Yambo Ouologuem Critical Essays

Introduction

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.”