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by Bamber Gascoigne

Ouologuem, Yambo (1940- ) - pseudonym Utto Rodolph


Malian writer, whose most famous novel, Le Devoir de violence (1968, Bound to Violence), is a satirical portrayal of African spiritual values. Ouologuem depicted African participation in colonial rule and the role of local overlords who sold their subjects into bondage in league with Arab slave dealers. This postmodernist work was published to great acclaim in Paris and it received the prestigious Prix Théophraste-Renaudot. Its originality was questioned when critics noticed similarities between the book and Graham Greene's Its a Battlefield (1934), André Schwarz-Bart's Le dernier des justes (1959), and texts by other writers.

Cannibal or not cannibal
Speak up
Ah you think yourself clever
And try to look proud
Now we'll see you get what's coming to you
What is your last word
Poor condemned man

(in 'When Negro Teeth Speak', The Penguin Book of Modern African Poetry, 1998)

Yambo Ouologuem was born in Bandiagara, in the Dogon country, French Sudan (now Mali), to an elite Muslim family with close ties to the Toucouleur ruling caste of Bandiagara. He was the only son of Boukary Yambo Ouologuem, a land owner and school inspector, and Aïssata Umar (née Karambe). As result of his background and privileges, Ouologuem was taught several African languages, becoming fluent in English, French, and Spain.

After attending a lycée in Bamako, Mali, Ouologuem went in 1960 to France to continue his education. He attended the famous Lycée Henry IV and from 1964 to 1966 he taught at the Lycée de Charenton in Paris and then continued his studies for his doctorate in sociology. In the late 1970s, Ouologuem returned to his home country. Until 1984, he worked as a director of a youth center near Mopti in the central Mali. 

Bound to Violence told the tale of the fictional Empire of Nakem from the 13th-century to the end of the European colonial rule. Ouologuem sees that the ancient African emperors, the Moslems, and finally the European colonial administrators were responsible for the black African's "slave mentality." These three forces produces "négraille" (a word coined by Ouologuem, meaning "nigger rabble" in its translation). In addition Ouologuem was skeptical about the potential for liberation through struggle. "The French worker with his minimum wage, tied to certain activities, restricted, in some way ostracized, is a Negro", the author said in an interview in The Guardian (28 Nov. 1968). In the last scene a descendant of the early Islamic Dynasty of Saïf and a representative of the European colonial system play diplomatically chess, but the power game continues. "I have a horror of folkloric attitudes to Africa", said Ouologuem in 1968.

His disenchanted vision collided directly with Léopold Senghor's concept of négritude and Africanist mystifications. Though Ouolaguem has ofted credited with delivering the death-blow to this literary movement, longing for an uncorrupted African Eden surfaced again in Alex Haley's famous novel Roots (1976). Ayi Kwei Armah shared later Ouologuem's view in The Healers (1978), in which one of the characters becomes an ally of the colonialists in order to consolidate his power. However, it is widely believed that Armah wrote Two Thousand Seasons (1973) as a refutation of the thesis of Bound to Violence, which took a revisionist look at the myth of a glorious African past. Armah himself portrayed the ancient Ashante empire more of an inspirational model for the future.

"The problem of African literature is fundamentally linked to that of African unity. It is certain that if these racial and political barriers existing among African people could be pulled down the literature would respond. It is because we haven't yet succeeded in this that we have shut ourselves in ghettos of a sort." (Ouologuem in 1969)

Bound to Violence went on to become a scandal in 1972 when critics discovered that it borrowed material from such authors like André Schwarz-Bart, Guy de Maupassant, and especially from Graham Greene's thriller It's a Battlefield, set in London. Greene had spent a year in West Africa during the World War II and wrote The Heart of the Matter (1948), which was partly based on his experiences and people he met there. For legal reasons the English publisher of Ouologuem's work was obliged to acknowledge the "use of certain passages" from Greene. At a very early stage of the controversy Ouologuem told in his defense, that the original publishers had made unauthorized changes in the manuscript, deleting references to European sources; this remark was mostly ignored. Eventually the author returned to Mali and gave up writing fiction in French. American and British publishers withdrew all the unsold copies of the book.

"I object to Bound to Violence because of this image of Africa as "bound to violence," which I don't accept," said Chinua Achebe in an interview. "Yet as a strategy for reinterpreting African history it is two thousand times more successful than Ayi Kwei Armah's [Two Thousand Seasons]." You can see that Ouologuem's book moves; it has an epic scope and movement." (from Conversations With Chinua Achebe, ed. Bernth Lindofors, 1997) The Nobel writer Wole Soyinka attacked the author because of his portrayal of homoerotic tenderness ("How ironic that the novels's only episode of consciously rendered affectionate relationship should be homosexual, and yet how appropriate to Ouologuem's misantrophic vision!") and linked Ouologuem's work with Western decadence and such writers as Jean Genêt and James Baldwin (Myth, Literature and the African World by Wole Soyinka, 1976).

Mohamed-Saleh Dembri called the book an imitation of André Schwarz-Bart's family novel Le Dernier des Justes (1959), which was awarded the Prix Goncourt. Some critics pointed out that the author continued the great tradition of the African oral chronicler, the griot – recycling is taken for granted in oral culture. Moreover, the Arabic concept of sariqat holds that the right to borrowings comes from the improvements the poet has made in the traditional treatment. "How in profound displeasure, with perfumed mouth and eloquence on his tongue, Saif ben Isaac al-Heit endeavored to mobilize the energies of the fanatical people against the invader; how to that end he spread reports of fanatical people against the invader; how to that end he spread reports of daily miracles throughout the Nakem Empire – earthquakes, the opening of tombs, resurrections of saints, fountains of milk springing up in his path, visions of archangels stepping out of the sunset, village women drawing buckets from the well and finding them full of blood; how on one of his journeys he transformed three pages of the Holy Book, the Koran, into as many doves, which flew on ahead of him as though to summon the people to Saif's banner; and with what diplomacy he feigned indifference to the goods of this world: in all that there is nothing out of the ordinary." (from Bound to Violence) Ouologuem also parodied the religious theme of Camara Ley's novel The Radiance of the King (1954), inspired in part by Sufi mysticism. His his attitude toward "Wahhabism" is negative. Ouologuem has said that "the worst enemy for blacks today are racist Arabs who have been satanically blessed with oil." (Sorcery, Totem, and Jihad in African Philosophy by Christopher Wise, 2017)

After Bound to Violence Ouologuem published Lettre ouverte à la France-nègre, a satirical pamphlet, which criticized paternalistic French liberals and was addressed to General de Gaulle. He also elaborated a plan for mass-producing the detective novel. Ouologuem's other works include Les Milles et un bibles du sexe (1969), described as "frankly pornographic". Though it was published under the pseudonym Utto Rodolph, he signed the preface with his own name. Noteworthy, both of these works dealt with convention-bound literary forms, in which any originality has long since vanished.

Ouologuem has led a secluded life in the Sahel, devoting himself to religion. Sometimes, following ancient beliefs, he has conjured the dead. In the title of  Christopher Wise's study from  1999, the author was labelled as an Islamic militant; the term was meant to refer to the author's sincerity and piety as a Muslim. Ouologuem's approach to Islam has also been influenced by West African heritages. Later, in the aftermath of 9/11, Wise came to regret the title of his book: "If Ouologuem is an "Islamic militant," he is therefore a militant for a form of Islam that has nothing in common with the Islam of those who smashed the tombs of the saints in Timbuktu, who banned the music of Mali's musicians, and who burned the manuscripts of Timbuktu." (Sorcery, Totem, and Jihad in African Philosophy by Christopher Wise, 2017) Several of Ouologuem's poems have appeared in Nouvelle somme. Le Devoir de violence was republished by Le Serpent à plumes in 2003, ending a ban, that had lasted over 30 years.

For further reading: 'Ouologuem's Blueprint for "Le Devoir de violence"' by E. Sellin, in Research in African Literatures 2, (1971); Myth, Literature and the African World by Wole Soyinka (1976); 'Fiction and Subversion' by A. Songolo, in Présence africaine, no. 120 (1981); Rape and Representation, ed. Lynn A. Higgins and Brenda R. Silver (1991); 'De l'histoire à sa métaphore dans Le Devoir de violence de Yambo Ouologuem' by Josias Semujanga, in Études françaises, vol. 31, no 1, été (1995); Yambo Ouologuem: Postcolonial Writer, Islamic Militant, ed. Christopher Wise (1999); Translation, Biopolitics, Colonial Difference by Naoki Sakai & Jon Solomon (2006); 'Yambo Ouologuem’s Struggle for Recognition in the Field of "African" Literature in French' by Sarah Burnautzki, in Journal of Postcolonial Writing, Volume 48 (2012; Issue 5); 'The Duty of Violence' in Sorcery, Totem, and Jihad in African Philosophy by Christopher Wise (2017)

Selected works:

  • Le Devoir de violence, 1968 - Bound to Violence (translated by Ralph Manheim, 1971)
  • Lettre à la France nègre, 1969
  • Les Milles et un bibles du sexe, 1969 (as Utto Rodolph)
  • Terres du Soleil, 1971 (with others)
  • The Yambo Ouologuem Reader, 2008 (edited by Christopher Wise)

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