Yambo Ouologuem Essay - Critical Essays

Ouologuem, Yambo


Yambo Ouologuem 1940-

(Has also written under the pseudonym Utto Rodolph) Malian novelist and essayist.

The following entry provides an overview of Ouologuem's career through 1992.

Ouologuem is considered one of the preeminent postcolonial African authors, although much his career has been marked by controversy. His debut novel, Le Devoir de violence (1968; Bound to Violence), which focuses on the violent history of a fictional African empire, received the prestigious Prix Renaudot award. However, after the novel's publication, a group of critics attacked Ouologuem, accusing him of plagiarism. Many differing opinions exist regarding Le Devoir de violence's “borrowing” of material from authors such as Graham Greene and Guy de Maupassant. Ouologuem's supporters find his use of others' text an example of an African writer asserting his identity in the continent's postcolonial society. His detractors see the supposed “borrowing” as blatant theft. Nonetheless, Ouologuem's prose has earned him a reputation as an unflinching commentator on the state of African nations, one who vividly uses depictions of violence and rape to discredit other writers' idealistic portrayals of a carefree precolonial Africa.

Biographical Information

Ouologuem was born in 1940 in Dogon County, in the French Sudan (now Mali), the descendant of a ruling Malian family. He received his primary education in Mali and became fluent in many languages, including French, English, Spanish, and numerous African languages. In 1964 he traveled to France to continue his education. He earned degrees in literature, English, and philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure. He briefly taught at the Lycée de Charenton in Paris before working toward his doctorate in sociology. Ouologuem's literary career began in Paris with the publishing of his first and best-known work, the novel Le Devoir de violence in 1968. Shortly thereafter, he published a volume of biting essays entitled Lettre à la France nègre (1969) and an erotic novel, Les Milles et un bibles du sexe (1969), which was published under the pseudonym of Utto Rodolph. Ouologuem returned to Mali in the late 1970s to work as a director of a youth center near Mopti, a town on the Niger river. Ouologuem has also written and edited a series of children's textbooks. He divides his time between France and West Africa.

Major Works

Ouologuem achieved both fame and notoriety with the publishing of Le Devoir de violence. The novel centers around the fictional history of the Saif Dynasty of the Empire of Nakem from 1202 to 1947. The Saifs are treacherous and violent rulers. Their brutal actions toward women and commoners (who are referred to in the novel as nègraille, a term translated alternately as “black rabble” and “niggertrash”) are made possible by the power they hold. Le Devoir de violence opens with a description of the black African brutality perpetrated against the nègraille and later shows Islamic and Judeo-Christian oppression over the entire black African culture. The work ends with a portrayal of French colonial disdain and domination of Africa. Ouologuem concludes that the crimes of these ruling forces created the “slave mentality” of black Africans. He contends that Africans have inherited a legacy of violence, to which their response is to perpetuate the violence, either against themselves or others. In Le Devoir de violence, Ouologuem repeatedly addresses the definition of the term négritude, which refers to exhibiting pride in the cultural and physical aspects of being African, and he attempts to dissolve the misconception that Africans lived a peaceful, idyllic life before the arrival of the colonial powers. In 1969 Ouologuem published Lettre à la France nègre, a collection of scathing essays that protest the cultural and racial attitudes of French colonialism. Later that same year, Ouologuem's second novel, Les Milles et un bibles du sexe, was published under the pseudonym Utto Rodolph. The novel tells the tale of erotic adventures undertaken by four French nationals, primarily occurring both in France and in Africa. Ouologuem depicts the sexual interludes in France as forced and unnatural, yet when the group travels to Africa, the land itself is so full of sensuality that the erotic escapades become more natural and organic.

Critical Reception

Although Lettre à la France nègre and Les Milles et un bibles du sexe have received scant critical attention, there has been widespread—and sharply divided—critical response to Le Devoir de violence. When first released, it was met with resounding praise for its originality in some circles, while in others the novel's bitter pessimism and violent portrayal of Africa's history provoked anger. Once the initial excitement over Le Devoir began to subside, Ouologuem was charged with plagiarism by critics citing examples of “borrowed” text in the novel. Ouologuem defended his use of these passages by claiming that he had openly admitted the use of the text in interviews and, before publication, the “borrowed” text was placed inside quotation marks. He claimed that the marks were removed without his knowledge by the editor. Commentators have had mixed reactions to this revelation. Some maintain that his explanation sounds too facile, and still believe that he plagiarized text from Graham Greene, André Schwarz-Bart, and several other well-known authors. Other reviewers find that, given the history of the colonization of Africa and the fact that the novel is not a traditional African literary form, it stands to reason that African writers will absorb aspects (both literary and cultural) from the colonial powers that they have come in contact with. Eric Sellin explained: “The Ouologuem affair is a tragic byproduct of the culture conflict inherent in hybrid literatures which adopt the lingua of another country but maintain their own ontology. … In one sense, the tragedy of the Ouologuem affair lies to an equal degree in the European tradition of ownership and the quest for private immortality which would cause Mr. Greene or Western critics to care if Ouologuem has borrowed patterns and words from the British novelist. From the puristic traditional African viewpoint, to so borrow is no more spurious than to write a letter using a published book of examples as a guide or than it was for the poets of the Pléiade to use classical authors' texts for material when concocting a commissioned poem. The conflict is aggravated in the case of Le Devoir de violence—obviously not at all due to Ouologuem's intervention—because the book turned out to be highly successful, winning a prize which guaranteed enormous sales.”

Principal Works

Le Devoir de violence [translated as Bound to Violence, 1971] (novel) 1968

Les Milles et un bibles du sexe [as Utto Rodolph] (novel) 1969

Lettre à la France nègre (essays) 1969


James Olney (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: “Pornography, Philosophy, and African History,” in Tell Me Africa: An Approach to African Literature, Princeton University Press, 1973, pp. 204-47.

[In the following essay, Olney analyzes the perceptions of “blackness” and “négritude” in the works of Camara Laye, Cheikh Hamidou Kane, and Yambo Ouologuem.]

They order this matter differently in Francophone Africa. Whether one judges that they order it better, as Laurence Sterne declares is the case in France herself, or order it worse, will depend no doubt on the observer's sensibilities; that they order it differently, however, is beyond dispute. The fiction that borders on sociology and...

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Eric Sellin (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “The Unknown Voice of Yambo Ouologuem,” in Yale French Studies, Vol. 53, 1976, pp. 137-62.

[In the following essay, Sellin gives details concerning the accusations of plagiarism against Ouologuem for Le Devoir de violence and the aftereffects of these charges.]

“Un témoignage et une voix inconnus.”

(Le Monde)

In 1968 Editions du Seuil, which has over the years published an impressive list of works in French by African and Maghrebine authors, brought out a first novel, Le Devoir de violence, by Yambo Ouologuem.1 Ouologuem was born in Mali in 1940 and...

(The entire section is 9886 words.)

A. E. Ohaegbu (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: “An Approach to Ouologuem's Le Devoir de violence,” in African Literature Today: 10 Retrospect & Prospect, Africana Publishing Company, 1979, pp. 124- 33.

[In the following essay, Ohaegbu examines Ouologuem's use of violence to show different aspects of human nature.]

A lot has been said about the controversial Malian writer Yambo Ouologuem, and his novel Le Devoir de Violence translated in English as Bound to Violence.1 But much of the argument tends more to generate heat than to shed light on the author's literary intentions and his vision of the world.

There is no doubt that Ouologuem's book is one of...

(The entire section is 4073 words.)

Lemuel A. Johnson (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: “The Middle Passage in African Literature: Wole Soyinka, Yambo Ouologuem, Ayi Kwei Armah,” in African Literature Today: 11 Myth & History, Africana Publishing Company, 1980, pp. 62-84.

[In the following essay, Johnson examines the use of the Middle Passage (a term describing the grueling voyage between West Africa and the Caribbean that slaves were forced to endure), literally and figuratively, as the focus of novels by Wole Soyinka, Ayi Kwei Armah, and Ouologuem.]


The Middle Passage in literature is, at bottom, a metaphor for displacement and exile. Predictably, the historical trauma of the slave trade generates...

(The entire section is 8735 words.)

Rosemary G. Schikora (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: “Outfoxing the Fox: Game Strategy in Le Devoir de violence,” in Perspectives on Contemporary Literature, Vol. 6, 1980, pp. 72-79.

[In the following essay, Schikora analyzes aspects of various games and challenges in correlation to Ouologuem's Le Devoir de violence.]

When Ouologuem's Le Devoir de violence appeared in 1968, it was enthusiastically received by those who had been awaiting with some impatience the first “authentically African” novel.1 (It was subsequently awarded the coveted Prix Renaudot.) This fascinating and controversial novel offers solid evidence on several levels of game strategy at play, both in the overall...

(The entire section is 3597 words.)

Christopher L. Miller (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “Dis-figuring Narrative: Plagiarism and Dismemberment in Yambo Ouologuem's Le Devoir de violence,” in Blank Darkness, University of Chicago Press, 1985, pp. 216-45.

[In the following essay, Miller examines Le Devoir de violence with respect to the charges of plagiarism.]

At its extreme, the myth of the Negro, the idea of the Negro, can become the decisive factor of an authentic alienation.

—Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks


Time can become constitutive only when the bond with the...

(The entire section is 12404 words.)

George Lang (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “Text, Identity, and Difference: Yambo Ouologuem's Le Devoir de violence and Ayi Kwei Armah's Two Thousand Seasons,” in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 24, No. 4, 1987, pp. 387-402.

[In the following essay, Lang compares Ouologuem's Le Devoir de violence and Ayi Kwei Armah's Two Thousand Seasons, arguing that Armah's book appears to be a rebuttal to the violence and negativity found in Le Devoir de violence.]

Elective or not, the affinity between Ouologuem's Le Devoir de violence and Armah's Two Thousand Seasons has struck various critics, as has their common ancestry with André Schwarz-Bart's Le Dernier...

(The entire section is 6452 words.)

Derek Wright (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “Orality in the African Historical Novel: Yambo Ouologuem's Bound to Violence and Ayi Kwei Armah's Two Thousand Seasons,” in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XXIII, No. 1, 1988, pp. 91-101.

[In the following comparative essay, Wright examines the use of oral history and mythology in Bound to Violence and Ayi Kwei Armah's Two Thousand Seasons.]

The transmutation of oral literary forms into written ones is an uncertain and unpredictable process, and the survival of the styles and narrative techniques of the oral story-teller into the modern African novel is an especially haphazard affair. The graphic hyperbole of the traditional...

(The entire section is 4770 words.)

Robert Philipson (essay date Winter 1989)

SOURCE: “Chess and Sex in Le Devoir de violence,” in Callaloo, Vol. 12, No. 1, Winter, 1989, pp. 216-32.

[In the following essay, Philipson studies the parallels between Le Devoir de violence and the game of chess.]

“It's a great huge game of chess that's being played—all over the world—if this is the world at all, you know.”

—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

autobiography—Chess for me has always connoted the invincibility of the father. When I was little, my father taught me chess, and we played often....

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J. A. Nicholls (essay date May-August 1991)

SOURCE: “Towards a Camusian Reading of Le Devoir de violence,” in Australian Journal of French Studies, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, May-August, 1991, pp. 211-19.

[In the following essay, Nicholls explores the historical aspects of Le Devoir de violence, and likens Ouologuem's writing approach to that of Albert Camus.]

It was to be hoped1 that the views expressed by, amongst others, John Erickson2 and Aliko Songolo3 might have allowed the charges of plagiarism to be dropped and have encouraged Le Seuil to reprint Le Devoir de violence; but the 1968 Prix Renaudot remains unavailable in its original form. This is to...

(The entire section is 4400 words.)

Edna Aizenberg (essay date October 1992)

SOURCE: “Historical Subversion and Violence of Representation in García Márquez and Ouologuem,” in Publications of the Modern Language Association, Vol. 107, No. 5, October, 1992, pp. 1235-52.

[In the following essay, Aizenberg addresses the differences between actual history and common beliefs, and discusses the concept of embellished history in historical novels by Gabriel García Márquez and Ouologuem.]

The rediscovery of history—a recent literary-critical event associated with new historicism, the engagement of the text with the world, and the postmodernist presence of the past—marks a negative response to the older ahistorical, if not antihistorical,...

(The entire section is 11722 words.)

Donald R. Wehrs (essay date December 1992)

SOURCE: “Colonialism, Polyvocality, and Islam in L'aventure ambiguë and Le Devoir de violence,” in MLN, Vol. 107, No. 5, December, 1992, pp. 1000-27.

[In the following essay, Wehrs analyzes the many voices of postcolonial Africa contained in Cheikh Hamidou Kane's L'aventure ambiguë and Ouologuem's Le Devoir de violence.]

Much African fiction, such as Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958), presents Western colonialism as the means by which an hegemonic, monological culture of imperialism displaces traditional cultures characterized by religions and rituals that recognize through polytheism a plurality of truths, or forces, or...

(The entire section is 11632 words.)

Further Reading


Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?” Critical Inquiry 17, No. 3 (Winter 1991): 336-57.

Appiah defines the term “postmodernism” and analyzes postcolonial African artists in regard to this definition.

Dunton, Chris. “‘Wheyting Be Dat?’ The Treatment of Homosexuality in African Literature.” Research in African Literatures 20, No. 3 (Fall 1989): 422-48.

Dunton explores the use of homosexual characters as narrative tools in African literature.

Fatunde, Tunde. “Images of Working People in Two African Novels: Ouologuem and...

(The entire section is 689 words.)