Mohamed Mbougar Sarr wins the 2021 Goncourt Prize – .

Mohamed Mbougar Sarr wins the 2021 Goncourt Prize – .

There is a sweet irony in the literary and media success of Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, the 31-year-old Senegalese author who has just won the 2021 Goncourt Prize, the most prestigious French literary award. His new book focuses on a tragic story that has gone down in the annals of history. It traces the fascinating journey of the Malian writer Yambo Ouologuem, winner of the Renaudot Prize in 1968 for The Duty of Violence, but later accused of plagiarism, which thwarted his extremely promising literary career and forced him to disappear until his death on October 14, 2017 in Sévaré.

Detective story

After three acclaimed novels – Terre Ceinte, The Silence of the Choir and Pure Men – Sarr 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 the Chilean poet Roberto Bolaño. “Bolaño had a major influence on the writing of this text,” says the young Senegalese author, precise and compulsive reader. “It allowed me to mix genres, to play with them, following a playful principle of hybridization and fragmentation of linearity. It opened up a field of experimentation which coincides with the reality in which we live, increasingly chaotic, disturbing, which reflects our way of navigating in time and which we nevertheless manage, surprisingly, to digest.

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

The most secret memory of men follows a police scenario. Apprentice writer Diégane Latyr Faye – who is in shock after finishing reading Labyrinth of the Inhuman, text of a mysterious TC Elimane who has become untraceable – embarks on a long investigation to find out who this disconcerting author was, who disappeared too soon. This impossible quest leads the future novelist to the very heart of the labyrinth of creation, where all genres intermingle: coming of age story, erotic story, love story, philosophical essay, journalistic report, poetry, biography. , testimony, satire and political brochure.

“In the end, who was Elimane? Sarr said. “The most tragic and successful product of colonization […] Elimane wanted to go white and was constantly reminded that not only was he not white, but that he would never go white despite all his talent. Even if he took all the cultural marks of whiteness, he remained a ***** in the eyes of the people. He has probably become more European than the Europeans. Despite all this, where did he end up? Anonymous, in the dark, erased. You know: colonization sows desolation, death and chaos among the colonized, but it also sows in them – and this is its most diabolical achievement – 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 in time and space which allows Sarr to evoke several generations of authors from different continents. This includes his own, but also that of the first French-speaking authors of 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 stories, myths, secrets, unspoken and silences 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”. It does so without forcing or playing the exotic game.

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

Where is this life?

Human, too human? Caught up in his multiple crossed stories, Sarr could easily lose his reader but he doesn’t. Not everyone will recognize Ken Bugul as Marième Siga D., “a Senegalese writer in her sixties, who has turned into a nasty pythoness, a ghoul or a frank succubus because of the scandals surrounding each of her. books ”and who“ recently saved Senegalese literature from the pestilential embalming of clichés and bloodless sentences, devitalized like old rotten teeth. Once the novel is finished, some may rush to read The Duty of Violence, the book that made the success and the downfall of Ouologuem, that the Editions du Seuil reissued in 2018.

Finally, only a few people will make the effort to learn about Bolaño, who wrote a total novel titled 2666, even though he knew he was doomed. In reality, it does not matter whether or not we grasp the references scattered here and there.

Despite his phenomenal intelligence, Sarr manages to seduce the reader with the empathy, humor, tenderness and sometimes cruelty, which he shows towards his characters, to whom he grants the right and the freedom to exist on their own. . He has the same kind of relationship with the reader. He attracts them, charms them, sometimes mistreats them, deceives them a little, and even makes them question their cultural sensibilities, but never locks them in or despises them. His book could have been called The human labyrinth (The Human Labyrinth), given the number of encounters that take place and yet the common thread of the story – life – never gets lost. The The most secret memory of men also asks a crucial question: where to find this life? Between words or between palpitations of flesh?

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

So yes, it would be possible to deconstruct this novel, to find out who is hiding behind such and such a character, as Ouologuem seems to be hiding behind Elimane. It is possible, but what is it for? There is so much more to this text, which continues to make a lot of noise, than its remarkable virtuosity or its exciting vitality.


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