The conquest of the French literary world by one African novelist in 2021 has led to the reconsideration of another Francophone African novelist who first emerged in the 1960s with a similar triumph, only to be denounced for plagiarism and then abandoned.
In October 2021, 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.
This was the first time an author from sub-Saharan Africa had won the Goncourt and echoed a similar moment when Malian author Yambo Ouologuem, at age 28, won the 1968 Prix Renaudot, France’s second-most prestigious literary prize, for his own novel, Le devoir de violence – Bound to Violence.
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Paris-based journalist Olivia Snaije recently contributed to New Lines Magazine the absorbing account of how the 2021 French literary accolade for Sarr has helped revive interest in Ouologuem. The reporting reads like its own novel, with a plot that sees literary celebrity lead to rejection, all layered in themes of colonialism and racism.
After Ouologuem returned to Mali from France in the mid-1970s, following accusations of plagiarism, he adopted a religious lifestyle, and many believed that he had quit writing. But while attending a two-day conference on Ouologuem held in the Moroccan capital of Rabat, Snaije learned otherwise.
“A research chair for African literature and art was just created at the Royal Academy in Morocco, and Yambo Ouologuem was the subject of their first conference,” she tells me.
“I was lucky to meet experts and Ouologuem’s youngest son, Ambibé, who’s taken over his father’s estate and writings. Ambibé said that his father had never stopped writing and that he worked every single day and wrote, and that there were piles of papers in the family home, but that he and his siblings hadn’t gone through them yet.”