The first great African novel!
A revolution in literature!
The end of colonial cultural dominance for the ‘Dark Continent’!
So echoed John Updike of The New Yorker, Melvin Maddock of Time Magazine and many of the great literary reviews of the world. Unfortunately, half of the novel in question was allegedly copy-pasted from a Graham Greene novel, published 30 years earlier in London. Other parts seemed to have been taken from Victor Hugo, Guy de Maupassant, Pascal, Godard, T.S. Eliot and Emily Dickinson. What was strangest, however, was that no-one – not any of the great and good of Western literary criticism – had even noticed.
It took an anonymous letter in the Times Literary Supplement in 1969, a whole year after the book’s translation into English, to point out that something was amiss. The letter deserves to be quoted in full, for it contains an insight, which I will reveal shortly:
“On its appearance in the United States, Bound to Violence [Le Devoir de violence] was trumpeted as the ‘first truly African novel,’ a claim which now looks more than a little sick. Or is M. Ouologuem [the writer] on to something: a style of literary imperialism intended as a revenge for the much-chronicled sins of territorial imperalists? Yambo Ouologuem said on television that he ‘wrote this book in French but followed the traditional African rhythms and the spirit of the African past.’ It presumably says something for Graham Greene that, even before he went to a continent that later much concerned him, he was capable of effortlessly conveying its traditional rhythms.”
The critics who had previously praised the publication, now panned it, citing betrayal and subterfuge, with no small amount of bluster. Their indignation was justified in that the book did appear to be a sequence of plagiarised passages, interspersed with fresh material. Yet it was also unjustified, since the allegedly copied passages had, in fact, been subtly adapted. The insight? Ouologuem (born 1940, in Mali) had achieved what had hitherto been thought impossible: to come at his colonial target from many angles.
For example, in a passage describing the home of a colonial administrator, Chevalier, the text matches that of a character from Greene’s work, describing a communist leader’s lavish London flat. But Ouologuem changes the text, creating a really quite unlikely geography inside the building: a veranda appears between the antechamber and the salon of the house. This is quite deliberate, one assumes. The officer’s house also overlooks a brothel, which is extremely unlikely – the servants’ quarters would be a more likely vista. Hence the revelation that he must have had a purpose other than realistic description of a Malian official’s house, or some sneaky plagiarism. Richard Serrano, the outspoken postcolonial critic, suggests that he’s created “at once a reminder that French colonialism severely distorted Sahelian culture and that Africans by necessity remake the Western texts that their educations have made a part of them”.
And there you have it. Perhaps a clever and cutting commentary by an African writer on the conquering colonials, by subverting their own writing. Or a cheap trick? Best to read it and decide. It should be noted, however, that if he did just copy Greene and co., publishing plagiarism is still illegal, no matter how interesting you think it may be.
In fact, three things happened:
- Clever literary advance or not, the text was unable to be published in France until very recently, for this very reason.
- Ouologuem felt harrassed by the Western press, and is now reported to live almost as a recluse.
- Graham Greene sued him, and after Ouologuem refused to revise his text, a whole swathe of literary critics turned on him for good.
The perils of playing with famous literature – but it does make a good story, particularly for the egg left on the faces of the initial – and illustrious – reviewers …
- Greene, Graham, It’s a Battlefield. London: Heinemann, 1934.
- Ouologuem, Yambo, Le Devoir de violence. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1968.
- Richard Serrano, Against the Postcolonial. Oxford: Lexington, 2005.