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by Bamber Gascoigne

Ouologuem, Yambo (1940-2017) - 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. Yambo  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 Ouologuem's text and paragraphs of Graham Greene's Its a Battlefield (1934) and André Schwarz-Bart's Le Dernier des Justes (1959, The Last of the Just).

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

('When Negro Teeth Speak' by Ouologuem Yambo, in 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). Yambo was the author's surname; he preferred the reversed form of his name on his book covers.

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. At the novel's publication Le Monde praised the author for his authentically African vision. Ouologuem saw 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. (The Guardian, 28 November, 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," he stated in 1968. (Securing Africa: Post-9/11 Discourses on Terrorism, edited by Malinda S. Smith, 2016)

Ouologuem's disenchanted vision collided directly with Léopold Senghor's concept of négritude and Africanist mystifications. Although Ouolaguem has often been 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 stand in The Healers (1978), in which one of the characters becomes an ally of the colonialists in order to consolidate his power. 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.

"Our eyes drink the brightness of the sun and, overcome, marvel at their tears."  (the opening of Bound to Violence by Yambo Ouologuem, translated by Ralph Manheim)

"Our eyes register the light of dead stars."
(the opening of The Last of the Just by  André Schwartz-Bart, translated by Stephen Becker)

Bound to Violence went on to become a scandal in 1971 when Eric Sellin labelled the novel as a "blueprint" of Le Dernier des Justes. Then The Times Literary Supplement published an article, which brought out that Ouologuem had lifted passages 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.

The charge of plagiarism destroyed Ouologuem's promising literary career. For legal reasons the English publisher of Ouologuem's work was obliged to acknowledge the "use of certain passages" from Greene. At the early stage of the controversy Ouologuem implied, that someone at Éditions du Seuil had made unauthorized changes in the manuscript, removing the quotation marks from the texts he had cited; this remark was mostly ignored. There were also borrowings from the Bible, African Arabic-language chronicles, John D. MacDonald's crime novel Les Énergumènes (The End of the Night), and the satirical French newspaper Le Canard enchaîné discovered some lines from Guy de Maupassant's famous short story 'Boule de suif.' André Schwarz-Bart wrote in a letter to his editor at Seuil, reassuring that he was not offended: "I am in no way worried by the use that has been made of Le Dernier des Justes . . . I have always looked on my books as appletrees, happy that my apples be eaten and happy if now and again one is taken and planted in different soil." (Repetition, Resistance, and Renewal: Postmodern and Postcolonial Narrative Strategies in Selected Francophone African Novels by Aiah K. Ndomaina, 1998, pp. 94-95) 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]." (Conversations With Chinua Achebe, ed. Bernth Lindfors, 1997, p. 135) The Nobel writer Wole Soyinka attacked the author because of his portrayal of homoerotic tenderness ("How ironic that the novel's only episode of consciously rendered affectionate relationship should be homosexual, and yet how appropriate to Ouologuem's misantrophic vision! It raises questions, certainly.") 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, p. 103)

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 spreads 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" was negative. Ouologuem once said that "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 governments everywhere." (Sorcery, Totem, and Jihad in African Philosophy by Christopher Wise, 2017, p. 151)

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. For African writers he elaborated a plan to mass-produce best-selling mystery novels. 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.

Ouologuem led a secluded life in the Sahel, devoting himself to religion. He refused to give interviews. Sometimes, following ancient beliefs, he 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 was also 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 certainly not an Islamic militant in the same sense as Iyad Ag Ghali and his followers." (Sorcery, Totem, and Jihad in African Philosophy by Christopher Wise, 2017, p. 68) 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. Ouologuem died on 14 October, 2017, in Sévaré.

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) / The Duty of Violence (translated by Christopher Wise, in The Yambo Ouologuem Reader, 2008)
  • Lettre à la France nègre, 1969 - A Black Ghostwriter's Letter to France (translated by Christopher Wise, in The Yambo Ouologuem Reader, 2008)
  • Les Milles et un bibles du sexe, 1969 (as Utto Rodolph) - A Thousand and One Bibles of Sex (translated by Christopher Wise, in The Yambo Ouologuem Reader, 2008)
  • Terres du Soleil, 1971 (with others)
  • The Yambo Ouologuem Reader, 2008 (translated and edited by Christopher Wise)

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