In Search of Yambo

Christopher Wise

yamboYambo Ouologuem, the Malian author of Le devoir de violence (translated as Bound to Violence), has not been interviewed in nearly three decades. His doings have been shrouded in mystery ever since he “disappeared” from the West, in effect turning his back on literature. Ouologuem has become an enigma for many, a mysterious figure as well as a highly respected author. Ouologuem’s silence is complex and the reasons will, perhaps, never be fully known. It is certain, however, that Ouologuem has blamed the publishers of Le devoir de violence for plagiarism controversies that followed the novel’s appearance in 1968. In the early seventies, Ouologuem claimed that numerous unauthorized deletions had been made in his manuscript, specifically references to Graham Greene’s It’s a Battlefield, André Schwartz-Bart’s Le dernier des justes, and other sources. Rather than acknowledging these revisions, the novel’s publishers simply disavowed all responsibility and placed the onus entirely upon Ouologuem. Nevertheless, Ouologuem’s refusal to write cannot be easily attributed to any ancient grudges he might bear towards the French literary establishment. What complicates matters is Ouologuem’s wholehearted return to Islam, the faith of his childhood. In the mid-1970s, Ouologuem returned to Mali, where he is now widely known as a devout marabout. However, even the earlier writings of Ouologuem’s “apostate” period cannot be fully understood without reference to Islam, specifically Tidjaniya Sufism as it has historically been practiced throughout West Africa.

During a year’s residence at the Université de Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, I searched for Ouologuem in order to conduct an interview with him. I hoped to better understand his “conversion” to Islam and his rejection of literature. Before leaving the United States, I corresponded with various academics who might know how to reach Ouologuem. Sandra Barkan, who had written an article on Dogon influences in Bound to Violence, told me she had heard a rumour that Ouologuem had become an active supporter of a mosque in the Dogon region of Burkina Faso. Others told me they had heard Ouologuem had become an ox farmer and an imam – though nobody knew for sure.

Upon arriving in Ouagadougou, I found Ouologuem’s mailing address almost immediately by way of the US Embassy in Ouagadougou. It appeared that Ouologuem lived in the Sévaré- Mopti area of Mali. However, the Cultural Affairs Assistant at the US Embassy in Bamako was not optimistic about my chances of meeting with Ouologuem. A teacher of English at the Lycée de Sévaré, who often met with Ouologuem, had told him that “Yambo’s current state of mind may cause him to be reluctant to meeting and talking with people.” By now, I had learned enough about Ouologuem to make me cautious. More than once, I had heard it said that Ouologuem had gone mad. One night, on a bus trip, the mere mention of Ouloguem’s name generated passionate argument and controversy among the passengers. Some claimed that Ouologuem was a “great genius” – even the “African Joyce” – while others insisted that he was a “shameful plagiarist” and “madman.”

That same week, I had a dream about Ouologuem in which he consented to be interviewed, but he was not happy about it. In fact, he was contemptuous of the whole affair. When I awoke, I told my wife about my dream, but I did little else, for it seemed somehow inevitable that the interview would take place. Rationally, I could not have explained why this was so, but I felt certain something would happen very soon.

My break came during a conference at the University of Ouagadougou on the literatures devoir de violence. In the audience that day happened to be a French professor, working at the University of Ouagadougou, who had lived in West Africa for some twenty-five years – Professor Nicole Vinciléoni. She was interested in my discussion of Sufi elements in Ouologuem’s novel. After my paper, Professor Vinciléoni invited me to dinner at her home. She told me that she liked my paper in one important regard: I had suggested that the conflicting demands of secular and religious life among West African Muslims created a kind of “schizophrenia” and this non-Western form of schizophrenia could be observed in Ouologuem’s Bound to Violence, only most Occidental critics tended to misread Ouologuem’s disassociative (or “esoteric”) critique of Islam as a blanket dismissal. Professor Vinciléoni had observed such “schizophrenia,” which for her was not a pejorative term but rather an inadequate, Greek word for an experience little known or understood in the Western world. Since Ouologuem lived in the Mopti-Sévaré area, and since Ouologuem had reputedly become a devout Muslim, possibly even a marabout, she recommended that I get in touch with the main imams at Sévaré. If these men felt that Ouologuem should meet with me, it would be difficult for him to refuse an interview. Professor Vinciléoni also told me that there lived in Ouagdougou a certain El Hadjj Tall Sékou, a well known local figure and an immediate descendant of El Hadjj Tall Oumar, the Peul conqueror and great Sufi shaykh who had brought Tidjaniya-Islam to the Dogon country – with many prayers and great bloodshed. It was possible that I could secure an introduction to Ouologuem, or at least to the religious leaders of Sévaré, through El Hadjj Tall Sékou. As it turned out, the husband of Ute Fendler, a German friend who house, Jean-Claude Naba, was well acquainted with the son of Tall Sékou (or “Sékou Tall,” as the name would appear in the West). Jean- Claude had once attended school with Tall’s son, and could probably introduce me to Tall. He dined with Tall and told him about me. Tall agreed to meet and learn more about my objectives.

In January, Jean-Claude and I drove to Tall’s house in one of the older sections of Ouagadougou. After introducing me to Tall’s family, Jean-Claude explained that I was editing a book on Yambo Ouologuem, and that I’d like to include a recent interview and other updated, biographical information. We were concerned, however, because of stories we had heard about Ouologuem’s strange behaviour. While Jean-Claude spoke, Tall sat back in his chair, patiently stroking his closely cropped head. He was eighty years old, as I had found out from Jean-Claude, though he seemed as healthy as a man in his early sixties. In a country where the life expectancy is less than forty years, I was amazed by his vigour and obvious good health. When I got to know him better, I found out that he had some twenty children between four wives.

“I saw Yambo four years ago,” Tall told us. “At the funeral of his father, Boukary. Yambo’s father and I were schoolmates in Bandiagara.”

“How did he seem?” Jean-Claude asked. “At the time of the funeral?”

“He’s fine. He’s not crazy like these people say. It’s true that Yambo’s a quiet man, but he’s not mad. In fact, he teaches French at a lycée in Sévaré.”

“So he’s not mad?” I said.

“No,” Tall said. “He’s a religious man, a devout man.”

“Is it true he’s become a marabout?”

“No, he’s a militant, like myself. A marabout teaches the Qur’an to children. Yambo is serious about his religion, but he’s not a marabout. A militant is not the same thing as a marabout, you see. A marabout has a particular job.” In his free hand, Tall clutched a white, intricately woven prayer cap along with a handsome, silver-handled cane. He was a big man with thin, gangly limbs from under his black robe. He decided to accompany me to Mali himself, along with his son Mountaga, so that he could formally greet his older brother, the recently appointed chief of Bandiagara. First, we would attend to the business of meeting Yambo Ouologuem, Tall said, and then we would drive to Bandiagara. What remained now was to work out the details of our journey.

Now that Tall would accompany me, it seemed certain that I would meet Ouologuem. Organising our journey, however, proved to be extraordinarily trying. First, the University of Ouagadougou, where I taught American literature, was currently embroiled in the worst strike of its history. Every day, students were teargassed, beaten, arrested, and even tortured by the Blaise Compaoré government. At times, it seemed that a solution might be reached, and then classes would resume, only to be boycotted a few days later. Second, the feast of Ramadan approached, and Tall did not want to leave until after the celebration. In fact, as a “cadeau” I had brought to Tall a young ram, along with an envelope containing several thousand CFA, for his willingness to accompany me to Mali. This had caused some awkwardness for me, but Tall took it as rightful compensation and seemed content with the amount. Because of the excruciating heat that would come to the Sahel after February, our trip to Mali could not be delayed for long.

Another practical problem was transportation. My own Toyota station wagon worked well within the city of Ouagadougou but it was not made for trips to the bush (as I had found out the hard way). What we needed was a “quatrequatre” or four-wheel drive, which would no doubt quadruple my costs. However, there was a friend of mine, an American named Robert Hans, and who was willing to take us in his Cherokee Jeep, but our proposed dates of travel posed some problems for him. Robert, who worked for the World Bank, had already arranged to have dinner with the brother of Blaise Compaoré, to discuss an urgent problem for him – namely, the Burkinabé government was trying to terminate his contract prematurely and force him out of the country.

After much discussion, we were able at last to find a departure date satisfactory for everyone: Friday, 14 February, after Tall’s prayers at the mosque. However, it meant a shorter trip than I’d hoped, as Tall insisted on returning by the following Thursday. The afternoon of St. Valentine’s Day, we were finally ready for departure. Besides Tall and his son Mountaga, we had arranged for Robert’s driver to accompany us, a Liberian political refugee named James Wade. However, when James had still not finished preparing the Jeep by two o’clock, Robert fumed about the incompetence of his driver, and how Africans in general had no respect for time. Before we even pulled out of Robert’s driveway, I questioned the wisdom of my travel arrangements. Robert insisted upon driving the Jeep, a flask of tequila in one hand and a fat cigar in the other. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go get your buddy Tall.” On his CD system, Mick Jagger belted out “Brown sugar, you make me feel so good,” while we weaved in and out of the dirt roads of Ouagadougou. From the back seat, James periodically warned Robert about chuckholes and pedestrians, his hands clutched upon a worn copy of the Bible. “You are a father of four children,” James reminded Robert. “Please be careful.” And then to me, he confided, “Christopher, can’t you see? Robert is not a careful man. He really belongs in the military.”

I had never really known anyone from the World Bank before, since both the World Bank and the IMF were banned from most of the conferences I attended and the organisations I belonged to. As we drove to pick up Tall, it occurred to me that I really did not know much about Robert either, except that he had worked for several years in Cameroon and had come to Burkina to help privatise the economy. Now in his mid-to late thirties, Robert was originally from New York City, but he had lived for many years in Miami, Puerto Rico, and Nicaragua. He was Jewish by birth, though he believed religion in general was a fraud. Our wives had become friendly through the International School of Ouagadougou where our children attended, and we had socialised on a few occasions at school events and children’s birthday parties.

Already, Robert was irritated at Sékou Tall because he had delayed our departure until Friday after prayers. It did not help matters when I explained that many Muslims avoided travel on Friday because of the djinn. While fearing the worst, I was astonished when we arrived at Tall’s house and Robert began to converse with one of Tall’s wives in fluent Fulfulde, a Peul lingua franca he had picked up during his three years in Cameroon. I was even more surprised by how well Tall and Robert got along. Before we had even arrived in Ouahigouya, Robert had developed a real camaraderie with the old man, confiding in him his envy of Muslims – who could have four wives – and his great admiration for Peul women, their remarkable posture in carrying baskets and other objects on their heads. Tall began to jokingly refer to Robert as “le frere de Clinton,” after Robert told him he was a Democrat. The old man seemed to admire Robert’s incredible energy, even if he warned him about the excesses of his lifestyle. Robert’s wife, who was from Bolivia, called him “Vida” (Life), which was an appropriate enough nickname.

Still, Robert did not really seem a happy man, or he at least seemed to be going through a bad time. His efforts to help privatise Burkina’s economy had left him frustrated, even embittered. After he had been away for a few years, Africa had somehow lost its lustre for him, and he seemed vaguely bored by it all. Sékou Tall sensed this, and once chanted a little poem, “Robert, Robert, tu as beaucoup souffert.”

As we raced over the backroads of Burkina Faso, Robert and Tall shouted at one another over the music of the Grateful Dead, swapping jokes about wives and mothers-in-law. “Let me tell you something,” Robert was saying to Tall, “Africa’s no place for a white man, especially a New Yorker like me. I don’t know why we don’t just leave it to all you Africans.” This remark seemed to please Tall, who sat enthroned in the passenger seat, his silver handled cane between his knees. Soon, Tall serenely snapped his fingers to Jerry Garcia’s “Truckin’,” while Robert played air guitar from the driver’s seat. When Robert lit up his foul smelling cigars, Tall answered by spitting his kola nuts onto the floorboards. “So this is American music?” Tall said. “It doesn’t sound like Michael Jackson.”

yambo2The road from Ouagadougou to Ouahigouya is paved, but the rest of the way into Mali can only be passed by the sturdiest of vehicles. Because of our late start, we planned to spend the first night in Ouahigouya, Tall’s hometown of sorts, and then we would drive into Sévaré the next morning. As the African bush blurred outside the car window, Tall’s son Mountaga explained to me the many complicated alliances wherein his father had come to be heir-apparent to the chiefdom of Bandiagara, as well as the “first Muslim” in Ouahigouya. According to Mountaga, Sékou Tall was the great-grandson of El Hadjj Oumar; grandson of Aguibou Tall, builder of the palace at Bandiagara; and son of Alpha Makí Tall. Mountaga also informed me that the chief at Bandiagara was in reality chief of the entire Dogon people. At first, this seemed confusing to me given the rather obvious fact that Sékou Tall himself was Peul (or “Fulani”) and not Dogon. In other words, I could not figure out why a Peul was to be appointed chief of the Dogon people. The more Mountaga spoke, however, I gradually began to realise what I should have known from the start: Tall was himself a descendant of the very “saifs” criticised in Ouologuem’s novel, the so-called black Jews who, according to Ouologuem, shamefully exploited the teachings of Islam to oppress the masses of Nakim, or the more “primitive” Dogon.

Later, when I asked Tall if it was true that the Peul were Jews, I saw that my use of the word “Jew” had been indiscreet, acceptable only because I was a foreigner. What Tall preferred to say was that the Peul originally came from Palestine. “It is said that the Peul are a white stream in a land of black water,” Tall said, “a black stream in a land of white water.” The Dogon people whom I spoke with in Mali did not take such a lyrical view of things, but the mysterious origins of the Peul turned out to be a favourite topic of Tall’s, who was obviously proud of his ancestry.

Still, what I had not fully understood before speaking with Mountaga was that Yambo Ouologuem’s grandfather, Oumar Karambé Ouologuem – who was of course Dogon – had conspired with the family of El Hadjj Tall Oumar to subdue the Dogon country on behalf of the Peul. In fact, this is how Sékou Tall and Boukary Ouologuem, Yambo’s father, had come to be childhood friends. For unlike the vast majority of Malians, Yambo Ouologuem was no lumpenproletariat, or poor subalteran, but rather one of the wealthiest and most highly educated men in Mali. However, if Ouologuem came from an elite, aristocratic caste, I saw now that it was because his family had sided with the Peul in ruling over the Dogon people.

From Sékou Tall, I also learned that Ouologuem came from a long line of Tidjaniya Muslims, the very form of Sufism imported by El Hadjj Tall Oumar. Sékou Tall himself was a practicing Tidjaniya Muslim, though he preferred not to talk about it, except to say that it was dangerous to discuss such things. While Yambo Ouologuem would not have been directly exposed to Sufi teachings as a child – since, as Tall pointed out, Sufi teachings are certainly not matters for children – Yambo’s ancestors on both sides of his family were among the most prominent Tidjaniya Muslims in the region. In other words, for Tall, Yambo Ouologuem was in some sense “born” a Tidjaniya Muslim.

The more I learned about Ouologuem’s prominent family, the better I understood Tall’s earlier insistence that Yambo Ouologuem was no marabout. For Tall, a marabout taught the Qur’an to young children and was supported by his pupils who begged for alms on his behalf. In many Dogon villages today, Mountaga explained, Muslim children as young as four years old commonly leave their parents to follow a marabout for several years, until they have sufficiently mastered the Qur’an. A child’s time with a marabout is determined by his ability to recite the Qur’an from memory. In this way, the marabout can devote his life to religion and to the study of the Qur’an. Because Yambo Ouologuem came from a wealthy family, and because he was freed from the necessity of taking on pupils, this disqualified him in Tall’s eyes from being a marabout. In Sévaré however, others told me that there were marabouts who did not take on pupils, whose wealth made it possible for them to be freed from this obligation. Despite Tall’s reservations, the consensus in Sévaré was that Ouologuem was most definitely a marabout. However, as I was soon to learn, Tall was mistaken about Ouologuem in other ways as well.

When we finally arrived in Sévaré the next afternoon and began to search for Ouologuem in earnest, Tall was clearly astounded at the reports we heard: at the Mosquée Riméibé, an ancient imam named Pâté-Touré who was nearly blind and almost toothless, told us that Ouologuem was indeed a marabout but a very dangerous one, a man who walked the hardest of paths. As the old imam fingered his rosary, Sékou Tall leaned forward in his chair, his mouth agape at the accounts of Ouologuem’s doings. As it turned out, Ouologuem not only did not teach at the French school, but his hatred of the French was such that he sent his own children to the Arab-language school in Sévaré. At present, he occupied a government post at a Maison de jeunesse, which required very little of him. This was necessary, the old imam told us, because Yambo did not have many lucid days; in fact, in the eyes of most, Ouologuem was quite mad. Though reluctant to use such terms himself, Pâté-Touré insisted that Yambo’s was a special case, a man who had been “touched” by Allah.

The old man told us about the incident when Ouologuem threw rocks at two French tourists who had attempted to photograph the inside of the Mosquée Riméibé. This incident has a quasi-legendary status in Sévaré and we were to hear several different versions of it during our stay. But there were other incidents as well. Not long ago, Ouologuem had provoked a quarrel at the public courthouse, exhibiting such rage that many fled in terror. On the streets, he might approach a Muslim brother and begin expounding upon the most esoteric of questions regarding Qur’anic law, the hadith, dress codes, and other arcane religious matters. While his discourses were often brilliant, he tolerated absolutely no interruptions or contradictions. If his monologues were ever interrupted, he would break off, as if deeply affronted, and then go abruptly about his business.

One incident in particular seemed to bother the old imam. Before prayers one Friday, he had met Ouologuem on his way to the mosque. Under one arm, Yambo had carried a worn edition of the Qur’an. When the old imam extended his right hand in greeting, Ouologuem declined to shake hands, claiming that he had not yet performed his ablutions. In refusing to shake hands, Ouologuem implied that he was unclean, yet his right hand rested upon his Qur’an. For Pâté-Touré no other conclusion was possible: it was not Yambo Ouologuem who was unclean but he himself. Given the saintly demeanour of the old man, such an inference seemed not only highly insulting but comical. It upset Sékou Tall so much that he got up from his chair and began pacing the room.

“I can only warn you to be cautious,” Pâté- Touré said. “There is a precedent. Two other Americans came before you, and Yambo hid himself in the mosque for two days. I wish you the best of luck in your venture, but you must use extreme care. May God’s blessing and peace be with you.”

We dropped off Sékou Tall and Mountaga at the home of their relatives, while Robert and I took a room at the Hotel Oasis in Sévaré, as it turned out, across from a large piece of property that was owned and managed by Ouologuem. Tall planned on meeting that evening with Ouologuem’s uncle, the former mayor of Sévaré, El Hadjj Timbely Oumar, to arrange the introduction. From the hotel patron and his son, I heard more stories about Ouologuem, his religious fervour, his wealthy father, and his eccentric behaviour. The term that I heard repeatedly in connection with Ouologuem was “le fou,” or madman, yet all agreed that he was the most highly educated person in Mali, and a truly great man. “They really treated him very badly over there,” the patron said. “You see, the French did this to him.” That night, El Hadjj Timbely Oumar came to pay his respects to Sékou Tall, as we all sat in the courtyard of Tall’s relatives in Sévaré. Timbely was accompanied by nearly a dozen elegantly dressed men, who encircled him as if part of a royal entourage. Timbely himself wore a white boubou with gold trimming and a white prayer cap. His face was truly remarkable, one of the wisest looking men I’d ever seen. After Tall and Timbely exchanged greetings, Robert and I were introduced. I explained to Timbely that I was editing a collection of essays on his nephew, Yambo Ouologuem, and I’d like to speak with him. I did not want to disturb him, if he truly wished to be left alone, but I wanted to be sure that he was aware of this opportunity to air his views. Timbely listened patiently to my explanation, his hands resting on a sceptre-like cane. At last, he told me that he was happy I’d come, and that in actuality he’d been anticipating my visit.

“I will do what I can to help you,” he said, “but you must know that Yambo has not been himself lately, especially since the death of his father,” Timbely paused, carefully searching for the right words. “Life has lost its flavour for Yambo. You might say that he has become disgusted with the business of living. He has rejected all things worldly and spends his time reciting the Qur’an and praying. He has even built a small mosque in the courtyard of his house. For a long time, all of us have waited for a change to come to him.”

One of Timbely’s nephews described Yambo’s current state of being. On the streets, Ouologuem at times greeted his friends, but he might just as likely ignore them altogether. One evening, when a group of lycée students, both boys and girls, happened to study together under a streetlight, Ouologuem grew so enraged at the impropriety of this gathering that he grabbed a stick and smashed the streetlight into pieces. He also regularly lectured to the Muslim mothers of Sévaré who allowed their daughters to expose their hair outside their veils, or who wore any kind of decorative mesh. For the second time, I heard a story about Ouologuem’s refusal to accept his government pension, much to the chagrin of his family. Because Ouologuem believed the present Malian government and president to be corrupt, he refused to accept any money from them whatsoever.

“After the death of Yambo’s father,” Timbely added, “we all gathered at the mosque to read the Qur’an. It is customary for the son to make a sacrifice on such occasions, and so Yambo came to the mosque carrying several large books, all written in the Arab language. He wanted us to spend the next few weeks reading these books and studying them with him. We agreed to recite the Qur’an with him, but we refused to even look at the other books. There were so many of them, we would have been reading books for the next two years.” That evening, as friends and relatives described Yambo’s behavior, many laughed at his eccentricity, but their laughter seemed indulgent, not ridiculing. If Ouologuem was “fou,” he was apparently functioning well enough, living on the inheritance from his father, taking care of his immediate family, and practicing his highly idiosyncratic Islam. When I tried to thank Timbely for helping me, he only shrugged and said that he considered it his duty. Above all, he wanted to help Yambo get over his bitterness. “He speaks often of a certain French publisher, and his years in France,” Timbely said. “We are not sure here what happened there, but it was obviously something terrible.” I explained the best I could the controversies surrounding Bound to Violence, how many had accused Ouologuem of plagiarism. I could see, however, that the details of this controversy did not really interest those present: for most, it was simply another example of French irresponsibility toward Africans, only in this case Yambo was the victim. “The important thing is that you have come,” Timbely said. “We will attend to Yambo tomorrow.”

During breakfast the next morning, Robert and I discussed what we’d learned so far. As things stood, my fears about bringing Robert along seemed completely unfounded. In fact, he had proven to be a great help, and I felt that I had been unduly prejudiced against him because of his job at the World Bank. That morning, we reviewed Oumar Timbely’s plan for meeting Ouologuem. First, Timbely and Sékou Tall would go alone to greet him on the pretext that Tall wanted to express condolences over the death of Yambo’s father. (This confused me somewhat since, in Ouagadougou, Tall had originally told me that he had personally attended the funeral of Boukary Ouologuem.) After sufficient time passed, Robert and I would then casually join them and, in the company of Timbely, Tall, and others, Ouologuem would most likely feel obligated to greet us. Timbely also warned us to hide Robert’s Cherokee Jeep, which still bore the decals of “Coopération Francaise,” the French organisation from which Robert had purchased the vehicle. If Yambo saw the decals and believed we were French, it was certain he would have nothing to do with us.

When we arrived at our predetermined meeting place, a complication arose when it turned out that Ouologuem was not at home but making a tour of Sévaré. Tall and I were content to await his return, but Robert grew frustrated and insisted that we drive to the mosque to find him. “Listen, Tall will sit around here chewing kola nuts all morning,” he told me. “Then we’ll never get to see the Dogon country. Believe me, it’s like this at my office. You’ve got to push these guys at times, or you’ll never get anything done.” We argued the question for awhile, but Tall himself had no objections to Robert’s plan, so we all climbed into the Jeep and began searching for Ouologuem.

At last, we found him at the public courthouse, where he had gone to photocopy some old documents. These documents, we learned later, were letters written by some Frenchmen during Mali’s colonial period. Ouologuem wanted them preserved in the public archives as a testament to France’s crimes in Sévaré. For now, we carefully hid the Jeep behind a tree, while Tall and Timbely approached Ouologuem on the front steps of the courthouse. A few minutes later, Oumar Sow, one of Tall’s nephews, motioned for us to come.

Ouologuem never saw our approach because his back faced us, and he was deeply engrossed in conversation with Tall and Timbely. He wore a sky blue boubou with a white scarf, white slippers, and a white prayer cap. His arms dramatically flayed about as he spoke, the packet of letters clutched in one hand. He immediately noted our presence, but did not break off his speech. When Timbely introduced us, he irritably shook our hands but did not allow interruption of the flow of his lecture, an energetic clarification of the different orders of Muslim religious leaders. However, his speech became faster and angrier, his eyes glaringly fastened upon his uncle. As he spoke, I became transfixed by his face, which seemed to me profoundly ugly, not unlike a bust I’d once seen of Socrates, the dog faced philosopher, or perhaps Danton. His cheeks were round and enormous, and they were set in an intense if not bellicose grimace. I lost his train of thought, and only caught up again when he made a heated reference to Judas Iscariot, all the while glowering at his uncle.

Timbely only smiled serenely, and soon we all sat upon metal chairs, brought out by the judge and his secretaries, as Ouologuem continued his discussion of the Muslim laity. I asked him if I could record his voice, but he refused and said, “No, this is not an interview. I came to the courthouse to visit my friends, that is all. Besides, these things can be used against me. I have been exploited before.” Nevertheless, his friends repeatedly encouraged him to speak with me, or to at least look at the list of questions I had prepared. In the large circle of his elders and friends, I began to feel sorry for Ouologuem, who had clearly been ambushed by all of us. After awhile, however, he warmed to the idea of being interviewed and even seemed to enjoy the attention he was receiving. He spoke freely on a wide range of subjects, though he never directly answered any of my questions. In fact, he spoke for about three hours altogether. During this time, I listened attentively, wondering how I could possibly remember everything he had said. Later, after going over my notes with Robert, Sékou Tall, and Mountaga, we all agreed upon the basic of what we had heard.

It was difficult, however, to follow Ouologuem’s reasoning since his speech was filled with references to his private dreams, prayers, and religious experiences. He also spoke in parables, analogies, and riddles, insisting that the Greek syllogism was vastly inferior to the paradox in its communicative power. His reading in Muslim literature clearly exceeded that of everyone present, who deferred to him entirely in these matters. Often, he built upon a subtle network of allusions from the Qur’an and the hadith, which he seemed to assume – erroneously – was knowledge shared by all those present. Repeatedly he insisted that God speaks through dreams, that the future can be known if we are attentive to our dreams. At times, whenever the subject of French colonialism drifted into his speech, he grew angry all over again, leaning forward in his chair, his voice nearly shouting in rage. His energy was intense, perhaps manic, and when he broke off into a sudden joke, dispelling his previous acrimony, our relief was immense. After one of his jokes, Ouologuem would often slap hands with the judge, with whom he was on very good terms.

Perhaps Ouologuem’s most important revelation was that former President Moctar Oul Dada had once offered him a position as Minister of Education in Mauritania, clearly no job for a “fou.” Three times Ouologuem had been asked to journey from Mali to Mauritania to completely reform its educational system. The first two times, Ouologuem had refused the offer, leery of the intent of Mauritania’s Arab-led government, whose policies towards blacks have historically verged on the genocidal. Given the fact that Mauritania banned slavery as recently as 1980, Ouologuem was rightly cautious about Dada’s offer. However, the third time, Ouologuem had been visited at his house by the ambassador of Mauritania in Mali and by Mali’s ambassador in Nouakchott. This time, Ouologuem accepted the offer, contingent upon an interim period of several months, so that he might have time for prayer and reflection. However, for reasons that were never clear to me, Ouologuem had not yet assumed this position, apparently as a result of certain political complications that had developed later. The challenges he would confront there would arise chiefly from his desire to synthesise the requirements of a thoroughly modern and yet thoroughly Qur’anic education. He was inclined to accept the position, he told us, because of his desire to end the suffering of his brothers in Mauritania, that is, black Muslims who have historically been oppressed and enslaved by Arab Muslims.

At no point was Ouologuem willing to discuss his writings, and even questions related to literature seemed to irritate him. “I will leave that for you smart ones, the professors,” he told me. “I am not a smart man, thanks be to Allah, and smart subjects do not interest me.” When I mentioned the name of Wole Soyinka, Ouologuem would not let me finish my sentence. “Another smart one,” he said. “An intellectual.”

Many of his most hostile remarks were directed at the publishing industry and its many prizes, like the Nobel Prize given to Soyinka. He saw such prizes as a way of controlling African writers and the kind of literature they produced. Ouologuem’s criticism, however, was not so much directed against Soyinka as against the publishing industry at large, and the way in which Africa’s best minds were routinely exploited by far away presses and the demands of a foreign readership. In his own case, Bound to Violence had been published before he’d even signed a contract, and after numerous unauthorised changes had been made on his manuscript. The most famous editorial change was, of course, his editor’s deletion of quotation marks in passages later labelled as plagiarised, a fact never denied by his publisher. Ouologuem also claimed that his novel had been translated into English without his consent. If neocolonisation was to be fought, Ouologuem said, the book industry itself would have to be entirely restructured. One place to start was the prize system with its seductive but pernicious cash awards. Ouologuem spoke harshly of Léopold Sédar Senghor, “the most French” of African writers and “a black man who wished that his skin was white.”

In fact, one of Ouologuem’s greatest fears seemed to be that he would be turned into a “petit Senghor,” a Malian curiosity like the mosque at Djenné, or any other tourist attraction. The scorn which Ouologuem heaped upon Senghor echoed a common attitude about the Senegalese throughout the Dogon country. While the Senegalese abused the Dogon as “primitives,” the local Dogon (as well as Peul, Malinké and others) ridiculed the Senegalese as French boot-lickers and selfhating blacks. In any event, almost everyone present seemed to share Ouologuem’s sentiments about Senghor, or they were at least amused by his rapid-fire monologue. When I asked him his views on the Rushdie affair, Ouologuem refused to comment (as he did with any of my direct questions), but it was clear he had given the matter a great deal of thought. His friend, the judge, seemed particularly upset that Ouologuem would not respond to my question, and he informed us that they had been discussing Salman Rushdie only a day ago. However, Ouologuem steadfastly refused to comment, except to say that his remarks would probably be misunderstood and used against him. In fact, Ouologuem returned to his invective against Senghor and, to the amusement of all, he began to ridicule négritude, especially its reception in the United States. At this point, it dawned on me that Ouologuem believed I was myself an African American in some remote way, a suspicion that was later confirmed when he confided that he had foreseen this visit in a dream.

It was evident that the situation of the African American, especially in the United States, incessantly occupied his attention, and even formed a private obsession with him. He spoke at length of his time in the United States, his appreciation of Malcolm X, his meetings with Cassius Clay, and his participation in the formation of Black Studies programs at several American universities. When Robert asked him which states he visited, Ouologuem again refused to answer directly, but he finally laughed and said, “In any case, I was not in any pious state.” Unexpectedly, he blurted out, “You know, we Africans cannot be held accountable for the actions of our brothers over there. This is a fallacy. Many would disagree with me, of course, and I have heard it said that if your goat destroys your neighbour’s garden, you are responsible for the damage. Still, these Africans who are causing so much trouble are not Muslims.” Like Senghor and all advocates of négritude, he said, blacks in the United States are too obsessed with skin colour. “They have been infected by too many poisonous ideas. In Islam, however, there is no colour.” Here, Ouologuem cited two or three hadith wherein it is said that people of all colours are equal in God’s eyes.

“Blacks in America must repent,” he insisted. “Until they do so, they will continue to live in their own private hell, and this has nothing to do with us in Africa.” Here, Ouologuem claimed that his own problem, as well as that of his fellow Malians, was hardly a question of skin color but rather imperialism. With the arrival of the French in Mali, the plight of his fellow Dogon was more closely akin to that of the American Indian, “a new spaghetti Western” in Africa. Above all, he feared that an extraordinarily rich culture, and its many ancient customs, could be destroyed in favour of the most vulgar technological innovations – all in the name of modernisation and progress. Later, I was to learn how serious he was about this when I discovered that, much to the frustration of his wife and mother, Ouologuem refused to allow electricity to be installed at his house in Sévaré. Ouologuem also refused to have his photograph taken by me, citing the biblical injunction against graven images. Timbely, Tall, and everyone present expressed their outrage at Ouologuem’s refusal, and even pleaded with him to change his mind. I also reminded him that I had seen a movie theatre across from the Mosquée Riméibé, but he would not budge. The Qur’an tolerated no equivocation on this issue, he said. In fact, this was one of the most defining features of Islam, as opposed to more infidel variants of Ibrahimic religion. As for the movie theatre, this was a fault of the local Muslim community, much to be regretted.

By now, Robert and some of the others had wandered off, and only a few of us remained. As our discussion winded down, Oumar Timbely spoke at length, though he had previously said little. “We are all happy that you have come this far to see Yambo,” Timbely said, “and I believe that you will be fair to him, for I can see by your face that you are an honest and just man. That is all we ask, really, that you be fair. Yambo has been treated poorly in the past. He has been exploited and misrepresented. It is only right that he receive justice at last.”

At the words of his uncle, Yambo’s defiant attitude seemed to dissipate, and he relaxed at last for the first time that morning. He thanked his uncle for his words, while I promised to do my best to be fair to Yambo. In the meantime, my friend Robert had returned, and he was obviously anxious to be on the road. In fact, throughout the interview, Robert had buried himself in a recent issue of The Economist, especially during moments in which Ouologuem discussed his private dreams. All of us were disturbed by his behaviour, particularly Ouologuem who did not know what to make of this American – with his short trousers, CD walkman, and two-day beard stubble. Tall also seemed embarrassed on Robert’s behalf and attempted to cajole him into their former easy relations, informing everyone that Robert was “le frere de Clinton.” Robert was bored, however, and wanted to leave. With a shrug, he disavowed Tall’s remark and said, “I can’t be Clinton’s brother. Clinton’s a Christian, and I’m a Jew.”

If he had intended to shock everyone, he enjoyed one of his greatest successes. The effect could not have been more jolting if he had suddenly heaved a bucket of human waste upon the gathering. However, there were more surprises in store for us, for in the interim he had instructed his driver to bring the Cherokee Jeep around. When we left together from the courthouse, James stood directly in front of the “Coopération Française” decal until the moment Yambo turned the corner. At that point, James had been told to step aside and reveal the decal. Later, Robert told me that he had merely wanted to “get a rise” out of Ouologuem, to see if he could not “turn Yambo into Rambo.” Not surprisingly, Ouologuem was distressed when he saw the French decal, until I was able to assure him that Robert had only purchased his vehicle from the French, and that he was indeed a true American.

Afterwards, we were all exhilarated at our great success. Those who knew Yambo were amazed that he had spoken at such length. Oumar Timbely told me that we had caught Yambo on a good day, when he had been at his absolute best. Our luck had been extraordinary: he had been lucid, funny, sharp witted, and entirely coherent. It was true that there had been moments of great intensity, when we all sensed his stupendous anger, but the presence of Timbely, Tall, and the others seemed to have a calming effect upon him. In retrospect, I questioned the local consensus that Ouologuem was mad, which seemed to me entirely too severe a judgment upon him. Sékou Tall also assured me that, in his own estimation, Ouologuem was no madman. “He’s a disappointed man, that much is clear,” Tall said. “But he’s not any madder than the rest of us.” In parting, I left a copy of my interview questions with Oumar Sow, one of Tall’s nephews. Mountaga informed me that Yambo would pray about this matter during our journey to Bandiagara. On our return trip through Sévaré, he would decide whether or not to speak with me any further.

When we returned to Sévaré, Tall’s oldest nephew walked me over to the house of El Hadjj Timbely Oumar, Ouologuem’s uncle. I told Oumar Timbely that Robert could not leave his hotel room because of diarrhoea, the old man smiled with the corner of his eyes. “Did he eat too much?” he asked.

“It’s possible,” I said. “I don’t know. Probably something disagreed with him.” Unexpectedly, James broke out laughing and told everyone it was not the food but the mixture of tequila and beer that Robert had been drinking all afternoon. There was some general merriment at Robert’s expense before Tall’s relatives, who now seemed content, left me alone with Timbely. In his own house, which seemed like a palace with its complex of buildings, courtyards, and labyrinthine corridors, Timbely’s stature was even further enhanced, and I realised now that he was a man of incredible, even extravagant wealth. It happened that an architect was on the premises that day, a white South African, who had spent the afternoon sketching designs of Timbely’s dwelling. The architect showed me how Timbely had ingeniously constructed his compound so that he could visit any of his three wives without the others knowing about it. As Timbely and I relaxed in reclining chairs, I could not help but notice the many beautiful women who passed by us, each colourfully dressed in the richest basin fabrics. All wore their hair in long tresses with cowrie shells and other jewellery enmeshed within their intricately woven braids. Soon, Timbely grew irritated at my lack of attention, until I turned my chair away from the courtyard.

When a friend stopped by, Timbely introduced me as “the one who had come to bring about the change in Yambo.” In fact, Timbely was quite excited about what had transpired in my absence. “Yambo came to see me twice,” he said. Timbely repeated the word “twice” as if this was a fact of remarkable significance. “The first time, he was furious that I’d dared to bring a Jew into his presence. He told me that this was unforgivable. But he returned the next day, and he was very happy this time. A great change has come to him at last. He wanted to know when you were coming back. It is certain he will see you again.”

Immediately, we sent out James and a nephew of Timbely’s to see if Ouologuem would not come by. They had been instructed to tell Yambo that I was leaving in the morning, and that I wanted to say farewell. In the interim, we waited for some time as I translated on behalf of the architect, who had almost no French. We discussed the student strike in Ouagadougou, and President Blaise Compaoré’s recent amendment to the Burkinabé constitution [to become Life-President]. As I was to discover shortly, Burkinabé politics were a private obsession of Ouologuem’s as well, and it seemed that many in Mali were carefully watching what happened in Burkina. “The trouble with Compaoré is that he wants to be king, not president,” I said. Timbely smiled and quoted Abraham Lincoln’s aphorism about fooling all the people all the time, which indeed seemed applicable in Compaoré’s case: so far, I had yet to meet a single person in Burkina Faso who actually liked or trusted their president. This was perhaps inevitable, given the nature of Compaoré’s rise to power, that is, after gunning down the former Burkinabé president, Thomas Sankara, who was still tremendously popular with the people. Our conversation was interrupted, however, when James and Timbely’s nephew returned with news of Yambo.

“You must come quick,” James said. “He wants you to come to his house.” I saw that James was flustered, even radiant, after speaking with Ouologuem. I quickly bid farewell to Timbely, nearly stumbling on my way out, and followed James to Ouologuem’s house. James smiled broadly and could not contain his excitement. “I didn’t know what your mission was,” he said. “Robert told me to stay out of it. It was only tonight that I finally understood. But now I’ve spoken with Yambo, and I can see that he’s a great man, a blessed man.” James stopped walking for a moment, and then he exploded in laughter. “But, of course, this guy’s completely mad.”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“His English is good. This guy speaks better English than people in Liberia. He told me that he wouldn’t come to his uncle’s house because his uncle is a member of a certain political party in this country that’s been exploiting him for the past thirty-three years. He said, ‘The reason I don’t pay any attention to them is because I consider them to be very insignificant. They think that what they are doing is great, but what they are doing is very simple and worthless, and that’s why I don’t even question them. They think that I’m a fool, but they are the fools. He’s sitting over there calling me. Go and tell Christopher that I’m not going to that house.’”

“Tell me exactly what happened,” I said. “What did he say when you approached him?”

“He was coming back from the funeral of some old woman and had been praying all afternoon. When he saw me, he said, ‘Where is Christopher’s friend? The one with the short trousers?’ “‘He’s not feeling well,’ I told him. ‘He has an upset stomach.’”

“Then he said, ‘His sins will see him through. He’s very insolent.’” (James could not control his laughter at this point.) He stopped and put his hand on my shoulder. “‘No, he’s only joking around,’ I told him. ‘He likes to joke. He’s not really insolent.’” “‘He’s a Jew,’ he said. ‘And you were trying to play smart. I saw you at the car. You went to the car to cover up that sign. What are you trying to hide. Coopération Française? You see, they have bought you. And they reduce you. You have sold your dignity. Just as they have killed Thomas Sankara and taken his body to Wall Street.’”

“He spoke of Sankara?” I asked.

“Yes, he said the body of Thomas Sankara had been taken to Wall Street. So I asked him, ‘Why Wall Street? Why not Paris?’”

“‘Blaise Compaoré will account for that,’ he said. ‘He will explain why they didn’t take his body to Paris and instead to Wall Street. Blaise Compaoré will explain that when the time comes. It’s just a matter of time. But you Liberians,’ he said, ‘from the day of your independence, you have been killing one another. And you will continue to kill one another because you have abused your identity. When the Americans realised they were very wicked in dealing with blacks, they decided to export them, to get rid of the rejects. That is what Liberia means. It comes from a Latin word meaning ‘the condemned ones,’ the ones who were condemned by the whites. They had to find a place for these rejects, and they chose Liberia.’” At this James began to laugh all over again and assure me what a brilliant man Yambo was. “‘But the whites made one mistake,’ he said. ‘They should’ve left everything with the blacks, but they decided to run things themselves. If they’d done this, today there would be no blacks in America. Instead of giving black Americans the chance to administer their own affairs, they interfered, and today they regret it.’” “‘They got a lot of blacks over in the United States who don’t know the direction of their lives, and they are condemned to hell. These blacks say they admire me, they admire my books, but I care nothing for them because they have forgotten their brothers, the suffering masses in Africa. They have sold their dignity. If they really admired me, they would come to Africa and join me for what I have fasted the past ten years, and for what I’m still fasting. I am fasting because I want to see black people everywhere freed from their oppression.’”

By now, we had arrived at Ouologuem’s house where I was to hear much of what James told me verified. For the moment, I was too astonished to know how to respond. We knocked at Ouologuem’s gate and were greeted by his mother, an ancient, veiled woman who had some trouble with the heavy chains upon the metal posts. The old woman informed us that, unfortunately, Yambo could not speak with us that evening because he was in mourning and occupied with his nightly prayers. We persisted, however, insisting that it was Yambo who had sent for us. “I’m leaving early tomorrow morning,” I told her. “I have an important message for him.” Finally, she relented and went to get her son. Ouologuem greeted us but refused to shake hands, as he had already performed his ablutions. Our presence did not seem to make him happy, but his mother offered us chairs while he himself sat upon a huge, felled tree limb. It was completely dark now, except for the light of the moon and stars. Ouologuem’s courtyard had a wild, unkempt look with scraggly bushes and vegetation everywhere. We were also introduced to Ouologuem’s grandmother, who sat in complete darkness further under the house’s awnings.

“I will speak with you tonight at your insistence,” he said, “but it would be better if I said nothing.” He spoke in English now, and James had been right about his mastery of the language, which was total. “You must know that you are in grave danger,” he said. “You and the Liberian are in grave danger here. There are people who would like to kill you. I refused to speak with you because I wanted to protect you. For now, I shall pray for you.” From where I sat on a short-legged metal chair, Ouologuem seemed larger than he actually was, his face, scarf, and prayer cap illuminated by moonlight. “It has been four years now since I saw you in a dream,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “I dreamed that a Jew would bring a Liberian and an African American.” Here, he stopped and looked me over: the fact that I did not seem to be black disturbed him, but only slightly. “These things that I know are hard for you to understand, I realise this. I have the authority to speak the way I want to speak, but if I decide to talk to people like you, I must put things in simpler terms. Still, it would be better if I said nothing at all.”

“Silence is always better, you see. This is why I refuse to answer your questions. We speak too much, myself included. Jesus was a silent man. Muhammad was a silent man, too. We forget this with all our books and radios. We drown ourselves in meaningless noise. But if you are able to be silent, you will see that it is much better than speaking.” He paused for a moment and placed both hands on his knees. He seemed tired now, as if indeed the effort to speak exhausted him. “I have seen Jesus more than fifty times,” he said. “I have spoken with him and with the Prophet. The angels, too, including Gabriel, and they’re mostly silent. You must be very careful with people who speak a lot. They think that they know a lot, but they really know nothing.” Ouologuem himself fell into silence at this point, as if listening for the sound of the wind blowing through the trees.

It was James who finally spoke. “You are truly a blessed man,” he said softly. “God has truly blessed you.”

“I am not a blessed man,” Yambo insisted.

“Far from it. I am simply a man who is seeking God’s blessing.”

“But you have knowledge,” James said, “and knowledge is power.”

“No, knowledge is not power. When you are blessed by God, then you acquire wisdom. And when you acquire wisdom, then you have power. Knowledge in itself is not power. You see, God has allowed me to journey to the very frontiers of the human mind. I have seen them unfold before my eyes.” With this, Ouologuem swept his hand over his head, urging us to look up at the stars. “The world we live in is truly magnificent,” he said. “In Allah, all things are possible if we are only open to them.”

There was another long moment of silence, until Ouologuem’s mother cleared her throat, signalling for him to dismiss us. “If there’s just one message you have,” I said quickly, “if there was just one thing you’d like to say to black people in America, what is it?” I am not sure why I asked such a question, but I said the first thing that came to mind. “Go back to America and tell my black brothers that I’ve been fasting for the last ten years on their behalf. I’ve been fasting so that they’ll come back to Africa. Tell them to come back to help ease our suffering, and Allah will be merciful. That is the first thing you must say. Then you may tell them that I am now preparing to take over the leadership of the educational system in Mauritania, where blacks suffer more than anywhere on earth. I hope to help establish there a truly Islamic government that will administer to the total affairs of Mauritanians, including Arabs. The worst enemies for blacks right now are racist Arabs, Arabs who have been satanically blessed with oil and who are now funding the Jews and apartheid-type governments everywhere. It is the Arabs who are sponsoring all these organisations that are against blacks, and who invest their money in Switzerland, America, and South Africa. Many have tried to stop me in this, but I am not so easily defeated. The French have tried to stop me. Even the CIA has offered me a few million dollars. The CIA has already done what it could to me, and they think they have defeated me, but they are mistaken. That is all I have to say.”

Ouologuem arose from where he sat, preparing to dismiss us. He again apologised for not shaking our hands and told us that it was time for his evening prayers, that we had detained him long enough. He disappeared into the darkness of his courtyard, and we were led to the gate by his mother. The interview had reached its conclusion.

There were many questions I had for James that night about his long walk with Ouologuem while I waited at Timbely’s. Though it had not been possible to record Ouologuem’s words, James’s short-range memory was excellent – in fact, far better than mine – so I recorded our conversation back at the hotel, as we told Robert about our adventure. Robert was feeling slightly better, though his face was quite pale. When James and I had finished speaking, Robert sat up in his bed and laughed. “Yambo’s a nut-case,” he said. “A paranoid schizophrenic, and what’s worse an anti-Semite. Seriously, the guy could benefit from medication. He might not be able to talk to Jesus all that often, but he could function better.” When James repeated that Ouologuem was fine, Robert said, “You don’t think he’s all that mad because you talk to Jesus all the time. That’s the way it is with you religious types.”

“Yes,” James said simply. “This man is blessed. He said a lot of good things. He’s right about blacks in America, too. Africa is the place they come from, but blacks over there don’t come and help us. Our brothers in America do not care for us. When we are together, they treat us worse than white men do, as if we are inferior to them. If you look around at all these programs in Africa, the majority of Americans who come are white. Why? With the Peace Corps, even the white ladies are willing to go to the villages and teach our people, but blacks are not willing to come. The problem is that we do not love one another.”

“Look it’s hard for all Americans here,” Robert said. “Things are so different in Africa you don’t know what the hell’s going on half the time. It’s even harder for blacks who have to adjust to this place and then deal with all this bullshit about being ‘African Americans.’ Most blacks in the US don’t have a clue what goes on in Africa. They’ve got enough problems of their own.”

James listened carefully, but he was far from convinced. I remembered then that he had lost a child, and his wife had lost an arm, before they had fled from Liberia as political refugees. Sometime later, James had converted to an anti-Catholic, charismatic form of Christianity, some import from the States. “Okay,” James said, “there is truth in what you say, but Yambo is still right. When I was at a refugee camp in Côte d’Ivoire, a brother of Michael Jackson came to sing for us. He came there, and he stood on a bench. Everyone wanted to see this Jackson hero. We were all suffering, and we were glad this guy came to help us. So we listened, and he said, ‘You know, I gotta tell you, America is a useless country. America got itself involved in the Middle East thing, in the Gulf War, wasting billions of dollars when they got you here suffering.’ So we all looked at one another and said, ‘This guy is mad.’ There were many highly educated people among the group, some professors, and they too said, ‘This guy is mad.’ ‘You know, when I get back to America,’ he said, ‘I’m gonna get to Congress and do something for you.’

“I tell you,” James said, “we wanted to stone him. This useless guy came, and he made a lot of promises. Then he left, doing nothing.” “What was he supposed to do?” Robert said. “Save Africa all by himself? Believe me, it can’t be done. It’s not possible. You know, I’m not a religious person, but I believe very strongly that God helps those who help themselves. There are many Jews in the United States like myself who have been very successful. But no one helped me. No one gave me a job or cut me a break. My belief is that countries are successful, and that people prosper or suffer, as a result of their capability to help themselves or not help themselves.”

“Yes,” said James. “You are right about that. Now you are speaking from the Bible.” Both James and Robert were somewhat surprised when I told them that the saying “God helps those who help themselves” did not come from the Bible but was coined by Benjamin Franklin. Robert in particular was amused by this, which made him feel all the better about being an American. He was currently in the process of securing an entry visa to the US for James, and he was certain that once James arrived in America, he would feel the same way he did. My search for Yambo Ouologuem had ended. Back in Ouagadougou, I met several more times with Sékou Tall and Mountaga, who both insisted that Ouologuem was no madman. Tall promised to write me a piece for my book, offering his own perspective on Ouologuem’s current doings. Mountaga only nodded serenely and said that Yambo was “dur” and that was all. He was one of the “hard ones,” not unlike his own father. As for the books Yambo had written some years ago, Mountaga said, these were all literary questions, and so they had of course ceased to interest him.

Christopher Wise is the editor of Yambo Ouologuem: Postcolonial Writer, Islamic Militant, a collection of takes by Wole Soyinka, Anthony Appiah and others on the life and work of Yambo Ouologuem. Most recently Wise wrote an introduction to the new edition of Le Devoir de Violence.

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One Response to In Search of Yambo

  1. Chronic February 15, 2013 at 10:58 am #

    His silence is still deeply felt. We lost a great voice. This is Yambo in 1971: “The technical difficulties came from not wanting to write a mere story. I wanted to convey the rhythm of Africa, the rhythm of the blues when I was singing despair, sometimes the rhythm of jazz. And, of course, it’s horrible to try to translate the beat of music and the idea of pure sound into phrases and sentences, though not because I was writing in French per se, but because French was for me a foreign language. I had to be somewhat half black and half white because I was dealing with a foreign civilization. But I understood the language is nothing but a tool and that one can be oneself by mastering it, and I was mastering French by giving it the very breath of the black past. So too could the black American master Western civilization, have a hold on it, put it at a distance, have a critical view of it, and so make it something different. I don’t consider myself a Frenchman or a French writer. I am an African conscious of his whole history and tradition and that’s why nothing can offend me. I have a background on which to rest. And I am not boasting about that past or about my family but just showing it because that’s life. And what’s important in life is not making money but believing there are important things to be done and being linked with tradition because that’s what makes a man be a real man—not the fact that he’s universal. Universality begins with individuality. That is to say, it is when you are yourself that other people recognize themselves through your own humanity. If you belong to nothing, you are an artificial man.”

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