The new phenomenon of French-speaking letters, Mohamed Mbougar Sarr (Dakar, 31), is a writer with a fast-paced, torrential style, a novelist who writes about African novelists lost in Europe and sick of literature, a narrator who grabs the reader from the front line and doesn’t drop it over 600+ pages. His literary model, his idol, as he proclaimed in novels and as one guesses in every paragraph of La plus secret memoire des hommes (The most secret memory of men), awarded on Wednesday with the Goncourt, is Roberto Bolañrobeo (1953-2003), the last classic of Latin American literature, the last with a true global influence.
“A master of writing, a master of reading”. This is how the winner of the most prestigious award in literature in France defines the author of the wild detectives. Bolaño, explained in an interview with the newspaper Liberation, changed his life as a reader and as a writer. A long quote about the perpetuity and sunset of great works, taken from the wild detectives, opens the award-winning novel. The title comes out of this quote. Both the structure —a mix of diaries, testimonies, reports— and the tone and themes —exiles or expatriates who dream of being writers, young romantics and daring in the wake of a legendary and forgotten author— are debtors of the Chilean writer and poet.
Mohamed Mbougar Sarr grew up in Senegal, a former French colony. He is the eldest of a family of seven brothers; is your father a doctor. He was educated at a prestigious military school in his country and at the School of Higher Studies in Social Sciences in Paris. He lives in France and his literary language is French. He wrote three novels that received critical applause and awards but gained little public repercussion. The Goncourt, awarded to a novel published this year by a jury of ten writers over lunch at the Paris restaurant Drouant, changes everything. The winner receives a check for 10 euros, but the real prize is the sales: the 2020 Goncourt, Hervé Le Tellier, who won with the anomaly (the anomaly, still unpublished in Brazil), sold more than one million copies.
La plus secret memoire des hommes won in the first vote. It competed with three other finalists: Christine Angot, with Le voyage dans l’Est; Sorj Chalandon, with Enfant de salaud and Haitian Louis-Philippe Dalembert with milwaukee blues. At the same restaurant, another of the autumn grand prizes was being awarded, the Renaudot, which went to Amélie Nothomb, with Premier blood. In recent weeks, two other great prizes were awarded: the Médicis, for Angot, and the Fémina for Adapter, by Clara Dupont-Monod.
The award by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr coincides with the centenary of Goncourt given to René Maran from Martinique for his novel batouala, the first black to receive it. The award won by Sarr comes after the English-speaking Tanzanian writer, Abdulrazak Gurnah, won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Speaking to the press at the Drouant restaurant, the new Goncourt, who started a doctoral thesis on the father of black literature in French, Léopold Sedar Senghor, declared: “I would not like people to think that this reward is something exceptional, a favor it makes an African writer who received it because he is African”.
In La plus secret memoire des hommes, the narrator mocks the African writers “who allowed themselves to be trapped in the gaze of others (…), a trap-look that required them, at the same time, to be authentic —that is, different— and yet similar —that is, , understandable”. In the same paragraph, he attacks “his Western readers (dare we say it: whites), among whom many read them as an act of charity, delighted to amuse them or tell them about the vast world with that famous natural truculence of Africans who carry the rhythm in the feather, the Africans who have the art of narrating like the light of the moon, the Africans who don’t complicate things, the Africans who know how to touch the heart with moving stories…”
Narrated by a Senegalese writer who lives in Paris named Diégane Latyr Faye, the book tells the story of the discovery of an indescribable romance, the inhuman’s labyrinth, “the holy book of a eunuch god”, and the search for several continents by its author, TC Elimane, “a black Rimbaud”. The publication of the inhuman’s labyrinth in 1938 it caused a scandal; the author has disappeared. The fictional Elimane is based on a real author: the Malian Yambo Ouloguem, who in 1968 won the Renaudot prize for The devoir of violence (the duty of violence) and, after accusations of plagiarism, disappeared from the map. Both he and his work passed to what Mohamed Mbougar Sarr calls “the other history of literature (which is perhaps the true history of literature), that of books lost in the corridor of time, not even cursed, but simply forgotten”.
Mohamed Mbougar Sarr is the youngest winner since Patrick Grainville, who won in 1976, aged 29. First awarded in 1903, the Goncourt thus regains its original spirit: according to Edmond de Goncourt’s will, it should be awarded to a young talent, although throughout history this wish has been interpreted with excessive flexibility and many of the laureates were authors with a solid career behind and, at times, approaching old age.
What La plus secret memoire des hommes, published by the French publisher Philippe Rey and the Senegalese Jimsaan, would enshrine Mohamed Mbougar Sarr was something that was seen as soon as it landed in bookstores, in August. Word of mouth worked quickly: no one knew the author, but those who entered the first few pages fell in surrender. “Have you read it?”, it was said in the literary covens at the beginning of the rentree, the beginning of the literary year in which more than 500 novels are published at the same time. Writer Camille Laurens, who is also a member of the Goncourt jury, lavished ardent praise on him in the weekly article she publishes in the book supplement of the Le Monde. “His dominance is as impressive as his refusal to compromise,” said Laurens.
La plus secret memoire des hommes was nominated for the Médicis, Fémina and Renaudot awards, as well as the Goncourt, which put Mohamed Mbougar Sarr in a difficult situation as he promised Philippe Rey, his editor, that if he figured in the three-award lists he would run a marathon, as he explained in September in an interview with Agence France Presse. The writer, who dreamed of becoming a soccer player, claimed not to have the necessary physical condition: the tour to present the book did not leave him time to train; now, after Goncourt, he will have even less.
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