Secrets of the ‘Black Rimbaud’

Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s novel La plus secrete mémoire des hommes was a favorite of last year’s rentrée littéraire and won the Prix Goncourt, making Mbougar Sarr the first Senegalese Goncourt laureate. The prize was awarded in the heated run-up to the French presidential elections, during which the far-right candidate Eric Zemmour declared that, if elected, he would ban the name Mohamed, among others. Mbougar Sarr, through his narrator in La plus secrete mémoireis also the first Goncourt winner to mock the way the literary establishment pays lip service to identity and minority politics.

W est le premier romancier noir à recevoir tel prix ou à entrer dans telle académie : lisez son livre, forcément fabuleux. [….] X est la première écrivaine lesbienne à voir son livre publié en écriture inclusive : c’est le grand texte révolutionnaire de notre époque. Y est bisexuel athée le jeudi et mahométan cisgenre le vendredi : son récit est magnifique et émouvant et si vrai!

[W is the first Black writer to win this prize or to enter that academy: read his work, wonderful, of course […] X is the first lesbian writer to have her book published in “inclusive writing”: it’s the great revolutionary text of our era. Y is an atheist bisexual on Thursdays and a cisgender Muslim on Fridays: their story is magnificent, moving and so true!]

Hailed by the Goncourt jury as “a hymn to literature”, La plus secrete mémoire des hommes is about the mysteries of writing. It begins in 2018, when Diégane Latyr Faye, a young Senegalese writer, discovers a mythical author, TC Elimane, who wrote a single book, “Le Labyrinthe de l’inhumain”, published in 1938 and now out of print and unobtainable. Acclaimed as the “Black Rimbaud”, Elimane was then accused of plagiarism before vanishing without trace – just like his real counterpart, the Malian writer Yambo Ouologuem, who was awarded the Renaudot prize in 1968 for Le Devoir de violence (Bound to Violence), before being charged with plagiarism of Graham Greene and others. As Faye seeks to understand the circumstances of Elimane’s disappearing act, he pieces together the writer’s journey, caught up in the turmoil of the twentieth century, relying on correspondence, interviews and testimonies, newspaper cuttings and reviews. And so we learn that Elimane’s father enrolled wilfully as a trailleur during the First World War and perished in the Somme; that Elimane came to study in Paris in an attempt to retrace his father’s steps; that his publisher died in the Shoah, denounced by his own staff, and most of his reviewers mysteriously took their own lives; that he fled to Buenos Aires after the war, where he rubbed shoulders with Witold Gombrowicz, the Ocampo sisters, Borges and Ernesto Sabato.

The novel thus develops a fictional biography, with a narrator well aware that the mysteries of a personal destiny and the creative process remain impossible to pin down. Whether Elimane was a genius who, like Rimbaud, went into and gave up on literature after his exile magnus opus, or just a fraud and a killer, will remain unsolved. Women, in this labyrinthine novel, are the storytellers, guardians of a past that is carefully transmitted down the generations. As their voices merge, the novel brings up more intellectual questions about authorship, ownership and literature. Can one create from a tabula rasa? Or does originality entail being a cunning plagiarist who succeeds in erasing all signs of fraud? What does it mean for a Senegalese writer to be fed western culture, only to be accused of plagiarism by the colonial establishment? What promise of meaning does literature hold when Faye’s ambition is, like Flaubert, to write a novel about nothing? What existential choice is there between life and writing when Faye’s lover mocks him during one of their sexual encounters, saying writers make bad lovers because they confuse erotic and literary pursuits?

If the first part of the novel is haunted by these heady questions, the last part breaks free from the multiple western canonical references and takes the reader to contemporary Senegal, in the midst of the turmoil and violence of a popular revolution, as well as a Missed encounter between Faye and Elimane, who has died, leaving a rather mediocre final manuscript. Faye’s quest ends on this bathetic moment, when literature, as the elusive object that crystallises great expectations, is revealed to be an empty tomb. Yet new, urgent questions surface as postcolonial violence is compellingly pitted against the savagery of western twentieth-century wars, dictatorships and the Shoah, echoing those probed by Elimane (and Ouologuem): what can do against violence and the evil of literature war? Is exile an appropriate answer? Should one write in French, the colonial language, or in one’s own tribal tongue?

In that respect La plus secrete mémoire des hommes It seems to sidestep the traditional polarity that opposes the native and colonial language, which Franz Fanon famously and pithily summarized: the better he masters French, the whiter the Black person is. Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s dizzying display of reference, however, plays a witty game with French and world literature, rather than identifying with it. As such, it moves that discussion beyond guilt and resentment towards a form of appeasement that nevertheless acknowledges the tragedy that the colonial encounter has been.

The seemingly melancholy ending, however, does not cast a shadow over the vitality and jubilation that the novel otherwise evokes. Faye’s fellow African writers expatriated in Paris form a community of friends – the “ghetto” – who feverishly believe in the secret promises of literature, which they celebrate by reading, writing, debating and having sex. This effervescence is infectious and casts its charm in nostalgic times for a belief in books and the communities they create.

Henriette Korthals Altes is a Research Fellow at the Maison Française d’Oxford

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