Why Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s arrival is a milestone for African literature

The Prix Goncourt – the oldest and most prestigious literary prize in France – has been awarded to Senegalese Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, 31 years old. He is the youngest winner since 1976 and the first in sub-Saharan Africa.

Critics rave about The most secret memory of men, his novel about a young Senegalese writer living in Paris. The jury decided unanimously to award the prize to Mbougar Sarr after a single ballot, calling his work a “hymn to literature”.

The prize will bring him literary fame and huge book sales, explains Caroline D. Laurent, specialist in French-speaking African literature in France.

Who is Mohamed Mbougar Sarr?

Author of the 2021 Goncourt Prize winning novel The most secret memory of men (The Most Secret Memory of Men) Mbougar Sarr is a young Senegalese author who grew up outside Dakar and moved to Paris to continue his studies. At just 31 years old, he has already published three other novels, his first in 2015: Land encircled (Earth Surrounded), Silence of the choir (Silence of the Choir) and Pure men (Pure Men).

Beginning his studies in Senegal, he began his doctorate at the prestigious École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, working on the poet and first president of Senegal, Léopold Sédar Senghor. The writing embarrassed him and kept him from finishing and graduating. He now lives in Beauvais, a town north of Paris.

‘The most secret memory of men’ by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr. Photo credit: Philippe Rey

What is the novel about?

The most secret memory of men plays with reality and fiction. It tells the story of a young Senegalese author, Diégane Latyr Faye, who lives in Paris. While in high school in Senegal, he had encountered mentions of a mysterious novel published in 1938 by a Senegalese author called TC Elimane, The Labyrinth of the Inhuman. Unable to find a copy, he put his quest aside, considering it one of the many lost books of literature. But, by chance, a few years later, he met a Senegalese writer, Siga D, who gave him a copy of the book. Reading (and numerous re-readings) of what he considers a masterpiece rekindles his urge to know what happened to the mysterious TC Elimane.

Why is the book important?

The most secret memory of men is a novel about writing and literature. It is full of literary references, such as the famous Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño and the prolific Polish author Witold Gombrowicz. But it’s the obscure references that are probably the most interesting: TC Elimane’s fictional book and its fate echoes that of the real Malian writer Yambo Ouologuem – to whom Mbougar Sarr’s own novel is dedicated.

Winner of the 1968 Renaudot Prize for Linked to violence (The duty of violence), Ouologuem sparked controversy after a 1972 article in the Times Literary Supplement claimed he plagiarized several authors, including Graham Greene and André Schwarz-Bart. He returned to Mali and never published again. Just as the narrator of Mbougar Sarr’s novel, Diégane Latyr Faye, is his alter ego, TC Elimane is that of Ouologuem.

As much as it is about writing, The most secret memory of men it is also reading. The work is polyphonic (with many narrators besides Faye), it is cross-cultural (taking place in Europe, Africa and South America) and it mixes different literary genres (letters, articles, conversations), encouraging many types of readings. Some may focus on the historical events depicted – the novel alludes to colonialism, world wars, Nazism and the Holocaust, the dictatorship in Argentina, and recent Senegalese protests against state corruption. Others may focus on the mysterious elements that are reminiscent of certain characteristics of magical realism. Or on the literary references, both African and global, which punctuate the text. Or all of the above.

It should be read for what it is – a great novel – and not because of the origin or the skin color of its author. This is precisely why TC Elimane disappeared: hurt by certain critics, he felt misunderstood because his work was read through the prism of the work of others, in particular that of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud (see called a “Negro Rimbaud” or black Rimbaud).

Why is this Prix Goncourt victory important?

For these reasons, obtaining the Goncourt Prize must be considered as African literature finally recognized for its literary qualities. We must dwell on this (belated) recognition and perhaps wonder why, faced with the many great novels of African writers, the victory of Mbougar Sarr is so rare. The most secret memory of men is quite subversively brilliant in denouncing, through literature, the literary capture of African writers by the former colonial powers.

Published jointly by two small publishing houses, Philippe Rey in France and Jimsaan in Senegal, the novel is truly transnational. The recognition of these publishing houses on two continents will hopefully improve and rebalance the role of African countries in the publishing and dissemination of the works of their authors. Mohamed Mbougar Sarr not only denounces colonial and neocolonial practices, but also encourages new ways of publishing and reaching readers.

The most secret memory of men is a powerful text not only by its writing, its themes and what it says about the place of African literature in the world, but also by the way in which it opens prospects for the future to French-speaking authors.The conversation

Caroline D. Laurent is Associate Professor, American University of Paris (AUP).

This article is republished from The conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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