuem’s borrowing sparked reactions from readers. When Eric Sellin, a prominent professor of French and comparative literature, presented similarities between “Bound to Violence” and “The Last of the Just” at a symposium in Vermont in 1971, a young assistant retorting: “Why you white people and Europeans, do you still do this? ours? Every time we find something good in Africa, you say we couldn’t have done it ourselves.”

Further research by Orban and others revealed that Ouologuem’s French publishing house, Le Seuil, was aware of these similarities before publication. But criticism has mounted as Ouologuem has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, saying for example that he sent the original manuscript with quotation marks, an excuse that most find dubious.

“He was hurt because he was misunderstood and he had a virulent and rather clumsy attitude towards these attacks,” Sarr explained.

Scholars and critics debate whether a Western author would have faced similar criticism.

“I don’t think that in France, a European or French author would have faced the same condemnation,” Orban said. Borrowings, pastiches and literary tricks were often considered literary play, he claimed. But it was a match Ouologuem was not allowed to play in.

Sarr believes that a white author would have faced a similar reaction, but one that would have been limited to the literary domain – while Ouologuem, he says, was castigated for what he was: an African author plagiarizing Western canons.

Miller, a Yale professor emeritus, suggests that Ouologuem deliberately flouted the rules, attacking not only the concept of negritude by proposing a radical revision of African history, but also the Parisian literary establishment, in an act of disobedience artistic.

A bitter feud ensued between Le Seuil and Ouologuem, and the writer returned to Mali in 1978, according to his son. Once flamboyant and talkative, Ouologuem remained almost silent upon his return, devoting the rest of his life to Islam.

“He was a wounded man, who came back to huddle among his loved ones,” says Ismaila Samba Traoré, a Malian writer and journalist who interviewed Ouologuem in the 1980s.

His son, Ambibé Ouologuem, said his father spent time in a psychiatric hospital in France before returning to Mali. When he returned, Ouologuem had difficulty walking, his son said, and was healed using traditional methods by his own father.

The quarrel over the book and the resulting bitterness also had a profound impact on the rest of the family: Ambibé Ouologuem said he had to go to school in secret, with the help of his grandmother, because his father wanted him to concentrate on studying the Quran.

“My father was proud to be African and Malian and had always refused to apply for French nationality,” Ouologuem said.

In Mali, Ouologuem’s book is taught in some high schools, but it remains little known beyond intellectual circles even in West Africa. The Malian government has committed to creating a literary prize dedicated to him, but this has not yet been announced. According to his son and those who studied it, it is likely that the author left unpublished manuscripts in Mali or France.

For Sarr, the Ouologuem affair is a literary tragedy.

“I would be happy,” he said, “if “Bound to Violence” could be rid of its evil aura, its dark legend. If we could reread Ouologuem and consider his book for what it is: a great novel.

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