At the end of an abandoned field in Mali’s war-ravaged Mopti region lies the overgrown tomb of Yambo Ouologuem, once a huge star of African literature whose career imploded in scandal after he was accused of plagiarism.
He was all but forgotten until last year when a young Senegalese writer won France’s top literary prize for a novel inspired by Ouologuem’s strange and tragic life.
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THE STUNNING FALL FROM GRACE OF YAMBO OUOLOGUEM
Mohamed Mbougar Sarr became the first sub-Saharan African to win the Prix Goncourt in November for The Most Secret Memory of Men, which recounts the misadventures of an African writer not dissimilar to Ouologuem.
Ouologuem himself had been the first African to win another major French award, the Renaudot Prize, for his 1968 novel Bound to Violence.
That was in his first life as an urbane and acclaimed writer in France, before a stunning fall from grace led to a second life as a “crazy” and reclusive Islamic fundamentalist in Mali.
Today Ouologuem’s youngest son Ambibe occupies the cinder block house in the town of Sevare where the Malian author lived out his final years until his death in 2017.
Ambibe makes tea before leading visitors to his father’s tomb, judging by the weeds, has lain unvisited for a long time.
YAMBO OUOLOGUEM AND HIS SON USED TO BREAK UP BARS
His son recalls his father’s lost years, full of anger at the West and at the injustice he felt he had suffered.
He said his father would demonstrate alone in front of the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali.
Ouologuem would also take his son on a motorbike to raid local bars.
“We would arrive, he would break bottles and tell people they were bad Muslims – then we would leave,” Ambibe said with a laugh, proud of a man he said was “right in his ideas”.
YAMBO OUOLOGUEM WAS ‘TRAUMATISED’ BY THE ‘BORN TO VIOLENCE’ SCANDAL
Ouologuem was “traumatised” by the scandal he suffered in France when he returned to Sevare, family members say.
Born in 1940 when Mali was still colonial French Sudan, the brilliant son of a school inspector moved to Paris to study when he was 20, the same year his country achieved independence.
By 28 Ouologuem had published Bound to Violence an acerbic critique of the violence of pre-colonial West African empires.
It was critically acclaimed and won the Renaudot that year. Then Ouologuem’s story began to sour.
First, the book was criticised by his African contemporaries – intellectuals like Leopold Sedar Senghor, the longtime president of Senegal.
His answer to the horrors of colonialism was to glorify African culture and he accused Ouologuem of “denying his ancestors” to “please the whites.”
Then Ouologuem was accused of plagiarising other writers including the British novelist Graham Greene.
He argued that his borrowings were about paying homage, but his Renaudot award was withdrawn and Ouologuem’s books disappeared from the shelves.
YAMBO OUOLOGUEM NO LONGER WANTED TO HEAR ABOUT LITERATURE
By the end of the 1970s, Ouologuem gave up trying to write and returned home to Mali, where he began a new life.
He embraced Islam, replacing his tailored suit and cigarette with a traditional boubou robe. He no longer wanted to hear about literature and forbade his family from reading.
He would regularly rush onto the soccer field next to his house to interrupt the “white sport”.
“He was an old fool,” said a local elder, reluctant to say more about a family rumoured to have a lot of land and connections in the neighbourhood.
YAMBO OUOLOGUEM ‘SHUNNED ANYTHING TO DO WITH WHITE PEOPLE’
On a small chair in his courtyard, El Hadj Amadou Yebedie, the imam of the local mosque, said Ouologuem “wanted to know everything about Islam” when he returned to Mali.
“He read a lot,” he said. “Above all, he shunned anything to do with white people.”
Ouologuem’s son Ambibe, who runs a small freight business, did not know about his father’s former life until he was 12.
“He didn’t say anything,” the son said.
“I couldn’t believe he smoked cigarettes when I saw the photos.”
Today there is no trace of Ouologuem or his work in Sevare, where the children who fill the sandy streets at dusk have their heads in TikTok rather than books.
A Malian literary prize in his name was renamed several years ago.
But in 2018, Ouologuem’s French publisher, Seuil – with whom he had long fallen out – brought out a 50th-anniversary edition of the novel that changed his life.
THE RE-SALE OF YAMBO OUOLOGUEM’S ‘MASTERPIECE’ HAS UNDER-SOLD
“It is now generally agreed that Bound to Violence is a dizzying montage of rewritten texts from multiple cultural horizons [assembled] to form an autonomous literary work that brilliantly detaches itself from its sources,” the publisher said.
In fact it “ranks among the major titles in (world) literature.”
Despite the renewed interest in Ouologuem after Mbougar Sarr’s Goncourt win, his re-issued masterpiece has only sold 4 000 copies.
Ouologuem’s children – two in France from a first marriage and three in Mali – continue to fight over his inheritance.
And in a final twist, his son Ambibe believes he may have left behind unpublished manuscripts written in secret in Sevare.
© Agence France-Presse/Amaury Hauchard
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