A win for sub-Saharan Africa

Senegal: Mohamed Mbougar Sarr wins France’s 2021 Goncourt Prize

By Nicolas Michel

Posted on November 9, 2021 08:01

Firefox_Screenshot_2021-11-08T11-03-12.924Z Mohamed Mbougar Sarr in Paris, September 2021 © JOEL SAGET/AFP
Mohamed Mbougar Sarr in Paris, September 2021 © JOEL SAGET/AFP

Senegalese author Mohamed Mbougar Sarr has been awarded the Goncourt Prize for his new novel, ‘The Most Secret Memory of Men’ (La plus Secrète Mémoire des Hommes), which has been described as a ‘hymn to literature’.

There is a sweet irony in the literary and media success of Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, the 31-year-old Senegalese author who just won the 2021 Goncourt Prize, France’s most prestigious literary award. His new book centres on a tragic story that has remained in the annals of history. It recounts the fascinating trajectory of Malian writer Yambo Ouologuem, who was awarded the Renaudot prize in 1968 for Le Devoir de Violence, but later accused of plagiarism, which thwarted his extremely promising literary career and forced him to disappear until he died on 14 October 2017 in Sévaré.

Crime novel

After three acclaimed novels – Terre Ceinte, Le Silence du Chœur and De Purs Hommes – Sarr has set the standard for the new French literary season with The Most Secret Memory of Men, a ‘total’ novel dedicated to Ouologuem and influenced by Chilean poet Roberto Bolaño. “Bolaño had a major influence on the writing of this text,” says the young Senegalese author, a precise and compulsive reader. “He allowed me to mix genres, to play with them, by following a playful principle of hybridisation and fragmentation of linearity. He opened up a field of experimentation that coincides with the reality in which we live in, increasingly chaotic, disturbing, which reflects our way of navigating through time and which we nevertheless manage, surprisingly, to digest.”

Once their degree was revealed, their terms inscribed, their unknowns established and their complexity posed, what was left? Literature…

The Most Secret Memory of Men follows a detective storyline. Apprentice writer Diégane Latyr Faye – who is in a state of shock after he finishes reading Labyrinthe de l’Inhumain, text by a mysterious T.C. Elimane who has become untraceable – embarks on a long investigation to find out who this baffling author, who disappeared too soon, was. This impossible quest leads the novelist-to-be to the very heart of the labyrinth of creation, where all genres intertwine: coming-of-age story, erotic story, love story, philosophical essay, journalistic report, poetry, biography, testimony, satire and political pamphlet.

“In the end, who was Elimane?” says Sarr. “The most tragic and successful product of colonisation […] Elimane wanted to become white and was constantly reminded that not only was he not white, but that he would never become white despite all his talent. Even though he took on every cultural token of whiteness, he remained a n***** in people’s eyes. He probably became more European than the Europeans. Despite all this, where did he end up? Anonymous, in obscurity, erased. You know: colonisation sows desolation, death and chaos among the colonised, but it also sows in them – and this is its most diabolical success – the desire to become what destroys them.” There is no better way to sum up Ouologuem’s drama.

However, The Most Secret Memory of Men is also a long journey through time and space that allows Sarr to evoke several generations of authors from different continents. This includes his own, but also that of the first French-speaking authors from Africa (or the West Indies), René Maran, Léopold Sédar Senghor and others, as well as their more or less critical successors, who were part of the negritude movement.

It also allows him to explore other forms of narratives, myths, secrets, unspoken words and silences that are typical of all families. With ease and – above all – grace, Sarr navigates between the great texts of Western literature and the often irrational worlds of African ‘legends’. He does so without forcing the issue or playing the game of exoticism.

In the end, Elimane, who shares many similarities with Ouologuem – who was also at the heart of vast literary and racial polemics, and regularly frequented libertine circles – does not allow himself to be understood. He is nothing more than a puzzle of scattered memories, a metaphysical presence that is sometimes invasive and sometimes evanescent.

Where is this life?

Human, too human? Caught up in his multiple intersecting stories, Sarr could easily lose his reader but he doesn’t. Not everyone will recognise Ken Bugul as Marième Siga D., “a Senegalese writer in her sixties, who was transformed into an evil pythoness, a ghoul, or a downright succubus because of the scandals surrounding each of her books” and who “saved recently published Senegalese literature from the pestilential embalming of clichés and exsanguinated sentences, devitalised like old rotten teeth.” Once they have finished the novel, some may rush to read Le Devoir de Violence, the book that gave rise to Ouologuem’s success and fall, which the Seuil publishing house republished in 2018.

Finally, only a few people will make the effort to find out about Bolaño, who wrote a total novel titled 2666, even though he knew he was doomed. In reality, it doesn’t really matter whether or not one grasps the references scattered here and there.

Despite his phenomenal intellect, Sarr manages to seduce the reader through the empathy, humour, tenderness and sometimes cruelty, which he demonstrates towards his characters, to whom he grants the right and freedom to exist by themselves. He has the same kind of relationship with the reader. He draws them in, charms them, sometimes mistreats them, deceives them a little, and even makes them question their cultural sensibilities, but never locks them up or despises them. His book could have been called The Human Labyrinth (Le Labyrinthe de l’Humain), given how many encounters take place and yet, the essential thread of the story – life – is never lost. The Most Secret Memory of Men also asks a crucial question: where is this life to be found? Between words or in between palpitations of the flesh?

“My life, like any life, was like a series of equations,” Faye says in the novel. “Once their degree was revealed, their terms inscribed, their unknowns established and their complexity posed, what was left? Literature; only literature remained; indecent literature, as an answer, as a problem, as faith, as shame, as pride, as life.”

So yes, it would be possible to deconstruct this novel, to look for who is hiding behind this or that character, in the way that Ouologuem seems to be hiding behind Elimane. It is possible, but what is the point? There is so much more to this text, which continues to make a lot of noise, than simply its remarkable virtuosity or exciting vitality.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.