In 1968, a young Malian author living in Paris published his first book to great acclaim: critics called it a “great African novel” and awarded it one of France’s most prestigious literary prizes. But his rise soon gave way to a devastating fall from grace.
The author, Yambo Ouologuem, was accused of plagiarism, but he denied all allegations and refused to explain himself. His publishers in France and the United States have withdrawn the novel ‘Le Devoir de Violence’ or ‘Bound to Violence’. After a crushing decade, Ouologuem returned to Mali, where he remained resolutely silent on the matter, answering questions about his aborted literary career with digressions or outbursts of anger, and even refusing to speak French.
He died in 2017, forgotten by most, his novel read by few – until recently, when another award-winning novel by a West African author helped draw new attention to Ouologuem and his book’s tortured trajectory. ‘The Most Secret Memory of Men’, by Senegalese writer Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, follows a mysterious writer who disappears from public life after being accused of plagiarism in Paris – a loose reference to Ouologuem. It won the 2021 Goncourt Prize and was published this week in the United States by Other Press, in a translation by Lara Vergnaud.
With Sarr’s book, Other Press is also republishing ‘Bound to Violence’, translated by Ralph Manheim. The reissue comes at a time when new considerations of Ouologuem’s work by readers and academics are holding old accusations in new light: should what Ouologuem actually did be considered plagiarism? Or had hasty criticism, perhaps steeped in racism, destroyed one of the literary stars of his generation?
There is no doubt that Ouologuem copied, adapted and rewrote sentences, sometimes entire paragraphs, from many sources.
The borrowings probably begin with the novel’s opening line: “Our eyes drink the brightness of the sun and wonder, overwhelmed by their tears.” Critics say it is heavily inspired by another award-winning novel published years earlier, “The Last of the Just,” which begins, “Our eyes register the light of dead stars.” Dozens of other similarities to “The Last of the Just” fill the pages of “Bound to Violence.”
But what if, academics ask, that markdownsas Ouologuem described the borrowings, were an artistic technique – a kind of anthology that placed the canon of Western literature in an African context., or an assemblage or collage, as used by visual artists such as Georges Braque or Pablo Picasso, but with words?
“It’s not plagiarism, it’s something else,” says Christopher L. Miller, professor emeritus of African American studies and French at Yale University, who is working on a compilation of the book’s borrowings. “I don’t think we have a word for what he did.”
Ouologuem was born in 1940 in central Mali and moved to Paris at the age of twenty. He attended the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, as the poets and politicians Léopold Sédar Senghor from Senegal and Aimé Césaire from Martinique, both champions of the anti-colonial Négritude movement. in literature, had done decades earlier.
He wrote at an insane pace. At the age of 23, he sent his first manuscript to a publisher, Éditions du Seuil; within just over a year he sent two more. They were all rejected. “Bound to Violence” was his fourth attempt.
When the book was first published in France, critics praised Ouologuem, then 28 years old. The book, published in the United States in 1971, was called a “skyscraper” by The New York Times – a work that deserved “many readings.”
The novel, consisting of four parts, varies in style and is based on West African oral tradition, ancient stories, theater and contemporary novels. It is a harrowing account of the centuries of violence that took place in parts of Africa, both before and during European colonization.
From the first pages, ‘Bound to Violence’ is raw and sarcastic: telling the story of the fictional Saif dynasty, which follows the reader from the 13th to the 20th century, would make for bad folklore, the narrator writes. Instead, readers enter a world where “violence rivals horror.” Children have their throats slit and pregnant women have their stomachs cut open after being raped, under the helpless eyes of their husbands, who then commit suicide.
Sarr discovered ‘Bound to Violence’ as a teenager in Senegal, thanks to a professor who lent him an old copy with pages missing. The book “shined,” Sarr said, even as it cast a bright light on the continent, portraying it as full of slavery, violence and eroticism.
“It’s an epic story of human cruelty set in Africa, just as it could have happened — and did happen — in the rest of the world,” Sarr said.
Even before allegations of plagiarism came to light, Ouologuem’s portrayal of Africa caused outrage among African intellectuals. Among them were towering figures like Senghor, who described the novel as “terrible.”
Ouologuem shrugged off the criticism from his colleagues. “It is a pity that African writers have only written about folklore and legends,” he said in a 1971 interview with The Times.
The accusations of plagiarism came shortly after the book’s publication in English. In 1972, an anonymous article in The Times of London’s Literary Supplement pointed out several similarities between ‘Bound to Violence’ and a 1934 Graham Greene novel, ‘It’s a Battlefield’.
Researchers and journalists discovered dozens of references and fragments borrowed, plagiarized and rewritten – the right words to use are still up for debate – from sources as diverse as the Bible and The Arabian Nights, from James Baldwin to Guy de Maupassant.
“What Ouologuem did was fantastic, but sometimes he was on the borderline and even crossed that red line,” says Jean-Pierre Orban, a Belgian academic and writer who studied Ouologuem’s correspondence with his publisher and interviewed his former Parisian classmates.
“He was steeped in literature and quoted writers by heart as if he made their work his own,” Orban said. “He lived between reality and fiction.”
Some of the first revelations about Ouologuem’s borrowing drew resistance from readers. When Eric Sellin, a distinguished professor of French and comparative literature, presented similarities between “Bound to Violence” and “The Last of the Just” at a 1971 colloquium in Vermont, a young clerk responded, “Why are you white people and Europeans?” do you always do this to us? Every time we come up with something good in Africa, you say we couldn’t have done it alone.”
Further investigation by Orban and others revealed that Ouologuem’s French publishing house, Le Seuil, was aware of these agreements before publication. But criticism mounted when Ouologuem vehemently denied any wrongdoing, claiming, for example, that he had sent the original manuscript in quotes, an excuse that most people find questionable.
“He was injured because he was misunderstood, and he had a virulent and rather clumsy attitude towards those attacks,” Sarr said.
Academics and critics wonder whether a Western author would have faced similar criticism.
“I don’t think a European or French author would have faced the same condemnation in France,” Orbán said. Borrowings, pastiches and literary tricks were often considered a literary game, he argued. But it was one that Ouologuem was not allowed to play.
Sarr believes that a white author would have faced a similar reaction, but one that would have been limited to the literary field – while Ouologuem, he said, was castigated for who he was: an African author who plagiarized Western canons committed.
Miller, the Yale professor emeritus, suggests that Ouologuem deliberately flouted the rules and attacked not only the concept of Négritude by offering a radical revision of African history, but also the Parisian literary establishment, in an act of artistic disobedience.
A bitter feud ensued between Le Seuil and Ouologuem and, according to his son, the writer moved back to Mali in 1978. Once flamboyant and talkative, Ouologuem became almost silent upon his return and devoted the rest of his life to Islam.
“He was a wounded man who came back to nestle among his loved ones,” says Ismaila Samba Traoré, a Malian writer and journalist who interviewed Ouologuem in the 1980s.
His son, Ambibé Ouologuem, said his father spent time in a psychiatric hospital in France before returning to Mali. Upon his return, Ouologuem had difficulty walking, his son said, and was healed by his own father using traditional methods.
The feud over the book and the bitterness that followed also had a deep impact on the rest of the family: Ambibé Ouologuem said he had to go to school secretly, with the help of his grandmother, because his father wanted him to would concentrate on studying the Quran.
“My father was proud of being African and Malian, and had always refused to apply for French citizenship,” Ouologuem said.
In Mali, Ouologuem’s book is taught in some secondary schools, but even in West Africa it remains little known outside intellectual circles. Mali’s government has promised to create a literary prize dedicated to him, but it has yet to be announced. According to his son and those who have studied him, it is likely that the author left unpublished manuscripts in Mali or France.
For Sarr, the Ouologuem affair is a literary tragedy.
“I would be happy,” he said, “if ‘Bound to Violence’ could be stripped of its pernicious aura, its dark legend. If only we could read Ouologuem again and just take his book for what it is: a great novel.