Plagiarist or Master? The Tortured Legacy of Yambo Ouologuem

In 1968, a young Malian author living in Paris published his first book to the highest praise: Critics called it a “great African novel,” and awarded it one of France’s most prestigious literary prizes. But soon, his rise gave way to a devastating fall from grace.

The author, Yambo Ouologuem, was accused of plagiarism, but he denied any wrongdoing and refused to explain himself. His publishers in France and the United States withdrew 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, responding to questions about his aborted literary career with digressions or outbursts of anger, refusing even 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 bring new attention to Ouologuem and the tormented trajectory of his book. “The Most Secret Memory of Men,” by the 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 Goncourt prize in 2021 and was published in the United States by Other Press this week, 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 as fresh consideration of Ouologuem’s work by readers and academics is holding the old accusations up to new light: Should what Ouologuem did really be considered plagiarism? Or had hasty criticism, perhaps tinged with racism, destroyed one of the literary star of his generation?

Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s novel follows a writer who disappears from public life after being accused of plagiarism — a loose reference to Ouologuem.

There is no question that Ouologuem copied, adapted and rewrote phrases, sometimes entire paragraphs, from many sources.

The borrowings likely begin with the novel’s opening sentence, “Our eyes drink the brightness of the sun and, overcome, marvel at their tears.” Critics have found it heavily inspired by another award-winning novel published years earlier, “The Last of the Just,” which begins with, “Our eyes register the light of dead stars.” Dozens of other similarities with “The Last of the Just” fill the pages of “Bound to Violence.”

But what if, academics are asking, those démarquages, as Ouologuem described the borrowings, were an artistic technique — a sort of anthology that poured the canon of Western literature into an African context, or an assemblage or collage, like that used by visuals artists like Georges Braque or Pablo Picasso, but using words?

“It’s not plagiarism, it’s something else,” said Christopher L. Miller, an emeritus professor of African American Studies and French at Yale University, who is working on a compilation of borrowings in the book. “I don’t think we have a word for what he did.”

Ouologuem was born in 1940, in central Mali, and moved to Paris when he was 20. He entered the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, as the poets and politicians Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal and Aimé Césaire of Martinique, both champions of the anticolonial Négritude movement in literature, had done decades earlier.

He wrote at a frenzied pace. At 23, he sent his first manuscript to a publisher, Éditions du Seuil; within little more than a year, he sent two more. All were rejected. “Bound to Violence” was his fourth attempt.

“What Ouologuem did was fabulous, but at times he was borderline,” said Jean-Pierre Orban, a Belgian academic and writer who studied Ouologuem’s correspondence.

When the book was first published in France, critics heaped praise on Ouologuem, then 28 years old. Released in the United States in 1971, the book was called a “skyscraper” by The New York Times — a work that deserved “many readings.”

The novel, composed of four parts, varies in style, drawing from West African oral tradition, ancient tales, theater and contemporary novels. It is a searing exposé of the centuries of violence that took place in parts of Africa, both before and during European colonization.

From its first pages, “Bound to Violence” is raw and sarcastic: Telling the story of the fictional Saif dynasty, which the reader follows from the 13th through the 20th centuries, would make for poor folklore, the narrator writes. Instead, readers encounter a world where “violence rivals with horror.” Children have their throats slit and pregnant women have their stomachs cut open after they are raped, under the helpless eyes of their husbands, who then kill themselves.

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 “sparkled,” Sarr said, even as it shed a harsh light on the continent, portrayed as rife with slavery, violence and eroticism.

“It’s an epic story of human cruelty set in Africa, just like it could have happened — and did — in the rest of the world,” Sarr said.

Even before accusations of plagiarism surfaced, Ouologuem’s portrayal of Africa caused outrage among African intellectuals. Among them were towering figures like Senghor, who described the novel as “appalling.”

Ouologuem shrugged off the criticism of his peers. “It is unfortunate that African writers have written only about folklore and legend,” 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 to multiple similarities between “Bound to Violence” and a novel by Graham Greene published in 1934, “It’s a Battlefield.”

Researchers and journalists spotted dozens of references and excerpts borrowed, plagiarized, rewritten — the appropriate words to use are still up for debate — from sources as varied as the Bible and The Thousand and One Nights, from James Baldwin to Guy de Maupassant.

“What Ouologuem did was fabulous, but at times he was borderline, and even crossed that red line,” said Jean-Pierre Orban, a Belgian academic and writer who studied Ouologuem’s correspondence with his publisher and interviewed his former Parisian classmates.

“He was infused with literature, quoting writers by heart as if he was making their work his,” Orban said. “He lived between reality and fiction.”

Some of the first revelations of Ouologuem’s borrowing drew pushback from readers. When Eric Sellin, a prominent professor of French and comparative literature, presented similarities between “Bound to Violence” and “The Last of the Just” at a colloquium in Vermont in 1971, a young attendant retorted, “Why are you white people and Europeans always doing this to us? Whenever we come up with something good in Africa, you say that we couldn’t have done it by ourselves.”

Further research by Orban and others found that Ouologuem’s French publishing house, Le Seuil, was aware of those similarities before publication. But the criticism grew as Ouologuem vehemently denied any wrongdoing, claiming for instance that he had sent the original manuscript with quotation marks, an excuse that most find dubious.

Sarr first encountered Ouologuem’s novel as a teenager. It “sparkled,” he said. “If we could read Ouologuem again and just consider his book for what it is — a great novel.”Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

“He was hurt because he had been misunderstood, and he had a virulent and rather clumsy attitude toward those attacks,” said Sarr.

Academics and critics wonder if a Western author would have faced similar criticism.

“I don’t think that in France, a European or French author would have faced the same condemnation,” Orban said. Borrowings, pastiches and literary tricks were often considered a literary game, he argued. But it was one that Ouologuem wasn’t allowed to play.

Sarr believes that a white author would have faced a similar backlash, but one that would have been restricted to the literary field — while Ouologuem, he said, was castigated for who he was: an African author plagiarizing Western canons.

Miller, the emeritus professor from Yale, suggests that Ouologuem flouted the rules on purpose, not only attacking 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 between Le Seuil and Ouologuem ensued, and the writer moved back to Mali in 1978, according to his son. Once flamboyant and talkative, Ouologuem went nearly silent upon his return, dedicating the rest of his life to Islam.

“He was a wounded man, who came back to curl up among his loved ones,” said Ismaila Samba Traoré, a Malian writer and journalist who interviewed Ouologuem in the 1980s.

His son, Ambibé Ouologuem, said that his father had spent time at a psychiatric hospital in France before moving back to Mali. Upon his return, Ouologuem struggled to walk, his son said, and was cured with traditional methods by his own father.

The feud around the book and the bitterness that ensued also deeply impacted the rest of the family: Ambibé Ouologuem said he had to go to school in secret, with the help of his grandmother, because his father wanted him to focus 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 high schools, but it remains little known beyond intellectual circles even in West Africa. Mali’s government has vowed to create a literary award 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 in France.

To Sarr, the Ouologuem affair is a literary tragedy.

“I would be happy,” he said, “If ‘Bound to Violence’ could be stripped of its maleficent aura, its dark legend. If we could read Ouologuem again and just consider his book for what it is — a great novel.”

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