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How to write about Africa

by Boniface Mongo-Mboussa

LE DEVOIR DE VIOLENCE Yambo Ouologuem Le Serpent à Plumes, 2003 (1968)

Yambo Ouologuem
Le Serpent à Plumes, 2003 (1968)

Serpent à Plumes’ republication of Yambo Ouologuem’s Le Devoir de violence has given this novel a new lease of life. Christopher Wise’s preface insists on the novel’s place in the history of African literature, highlighting the author’s biographical details and situating the book in the historical context of pre-colonial Mali. It also confronts the first publisher’s (Editions du Seuil) ambiguous attitude towards the author and points out other writers’ (Wole Soyinka for example) short-sightedness concerning this book. However, Wise’s preface overlooks the considerable interest that French critics showed in Le Devoir. While it is true that much of the mainstream press and Editions du Seuil dismissed Yambo Ouologuem, some French critics never stopped demanding his rehabilitation.

The publication of Le Devoir in 1968 marked a turning point in French-language African literature. It represented a thematic rupture, with the book depicting a violence-ridden pre-colonial Africa that deconstructed the idyllic image invented by the ethnologists and Negritude writers. The book also marked a rupture in terms of its humour, as Le Devoir introduced the aesthetic of the grotesque into the emerging French-language African literature.

Awarded the Prix Renaudot at the time of its publication, Le Devoir later became the object of a prolonged controversy. Four years after its publication, Eric Sellin signalled the presence of several passages borrowed from André Schwarz-Bart’s novel, Le dernier des Justes (The Last of the Just). A year later, an anonymous article in the Times Literary Supplement revealed that Ouologuem had also reworked certain pages of Graham Greene’s It’s a Battlefield. These accusations, which broke one of Africa’s greatest novelists, curiously, did not trigger any substantive debate about the book’s originality. Until Aliko Songolo questioned the alleged plagiarism in an article published in Présence Africaine in 1981.

In Songolo’s opinion, the critics focused on showing how much Yambo Ouologuem owed the structure and certain passages of his novel to André Schwarz-Bart and Graham Greene, while ignoring a host of other literary and non-literary “borrowings” that are intertwined around Le Devoir’s basic plot line. These include traces of the Koran and the Bible, snatches of griots’ oral tales, works of historians and ethnologists, influences from sixteenth to twentieth-century French classics, and so forth. Songolo argued, ironically, that if the copyright code demanded that Schwarz-Bart and Greene be compensated, it was logical that all these other authors, known and anonymous, be compensated too. He suggested that by making Le Devoir a concentrate of parodies and pastiches, Ouologuem gave his novel a unique identity. He asked Ouologuem’s critics to rise above the plagiarism controversy to appreciate Le Devoir’s innovations in the literary field. Bernard Mouralis answered the call in an article published in 1987.

Retracing the novel’s reception, Mouralis notes that critics were divided on the reasons behind its exceptional following. Some hailed Yambo Ouologuem for painting an un-indulgent portrait of Africa’s past and appreciated the narrative’s baroque exuberance. Others reproached a project that confirmed Europe’s traditionally negative image of Africa. Unperturbed, Ouologuem published an essay a few months later entitled Lettre à la France nègre (Letter to Black France), in which he gave the reader the key to his poetic art by exalting combinative art, literary imitation, and by recommending that the young African novelist uses eroticism, suspense, violence and parodies to guarantee literary success in Paris. The essay shows the extent to which Ouologuem’s project was mapped out and the result of a literary strategy.

In these conditions, Bernard Mouralis notes, the accusation of plagiarism levelled against him is surprising, firstly because it came three years after the publication of both books, and secondly because Yambo Ouologuem never tried to mask his approach. As Mouralis points out, he was not the first black African writer to have borrowed in this way: Césaire borrows from Frobenius’ Origin of African Cultures in Le Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land) when he evokes the black man “porous to all the winds of the world”; and Cheikh Hamidou Kane, in the first part of l’Aventure ambiguë (Ambiguous Adventure), reworks a passage from Rimbaud’s Une saison en enfer.

According to Mouralis the accusation of plagiarism reflects something other than the question of the degree of borrowing. He points out that these allegations emerged at the same time as the challenge to the theme that the Malian writer had chosen, which consisted of depicting pre-colonial Africa as a hotbed of crime and violence. Ouologuem had thus violated the taboo hitherto respected by his predecessors as he portrayed the continent as having already been a theatre of infamy before the Europeans arrived in Africa. One wonders what upset Ouologuem’s detractors the most: plagiarism as a common law offence, or his ideological deviation, his right to insolence, which upset the majority of Africans, upholders of the image of an idyllic and innocent pre-colonial Africa.

Ouologuem’s critics had remained at a purely factual level and made no attempt to situate Le Devoir in a theoretical reflection on borrowing, imitation and plagiarism, in the intertextuality that Roland Barthes, Tzvetan Todorov and Julia Kristeva highlighted later, in the 1970s.

Taking Songolo’s argument further, Bernard Mouralis widened the field of texts from which Le Devoir de violence is constituted, suggesting a classification in relation to the cultural field to which these texts belong. He thus distinguishes Western literary fiction, with authors such as Graham Greene, Rimbaud and Flaubert; African literature written in European languages, drawing a parallel between Le Devoir de violence’s hero, Raymond Spartacus, and Bernard Dadié’s Climbié, Cheick Hamidou Kane’s Samba Diallo, Mongo Beti’s Jean-Marie Medza, and so forth; but also Western ethnological literature, the Koran, the Bible, the Arab historians evoked in Tarikh al-fattash and Tarikh al-Sudan – in short a panorama that illustrates Le Devoir’s subversiveness.

However, while they highlighted this iconoclastic aspect of Le Devoir, critics overlooked the fact that this subversion in Ouologuem’s work also partakes in the grotesque.

The grotesque is an aesthetic of rupture – one that Ouologuem achieved admirably in the African literary domain in 1968 by mixing the epic genre and the Romanesque, by parodying the thriller, by confounding ethnology and Third Worldism for its celebration of an eternal Africa, by deriding African griots’ epic songs (part of an orality magnified by the anthropologists) and thus African tradition itself.

This juxtaposition of heterogeneous elements elicits some contradictory reactions, ranging from laughter and tears to horror to disgust. From the outset, the novel confronts us with a horrific scene describing the bloody reprisals that the Saïfs inflict on the inhabitants of Nakem. If such descriptions unsettle the reader, their anguish is attenuated by the comic, ironic and parodic scenes, violence and the comic being intrinsically related. Hence the importance of play in the novel’s epilogue, which for Yambo Ouologuem is a subtle way of telling the reader that the horror that he or she has just read is ultimately “tragedy seen from behind” (to use Gérard Genette’s phrase). The numerous violent scenes that punctuate this novel aim to shock the reader in order to liberate him or her, for the grotesque above all serves to invent sites of freedom.

Thus Le Devoir de violence can be read as a manifesto for the contemporary African novel.



Boniface Mongo-MBoussa is the author of Desir D’Afrique and literary editor of the journal Africultures. Translated from the French by Olivier Barlet. 


This review features in the edition of Chronic Books that comes as part of Chimurenga Vol. 16: The Chimurenga Chronic (available here).

Set in the week 18-24 May 2008, the Chronic, imagines the newspaper as a producer of time – a time-machine – which travels backwards and forwards, to place these events within a broader context and thereby to challenge the logic of emergencies and immediate needs that characterise contemporary African media.

Buy the Chronic

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