Yambo Ouologuem and world literature: plagiarism, rewriting, collage, derision, and literary manifesto

By Boniface Mongo-Mboussa

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The recent re-publication of Le Devoir de violence (Bound to Violence) in France, an essential novel-manifesto that until now had remained scandalously inaccessible and disclaimed, provides an opportunity to reflect upon the misunderstandings and preconceptions in the appraisal of African works. By accusing Ouologuem of plagiarism, people ignored his text’s obvious intertextuality at a time when modern literature was developing this very same trend. In a climate of Third Worldism, and in an Africa that claimed to be a victim of History and the West, its iconoclastic discourse on the continuity of violence since the pre-colonial era was mondialist before its time. Considered in the light of the grotesque, the novel invites the invention of new sites of freedom that counter being trapped in a single mode of thought.

Yambo Ouologuem’s return: a bitter rehabilitation
Serpent à Plumes’ republication of Yambo Ouologuem’s Le Devoir de violence has given this novel a new lease of life. (1) 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 insists on the publishers, Editions du Seuil’s more than ambiguous attitude towards the author, whilst also pointing out other writers’ (and not the least, for example Wole Soyinka’s) blindness concerning this book. A certain malaise gradually sets in, however, when reading the preface because Wise never mentions the considerable interest that French university critics showed in Le Devoir de violence. Whilst it is true that the journalistic press and Editions du Seuil proved themselves to be perfectly cavalier vis-à-vis Yambo Ouologuem, the French critics, on the other hand, never stopped demanding his rehabilitation. In an article published in 1987, Bernard Mouralis called for the novel to be republished. (2) The academic Christiane Achour devoted part of her thesis to Yambo Ouologuem. These French critics thus deserve to be saluted.
The publication of Le Devoir de violence in 1968 marked a turning point in French-language sub-Saharan African literature. It represented a thematic rupture, the book depicting a violence-ridden pre-colonial Africa that deconstructed the idyllic image invented by the ethnologists and Negritude writers. Ouologuem countered the image of an innocent Africa with that of a violent continent, vitiated by the slave-mongering kings’ cynicism ever since they first came into contact with the Arab slave-traders. It also marked a rupture in terms of its humour, as Le Devoir de violence introduced the aesthetic of the grotesque into French-language sub-Saharan African literature.
Awarded the Prix Renaudot at the time of its publication, the book later became the object of a prolonged debate in the history of African literature. 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 published in the Times Literary Supplement revealed that Ouologuem had apparently also reworked certain pages of Graham Greene’s It’s a Battlefield. (4) These attacks, which broke one of greatest African novelists, strangely enough did not trigger a real critical debate about the book’s originality. It was not until Aliko Songolo’s article published in Présence Africaine that a literary debate emerged on the question of this plagiarism. In Songolo’s opinion, the critics were only interested in showing how much Yambo Ouologuem owed the structure and certain passages of his novel to André Schwarz-Bart’s Le dernier des Justes and Graham Greene’s It’s a Battlefield, whilst complacently ignoring a whole host of other literary and non-literary « borrowings » that are intertwined around Le Devoir de violence‘s basic plot line. These include traces of the Koran and the Bible, snatches of the griots’ oral tales, the works of historians and ethnologists, influences of sixteenth to twentieth-century French classics, and so forth. Being ironical about this oversight, Aliko Songolo argued that if the copyright code demanded that Schwarz-Bart and Graham Greene be compensated, it was thus theoretically logical that the other authors and anonymous griots be compensated too. Yet by making Le Devoir de violence a concentrate of parodies and pastiches, Yambo Ouologuem gave his novel its very own identity that makes it appealing. It is precisely this charm that Yambo Ouologuem’s accusers refused to highlight. His detractors would have perhaps done better to rise above the controversy about its plagiarism and to appreciate the novel in its own right, in its literarity, in its need for innovation in the African literary field. That is precisely what Bernard Mouralis did in 1987.
A postmodern novel
Retracing the novel’s reception, Mouralis notes that critics were divided on the reasons behind its exceptional following. Some hailed Yambo Ouologuem for having painted an un-indulgent portrait of Africa’s past, and appreciated the narrative’s baroque exuberance. Others reproached an enterprise 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 use eroticism, suspense, violence, and parodies to guarantee literary success in Paris. (6) This essay shows the extent to which Yambo Ouologuem’s literary project was largely reflected upon, thought out, and the result of a real literary strategy.
In these conditions, Bernard Mouralis notes, the accusation of plagiarism levelled against him is to say the least surprising, firstly because it came three years after the publication of both books, and secondly because Yambo Ouologuem never tried to hide his approach. As Mouralis points out, he was not the first black African writer to have borrowed in this way. Didn’t Césaire borrow from Frobenius’ Origin of African Cultures in Le Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Journal of a Return to the Native Land) when he evokes the black man « porous to all the winds of the world » (7)? And Cheikh Hamidou Kane in the fifth chapter of the first part of l’Aventure ambiguë (Ambiguous Adventure), the first morning of colonisation: « Those who came were white and frenetic » (8), by closely reworking this passage from Rimbaud’s Une saison en enfer: « The whites are coming. The canon. We have to submit to baptism, to dress, to work. My heart received a coup de grâce. Ah! I had not foreseen it.« ? (9)
The borrowings are, of course, limited in these two cases. But the specific accusation of plagiarism reflects something other than the question of the degree of borrowing. This accusation 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 may thus legitimately ask 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.
The invention of the grotesque
His accusers thus remained at a purely factual level and made no attempt to situate Le Devoir de violence in a theoretical reflection on borrowing, imitation, plagiarism, or in short on the intertextuality that Roland Barthes, Tzevtan Todorov and Julia Kristeva highlighted in the Seventies.
Taking Aliko Songolo’s argument a step 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 Green, Rimbaud and Flaubert; African literature written in European languages, drawing a parallel between Le Devoir de violence‘s hero, Raymond Spartacus, and the Ivoirian Bernard Dadié’s Climbié, the Senegalese Cheick Hamidou Kane’s Samba Diallo, the Cameroonian Mongo Beti’s Jean-Marie Medza, and so forth; but also Western ethnological literature, the Koran, the Bible, the Arab historians evoked in Tarikh el Fetach and Tarikh el Sudan – in short a panorama that illustrates Le Devoir de violence‘s intertextuality and subversiveness. Christiane Chaulet-Achour shows that unlike in Calixthe Beyala’s writing, whose plagiarism is at time no more than a pale copy of the plagiarised text, one finds a real process of intertextual rewriting in Yambo Ouologuem’s work. (10) But whilst highlighting this iconoclastic aspect of Ouologuem’s novel, critics have curiously not picked up on the fact that this subversion in Ouologuem’s work also partakes of the grotesque.
A brief overview of the history of the grotesque since the discovery (towards the end of the fifteenth century) of strange ornaments in the basements of Nero’s palace, to the German romantics, to Victor Hugo, shows that the criteria of excessiveness and the new are indissociable from his aesthetic. This shows the extent to which he refused to respect any decorum, the extent to which he exercised a kind of critical and parodic function in caricaturing the in-vogue noble genres. The aesthetic of the grotesque is in this respect an aesthetic of rupture – a rupture that Yambo Ouologuem admirably achieved 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 the African griots’ epic songs (part of an African orality magnified by the anthropologists) and thus the famous African tradition itself.
An African literary manifesto
This juxtaposition of heterogeneous elements in turn elicits some contradictory reactions ranging from, laughter, tears, and horror to disgust – hence the parallel that critics often establish between the grotesque and nightmares. In this respect, Le Devoir de violence can be read as an African « nightmare ». Right from its 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 just « tragedy seen from behind », to coin Gérard Genette’s phrase. (12) In fact, 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. It is thus that Le Devoir de violence acquires a theoretical dimension and can be read as a manifesto for the contemporary African novel, in the same way that Victor Hugo’s famous Bataille d’Hernani (Hernani) is for world literature in France.

1. A new lease of life that Jean-Luc Douin strongly welcomes in his article, « Ouologuem, voix discordante », in Le Monde des Livres, 28 February 2003.
2. Bernard Mouralis, « Un carrefour d’Écritures : Le Devoir de violence de Yambo Ouologuem », in Nouvelles du Sud n°5, Paris, 1987.
3. Christiane Achour, Abécédaires en devenir, Alger, Éditions de l’ENAP, 1982.
4. Cf. Amadou Kone, Des textes oraux au roman moderne. Etudes sur les avatars de la tradition orale dans le roman ouest-africain, Frankfurt, Verlag Für Interkulturelle Kommunikation, 1993, p. 167.
5. Aliko Songolo, « Fiction et subversion : Le Devoir de violence« , in Présence Africaine n° 120, 4th quarter 1981.
6. Yambo Ouologuem, Lettre à La France nègre, Paris, Edmond Nalis, 1969.
7. Aimé Césaire, Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, Paris, Présence Africaine, 198, p. 47.
8. Cheikh Hamidou Kane, L’Aventure ambiguë, Paris, U.G.E., coll. 10/18, 1961.
9. Arthur Rimbaud, Une saison en enfer, postface by Xavier Bordes, Paris, Mille et une nuits, p. 15.
10. Christiane Achour, « Le Devoir de violence de Yambo Ouologuem ou la ‘gymnastique opératoire de l’écriture' » unpublished article, based on a reworked chapter of her thesis.
11. For a history of the grotesque, read the excellent work by Elisha Rosen, Sur le grotesque l’ancien et le nouveau dans la réflexion esthétique, Paris, Presses Universitaires de Vincennes, 1991.
12. Gérard Genette, Palimpsestes, la littérature au second degré, Paris, Le Seuil, 1982, p. 27.
///Article N° : 5678

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