Yambo Ouologuem

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James Olney (essay date 1973)

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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 anthropology, the novel that describes for us a people, their traditions and their culture, and recreates the traditional, coherent community for us in representative figures—as Chinua Achebe does for the Ibo and James Ngugi for the Gikuyu, even as Ezekiel Mphahlele does for the alienated and exiled South African, though it would be contradictory to call this last a traditional or coherent group—these ethnographic portraits in prose scarcely exist in the literature produced by African writers in French. Things Fall Apart, as Davidson Nicol rightly points out, is very specifically oriented and ethnically focussed: Achebe's first novel, he says, is interesting to European readers “because of what is to them its setting in a classic rural African society; but to an African reader the setting does not present itself as African, but specifically, as Ibo.”1 One need not, as Nicol seems to imply, be African to observe that it is crucially important for an understanding of Achebe's fiction to recall that he is Ibo, and the same goes for the “Gikuyuness” of James Ngugi's novels; if we forget that Mphahlele is a déraciné from urban South Africa, neither Down Second Avenue nor The Wanderers will have much meaning at all for us. But it is of comparatively little consequence that Camara Laye is Malinké or that he is from Guinée, that Yambo Ouologuem is Dogon or that he is from Mali, that Cheikh Hamidou Kane is Peul or that he is from Sénégal. The fact and significance of blackness, with all the reverberations that literal and symbolic condition has produced in history, psychology, philosophy, religion, and literature, is of infinitely greater moment in reading the fiction of Camara Laye, Yambo Ouologuem, and Cheikh Hamidou Kane than either specific ethnic culture or nationality. Not that these three writers perceive the same significance in blackness, for indeed they do not; but they all concentrate their search for meaning on the question of what it is to be black, or what it is to be African, both in history and in the present, both in Africa and in Europe, rather than on such questions as what it is to be Ibo or Nigerian, what it is to be Gikuyu or Kenyan, what it is to be a forced wanderer from South Africa.

One should hasten to say, however, that by “the fact and significance of blackness” one does not intend quite the same thing as “négritude.” It has become almost a cliché in the criticism of African literature to observe that writers in French adhere to the doctrine of négritude as an aesthetic principle and that writers in English, from Wole Soyinka to Chinua Achebe to Ezekiel Mphahlele, reject négritude as being in no way a valid criterion for judging literature. Achebe, for example, expressed succinctly the typical negative response to négritude of African writers in English, and incidentally drew the line in linguistic terms, when he declared (in an interview published, ironically, in French) that for him as a writer...

(This entire section contains 15140 words.)

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the doctrine was simply meaningless: “Je suis contre les slogans. Je ne pense pas que, par exemple, la ‘négritude’ ait un sens quelconque. Le panafricanisme? Peut-être. La négritude, non. Je ne peux pas comprendre pourquoi un grand nombre d'écrivains africains, d'expression française notamment, ont une telle nostalgie pour le passé.”2 Achebe's remark is not difficult to understand—négritude has, for the most part, been proclaimed by writers in French and not by writers in English—but the contrast between French and English writing from Africa goes much deeper than an adherence to or a denial of négritude, or it is centered elsewhere. Achebe's last remark, however, may point the way, at least through a back door, to formulating the real distinctions between the two bodies of literature. It is obviously fair comment to say that Camara Laye, especially in L'enfant noir, exhibits a nostalgia for the past. But Achebe's own Arrow of God and Things Fall Apart, as I have suggested earlier, are not entirely free of some nostalgia for the past, tempered though it may be by a hint of flaws in the old society. And again, in fiction in French, no one would suggest that Yambo Ouologuem displays any nostalgia for the past, or for anything else, in Le Devoir de violence: “This novel,” according to the Cameroonian writer Simon Mpondo, “more than anything ever written, marks … the end of Negritude's rosy image of ancestral Africa. …”3 So novelists from Francophone Africa do not necessarily or invariably resemble one another in declaring for négritude or in yearning for the past, not at this late date anyway, nor can they always be distinguished from their Anglophone counterparts on bases of négritude and nostalgia. Yet there are important ways in which Yambo Ouologuem's writing resembles Camara Laye's but differs from Chinua Achebe's, and ways in which Cheikh Hamidou Kane's L'aventure ambiguë relates to Le Devoir de violence and Le regard du roi but contrasts with Things Fall Apart and Weep Not, Child and The Wanderers.

To put the contrast in rather stark and exaggerated terms, the novel from French West Africa tends to be abstract and philosophic in its thought, yet concrete and sensuous in its apprehension of the world and in its expression. The West African novel in English, on the other hand, most often comes down midway between these poles of abstraction and sensuousness to discover its subject and its mode not in any philosophical dialectics but in social structures and social conflicts. As a description of their apprehension and presentation of reality, it would be legitimate to call Le regard du roi,L'aventure ambiguë, and Le Devoir de violence “philosophical” novels, but it is very near impossible to think of a single African novel in English, whether from West Africa, East Africa, or South Africa, for which “philosophical” would be an appropriate adjective. Likewise, no Anglophone fiction expresses itself in the highly colored prose of African fiction in French—the deliberately repulsive images and revolting language of, for example, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (by the Ghanaian Ayi Kwei Armah) not being at all the sort of thing one has in mind in describing the vision and the expression of Camara Laye, Cheikh Hamidou Kane, and Yambo Ouologuem as highly sensuous. This philosophic-sensory mode issues often in a variety of mysticism—very unlike anything in the hardheaded, realistic, social fiction of African writers in English—and it produces something that one might call the “symbolic” novel as opposed to the “representative” novel written by, say, Achebe. The range of reference or the scope of significance in the three specified novels in French is continental; it is simply African—i. e., pan-African—as against the limited cultural reference (Ibo and ex-British colony) in Things Fall Apart or No Longer at Ease. The characters and events of French West African literature symbolize experience that is virtually universal in occurrence, at least in the perspective of the writer within Africa; the characters and events of English West African literature, on the other hand, represent something ethnically limited and geographically and politically restricted.

The best current example of all these tendencies in French fiction from West Africa, and a very brilliant novel besides, is Yambo Ouologuem's Le Devoir de violence (called, in the excellent translation by Ralph Manheim, Bound to Violence).4 Though any philosophy that Ouologuem might profess would no doubt be quite different from Camara Laye's or Cheikh Hamidou Kane's philosophy, yet their novels are all philosophical in the same sense, and though their varieties of mysticism differ (Camara Laye is a nature mystic, Kane a religious mystic, and Ouologuem a sensual mystic), yet they are all, more or less, mystics. “My novel is not traditional,” Ouologuem has said, “and, although it is based in fact and history, it is not autobiographical.”5 In Bound to Violence, as also in his intensely ironic Lettre à la France nègre, Ouologuem still is concerned, as any writer of négritude literature might be, with his own and his ancestral past—indeed, he is very profoundly concerned with it—but he is far too subtle and complex, not to say too ironic and scornful, to accept, as a sufficient relation to that past, the cultural narcissism offered up by what he calls “les concierges de la négritude.”6 It is true, as Ouologuem says, that his book is not, in any strict sense, “autobiographical”: its details are not drawn from nor do they relate only to the author's own life or his private experience. But in another and larger sense, the book might be said to have in it certain autobiographical elements and intentions: it performs an act of symbolic autobiography not, like Achebe, for a specific group of Africans, whether that group be Ibo or Dogon, but for black Africans in general. “My aim,” Ouologuem told a correspondent from West Africa, “is to do violence to the misconceptions of Africans so that we can realise what the real problems are. This is our ‘duty of violence.’”7 Elsewhere, he refers to “I'image d'une Afrique par trop déformée par ses chantres et ses littérateurs” (Lettre, p. 190), and it is precisely this grossly distorted image of Africa and Africans that Ouologuem would destroy, replacing it with a valid portrait based on a revision of history and a redefinition of personality, a redrawing of the African image. Thus Le Devoir de violence represents, it seems to me, something that one might take, in a figurative sense, for a reconstituted and epic autobiography of Africa and her people.

History, which plays the same role in the autobiography of a continent as memory does in the autobiography of an individual, is vitally important to Ouologuem's effort. What he sets about doing, primarily in Devoir de violence but also in the journalistic-essayistic-satiric mishmash that he calls Lettre à la France nègre, is to revise, essentially and radically, the history of black Africa. “And if you thought that the end of colonialism was the end of the agony, then it is time to wake up,” Ezekiel Mphahlele told the participants in the Dakar Conference in 1963.8 To the sentimentalized history of Africa written by négritude historians (African or European), fitted out with the stock characters of the good black man in his primal African paradise and the bad white man who came like Satan to destroy and enslave, both Mphahlele and Ouologuem say “No,” because psychologically that image is too simple and historically it is, in part if not entirely, false. Not only did the agony of Africans not end with the end of colonialism, according to Ouologuem, but it also had its beginning long, long before the advent of Europeans in Africa. “Voilà,” Ouologuem says, after the Congo and Biafra, “soudain que l'on ne peut plus prétendre devoir cultiver les champs fleuris de l'Afrique gentillette et heureuse, baptisée dans le bonheur idyllique avant l'arrivée de l'Homme blanc …” (Lettre, p. 190). In Ouologuem's reading of history, there were Africans, both the “Notables” and Arabs, who were past masters in inflicting human agony on what Ouologuem, with bitter irony, chooses to call the “négraille” (“niggertrash”) long before the “Flençèssi” (the French) came, with their ridiculous name and their delusions of power, to exercise their particular but, in comparison with the Saifs, inexpert and “humane” brand of agony. And far from having been baptised in idyllic happiness, the continent, like its population, had been “baptisé dans le supplice: baptised in torture.”9 Though he aims at doing violence to a false image by way of writing an accurate history of black Africa, Ouologuem has no intention, of course, of simply standing the old image on its head—that would be as distorted as the first view that gives all evil to the European, all good to the African. Ouologuem, it is true, finds a great plenty of evil for the white man, but he is too generous with that commodity to deny the black man his share in evil as well; he is more even-handed than either négritude historians or colonial apologists in distributing vices among Africans and Europeans. One might quote the remark that Ouologuem uses as an epigraph to Chapter III of Les Milles et une bibles du sexe—“Qu'est-ce le vice? Un goût qu'on ne partage pas.”—10 and suggest that in his view, a rather cynical one, this would apply to hypocritical African shock before European vices as well as to European horror at so-called African savagery. But that each world has its own vices might well imply that each has its characteristic virtues too.

Again in an ironic tone and cynical voice, Ouologuem, in his Lettre à la France nègre, suggests the probable motive lying behind what he considers the fantasies of négritude; at the same time, he hints at what he intends in Bound to Violence and what there might be of a positive nature in African history to fill out the largely negative achievement of that novel. “Si la négritude, cependant, vaut toujours parce qu'elle est un cadre auquel il reste encore à donner meilleur contenu, ce contenu ne saurait être que s'il n'érige pas des autels et des statues à cent mythes, qui ne répondent et n'ont jamais correspondu à quoi que ce soit de vivant en Afrique: foire aux chimères où s'est exaltée l'imagination de plus d'un marchand d'idéologie, échaffaudant mille impostures dont le mérite—peut-être—est de rassurer, à la Bourse des valeurs de la primitivité, tous les petits rentiers de la tragi-comédie …” (p. 191).

So the concept of “Negrohood” (as it is called in one of Senghor's many statements on the subject) may, after all, be worth something, but only if a new painting is fitted to the frame of négritude, only if it is redefined, only if the history of black Africa is rewritten and the personality of the black African redrawn. Ouologuem has a new picture to put in the frame, of course, a picture he calls Le Devoir de violence, which would not only deprive the addict of old-style négritude of many of his most cherished illusions, but would also lower the stock-exchange value of the hoked-up primitive arts produced by the happy and noble savage, that phantom that issues from the heated and sentimental imagination of “journalistes, sociologues, ethnologues, africanistes, littérateurs et négrophiles ‘spécialisés,’” all of whom have a vested interest in maintaining the image of the simple, noble primitive that they themselves have created and that they sell on the various world markets: “mi y'a bon, banania, mi Platon petit nègre,” Ouologuem says, with bitterness, of this fantasy creature.11

For the most part, Ouologuem's historical revisionism is carried out with a kind of violent and grotesque good humor, but even so, insanely comic as it sometimes is, what Ouologuem does is largely a negative thing, a mad, antic dance performed on the grave of négritude, and the conclusion to which he comes is pervasively pessimistic and melancholy. “He admits,” according to the interviewer in West Africa (p. 1475), “that his novel is negative since it provides no solution to the problems posed. …” As a satirist—and satire is a very large part of his intention—Ouologuem is an unyieldingly aggressive and destructive artist, attacking and ridiculing, not creating and defending. The satirist's art, as Ouologuem practices it, neither offers solutions of its own nor proposes answers; instead it exposes problems and opposes the too facile solutions of others. What is positive in Devoir de violence comes only as an implication, sometimes only as an implication from an implication—which, for the unwary reader, can be a very dangerous exercise in fixing an author's attitude or discovering his meaning. The tone of Devoir de violence—and of Lettre à la France nègre and Les Milles et une bibles du sexe, for that matter—is so consistently and impenetrably ironic, so much a matter of personæ assumed, shifted, and transformed, that the reader almost never knows if he has Ouologuem or if he has simply another leering, grimacing mask hiding whatever (if anything) lies behind it. There are, however, two aspects of Bound to Violence that have an implicit positiveness about them and there is, further, an implication, necessarily tenuous and elusive, that one might draw from these two implied positives: first, there is the terrific and compressed energy with which Ouologuem accomplishes his destruction; and, second, there is the texture of Ouologuem's extraordinary and brilliant prose. Both these relate more to the manner of the book than to its matter, and to draw conclusions about the author's positive beliefs, his ideas, his philosophy, from aspects of his stylistic manner can be, as I have suggested, rather dangerous—especially as Ouologuem frequently writes in styles that are confessedly borrowed: the style of the griots, of the Arab historians, and of the traditional tales of family and clan (not to mention the style of Graham Greene). Be that as it may, I think that Ouologuem's use of language—an extremely rich, colorful, intense, and sensorily heightened vehicle for whatever his vision may be—implies a good deal about what he takes to be the deepest reality of Africa as “an immense body in quest of its identity” (Bound to Violence, p. 167), or what he understands as the essential nature of Africa as a spiritual-sensory experience. In the experience of Ouologuem's Africa, spirit and senses are inextricably joined, as they are also in the language that he uses to render that experience. It is here, in this linguistically implied vision of what Africanness is and what likewise the experience of Africa is—a unified mode of being—that Ouologuem turns most clearly away from African writers in English, from Chinua Achebe and Ezekiel Mphahlele, and approaches writers whom in other ways he hardly resembles at all: Cheikh Hamidou Kane and Camara Laye.

If one omits his remark about “tendresse” (though in context it is a legitimate observation), what Robert Pageard has to say about L'aventure ambiguë and Le regard du roi applies also to Bound to Violence and makes of them a novelistic trio characteristic of West African literature in French: “L'audace de la langue, le symbolisme, le glissement vers le fantastique, une tendresse tout à fait contraire aux tendances européennes actuelles, apparentent L'aventure ambiguë au Regard du roi de Laye Camara.”12 If we were to change that “tendresse”—for Ouologuem only—to eroticism or sensuality, then we would have an adequate description of Bound to Violence, which, like the other two novels, mediates, by means of symbolism, between the poles of philosophic abstraction and sensory experience. Ambiguous Adventure, for which the reader hardly requires an introductory note to recognize that there is an “autobiographical savour”13 about it, tells the story of Samba Diallo, educated in a traditional Islamic school, then in a French school in Africa, and finally in Paris, until, drawn apart by the diverse philosophies of Islamic Africa and Christian Europe, he feels that he has lost that unity of being which he enjoyed when he was able to concentrate his existence entirely in his religious belief. The autobiographical element in Ambiguous Adventure has little to do with the traditional customs and the ceremonial observances of a social group (as in Achebe and Ngugi). Here the autobiography is of the mind and the spirit, of thoughts and beliefs and attitudes; it is a philosophical autobiography, and the characters represent various philosophic possibilities and influences. Samba Diallo, when he talks of his study of philosophy in France, refers to it as an “adventure” and thinks of that adventure as dangerous: “It may be that we shall be captured at the end of our itinerary, vanquished by our adventure itself” (p. 104). Indeed, he suggests that he may well have chosen philosophy as a subject because of its dangerousness. For Samba Diallo, as for his creator, it is not material prosperity or technical learning or women or anything so gross that seduces the African to lose his identity to Europe. The real enemy is a foreign philosophy, attractive, seductive, beguiling: sinuous lines of thought and chains of pure logic, intimate intercourse of abstract ideas and the copulation of disembodied concepts. This separation of thought from total being, or transformation of being into abstract, acting and interacting ideas, is a dangerous game, as Samba Diallo's fate demonstrates, for one whose being has heretofore been entirely absorbed in his belief. Before going to France, under the influence of his father and the guidance of his Islamic teacher, Samba Diallo participated in a union, not of abstractions in the head, but of full being with divine spirit—a mystic union, identity of the believer and his belief, the worshipper and his worship.

Though Samba Diallo may succumb to the wiles of Western abstraction so that he ends up, in his person as in his philosophic practice, an example of Cartesian dualism, divided in being and ambiguous in will, his creator, as author of the novel, does not follow him. Kane says, among other things, that the implicit philosophic assumptions of Africa and France are very different and that, in the case of Samba Diallo anyway, it is not possible to reconcile them. Yet Ambiguous Adventure, as a dramatization of contrasting philosophies, as an embodiment of differing attitudes, as an autobiographical fiction, does include, comprehend, and reconcile the opposed assumptions. It is a novel based on ideas, in the abstract manner of France and the West, but it is also, simultaneously, a novel that dramatizes what Kane indicates is a peculiarly African—specifically Islamic African—philosophy. Perhaps one should simply observe that it proves possible for the artist to reconcile the conflicting assumptions in a way that would not be possible for any man in life.

This reconciliation within the frame of the art work is effected, for example, at the beginning of Chapter Seven when the Frenchman, Paul Lacroix, and Samba Diallo's father, “the knight,” watch a typically African sunset—which may or may not also signify the end of the world. “On the horizon, it seemed as if the earth were poised on the edge of an abyss. Above the abyss the sun was suspended, dangerously. The liquid silver of its heat had been reabsorbed, without any loss of its light's splendor. Only, the air was tinted with red, and under this illumination the little town seemed suddenly to belong to a strange planet” (p. 68). The Frenchman is frightened by this “cosmic drama being played out outside” because it seems to him a portent “that we are closer to the end of the world than we are to nightfall” (pp. 68–69), and he is incapable of believing in the apocalypse: he can imagine the end of the world only as an atomic blast, as some horrible, human-produced accident, not as the culmination and climax of human-divine spiritual intercourse, a consummation, the knight suggests, devoutly to be wished. But as to the atomic blast, the knight says, “Our most simple-minded peasant does not believe in such an end as that, episodic and accidental. His universe does not admit of accident. In spite of appearances, his concept is more reassuring than yours” (p. 69). The two men, living embodiments of opposed philosophies—the abstract, mental, materialistic Westerner who sees history as chance and accident versus the unified sensory-spiritual African, with his immediate knowledge of being, who sees history as providence and as a movement toward a fated end—continue their characteristically intellectual dialogue (characteristic of fiction from French West Africa), reflecting in everything they say what they are and what they mean. “Then from the bottom of my heart,” the knight tells Lacroix, for whom, as a spiritually underdeveloped person, he feels more pity than anything else, “I wish for you to rediscover the feeling of anguish in the face of the dying sun. I ardently wish that for the West. When the sun dies, no scientific certainty should keep us from weeping for it, no rational evidence should keep us from asking that it be reborn. You are slowly dying under the weight of evidence. I wish you that anguish—like a resurrection” (p. 71). Like two symbolic men, which is what they are, the African and the European conclude their dialogue with the end of the day, or the end of the world, or both. “There was a moment of silence. Outside, the vesperal drama had come to an end. The sun had set. Behind it, an imposing mass of bright red cloud had come crumbling down like a monstrous stream of clotted blood. The red splendor of the air had been progressively softened under the impact of the slow invasion of the evening shade” (pp. 71–72).

This mingling of intense intellectuality with brilliant, exotic sensuousness, or this deployment of sensuous effects to an intellectual end, would be hard to match in any novel in English from Africa, but in Ouologuem's writing, where the sensuousness takes an erotic-pornographic turn as against Kane's religious-natural inclination, one finds a similar prose expressing, in one sense, a similar sensibility. Nor is the apocalyptic sunset an isolated passage. It is appropriate, given the philosophic mode of Kane's novel, that at the end, after “the fool” has stabbed Samba Diallo and he is dying, the reader should be reminded of a European philosopher who was surpassingly intellectual (and later on inclined to the mystical) but who had no touch with Africa: Ludwig Wittgenstein. It is appropriate because Kane's great triumph is to combine Western abstraction with African mysticism. “So too at death,” Wittgenstein says, “the world does not alter, but comes to an end.” And, in a dependent corollary to that observation: “If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in just the way our visual field has no limits.”14 In the subjectively apocalyptic end to his life, a parallel to the sun dying and the day ending, Samba Diallo rejoins abstract thought to sensuous feeling, concentrating his entire being in the moment and on the divine, to achieve again the mystic union from which, in France, he had fallen away into ambiguity. At the moment of his death, when the world ends and time is replaced by the eternity of the present, two voices speak in dialogue, one of them Samba Diallo's consciousness, the other apparently the voice of universal consciousness:

“But it returns to you. Toward whatever side you turn, it is your own countenance that you see, nothing but that. You alone fill the closed circle. You are king. …”

“I am two simultaneous voices. One draws back and the other increases. I am alone. The river is rising. I am in its overflow. … Where are you? Who are you?”

“You are entering the place where there is no ambiguity. Be attentive, for here, now, you are arriving. You are arriving.”

“Hail! I have found again the taste of my mother's milk; my brother who has dwelt in the land of the shadows and of peace, I recognize you. Announcer of the end of exile, I salute you.”

“I am bringing your kingdom back to you. Behold the moment, over which you reign.”

(pp. 163–65)

The last lines of the novel are given over to the two voices, blended now, however, into one, as Samba Diallo's consciousness merges with universal consciousness; and that end of the world, foreseen, anticipated, and desirable, yet unknown and dreaded, that the knight spoke of to Lacroix and that Samba Diallo himself has long contemplated and with which he has been rather more than half in love, is finally achieved. Kane says at one point (p. 47) that “the profound truth” of his story “is wholly sad”; rather than contradict him with the observation that it has a happy ending, it would perhaps be safer to say that the ending is triumphant and simply, entirely mystical.

“The moment is the bed of the river of my thought. The pulsations of the moments have the pulsations of thought; the breath of thought glides into the blow-pipe of the moment. In the sea of time, the moment bears the image of the profile of man. … In the fortress of the moment, man in truth is king, for his thought is all-powerful, when it is. Where it has passed, the pure azure crystallizes in forms. Life of the moment, life without age of the moment which endures, in the flight of your élan man creates himself indefinitely. At the heart of the moment, behold man as immortal, for the moment is made from the absence of time. Life of the moment, life without age of the moment which reigns, in the luminous arena of your duration man unfurls himself to infinity. The sea! Here is the sea! Hail to you, rediscovered wisdom, my victory! The limpidness of your wave is awaiting my gaze. I fix my eyes upon you, and you harden into Being. I am without limit. Sea, the limpidity of your wave is awaiting my gaze. I fix my eyes upon you, and you glitter, without limit. I wish for you, through all eternity.” (pp. 165–66)

So the subjective world explodes at death, as the philosopher would have it, into merger with objective consciousness.

What this grand, mystic climax recalls in other African literature is, of course—leaving Ouologuem's fiction aside for the moment—the end of Camara Laye's Radiance of the King, where Clarence's individual separateness is conclusively dissolved in the embrace of the child King. Kane in his finale, impressive as it is and though his metaphor of the river flowing into the sea is more conventional than the metaphor of the enfant noir in Radiance of the King, does not quite succeed, as Camara Laye does, in overcoming the obvious problems inherent in an attempt to translate mystical experience into images and language. There remains something of the vague and the inapprehensible in Kane's account of mystical transport, while in Laye's novel the child King is immediate and present, tangible and apprehensible as a symbol of the transcendent and the divine. This condition of being that he symbolizes is hinted at earlier when Clarence, impatiently waiting for the King to arrive at some unspecified time in the future, is advised to call on an old woman named Dioki, who lives with her pet snakes and charms them, and, it is suggested, does some other, less mentionable, things with them as well. When Clarence finally goes to Dioki she refuses to tell him anything about when the King will come, shouting, “I am not the king! I am not the king!” Indeed she is not, but when she throws herself on the ground amidst the hissing serpents an odd thing happens: “They were embracing her, enfolding her: and she—she was crying out. But what sort of embrace was this? Clarence could hardly believe what he saw. These were the passionate convulsions of love itself!” (p. 220). When Clarence looks away from this scene of quasi-bestiality (“quasi” because there is something suspiciously human, not altogether unconnected with Clarence himself, about those serpents), he has a glorious vision of the king, present to him somehow as a consequence of the grossly sensual lovemaking of Dioki and her serpents. Later Clarence feels “strangely shattered, strangely torn” (p. 225), as if he were … or as if he had …, “But the comparison was so unthinkable that Clarence dismissed it at once” (p. 225), and Camara Laye never quite says whether or not the vision of the King's radiance is connected with bestiality, or with voyeurism, or perhaps with a combination of the two. The two boys who brought Clarence to Dioki and then watched him with her are, however, happy to tell him that “We saw the old woman coming towards you. … She put her arms round your shoulders and pressed you against her. She. …” But Clarence, who is not sure whether he has dreamed all this and who prefers not to consider what he, the snakes, and the old woman may have done together, cuts the boys off, and the rest, which is silence, is left to the reader's imagination.

One thing, however, is certain, and that is that in going south (Dioki is of the South), in searching for the King and for the mystical union that he signifies, Clarence must open his senses and surrender them, and through them his spirit, to the lavish, exotic richness of the African forest that presses on him all around; opening himself to sensory experience specifically includes sexuality. “The perfumes, the remains of all those perfumes steal into his lungs,” as he goes southward through the womb-like, suffocating, enervating forest, “like the vapours of a poisonous bloom; they creep even lower, into his belly: and lower still, a burning, glowing, and already far from innocent commotion …” (p. 98), which makes Clarence ask the beggar, his guide, if this is the South, where he anticipates seeing the King. “‘The South is everywhere,’ the beggar said softly” (p. 98). It is indeed everywhere, Clarence finds, including his loins. “Yes, perhaps this inferno of the senses is everywhere. … He dozes; and in spite of himself the perfumes of the forest are working within him, the poisonous bloom is opening slowly … and again the green tunnel of the forest opens and swallows him up. And the sea stretches away, the musty smells of earth and the poisonous smells of flowers roll endlessly towards him, and he feels the unthinkable fire stirring again in his loins …” (pp. 98–99). The insidiously attractive and vaguely exciting, but also overripe and nauseating putrescence of the forest—and of the South—eventually smothers and crushes and splits Clarence's senses wide, making of them open wounds that fear and desire and finally require more and more of the thing that has so satiated them, numbed them, and rubbed them raw.

If taken step by step, the transition by which one passes from the religio-natural mysticism of Cheikh Hamidou Kane to the religio-natural-sexual mysticism of Camara Laye to the natural-erotic-pornographic mysticism of Yambo Ouologuem is very regular and very slight, though, reverting to an earlier matter, the first two writers might be said to subscribe more or less to the notions of négritude, while Ouologuem certainly does not. Differ as they may on négritude, however, there is an undercurrent of agreement, for the most part implicit, unstated, dramatized, among these three writers in French about the peculiar, special nature of the African experience, about how it contrasts with the European or French experience, and about what happens when the two come in contact with one another. In the “Avertissement” to Les Milles et une bibles du sexe, which is a frankly pornographic book (or “érotique” as Ouologuem prefers to call it), having explained how “Utto Rodolph”15 came to him with a manuscript of sex exploits to edit because Rodolph had imagined from reading Devoir de violence that Ouologuem would make an appropriate editor for that sort of material, Ouologuem says he agreed but that this would be his first and last excursion into this kind of literature—a kind of literature that, as practiced in its pure form by Ouologuem, is, in the language of the courts, possessed of little redeeming social value. “Et, si j'ai pris sur moi de présenter Les Mille et une bibles du sexe, c'est également parce que, en raison de certains aspects érotiques de mon premier roman, divers pays africains ont rejeté de leurs frontières Le Devoir de violence. J'étais, aux yeux de chefs d'Etats irresponsables ou incultes, j'étais, pour avoir osé dire du Nègre qu'il faisait l'amour, un cartiériste vendu à une France raciste, laquelle s'amusait de voir dénigrer par un Noir les mœurs des peuples noirs. Soit,” Ouologuem says, turning on his irresponsible and uncultivated critics. But if those critics thought Le Devoir de violence was raunchy and constituted a betrayal of the black man's cause, then—so Ouologuem seems to say—let them try Les Milles et une bibles du sexe. The vices of the white man as lovingly detailed in that book would, except for one fact pointed out in Lettre à la France nègre, make his critics blush (“Quel danger? Un Nègre saurait-il rougir?” Lettre, p. 11). Measuring his words carefully and venomously, Ouologuem delivers his tense counterattack: “Il est bon d'être primitif, certes, mais impardonnable d'être primaire. Tant pis pour les primaires qui se revent censeurs” (pp. 17–18). Someone somewhere might consider Ouologuem a “primitif” (in fact he ironically adopts that mask in his poem called “Quand parlent les dents nègres”)16 but no one anywhere could imagine him, on the evidence of his three books, to be a “primaire,” especially not in matters of “l'érotisme.”

The erotic adventures in Mille et une bibles du sexe—and this fact of setting reflects, I think, significantly on actions in Devoir de violence, which is located almost entirely in Africa—take place for the most part in France and the participants, again for the most part (when they are not dogs or other dumb beasts), are French. When the four sensualists, who momentarily sort themselves out from the swarming background of group sex and mass inter-excitation that occupies a good part of the book—Régis, Harry, Vive, and Emmanuelle (“artistes du sexe de l'érotisme,” p. 286)—set out on a safari in Africa, Ouologuem (“naïvement”) declares himself, apropos of the new setting, “désolé de voir l'Afrique mêlée à cette affaire” (p. 275). One might well discount some of Ouologuem's distress at finding Mother Africa mixed up in all this (after all, the “confessions-poker” that make up Utto Rodolph's manuscript are supposed to have been “triées, revues, corrigées et editée par Yambo Ouologuem,” which is to say he should have had a pretty free hand to do as he liked in the way of including and excluding material), but the interesting fact is that the descriptions of the sensual, the exotic, and the erotic take a rather new turn—more natural, less strained, less grotesque, and less pornographic—in Africa from what they were in France. Ouologuem goes on to give a partial explanation of his dismay and in his explanation hints at what Africa is like, in contrast to the cold climate of, for example, France:17 “J'aurais voulu qu'Utto Rodolph choisît pour décor un cadre autre—d'un exotisme moins collectif. …” Without further complaint, however, the “editor” says he set about trying to rewrite the first of the African-safari confessions, but on reading over the effort he was dissatisfied: “il manquait la dimension de la psychologie de cet érotisme là” (p. 275). Ouologuem's distress seems to come down to this lament: what is a poor pornographer to do if, in the very setting and atmosphere of his story, he discovers a super-powerful, sensual-sexual energy omnipresently flowing in the universe and expressing itself naturally in a collective exoticism-eroticism? Where is his art gone, if that which he would whip up artificially is there all the time in nature? Who, in that situation, needs the pornographer's art? To describe such a natural phenomenon is to describe something relatively normal and sane, bursting at the sensory seams perhaps, but all the same more or less robust and healthy in its expression; in short, it is to describe, or to try to describe, the African experience according to Ouologuem.

Comparatively, the forms of sex in Africa, as Ouologuem renders them in Mille et une bibles, are natural—one to one, man and woman, the ordinary appendages and orifices, no foreign instruments such as smoking guns, telephone receivers, whips, fragile crystal flutes, switch-blade knives, “godemichets,” etc. True, a lion does get into the act in Kenya, but even then the beast carries some of his nobility with him, and the passage is nothing like as depraved as the one that deals with the massive dog, the woman on a block of ice, and a crowd of voyeurists back in Paris, or the scene of Golda, Harry, the motorcycle policeman, and a hot Maserati automobile beside a French superhighway. The atmosphere of Africa that embraces the figures the moment they step from the plane seems somehow to offer promise in itself of a kind of fulfillment—the individual in relation to the surrounding, enveloping sensory universe—denied to the human creatures in the thin air of France, with their restless and frenzied, perpetually unsatisfied sensuality and their eternal greed for something new and different to revive the over-teased and weary senses. The immense age, yet tremendous richness, hence continual freshness, of everything in Africa makes unnecessary the itching search for something ever new. When the characters first arrive in Africa (Liberia), “c'était l'époque de la mousson, féconde en nuits d'apocalypse. … Or le paysage était luxuriant de baroque, avec son folklore exubérant de carmins, de bougainvilliers, d'hibiscus, d'amaryllis de vermeille, d'orchidées de formes étranges, de couleur diabolique” (p. 284). Immediately they drown themselves in the abundant fruits of nature that in their variety and plenitude render any less natural satisfaction for the senses irrelevant: “Ananas, oranges, pamplemousses, citrons, noix de cocos, fraîches ou traitées en coprah, mangues sucrées, papayes fondantes, corossols aux protubérances poilues, au goût suave et acidulé, kakis, jackfruit aux formes de courge, tout cela, ils le goûtèrent, découvrant des arbres magnifiques, l'hévéa, le plaque-minier, l'ébène, le raphia, les bambous géants, et, plus loin, le baobab et ses fruits—pain de singe au goût aigrelet” (p. 284). This is the same Africa—an enveloping sensory experience inducing a state of mind, a condition of spirit—that Clarence discovers in Radiance of the King; the same Africa, where “everything took me into the very essence of itself, as if nothing could exist except through me,” that Samba Diallo felt he had lost in coming to France in Ambiguous Adventure (p. 139). And when Ouologuem comes to describe the women of Africa—“ses femmes noires aux seins insolents, avec ses joliesses en boubous lamés et sans corsage, leur démarche canaille de nonchalance, leurs silhouettes agrémentées de laisser-aller”—he significantly does so in purely natural terms as if the women were an overflow of nature, as if nature had poured into them all her sensuous variety, her heavy, ripe vitality, her endless, rich, luscious luxuriance: “leurs fesses qui bombent au bas de leurs reins cambrés, leur sexe: crépu et électrique quand le frotte le pubis masculin, leurs poitrines: redondantes sous le soleil lourd, le robuste ouvrage de leur sensualité, née comme du climat, débordant les corps comme la volupté de cieux autres” (p. 286). With nature thus lavish, expressing herself in a superabundance of ripe fruits, human and otherwise, Africa has little need of those “parties” so frantically sought out in France: “allant de réunions d'amis (trois à six couples) au gigantisme (trois cents couples) en passant par les messes noires, les ballets roses ou bleus, les scènes de pendaison, les inventions insolites en Ardèche …” (p. 15).

Régis, who eventually comes to the fore as the central character of Bibles du sexe, and who may or may not be the same person as the fabulous “homme sans race ni contrée” (who in turn may or may not be rather closely identified with Ouologuem himself), at a certain point in the book has an odd perception of a more than personified nature while driving in the countryside: “Régis buvait le vent empli de senteurs amollisantes. Les effluves flattaient inégalement les roches aux genêts herbus et la garrigue. Le regard de la nature était à chaque virage une découverte, avec, ici un décor d'humus bleui, là un tunnel rougeoyant de ruines éventrées en entonnoir, lequel s'agrandissait, rocailleux ou étoilé de floraisons, étonnamment brun de puissance, et pré-historique. D'un coup, tout devenait démence. Féerie. Surnaturel. Vrai vagin d'air d'herbes d'algues et de roches” (p. 306). A momentary aberration of Régis' senses, one should imagine, this perception of the countryside as an immense vagina, caused no doubt by his mind's being concerned with the upcoming “party” to which he is driving. This reading of Régis' mad vision of the landscape receives some confirmation in Bound to Violence when Sankolo, who has been drugged so that his senses are entirely disordered and aberrant and who, like Clarence, has been sent on a journey ever deeper into the South, finds the experience of himself inseparable from that of nature and begins to perceive both of them in demented ways: “I ask the earth to stop moving, to let me rest without anguish, my body no longer a clenched fist in the gaping wound of the sunset. … The path turns into an immense vagina.”18 This is essentially the same mystic union, the same merger of subject and object—in Sankolo's case drug-induced—as Clarence experiences on his journey southward in Radiance of the King and again during his forest stupor and hallucinatory dream-nightmare after he reaches the South (pp. 197–205). It is also, though differently caused, essentially the same merger of subjective and objective consciousness that Samba Diallo experiences at the moment of his death in Ambiguous Adventure. In Bibles du sexe preeminently, but also here and there in Bound to Violence, the union of interior and exterior, the joining, “beyond fear and death,” of the individual with nature, realizes itself in highly erotic sexual performances. Different as lovemaking may seem from dying or rendering homage to the King, when successful it points, in Yambo Ouologuem, to the one same end as the mystic dissolution and natural reunion in Cheikh Hamidou Kane and Camara Laye—for instance, in Bibles du sexe, Harry teaching Golda, in a natural setting, the terrors of death and, beyond that, the ecstasies of erotic pleasure: “Alors, comprenant que l'homme a voulu lui façonner, par-delà la peur et la mort, l'amour du plaisir—elle laissa ses lèvres confier à la nature le délire où l'homme et la femme, à l'image du rituel des messes druidiques, se fondent dans la nature pour devenir herbe, arbre, terre ou oiseau, et en porter le nom” (p. 218).

Most readers of Bound to Violence are no doubt first and most forcibly struck not by Ouologuem's peculiar variety of mysticism but by the extremity of his expression, by the syntactic insanity and the mad brilliance of his language. From the first line (“Our eyes drink the brightness of the sun and, overcome, marvel at their tears. Mashallah! wa bismillah!”), Ouologuem seldom offers the reader any respite from the intensity of his expression, or from the intensity of his relation to the language and the relation of that language to what it describes; the reader consequently finds himself going back again and again in an effort, which usually proves vain, to discover some logical sense in Ouologuem's images, his similes and his metaphors. One might expect to encounter such difficulties of image and syntax in reading, let us say, Hopkins or Rimbaud or the Surrealist poets (with all of whom Ouologuem shows interesting similarities), but one does not expect to encounter such problems in a book that proclaims itself a prose fiction, a novel. Like Van Gogh with his paint, Ouologuem seems to want to get right inside his medium and merge with it in a kind of hot frenzy; he seems to have a need to smear himself with it, to touch and caress and violate it. Like Rimbaud and Hopkins, Ouologuem is unwilling to allow a separation of himself or his experience from the language that describes it. For a good part of Bound to Violence (especially up to the last, short chapter) language is hardly a conceptual thing at all, but rather a voluptuously and violently sensuous creature that Ouologuem treats as a living thing: he makes love to it, both tenderly and violently, he caresses and tortures and rapes it, and he often surprises the reader into sharing the same sort of relation to it.

Operating with a kind of delirious passion from within his medium, Ouologuem distorts, distends, explodes the ordinary limits of language into a succession of irrational similes, metaphors, and hyperboles. His words are related one to another not by their dictionary definitions (and the reader who goes to a dictionary to understand Ouologuem will soon find his head spinning) but in their capacity as images or as sounds or as colored, sensual things in themselves. Especially this technique, or this relation, obtains in scenes involving either eroticism or violence—or, frequently, both. The logic behind this linguistic illogic would seem to be that for either of these experiences the language of reason or of ordinary discourse is entirely inadequate, since the experiences themselves, like the mystic's vision, are neither rational nor discursive. The scene involving the Frenchman Chevalier and his black, Baudelairian mistress Awa (it is certain that Ouologuem is as thoroughly versed in Baudelaire's special blend of exotic, voluptuous sex and luxurious, repulsive-attractive putrescence as he is in Rimbaud's derangement of senses and language)—“her breasts, warm and soft as two doves of living wool”—is a nice example, and exact, of sex rearing its head (ugly or not as one likes) right through and out of the language. After Chevalier's two dogs, Dick and Médor, have done their bestial best (or worst—at any rate their most) on Awa, Chevalier takes over and, in the event, is himself taken over: “A slap from him made her bark [the proximity of the dogs perhaps?], she coiled up with pleasure, panting under his cruel caress, manipulating him like a queen or a skillful whore. Her mouth was still hungry for this man's pink, plump mollusk, and the tongue in her mouth itched to suck at the pearl of sumptuous orient that flowed, foaming as though regretfully, from the stem …” (p. 57). There is, no doubt, method in this verbal madness—which does not, however, alter the fact that it is madness. Effective though Ouologuem's pornographic description may be, it is not, one might point out, altogether realistic, neither here nor in Bibles du sexe, nor is it linguistically rational, and all that his ellipsis points serve to do is to suggest that the reader, his imagination heated up by the descriptive extravagance, should carry the scene on to that erotic end most pleasing to himself. “A flowing cup—Awa—a lavish board!” She becomes for Chevalier virtually what his medium, his language, is for Ouologuem: “An Eve with frantic loins, she cajoled the man, kissed him, bit him, scratched him, whipped him, sucked his nose ears throat, armpits navel and member so voluptuously that the administrator, discovering [like Baudelaire?] the ardent landscape of this feminine kingdom, kept her there day after day, and, his soul in ecstasy, lived a fanatical, panting, frenzied passion” (p. 57). There may be, as at least one reviewer has suggested (John Thompson in the New York Review of Books, 23 September 1971), a considerable admixture of irony here in Ouologuem's pornography, but there is also, somewhere behind the irony, a straight face: if Ouologuem were only ironic, we should not have been given Les Milles et une bibles du sexe—though admittedly it is most difficult to know, in reading Bound to Violence, when we are looking on a straight (albeit leering) face and when only on another mask.

The paradigm of this technique of doing deliberate violence to the language, of distorting syntax and disordering the senses, of jamming together images that, once coupled, result in the most irrational of similes and metaphors, comes in the description by Sankolo of his drugged and delirious hallucinations, his nightmare journey through the forest of deranged senses.

“A lion pants, he has come a long way: he stands before me. He roars, sticks out his tongue, walks away backwards and vanishes over the horizon. He perches on a treetop, turns into a superb pink panther with fiery glowing jaws, licked by flames:

“It is the sun that is setting. …

“My eyes aim at the infinite. The sun goes to sleep. It is still far away. It's afraid of falling. It's a timorous pink panther, trembling behind the dunes and the blue valleys. My headache is a barnyard. Ferocious. With its cries, its familiar sights, its sudden flapping of wings, its squawking. At the edge of the barnyard begins a desert of greenery that rasps my mucous membrane.”

(pp. 104–05)

Under the effect of this surrealistic hypertension, the senses no longer mediate between an external, objective world and interior consciousness: they become the point of frenzied merger rather than of separation, and, assaulted by an excess of sensations, they fuse everything into one indistinguishable mess—or, if one prefers, into a mystic union—of exterior fact and interior consciousness.

“The night crushes me so with its procession of indefinable sensations that I become the wind, the silence of nature, its fears, its darkness, its expectation. … I pace on springy legs. Spongy legs, my body sinks into them, I struggle to tear myself away from them. … My eyes are two round onions. Tears dance in them but never roll down my cheeks. …

“The landscape dances. My eyelashes paint it, cut it up into needles, into granite, into spurs eroded by the wind, into masses of foliage. … Swarms of twinkling sparks collapse into a hole of aching clouds, jostled and gesticulating, then rigid, stiff with fatigue.”

(p. 106)

While Sankolo's description provides the paradigm of sensory derangement and of surrealistic intensification to a supersensory level, a number of other descriptive passages operate according to the same technique: for example, the vicious subjugation of the population by the Saifs (“the Crown forced men to swallow life as a boa swallows a stinking antelope,” p. 5); the very fine description of the coupling of Kassoumi and Tambira, whose love is seen—and this is almost unique in Ouologuem—as something more tender than violent (pp. 36–43); the account of “the practice of infibulation (the sewing up of the vagina),” carried out with sadistic delight and designed to insure virginity (pp. 47–48); the description of the Saif exercising his “right of the first night” by blasting “the barrier of stitches which, luckily for Tambira, had rotted” (p. 49); Sankolo's address to his member as he delightedly, slaveringly watches a couple making love (“yes, there, taste her flesh, her real flesh, make me vomit the delight of her orgasm,” p. 91); etc., etc. It has been suggested by a number of commentators (most prominently and most often by Léopold Senghor) that African literary art is more often surrealistic than realistic, and Ouologuem implies, by the very fact and nature of his bizarre, intense, highly colored prose, that there is an emotional surrealism inherent in encounters of sex and violence to which language, if it would be adequately descriptive, must accommodate itself. We see the surrealism associated with violence for example when Wampoulo and Kratonga murder the French governor Vandame:

“Suddenly Wampoulo clasped his shoulders and shook them so frantically that Vandame's neck swung and broke.

“Quicker than speech, his arms waltzed above him, then rowed him softlier home, to the Artful Creator.

“Blood spurted from the nape of his neck like reluctant rubies grasped by a beetle. His eyeballs like frightened beads, Vandame drank a dewdrop from a blade of grass. He was a righteous man.”19

The duty of violence that provides the motive and title for Ouologuem's book is not, in passages like this, limited to false images of Africa and Africans—his subject and substance—but extends itself to include style and language as well and set ways of seeing and saying things. Only by this radical verbal and perceptual revising, Ouologuem implies, will we escape from the myths and falsifications that have arisen to surround and obscure the experience of Africa over the centuries.

This stylistic vitality in Bound to Violence, like the book's thematic insistence, is regularly achieved at the expense of both plot and characterization. Few novels are quite so poor in sequential plot (i. e., a pattern of logically and thematically consecutive events) as Bound to Violence: in so far as plot exists at all in the book it is insignificant, and this is also more or less the case with characterization. The reviewer who said of Le Devoir de violence that the “characters live and suffer and are like real living people”20 could hardly have offered a more misplaced observation. Ouologuem's figures suffer all right—a suffering that is described in the most resplendent, the most astonishing, and the most baroque of language and imagery—but they are not the kind of living and lovable Dickensian characters implied by the reviewer's formulation. To return to a point made earlier, Bound to Violence is arranged to satiric ends and is largely a negative achievement, destructive and corrective; this accounts not only for the scarcity of positive, human characterization but for the disjointed and episodic organization of the book as well. What structure there is in the novel is built on repetitions, designed to show, for the “négraille” in particular, that “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose,” and the figures who act these repetitions out in their lives assume, as a result of treading the same paths again and again, a certain generalized, symbolic character.

The story that Ouologuem tells in a series of significant, symbolic episodes as a compressed history of Africa—each episode a repeat in essence of those which have gone before—is a tale of slavery in many and various guises, an omnipresent fact in human history: women in Bound to Violence are enslaved by men and men by their passion for women; Africans are enslaved by the false images concocted by European anthropologists and the guardians of “négritude”; Sankolo is enslaved by drugs and sex and by a pair of masters who shunt him back and forth between them as a living corpse, a “zombi”; Raymond Spartacus is enslaved by Saif ben Isaac al-Heit, who gives him the mere show of a political power that is really manipulated by Saif; and the “négraille” are enslaved by everyone—African notables and Arab traders, German ethnologists and French administrators. It is in the succession of Saifs (from the consolidation of their empire in 1202 right down to 1947) and in the relation of Saifs to the “négraille” that Ouologuem gives us his paradigm of slavery which he proceeds to conjugate and dramatize in all the separate, historical instances of the condition. Though there are other slavemasters in Bound to Violence, it is the Saifs (Ouologuem's name for the rulers of the “ancient Nakem Empire,” identified on the book-flap as “the great medieval empire of Mali,” though in details it resembles Mali less than it does the Songhay Empire—i. e., the empire around Gao that succeeded Mali) who most fully embody and express the lust to define the lives and to control the destinies of other men, as, in reverse, the “négraille” epitomize those who are defined and controlled and enslaved. In the hereditary line of manipulative, cynical, ingeniously cruel Saifs Ouologuem shows us the complete tyrant, the politician perfected, the epitome of the slavemaster, and the people on either side of this wretched story, the “négraille” or the Saifs, come to be not so much uniquely themselves as they are figures in a shared and representative destiny: they are all, psychologically and socially, symbolically and literally, either slaves or enslavers; and that, Ouologuem implies, has been the timeless division of human life in African history.

In his first two chapters, both of them short and tightly compacted (“The Legend of the Saifs” and “Ecstasy and Agony”), Ouologuem presents the grand sweep in time (1202–1901) and in space (symbolically all of Africa) that will provide the historical background and the thematic roots for the twentieth-century story that occupies the remainder of his book. “Against this background of horror,” Ouologuem says, in the griot voice he assumes in recounting the Saif's legend, “the destiny of Saif Isaac al-Heit stands out most illustriously; rising far above the common lot, it endowed the legend of the Saifs with the splendor in which the dreamers of African unity sun themselves to this day” (p. 5). But whether the story of this first and greatest of the Saifs “(God refresh his couch)” is “truth or invention” cannot now be certainly determined because “the memory of this past—glorious as it was—has survived … solely thanks to the Arab historians and to the oral tradition of the Africans” (p. 8)—all of which is legend and much of which may be myth and fantasy as well. It is to this question—the authenticity of traditional African history—that Devoir de violence addresses itself; it is an important question since “the legend of Saif Isaac al-Heit still haunts Black romanticism and the political thinking of the notables in a good many republics” (p. 8). The ingenious method in which Ouologuem probes the authenticity of the legend is to rewrite history in the voice, in the tone, and in the language of the griots and the Arab historians themselves, but of course he adopts these masks, and others, ironically so that events are seen with a twist—or two or three twists—given to their significance.

The profession of the griot is unknown in the Western world with its profusion of written documents. “En Afrique Noire,” D. T. Niane explains in Recherches sur l'empire du Mali au moyen âge,21 “il faut faire la distinction entre la tradition populaire, véhicule des légendes historiques, et ce que nous appellerons ‘la tradition-archives’: celle-ci pour l'Ouest Africain est détenue par ceux que l'on appelle communément ‘Griots.’ … le Griot a été le livre vivant des souverains de l'Ouest Africain.” When Ouologuem refers to “the oral tradition of the Africans,” and when he orally reconstructs the history of Africa, it is in both these traditions, popular and archivist, that he is working. An excellent example of the popular tradition, too long to reproduce here but stunningly like what Ouologuem describes at the beginning of Devoir de violence, is to be found in Boubou Hama's three-volume autobiography called Kotia-Nima22 Boubou Hama says that in the evenings he and the other children of the family listened, “suspendus à ses lèvres,” to their grandmother—not a griot in any professional sense, but a family elder—as she told the stories of their people. “Elle nous exposait le système de l'univers sonraï [i. e., Songhay]. Elle nous enseignait la mystique africaine” (I, 13). More particularly, however, “Diollo Birma nous enseignait aussi l'histoire du village” (p. 14), and it is this account, covering seven pages of text, that resembles so strikingly, in spirit and in detail, the history in “The Legend of the Saifs” and “Ecstasy and Agony” (in fact, Diollo Birma's story refers several times to warriors from Bandiagara, Ouologuem's home village, to whom she gives the title “Sofa”—cf. Ouologuem's “Saif”). On the evidence of Devoir de violence, it seems more than likely that as a child Ouologuem, like Boubou Hama, heard such stories as he tells (and perhaps heightens a bit) in his novel—stories that would have been, again as with Boubou Hama, presented as family history, as village history, as the history of the people, Songhay or Dogon, and that the child when grown up might imagine as the symbolic history of Africa.

In addition to this popular tradition, there is much also of the professional griot in Bound to Violence. The history of Saif Isaac al-Heit, for example, is apparently modelled on the life of Sundiata Keita,23 the ruler who first unified and solidified the Empire of Mali, as that life is recorded in Sundiata by D. T. Niane from the lips of a present-day griot, Mamoudou Kouyaté, who begins his story with pride: “I am a griot. It is I, Djeli Mamoudou Kouyaté, son of Bintou Kouyaté and Djeli Kedian Kouyaté, master in the art of eloquence” (p. 1). Robert Pageard's praise of Niane's achievement in the Sundiata—he has, Pageard says, reproduced “l'autorité, la superbe, la fertilité imaginative du griot”—fits Ouologuem's achievement equally well, and what Pageard goes on to say seems more applicable to what Ouologuem does in Devoir de violence than to Niane in Sundiata: “D. T. Niane ne se contente pas de traduit fidèlement … le récit, plein de merveilleux, du griot traditionalist: il l'illustre, de sa connaissance intime de l'Afrique contemporaine, utilise les données de l'histoire et de la géographie, enrichit la légende de ses observations personnelles. Il fait ainsi œuvre d'historien autant que d'artiste.”24 Ouologuem's fidelity to the griot tradition is, of course, heavily qualified since, in adopting the griot mask, he shows an ironic attitude both toward the manner of the griot and toward his subject; but then there is more than one traditional tone for the griot, and Ouologuem might be seen, even in his grotesque humor and his mad mockery, to be following one of those traditions. “On appelle du terme générique de griots,” according to Bokar N'Diayé in his discussion of the griot caste, “les musiciens, chroniqueurs, généalogistes et pitres [i. e., clowns, buffoons] qu'on rencontre dans toutes les sociétés africains et en particulier au Mali.”25 That Ouologuem is speaking through the masks of musician, chronicler, genealogist, and buffoon, of historian, poet, and story-teller (“les Griots … sont, en même temps, historiologues, poètes et conteurs”),26 does not make it any easier for the reader to pin down the historic reality behind the fabulous myth or even to determine exactly what Ouologuem, as a revisionist historian, takes to be the reality.

To complete the sources for his legendary history of Nakem, and to confuse somewhat more the reader bewildered already by the many different masks and the various possible reconstructions of history, Ouologuem turns to the histories of the Songhay Empire written by Arab historians, with their overlay of Islamic fatalism, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Tarikh el-Fettach and the Tarikh es-Soudan,27 both mentioned in Devoir de violence—these too are versions of African history, constructs rising out of the African experience, and it is in the confluence of the Arab histories, the extended-family and village traditions, and the griot legends that Devoir de violence finds its complex and distinctive voice, always, because Ouologuem is primarily a satirist, exercised at an ironic pitch. “Parmi ceux qui firent cette déclaration à son sujet,” we are told in the Tarikh el-Fettach, “il convient de citer le cheikh Abderrahman Es-Soyoûti, le cheikh Mohammed ben Abdelkerîm El-Meghîli, le cheikh Chamharoûch de la race des génies et le chérif hassanide Moulaï El-Abbâs, prince de la Mecque: Dieu leur fasse miséricorde à tous!” (p. 15). Ouologuem too, looking momentarily out from the mask of Arab historian, invokes the same god in the same terms, though not, perhaps, with quite the same sincerity, in his description of Isaac al-Heit's triumphs in Devoir de violence, and he incidentally helps himself at the same time to every one of the exotic and colorful names preceding the invocation: “Tour à tour, redoutable, il défit les Berbères, les Maures et les Touareg, reconnut le cheikh Abderrahman Es Soyoûti, secourut le cheikh Mohammed ben Abdelkerîm El-Meghîli, le cheikh Chamharoûch de la race des Génies, et le chérif hassanide Moulaï El-Abbâs, prince de la Mecque: Dieu leur fasse miséricorde à tous” (p. 13).

This stylistic pastiche, which combines elements from the historical traditions of family and village, from griot “archives,” and from Arab chronicles, is matched in Bound to Violence by a geographical and cultural pastiche, the elements of which Ouologuem draws from all over Africa; here again he freely mixes the real with the imaginary and the historic with the mythic to produce a new historic amalgam with a new interpretation. The population of the Nakem Empire, Ouologuem says, near the beginning of the book, was formed into “groups of varying sizes, separated from one another by all manner of tribes—Radingues, Fulani, Gonda, nomadic Berbers, Ngodo” (p. 4); later these people, “scattered over the savannas bordering on Equatorial Africa,” suffered, he tells us, from “the raids of the Masai, the Zulus, the Jaga” (p. 13). The “savannas bordering on Equatorial Africa” are inhabited by many different peoples—but not by the Zulus, who are in South Africa, and if Ouologuem's savannas are in West Africa, as I assume they are, then not by the Masai or the Jaga either (both are situated in Kenya); nor does any place in Africa know the Radingues, the Gonda, or the Ngodo. The Fulani, however, and the nomadic Berbers, like the Tukulör and the Tuareg, mentioned elsewhere (pp. 9 and 10), are real peoples and do, in fact, inhabit the savannas in West Africa (with the Berbers going farther north into the “bitter deserts” and into North Africa). Moreover, the name “Gonda” is not far removed from “Donga,” and “Ngodo” looks like a rearrangement of the letters in “Dogon”—which brings us back to the author of the book, who, according to the book-flap, is “the descendant of a Dogon family.” Mixing together the real, the imaginary that carries an echo of the real, and the purely imaginary, Ouologuem brings the reader step by step from a verifiable history that no one can deny to an acceptance of Ouologuem's personal vision, or revision, of the African experience. Just as he takes names from the Tarikh el-Fettach and throws them together with names of his own fabrication, so Ouologuem mixes historic fact, imaginative fiction, and apocalyptic vision into a maddening blend that calls up echoes from African history in the reader's mind, tantalizing half-identifications that tempt him to find all this on a map and in ancient chronicles, and that lead him in the end to accept, more or less, Ouologuem's drastic and imaginative revision of history. And by bringing peoples from South Africa, from East Africa, from North Africa, from West Africa, and from imaginary Africa to play a part in his drama, Ouologuem expands the significance of local history to a continental circumference. Le Devoir de violence is thus not the private autobiography of an individual, nor the representative autobiography of a people, but the symbolic autobiography of a continent.

The history of Africa, according to Ouologuem, as far back as the historian can see and right up to the present moment of independence, has been dominated by the fact of slavery—blacks enslaving blacks, Arabs enslaving blacks, whites enslaving blacks—nor will the African future produce anything different, he suggests, until those involved acknowledge the unpleasant realities of the past. “Après tout,” Ouologuem asks rhetorically in his Lettre à la France nègre, “quel Africain ignore qu'avant l'Homme Blanc, il y eut également le colonialisme des Notables noirs et celui de la Conquête arabe?” (p. 90). And to simplify the subject matter of his “Lettre aux non-racistes” in the same book, he undertakes to describe the interior of Africa “avant l'Homme Blanc.” In those distant times, he says (and the situation is not much different now: it has only taken on a new color), there were no French around, there was no middle class and no working class, there was only the Saif and the “négraille,” only the enslaver and the enslaved, only “les intelligents” and “les crétins”: “il n'y avait que des empires et des empereurs, et point de prolétaires à l'horizon. Ça et là se dressaient quelques hommes, des individus. … Le reste était une forêt vierge de peuplades enchevetrées et indéfrisables: les crétins. A coté de ces crétins, il y avait les intelligents qui vendaient les crétins—grassement—sur les côtes” (p. 61). Ouologuem would have his reader recognize, as his Lettre and Bound to Violence demonstrate, that there are many kinds of slavery—economic, literary, philosophical, and, especially, psychological—besides the relatively vulgar form of slavery that is physical. The African today, according to Ouologuem, is more likely to be enslaved by false images and by economics than by chains; his freedom will come only in destroying those images and in seeing that slavery has less to do with color than with exploitation.

Fritz Shrobenius, the German anthropologist in Bound to Violence, an idiot but also crafty in his own way, cranks out, with the connivance of Saif and his son, a load of false philosophical and artistic images of Africa that prove immensely profitable to him (thus the economics) if not to the Africans, who are betrayed more deeply into slavery by these very images of their own lavishly proclaimed past glory. “The true face of Africa,” Shrobenius tells his dupes in Europe, is to be found in the ancient Empire of Nakem, “a society marked by wisdom, beauty, prosperity, order, nonviolence, and humanism, and it is here that we must seek the true cradle of Egyptian civilization.”28 Saif and his son, “reeling off spirituality by the yard” (p. 87), keep Shrobenius supplied with the fake artifacts and the equally fake “magico-religious, cosmological, and mythical symbolism” (p. 95) that will simultaneously astound Europe and delight the “négraille” while plunging the latter ever deeper into misery. “Thus drooling, Shrobenius … mystified the people of his own country who in their enthusiasm raised him to a lofty Sorbonnical chair, while on the other hand he exploited the sentimentality of the coons, only too pleased to hear from the mouth of a white man that Africa was ‘the womb of the world and the cradle of civilization.’ … O Lord, a tear for the childlike good nature of the niggertrash! Have pity, O Lord! … Makari! makari!” (pp. 94–95). This is only one of the false images of Africa—there are more, many more—that, Ouologuem claims, enslave the African and to which the African, Ouologuem, and his reader all owe a duty of violence. In his novel Ouologuem performs his duty by rubbing the noses of these fantasies in the dirt of historic reality so that the African nation may know itself: what it has really been and who has really made it as it is. The new image, ironically, shows a pan-African unity too, not, however, a unity, as Cheikh Anta Diop and Kwame Nkrumah would have it, born of brotherhood and compassion and family love extended to the limits of the continent, but one born of greed and political guile, of hypocrisy and violence, of the relation between the man enslaved and the man who enslaves.

In “Dawn,” the final section of Bound to Violence, Ouologuem once more changes his mask, his style and literary form, to give his reader a philosophic overview of the symbolic history enacted in the seven hundred and fifty years of the Nakem Empire. From the griot epic of the first two sections, passing through the novelistic treatment of the present in the long third section (“The Night of the Giants”), Ouologuem finally arrives at the philosophic dialogue that constitutes the final section and that provides commentary on the drama that has transpired in the preceding pages. Before Bishop Henry, the Christian apologist, and Saif ben Isaac al-Heit, Saif of Saifs, the most cunning, cynical, and tyrannical in the whole line of Saifs, settle down to their game of chess, which sums up Nakem history, and to their philosophic dialogue, which comments on that history, Bishop Henry tells Saif a story that is like a compressed image of the entire book. He says he wandered into a movie house where they were showing a picture based on the history of Nakem. At first he could not grasp what was going on, except that there was some plot or some plan and also much violence. Then he came to see that if he could understand the nature of violence itself, if he could understand the principle animating all this action, he would not need to follow any consecutive plot, for every act would be, in its own way, a manifestation of the one same principle. And so in Bound to Violence, once the reader has the key, the understanding of slavery everywhere and always, the history of Nakem, an epitome of the history of all Africa, falls into place, allowing the reader to enter the history anywhere—beginning, middle, or end—and still comprehend its significance, just as Bishop Henry comes in in the middle of the picture but picks out the principle that explains.

The philosophic contest between Bishop Henry, the man of religion, and Saif, the man of politics, assumes the form, as Gerald Moore has pointed out,29 of a dialogue about freedom, taking, for historical text and as the symbolic case, the seven-hundred-and-fifty-year experience of Nakem-Ziuko: freedom—what it is, who has it, how it is won and how it is limited or lost. In their dialogue as in their chess game, and as also in this whole novel, they play out the history of Nakem, in which the reader, like Ouologuem, tries to see the face of the future of Africa: “the legend of the Saifs, a legend in which the future seems to seek itself in the night of time …” (p. 167). It is a profoundly sad conclusion to which Ouologuem comes—relieved only by the intensity, the energy, the brilliance of his coming to that conclusion—since the future finds itself in history and the history of Africa is synonymous with the legend of the Saifs. In the Sundiata Mamoudou Kouyaté says, “We griots are depositaries of the knowledge of the past. But whoever knows the history of a country can read its future” (p. 41), and Ouologuem agrees that is all too true. “Often,” he says, as Bishop Henry and Saif continue into the African night their game inspired by love and politics, “the soul desires to dream the echo of happiness, an echo that has no past” (p. 181). The soul desires to and it does, deluding itself with visions of glory because it has not wanted to look into history, has not been willing to understand what the past is, or that the past continues to live in the present; it deludes itself, Ouologuem says scornfully, with a mere echo, a sound reverberating with such phrases as “Pan-Africa” and “African unity” (p. 5). “But projected into the world,” Ouologuem goes on, “one cannot help recalling that Saif, mourned three million times, is forever reborn to history beneath the hot ashes of more than thirty African republics” (pp. 181–82). With that reflection, both ironic and melancholy, Ouologuem brings to a close his symbolic autobiography of the African people and the African continent, where, according to his vision, a history of continuous and surpassing human cruelty has been enacted in a setting of almost infinite natural sensuality.


  1. Africa: A Subjective View (London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1964), p. 78.

  2. “Entretien avec Chinua Achebe,” Afrique, No. 27 (octobre 1963), p. 42.

  3. “Provisional Notes on Literature and Criticism in Africa,” Présence Africaine, NS No. 78 (2d Quarter 1971), p. 141.

  4. Le Devoir de violence (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1968); Bound to Violence (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971). A small scandal blew up, in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement and elsewhere, around Le Devoir de violence. The TLS of 5 May 1972 printed, in parallel columns, about one page from Ouologuem's novel and a page from Graham Greene's It's a Battlefield, and no doubt the similarity, amounting to identity, between the two texts justifies the tone of smug self-satisfaction in the TLS note. Why Ouologuem should have chosen to transfer the passage from Greene's book to his own is hard to explain since it is unremarkable enough in its original context and out of place, out of style, and out of character in Ouologuem's book (though the pornography that immediately follows is strictly in character). However, this is not the only aspect of Ouologuem's practice that is difficult to understand or explain: he is a very peculiar writer and, one gathers, a very peculiar man.

    Eric Sellin, in “Ouologuem's Blueprint for Le Devoir de violence” (Research in African Literatures, 2 [Fall 1971], pp. 117–20), points out structural similarities between Ouologuem's book and André Schwarz-Bart's Le Dernier des Justes and calls into question the originality if not the authenticity of Ouologuem's novel. What is more interesting than the structure of Ouologuem's book, however, as I hope to demonstrate in the analysis that follows, is its extraordinary style, and the parallel passages quoted by Sellin to make his point are most remarkable for their stylistic differences—as also Ouologuem's essential style is different throughout from Graham Greene's typical style. I am not at all sure that anyone has got to the bottom of Ouologuem yet, but I feel certain that he is a stranger and more bizarre—and more brilliant—writer than the TLS or Eric Sellin understand in their admonitory smugness.

    Robert McDonald offers a rehash of the Graham Greene business, but without providing much illumination or any new insights, in “Bound to Violence: A Case of Plagiarism,” Transition, No. 41 (1972), pp. 64–68.

  5. Interview with Mel Watkins published in N. Y. Times Book Review, 7 March 1971, p. 7.

  6. Lettre à la France nègre (Paris: Éditions Edmond Nalis, 1968), p. 189.

  7. “Malian Prizewinner,” West Africa, No. 2689 (December 14, 1968), p. 1,474.

  8. Reprinted as “Remarks on Négritude” in African Writing Today, ed. Ezekiel Mphahlele (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1967), p. 252.

  9. This, like many other verbal echoes, indicates the intimate relation between Devoir de violence and Lettre à la France nègre: on p. 9 of the former, Ouologuem refers to “sa population, baptisée dans le supplice”; on p. 190 of the latter, he describes “ce continent, baptisé dans le supplice.”

  10. Les Milles et une bibles du sexe (Paris: Éditions du Dauphin, 1969), p. 78.

  11. Lettre, pp. 191 and 192. It is difficult to be certain what the relation between Ouologuem's Lettre and Devoir de violence might be, but they were obviously written in close conjunction with one another (and both were published in 1968), so much so that phrases, lines, and paragraphs are virtually repeated in the two books. According to the interview in West Africa,Devoir de violence was originally a thousand pages long, or about five times the length of the published version. It seems likely that Lettre is composed of fragments that would not quite fit the fictional plan of Devoir and, rather than lose some choice items, Ouologuem put them together as another book (Lettre is notably fragmentary and loose-jointed, extremely various in tone, in technique, and in its effects). On p. 189 of Devoir, for example, Ouologuem refers to the “négrophilie philistine, sans obligation ni sanction, homologue des messianismes populaires, qui chantent à l'ame blanche allant à la négraille telle sa main a Y'a bon, Banania” and on, coincidentally, the same page (189) in Lettre, he describes “ceux-la … qui s'insurgeaient en philistins d'une négrophilie sans obligation ni sanction.” He refers again to the “philistine négrophiles” in the interview in West Africa (p. 1475).

  12. Robert Pageard, Littérature négro-africaine (Paris: Le livre africain, 1966), p. 87.

  13. Ambiguous Adventure, trans. Katherine Woods, preface by Vincent Monteil (New York: Collier-Macmillan, 1969), p. ix.

  14. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.431 and 6.4311.

  15. The book claims to be by “Utto Rodolph” (the name, in an apparent fit of forgetfulness, is spelled “Rudolf” throughout the “Avertissement”), who is described as “un grand aristocrate parisien” and a “personnalité fort connue” (p. 13). In their Bibliography of Creative African Writing, Janheinz Jahn and Claus Peter Dressler list “Utto Rodolph” simply as a pseudonym for Ouologuem, which is no doubt the real relation obtaining between the two; at any rate, in my discussion of the book, and in relating it to Bound to Violence, I have assumed that “Utto Rodolph” is one of Ouologuem's many masks.

  16. “Quand parlent les dents nègres” was first published under the title “1901” in Présence Africaine, NS No. 51 (3e trimestre 1964), pp. 99–100; under the revised title it was published with five other poems by Ouologuem in Nouvelle somme de poésie du monde noire, a special number of Présence Africaine, NS No. 57 (1er trimestre 1966), pp. 88–95. The poem is also in Modern Poetry from Africa, ed. Gerald Moore and Ulli Beier, rev. ed. (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1968), pp. 75–76, with the title “When Negro Teeth Speak.”

  17. England and the English, naturally, are even further removed than France and the French from the “exotisme … collectif” of Africa. Golda, after she has been drawn out of her frigidity and has been introduced to almost every known variety of sensual experience (and to a few varieties heretofore unknown), takes on many lovers but prefers to avoid the sensually dead English: “Elle fut courtisée, aimée et prise par divers amis de rencontre, elle évita systématiquement les Anglais—parce qu'ils se lavaient les mains avant de faire l'amour, frappaient à la porte, toussotaient, ouvraient, entraient, la pénétraient à peine, et satisfaits, rentraient chez eux” (p. 230).

  18. Bound to Violence, p. 105. In the original “the gaping wound” is “la plaie béante.” In Bibles du sexe, Ouologuem's strange imagination often conceives of the vagina as a wound, gaping, sweet, or pulpy—“la plaie pulpeuse” (p. 227), for example—a conception that is made graphic in certain of the drawings illustrating the text.

  19. P. 115. The account of Vandame's death is entirely different in the French original. After playing a game of William Tell, shooting at a crumpled-up paper on Vandame's head, Kratonga finishes him: “Kratonga visa de nouveau. Le pistolet aboya. Un petit trou, rond, apparut sur le front du gouverneur, près du sourcil droit, à la naissance de la racine nasale. Ses yeux s'entrouvrirent, le rapport glissa à terre, il fit un pas pour se relever, comme s'il voulait tenter de s'enfuir. Puis il s'affala doucement, et, un instant raide, tournoya sur lui-même, bavant contre le sable et tombant à la renverse, sur le ventre. Ses pieds raclèrent le roc, on entendit des borborygmes sortir du fond de sa gorge, puis ses poumons se vidèrent en un long rale saccadé. C'était un juste” (p. 133). (This change in the way in which Vandame dies leads to a minor discrepancy in the English version: the pistol that is placed near Vandame's body in both versions to explain his death works well enough in the French but could hardly account for the broken neck in the English.) I am assured that Ouologuem himself rewrote the passage after the translation was done and that he made several other small changes after reading the translation. This is the justification for doing a stylistic analysis of writing in translation: Ouologuem satisfied himself as much with the version in English as with the version in French.

    In this same general passage—but only in the English, not in the French—Ouologuem introduced into the translation a number of apparent allusions to English and American literature (some of which remain as inexplicable as his borrowing from Graham Greene): “the awful daring of a moment's surrender. … Then blood shook his heart” (Waste Land); “There was no end, only addition” (Four Quartets); “because he could not stop for death” (Emily Dickinson). These make little sense in Ouologuem's text—especially the Emily Dickinson—but they provide another instance of the oddity and inexplicability of his writing practice.

  20. Hans Maes-Jelinek, in African Literature Today, No. 4 (1970), p. 55.

  21. Djibril Tamsir Niane, Recherches sur l'empire du Mali au moyen âge (Conakry: République de Guinée, Ministère de l'Information et du Tourisme, 1962), p. 5.

  22. Boubou Hama, Kotia-Nima, 3 vols. (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1968–1969), I, 13–20.

  23. D. T. Niane, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali, trans. G. D. Pickett (London: Longmans, 1965).

  24. Robert Pageard, “Soundiata Keita et la tradition orale,” Présence Africaine, NS No. 35 (1er trimestre 1961), p. 51.

  25. Bokar N'Diayé, Les castes au Mali (Bamako: Éditions Populaires, 1970), p. 87.

  26. Léopold Senghor, Liberté I (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1964), p. 207.

  27. These are both available in French translations from the turn of the century: Tarikh el-Fettach, ou Chronique du chercheur …, “par Mahmoüd Kati ben El-Hadj El-Motaouakkel Kâti et l'un de ses petitfils,” traduction française par O. Houdas et M. Delafosse (Paris: Librairie d'Amérique et d'Orient, Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1964 [photographic reproduction “de l'édition originale datée de 1913–1914”]); and Tarikh es-Soudan, “par Abderrahman ben Abdallah ben 'Imran ben 'Amir es-Sa'di,” traduit de l'Arabe par O. Houdas (Paris: Librairie d'Amérique et d'Orient, Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1964 [“reproduction photographique de l'édition original datée de 1898–1900”]).

  28. P. 94. Shrobenius, as various reviewers have pointed out, is obviously based on Leo Frobenius, the German Africanist of the beginning of this century (Shrobenius arrives in Nakem in 1910). The phrasing of this quotation, however, suggests that Ouologuem is stalking some black game in addition to Frobenius. Cheikh Anta Diop, the Senegalese anthropologist-cum-historian-cum-philosopher, in L'unité culturelle de l'Afrique Noire, divides all human history and culture into the “southern cradle” and the “northern cradle,” “le berceau Méridional” and “le berceau Nordique,” and ancient Egypt, he says, was the direct ancestor of black African culture. “Dans le domaine moral,” Diop says of his southern and Egyptian cradle, there is “un idéal de paix, de justice, de bonté, un optimisme que élimine toute notion de culpabilité ou de péché originel dans les créations et métaphysique” (L'unité culturelle de l'Afrique Noire [Paris: Présence Africaine, 1959], p. 185). In the northern cradle, on the other hand, a simple and total opposite reigns: “Un idéal de guerre, de violence, de crime, de conquête hérité de la vie nomade avec comme corollaire un sentiment de culpabilité on de péché originel qui fait batir des systèmes religieux ou métaphysique pessimistes …” (ibid.). Ouologuem might agree about the vices of the northern cradle, but he makes deliberate mockery of Diop and others like him who, as he feels, delude themselves, and try to delude others, with négritude nonsense about a perfect African past of peace, justice, goodness, wisdom, beauty, etc. They all, Ouologuem implies, like Shrobenius, have private reasons for serving up this glorious foolishness.

  29. “Action and Freedom in Two African Novels,” The Conch, 2 (March 1970), pp. 21–28.

Eric Sellin (essay date 1976)

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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 is reportedly descended from the kings of the ancient Mali Empire. He went to Paris in the early 1960s to study at the Ecole Normale Supérieure and took degrees in literature, philosophy, and English.

I shall not attempt to summarize Le Devoir de violence in any detail.2 Through historical flashbacks and accounts of the modern adventures of the family of protagonist Raymond Spartacus Kassoumi, the book recounts the chronicle of an area of central West Africa, the fictitious kingdom of Nakem (perhaps an anagram of Kanem), from about 1200 to modern times. Written in a checkerboard of styles, and consisting of a sequence of violent acts, erotic deeds, and unexpected turns of events, Le Devoir de violence provides engrossing reading. Not surprisingly, the translation rights to this novel with its sure-fire formula of sex and violence were snapped up at the Frankfurt Book Fair by leading publishers in Britain, Germany, Italy, and the United States.3 The British and American publishers' plans included a large distribution in paperback. When the novel was awarded a coveted literary prize, its success story seemed to be an author's dream come true. At the time, no one knew that it was soon to turn into a nightmare for publisher and author alike.

Up till now, my publications regarding Yambo Ouologuem's Le Devoir de violence have told the story of my elation and subsequent deflation at encountering this fascinating work and then seeing its presumed authenticity eroded by a number of discoveries of literary dependency. In this essay I should like to summarize the scandal in which I and others became involved; but I should also like to develop some thoughts on the relative attitudes in Africa and Europe regarding imitation and plagiarism. I shall no doubt fail to be definitive in both areas since in the first one we find ourselves brought down to the impasse of a writer's word against his publisher's and, in the second, we are bound to the use of speculation and generalization.

In the August 24, 1968 number of its biweekly literary supplement, Le Monde carried the following brief announcement in its regular “Vient de paraître” column:

Yambo Ouologuem. Le Devoir de violence. This half-historical, half-fictional novel about the penetration of the Whites into Africa, viewed from the African side, is the first work of a young Malian, accepted as a candidate in the Ecole Normale Supérieure, who has his licence in literature and in philosophy. An unknown voice and testimony.

(Le Seuil, 207 p., 15 F.)4

Most of the books thus launched have few repercussions and no one could predict the enormous success this book was about to enjoy, nor the subsequent critical and ethical storm which was to sweep it off the store shelves.

As the weeks and months passed, Le Devoir de violence met with unqualified enthusiasm from most reviewers, and its fame—and ultimately its notoriety—was assured when the judges of the Prix Renaudot awarded it the Prize in the first week of October. On October 12, the literary supplement of Le Monde printed two brief articles dealing with Ouologuem's book. Critics were later to react viscerally to what they considered a betrayal, and the intensity of their reaction may be explained in part by the converse intensity of the initial enthusiasm, typified by these reviews. When we now consider the compositional methods utilized by Ouologuem in writing Le Devoir de violence and which he openly advocates in an essay in his Lettre à la France nègre, the retrospective perusal of the first critical acclaim becomes ironic, almost comic. But I do not feel that we have experienced a response growing out of hurt pride, such as the reaction which drove critics to destroy Thomas Chatterton and van Meegeren after their respective forgeries had become known. In the case of Le Devoir de violence, we are not dealing with a forgery à la Brother Rowley or à la Vermeer but with a reliance on other writers' imaginative powers and a mechanical creative process which the author and the book itself (including the cover “blurb”) had at first led critics to take for a genuine impulse emanating from an individual talent and lending expression to the historico-ethnic heartbeat of a misunderstood continent. It is all well and good to eschew critical standards as outmoded devices and to maintain that art is solely in the eye of the beholder, but the fact remains that a number of critics had felt that Ouologuem had enriched literature, not merely exploited or perpetuated it.

The two articles in Le Monde are representative of the critical reaction which greeted this first novel, especially in Europe and America. The reviews stress Ouologuem's unique and independent imagination and the authenticity of his rôle as a mouthpiece for the African ontology. In the first of the two Le Monde pieces on Le Devoir de violence, Matthieu Galey praises Ouologuem for the way in which he has dug deeply into his past to lend strength to his characters:

The principal merit of the first book by Yambo Ouologuem, born in Mali twenty-eight years ago, is the fact that it is a novel, a real novel. Surely, he, too, devotes some thirty pages in the beginning of his work to the evocation of a distant Nakem empire which must be the novelistic transposition of an historical reality. But this harkening back to legend, through the vehicle of his ancestors, introduces the most astonishing, or rather one of the most astonishing characters of Le Devoir de violence: Saïf ben Isaac El Heït.5

In the second article in Le Monde, Philippe Decraene spoke for most readers when he extolled the powerful rhetoric, the individuality the freshness of material, and the authentic “Africanness” of Ouologuem's work. There is a certain unwitting humor in these early reviews, for—shades of Cocteau's belovèd use of accidental truths in the rhetoric of La Machine infernale and in the final sentences of Thomas l'imposteur6—the apprised reader recognizes that Ouologuem did, indeed, “borrow” or “assume” the “most direct means” in telling his tale. Decraene presumably did not know the precise nature of the means at the time that he praised Ouologuem's rhetoric in the following terms: “Abhorring rhetorical devices, rebelling against every compromise, he always adopts the path which appears to him most direct.”7 Decraene admired—and which reader would not?—the way in which the young writer's vision apparently sprang from the profound reservoir of African tradition: “Six years living in France, long months of teaching at the Charenton lycée and at the little seminary at Conflans, the preparation of a Diplôme d'Etudes Supérieures in English—successfully completed—followed by preparation for the Agrégation de Lettres, have in no way altered the authentically African view of things which he has retained.” (Ibid.) Decraene again is unwittingly ironic when he states that “For Ouologuem, ‘decolonization has not yet been achieved.’ That is the main reason he refuses to consider himself in the same light as other Malian authors” (Ibid.). According to Decraene, four years of work on Le Devoir de violence had left Ouologuem undaunted, the Malian having just completed a “Lettre ouverte à la France négre” for which he was seeking a publisher.

Critics throughout the world expressed a similar reaction to Le Devoir de violence. The only reservations came from some Africans who felt that the novel didn't ring true, but did not state why. Some felt that there were certain things a real African simply would not say; others wished to discredit Ouologuem for having laid a portion of the blame for the slave trade at the doorstep of conniving Black chieftains. Typical of this dismay is the reaction of the Zaïrese critic Mbelolo ya Mpiku who categorically states that “Ouologuem's vision stands in contradiction with the African reality.”8 His uneasiness becomes quite personal by the end of his article when he rejects Ouologuem's assessment of Black history: “However, no African critic who loves his people and is proud of them can agree with Ouologuem's view that the Black man's predicament today is the result of an ontological flaw, an innate collective proclivity to slavery and spoliation, or an inveterate inability to work out adequate solutions for his own problems” (Ibid., 145).

When Bound to Violence appeared in its American edition, Time and Newsweek both gave it considerable coverage and praise. Nor can I claim immunity. Several passages of a brief comment published in the French Review bear witness to my initial enthusiasm for the book and give an inkling, by contrast, of how disappointed I was to become when it later became evident that Ouologuem was not all that I had thought him to be:

These general characteristics and the rich and intricate history of West Africa from 1200 to today form the backdrop to, and at times the very stuff of, Yambo Ouologuem's brilliant first novel, Le Devoir de violence. The author makes exciting and enlightening use of the splendor of the ancient empires and the subsequent sweep of history without his work degenerating into florid exoticism.9

I glibly attributed irregularities of structure and style to a willed disruption of narrative in the tradition of the noveau roman and went on to stress the rôle Ouologuem's unique vision played in this creation: “Ouologuem tempers his naturally effusive prose with (1) strangely effective moments of crudity and brutality (2), digressions in a flat, controlled style, and (3) an intentional fragmentation of structure which, in keeping with the rationale of the nouveau roman, constantly reminds us that we are dealing with a fiction, an extension of the mind, the will, and the typewriter of a creator.” (Ibid.) Upon rereading this review, I am struck by the emphasis on expressions and words like “strangely effective,” “controlled,” “intentional,” “extension of the mind,” and “creator.” As though this were not ironic enough, I concluded my review on the following hopeful note:

The first offering by this young writer (born in Mali in 1940) greatly enriches Francophone African literature and is well-deserving of its receipt of the Prix Renaudot. I shall eagerly await further works by this man.


There are reports that Ouologuem has written at least one other novel under a pseudonym, but it was, as a matter of fact, the wished-for next book published under Ouologuem's own name which began to cause many critics to have some nagging doubts, not because of the contents per se but because of its flimsiness of diction and weakness of structure. One critic, not yet aware of the full importance of foreign sources in the composition of Le Devoir de violence, put it bluntly but accurately when he exclaimed that “Disappointment came, however, when Ouologuem published his second book, Lettre à la France nègre, a pamphlet in every way inferior to his novel” (Mpiku, 124). The only way, in fact, that it is superior to Le Devoir de violence is in its authenticity, for there is no reason to think that this work is not fully the product of Ouologuem's own talents and abilities! Critics found it difficult to reconcile the novel and the book of essays. The discrepancy was disappointing, and it was so great that it could not simply be attributed to the “sophomore jinx” which has temporarily blighted many a career. A year or so after the publication of Ouologuem's first novel, disquieting charges of borrowings, extensive imitation, and outright plagiarism began to circulate as rumors and then in a series of articles which in turn drew two reactions: on the one hand, a number of people wrote to the authors and editors of these articles supplying further examples of stylistic indebtedness; and, on the other, some critics sought to minimize the significance of plagiarism in general and to defend Ouologuem in particular.

At the “Colloque sur les littératures canadienne et africaine d'expression française” held at the University of Vermont in June, 1971, I demonstrated the similarity between certain passages in André Schwarz-Bart's Le Dernier des Justes (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1959), and Ouologuem's Le Devoir de violence. There were audible gasps from the audience. Afterwards, one young African who contributed a good bit to the conference as a conspicuous Devil's advocate at a number of the sessions complained: “Why are you White people and Europeans always doing this to us? Whenever we come up with something good in Africa, you say that we couldn't have done it by ourselves.” The fact is, many authentic good things have come out of Africa and this novel appeared to be one of the finest, whence my great disappointment. Subsequent research and correspondence has revealed that some people were aware of the similarity to Schwarz-Bart's novel even when Le Devoir de violence was in manuscript. According to Paul Flamand, the publisher of Editions du Seuil, the manuscript of Le Devoir de violence was received just like any other unsolicited manuscript and turned over to an editor, François-Régis Bastide, who noticed similarities to the general structure of Le Dernier des Justes but did not realize how closely certain passages resemble the earlier work until after publication when the resemblance was noticed by the Schwarz-Bart editor at Seuil. Schwarz-Bart was immediately contacted and he reassured the publishers that he was not in the least offended but rather flattered by the use to which his work had been put by Ouologuem:

The use made of Le Dernier des Justes in no way annoys me … I have always thought of my books as apple-trees, pleased when someone eats some of my apples, and pleased if one is now and then picked in order to be planted in a different soil. I am especially touched, even overwhelmed, to think that a Black writer should have relied on Le Dernier des Justes in creating a book like Le Devoir de violence. Thus Mr Ouologuem is not indebted to me, but rather I to him.10

Nor did M. Flamand and his staff at Editions du Seuil have knowledge of the other more direct borrowings which later came to light: “It was only after publication that Ouologuem published at Nalis his Lettre à la France nègre and that he sent it to us … But how could we have suspected, in the manuscript, those ‘borrowings’ which the author made, almost verbatim, from other works?”11

Any young writer has been influenced by other writers and will attempt to emulate what he admires, either consciously or unconsciously. He will, as in the case of such fine writers as Christopher Okigbo, John Pepper Clark, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and others, write “in the style of” Pound, Yeats, Eliot, Perse, Claudel, or someone else, without his effort being anything more than apprenticeship derivation or the result of a spontaneous kinship. Certain reviewers seemed to sense such echoes of other literatures in Le Devoir de violence; and perhaps one might assume their existence in a first novel. My very first reaction upon completing Le Devoir de violence was a fleeting thought that perhaps its author had been impressed by Kateb Yacine's amazing novel, Nedjma (Seuil, 1956), and had wanted to do something along those lines for the Black African novel. Rather than condemn him for this, I admired him for apparently having the vision to undertake a similar blend of the “retour aux sources” and the culture shock inherent in the vicissitudes of rapidly marching modern history. Such “remous” or echoes of foreign literatures reached other critics, as well. Consider, for example, the comment of Yves Benot:

The book is a veritable anthology. An anthology of styles, too, and a cursory reading brings to the reader's nostrils the intermingled smells of Kateb Yacine, Sartre, Gatti, even Godard (the dialogue of the prostitute with Brice Parain), not to mention the distorted echo of the “négraille” of Césaire's Cahier d'un retour au pays natal, and probably many others, as well. As a result of this, the novel takes on a certain stylistique pomp which easily amazes and charms the reader. In this respect, the book is a greenhouse product, resolutely artificial (the story Sankolo tells of his experience of being drugged and sold as a zombie, pp. 114–25, is a virtuoso piece owing a lot, it seems to me, to Paris and very little to Africa).

(Op. cit., 130)

It is astonishing how loath people were to criticize this novel on the grounds of its having lifted some of its material out of the works of other writers. It may be that they hesitated to make accusations which could be considered libelous.12 Even half a dozen years after numerous articles in Le Canard Enchaîné,13Le Figaro,The International Herald,Times Literary Supplement,West Africa,Transition,Research in African Literatures, and on Page One of the daily Times of London had broadcast the news of the borrowings, the scandal of Ouologuem's prize-winning novel has not become widely known. Most critics and even many area specialists remain impervious to the shadow cast on the book's authenticity. In a recent monograph entitled Cultura negro africana moderna, Alfredo Riedel appears to be unaware of the whole affair, writing as follows:

Ouologuem's work, which is of extraordinary impact, is the product above all of a need for sincerity and pride and of the necessity to know integrally his own personality without false emotions or lies.14

The two most conclusive demonstrations of derivations of any significant length—and I have had personal or published reports of passages of one or several lines reminiscent of Pascal, de Maupassant, and many others—came before the public eye within several months of each other.15 In the Fall, 1971 issue of Research in African Literatures, I summarized the similarities between Ouologuem and Schwarz-Bart which had induced such a response at the Vermont colloquium. In that article, I present several passages which are astonishingly similar, in which Ouologuem has paralleled, substituted for, and generally orchestrated on the rhetoric of several sections of Le Dernier des Justes. To give but one example, Schwarz-Bart's novel opens as follows:

Nos yeux reçoivent la lumière d'étoiles mortes. Une biographie de mon ami Ernie tiendrait aisément dans le deuxième quart du XXe siècle; mais la véritable historie d'Ernie Lévy commence très tôt, vers l'an mille de notre ère, dans la vieille cité anglicane de York. Plus précisément: le 11 mars 1185.

With the substitution of the Blacks for the Jews, with some variations such as “sun” for “stars,” and with some assonantal and consonantal play of the sort practiced by Raymond Roussel (such as replacing “reçoivent” by “boivent”), Ouologuem comes as close to using as his own the words of Schwarz-Bart as one can come without overtly plagiarizing:

Nos yeux boivent l'éclat du soleil, et, vaincus, s'étonnent de pleurer. Maschallah! oua bismillah! … Un récit de l'aventure sanglante de la négraille—honte aux hommes de rien!—tiendrait aisément dans la première moitié de ce siècle; mais la véritable histoire des Nègres commence beaucoup, beaucoup plus tôt, avec les Saïfs, en l'an 1202 de notre ère, dans l'Empire africain de Nakem, au sud du Fezzan, bien après les conquêtes d'Okba ben Nafi el Fitri.16

In my article I did not accuse Ouologuem of plagiarism, for in the passages cited he has not truly plagiarized. He has borrowed and adapted some Schwarz-Bart and added a dash of Aimé Césaire, who had referred in his Cahier d'un retour au pays natal to the “Black men who have invented nothing.” In fact, when the same diligent young man at the Vermont colloquium asked from the floor if I were accusing Ouologuem of plagiarism, I replied that I was not, that I was rather accusing him of hypocrisy and literary mauvaise foi in light of his frequent public statements proclaiming the authentic Africanness of his book. Despite this disclaimer and the fact that the word “plagiarism” does not appear in either my Vermont text nor my RAL essay, I have been rebuked by several critics for having levelled plagiarism charges at a work which they contend really only imaginatively assimilates and exploits European models in a form of reverse cultural imperialism.

My brief piece published in RAL would probably not have attracted a great deal of attention here or abroad had it not been for the fact that the Times Literary Supplement and daily Times (London) mentioned it on May 5, 1972, on which date TLS published side by side a passage from Le Devoir de violence and a section of a 1934 novel by Graham Greene, entitled It's a Battlefield. The characters in the passage by Ouologuem bear different names and a few slight changes have been entered, but the lengthy passage from Le Devoir de violence is little more than a translation of the Greene text, sufficiently faithful that the indebtedness was recognizable even after retranslation into English by Ralph Manheim.17 It seems to me that this does constitute plagiarism by translation, if, indeed, Ouologuem did not make use of the existing French translation published by Fayard. What's more, this discovery of a second large passage lifted from another work gave credence to growing suspicions among critics that there might be many borrowed passages quilted together to make up the bulk of this novel. Robert McDonald, writing about the Greene borrowing in Transition, expressed suspicion about the book in general and about several other specific passages which he felt did not ring true:

In regard to doubts and suspicions I am unable to substantiate any other definite charges, but there are certainly at least two other important sections of the book about which I feel distinctly wary. The first of these is the section from page 150 to page 159, describing the homosexual affair between Kassoumi and the Frenchman Lambert (…) My suspicion, then, is that the homosexual episode could very easily have been taken from one of the numerous mediocre gay novels that have flooded the American market, especially, in recent years.

The other passage that I feel particularly doubtful about is that from page 161 to page 163 in which Kassoumi's experiences in the Second World War are described. Again, there is nothing that particularly ties it to the character involved, and so one feels that it could have been taken from any one of dozens of post-war novels.18

Many critics have expressed confusion about the lack of relevance of certain sections. One section, for example, which is so incredible it should jolt any reader is the visit to the brothel where the protagonist discovers that the girl with whom he has just had relations is his own sister! The incident would fit in better in a traditional “sous le manteau” pornographic novel of the sort with which Paris abounds. There is a major shift in tone in the novel as historical chronicle gives way to the adventures of the contemporary protagonist, and I suspect that this partial collapse of Le Devoir de violence is the result of reliance on inferior material. In dealing with the historical phase of his narration, Ouologuem presumably consulted literary, historical, and archival works which were better written and/or more factual than some of the recent materials which time and good taste have not yet eliminated from the scene.

After the TLS revelation, letters flew back and forth among critics and publishers, and the item was sufficiently newsworthy to be picked up by several other important dailies, including the Paris Herald and Le Figaro. The latter published in its weekly literary supplement of May 13 a brief item by Guy Le Clec'h summarizing the TLS allegations.

The only defense Yambo Ouologuem has offered, save indirectly as through remarks quoted by critics, is a reply to Le Clec'h published in the Figaro Littéraire of June 10, 1972. Boxed in under the heading “Polémique” are three items entitled “Le Devoir de violence” (Yambo Ouologuem), “Le Devoir de vérité” (signed B. P.), and “Le Devoir d'exactitude” (Marie Schébéko). These consist respectively of Ouologuem's reply, a rebuttal in behalf of Le Figaro, and a statement by the agent representing Greene in France.

Ouologuem's remarks seem somewhat confused, even illogical, and were—I presume—composed in a state of stress. Their major contentions are 1) that use was made of work by Greene and others in order to provide the novel with several “contradictory voices” and in order that Ouologuem's African brothers not think that he would discredit them; and 2) that, to this end, he had placed quotation marks around the passages in his manuscript:

Because of the explosive nature of the subject matter of my novel, Le Devoir de violence (torture scenes, cannibalism, insanity, legendary and historical facts, with a few winks at the thesis-stories [“récit à clés”], at racial confrontations), to be objective required that I cause to be heard, as needed, several contradictory voices reflecting the very image of the contradictory things, the prejudices, superstitions, and sensitivities inherent in the problems besetting Blacks.

Thus, the passage by Mr Graham Greene accused as plagiarism—but in fact cited in quotation marks (just as was the case with several lines from Schwarz-Bart) in my manuscript which is in the hands of my lawyer—preceded a mad scene in which a White man, disguised as the administrator Chevalier, couples a Black woman with a dog. I am a Black man. Obviously, if the facts evoked by me had been the fruit of my imagination, my brothers in race would scarcely have forgiven me for having sullied the Blacks.19

Ouologuem further contends that he never attempted to disguise this technique but spoke openly of it in various lectures and interviews, particularly in the United States, but those he mentions and which I have seen make no reference appearing to be more than a young author's intellectual “puffing” or attempts to expand the artistic scope and theoretical impact of his work:

Under these circumstances, putting the text of Mr Greene between quotation marks was not to act as a plagiarizer but to prevent myself from being disowned by my people as a result of considering it a literary transposition of a fact of a judicial nature. The references to Graham Greene, Kipling, and others were given openly by me to the New York Times, the New Yorker, and others, during lectures both to professors and to various Black Studies Programs. “If Graham Greene had been present at the scene, here's how he might have described it.”


Ouologuem closes his defense with a rather lame assumption of readers' reactions and a parting ad hominem salvo directed at his erstwhile publisher:

The basic questions which I ask by means of these techniques and which was noticed by every intelligent reader or critic, and a fortiori by the members of the Renaudot jury, who are hardly illiterate, is as follows: “In a world of violence in which the ‘devoir d'amour’ or vocation of love has been relegated to the realm of lies, who will help the Black to get out of the straits in which he finds himself?” Certainly not the publisher of Le Devoir de violence with whom I am at odds and to whom I refused to give my second novel.

It is less than glorious to think that we are presently engaged in a discussion involving accounts. It is not Yambo Ouologuem who has borrowed from the rich, it is the rich who have borrowed from Yambo Ouologuem by making him assume, contrary to editorial practice, the material burden of the customary thanks tendered the members of the Renaudot jury. And it is significant that this publisher should plead guilty in my name without even questioning me, and that, without the slightest claim by Mr Graham Greene, he should withdraw my book from sale throughout the entire world.


The two other inserts respond to Ouologuem's final statement. They both indicate that Greene was very upset and demanded that the book be withdrawn until that portion in question could be excised or rewritten:

To write that Graham Greene made no claim is false. It was the request of the great British novelist that Mme Schébéko, the director of the Clairouin agency which represents Greene in France, made contact with Paul Flamand, the director of Editions du Seuil, who in turn sent a letter of apology to Graham Greene and then took the steps he had to take in keeping with law and common sense …

(B. P., Ibid.)

Ouologuem implies, then, that someone at Editions du Seuil removed the quotation marks. This would be a very foolhardy gesture which it is difficult to imagine a reputable publisher perpetrating. Furthermore, as I have already pointed out, M. Paul Flamand denies that Seuil had any prior knowledge of the many alleged sources. One critic, who interviewed Ouologuem in the latter's Paris apartment, found the author resentful over the recent allegations:

When I saw Yambo in his Paris flat recently he was much pre-occupied by the new attacks, and was talking somberly in terms of conspiracy. He was in particular very caustic about the whole relationship of white literary circles, especially publishers, with black writers.20

There ensues, in this interesting article, a passage I consider to be of the utmost significance and therefore worth quoting at length. (I do not know if the manuscript mentioned by Ouologuem is the same one allegedly left with his lawyer or an early one whence he copied his final version. It would be interesting to know how many drafts there were; I suspect there was the primitive one mentioned below and then the copy submitted to the publishers. Given the compositional technique there would be little need for an intermediary draft. Even if there are quotation marks on Ouologuem's copy of the typescript, these could have been entered after the fact and one really would have to examine the original publishers' copy to corroborate or invalidate Ouologuem's claim.):

To demonstrate the injustice of the charges against him, he spent some time taking me through his original handwritten manuscript (in an old exercise book) of Le Devoir de violence showing me all the places where there had been quotation marks, if not actual mentions of his literary allusions and quotations. He gave me a fairly comprehensive run-down on all the other authors he might be accused of plagiarising, including the 16th century Portuguese explorer Lope di Pigafeta, and a modern detective story by John Macdonald (the basis of the sequence containing the asp killing), as well as traditional epic sources in Arabic, Bambara and Amharic, and even French colonial documents that he says are still in secret archives. I saw, for instance, where he had written “here ends The Last of the Just,” a reference omitted like so many others, for whatever reason, from the published version. But it is, in truth, a fairly chaotic script, much erased and amended, with a multitude of little pieces of paper inserted and clipped onto pages, some of which have been lost. And it only demonstrates what is completely apparent anyway, that the so-called plagiarism is a stylistic technique to further the purposes of the novel.

Yambo compares it to the techniques of what is called the new novel, or even the work of some modern film-makers in which clips from the films of others are inserted. In a collage it is the arrangement and the juxtaposition which are important.


The description of the original manuscript proves that Le Devoir de violence was not a composition in which inadvertant recollections of school-day readings spontaneously returned to the pen of the brilliant young man, but rather a contrived patchwork intentionally—although apparently messily—put together from various materials. If Ouologuem did not prove his own innocence by revealing this manuscript to “K. W.”—for it is just as possible that the quotation marks and references were omitted in the preparation of the final draft prior to submission as omitted by the editors after receipt of such a manuscript—he did prove at least one thing: that he was aware that he was using the material he inserted into his text. It is this factor which distinguishes his text from works done spontaneously in the style of an admired author, such as the many poems by Africans at a certain period in the fifties and sixties which seemed to bear the influence of Jacques Prévert and Paul Eluard. Ouologuem claimed he had referred in various interviews to his borrowings, but these references were always vague or ambiguous and were offset by his equally fervent affirmation of the African authenticity of the work. Ouologuem came to the United States and Canada on a promotional trip in conjunction with the publication of the American edition of Bound to Violence.The New York Times Book Review published a piece in which the interviewer said Ouologuem showed him many “authentic” sources, such as protographs, ancient documents, and the like. When he appeared on the Today Show to promote his book, Ouologuem told moderator Hugh Downs that he “wrote this book in French but followed the traditional African rhythms and the spirit of the African past.” In various interviews he referred vaguely to “international models,” and the like, but it is only with hindsight that these references can be construed as confessions. Representative of how he “fielded” interview questions are the answers given in an interview granted Plexus. Asked if there “aren't a great many things in [his] book which [he] might have identified with and expressed in the first person?” Ouologuem replied “I would never have enjoyed writing a book in the first person. I prefer to let the systems speak and reveal themselves rather than take myself as the unique point of reference.”21 Then, when asked why he wrote Le Devoir de violence, the Malian replied:

I think that one writes because of a moment when one reaches a certain density of being. … On the level of form, I wanted to make the epic speak, the tales of the griots, the Arab chroniclers, the oral African tradition. I had to reconstitute a form of speech filtered through a vision arising authentically from black roots.

(Ibid., 136.)

There were two reactions to the disclosure of Ouologuem's borrowings from other works, the immediate ones of critical disappointment and the author's self-justification and the long-range one. There was also a more concrete immediate reaction of major consequence, for subsequent to the Greene revelation, the various editions were, indeed, withdrawn from publication:

Mr. Greene's notification [of the similarity by Robert McDonald who, as a devotee of Greene's works, noticed the passage in Bound to Violence and contacted the Englishman] came just in time to stop a shipment of 250 copies of Bound to Violence being distributed in Ibadan but too late to stop 3,000 in Nairobi, where they had been put on sale for a few weeks.

The American paperback version was on the presses and the cover had been made when publication was halted.

Mr Williams Jovanovich, chairman of Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, the American publishers, said he had withdrawn 3,400 hardback copies of the book as soon as Mr Greene's agent in New York had asked them to do so.

(Devlin, p. 2.)

A representative of Editions du Seuil said that they “accepted that the passage had been borrowed and had asked M. Ouologuem to supply a new text.” The Times quotes her as saying: “We sent him a stiff letter … telling him the book had been taken out of publication until this was done. So far we have not had a satisfactory reply.” (Ibid.)

The long-range reaction is even more complex. It brings into question the whole notion of authenticity, literary proprietorship, the concept of genre, and the definition of art in general. In other words, once it has been established that Ouologuem did not write a book consistent with its description as given by either the author or the early book reviewers, what does one do with it? Seth Wolitz has written an eloquent if somewhat confused panegyric in defense of Ouologuem in which he raises some challenging questions. Faithful to a “new critical” stance, he would disallow any external biographical or historical explication which might tarnish our enjoyment of the work. He takes several critics to task for having termed Ouologuem and his work “unauthentic” once the source-indebtedness became known. Wolitz writes:

Ouologuem is no longer an authentic African writer. He makes use of non-African sources and, what's worse, fails to alert the critics to his borrowings at the foot of the page. (Since when have European novelists and dramatists declared their sources?) What, should an African novelist who is making use of a non-African genre, a non-African language, be deprived of the right to draw on European models, on literary techniques and motivations imitated from non-African sources?22

Now, no one would deny Ouologuem the right to consider extra-African subjects or to “write in the style” of European writers—and the idea of footnoting the derivations which Wolitz finds repugnant did not seem to bother Ouologuem according to K. W.'s testimony quoted above—but I still consider authenticity of vision to be the one sine qua non quality in a serious writer of any age or culture. There is, however, an authenticity which is modal! If we consider a Duchamps ready-made or objet-trouvé, the value lies not so much in the object as in the philosophy of art which would allow one to dub an object a piece of artistic interest. Wolitz and several other panegyzers have completely missed the boat, for the notion of “authenticity” as they would vouchsafe it in Ouologuem is rationalized in terms of modern European conventions which reject old concepts of what art is. In maintaining that Le Devoir de violence is authentically African because it is consistent with the new novel, new-wave film, and the like, critics are merely colonizing Ouologuem's alleged authenticity … We do not have, as Wolitz proverbially suggests, “new wine in old bottles,” but rather old colonialism in a new critic's clothing. There remain, then, two questions of fundamental importance in this debate: 1) why did Ouologuem use the sources as he did? and 2) what are the implications of such borrowing in the context of African tradition?

The first question is conveniently asked by Wolitz: “It is, nevertheless, appropriate to ask why Ouologuem found inspiration in the novels of Greene and Schwarz-Bart” (Ibid, 134). Wolitz suggests that perhaps these two borrowings simply represent a personal literary creation inspired by a model and a stylistic processus to be developed (Ibid.). If Wolitz prefers to give Ouologuem the benefit of the doubt, he should find it instructive to seek the rather specific answer to his question elsewhere in Ouologuem's own writings.

Lettre à la France nègre, published very shortly after Le Devoir de violence, is a collection of somewhat flimsy diatribes against the racial and cultural colonialism of France. One essay, entitled “Lettre aux pisse-copie, Nègres d'écrivains célèbres,” is extremely interesting with regard to the controversy over Ouologuem's alleged plagiarism; it also provides ancillary evidence to support the notion that it was, indeed, Ouologuem and not his publishers who deleted the quotation marks somewhere between the chaotic rough draft and the final edition of Le Devoir de violence. Furthermore, this essay and the manuscript's annotations reported by K. W. clearly establish intent to borrow and obviate the possibility of an unwitting recall of previously read material by someone with a photographic memory. As I have said, we shall consider the implications of borrowing in the context of African aesthetics, but with regard to the creative process used in the specific case of Ouologuem's novel, “Lettre aux pisse-copie” provides more than enough of an answer. This essay lays the grounds, as well, for my suspicion that there may be dozens, even hundreds, of sources more or less faithfully plundered by Ouologuem in his prize-winning opus.

In this essay he addresses himself to “Chère Négraille” but it is fair to assume that he is also speaking to France and the White man. Ouologuem writes: “You famous writers' Black boys, you are terribly frustrated, and castrated in your genius by the law of silence: I want you to learn, through these pages, how to proceed in order to be a “pisse-copie” and to remain white.”23 He then states that he will show his readers how to write a work in a representative vein, in this case that of the detective story; but the modus operandi can be applied to any type for work, and when Ouologuem describes the archetypal detective novel with “its gems of description, eroticism, and suspense, as well as the cream of the crop of its perfect crimes, the collection of their recipes …” (Ibid., 167), he could very well be characterizing Le Devoir de violence. Furthermore, in the lists of names he suggests as sources, at least one has been connected to a passage in Le Devoir de violence (John MacDonald and the asp scene).

Although his syntax is ambiguous in this instance, Ouologuem seems almost confessional when he writes:

I herewith give you, oh cancerous wretch of kitchen literature!, an unpublished gimmick which will permit you to mass produce all the works your boss might order. Base your work exclusively (since that's the genre we are dealing with) on the famous titles of the detective novel: the masters of the Série Noire (Carter Brown, James Hadley Chase, Peter Cheyney, John MacDonald, Robert Fish, Douglas Warner …), those of the Série Blanche, particularly the authors of spy novels (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold) or those of “sensational” crimes: Truman Capote, Hitchcok [sic], Simenon, Agatha Christie, Jean Bruce, and many others edited by Fayard and au Masque, either in the purple series or by Denoël (Sébastien Japrisot), or again in the Fleuve Noir or Presses Pockets.


I suspect that a meticulous comparison of Le Devoir de violence and the books by authors mentioned in this essay would yield some interesting similarities. Ouologuem goes on to suggest in no uncertain terms how one can create acceptable books painlessly by using a compilation method not unlike the game played by the Surrealists—called “Le Cadavre exquis”—in which chance and multiple authorship produce surprising sentences. The following passage is devastatingly pertinent:

So, dear Black rabble, you have before you here an immense job of reading, a gigantic compilation. But it will not be time wasted.

Here, indeed, is the magic potion in your formula. Your work as a pisse-copie, a famous writers' Black boy, should now permit you—just like the Surrealists—to play “cadavre exquis,” as did the Dadaïsts. But this is no more than an allegory, for to delve into intellectualism would be ill-advised …

For your books (such as I advise you to fabricate them henceforth) must allow you to invent, in the corridors of your imagination, A BILLION NOVELS PAINLESSLY! …

And here is the sort of device which will give you the work fully prepared: now it's up to you to find, for your public, the sauce which will make the dish a success.

(Ibid., 168)

Ouologuem's recipe consists of conceiving of a very general framework (“All there remains is for you to provide it with the largest accommodating framework [structures d'accueil] with regard to its novelty—which will know no rivalry …” Ibid., 169) within which one concocts a work of optimum heterogeneity and balance by introducing at will sections of suspense, eroticism, violence, humor, and the like. To be certain of success, one should draw his passages from appropriate columns of lifted materials labeled “Suspense,” “Eroticism,” and so on, which one has established in advance. Ouologuem even provides a sample fold-out with his essay. The would-be author then need only make minor adjustments in order for his borrowings to conform to the general framework and, voilà!, a completed novel. Ouologuem cautions the potential pisse-copie that he has one duty: “Operate under the double calling of pedagogy and research, of flattery towards the accommodating framework, even as you retain a clear awareness of the cross-references of the plot” (Ibid., 177).

Given the laborious but unimaginative method he prescribes and the fact that Le Devoir de violence was conceived in student notebooks, we could go so far as to interpret the word “devoir” in the title as meaning not “duty”—the apparent sense—so much as “homework.”

Now to our second question: namely, how African is the book? The fact that Le Devoir de violence is largely a paste-up of unoriginal material which has been appropriately adapted to fit the book's general “structure d'accueil” does not mean that it is without significance per se. If it is not deeply African in its contents, it may be that one or more major African impulses were nevertheless present in the attitude of the author with regard to the notion of plagiarism—even, perhaps, unbeknownst to him—as well as in the general characteristics emerging within the larger structure of his work. In other words, I contend that while the basic contents and method of composition are not spontaneously African, Ouologuem has—in opting for an episodic structure, contrived though it might be—remained faithful to at least one fundamental African impulse found expressed in the majority of Franco-African literary works from Laye's L'Enfant noir to Kourouma's Les Soleils des Indépendances. The African writer tends, by virtue of age-old traditions of the khawaré or “veillée poétique” and the oral folk-tale, to prefer to channel his creativity into short, self-contained episodes without undue attention to logical or smooth transitions. Within the larger “structure d'accueil” of the khawaré we have a variety of songs, dances, poetic chants, and musical renditions, and it was inevitable that African novels should either adopt compatible European forms like the diary, the collection of tales, and the series of salient memories neatly encapsulated in chapters, or else twist prose into an episodic structure. Examples of the former are Oyono's Une Vie de boy and Laye's L'Enfant noir and Dramouss; an example of the latter is Les Soleils des Indépendances which has an overall structure but is textually made up of shorter entities at times resembling African fables and extended proverbs.

Thus, the collage effect which well-meaning defenders of Ouologuem would justify superficially in terms of Parisian aesthetics might better be justified in profound terms of African aesthetics. A more penetrating analysis of traditional African aesthetics leads us into another area of conjecture. Gobineau was obviously paternalistic and racist without realizing it when he said of African aesthetics that there was, no doubt, an African conception of beauty, but that it was defective compared to the “real” Graeco-Roman beauty.

Traditional African aesthetics, based as it is on a lingua-ontology quite different from the European, balks at the idea of exclusivity of artistic expression. The African artist qua craftsman has traditionally been concerned with an imitation of nature—indeed the “objective correlative” is a universal concern of the artist in all areas and times—but his approach to mimesis is not quite that which the Westerner's has become. We are, in Occidental aesthetics, concerned primarily with the imitation in vacuo, having been led to that place by Plato, Descartes, Valéry, and a host of other artists qua philosophers. We hoard these imitations of nature in libraries and art museums, paying millions of dollars not for a work of art but for a “Picasso,” a “Pollock,” or a “Rembrandt.” Proprietorship and the urge to inscribe “fecit” after one's name are characteristic of Western art.

In the various societies called “primitive,” art has maintained an efficacious function in that the artist is intimately caught up in a vital process involving art as a force and the world as things and forces, the interaction being modal. The late Janheinz Jahn has brilliantly summarized African philosophy, or more accurately lingua-ontology, in his controversial book Muntu.24 Suffice it to say, here, that in a world of bantu (human beings), bintu (things), hantu (idea of place and time), and kuntu (modality, such as laughter), man has a degree of dominion over things by virtue of his existential perception of them. Things are, in a sense, whatever purpose they serve, their function being conferred by man qua magician or artist. Therefore, aesthetics in such societies involves participation and the modality of the conferral process as much as it does the compositional attributes of the end product. Unlike Western art, it is meaningless in the African context to say, for instance, that a Dogon statue of a standing male figure is “better” than a Fang figure; each no doubt does precisely what it can be expected to do. As Jahn mentions, two like sculptures can represent a king and a peasant according to what the artist has dubbed them, and he can—with his power of nommo—redub them at will. Stripped of nommo—their designation and participatory essence—they are mere wood and can be discarded, left to termites, or launched on their way to end up on an art dealer's shelf in some European or American city. The so-called primitive is, indeed, concerned with an imitation of nature. He is not, however, concerned with rendering immortal imitations but rather with understanding and finding the means of expressing that which he knows to be immortal.

Even in the new literatures resulting from the linguistic and cultural overlay brought to Africa by French, English, and Portuguese colonialism, the basic lingua-ontological impulse must certainly survive. Indeed, the fact that indigenous impulses are expressed in externally-imposed forms has contributed to the creation of a vigorous and unique brand of creativity in the African hybrid literatures.25 Now, the traditional anonymity of the craftsman-artist, whose patron is not posterity but the village or clan, makes the notion of plagiarism absolutely irrelevant. The M'zabite rug-maker in the Saharan hill town of Beni-Isguen will automatically use the town pattern when weaving his rug, and not be concerned with who invented the pattern nor with royalties. The pattern is the property of all in the community, patented only by local custom and geographical identity. Similarly, one would scarcely accuse the Bambara sculptor of lacking originality or of stealing ideas when he makes a mask in the tribe's recognizable traditional style! If Pound's adopted imperial motto “Make It New” sums up the Western preoccupation with originality and novelty, “Make it Inevitable” might be applicable to the African attitude which respects constancy and tradition.

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 (that the conflict can be surmounted with authenticity is borne out by the works of men like Birago Diop). African critics are less nervous than Europeans about plagiarism, feeling no doubt deep in their souls that the writer is a craftsman who owes allegiance to his readership and not to some pantheon or confrérie of past writers. 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. Just as the traditional African barter system, prior to the introduction of a currency standard by the colonial traders, made hoarding of material wealth neither practical nor sensible, so did tradition limit the gain an artist-craftsman could achieve from his talents (true, as well, of the poets of Europe before movable type and mass media made literature a public commodity). The mystique which surrounds a writer in the West can only be parleyed into a fortune if it is individualized and original, and therefore the writers see to it that their individuation is protected by copyright law.

Ouologuem has committed a European faux-pas. Obviously a man of some genius, Ouologuem must have known that he was violating accepted procedure. He made the grievous error of first hiding his methods and then trying to make light of them. He has also, by calculated use of material created by others—not in the tribal tradition but in the European market place of individuation—done a disservice to his fellow African writers (whom he alternately refers to as his “frères de race” and “négraille”). Many of the writers whose impulses have led them to adopt or emulate without malice the rhythms of admired foreign writers may now find themselves accused of having used the tactics employed and promulgated by Yambo Ouologuem. Finally, Ouologuem may very well have the ability to write a great novel about Africa—entirely of his own vision—but were he to do so, it is doubtful that any publisher or reader would look upon the work without a great deal of skepticism.


  1. Yambo Ouologuem, Le Devoir de violence (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1968); British and American editions: Bound to Violence, translated by R. Manheim (London: Heinemann/Secker & Warburg, 1971; New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1971). Yambo is the author's surname, but like the Algerian novelist Kateb Yacine he uses the reversed form of his name on his book covers.

  2. A fairly detailed summary of Le Devoir de violence is given in Yves Benot, “Le Devoir de violence de Yambo Ouologuem est-il un chef-d'œuvre ou une mystification?” La Pensée, No. 149 (février 1970), 127–31. There is also a summary in Mpiku's essay (See note 8, below.).

  3. Tim Devlin, “Echoes of Graham Greene halt Prizewinning Book,” The Times (London), May 5, 1972, p. 1.

  4. “Vient de paraître,” Le Monde, Supplément au numéro 7344, 24 août 1968, p. ii.

  5. Matthieu Galey, “Le Devoir de violence de Yambo Ouologuem, un grand roman africain,” Le Monde, Supplément au numéro 7386, 12 octobre 1968, p. i.

  6. In La Machine infernale, which retells the Oedipus tale, the characters coincidentally speak truth; for example, when Jocasta trips over the scarf with which she will later hang herself she idiomatically exclaims: “This scarf will be the death of me”; and at one time the brooch with which Oedipus will blind himself is referred to as an “eye-catcher.” Likewise, when pathological liar Thomas is fired at near the trenches, he falls down and reflects that he had better play dead or he is done for, to which the narrator replies that truth and fiction had become so interfused in the mind of Thomas that he had inadvertantly told the truth, for he was dead.

  7. Philippe Decraene, “Un Nègre à part entière,” Le Monde, Supplément, 12 octobre 1968, p. i.

  8. Mbelolo ya Mpiku, “From One Mystification to Another: ‘Negritude’ and ‘Négraille’ in Le Devoir de violence,Review of National Literatures, 11, 2 (Fall 1971), 142.

  9. Eric Sellin, review in French Review, XLIII, 1 (October 1969), 164.

  10. Extract of letter from Schwarz-Bart to Editions du Seuil, dated August 16, 1968, quoted by Paul Flamand in letter to me dated May 9, 1972.

  11. Letter to me dated July 3, 1972.

  12. The great similarity in wording in the blurbs on the back covers of Le Dernier des Justes and Le Devoir de violence and the similar charges of indebtedness levelled at Schwarz-Bart's prize-winning novel a decade earlier threatened—apparently unjustifiably—to open a critical and legal Pandora's box.

  13. As early as 1969, the Canard Enchaîné detected some lines lifted from de Maupassant.

  14. Alfredo Riedel, Cultura negro africana moderna (Trieste: Edizioni Umana, 1973), p. 40.

  15. Bernth Lindfors forwarded a good many newspaper clippings and leads he received in personal correspondence. One letter to him from Anita Kern passes on various African and European professors' unpublished assertions of derivations from Pascal, de Maupassant, Suret-Canale, and half a dozen other authors. This information reconfirms my suspicion that a great many sources are linked to Le Devoir de violence. I am indebted as well to the following people who either sent me clippings or supplied valuable information: M.-S. Dembri, Paul Flamand, Charles R. Larson, and Wilbert Roget. Efforts to contact Ouologuem were unsuccessful. The one Paris address I was given was an obvious and amusing coinage: 4345 rue de la Double Dissoire.

  16. “Our eyes take in the light of dead stars. A biography of my friend Ernie would easily fit into the second quarter of the twentieth century; but the real story of Ernie Levy begins very early, around the year 1000 of our era, in the old Anglican city of York. More precisely: March 11, 1185.”

    “Our eyes drink in the dazzle of the sun, and, conquered, are amazed that they cry. Maschallah! oua bismillah! … An account of the bloody adventure of the Black rabble—shame on those men of nothingness!—would easily fit into the first half of this century; but the real story of the Blacks begins much, much earlier, with the Saïfs, in the year 1202 of our era, in the African Empire of Nakem, in the south of the Fezzan, long after the conquests of Okba ben Nafi el Fitri.” (My translations.)

  17. A research student in Australia, Robert McDonald, detected the derivation despite two translations (that into French and that back into English) and notified Mr Greene who in turn contacted his publisher who made this wry comment: “Greene came on the telephone to me. There was a dry, old-paper feel about his voice. You could almost tear it. I immediately turned up the pages and there it was. It is remarkable how it has survived in translation.” (Devlin, op. cit., p. 2.)

  18. Robert McDonald, “Bound to Violence: a case of plagiarism,” Transition, 41 (1972), 67–68. The pagination referred to is in the English version.

  19. Figaro Littéraire, 10 juin 1972, p. 17.

  20. K. W., “In Defence of Yambo Ouologuem,” West Africa, 21 July 1972, p. 941.

  21. Translated as “An Interview with Yambo Ouologuem,” in Journal of the New African Literature and the Arts, 9/10 (Winter/Spring, 1971), 134–35.

  22. Seth I. Wolitz, “L'Art du plagiat, ou, une brève défense de Ouologuem,” in Research in African Literatures, IV, I (Spring 1973), 131.

  23. Yambo Ouologuem, Lettre à la France nègre (Paris: Editions Edmond Nalis, copyright 1968, “achevé d'imprimer,” janvier 1969), p. 166.

  24. Janheinz Jahn, Muntu, An Outline of the New African Culture (New York: Grove Press, 1961); See also Eric Sellin, “African Art: Compositional vs. Modal Esthetics,” Yale Review, LIX, 2 (Winter 1970), 215–27.

  25. I have, here, adapted a phrase by Janet Abu-Lughod who aptly speaks of the paradox in modern Maghrebine cities as that combining “externally-stimulated urban forms with indigenous impulses, needs and problems” (“Cities Blend the Past to Face the Future,” Africa Report, XVI, 6 [June 1971], 12).

A. E. Ohaegbu (essay date 1979)

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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 best-written and most audacious novels that have ever emerged from post-independence Africa; it can even be said to be a shocker to the ‘outward-looking’ literary orthodoxy of pre-independence African writers in French. African readers and critics look at the book with rather unpleasant surprise, while some racially minded literary critics and reviewers of Europe and America easily succumb to the temptation of regarding it as the greatest blow that has ever been dealt to African life, tradition, and values by an African writer. It is the intention of this article to throw more light on the study of this novel by touching on some vital aspects of the book.

According to Hubert de Leusse,2 Ouologuem is out to destroy a ‘certain fictitious and idyllic image of Africa’ presented by African writers and ethnologists. Considering the wave of violence which runs across the entire novel, this critic comes to the conclusion that ‘Africa is in reality a land where violence is equalled only by the dread it called forth'—merely pushing the author's argument too far! Yves Benot3 remarks that Ouologuem is a ‘nonconformist’ writer who does not believe that Africa had been oppressed and subjugated by colonization, and he goes further to say that ‘this is a consoling and comforting book’ to the French reading public. Obviously these critics imply that the reason behind the overwhelming acclamation of Bound to Violence by many Western critics, and their unanimity on the ‘high quality’ of the novel, is its attempt to destroy the image of Africa.

It appears to me that most critics are so carried away by the blanket of violence with which Ouologuem covers his Nakem Empire that they tend to miss the over-riding message of the author—that man (not necessarily the black man!) has a violent nature which can be utilized to establish, sustain, and perpetuate political domination of a people. Gerald Moore has correctly remarked that

Saif is offered as typical of oppression by which the ‘notables’ have always governed Africa; a system which, having survived the French conquest and the implantation of modern education, now hopes to manipulate even the nominal independence of Nakem to its advantage.4

To get this point across, the author has chosen some sensitive moments of the black man's history—feudalism, Arab invasion, slavery, colonization—which he exploits and manipulates to conform to his violent vision of the world. If this central theme is accepted, it has to be said then that the African reading public is only worried over the rather unsympathetically distorted, and of course ‘unorthodox', use which Ouologuem has made of African history and material to prove his case. Why must the author use his own continent and people to create the hideous image of man? Does he feel so comfortable and safe in his borrowed garment of white civilization that he negates his past and forgets his own alienation? These are two of the questions which the uninitiated reader of Bound to Violence is prone to ask. But the subtleties of the novel have yet to be completely realized before full justice can be done to the book and its author.

It is true that Ouologuem is a hard-liner in his novel, but it has to be recognized that he works with a double-edged axe which spares neither the black man, nor the Western world, some of whose critics claim the novelist on their side. In fact one has to read in between the lines in order to understand that Ouologuem treats with equal contempt his Nakem Empire and the doomed colonial empire which the French had wanted to create in West Africa.

The story opens in a lachrymose and touching tone which indicates the subject matter, the time, and space of the novel:

Our eyes drink the brightness of the sun and, overcome, marvel at their tears. Machallah! wa bismillah! … To recount the bloody adventure of the niggertrash—shame to the worthless paupers!—there would be no need to go back beyond the present century; but the true history of the Blacks begins much earlier, with the Saifs, in the year 1202 of our era, in the African Empire of Nakem south of Fezzan, long after the conquests of Okba ben Nafi al-Fitri …

(p. 3)

As one can see right from the beginning of the novel, part of the grand design of Ouologuem is to show how the ruling Moslem dynasty in the Nakem Empire has, from 1202 to 1947, consistently used violence and intimidation to control the destiny of the common man, referred to in the book as ‘niggertrash’ and ‘pauper’. He is more concerned about the ‘bloody adventure of the niggertrash’ and the victimizer than with the so-called primitivism and barbarism of mediaeval Africa often harped on by critics.

Ouologuem's black man is synonymous with suffering and resignation; he is the ‘worthless paupers', dehumanized and exploited for centuries by the Saifs and Arab notables, ‘clubbed, sold, stockpiled, haggled over, adjudicated, flogged, bound and delivered—with attentive, studied, sorrowful contempt—to the Portuguese, the Spaniards, the Arabs (on the east and north coasts), and to French, Dutch, and English (west coast), and so scattered to the winds …’ (p. 12). When French colonization came, it was the same ‘niggertrash’ who had to be victimized. For Ouologuem, both the black man and the white man have their share of the blame for the slave trade which depopulated Africa. Although he attacks the feudal system and its corollary, slavery, he does not seek to show that violence and oppression are consubstantial with the African; he rather attributes them to what can be called the general degeneration of the human kind of which the black man is only a part.

The mediaeval Nakem Empire which is the main theatre of action is supposedly located in western Sudan:

The fame of that Empire spread to Morocco, the Sudan, Egypt, Abyssinia, and to the holy and noble city of Mecca; it was known to the English, the Dutch, the French, the Spaniards, and, it goes without saying, the Portuguese …

(p. 3).

There is a strong temptation among critics to associate it with the Mali Empire of the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries. In fact nothing in the novel suggests that the Saifs who are of Arabo-Jewish origin are descendants of the ancient kingdom of Mali, nor can the ‘well-beloved Isaac al-Heit', founder of the Nakem Empire and of the Saif dynasty, be compared to Sundjata, the great hero of the Mandingue epic so well celebrated by the famous historian Djibril Tamsi Niane of Mali. It is true that the author of Bound to Violence is a Malian and that he may have drawn from his experiences in his society to weave the intricate story of his novel, but this does not necessarily mean that this gruesome story of violence which he is telling is that of his country and people from 1202 to 1947 and even after; nor can it be said to be really and exclusively that of Africa. As Professor E. N. Obiechina has well remarked: ‘Africa there certainly is in the novel, but so also are Arabia and the Orient, France and Europe. To ignore this fact is to do less than justice to the novel and pander to age-old mystifications.’5

One fact which readers and critics of Ouologuem's book have to admit is that the writer, as an artist, is a universal observer whose experiences and imagination cannot be limited to a definite geographical area with mathematical accuracy. In this regard Ouologuem himself has been reported to have said that his searching and critical eyes extend to ‘Africa of the great empires, the Congo and ex-anglo-egyptian Sudan', and that he has equally borne in mind Delafosse's account of the descendants of the Queen of Saba.6

Two great periods of violence are easily discernible in the novel. The first is the mediaeval period masterminded by the Saif dynasty with the complicity of the notables. Here violence is essentially associated with the feudal cruelties of the overlords on their innocent and ‘bastardized’ subjects who were often captives of war.

In that age of feudalism, large communities of slaves celebrated the justice of their overlords by forced labor and by looking on inert as multitudes of their brothers, smeared with the blood of butchered children and of disemboweled expectant mothers, were immured alive … That is what happened at Tillaberi-Bentia, at Granta, at Groaso, at Gagol-Gosso, and in many places mentioned in the Tarik al-Fetach and at the Tarik al-Sudan of the Arab historians …

(p. 4)

In trying to trace and deplore what he calls ‘the bloody adventure of the niggertrash', Ouologuem calls to mind the atrocities of the feudal system in which the overlord arrogated to himself the right of life and death over his slaves. His argument is that ‘forced labour', ‘slavery', and the destruction of life and property which some African historians and politicians have often blamed on the advent of the white man in Africa already existed in ‘the African Empire of Nakem south of Fezzan.’ This reasoning leads the author to go to the extreme assertion that the French colonization of the Nakem Empire was in reality the ‘beginning of decolonization’:

But to Nakem the colonial powers came too late, for with the help of the local notables a colonial overlord had established himself long since, and that colonial overlord was none other than Saif. All unsuspecting, the European conquerors played into his hands. Call it technical assistance …

(p. 24)

Although Ouologuem is quoted as saying: ‘My aim is to do violence to the misconceptions of Africans so that we can see what the real problems are',7 he seems to have retouched the problems to the point of unreality; his posture baffles those who know the reality and gives a measure of comfort and psychological satisfaction to the exponents of the mission civilisatrice.

An aspect of this mediaeval violence which has become a duty in Ouologuem's Nakem Empire relates to what the author describes as ‘internecine rivalries and warring with one another for the imperial power …’ (p. 4). This type of violence persisted in the Nakem Empire and was about to result in a total disintegration of the empire and the people when French colonizers arrived and constituted a threat to the power of Saif and the notables who now ‘diplomatically’ became great nationalists and freedom fighters.

The second period of violence in the book covers the entire colonial occupation of Nakem up to 1947, the date of the first elections. In this part the author takes delight in offering us what really looks like a fight between two giants over the political control of the Nakem Empire; we have on the one hand the wicked Saif Ben Isaac al-Heit applying all the diabolical means at his disposal (fire, poison, assassination, asps, tricks, intimidation, etc.) to preserve his authority over Nakem; on the other hand the colonial administrators stand firm using the force of arms and also poison to eliminate Saif who constitutes a big obstacle to the effective installation of the colonial regime.

It is important to note that in both the mediaeval and colonial periods power and politics generate the violence which articulates the entire internal movement of the novel. In all cases the permanent victim is the people of Nakem—the niggertrash—whom Ouologuem presents as ignorant of their destiny and incapable of a veritable revolt, since centuries of unbroken servitude have transformed them into ‘Zombies’.

This web of violence entangles not only the Saifs and their murderous agents, not only the colonial administrators who want to liberate the people of Nakem from the clutches of the Saifs and put them under a new form of domination, but it also involves Islam and Christianity which, under the cloak of spirituality, do violence to traditional art and culture.

A close study of Bound to Violence reveals three kinds of violence—physical, economic and cultural. Physical violence is a function of politics; it stems from man's irresistible urge to rule absolutely and exclusively—hence the seeming necessity to eliminate all potential threats. This explains the death of all newborn babies in the Nakem Empire under the rule of Saif Moche Gabbai of Honain:

It came to pass that one day in the year 1420 Saif Moche Gabbai of Honain—after hearing the words of a soothsayer who predicted that he would be overthrown by a child to be born during the coming year in Tillaberi—Bentia, capital of the Nakem Empire—ceased to ignore the strange cravings of pregnant women. He consigned all newborn babes to the red death and lined their shrunken heads along the wall of his antechamber …

(p. 5).

It is for the same reason that Saif al-Haram usurped the imperial throne from his brother, Saif al-Hilal, and killed him. The French colonial administrators, Chevalier and Vandame, are equally victims of politically oriented violence.

There is yet another form of violence which, though physical, does not seek to achieve any definite political end or even any objective at all. The rape of Tambira by Dougouli, Wampoulo and Kratonga, and her ultimate death in a ‘latrine built for Saif's serfs', the sexual torture of Awa by Chevalier, the tragic end of Anne Kadidia caused by ‘a sadistic customer’ who had concealed a razor blade in her washing soap, the unabashed killing of Awa by Sankolo—all these are wanton acts of cruelty which one must shudder to see in the novel. They are ‘gratuitous’ and smack of the English horror novels of the nineteenth century and the French existentialist literature, not to mention the tradition of Le Marquis de Sade, all of which Ouologuem must have read with some delight.

It may be thought that Ouologuem presents these horrible acts of violence to give a barbarous past to the black man but this would be wrong. The truth is that the author is not saying that violence is the black man's heritage. What he is trying to do is to present another aspect of man's nature, that of a human beast; his observation transcends time and space and involves the whole of humanity.

As for the economic aspect of violence, the author shows it through the depopulation of the Nakem Empire by local and foreign slave dealers, by forced labour, hunger, and disease associated with the incessant raids and inter-provincial wars in Nakem. We are told that at a time, ‘under the lash of necessity a father sold his son, a brother his brother', that ‘no villainy was too great if food might be procured by it’ (p. 14). The economic strangulation of the people, far from being historically inevitable, is merely a device for maintaining dictatorial power by forcing everyone to have ‘no other recourse but to throw themselves on the mercy of Saif …’ (p. 14).

Political domination, torture, and economic exploitation can succeed in keeping a people in a state of suffering and subjugation only for some time. The most disastrous and lasting violence is cultural, since it is capable of alienating the oppressed completely from his tradition and environment. Islam and Christianity, in complicity with the Saifs and the notables, are presented in the novel as having done great violence to the cultural personality of the ‘niggertrash', and Ouologuem makes a mockery of these religions:

The religious gymnastics of the five daily prayers of Islam were maintained as safety valve; the poor in mind and spirit were kept busy searching and striving for Allah's Eternal Kingdom. Religion, whose soul had been vomited by the clergy of Nakem, became a deliberately confused mumbling about human dignity, a learned mystification; losing its mystical contents, it became a means of action, a political weapon …

(p. 23)

In much the same way, when the white missionaries came to evangelize the Nakem Empire, Saif forced the slaves and their children to embrace Christianity, and this with a view to placating the colonizers and continuing the cultural ‘bastardization’ of the serfs:

After that Saif decided that only the sons of the servant class would be constrained to undergo French education, the masses of the missionaries, and the baptism of the White Fathers, to adopt French dress and shave their heads, while their parents would be obliged to make amends and swear secrecy …

(p. 46)

Cultural violence is again manifest in the profanation of African art, not only by Saif and the notables, but also by Shrobenius and other Western tourists who defy the magico-religious intention of this art and make it an object of international gangsterism and commercialization. It is no wonder then that Ouologuem should take Shrobenius and his like to task:

This salesman and manufacturer of ideology [Shrobenius] assumed the manner of a sphinx to impose his riddles, to satisfy his caprices and past turnabouts. And shrewd anthropologist that he was, he sold more than thirteen hundred pieces, deriving from the collection he had purchased from Saif and the carloads his disciples had obtained in Nakem free of charge, to the following purveyors of funds: The Musée de l'Homme in Paris, the museums of London, Basel, Munich, Hamburg, and New York …

(p. 95)

Although the name Shrobenius looks like a facile play on the word Frobenius, the famous German ethnographer whose works have in no small measure inspired many Africanists to study and write on African cultures and traditions, one cannot say that Ouologuem is trying to deny the contribution of Western scholarship to the knowledge of African peoples and their civilization. He is rather whipping some of the early European Africanists with whom ‘negro art found its patent of nobility in the folklore of mercantile intellectualism’ (p. 94), and who coined sensational stories about African life simply to appear as great scholars in the Western world and be raised to ‘a lofty sorbonnical chair’.

Another striking feature of Bound to Violence is its generally pessimistic vision of the world. Ouologuem contests the notion of Africa as ‘the womb of the world and the cradle of civilization’; he runs down the black man's past glories, making his present objectionable and his future rather bleak. We are overjoyed to see Raymond Spartacus Kassoumi receive the modern education necessary for the accomplishment of great things; we see him as the forerunner of a generation of young revolutionaries who would fight to end feudal oppression and free the Nakem Empire and its people from the violence to which they have been bound. But alas! Ouologuem disappoints us and dashes our hopes to pieces when he finally makes the modern educated Raymond a pawn in the hands of Saif and a ‘peace-offering’ to the colonial power—an attitude which makes a mockery of education and its importance in politicizing the oppressed masses and fortifying them against the dictatorship of feudal overlords.

Although one would have liked to see Saif nailed to the cross and finally buried and forgotten at the end of the story, Ouologuem makes him our contemporary (if not our eventual successor!), and the atrocities of his regime a recurrent phenomenon of African political history. We are appalled to learn that ‘projected into the world, one cannot help recalling that Saif, mourned three million times, is for ever reborn to history beneath the hot ashes of more than thirty African republics (pp. 181–2).

Lofty ideals like African unity are to Ouologuem a dream that can never be made a reality; the holy water of Mecca not only has a bad taste, it cannot cure the sick, contrary to the belief of Moslems; God is made a tacit collaborator of the tyrannical leaders of the Nakem Empire, since he watches with silent applause and benediction the hangman deal his fatal blows on the ‘niggertrash’. We are told that ‘man is in history, and history is politics. Politics is cleavage. No solidarity is possible. Nor purity (p. 175)’.

Ouologuem takes delight in making the characters of his novel suffer; he treats them with disrespect and verbal violence suggestive of a sadist. Apart from Saif Ben Isaac al-Heit, hero of the novel, and the good priest Henry who becomes bishop at the end of the story, all the rest of the characters find themselves invariably sunk in cruel situations where the author offers them no ray of light nor any hope of salvation; a wicked and implacable destiny seems to have ordained in advance the sufferings of the personages. There is hardly any character who does not fall under Ouologuem's crushing wheels: Tambira is raped and killed without ever seeing the fruits of her labour; her daughter, Anne, after losing her parents, is forced to become a prostitute at Pigalle where she tragically ends what has been a life of unmitigated misfortune; the French governors, Chevalier and Vandame, are massacred in cold blood, and their hopes of establishing colonial administration are frustrated.

At one time the author tells us that ‘the golden age when all the swine [the tyrants] will die is just around the corner’ (p. 174), but it is in vain that we await that golden age, since his Saif—the big swine—though disarmed by the mystic personality of Bishop Henry, remains immortal. In fact all is bad in the society which serves as the landscape of the author's literary creation. However, there is room to wonder whether this pessimism cannot be explained by the fact that he is presenting a world where human misery and oppression abound. What looks like pessimism could then be seen as an exaggerated exteriorization of Ouologuem's internal distress in the face of an endless record of man's injustice to man.

Ouologuem does not present a flattering image of man and society in his novel. Violence and oppression reign supreme and stem from the inordinate ambition of the ruling classes to relegate God to the background and perpetuate their rule of terror over their subjects. His book is not aimed at the glorification of the black man's past, nor at the dismantling of the foundations of his people's civilization. To fully understand him, one has to insert his novel into the context of the general feeling of disillusionment which, as Wole Soyinka, the famous Nigerian playwright and critic, remarked at the conference of African writers in Stockholm (1967), characterizes the present stage of African life. In this regard, it can be said that Ouologuem is not less ‘committed’ than his predecessors (Mongo Beti, Ferdinand Oyono, Bernard Dadie, etc.) who have unequivocally denounced colonial oppression. But the difference is that his own commitment is more internally oriented, and therefore more critical of the African himself than of the white man who has hitherto appeared in the African novel as the black man's permanent oppressor. Indeed, the use he has made of ‘The Legend of the Saifs’ in the first chapter of his novel is to establish a background of horrors and dictatorships against which one can understand the dynamics of power in contemporary Africa. He may have sinned by exaggeration and distortion of facts noticeable here and there in his book, but his thesis cannot be treated as outright fallacy, especially when one takes a dispassionate account of dictatorships and militarisms decimating the population and qualified manpower of some present-day African countries.


  1. This novel has been translated into English. For the purpose of this article the citations and page references are drawn from Bound to Violence, translated from the French by Ralph Mannheim and published in London by Heinemann (AWS 99), 1971. New York, Humanities, 1976.

  2. Hubert de Leusse, Afrique et occident. Heurs et malheurs d'une rencontre. Les romanciers du pays noir, Paris, Orante, 1971, p. 88.

  3. Yves Benot, ‘Le Devoir de Violence de Yambo Ouologuem, est-il un chef-d'oeuvre ou une mystification?’, La Pénsee. Revue du racialisme moderne, Paris, 149, 1970, 128.

  4. Gerald Moore, ‘The Debate on Existence in African Literature', Présence Africaine, 81, 1972, 25.

  5. E. N. Obiechina, ‘Bound to Violence’ (review), Okike. An African Journal of New Writing, I, 3, 1972, 53.

  6. Cf. Philippe Decraene's review of Le Devoir de Violence in Le Monde, 12 October 1968, 1.

  7. Cf. West Africa, 2689, 14 December 1968, 1474–5.

Lemuel A. Johnson (essay date 1980)

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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 metaphor's dramatic and often decisive points of departure or reference:

To my mind it all started with the scarlet handkerchiefs … It was the scarlet did for the Africans. … When the kings saw that the whites—I think the Portuguese were the first—were taking out these scarlet handkerchiefs as if they were waving, they told the blacks, ‘Go on then and get scarlet handkerchief.’ … And they were captured.

(Esteban Montejo, Autobiography of a Runaway Slave)

Aye, lad, I have seen these factories …
Have seen the nigger kings whose vanity
and greed turned wild black hides of Fellatah,
Mandingo, Ibo, Kru to gold for us.
And there was one—King Anthracite we named him—…
He'd honour us with drum and feast and conjo
and palm-oil-glistening wenches deft in love,
and for tin crowns that shone with paste,
red calico and German-silver trinkets …

(Robert Hayden, ‘Middle Passage’)

In effect, whether it be in the elegantly studied ironies and memory of Hayden's poetry or in the casual precisions of the Cuban Esteban Montejo's recall, the Middle Passage has remained an enduring, even necessary, motif in the literature of the black diaspora. Until the politics of post-independence provoked contemporary African authors to outrage and to a near-fatalistic vision of history, the motif had been virtually absent from modern African literature. As may therefore be imagined, its use in the literature has been graphic and accusatory whenever the texts set out to examine the various implications of that context and those principles to which the selections from Hayden and Montejo introduce us. Of course, this intensity is not really surprising, given the literary, and satirical, perception of ancient and modern ‘ships of state’ in writers such as Wole Soyinka (A Dance of the Forests, 1960), Yambo Ouologuem (Bound to Violence, 1968), and Ayi Kwei Armah (Two Thousand Seasons). This 1973 novel of Armah's is treated here as a climactic dramatization of our theme as developed with slow intensity through his The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968), Fragments (1969) and Why Are We So Blest? (1972). The exacerbated and pointed reminiscence which marks the treatment of the Middle Passage motif in literature is, incidentally, present in other genres. Thus, for example, it is worth noting that the Goree flashback in Mahama Troare's film Reou-Takh (1971) is graphic and accusatory. The branding-of-the-slaves scene in Ousmane Sembène's latest film, Ceddo (1978), linked as it is to religious and political exploitation, is one of the film's most intensely rendered sequences.

Two Thousand Seasons provides us, accordingly, with a most comprehensive vision of the catastrophic reaches of slavery. We are as a consequence invited to contemplate a multi-form Middle Passage by the oracular okyeame voice with which Anoa opens the novel (pp. 26–7):

Slavery—do you know what it is? Ah, you will know it. Two thousand seasons, a thousand going into it, a second thousand crawling maimed from it, will teach you everything about enslavement, the destruction of souls, the killing of bodies, the infusion of violence into every breath, every drop, every morsel of your sustaining air, your water, your food. Till you come again upon the way.

The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born is rather more concentratedly bitter and plain-speaking. The novel representatively establishes a vision which eschews irony, casualness and the oracular when it parallels the thrust of the selections from Hayden and Montejo. The contemporary political and moral understanding of the issues involved is as a result unequivocally presented in the novel's unhappy sense of historical symmetry (pp. 130, 148):

And yet these were the socialists of Africa, fat, perfumed, soft with the ancestral softness of chiefs who have sold their people and are celestially happy with the fruits of the trade.

He could have asked if anything was supposed to have changed after all, from the days of chiefs selling their people for the trinkets of Europe.

We shall return to Armah in a later development of premise and theme.


When a trader wants slaves, he applies to a chief for them, and tempts him with his wares … Accordingly, he falls on his neighbours and a desperate battle ensues. If he prevails and takes prisoners, he gratifies his avarice by selling them.

The above rendition of our Middle Passage context and principals is from The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789). The nature of its focus here serves as a fine prelude to Wole Soyinka's treatment of the Middle Passage as ancient and modern political tragedy. In this Soyinka, of course, parallels Armah. Armah's formulation runs true to form, however: it is brutal in its enraged clarity. Soyinka's also runs true to his own rather distinctive style: though deadly, it seems flamboyantly posed. ‘As a writer I have a special responsibility because I can smell the reactionary sperm years before the rape of the nation takes place’ (1972, p. 8). The statement of the case does seem rather melodramatic; yet it is most useful, indispensable even, given the several categories in this analysis of the Middle Passage. The focus on conception, for example, anticipates the development later in this essay of two corollary Middle Passage themes: an abiku or ogbanje motif and the rites of passage implications of that motif. It is, however, the political thrust of Soyinka's concern which is of immediate consequence here.

The politics of the Middle Passage is, of necessity, a politics of villainy. This perception is further reinforced by a literature of contemporary and retrospective disenchantment. Political traumas associated with colonial seduction and autocratic self-indulgence result in a series of character portrayals which emphasize sycophancy and avarice. This is virtually always the case; it is only further intensified by Armah's focus on excremental pathology and by Soyinka's megalomaniac, and cannibal, powers-that-be. Soyinka, however, never quite attains Armah's hard-eyed rage. In this respect, though at diminished intensities, he is more in tune with the orgiastic black humour with which Ouologuem launches his past and present ships of state. Thus, Soyinka's deadliness, early and late, echoes the comic melodrama of autocratic self-indulgence and sado-masochism which distinguishes the ‘armpit’ scene in The Lion and the Jewel (1963). Therefrom comes a portrait of the ruler and, by extension, a comment on the ‘stubborn continuity’ of a certain political genealogy (CP 2, p. 25):

(Baroka in bed, naked except for baggy trousers, calf-length. It is a rich bedroom covered in animal skins and rugs. Weapons round the wall. Also a strange machine, a most peculiar contraption with a long lever. Kneeling beside the bed is Baroka's current Favourite, engaged in plucking the hairs from his armpit. She does this by first massaging the spot around the selected hair very gently with her forefinger. Then, with hardly a break, she pulls out the hair between her finger and thumb with a sudden sharp movement. Baroka twitches slightly with each pull. Then an aspirated ‘A-ah', and a look of complete beatitude spreads all over his face.)

The portrait is of one of powers-that-be who ‘love to have [their] hairs ruffled well below the navel', as Soyinka puts it four years later in Kongi's Harvest (CP 2, p. 64). In the early Soyinka of The Lion and the Jewel, the fate which yokes victims (‘outpullers of sweat-bathed hairs’) to predator is benignly contained. When the play ends, the abuse of power and complicity in such abuse are all tempered and diffused in a comically ambiguous fertility dance. The later Kongi's Harvest is, of course, unwilling to surrender to such optimism. There, the climactic dance is pathological and is choreographed into a near-literal representation of the cannibalistic implications of political rapacity (CP 2, pp. 131–2).

We are thus introduced to what Two Thousand Seasons calls ‘a race of takers seeking offerers, predators seeking prey. It is a race that takes, imposes itself, and its victims make offerings to it’ (p. 26). The Middle Passage motif is unavoidably linked to, indeed depends on, such a race of ‘caretakers’ (Armah). Thus, the intervening and benign comedy of The Lion and the Jewel notwithstanding, Wole Soyinka had even earlier than 1963 set out to temper exuberance over the political enterprise in the metaphors of the Middle Passage. We see this response in that historical, ironical jab of a parable, A Dance of the Forests (1960), which Soyinka wrote in response to a commission to write a drama to be ‘performed as part of the Nigerian Independence Celebrations, October, 1960’. In the play, a flashback from a corrupt and blindly naïve present takes us centuries back to the Court of Mata Kharibu (CP 1, pp. 46–57). It is a step back the purpose of which Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born makes clear in the succinctness of ‘New people, same style, old dance’ (p. 156), and in the resigned clarity of ‘Endless days, same days, stretching into the future with no end anywhere in sight’ (p. 160).

Into Mata Kharibu's ‘courtly’ drama of political excess and sexual appetite Soyinka introduces the Slave Dealer; with bitter and profound irony, he is offered as a final solution. I have elsewhere, in ‘History and dystopia in Alejo Carpentier and Wole Soyinka’ (1977a, p. 12), offered the following view of the Slave Dealer and of his historical and moral significance:

The weight of the intractable in Man and History finally results in weariness … In A Dance of the Forests that intractability in Man and Time is incarnate in the Slave Dealer, scavenger of the roads to Dystopia. He is the perversion which is born when men acquire power over one another, and their instincts are fulfilled.

His ship, by extension the ship of state, is the ‘slight coffin into which he stuffs his victims’. Doppelganger to the political ruler, the Slave Dealer is conceived of as an extension of the Emperor's excesses. The connection is underscored when Soyinka makes the Emperor vent his anger against the Warrior with ‘Sell that man down the river. He and his men. Sell them all down the river’. For his part, the Slave Dealer insists, perhaps heavy-handedly, on the permanent and transcendent sea-worthiness of his slave ship: ‘My new vessel is capable of transporting the whole of Mata Kharibu's court to hell.’ Soyinka's political suspicions are all the more emphasized when the play's blustering and opportunistic Historian, grandiose in his ingenuousness, tells us that ‘Mata Kharibu and all his ancestors would be proud to ride in such a boat’. The historical vision is an unhappy one; and the play anticipates Soyinka's later expression of concern with ‘reactionary sperm’ and ‘the rape of the nation’.

There is, it now becomes clear, a fateful pointedness to Soyinka's introduction of the Warrior's wife: (A woman, dishevelled, rushes in, followed by a guard … The woman is pregnant. She is the Dead Woman.) History, in sum, is marked and is determined by the ‘stubborn continuity’ of aborted or mutant expectations. Conception takes place in, and birth comes from, ‘branded womb to branded womb’. A Dance of the Forests's Dead Woman/Pregnant Woman is therefore thematically and dramatically significant, serving here as a logical introduction to the abiku/ogbanje vision of the rites of passage which will be developed later in this essay. Fittingly, her prostrated condition closes the Mata Kharibu flashback, opening the play to the chaotic present. Thus, at the enslavement order from Mata Kharibu, ‘Guard. You know my sentence. See that you carry it out.’ (The Woman clasps her womb, gasps and collapses. Sudden blackout, Immediate light to reveal Aroni and Forest Head, who continue to stare into the spectacle.) And so, the birth of a nation.

A Dance of the Forests's ‘Sell that man down the river … Sell them all down the river’ is also of some significance for other historical and literary reasons. Soyinka's flashback is an allegorical and sensitive compass whose ‘true North’ will be dramatized in the brutal Middle Passage of Ouologuem's Bound to Violence. To the south and down the river, a brutal slave revolt on a slave ship climaxes Armah's Two Thousand Seasons, as we shall see later. Historically, the compass also points out motifs slave dealer, slave ship and passage, toward the diaspora consciousness with which this essay begins. Thus, centuries later and farther down the coast from Mata Kharibu's court, Captain Canot's Adventures of an African Slaver (1854) strains incongruously after poetic aptness as it provides a passage into Armah's fiction and Hayden's poetry. Canot's ship, with the ‘bright, ironical name’ (Hayden) of Esperanza, is becalmed in West African waters. There follows a scene pregnant with that ‘living nightmare’ which the literature of the Middle Passage seeks to exorcise—be the exorcism political, historical or, as with the abiku motif, metaphysical (p. 207):

There we hung—
                                                            A painted ship upon a painted ocean!

I cannot describe the fretful anxiety which vexes a mind under such circumstances. Slaves below; a blazing sun above; the boiling sea beneath; a withering air around; decks piled with materials of death; escape unlikely; a phantom in chase behind; the ocean like an unreachable eternity before; uncertainty everywhere; and, within your skull, a feverish mind, harassed by doubt and responsibility, yet almost craving for any act of desperation that will remove the spell. It is a living nightmare, from which the soul pants to be free.1

Robert Hayden, for his part, resorts to a dark lyricism to capture the sense of history which the various contradictions of the Middle Passage engender:

Shuttles in the rocking loom of history
the dark ships move, the dark ships move
their bright ironical names
like jests of kindness on a murderer's mouth.

In Ouologuem, the contradictions are bound to violence in a less subtle expression.


So among us the ostentatious cripples turned the honoured position of caretakers into plumage for their infirm selves.

Two Thousand Seasons (p. 99)

Like Armah and Soyinka, Ouologuem is unrelenting when he traces the political woof and warp in the ‘rocking loom’ of the Middle Passage. Rather fittingly, one of the praise-names which Bound to Violence confers on Madoubo, son of the ‘dreaded and magnificent Said ben Isaac Al-Heit', African emperor, is ‘a man so strong that with a single stroke of his sword he could split a slave in two or sever the head of a bull’ (p. 45). Given the literary ancestry of Bound to Violence, it is not at all surprising that ‘bright, ironical names’ are inseparable from the orgiastic flamboyance with which Ouologuem explores and interprets our motifs.

Heretically exuberant with both Koranic exultations and western thought, Ouologuem's novel, as he more calmly explains it in an interview with the Guardian, is an attempt ‘to “restore an historical dimension” to the Negro problem. His thesis is that three historical periods of colonialism have been responsible for the Negro “slave” mentality. First, domination by African notables (like his own family); then the Arab conquest; and, since the mid-nineteenth century, British and French colonization. “After all, the white slave trader only proposed—it was the African notables who disposed.”’2

The novel itself resists calm statement, however. It is in the rhetoric of a highly crafted and often grotesque iconoclasm that Bound to Violence presents its thesis: ‘the rush for that precious raw material, the nigger-trash … At that early date! So be it! Thy work be sanctified, O Lord. And exalted’ (p. 24). There is the same focus on the ‘rush’ and that ‘early date’ in Armah's Two Thousand Seasons. As may be expected, Armah's outrage is, by contrast, declaratively and fiercely unequivocating: ‘We are not so warped in soul, we are not Arabs, we are not Muslims to fabricate a desert god chanting in the wilderness, and call our creature creator. That is not our way’ (p. 5). Both writers none the less confront the Middle Passage significance of the alien's ‘way’. ‘Reactionary sperm’ and ‘the rape of the nation’ are elaborately detailed in the suggestive but succinct identity of ‘Hussein, twin brother of Hassan the Syphilitic’ (Two Thousand Seasons, p. 34) as well as in Ouologuem's series of dynastic agonies and ecstasies (p. 16):

On April 20, 1532, on a night soft as a cloak of moist satin, Saif al-Haram, performing his conjugal ‘duty’ with his four stepmothers seriatim and all together, had the imprudent weakness to overindulge and in the very midst of his dutiful delights gave up the ghost … The next day his raven-eyed minister Al Hadj Abd al-Hassana, having established a stripling boy and Hawa, the most beautiful of Saif's stepmothers, in his bed, was stung by an asp which he was caressing in the belief that he was holding something else, opened his mouth wide three times, and died … His successor was his cousin Holongo, ‘a horrible biped with the brutal expression of a buffalo', humped in front and in back; after a reign of two years, moaning in enviable torment, he died in the arms of the courtesan Aiosha, who strangled him as he was crying out in ecstasy. His successor was Saif Ali, a pederast with pious airs, as vicious as a red donkey, who succumbed six months later to the sin of gluttony, leaving the crown to Saif Jibril, Ali's a younger brother, who, slain by the sin of indiscretion, was replaced by Saif Yussufi, one of the sons of Ramina … An albino notorious for his ugliness, he was twice felled by one of his wife's admirers; the third time—at last!—much to his amazement he was carried off by an ill wind, ceding his place to Saif Medioni of Mostaganem, who was recalled to God ten days later, torn to pieces, so it is said, by the contrary angels of Mercy and Justice. Then the last children of the accursed Saif and of his stepmothers reigned successively: Saif Ezekiel, who was dethroned after four years; Saif Ismail, reduced to impotence for seven months, then forced to abdicate; and the third, Saif Benghighi of Saida, somnolent for five years: as though the Court were condemned to have no tongue but a forked one.

This identification of ‘ostentatious cripples’ with the ‘ship of state’ parallels Soyinka's vision, of course. The difference lies, however, in the matter of flamboyance and intensity. For example, the Kadiye is ‘crippled’ with considerably more restraint in Soyinka's The Swamp Dwellers (CP 1, pp. 93–4):

(The drummer is now at the door, and footsteps come up the gangway. The drummer is the first to enter, bows in backwards, drumming praises of the Kadiye. Next comes the Kadiye himself, a big, voluminous creature of about fifty, smooth-faced except for little tufts of beard around his chin. His head is shaved clean. He wears a kind of loin cloth, white, which hangs over his left arm. He is bare above the waist. At least half of the Kadiye's fingers are ringed. He is followed by a servant, who brushes the flies off him with a horse-tail flick.)

The Kadiye is, however, easy enough to detect in any one of the characters with which Bound to Violence explores rapacity. We see this in the deformed and deadly sensuality of Saif (p. 58):

There was dignity and strength in Saif's long, slow strides. Smiling, he caressed the cutlass under his dashiki and, soothed by the light breeze from the plains, sponged his square forehead beneath his graying short-cropped hair—the forehead of a warrior far more than of a religious leader. A few steps from the threshold, he removed his head covering with a somewhat theatrical gesture, revealing an aristocratic, dissolute, and handsome face and the bald crown of his head—a sign of weariness or of early debauchery. His thick lips, his aquiline nose, indeed his every feature smacked unmistakably of vice.

The violence that results in Armah and Ouologuem is correspondingly greater and more explicit in thrust and form. As a corollary development, the Middle Passage is spatially and temporally more extensive in Ouologuem: ‘more and more often, unfreed slaves and subjugated tribes were herded off to Mecca, Egypt, Ethiopia, the Red Sea, and America at prices as ridiculous as the flea-bitten dignity of the niggertrash’ (p. 18).

The Middle Passage is directly represented as a metaphor for dispossession, displacement and exile. Ouologuem and Armah soon enough come to focus on grotesque marches which transform the continent into endless ‘Trails of Tears’ and sadism. They all lead, ineluctably, to final solutions in ‘factories’ and ships. The most important and celebrated of these factories, ‘castles', still stand along the ‘gold coast’ of Ghana. This fact gives to Armah's political vision an especial immediacy when, as a Ghanaian novelist, he insists that ‘the beautyful ones are not yet born', the new dispensation notwithstanding (p. 91):

After a youth spent fighting the white man, why should not the president discover as he grows older that his real desire has been to be like the white governor himself, to live above all blackness in the big old slave castle.

To get to factory, castle and ship Ouologuem transforms his landscape into trail upon trail which are made to cross and parallel each other in bewildering yet indeflexible symmetries. Throughout, the various incarnations of Mata Kharibu repeat his ‘sentence’ because, like him, they are bound to violence and violation (p. 27):

When they get to Gagol Gosso, which has surrendered, they ask for food and huts for their slaves; the Chief's answer: ‘Sell them.’ They sold them. Those whom nobody wanted were drowned to save ammunition. And the march continued, a nightmare.

‘Time passes; once more tornadoes send down sheets of water, roads and trails are drowned in mud’ (loc, cit.). But, as in Two Thousand Seasons where the marches threaten to make of time ‘same days stretching into the future with no end in sight', Bound to Violence picks up the trail and its victims. A compulsive right of passage is insisted upon in spite of wind, water and mud: ‘And yet, at infrequent intervals, a caravan traversed those dismal and endless plains: slave traders driving wretched files of men, women, and children, covered with open sores, choked in iron collars, their wrists shackled and bleeding’ (p. 28). The novel's vision is unflinching; its point of view is obsessively detailed. Our motifs are therefore sharply etched out with naturalistic insistence in Ouologuem—as compared to the allegorical orientation of Soyinka's A Dance of the Forests. Soyinka's ‘reactionary sperm’ and Pregnant Woman/Dead Woman are suggestive of things that Ouologuem is more than ready to render explicitly (p. 27):

The children, the sick and disabled are killed with rifle butts and bayonets, their corpses abandoned by the roadside. A woman is found squatting. Big with child. They push her, prod her with their knees. She gives birth standing up, marching. The umbilical cord is cut, the child kicked off the road, and the column marches on, heedless of the delirious whimpering mother, who, limping and staggering, finally falls a hundred yards farther on and is crushed by the crowd.

Before the climactic expression which comes in Two Thousand Seasons, Armah's Fragments gives a form to these recurrent metaphors of birth and death which makes it easier to elucidate the rites of passage metaphysics in the literature of the Middle Passage. Wole Soyinka's triad, sperm, birth and death, thus comes to full term through an elaboration of the abiku motif.


As she buried one child after another her sorrow gave way to despair and then to grim resignation. The birth of her children, which should be a woman's crowning glory, became for Ekwefi mere physical agony devoid of promise. The naming ceremony … became an empty ritual … One of them was a pathetic cry, Onwumbiko—‘Death, I implore you’. But Death took no notice … Ozoemena—‘May it not happen again’. She died … Onwuma—‘Death may please himself’. And he did.

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (p. 74)

In the silence of webs, Abiku moans, shaping Mounds from the yolk.

Wole Soyinka, ‘Abiku’

The Middle Passage concerns, so obviously aimed at birth and death in the political process and at historical commentary, do more than that. The foreshortened cycle of birth and death involved is also seen as a violation of certain metaphysical and biological rhythms which, precisely because of their cyclical nature, make conception, birth, death and ancestral reintegration the bases of temporal and spiritual order. In the language of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (p. 115), ‘The land of the living was not far removed from the domain of the ancestors. There was coming and going between them … A man's life from birth to death was a series of transition rites which brought him nearer and nearer to his ancestors’. The Middle Passage in its resistance to such beginnings and endings is a state of permanent exile, a wandering in limbo. In the metaphysics of Things Fall Apart (p. 74) we are faced with the incarnation of a ‘wicked tormentor’ and an ‘evil cycle of birth and death’. It is also appropriate here to highlight a sequence of references in that vision of disturbance in the cycle of fertility and regeneration which Wande Abimbola derives from the metaphysics of Ifa Divination Poetry (1977, p. 3):

Pregnant women could not deliver their babies:
Barren women remained barren.
Small rivers were covered up with leaves.
Semen dried up in men's testicles
Women no longer saw their menstruation.

J. B. Danquah's The Akan Doctrine of God provides us with a formulation which integrates rites of passage, metaphysics and politics. We can therefore more readily understand the profane thrust of the politics of the Middle Passage when it turns ‘the honoured position of caretakers into plumage for infirm … selves’ (Armah):

Akan knowledge of God (Nyame) teaches He is the Great Ancestor. He is a true high God and manlike ancestor of the first man. As such ancestor He deserves to be worshipped in the visible ancestral head, the good chief of the community … All ancestors are in the line of the Great Ancestor … Life, human life, is one continuous blood, from the originating blood of the Great Source of their blood.

(Johnson, 1971, p. 24; my emphasis)

Armah's Fragments mutes the political thrust of the view to emphasize in the character of Naana the historical and cultural significance of the rites of passage. The very structure of the novel is, as a matter of exegesis, better understood in the light of the perspective which Danquah gives us. That perspective shapes the narrative and thematic rhythms which unite the first chapter and first paragraph with the last chapter and last paragraph. As a corollary feature, the novel's tragic lyricism is more fully appreciated when we understand why and how Naana's condition determines its expression. She awaits her grandson Baako's return from ‘exile’ abroad; her desire is for a return which affirms ‘one continuous blood, originating from the blood of the Great Source’ (Danquah). But the times are not propitious for a traditional ‘Incantation to Cause the Rebirth of a Dead Child’.3 The novel's frame therefore stands as an ironic and defiant affirmation of order and rhythm in the face of the madness which the narrative seeks to contain. In a sense, in so far as Naana at least completes near-normative rites of passage, one madness (disruption of the ‘line of the Great Ancestor’) is, in fact, contained. Thus Naana, as alpha and omega—and alpha (pp. 11, 286):

Each thing that goes away returns and nothing in the end is lost. The great friend throws all things apart and brings them together again. That is the way everything goes and turns around. That is how all living things come back after long absences, and in the whole great world all things are living things. All that goes returns. He will return.

I am here against the last of my veils. Take me. I am ready. You are the end. The beginning. You who have no end. I am coming.

The ‘line of the Great Ancestor’ has, however, been warped, if not actually broken. Under the pressure of political disenchantment Armah insists again and again that the rites of passage—conception and birth especially—have been profaned or violated. In sum, in Soyinka's inelegant expression, the sperm is a ‘reactionary sperm’. Armah is ready to be even more inelegant. He insists, often in angrily explicit metaphors, that birth and anal canals (passages) have fused into a ‘marvellous rottenness’. Consider how the motif is developed in the following sequence from The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born; we move from what seems mere, even if crude, invective to excremental birth. I resort to full documentation for effect (pp. 9, 97, 133):

‘Your mother's rotten cunt!’

The man put out his hands and touched the body in between the thighs, just below the genitals. The flesh yielded too readily, and the dreaded sense of familiarity threatened to return. The hand moved up. The vagina itself was harder, more resisting, almost abrasive in the sharpness of its hair and the dryness of outer skin. Wanting a satisfying moistness of a woman aroused at last, the man pushed his hand farther up and then bent it, searching for the hidden knob of flesh. But the movement had brought his wrist against his wife's belly, and the long line of a scar took the man's mind completely away from any thought of joy.

The last child had had to be dragged out of his mother's womb …

The two men left their women and went off toward the bathroom and the latrine. The cement of the yard was slippery underfoot with a wetness that increased as they got closer to their goal. When they came to the latrine, they found its door locked, and had to wait outside. The agony and the struggle of the man inside were therefore plainly audible to them, long intestinal wrangles leading to protracted anal blasts, punctuated by an all-too-brief interval of pregnant silence. It was a long battle, and the man within took his time … Finally the harsh sound of the old dry newspaper came at the end of a long, tearing, unambiguous sound and the two relaxed in readiness. Then a small boy emerged.

With that distinctive gift for climactic codas which he displays in each one of his novels, Armah moves to a resolution. A coup has taken place; it is, for The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, merely a ‘change of embezzlers’. Ex-minister Koomson seeks to escape, but the only passage open is through the latrine. With a small shudder Koomson lowers his head till it is just above the hole, then in a rapid sinking action he thrusts it through. But then movement stops, for this is to be a battle from which one emerges only at the end of long tearing. This ‘last child’ (meaning only the latest of a breed) has to be dragged out—to be dragged through (p. 166):

Koomson … went down the hole again, the disgust returning to share his face with his resignation.

This time Koomson's body slipped through easily enough, past the shoulders and down the middle. But at the waist it was blocked by some other obstacle. The man looked at the hole again, but there was space there. Perhaps the latrine man's hole was locked. The wooden latch securing it would be quite small, and should break with a little force.

‘Push!’ the man shouted … Quietly now, he climbed onto the seat, held Koomson's legs and rammed them down. The man pushed some more, and in a moment a rush of foul air coming up told him the Party man's head was out. The body dragged itself down …

It is obvious that the trails and trials of such passages can not lead to that rhythm of integration and cycle which underlies Naana's vision. What we do have is a heretical birth, in effect, a growth whose stubborn metastasis is from ‘branded womb to branded womb', to return to Soyinka's language. This sense of the tragically intractable is an expression of historical consciousness; it is also an invitation to, or a recognition of, the fatalistic. The theme is aptly rendered in the literature which concerns us here through Abiku, a ‘spirit child’ fated to a cycle of early death and rebirth to the same mother. Soyinka's suspicion that the human condition is beyond redemption affects his use of the motif. The voice in ‘Abiku’ shows a defiant insouciance in its stubborn continuity; indeed, it mocks the traditional ritual of mutilation and healing (1966, p. 152):

In vain your bangles cast
Charmed circles at my feet;
I am Abiku, calling for the first
And the repeated time …
So when the snail is burnt in his shell
Whet the heated fragment, brand me
Deeply on the breast. You must know him
When Abiku calls again.
… Mothers! I'll be the
Suppliant snake coiled on the doorstep
Yours the killing cry.

J. P. Clark's ‘Abiku’ is a lyrical plea for release from a Middle Passage (‘doorstep', ‘threshold’) existence, an existence exiled between life and death (1966, p. 117):

No longer then bestride the threshold
But step in and stay
For good. We know the knife-scars
Serrating down your back and front
Like beak of the sword-fish,
And both your ears, notched
As a bondsman to this house,
Are all relics of your first comings.
Then step in, step in and stay
For her body is tired,
Tired, her milk going sour
Where many more mouths gladden the heart.

In Armah's angrier contexts when rite of passage thus becomes the ‘wicked tormentor’ with an ‘evil cycle’ (Achebe), history is measured by the cumulative weight of an ‘unconquerable filth’. It is ‘unconquerable filth’ quickened by an ectoplasmic and therefore lower form of life, ‘made moist and covered over thickly with the juice of every imaginable kind of waste matter’ (The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, p. 7). Much like Ouologuem's slave-raiding trails which are marked out in wind, water and mud, Armah's ectoplasmic wasteland seems a natural, and permanent, process of birth by excretion (p. 40):

More than halfway now, the world around the central rubbish heap is entered, and smells hit the senses like a strong wall, and even the eyes have something to register. It is so old it has become more than mere rubbish, that is why. It has fused with the earth beneath.

Appropriately, one of the cries of despair which bondage to such a state of affairs provokes is ‘But slavery … How long?’ (p. 85). But the despair is also a cry of defiance which provokes Armah into a series of extraordinary acts of exorcism in Two Thousand Seasons. It is an exorcism of sufficiently effective catharsis to engender his latest novel, The Healers.Two Thousand Seasons' climax thus comes in an act of individual and collective purgation: a slave rebellion in the very bowels of a slave ship. Its ferocity is responsive to, and is a reflection of, both a curse and a tradition of healing which brooks neither compromise nor charlatan expression. The ritual mutilation to break the ogbanje cycle in Achebe's Things Fall Apart can thus be conceptually related to that search for release from stubborn continuity which quickens the consciousness in Two Thousand Seasons:

He brought out a sharp razor from the goatskin bag slung from his left shoulder and began to mutilate the child. Then he took it away to bury in the Evil Forest, holding it by the ankle and dragging it on the ground behind him. After such treatment it would think twice before coming again, unless it was one of the stubborn ones who returned, carrying the stamp of their mutilation—a missing finger or perhaps a dark line where the medicine man's razor had cut them.

(Things Fall Apart, p. 75)


The extraordinary coda into which Two Thousand Seasons concentrates the various features of our Middle Passage theme begins with studied inelegance, and does so calmly enough, in Armah's first novel. Thus, in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, ‘The man thought he would surely vomit if he did not get out from this foul smell’ (p. 161). The catatonic melancholia which afflicts ‘the man’ is further intensified into outright madness in Fragments’ Baako. That madness, which comes at the end of the novel, is anticipated by the intense response to a mad dog early in the novel:

On this hot Atlantic day there was something inside the dog making him so cold he seemed to be searching for the whole feel of the road's warm tar under him, and he was turning round and round in circles trying to reach and touch every bit of skin he had all in one impossible movement his limbs and bones were not soft enough to give him.

The child's perception provides the link to that search for a purgative which Two Thousand Seasons will soon resolve (p. 33):

the dog belonged to him and was his best friend in the world … that he was suffering and shivering with coldness because perhaps he had swallowed something bad that he couldn't vomit yet.

The protagonists of Why Are We So Blest? are afflicted with the same bitter and choking need for relief. ‘We have swallowed the wish for our destruction,’ Solo writes (p. 159). As he tells us himself, ‘All my apertures ran with fluid, living and dead, escaping a body unwilling to hold them: blood, urine, vomit, tears, diarrhoea, pus’ (p. 114). But this is merely a morbidly suicidal and non-revolutionary consciousness of self.

The stage is thus set for Two Thousand Seasons to incorporate the references above into that symbolic and also pathologically brutal act of revenge and purgation with which Armah seeks relief from exile in the Middle Passage. The catharsis extends beyond the demands of our motif, however, to underscore a significant change in Armah's narrative point of view. The morally paralysed and catatonic protagonists of his three earlier novels are replaced by a collective identity and voice, by the migratory ‘We’ who endure the slave marches and embarkation of Two Thousand Seasons. Rage and suffering do not now implode, reducing and trapping the individual protagonist in an in-growing and self-damaging estrangement. The novel is emphatic about this change in perspective: ‘How infinitely stupefying the prison of the single, unconnected viewpoint, station of the cut-off vision’ (p. 210). The collective voice may thus be seen as a further illustration of what Danquah calls ‘the line', or the ‘one continuous blood, from the originating blood of the Great Source of their blood’. This vision is strategically insisted upon at just that historical juncture where the Middle Passage threatens exile and separation. We are thus introduced to a special ‘poetics’ of narration. In addition, the narrative mode is a thematic illustration of Naana's rites of passage search for ‘the peace and understanding of those ancient words’: ‘There are no humans born alone … A piece of us, go / and come a piece of us / … There are no humans who walk this earth alone’:

A human being alone
is a thing more sad than any lost animal
and nothing destroys the soul
like its aloneness

(Fragments, pp. 15–16)

For these reasons, Two Thousand Seasons, though the most extravagantly violent of Armah's novels, anticipates rather directly the role of Damfo the Healer, with his passionate sense of community, in the new work The Healers, A Historical Novel:

You, Densu, growing up, have been told you belong to the Fantse people, like everyone else at Esuano. No one told you the Fantse people are no people at all but a single fragment of one community that misfortune blew a part. Of that exploded community the Asante are also a part. The Denchira, the Akim, the Wassa, the Sewhi, the Aowin, the Nzema, the Ekuapem—all these are merely scattered pieces of what once came together.

Not only that. The Akan community itself was just a little piece of something whole—a people that knew only this one name we so seldom hear these days: Ebibirman.

(1977, p. 62)

Here, too, the roll call and invocation to union are also explainable in categories derived from Danquah and from Naana's lyricism:

And you, traveller about to go,
Go and return,
Go, come.

(Fragments, p. 18)

Appropriately, it is when the various trails of the Middle Passage finally converge in the Slave Dealer's ‘coffin’ that Two Thousand Seasons most powerfully activates the sense of community. The numbing shock of marches and trails gives way to collective revolt amid, as Hayden's ‘Middle Passage’ puts it, the ‘charnal stench, effluvium of living death’ of the ship's hold:

where the living and the dead, the horribly dying lie interlocked, lie foul with blood and excrement.

One of the weapons whose ‘fluid’ preparation we have traced through all of Armah's other novels is fashioned out of long-gathering nausea and disgust.

‘With worms eating him so near the surface of his skin', the ‘soft-voiced one', one of the slaves, chuckles in the ship's hold: ‘I will not reach their destination, I am dead already’ (p. 109). He soon appears to be dead, and is then about to be dragged up to the deck and thrown overboard by John, ‘zombi', ‘slavedriver', ‘overfaithful dog’ to the white traders. John is, in this respect, a clear enough prototype of those latter-day political and ‘ostentatious cripples’ who turn ‘the honoured position of caretakers into plumage for their infirm selves’. The rejection of this corruption in Two Thousand Seasons is, as I have put it elsewhere in a response to another of Armah's climactic scenes, ‘what must surely be one of the most brutal of literary codas, one in which all the various levels of significance we have thus far developed are pushed to their narrative, aesthetic, and conceptual limits’ (1977b, p. 26).

It begins when the soft-voiced one suddenly, ‘and in a movement too swift for the following eye', comes to life. He braces his legs around the slavedriver's trunk. His left hand, no longer flopping like a dead thing, ‘took the back of the slavedriver's head while the free right hand groped for and soon found his chin’ (pp. 105–6):

Now the soft-voiced one held open the slavedriver's mouth and in one movement of amazing speed swung his own exhausted, emaciated, tortured body upward so that the two heads were on a level, his mouth next to the slavedriver's. The slavedriver gave a shuddering jerk, but the grip of the soft-voiced one was strong. The soft-voiced one brought his mouth exactly together with the slavedriver's and then—incredible obedience to will—we saw him with our own eyes bring up all the bile and dead blood from within his body into his mouth, and this mixture he vomited forcefully into the slavedriver's now captive mouth. The slavedriver … heaved, refusing at first to swallow the deadly vomit from the sick man's mouth. In vain: the sick man's mouth was stuck to the slavedriver's like a nostril to its twin … The deadly vomit was twice rejected by the struggling slavedriver. Three times the dying man refused to let it escape harmless on to the ship's wood below. Three times the dying man held the virulent juices, rejected, in his own mouth and throat. Three times with increasing force he pushed them down the slavedriver's reluctant throat. The third time the slavedriver's resistance was broken and the sick man shared death with him. Choking, the slavedriver fell to the floor with the soft-voiced one still inseparable from him.

The revolt that follows is bloody and brutal. ‘The twin blows had pushed that askari's eyeballs out from within his head. His body lay prone under us, the tongue hanging out a hand's length from its mouth, the eyeballs fallen so far they almost touched the hanging tongue’ (p. 222). The revolt is successful in a way that counterpoints the nature of another man's memories as Hayden's ‘Middle Passage’ will record it later: ‘we were no match for them. / Our men went down / before the murderous Africans’:

It sickens me
to think of what I saw, of how these apes
threw overboard the butchered bodies of
our men, true Christians all, like so much jetsam.
… I tell you that
we are determined to return to Cuba
with our slaves and there see justice done.

But from that port of call also comes Esteban Montejo's memory of a distant metaphysics and of a broken community, underscoring once again our diaspora framework:

The strongest gods are African. I tell you it's certain they could fly … I don't know how they permitted slavery. The truth is … I can't make head or tail of it. To my mind it all started with the scarlet handkerchiefs, the day they crossed the wall. There was an old wall in Africa, right round the coast, made of palm-bark and magic insects which stung like the devil.

(Autobiography of a Runaway Slave, p. 16)

Wole Soyinka, Yambo Ouologuem and Ayi Kwei Armah examine the breach of community which the Middle Passage represents, and they respond in various ways to the implications of that breaching of the wall. They have on the one hand written historical works which are expressions of outrage over political foolishness and exploitation. These works are a dark look at the grotesque dance of joy of crippled ‘caretakers’ over ‘rolls of cloth some red as daytime blood, some a deep blue close to the colours of the most ancient of our cloths, [and] other things impossible to give a name to or describe, except that they all shone fiercely in the sun’ (Two Thousand Seasons, p. 126).4 At the same time, this African literature of the Middle Passage is also an artistic and conceptual initiation into ancestral rhythms and into that consciousness of man and his condition which those rhythms engender:

Now too we began to understand descent. We thought of descent of the body, blood line running through mothers, life's creators here. We thought of descents of the spirit, descent of skills passing through experts to novices; descent of the mind, the mental line through teachers, passers on of knowledge about paths, knowledge about the way along which the people in body will be kept together with the people in spirit, the body of our people with our soul …

Then began that initiation beyond initiations of which the fundis had spoken.

(Two Thousand Seasons, p. 138)

In essence, as Armah in his role of fundi puts it, the literature is engaged in a search for an end to ‘absence of connectedness’. This is why, although prostrate in the coffin of the ship's hold, the voices of Two Thousand Seasons merge in antiphonal epiphany to underscore the dual vision which comes in the Middle Passage (p. 199):

‘What will they do to us if we die so?’
‘They will throw us into the sea.’
‘Ancestors, this death is so new. We cannot join you. We cannot even be wandering ghosts.’
‘No. This is a complete destruction, death with no returning.’

The literature of the Middle Passage is passionately lyrical in its concern and ferocious in its rage. In this way, its purpose and effect are suggestive of the myth in Esteban Montejo's ‘There was an old wall in Africa, right round the coast, made of palm-bark and magic insects which stung like the devil’. Accordingly, ‘descent’ into these narratives of ships, coffins and branded wombs also supply us with a vision of an ‘angle of ascent’ (Hayden). In their treatment of history and politics, Soyinka, Ouologuem and Armah thus demonstrate their interpretation of that ‘special responsibility’ which conditions the modern African writer's attitude to his art.


  1. As in Canot, the following ‘calm’ precedes Armah's uprising:

    … the white destroyers were waiting for a wind.

    It came fitfully when it came at all, the wind. Where we were trapped the strongest wind could only reach us as the languid motion of our own used air, but even that was a merciful thing compared to the total stillness of these days.

    (Two Thousand Seasons, p. 197)

  2. This excerpt from the Guardian is featured on the back cover of the Heinemann edition of Bound to Violence.

  3. ‘Incantation to Cause the Rebirth of a Dead Child', Poems of Black Africa, ed. Wole Soyinka, New York, Hill & Wang, 1975, pp. 162, 163.

    You my child
    Oludande, you born-to-die,
    Return from the red soil of heaven,
    Come and eat the black soil of this world.
  4. The common reference to red cloth by Armah and Esteban Montejo does make for an interesting reading of ‘Oyeku Meji red cloth is never used to cover the dead’ from Abimbola's Ifa Divination Poetry (pp. 49–50):

    A small walking stick goes in front of he who wades through a foot-path on a wet day.
    The two soles of the feet,
    Struggle persistently for possession of the narrow path.
    Ifa divination was performed for one hundred and sixty four cloths
    When they were coming from heaven to earth.
    All of them were told to perform sacrifice.
    But only Red Cloth performed sacrifice.
    After performing sacrifice,
    He started to have honour and respect.
    After a man has used Red Cloth for a long time,
    On the day the man dies,
    Red Cloth is removed from his corpse.
    Only white and other shades of cloth go with the dead to heaven.
    Red Cloth must never go with him.
    Only Red Cloth performed sacrifice.
    Only Red Cloth offered sacrifice to the divinities
    Red Cloth does not go to heaven with the dead.
    After deceiving the dead for a while (on earth),
    It turns away from him (on the road to heaven).

    Abimbola suggests something of the sacral danger involved: ‘The Yoruba do not use red cloth to cover up the dead. To them, red signifies danger and restlessness. Since what the dead need is peace, it is not surprising that the Yoruba will not cover the dead with a cloth that has any red colour whatsoever’ (op. cit., p. 156). Rite of passage and red cloth are linked thereby.


Abimbola, Wande (1977) Ifa Divination Poetry, New York, Nok Publishers.

Achebe, Chinua (1959) Things Fall Apart, London, Heinemann.

Armah, Ayi, Kwei (1971a) The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, New York, Collier, London, Heinemann.

Armah, Ayi Kwei (1971b) Fragments, New York, Collier. London, Heinemann, 1974.

Armah, Ayi Kwei (1973a) Why Are We So Blest?, New York, Anchor/Doubleday. London, Heinemann.

Armah, Ayi Kwei (1973b) Two Thousand Seasons, Nairobi, East African Publishing House. London, Heinemann.

Armah, Ayi Kwei (1977) Excerpt from The Healers: A Historical Novel in First World: An International Journal of Black Thought, Premier Issue, January/February, 1977.

Canot, Captain Theodore (1854, 1969) Adventures of an African Slaver, New York, Dover Publications.

Clark, J. P. (1966) ‘Abiku', in Modern Poetry from Africa, ed. Gerald Moore and Ulli Beier, Baltimore, Maryland, Penguin.

Equiano, Olaudah (1789, 1972) Narrative, in Black Writers of America, ed. Richard Barksdale and Kenneth Kinnamon, New York, Macmillan.

Hayden, Robert (1975) Angle of Ascent: New and Selected Poems, New York, Liveright.

Johnson, Lemuel (1971) The Devil, the Gargoyle and the Buffoon: The Negro as Metaphor in Western Literature, New York, Kennikat.

Johnson, Lemuel (1977a) ‘History and dystopia in Alejo Carpentier and Wole Soyinka', Afro-Hispanic Symposium paper, in Studies in Afro-Hispanic Literature, ed. Clementine Rabessa and Gladys Seda-Rodriquez, New York, Medgar Evers College.

Johnson, Lemuel (1977b) ‘Anti-politics and its representation in the Cuban and African political novel: Edmundo Desnoes and Ayi Kwei Armah,’ ASA/LASA paper; in press: History of African Literature in European Languages, Vol. IV: Comparative, ed. Albert Gerard, Liège, Brussels.

Montejo, Esteban (1973) The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave (Biografía de un Cimarron trans. Jocasta Innes, ed. Miguel Barnet), New York, Vintage.

Ouologuem, Yambo (1971) Bound to Violence (trans. Ralph Manheim), London, Heinemann.

Soyinka, Wole (1964) ‘Abiku', in Modern Poetry from Africa, ed. Gerald Moore and Ulli Beier, Baltimore, Maryland, Penguin.

Soyinka, Wole (1967) A Dance of the Forests, London, Oxford University Press.

Soyinka, Wole (1967) Kongi's Harvest, London, Oxford University Press.

Soyinka, Wole (1971) The Lion and the Jewel, London, Oxford University Press.

Soyinka, Wole (1972) In ‘Man Alive', John Goldblatt, the Guardian, 27 November.

Soyinka, Wole (1973) Collected Plays 1, London, Oxford University Press.

Soyinka, Wole (1974) Collected Plays 2, London, Oxford University Press.

Soyinka, Wole (1975) (ed.) Poems of Black Africa, New York, Hill & Wang. London, Heinemann.

Rosemary G. Schikora (essay date 1980)

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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 design and in the detailed execution of the work. Taking as our point of departure the author's dual, anti-histoire objective, we shall focus primarily on the manner in which he “plays with” the conventional notions of history and fiction.

The key to understanding the dynamics of this work lies in the author's thinly camouflaged desire to tell the “true history” (“story”) of blacks. The creation of history, not unlike that of fiction, is a purely arbitrary affair, governed by no fixed criteria for establishing validity, obliged to conform only to the author's perception of the inherent significance of, and causal relationship between, events. With an eye to amending that portion of historical data which concerns the black race (which did not participate in the history-writing process), and determined to rescue it from oblivion or misrepresentation, the author of Devoir forges his anti-histoire. We shall keep the polysemantic French term which indicates more clearly the dual thrust of the author's undertaking, for he calls into question both history and the narrative, undermining the validity of the chronological illusion to which both lay claim.

Juxtaposing “facts” drawn from a number of sources—Arabic chronicles, legend, the oral tradition, ethnological and missionary accounts, colonialist and neo-colonialist records—the author then proceeds to discredit them. First among the devices he utilizes to this end is language parody. He appropriates the language—clichés, jargon, verbal “ticks”—of each of the above-mentioned mystificateurs and, through parody and pastiche, undermines their reliability as historical sources. (The rabelaisian term is not inappropriate here, for one of the most engaging aspects of this work resides in the author's apparent delight in verbal games.)

The chroniclers and other guardians of the oral tradition fall especially prey to the author's creative abuse of their language. Numerous exclamatory asides—terse, ironic comments on the order of “a sob for her,” “a tear for him,” “God save his soul”—punctuate the text. Another feature which he reproduces is their simplistic and manichean practice of designating good and evil characters through the use of epithets, such as “the mild and just emperor,” “the learned Moses.” He underscores their penchant for calling catastrophe on the enemy (“God's malediction upon him!”), favor on the good (“God keep his soul”), and discredit on the age (“O temporal O mores”). In the manner of the chroniclers whose testimony he disparages, the author summarily describes events in cliché-bound language, such as: “he drew his sword: the sun and the moon shone on its blade and in it the earth was reflected as in a mirror” (p. 7). Or again: “His countenance was like the lightning and his gown was white; his reign was just and glorious. (God keep his soul)” (p. 8).

Parody is clearly the controlling device in the extended, syntactical constructions typical of that which opens Part 2, “Ecstasy and Agony”: “How in profound displeasure, with perfumed mouth and eloquence on his tongue … how to that end he spread reports of daily miracles … how on one of his journeys he transformed … and with what diplomacy he feigned indifference …” (p. 25). This is reminiscent of chapter headings of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century narratives. In other passages, the author uses a paratactic construction, parodying a locution which is characteristic of both scriptural and legendary accounts (both of which come under attack in the work).

Finally, mention should be made in this connection of the verbal game of the anagram. In view of the function of each of the characters in the narrative, it is not unreasonable to attribute the suggestive references which their names evoke to authorial design. By transposing a letter, truncating a syllable, or adding a plausible ending, names are seen to add dimension to the characters' significance. For example, although the demonic “hero,” the Saïf, is anything but the naïf of literary fame, he is as capable of playing this role as any other; Raymond Kassoumi, potential opponent to the Saïf's power-mongering, is himself the son of a slave and virtually incapable of altering his status as a soumis, a puppet in the political arena forcibly manipulated by the Saïf; Shrobénius is unmistakably the caricature of the German ethnologist, Leo Frobenius; and finally, the scapegoat role which falls to the hapless Bourémi is suggested by his name, whose resemblance to “scapegoat” in French (bouc émissaire) is too striking to be merely coincidental.

Distortion is an inevitable factor of narrative time, yet the author of Devoir disregards those conventions designed to camouflage that distortion, violating (partially for purposes of satire) certain basic principles of historical accuracy, balance and perspective.

“Telescoping” is a distortion process which occurs frequently in the transmission of oral tradition (interestingly, one of the author's prime targets of assault), wherein the actual duration involved is irrelevant and capable of being represented by a single archetypal figure (of the proportions of the Saïf).2 This is precisely the technique employed in Part 1, “The Legend of the Saïfs,” twenty-two brief pages in which the reader is catapulted through seven centuries of Saïf reign (encompassing the feudal period, 1202–1898). In contrast to the three subsequent parts, which comprise the bulk of the work, yet which span only the years 1898–1947, the first is apt to be construed as causing a severe structural imbalance, unless one considers the function of the legend, rather than the duration of time involved.

“Periodization” is a conventional chronometric procedure which the author of Devoir exploits by arranging his work into four discrete temporal blocks, corresponding to significant “chapters” in African history (the feudal period, the turn-of-the-century expansionist years, the colonial era, and the period of independence). These in turn represent the four stages of the Saïf dynasty. In terms of the historical consciousness which is evident in this work, the section entitled “Dawn” dispels the romanticizing myth of the Golden Age, the “glorious era of the first States” (p. 8), and obliges those who would “rehabilitate” African history to recognize the shaping influence of the present upon the future.

The chronicle of events moves along a strictly linear line yet, almost from the outset, deterioration of the historical format is evident. No attempt is made to differentiate one event from the next in terms of historical significance. Equal value and weight are attached to each occurrence, hence the trivializing of all. This “leveling” tendency is reinforced by the indiscriminate inclusion or omission of detail. Passages relating massacre, rebellion, or the rise and fall of the powerful enjoy no privilege over accounts of alimental concoctions or the tally of conjugal favors enjoyed by the Saïf on a given night.

Besides this absence of a hierarchical conception of historical events, unsystematic temporal notation enhances the capricious nature of the chronological sequence. The recording of history, or of pseudo history, requires that events be located in time, if not by dating, then by some other method. Particularly in the legendary portion of this novel (Part 1), one is told that a certain incident occurred “one day among others,” “one Friday afternoon,” “at the end of long moons,” “the twelfth day of Ramadan,” and so on. The real significance of the chronometric methods used in this work is not to be discerned by regarding them as illustrative of a naive, or “primitive” temporal sense, nor of a certain malaise over the disintegration of meaning in time and history.3 Rather it is to be seen in the coupling of incompatible historical conceptions, for elsewhere, not only are we given the precise date, but even the time of day or the type of weather. In the same ludic vein, the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille is unduly distinguished by the number of incidents which occur on or near 14 July (cf. pp. 32, 65, 85, 97, 167). These are the principal means by which the historical process is parodied and its flaws exposed. They are subversive tactics by which history is shown to contain the terms of its own destruction. Chronology and periodization are depicted as arbitrary devices, manipulation of which can produce totally dissimilar results.

Although Histoire (often capitalized in the work), both as a genre and as a mode of knowledge of the past, provides a clearly enunciated reference point, the fictional character of Devoir is iterated with equal emphasis. The author calls his work a novel, a fiction, and provides the customary disclaimer that “any resemblance to real people is purely fortuitous.” Yet the reader is forestalled from entering into the fictional present of the work until Part 3. No-where more than in Ouologuem's novel is the customary practice of dissimulating the author's voice pursued less vigorously. This is surely one of Ouologuem's major assaults on the “traditional” narrative structure of which he is heir. The conventionalized habit of thinking of the narrator as midwife, standing somewhere between language (itself a metaphor) and text, or between the author and the fiction, is rudely undermined in Devoir. Especially in Parts 1 and 2, a voice from “beyond” the text competes in resonance and intensity for the reader's attention.

Human time is an insignificant factor in the shape and arrangement of narrative events. The author's apparent aim is to conform as closely as possible to the “real” chronological sequence yet, by doing so, he destroys the illusion of fiction. Having espoused (not without some malice) the historian's methods for Parts 1 and 2, he appropriates and manipulates those of the writer of fiction in later sections. Even here, though, he repeatedly disrupts the illusion of immediacy, confounding the reader's legitimate expectation that, in reading, he temporarily lose himself in the fictional present of the story. The numerous authorial intrusions represent another subversive tactic, for they undermine the principle of narrative time and negate the steps that have been taken toward synthesizing the respective “moment” of author, narrator, and reader.

There is perhaps more irony in the author's initial disclaimer than is at first realized, for in order to resemble “real” people, characters in a work of fiction must display some degree of susceptibility to the effects of temporal existence. Yet most of the characters in Devoir operate on an atemporal plane. They are timeless and immutable, not literary types but stereotypes. It would appear that this too is part of the author's game strategy, for although he denounces those aspects of an outsider's, stereotypical portrait of the Negro, which unduly dwell upon his “sexuality” or his “primitivism,” the Negro characterization which he creates is equally superficial. Kassoumi literally drowns in self-pity and self-deprecation. His parents, toward whom the author appears to be most sympathetic, are strikingly one-dimensional—docile, naive, sensual, guided only by their animalistic attraction for one another. His portrait of a black woman (particularly that of Awa) is simply that of a sex object. The presence of such characters is uninformed by a sense of history and uninspired by hope in the future. The author's reluctance to provide them with a meaningful temporal reality may be interpreted in two ways. Either he is pursuing his attack on characterization, one of the basic tools of narrative, and hence on the traditional novelistic genre; or he is making a statement whose implications go beyond formal experimentation. He is perhaps saying that the individual's function in historic processes (as in the narrative development of this work) is almost negligible. If the dissolution of the personality marks a good portion of contemporary literature, this novel appears to deny that the (African) personality ever existed. The textual evidence suggests that both of the above interpretations are valid.

Le jeu provides the work's most important symbolic structure. Game imagery and subtle references to opponents, strategy, rules, and clearly defined objects are part of the texture of the entire work. Part 4, “Dawn,” is constructed upon an elaborate game metaphor, utilizing the most intellectual of games, and one which represents most graphically the sublimation of aggression and violence, the age old war game of chess. It is curious that the author should choose to conclude his chronicle of sanguinary events with a chess match between the Saïf and the bishop Henry, but the incongruity of this selection is only superficial. By structuring the final episode of his work around the metaphor of the chess match, the author exploits the suggestive potential of the already firmly established theme of game, while focusing more sharply upon the ideological lines and relative manoeuverability of the two opponents. Thus, while le jeu provides the broad, structural context within which the narrative unfolds, chess serves as an aptly chosen metaphorical device by which the turbulent events of Parts 1–3 are re-enacted in miniature.

The Nakem empire is depicted very early as a battlefield, onto which various contenders, intruders, and would-be usurpers venture. Some (Chevalier and Vandame, for example) decipher the rules, yet play the game badly, and lose. Others are manipulated and disposed of at will, as the legendary Saïf calculates and manoeuvres and changes his tactics, adapting his defense to the strengths and weaknesses of each successive opponent. Feint, ruse, and deceit prove to be incomparably formidable tactics against the puerile manoeuvres of over-anxious foes. Nearly every relationship is characterized by deception and hypocrisy. Nakemian politics provides the arena in which a wide variety of game strategy is utilized—diversion tactics, bluffing, charade, front men, “fall guys,” and cheating.

“Dawn” consists almost exclusively of a dialogue between the Saïf and Henry, engaged simultaneously in a chess match, an intellectual skirmish, and a test of wills (the game serving as a pretext for the Saïf's very concrete plans to eliminate the bishop). As the chapter progresses, the move/counter-move format of chess is further accentuated, and the dialogue is constructed from moments of hesitation and mute uncertainty, truncated sentences, and monosyllabic replies.

The most explicit statement of the metaphorical implications of this war game is offered in the final pages:

Just look: the squares, the pawns lined up like soldiers in the night of Nakem, the two fools, Chevalier and Vandame, the two knights, Kratonga and Wampoulo, the two rooks, Kassoumi and Bouremi. Look! The queen. The most powerful of all: she moves in all directions, the others have only one direction. And all that, the whole panoply, is only to save the king's head—your conscience—the immobilized piece. You see? All that! … to defend the king. You face life in a brotherly confrontation of your forces, and you play, you calculate, you play, you adapt, you fall, yes, no, watch out, every move counts, you calculate. …

(pp. 178–79)

In addition to this overt reference, the metaphor of chess operates on several other planes. Let us consider the historical and strategic role assigned to each of the pieces:

1) the king: While he must be defended at all costs, he is not the most versatile piece for he cannot expose himself to capture or death (“king's immunity” makes it illegal for him to move into check). Kings were regarded as spiritual as well as temporal rulers, the same being true of the Moslem caliph (the Saïf's role). The theme of the confounding of politics and religion runs throughout the novel and is suggested by the very checkering of the board. The object of chess is to defend one's king (the embodiment of complete sovereignty), suggesting that power for its own sake is the ultimate object of the game which Ouologuem depicts;

2) the queen: She moves in all directions and is the most powerful piece because of her versatility, mobility, manoeuverability. The most pertinent reference to a queen in this work is that of the Queen of Sheba. On pp. 45–46, one reads: “if it is true that the sons of Ham spoken of in the Scriptures are an accursed people, and if we are indeed a part of that black Jewish people descended from the Queen of Sheba, how do you account for our ability to fight against the white man?” It is conceivable, therefore, that this powerful, versatile piece represents Africa;

3) the bishop: French is the only language in which the chess bishop is a fool. Historically, the bishop's moves are characterized by confinement to squares of one color, while noted also for his weaving attack through small openings in the opponent's line. The bishop, therefore, is synonymous with alertness and long-range diagonal strategy. Ouologuem assigns this role to Chevalier and Vandame, two Europeans, both of whom deciphered the rules of the Saïf's game and attempted (though unsuccessfully) to enroll the people in a plot to eliminate him;

4) the rook: The tour is the only chess piece which is a vehicle, a tool, the other pieces representing human figures. Ouologuem assigns this role to Kassoumi and Bourémi, whose scapegoat role has been noted;

5) the knight: Representing the cavalry, this mounted figure is extremely dangerous and powerful. In Devoir, two paid killers, Wampoulo and Kratonga, are designated as the chevaliers: these two are masters of the lethal art of training aspic vipers to kill;

6) finally, the pawn: Representing the infantry (most numerous, most easily sacrificed, backbone of the army, characterized by his forward motion), the pawn's defining feature is his complete expendability: this notion corresponds exactly to the portrait drawn by Ouologuem of the négraille. The single most significant element of chess play with respect to the pawn and his function in this work is that of “pawn promotion,” “queening.” Good pawn play is for this reason an essential aspect of good chess play. This certainly sheds some light on Raymond's ultimate function, for although his viability as a potential threat to the Saïf and his capacity for effecting radical change remain ambiguous, his potential promotion to a position of high power should not be overlooked. In addition, like the rook, he becomes most effective in mid-and end-game play.

Two final remarks concerning the advantages of the chess metaphor, as a structurally unifying device, bear mentioning. If, as some have suggested, a trend in chess tactics in the twentieth century is for players to depend, “more on advantages of position and timing and less on the capturing of pieces or the winning of exchanges,”4 then this indicates another ramification of the chess metaphor on Ouologuem's work, whose final chapter turns on the prescription of replacing violence with ruse, bloody battle with game strategy. Finally, the chess metaphor is aptly chosen for providing a conclusion to a work whose major premise seems to preclude that possibility: stalemate is an alternative conclusion to the game, in lieu of clear victory for either side. The points of suspension with which the final sentence is punctuated emphasize very strikingly the improvisational nature of modern Africa's present and future: “… a dusk fell on the chessboard; … And such was the earth of men that the balance between air, water, and fire was no more than a game” (p. 182). Unfortunately, these points of suspension are omitted in the English translation, and the translator strays somewhat in his rendition of the French text. Since this line is pertinent to the discussion, we offer the original French and a brief comment upon it: “Dans l'air, l'eau et le feu, aussi, la terre des hommes fit n'y avoir qu'un jeu …” The meaning of this line is ambiguous, as indeed it is intended to be: does the author wish to suggest that life is quite simply a game to be played to the best of one's abilities, keeping only the goal of winning in sight? Or is he making a more pointed comment on the nature of the game, by intimating that there is only one which counts when all is said and done? Whichever interpretation one is inclined to accept, game strategy provides a pervasive image in Ouologuem's novel; moreover, it underlies the work's basic structural unity. And if the author is to be taken “seriously,” his own literary game must not be overlooked.5 He has set out to challenge our conventional notions concerning l'Histoire (historical fact and fiction), violating the rules of both genres to produce an unprecedented work.


  1. Yambo Ouologuem, Le Devoir de violence (Paris: Seuil, 1968); trans. Ralph Manheim (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1971) under the title Bound to Violence. References contained in this paper are taken from the English translation and are signaled by page numbers within parentheses.

  2. David P. Henige, The Chronology of Oral Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), p. 5.

  3. We are reminded of Pozzo's rage at Vladimir's incessant desire for precise time: “Vous n'avez pas fini de m'empoisonner avec vos histoires de temps? C'est insensé! Quand! Quand! Un jour, ça ne vous suffit pas?” in Samuel Beckett, En Attendant Godot (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1952), p. 154.

  4. Henry Davidson, A Short History of Chess (New York: McKay Co., 1949), p. 181.

  5. While one may never know the extent of Ouologuem's iconoclastic objective, it is certainly not unthinkable that the liberties which he took with the inherited, narrative forms and structures represent for him a moral victory of sorts over the time-honored, literary traditions of the West. Cf. Yambo Ouologuem, “Lettre aux pisse-copie, nègres d'écrivains célèbres,” in his Lettre à la France nègre (Paris: Edmond Nalis, 1968).

Christopher L. Miller (essay date 1985)

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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 transcendental home has been severed.

—Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel

If the rise of the European novel is tied to the rise of the bourgeoisie,1 it must also be tied to the rise of colonialism, the relationship with those exotic countries that supply raw materials destined to be, in Baudelaire's words, “marvelously worked and fashioned.” The crude, unredeemed nature of the primitive element that makes it unable to “evolve” on its own also makes it perfect in a scheme where progress meets stasis and where the former is imposed on the latter by an outside agency: this is colonialism. In literary terms, the novel is arguably the genre that imposes “progress,” the evolutionary conception of time, where before there was only “inertia.” The relationship between this genre and its not completely digestible raw material is, as we have seen in reading Sade, Conrad, and Céline, central to the European novel written about Africa. Those three novels took advantage of the difference between their genre's penchant for progress, for “travel,” and the Africanist material depicted as outside or prior to linear time. But the particularity of those works, unlike more mediocre colonial novels, was to show progress stymied rather than imposed.

What happens when Africa “writes back,” when the people who previously played shadow-like roles in European literature take up a discourse of their own? Is this the moment when the Other is perfectly wedded to language, when raw material and finished expression coincide without violence? Such questions assume that the African novel will address itself to the concerns posed by the European discourse of Africanism. While the new African genre will come to be explicitly concerned with forging an authentic voice for itself, the inherent irony is, of course, that this discourse of one's own is written in the language of the Other. The novel is that which alienates the African from his own language, his own past; it will be both a barrier and a medium of retrieval. But in certain literary productions of the colonial period, it is as if a single discourse imposed itself, combining the French language, the genre of the novel, the European image of Africa, and colonialist ideology.

In Le Fils du fétiche, a novel by David Ananou, European religious values are espoused as the sign of progress and evolution away from “this very curable ill which glowers over the African continent,”2 i. e., fetishism. Conversion to Christianity and the break with “ancestral conceptions” are necessary to “emancipate” Africa. Ananou uses the verb émanciper, but affranchir would be more suitable, because becoming free in this ideology is synonymous with losing your difference, becoming “Frank, free,” French. Ananou asks, “What good is an emancipation of people still completely faithful to fetishistic practices?” (p. 216), and he warns that “the foreigners are watching our performance and are awaiting results”: “Let us purify our customs … by dropping everything trivial and idolatrous. Let us put some light in our practices. Obscurantism is not favorable to progress” (p. 217). The terms of Le Fils du fétiche would be completely familiar to Charles de Brosses. It is in the novel that this story of imposed progress is told; it is the novel that serves the literary imposition of progress, i. e., colonization.3

Ananou's discourse might be compared to that of the domesticated versions of Aniaba and Zaga-Christ, in which otherness is obliterated in favor of harmony. Zaga-Christ's epitaph should serve as a warning in approaching African literature: “Ci-gît le roi d'Ethiopie / L'original ou la copie” (“Here lies the king of Ethiopia / The original or the copy”). The question of originality has been a preoccupation of European Africanists for centuries: the supposed “earliest beginnings of the world,” the “perpetual childhood,” is a state of origin that Africanist discourse desires. In their radically divergent avatars, Aniaba and Zaga-Christ were made to either reflect or refute that desire. Ananou's discourse, by “copying” European discourse, addressed itself to European questions in terms that Europe would recognize as its own. In order to redeem Africa from its originary state, Ananou had to copy a discourse that put Africa there in the first place. His novel illustrates the type of conundrum in which African literature can get involved once a European question is asked of it. As with Chinese handcuffs, the more you struggle to get out, the more you are stuck.

The African novel in general is preoccupied with its own originality and authenticity, as well it might be for a genre imported from and usually edited in Europe and written in European languages. Thus, although there is no reason why the African novel should address any of the same questions that the European Africanist novel addresses, the very desire to break away and negate can lead African discourse back to certain ancient European preoccupations, namely, that of the origin and the copy. “Africa” is often used as a figure for a lost origin in African novels, as it is in European ones: the comparison of the two remains to be written. My purpose here is to look at one novel that consciously engages itself in the cross-cultural and interliterary “zone of interferences” between the two continents and does so not to forge a synthetic response but to exaggerate and undermine the whole tradition we have been reading. Yambo Ouologuem's Le Devoir de violence is not a work that can be held up as the African “answer” to the European Africanist tradition or as a work completely and authentically detached from the tradition. It is a negative response if, by “negative,” it is understood that no true contradiction takes place, only a brazen act of trifling with the idols of literary creation, respecting the taboos of neither the African nor the European literary establishment. The problem is that Ouologuem engages the European Africanist tradition and leads one to expect a positive repudiation and refutation of it. My purpose here will be to show that it is not on the thematic level that Ouologuem's “answer” should be sought but in the symbolics of writing itself.

In the early 1960s, four hundred years after Zaga-Christ, Yambo Ouologuem, a student from Mali, arrived in Paris. He studied at the Ecole Normale Supérieure (roughly equivalent to being baptized by Bossuet), and his first and only novel was published in 1968. Hailed by Le Monde as a “great African novel,” Le Devoir de violence was seen as a welcome antidote to the “savannas of pseudo-lyricism,” the “complacency” of the African novel. This was not only a good novel; it was a “true” novel, opposed to others that must have been false. Indeed, it was “the first African novel worthy of the name.”4Le Devoir de violence would thus be literally the original African novel. From Le Monde to the American Today Show on television, Ouologuem's success redounded, and his novel received the 1968 Prix Renaudot. The adulation began to be offset, however, by two objections: some Africans had found the book ideologically offensive, its violence and pessimism too open to anti-African interpretations, and some critics had begun to find an excessive amount of “borrowing” (the polite quotation marks showing that they didn't want to call it outright plagiarism). Confrontation of Le Devoir de violence with other texts, from the Bible to André Schwarz-Bart's Le Dernier des justes (1959) and Graham Greene's It's a Battlefield (1934), revealed a tissue of quotations, translations, and incorporations, which, depending on your point of view, would be either an “original” and creative exercise in intertextuality or “copied,” plagiarized, tainted with crime. The ensuing succès de scandal was proportional to the initial succès d'estime. The literary establishment had been duped, and it might well have buried Le Devoir de violence under Zaga-Christ's epitaph.

The question of originality and plagiarism, once posed, generates a discourse with only one axis, that of truth and falsehood, paternity and kidnapping, white and black. It will be my contention that Le Devoir de violence cuts across those categories with its “operative gymnastics of writing” and that the continual rocking of those binary questions has precluded another reading of the novel: as an assault on European assumptions about writing and originality. Plagiarism as a problem in literary criticism tends to elicit two responses: either an accusation of criminality or a recuperation as originality. Le Devoir de violence, both in its narrative method and in its narrated content, posits destructive violence and theft as origin itself.


There is no more legitimate or respectable right than that of an author over his work, the fruit of his labor.

—Leopold II


Copyright is a defense between one literary body and another, and plagiarism is a violation of that defense. To own a copyright is to delimit a certain sequence of words, sentences, and paragraphs from other sequences that might infringe on the integrity of the first. The right of the text is to not be copied.

Seth I. Wolitz has analyzed in detail the stylistic and narrative differences between these two passages. His comparison tends toward reversing the accusations, attributing to Ouologuem the true creative powers: “an intelligence which knows how to chose and eliminate in order to tighten and intensify the narration.”5 Greene, the “original” writer, is judged guilty of being “cold and anodyne,” “banal”: “Greene presents us with a disjointed text, almost devoid of resonance; Ouologuem tightens and intensifies everything.” Wolitz concludes that Ouologuem's translation has nothing to do with plagiarism. But it is interesting to note that his argument against plagiarism borrows the vocabulary of originality and falsehood, leaving the categories intact, with only the places exchanged: Ouologuem, instead of kidnapper and falsifier, becomes the avatar of authenticity and creation, the “Urtyp of the creator, of this fertile young Mandarin African literature.”

One would be hard pressed to find a translation that did not manifest differences of tone, style, attribution, and grammatical aspect, all of which make a translation susceptible to value judgments in relation to its precursor. Translation is a relationship of distance as well as sameness; like plagiarism, it is understood as the removal of a single object to another place.

Once that distance is of sufficient magnitude, plagiarism is no longer a question. Passages from the Bible, the Koran, or Aesop's fables obviously have no copyright nor any single author, for that matter. It is difficult to imagine a plagiary of Shakespeare; even were some playwright to lift passages verbatim and use them in his own play, it (a) would not violate any existing copyright and (b) would probably be interpreted as creative intertextuality. If T. S. Eliot had not included footnotes in “The Waste Land,” would that highly borrowful text have been considered plagiary? Like Le Devoir de violence, Eliot's poem is largely a patchwork of other texts, but, aside from the nature of the texts quoted (some of which had no copyright), those he quotes are safe between quotation marks or in italics. If distance is the relationship that plagiarism falsifies by producing a simulacrum of identity, then quotation marks, along with footnotes and italics, are the guardians of that distance, of good faith.

Plagiarism has played a curiously prominent role in the European Africanist tradition, to such an extent that one's perspective tends to be reversed by immersion, and one begins to see theft as origin itself. I began this study by quoting Pigault-Lebrun, who was copying Raynal. Labat plagiarized Loyer, who copied Villault, who lifted passages from Dutch travelers.6 Reaching back far enough, one finds everyone copying Homer. The distance between texts is violated as European writers attempt to close another distance, that between themselves and Africa.

But in the situation of the African writer, that distance has always already been violated from the moment he or she commences to write in French (or English or Portuguese). Any original African utterance in French must already be a translation from a more authentic source into a medium of useful communication but also of exile. A logic of alienation from one's own literary productions is thus implicit in Francophone writing. This is important to keep in mind while reading Ouologuem, an author who establishes his discourse frankly in the void of that distance.


Discourse in the novel could be said to have two basic types: the unattributed, unquoted recounting of events, known as narration itself, and the speech of characters within that narration, framed by quotation marks. No real novel, of course, conforms to this division, for techniques such as embedded narrative, free indirect discourse, and “stream of consciousness” tend to blur distinctions. Narration, in this narrow definition, would be a direct perception of the world, opposed to the second-hand, mediated mode of quotation.

In the passage from Le Devoir de violence reproduced above, a mystery surrounds the status of the narrative discourse. After the Times Literary Supplement (May 5, 1972) had established the derived nature of the paragraph, Ouologuem defended himself in Le Figaro Littéraire (June 10, 1972) in the following terms:

Thus the passage from Mr. Graham Greene incriminated as plagiarism, but in fact cited between quotation marks (as were some lines from Schwarz-Bart) in my manuscript, which I have given over to my lawyer, preceded a wild scene in which a White man … made a Black woman have intercourse with a dog. I am Black. It is obvious that if the facts I evoked had been the product of my imagination, my racial brothers would scarcely have forgiven me for having besmirched the Black race. … In these conditions, putting Mr. Greene's text in quotation marks was not an act of plagiarism, but a way to be not disavowed by my own people, by casting a legal fact in a literary light. [Emphasis mine]

Ouologuem goes on to say that the coupling of the Black woman and the dog “is a true fact, as are all the facts reported in my novel.” In an article in West Africa (July 21, 1972), “K. W.” reports on an interview with Ouologuem, in which,

To demonstrate the injustice of the charges against him, he spent some time taking me through his original hand-written manuscript (in an old exercise book) of Le Devoir de violence showing me all the places where there had been quotation marks, if not actual mentions of his literary allusions and quotations. … I saw, for instance, where he had written “here ends The Last of the Just,” a reference omitted like so many others, for whatever reason, from the published version.

[p. 941]

Ouologuem's defense thus consists of two arguments: that the quotation marks he used to set off the passage from Greene had been lost, stolen, or otherwise waylaid, probably by the publisher;7 and second, that while verisimilitude demanded the recounting of that certain sequence of events, fraternal feeling made it necessary to use someone else's voice. The text that Ouologuem showed to “K. W.,” and which he claims was the one submitted to Editions du Seuil, would thus contain narration between quotation marks. Reading the passage over again with this change inserted (see pages 220–21, above) one is faced with a stylistic maelstrom. Unless some other narrative agency were inserted, such as “X then recounted that …”—and Ouologuem mentions no such clause as having been deleted—those additional quotation marks would belong to no one. Furthermore, they would alter the status of the marks that are already there, scrambling direct and indirect attributions.

Ouologuem's defense on the grounds of attributability, while working from the traditional assumptions about narrative, points the way to the general subversion that his novel perpetrates. By invoking some lost or stolen quotation marks, he would have us believe that his manuscript was constructed according to the strict rules of proper borrowing. One can only wish that his exercise book were available, for if it indeed cited and acknowledged all its sources, it would be a remarkable scholastic novel, with a whole new set of rules concerning voice and attribution. According to Ouologuem's self-defense, it is the publishers who are responsible for the crime that the final text commits. Yet a study of the borrowings already discovered reveals that no proliferation of quotation marks, italics, or footnotes could restore Le Devoir de violence to a primal state of pure textual autonomy in which each intertextual relationship is identified.8 From the first words (which are taken from Le Dernier des Justes) on, throughout the two hundred pages of the work, this is a novel so highly refined and perverse in its manner of lifting titles, phrases, and passages from other texts that it makes the binary system of quotation and direct narration irrelevant. The symmetry of acknowledgment no longer applies. Ouologuem's defense appears to argue on the basis of those standard binary terms while, at the same time, subverting them.

In the context of a new literature trying to define its own ground, claim its own territory, Ouologuem's stance seems at first to respect the principles of identity and distinction that are necessary for such a literature to establish itself and to repress all awareness of an ironic, inevitable collapsing-together of self and Other when one writes in the Other's language. Respect for the rules of borrowing imitates respect of national borders, the delineation of distinct subjectivities. Thus far Ouologuem has argued on those terms. But this study has tended to show that involvement with an Other—Africa, “irreflection,” the “night,” the Negro—can blur the distinctions between subject and object: by describing the Other in your writing, your writing becomes the Other's. Thus our European authors have tended to become alienated from their own meanings, surrendering them to someone else, becoming a nègre. Ouologuem had some explicit remarks to make on this subject—remarks that upset the principle of sole authorship and property as well as the founding basis of authenticity.


The logic with which Ouologuem opposed himself to his accusers and precursors was first developed in a quirky book of essays called Lettre à la France nègre. Published in 1969, at the high tide of the acclaim for Le Devoir and so before the controversy, the second book was greeted as “a pamphlet in every way inferior to his novel.”9 And no wonder: the irreverence of the Lettre is but a sign of its subversive intent. Its humor does not reason or argue but rather opposes itself asymmetrically: “I deliberately chose the path of pamphlet humor. I hope it will have been ferocious enough to begin the demise of that comedy, the brawling but untouchable Negro” (p. 11). The essays include such titles as “Letter to all those who don't know what a Black is or who have forgotten what a White is,” “Letter to all those who frequent Negroes,” and “Letter to the copy-pissers, Negroes [i. e., ghost-writers] of famous writers.” The last title is the one that concerns us here.

Ouologuem exploits the double meaning of the word “nègre” in French, where Negro, originally synonymous with slave, came also to mean (since the eighteenth century) ghost-writer. If the plagiarist is a slave of another text, merely repeating it while passing himself off as its master and creator, then the ghost-writer/nègre is a master passing himself off as a slave. The plagiarist kidnaps and rewrites someone else's words; the nègre sells his own words to be rewritten under someone else's name. In the “Lettre aux pisse-copies, nègres d'écrivains célèbres,” Ouologuem likens the exploitation of the ghost-writer to that of the black, and he proposes a solution:

Chère négraille,

… Vous êtes encore moins qu'un manoeuvre: car lui, n'est-ce pas, est salarié et peut, sans rougir, avouer sa profession. Mais vous! comment oseriez-vous confesser que vous avez un souteneur, lequel exploite votre tête fêlée, en brandissant l'opium de la gloire posthume?

Vous seriez, en vous révélant obscurs tâcherons, plus que déclassés; on se garderait de vous admirer; ou, plutôt, on vous admirerait rétrospectivement.

C'est pour tous les pauv'gars de votre acabit, que moi, un Nègre, j'ai travaillé comme un Blanc: en pensant. Hihi! …

Voilà donc, à votre usage, une thérapeutique dénégrifiante, et rudement commerciale. …

Nègres d'écrivains célèbres, vous êtes terriblement frustrés, et châtrés dans votre génie par la loi du silence: je veux que par ces pages, vous sachiez comment faire pour être pisse-copie et rester blanc.

[pp. 165–66]

Dear Nigger-Trash,

You are even less than a manual laborer: at least he has a salary and can admit his profession without blushing, can't he? But you! How would you dare confess that you have an underwriter, who exploits your cracked head by brandishing the opium of posthumous glory? By revealing yourselves as dark jobbing-laborers, you would be more than déclassés; people wouldn't let themselves admire you, or, rather, they would admire you in retrospect. It's for all the poor blokes of your ilk that I, a Negro, labored like a white man: by thinking. Heehee! Here, therefore, for your use, is a denigrifying therapy, damned commercial. … Negroes/ghost-writers of famous writers, you are terribly frustrated and castrated in your genius by the law of silence: I want you to learn from these pages how to go about being a copy-pisser while remaining white.

The problem of “Nègres, Négrilles, Négraillons, and Négrillons” is already complicated enough, the author says, without these white nègres adding to the misfortune of fate. The nègre—ghost-writer is defined as an écrivaillon, half writer and half slave boy, from the terminology of the old slave codes and of Césaire's Cahier d'un retour au pays natal via Le Devoir de violence.10 The écrivaillon is a debased, decapitated, castrated, nonthinking object that nonetheless persists in producing “copy,” churning out or rather urinating verbiage. The écrivaillon, like the plagiarist, represents the inability of one literary body to “contain itself” completely—to hold back the impulse to excrete, spill over the edges, and invade other bodies.

The project of “denigrifying” the nègre, however, neither ends that interpenetration nor elevates the status of the ghost-writer. “Remaining white” is associated with “thinking,” which, ironically, the ghost-writer does for a living anyway. But it is the “white,” the overseer of the nègre—ghost-writer, who maintains the pretense of noninterpenetration and autonomy. The “famous writers” for whom the nègres produce copy are “white” in their false wholeness; the nègre is castrated and thus is not whole unto himself. But importantly, the project consists not in restoring wholeness to the nègre but in inventing a cleverer dismemberment. The author therefore proposes that the nègre become a plagiarist as well. He would thus become the controller of the interpenetration of textual bodies in a system that has become doubly perverse.

The “new gadget” proposed will permit the ghost-writer “to compose one after the other all the works [his] boss will order.” It consists of reading, cutting, and pasting together “the finest vintage of the detective novel. …, which should permit you to invent, in the corridors of your imagination, A BILLION NOVELS PAINLESSLY!” (p. 168). In the charts and tables that follow, including a large fold-out of passages from Ian Fleming, Carter Brown, and Simenon, numerous permutations are demonstrated.

Encore une fois, c'est un exemple, mais non point la révélation absolue de toute la diversité de la gymnastique opératoire de l'écriture. …

Sous cette forme, chère négraille, pour qui exécute ce travail avec une conscience trés lucide de la demande du marche, être le nègre d'un écrivain célèbre c'est se donner, comme une liberté, la clé d'un langage envisagé dans ses puissances combinatoires—mises à la disposition de la clientèle. C'est un peu de l'algèbre, mais de l'algèbre pour petits enfants.

Cet algèbre-là n'est pas une analyse d'objet, c'est une analyse d'action.

[p. 176]

Once again, this is an example, but not the absolute revelation, of the whole diversity of the operative gymnastics of writing. … In this form, dear nigger-trash, for whoever executes this labor with a keen awareness of the market's demands, being the ghost-writer [nègre] of a famous writer is giving to oneself, like freedom, the key to a language envisaged in its combinative powers, made available to the clientele. It's a bit of algebra, but algebra for little children. This algebra is not an object analysis but an action analysis.

The “Negroes” will disappear as the novel proceeds, losing all status as a constituted group (the word nègre remains, uncapitalized, as an adjective). It is the négraille, those “nothing men” like Sade's No One, who are the counterpart of the Saïfs; it is they who will persist as the irredeemably oppressed and alienated “trash.” The Empire reduces itself to a pure oppressor and a pure oppressed, Saïf and négraille, a binary opposition that knows no mediation. The Saifs are represented in this paragraph as assuming “true history” and Negritude unto themselves.

Simultaneously, the narrative moves toward an authentically African point of view, defined by the speech and the chant of the oral historian, the griot, and at the same time toward a negative interpretation of African history. Those who will proffer “true history” are not influenced by European ideas or preconceptions in any way; neither are they the voice of the négraille; they are the “ancients, notables and griots” (p. 9). Those who speak are the same as those who, claiming an obscure legitimacy, will establish dominion over the négraille. The history of violence that begins to unfold thus has a spoken and repeated, inherited status, and the chapter proceeds with such reminders as “they say”; “it is told in the talismanic annals of the wise Ancients, among the narratives of the oral tradition”; “our griots recount …”; etc. At one point, narration without quotation marks is interrupted thus: “There followed a pious silence, and the griot Koutouli, of precious memory, completed the exploit thus,” and a quotation follows (p. 10).11 But we did not know we were listening to the griot Koutouli or to his chanson de geste; in fact, the crossing of voices is so complex that no single narrator can be isolated.

The question that dominates the chapter is that of singularity and origin. The legitimacy of the Saïfs depends on the legend of the single original hero: “the tradition of the Saïf dynasty, at the origin of which is found the grandeur of one man alone, the most pious and devout Isaac El Héït, who, every day, would free one slave” (p. 12). Thus “detaching itself from this table of horrors, the fate of Saïf Isaac El Héït was of a prodigious singularity; rising well above common destiny, it endowed the legend of the Saïfs with the splendor in which the dreamers of the theory of African unity still slumber” (p. 11). The method by which Ouologuem disassembles that theory still lets it be known that legends are necessary things.

No sooner has the figure of Isaac El Héït been established than the following warning is issued:

Ici, nous atteignons le degré critique au-delà dequel la tradition se perd dans la légende, et s'y engloutit; car les récits écrits font défaut, et les versions des Anciens divergent de celles des griots, lesquelles s'opposent à celles des chroniqueurs.

[p. 11]12

Here we reach the critical degree, beyond which the tradition is lost in legend and is swallowed up; for written accounts are lacking, and the versions of the Ancients diverge from those of the griots, which are opposed to those of the chroniclers.

The project of “true history,” dependent on a certain accord of voices, is swallowed up and lost. If history for Africa is tradition, an inheritance and repetition of oral evidence, then this “critical degree” is Ouologuem's device for problematizing history. Described as a result of the absence of written records, this “black hole” in the text, with all its loss of authority, is the sine qua non of the legend that will emerge. The absence of writing is a pretext for fragmentation and mythification. The gap between the various accounts of the griots, the Ancients, and the chroniclers will be filled by the legend of the Saïfs' origin: “the splendor of a single man, our ancestor the black Jew Abraham El Héït, a half-caste born of a Negro father and an Oriental Jewish mother—from Kenana (Chanaan)” (p. 12)13 The unity of that origin, the singleness of the hero, involves at the same time an outside determinant. Abraham El Héït's parentage ties Black Africa both with the West, through the Bible, and the East, in that his mother is “Oriental.”

His heirs will exploit the prestige of this birthright to lord it over the négraille: the Saïfs, a dissenting voice will say later, “claim to be Jews … only for the delight of proving that [their] ascendance makes [them] superior to the Negro. … Because the Negroes couldn't get along on their own, direct themselves, govern themselves, could they?” (p. 64). The Saïf is a “fétichiste musulman et négro-juif” (p. 87), a multifaceted system of masks that has no one true face. Ouologuem's Saïfs thus reflect a conscious effort to be “any figure that you like”; they are an African exploitation of an Africanist myth.

Their legendary foreign origin permits the Saïfs to expropriate any incipient intervention in their empire and to pit their vassals against one another: “fomenting between the backward peoples … [in the words of one Saïf], ‘as many misunderstandings as possible'” (p. 19). At the moment of the Arab conquest, the Saïfs and notables sell the négraille into slavery (pp. 24–25), and Islam proves to be a useful tool: the Saïfs affect great Islamic piety and “convert the fetishistic populace, dumbfounded by the blackness of its soul” (p. 29). At the time of the French colonial conquest, the Saïfs adopt a progressivist mask and make sure the new laws work to their benefit: “Since French law had to be made for someone, the notables made it be for the populace” (p. 64). While the Saïf dynasty is the only principle of unity, it is also the principle that resists identity, giving itself all identities in order to dominate consistently and denying any identity to the négraille. The dynasty is unopposable in two senses of the word: it is all things at once and therefore cannot be opposed symmetrically by any one thing; consequently, its dominion is total.

If that “critical degree” of obscurity is the necessary condition for the Saïfs' legend, then it is also a part of what was called “true history.” Ouologuem's attitude toward that ambiguity between truth and fiction comes through in the following passage:

Véridique ou fabulée, la légende de Saïf Isaac El Héït hante de nos jours encore le romantisme nègre, et la politique des notables en maintes républiques. Car son souvenir frappe les imaginations populaires. Maints chroniqueurs consacrent son culte par la tradition orale et célèbrent à travers lui l'époque prestigieuse des premiers Etats. …

Mais il faut se rendre à l'évidence: ce passé—grandiose certes—ne vivait, somme toute, qu'à travers les historiens arabes et la tradition orale africaine, que voici:. …

[p. 14]

Whether fact or fable, the legend of Saïf Isaac El Héït still haunts Negro romanticism and the politics of the notables in many republics. For his memory appeals to the people's imaginations. Many chroniclers pay homage to him in the oral tradition and through him celebrate the grand epoch of the first States. … But one must face up to the evidence: this past—for all its glory—lived only, in the final analysis, through the Arab historians and the African oral tradition, which follows:. …

The net effect of these paragraphs is surprising. In the first paragraph, the epoch of ancient African civilizations is treated as if it were a romanticized fantasy, self-indulgent and politically expedient.14 Yet within the context of the chapter, the denial is less of the history itself than of the good faith of its uses in politics. “True or fabled,” “original or copy,” the legend persists; the veracity is less important than the persistence of the haunting traditions, this perpetual error. The second paragraph opens as if to set the record straight and finally define the status of history. But by saying that past “lived only … through the Arab historians and the African oral tradition,” the life of the legend is given substance—for how else would such a tradition persist in West Africa but through those two agencies? Yet the tone and grammatical restriction of the sentence give the impression that this is a diminished, inferior status—compared to what, we do not know. Is the narration that then follows a viable history, a living tradition growing organically out of a legitimate ancestry, or is it a mere fable, patched together, like the Saïf dynasty, out of usurpation and violence? The question is perpetuated rather than answered by this passage and by the novel as a whole.

The global effect is to depict the African past as a purloined, kidnapped, and usurped origin, as an originary violence that precludes the autonomy of any given object, leaving only a void. Wole Soyinka, in his sensible discussion of Le Devoir in Myth, Literature, and the African World, writes that it is “a fiercely partisan book on behalf of an immense historic vacuum.” In answer to the most essential question—“What was the creative genius of the African world before the destructive alien intrusion?”—we find only “another rubble-maker of cultural edifices” trying to “stuff up the cultural black hole of the continent.” Soyinka rightly points out that “the positive does not engage his [Ouologuem's] re-creative attention.”15 The violent partisanship that runs through the novel is opposed to everything and symmetrically counterbalanced with nothing.

On the smaller scale of immediate plot devices, sex and violence are the armatures by which human interaction proceeds through time: the primal usurpation of the Saïf dynasty by Saïf El Haram, who marries his mother and has the heir to the throne eaten alive by worms; the devouring of the sexual parts of defeated enemies (p. 22); the colonial administrator whose dogs have sex with a black woman (pp. 70–71); etc. Violent atrocities destroy the barriers between one life and another; sexual intercourse, which more often than not becomes violent, is depicted as a breach in the body's integrity, the opening of a wound. We are close to the “grotesque image of the body” described by Bakhtine and to the “disorganization” of Sade's Butua. Bearing in mind that cannibalism and the grotesque interpenetration of bodies was part of a European vision of the “earliest beginnings of man,” one wonders to what end Ouologuem is exploiting these themes.

Tambira, the mother of the protagonist, Raymond-Spartacus Kassoumi, is forced to have sex with a sorcerer named Dougouli in order to gain his help for her children. Their encounter is representative of the way in which any two bodies interact in Le Devoir de violence:

L'oeil révulsé par le désir, les lèvres lourdes, les mains tremblantes, ils se dévisagaient. Les cuisses nues de Tambira se miraient dans la flaque. …

La flaque dansait devant les yeux de Tambira fascinée, attirait, mordait furieusement ses yeux ivres; les formes tourbillonnaient toujours, s'emplumaient de violence et de luxure où sa propre ignominie était insignifiante. … Et ce fut le néant. Plus rien que le reflet du sexe de Tambira, entrouvert au-dessus de la flaque.

[pp. 148–49; emphasis mine]

Their eyes turned back by desire, lips heavy, hands trembling, they stared at each other [disfigured each other]. Tambira's naked thighs were mirrored in the puddle. … The puddle danced in front of Tambira's fascinated eyes, it attracted her, furiously chewed at her drunken eyes; the shapes still flew about in a whirlwind, fledged in violence and lust, in which her own ignominiousness was insignificant. … And then nothing. Nothing but the reflection of Tambira's genitals, opening above the puddle.

Desire is at the same time the very process of turning away, of revulsion. The act of looking at each other involves a breach of the body's integrity: dévisager, which normally means “to stare someone down,” means literally to dis-figure, to deface.16 Later, under the magician's curse, Tambira dies, and her body is found with “worms crawling in her nostrils; her head stuck out from among the feces, held by a noose attached to one of the boards.” Her husband, Kassoumi, “lifting up the sticky body of his beloved, washed it gently, … from time to time … sucking the nose and spitting out a worm.” The head and the feces, love and putrefaction, commingle. Disfigurement entails the violation of all oppositions: life/death, sex/violence, oral/anal, desire/revulsion. The human body in Le Devoir de violence is not an integrity but a “masse de pâte molle, plaies vives” (“mass of soft paste, live wounds”). Intercourse, even in its most positive instance (the homosexual affair between Raymond Kassoumi and a Frenchman), involves the destruction of the self, loss of “face”: “soiling of his face,” “wearing-away of the flesh.” That destructive process is defined as “linking and opposing irremediably the White man and him [Kassoumi].” The act of linkage and union is immediately an opposition: attraction does not occur without revulsion; love cannot be distinguished from violence.17

The creator, progenitor, and lover is also the kidnapper, murderer, and rapist. As Le Devoir de violence narrates violence and the flowing of one body into other bodies and into the world, the narration itself is disfiguring a prior text, violating the integrity of another literary body. Chaulet-Achour makes the following connection:

Le Devoir de violence, p. 144

Parmi les décombres de la guerre, Kassoumi rêvassait sous son bananier, promenant, audelà des feuillettes grisâtres des fruits bourgeonnants, son pauvre regard sur la rive du Yamé, empestée par l'odeur saumâtre de carcasses de squelettes que les pêcheurs ramenaient souvent du fond de l'eau, dans leurs filets, cadavre d'Allemand décomposé dans son uniforme, tué d'un coup de lance ou de sabre, la tête écrasée par une pierre ou flanqué à l'eau du haut d'un pont. Les vases du fleuve ensevelissaient ces vengeances obscures, sauvages héroïsmes inconnus, attaques muettes, plus périlleuses que les batailles au grand jour, et sans le retentissement de la gloire.

Among the ruins of the war, Kassoumi day-dreamed under his banana tree, letting his eyes wander beyond the grayish little leaves of the burgeoning fruit, to the bank of the Yamé, tainted by the brackish smell of skeleton carcasses, which the fisherman often hauled up from the bottom in their nets, a German's body rotting in his uniform, killed by a lance or saber, the head crushed by a rock, or thrown into the water from up on a bridge. The vessels of the river enshrouded these obscure, savage acts of vengeance, unknown heroism, silent attacks, more perilous than battles in broad daylight and without the resounding glory.

Maupassant, Boule de suif (Paris: Librairie de France, 1934), p. 7.

Cependant, à deux ou trois lieues sous la ville, en suivant le cours de la rivière, vers Croisset, Dieppedalle ou Biessart, les mariniers et les pêcheurs ramenaient souvent du fond de l'eau quelque cadavre d'Allemand gonflé dans son uniforme, tué d'un coup de couteau ou de savate, la tête écrasée par une pierre, ou jeté à l'eau d'une poussée du haut d'un pont. Les vases du fleuve ensevelissaient ces vengeances obscures, sauvages et légitimes, héroïsmes inconnus, attaques muettes, plus périleuses que les batailles au grand jour et sans le retentissement de la gloire.

Meanwhile, two or three leagues downstream from the city, toward Croisset, Dieppedalle, or Biessart, the sailors and fishermen often hauled up from the bottom some German's body, swollen in his uniform, killed by a knife or kicked to death, the head crushed by a rock, or shoved into the water from up on a bridge. The vessels of the river enshrouded these obscure, savage, and legitimate acts of vengeance, unknown heroism, silent attacks, more perilous than battles in broad daylight and without the resounding glory.

I have italicized the words that are identical in the two passages. A sufficiently close reading could demonstrate that the alterations of Maupassant in Ouologuem's text—the total change of context, the transplanting of the scene to Africa—produce a completely new meaning. This is the thrust in current criticism of Ouologuem.18 It redeems the kidnapper, making him in a creator, and the validity of the point is indisputable. But that redemption should not deny the violent nature of Ouologuem's enterprise. The precursors of Le Devoir de violence, as best seen in the passages I have just quoted, by virtue of being lifted and reorganized, become swollen bodies with crushed heads, both more and less than they used to be, with words added and words deleted, worms crawling out of their orifices.

In the incongruously “harmonious” last section of the novel, “L'Aurore,” which consists of a dialogue between Saïf and the European bishop Henry de Saignac, the double tension of the novel is clarified:

—Vous parliez du Nakem tout à l'heure.

—Je voulais être seul, pur.

—Mais la solitude s'accompagne d'un sentiment de culpabilité, de complicité …

—Pardon, de solidarité, rétorqua l'évêque.

—L'homme est dans l'histoire et l'histoire dans la politique. Nous sommes déchirés par la politique. Il n'y a ni solidarité ni pureté possible.

[p. 201]

“You were speaking of Nakem just now.”

“I wanted to be alone, pure.”

“But solitude comes with a feeling of guilt, of complicity …”

“Excuse me, of solidarity,” retorted the bishop.

“Man is in history, and history is in politics. We are torn apart by politics. There is no possible solidarity or pureness.”

Politics, a subset of human intercourse, is a force not of unity but of dismemberment and fragmentation. You cannot be pure, because other bodies interfere with yours. According to the model of interaction as defacement, solitude is spoiled by intervention from the outside, and the configuration of solidarity is also out of the question. The closing section of the novel has been seen as an espousal of the Euro-Christian values of the bishop, as if corrupt Africa, in the person of Saïf, is reaching toward its last best hope. But the relationship between the two men is described as the sharing of a secret—“that they were the sole authentic conspirators of Nakem-Zuiko” (p. 203)—and as an uncanny tension between attraction and repulsion: “their stares linked them in an unnameable strangeness” (“leurs regards les liaient en une indicible étrangeté”; p. 203, emphasis mine).

Several pages earlier, the bishop tells a parable that comes close to naming that strangeness, which is the link between himself and Saïf, Europe and Africa, and even between Le Devoir and its precursors:

Les Chinois ont un jeu: le trait d'union. Ils capturent deux oiseaux qu'ils attachent ensemble. Pas de trop près. Grace à un lien mince, mais solide et long. Si long que les oiseaux, rejetés en l'air, s'envolent, montent en flèche et, se croyant libres, se grisent de battements d'ailes, de grand air, mais soudain: crac! Tiraillés. …

L'humanité est une volaille de ce genre. Nous sommes tous victimes de ce jeu; séparés, mais liés de force.

[pp. 193–94]

The Chinese have a game: the tether. They capture two birds, which they attach to each other. Not too closely. Using a thin but long and solid cord. So long that the birds, when they are thrown up into the air, take flight, rise like arrows, and, believing themselves free, get drunk on beating their wings in the open air. But suddenly: bam! Pulled short. … Humanity is a bird of that feather. We are all victims of that game; separated, but linked by force.

The Chinese game describes Ouologuem's vision of the world as a whole: a forced linking of unwilling opposites, which proceed to tear each other apart. The irony of the name “trait d'union” lies in the fact that the birds will eventually “peck each other's eyes out,” and one or both will wind up dead, all because of this “union.” But “trait d'union” also means “hyphen,” a link by punctuation, which might describe the authorship of Le Devoir de violence: “Ouologuem-Schwarz-Bart,” “Ouologuem-Greene,” or “Ouologuem-Maupassant.” The political violence to which the bishop's parable obviously refers is echoed by the separation and forced linkage between the text itself and its precursors, leaving authorship, authority, and authenticity “teased” (“tiraillé”) between the two.

Ouologuem's “theory” and practice thus tend to apply the grotesque image of the body to the interrelations of literatures. Le Devoir de violence, in both its thematic content and its stylistic practice of plagiarism, violates the notion of an integral body, whole unto itself. That notion is generally taken for granted in the face-off between two literatures: one assumes that one knows which “corpus” one is reading. But there is another metaphor at work; for if two bodies exist side by side, one can or must be different from the other, probably older, and hence “better.” This is the root of theories such as Lukács', which projects a hierarchy according to age, between “childlikeness” and “virile maturity,” between epic, drama, and novel. Lukács saw the novel as the genre of progress from one to the other, and a work such as Le Fils du fétiche fits perfectly into that scheme. But in the world of the grotesque, such closed, smooth bodies are unknown; and hierarchies, as with the Saïfs, are a matter of deceit. Le Devoir de violence is written in the excrescences, the orifices, and the intrusions between European and African literature, by a sort of nègre franc, if one permits a play on words: not only a “frank” ghost-writer, with no compunctions about the nonintegrity of his text, but also a “Frankish Negro,” a perverse and “unnameable strangeness” instead of a national identity. No wonder the novel was controversial.

Ouologuem is a dangerous writer to put in the context of this study, under the weight of the European Africanist tradition. Le Devoir de violence can too easily be interpreted as warmed-over European prejudice, especially when one thinks of the Saïf dynasty, taking on any figure it wants to, like soft wax, and of the négraille, the irredeemable nullity. But it is Ouologuem's willingness to face those phantoms that makes him an appropriate “answer”: fully conscious of the Africanist tradition (even Aniaba appears in the novel at one point [p. 43]), Ouologuem is able to look it in the eye and disfigure it in his fashion. His relation to his European precursors defies the rules that would place him in the position of “childlikeness” compared with their “virile maturity.” Le Devoir de violence is difficult to read because Ouologuem involves himself to such an extent in those myths while refusing to resolve them. He refuses to be either “original” or “copy.”


Do you know that some people said I was a black Sade?

—Yambo Ouologuem

Another text, attributed to Ouologuem, brings us back to the crossroads of libertinism and Africanist writing. Les Mille et une bibles du sexe is a work of episodic libertine adventures ostensibly “edited” by Yambo Ouologuem but, according to Jahnheinz Jahn, actually written by him.19 One is reminded of Sade on two accounts: by the theme of sexual adventure and by the quirky narrative frame by which the author effaces himself. Ouologuem signs his name to the preface and returns to introduce each episode, centered on a French foursome: Régis and Vive, Harry and Emmanuelle. The fact that one of their adventures leads them to Africa invites speculation on the role of Africa in erotic writing (“ce côté safari … qu'est-ce que c'est dans l'érotisme?”)20 or, more importantly, on the role of eroticism in Africanist writing.

The fictive Yambo Ouologuem of the preface is an editor at Editions du Seuil who is approached by a “great Parisian aristocrat” with a 2,400 page manuscript of “poker confessions” sorely in need of revision. This new genre is a combination of gambling, sex, and tale-telling, in that order, interconnected. A game is played with sex as the prize, all of which is then related in a “confession.” The six hundred persons who had contributed their confessions had not been able, however, to go beyond “a pornography of dubious taste,” as Ouologuem says. But due to apparent affinities between these texts and his own Le Devoir de violence, Ouologuem says he accepted the task of editing and correcting the work. Referring to the banning of Le Devoir de violence from certain African countries as if it had been out of prudery rather than politics, Ouologuem writes a small manifesto for erotic writing.21 The poker confessions reveal, he writes, “all the originality of the freshest, the most troubling eroticism.” Their freshness will not, however, be without resonance in the history of libertinism: an obsession with rules, numbers, counting, and recounting. The betting game depends on the quality of the tale one tells, thus on recounting (conter); eroticism is dependent on language and vice versa. Sex is “essentially irrational and marvelously visceral,” but “eroticism alone speaks. … The metaphysical utterance is thus inseparable from eroticism.”22 Eroticism rises above mere physical sex and above pornography, which is apparently the rendering of sex in writing; eroticism is made to speak and promise.

This brings to mind remarks by Michel Foucault on sexuality and language since Sade:

La sexualité n'est décisive pour notre culture que parlée et dans la mesure où elle est parlée. Ce n'est pas notre langage qui a été, depuis bientôt deux siècles, érotisé; c'est notre sexualité qui depuis Sade et la mort de Dieu a été absorbée dans l'univers du langage, dénaturalisée par lui, placée par lui dans ce vide où il établit sa souveraineté et où sans cesse il pose, comme Loi, des limites qu'il transgresse.

Sexuality is decisive in our culture only in spoken form and to the extent that it is spoken. It is not so much that our language, for almost two centuries now, has been eroticized; it is our sexuality that, since Sade and the death of God, has been absorbed into the universe of language, thereby denaturalized, placed in that void where language establishes its sovereignty and ceaselessly poses as Law the limits that it transgresses.23

Foucault insists that Sade was the first to lock sexuality inside a single discourse, of which “he suddenly became the sovereign” and in which a frustrating game of transgression and limitation takes place ad infinitum: “the questioning of boundaries is substituted for the search for a totality” (“Préface à la transgression,” p. 753). The value judgment expressed by Foucault, whereby language denaturalizes sexuality and establishes a dictatorship over a void, is a common one. Discourse for Foucault is a means of repression in which the “free circulation” of sex is chaneled, reduced, controlled (Volonté, p. 25). The problem is that any discourse, even or especially a libertine one, by unleashing the “secret” of sex confirms the repression it is combating. This is why the entry of sex into language makes sex into both “something to be said” (p. 45) and something “at once banished, denied, and reduced to silence” (p. 10). Foucault can offer no positive vision of a world free from all this, because any liberation is only transgression, confirming one's imprisonment. Yet, before Sade, things must have been better; Foucault cannot help but imply that a renaturalized, nondiscursive sexuality is the object of his obscure desire. In a critique of the libertine duality between surface “natural animality” and the sought-after “Absence” (“Préface,” p. 752), can one escape creating a dualism of one's own, whose object is the escape from dualism?

Foucault states that language interferes in sexuality “in our culture,” but Ouologuem's eroticism, which “alone speaks” and is “inseparable from the metaphysical utterance,” seems caught in the same scheme. This is to say that Ouologuem's eroticism is involved in a very European conceptualization of itself and is understandable in terms of the libertine tradition, the dialectic of law and transgression, exile and return.

That dialectic, a design for the release of tension, can therefore be seen as an obstacle to its own design. If the desire of the libertine is to reach back to a primal state of unity (the state “before Time, before Form, before the Fall of man”),24 the observance of ritual is both a means toward that end and proof that one has not yet arrived. In Sade, at least, libertines seemed to be offered no alternative to the perpetual motion of their machines: “Justine … se laisse faire machinalement.” The performances in Les Mille et une bibles seem to constantly involve the technology of the industrialized world: cars (mostly Rolls Royces and Jaguars), trains, elevators, even switchblade knives, telephone receivers, and so on. The process is more self-perpetuating than successful in producing perpetuity. On the one hand, there is this illusion of a return to Eden:

Le couple couché se caresse, et s'abreuve de cris de gorge en galop. Aldo a les yeux d'Annabelle dans la gorge, et son corps se trahit. Aldo se crispe, il ne veut pas mourir. Annabelle sans cesse répète des sanglots qui emplissent l'espace. Et tous deux soudain sont comme au début. Quand la terre était oeuvre de Dieu, et l'homme le bout du monde. Ils ne savent pas si le soleil reviendra après la nuit, si la lune saluera le coucher du soleil. Ils vivent sans fin.

[p. 100]

The couple, lying down, caress each other, and each drinks in the cries from the other's throat. Aldo has Annabelle's eyes in his throat, and his body betrays him. Aldo shrinks back; he doesn't want to die. Annabelle ceaselessly repeats her sobs, which fill the space. And suddenly both of them are like at the beginning. When the earth was God's work, and man the edge of the world. They do not know if the sun will return after the night, if the moon will greet the setting sun. They live without end.

But, on the other hand, “living without end” is the problem itself, to which death is the only true answer: “Les hanches de Régis voyageaient à la mesure des râles de la femme qu'il prenait, et cette femme-là grondait à voix basse. Elle pleurait. Elle mourait. Elle s'éveillait de son agonie, puis s'affaissait tout doucement. … Comme tuée de plaisir. Inerte.” (p. 48). (“Regis' hips were traveling in time with the death-rattle of the woman he was taking, and the woman groaned in a low tone. She was weeping. She was dying. She woke up from her agony, then eased herself back down. … As if killed by pleasure. Inert.”) Those, in brief, are the two poles of the libertine dilemma.

The possibility of a geographically based solution is raised by James Olney in his discussion of Les Milles et un bibles du sexe and Le Devoir de violence.

In his reading of the former, Olney sees an important difference between the practice of libertinism in Europe and the promise of eroticism in Africa:

The atmosphere of Africa that embraces the figures the moment they step from the plane seems somehow to offer promise in itself of a kind of fulfillment—the individual in relation to the surrounding, enveloping sensory universe—denied to the human creatures in the thin air of France. … Immediately they drown themselves in the abundant fruits of nature that in their variety and plenitude render any less natural satisfaction for the senses irrelevant.

[Tell Me Africa, p. 226]

On the one hand, Olney sees a promise; on the other hand, actual “satisfaction.” Nature—the fruits and vegetables that become synonymous with women's bodies—replaces machines: “the union of interior and exterior, the joining, ‘beyond fear and death,’ of the individual with nature, realizes itself in highly erotic sexual performances … [pointing to] mystic dissolution and natural reunion” (pp. 228–29). Nature is by definition that which needs no explanation, that which is self-evident and nonironic: if man and man's eroticism are sublated into Nature, then a solution has been found to the perpetual labor of the libertine machine. It is in such a reading of Les Mille et une bibles that Olney is able to assert the existence of a “straight face” in Ouologuem's writing, “somewhere behind the irony.” If a straightforward eroticism or happy libertinism is meant to relieve the tension of European Africanist experience and writing, can we now close the book on the idols and fetishes that have peopled this study, or have we in fact created another one?25

Let us suppose that behind the irony of Le Devoir de violence and of the rest of Les Mille et une bibles there is “Africa,” an allegory of mystified eroticism. What happens in the African passage of Les Mille et une bibles to justify such an interpretation? The four principal libertines have met three Africans from Liberia (the name of which becomes symbolic), who have given them round-trip airline tickets to Africa. Here the story is interrupted for a comment from Ouologuem the editor, who declares that he is “sorry to see Africa mixed up in this business” (p. 275) and that he would have preferred a “less collective exoticism.” He concludes with some grudging admiration for the “poor great exoticism that dreamed the art of violence for the erotic banquet.”

Africa welcomes them like an anxious lover: “naked earth, trembling in the air stirred by the last breath of the sirocco … the beaches, lined with palm trees, stretched out without end, licked by the Atlantic” (p. 283–84). If Africa “herself” is a sensuous woman, African women have become allegorical figures as well; landscape and humanity are metaphorically linked in their erotic appeal:

Or le paysage était luxuriant de baroque, avec son folklore exubérant de carmins, de bougainvilliers, d'hibiscus, d'amaryllis de vermeille, d'orchidées de formes étranges, de couleur diabolique.

[p. 284]

And the landscape was baroque, luxuriant, with its folklore exuberant with carmine, bougainvillaeas, hibiscus, rosy amaryllis, strange forms of orchids in diabolical colors.

[p. 284]

Si l'on en croit le voyage de Régis et de ses compagnons, l'Afrique avait autant à dire, avec ses femmes noires aux seins insolents, avec ses joliesses en boubous lamés et sans corsage, leur démarche canaille de nonchalance, leurs silhouettes agrémentées de laisser-aller, leur fesses qui bombent au bas de leurs reins cambrés, leur sexe: crépu et électrique quand le frotte le pubis masculin, leurs poitrines: redondantes sous le soleil lourd, le robuste ouvrage de leur sensualité, née comme du climat, débordant les corps comme la volupté de cieux autres

[p. 286: emphasis mine]

If the voyage of Régis and his companions is to be believed, Africa has as much to say, with its black women and their insolent breasts, with its pretty young things in spangled boubous and no top, their rascally, insouciant gait, their silhouettes adorned with unconstraint, their buttocks bulging out from their well-set loins, their sex: frizzy and electric when the man's pubis rubs against it; their chest: superfluous under the heavy sky; the robust work [product] of their sensuality, born as from the climate, overflowing the bodies like the voluptuousness of other heavens.

The burden of idealization is literally stated to “overflow” the confines of the physical body in this second passage, and it seems to me that the role of artificiality (“product of their sensuality,” “like the climate”) is important. The differential, removed perspective from which this kind of writing must be done is seen in the phrases “formes étranges,” “la volupté de cieux autres”: this is more reminiscent of Baudelaire than anyone (“this vegetation, disturbing” to the eye of the traveling academic, “these men and women whose muscles do not move according to the classical gait of his own country”).26

Traveling to Kenya, the four friends set off on safari with a local guide. The two couples wander into the bushes at one point and find themselves confronted by a lion, who “knew that the men were naked and making love” (p. 290). Unarmed, they must try to distract the beast, and sex is their method. The guide immediately takes his clothes off. Régis recommences intercourse with Vive, as the lion lies down and masturbates with his tail. Harry and Emmanuelle join the other two, but the black guide approaches the lion with a gourd and a forked stick. Stimulating the lion with the stick, to the point where the beast is incapacitated, the guide stuffs the gourd down the throat of the lion, who then dies in piteous contortions. The chapter ends there, and the next “confession poker” takes place in Europe.

It is in this African chapter that Olney sees Ouologuem's “descriptions of the sensual, the exotic, and the erotic take a rather new turn—more natural, less strained, less grotesque, and less pornographic” (p. 225).27 But the difference seems quantitative to me and inadequate to prove a “union of interior and exterior,” “of the individual with nature,” or “beyond the irony, a straight face.” The irony of libertinism, as I have tired to indicate, is that the persistence of its efforts makes unity and resolution recede before it. If a “natural libertinism” substitutes a black man, a gourd, a stick, a lion, and an African landscape for white men, elevators, cars, and Europe, has libertinism been released from its burden, lifted up and canceled out? The stakes have certainly changed, but in my opinion not toward any resolution of the problem.

The role of sex in Africanist writing has been a continual subtext in this study. On the one hand, there has been a close relationship between the opposition of races and the opposition of the sexes: “the Black seems to me the female race.”28 In reading works such as “Sed non satiata” or “La Belle Dorothée,” the relation of center to periphery seemed to conceal a relation of superiority, white over black, male over female. The act of poetic redemption—of bringing materials back from the tropics—implied simultaneous sexual submission. The libertine program demands passive submission and resignation to such an arrangement (“Justine se laisse faire … machinalement”). When a figure such as Africa is placed in a libertine context, therefore, the writer's liberation may well cost the African's liberty: in the Ouologuem passage above, Africa is made to speak (“l'Afrique avait autant à dire”), and her people thus become figures in a discourse of idealized sensuality, allegorical puppets.

On the other hand, seductiveness is a natural part of writing, and, if allegory exploits, pure irony cannot satisfy. Africa in Les Mille et une bibles du sexe is illustrative of this double bind. On the positive side, Africa makes a promise of fulfillment and erotic splendor. But the other side of the same coin is the fact that Africa is thereby reduced, for the millionth time, to the role of primitive, natural Garden of Eden, like Homer's Ethiopia, a playground for the gods (Olney: “this perception of the countryside as an immense vagina,” p. 228).

A look at the illustration for the African “confession poker” should make this clear. Les Mille et une bibles is something of a “fine edition,” carefully designed typographically, and illustrated with surrealistic drawings and photographs. On one level this is indeed a sign of some nonironic seductiveness, an embrace of the subject that Le Devoir de violence never permits itself. But the plate representing Africa looks like this: the dominant figure is a lion, roaring, his mane contiguous with the long blond hair of a naked woman, who is embracing a blond-haired man. The white couple are situated alongside, perhaps as part of, the lion's flank; but flat on his back, being trampled by the lion, with one hand on his own penis and the other apparently on the lion's, there is the black man, on whom the lion is ejaculating. The symbolism is excessively transparent: the couple represent Europe, the black man Africa, and the lion, it seems fair to say, is that discourse of mystified eroticism, “la volupté de cieux autres.” The “naturalness” of that discourse is both derived—the conscious, willed result of a difference and a need—and unequal—subjugating one figure in order to liberate another. The language of idealization and mystification seems to produce difference at the very moment it is claiming unity and identity.

When one looks beyond the surface, Les Mille et une bibles du sexe is actually a much less scandalous, less original, and more “European” work than Le Devoir de violence. The refusal of discourse in Le Devoir to obey the rules of European logic emerges as a triumphantly hopeless gesture, whereas the false hope erected in Les Mille et une bibles seems ill conceived and slightly treacherous.


  1. See Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960), chap. 2, “The Reading Public and the Rise of the Novel.” On the idea of progress in the interpretation of the novel, see Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel, trans. Anna Bostock (London: Merlin Press, 1971), p. 71: “The novel is the art-form of virile maturity, in contrast to the normative childlikeness of the epic (the drama form, being in the margin of life, is outside the ages of man even if these are conceived as a priori categories or normative stages). … The novel, in contrast to other genres whose existence resides within the finished form, appears as something in process of becoming” (emphasis mine). The significance of those “ages of man” need not be embellished.

  2. David Ananou, Le Fils du Fétiche (Paris: Nouvelles Editions Latines, 1955), p. 9.

  3. The fact that the novel is seen to be the depiction of change and progress makes it suitable for the importation of “maturity” (see the quotation from Lukács in note 1); the search for something “outside the ages of man” was more the concern of Negritude poetry, which is now being reproached for an idealized vision of the African past: “Le concept de la ‘négritude' concerne plutôt les éléments permanents de la tradition” (Robert Pageard, “Individu et Société: La vie traditionnelle dans la littérature de l'Afrique noire d'expression française,” Revue de littérature comparée 3–4 [July–December 1974]: 421). See “Wole Soyinka: ‘La négritude ne me satisfait pas, je lui préfère l'africanisme,’” interview in Jeune Afrique 544 (June 8, 1971); Stanislas Adotevi, Négritude et Négrologues (Paris: Union générale d'éditions, 1972).

  4. Matthieu Galey, “Un grand roman africain,” Le Monde, October 12, 1968.

  5. Seth I. Wolitz. “L'Art du plagiat, ou une brève défense de Ouologuem,” Research in African Literature 4, no. 1 (Spring, 1973): 132.

  6. William B. Cohen, The French Encounter with Africans (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1980), p. 29.

  7. See Eric Sellin, “The Unknown Voice of Yambo Ouologuem,” Yale French Studies 53 (1976): 151–57.

  8. The most complete analysis of the intertextuality of Le Devoir is to be found in the thesis of Christiane Chaulet-Achour, “Langue française et colonialisme en Algérie: De l'abécédaire à la production littéraire” (Dissertation, University of Paris III, 1982), vol. 2, pp. 419–43.

  9. J. Mbelolo Ya Mpiku, “From One Mystification to Another: ‘Négritude’ and ‘Négraille’ in Le Devoir de violence,Review of National Literatures 2, no. 2 (Fall, 1971): 124. Ouologuem, Lettre à la France nègre (Paris: Edmond Nalis, 1968).

  10. Cf. Aimé Césaire, Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1971), p. 147: “La négraille aux senteurs d'oignon frit retrouve dans son sang répandu le goût amer de la liberté.”

  11. That sentence introduces a quotation in two senses: the quotation that follows in the text and the other, unseen quotation that “preceded” it by ten years, the sentence from Schwarz-Bart's Le Dernier des justes on which it is modeled: “Suit un pieux commentaire et le moine achève ainsi sa chronique” (p. 12).

  12. Cf. Schwarz-Bart, p. 13: “Ici, nous atteignons le point où l'histoire s'enfonce dans la légende, et s'y engloutit; car les données précises manquent, et les avis des chroniqueurs divergent.”

  13. Cf. p. 59: “S'il est vrai … que le peuple de Cham dont parlent les Ecritures est le peuple maudit, s'il est vrai que nous sommes partis de ce peuple nègre et juif. …” This single ancestor is thus the link with both the “Orient” and the West, through the Bible. Rimbaud comes to mind for two reasons: first, Nakem is here postulated as a sort of “vrai royaume des enfants de Cham”; second, the singularity of origin, the sole person who defines the identity of the dynasty, is the one who makes that identity into an otherness, a link to the outside: “Je est un autre.”

  14. Ouologuem was not made popular in Africa or among some European critics by this cynical interpretation of a history still struggling to be discovered by the West. See Yves Benot, “Le Devoir de violence de Yambo Ouologuem est-il un chef d'oeuvre ou une mystification?” La Pensée no. 149 (January—February, 1970).

  15. Wole Soyinka, Myth, Literature, and the African World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), pp. 104–6.

  16. Grand Larousse: “Dévisager—Déchirer le visage de quelqu'un, défigurer.”

  17. See Raymond O. Elaho, “Le devoir d'amour dans le devoir de violence de Yambo Ouologuem,” L'Afrique littéraire 56 (1979): 65–69.

  18. See, especially, the Chaulet and Wolitz works listed in the Bibliography.

  19. Jahnheinz Jahn and Claus Peter Dressler, Bibliography of Creative African Writing (Nendeln, Liechtenstein: Kraus-Thomson, 1971). James Olney, whose treatment of Les Mille et une bibles du sexe I will discuss here, accepts this opinion, which certainly seems justified (Tell Me Africa: An Approach to African Literature [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973], p. 223n).

  20. Les Mille et une bibles du sexe (Paris: Editions du Dauphin, 1969), p. 275.

  21. “Si j'ai pris sur moi de présenter Les Mille et une bibles du sexe, c'est également parce que, en raison de certains aspects érotiques de mon premier roman, divers pays africains ont rejeté de leurs frontières Le Devoir de violence. J'étais, aux yeux de chefs d'Etats irresponsables ou incultes, j'étais, pour avoir osé dire du Nègre qu'il faisait l'amour, un cartiériste vendu à une France raciste, laquelle s'amusait de voir dénigrer par un Noir les moeurs des peuples noirs. Soit. Il est bon d'être primitif, certes, mais impardonnable d'être primaire. Tant pis pour les primaires qui se revent censeurs” (p. 18).

  22. “Il a fallu dépeindre, autant que ces confessions, les arrières-mondes dont elles étaient lourdes. L'érotisme seul parle; la littérature n'apporte que la sensibilité cachée, inconsciente, inconnue de soi, qui allume l'intelligence des sens et vivifie ses données. … Le propos métaphysique est ainsi inséparable de l'érotisme à l'oeuvre: comme un chef d'oeuvre poétique” (p. 17).

  23. Foucault says that Sade was the first to place sexuality in a new discursive “realm of irreality” (as we will see, Ouologuem's “cieux autres”) (Michel Foucault, “Préface à la transgression,” Critique 19 nos. 195–96 [August–September 1963]: 751–69). A more recent rendering of Foucault's thesis on language taking over sex is to be found in his Histoire de la sexualité: La volonté de savoir (Paris: Gallimard, 1976), pp. 25–49.

  24. Alice M. Laborde, Sade romancier (Neuchâtel: La Baconnière, 1974), p. 137.

  25. Is Les Mille et une bibles to Le Devoir de violence as Sade's South Seas utopia Tamoé is to his depraved African kingdom of Butua? The lost Léonore travels to Tamoé with Captain Cook, it will be recalled, and Sainville follows, setting up his long interview with the noble King Zamé, a mouthpiece of the idealism of the philosophe. Tamoé is indeed a land of justice and goodness; the first problem is that, once desire has been fulfilled, it can no longer be admitted or allowed: “A l'égard des crimes moraux … je ne reçois jamais ni un libertin ni une femme adultère,” says Zamé (Aline et Valcour [Paris: Cercle du livre précieux, 1962], p. 300); in order for everything to be virtuous, everything must be controlled by the state, as Zamé declares: “l'Etat est tout ici” (p. 343; the conformity to Foucault's model is striking). Sainville's objection is also relevant: “Si vous avez peu de vices, vous ne devez guère avoir de vertus” (p. 297). But Tamoé's value as a foil to libertinism, as a solution to the endless vacillations of desire, is well destroyed by Sade's “Avis de l'éditeur” (quoted above, p. 186), which labels Tamoé a pays de chimères, alienated from nature. The ultimate return to nature is ultimately unnatural. Sade's “answer” is thus similar to Ouologuem's, or at least to Olney's interpretation of Les Mille et une bibles; the difference is that Sade tells us that his answer is illusory.

  26. Baudelaire, “De I'idée moderne du progrès …,” in Curiosités esthétiques (Paris: Garnier, 1962), p. 212.

  27. “Comparatively, the forms of sex in Africa, as Ouologuem renders them in Mille et une bibles, are natural—one to one, man and woman, the ordinary appendages and orifices, no foreign instruments such as smoking guns, telephone receivers, whips, fragile crystal flutes, switch-blade knives, ‘godemichets,’ etc. True, a lion does get into the act in Kenya, but even then the beast carries some of his nobility with him, and the passage is nothing like as depraved as the one that deals with the massive dog, the woman on a block of ice, and a crowd of voyeurists back in Paris, or the scene of Golda, Harry, the motorcycle policeman, and a hot Maserati automobile beside a French superhighway” (Olney, Tell Me Africa, p. 226).

  28. Gustave Eichtal and Ismayl Urbain, Lettres sur la race noire et la race blanche (Paris: Chez Paulin, 1839), p. 22.

George Lang (essay date 1987)

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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 des justes.1 Ouologuem's use of Schwarz-Bart verges upon plagiarism, though it is but one of his manifold allusions to and brazen borrowings from other texts. Armah responded more to Le Devoir de violence than to Le Dernier des justes and, apparently, intended his text as a repudiation of the negativity of the former, though he had no qualms about imitating its sensationalism or rivaling its prurience.2

In what follows I intend to leave Schwarz-Bart mostly aside, all the while asking my readers to reserve a place for him in their minds: not because he is prerequisite to the two African works, but because his text offers a trace of the otherness which pervades them and with which each deals in its own way. For at the crux of Le Devoir de violence and Two Thousand Seasons is a profound preoccupation with the other, with the outside oppressor and with the effects of that extreme alienation in which the self itself has become other.

This is in no way intended to impugn the “authenticity” or “originality” of the African works. Indeed, I shall be arguing, first, that originality and authenticity are in themselves very dubious terms and, second, that these texts are paradigmatic, representative of two types within the field or literary system we label African literature.

The typology I am proposing is potentially a powerful one. It cuts across genre boundaries to establish classifications for hybrid texts which fall into no accepted categories,3 and it leads directly to the distinction between what I call founding texts (examples of which are The Bible and The Koran, as well as the myriad traditional cosmologies recorded and unrecorded throughout Africa) and those which are confounding, which resist the assimilation of text to history, secular or sacred, and tend toward the disruption of textual identity itself. The former are by far the most important in Africa and the world alike, but the principle of “confusion” is by no means negligible.4 For evidence of it in African culture we need only to think of the numerous trickster tales in which amorality reigns supreme.5

Put in somewhat less formal terms, this distinction is between texts based upon solidarity, collectivity and identity, and those which undermine isotopic configurations in general. I do not mean to claim that Armah is ideological and Ouologuem is not. There is, as the Malian seems to imply at the conclusion of Le Devoir de violence, no escape from ideology into the certainties of logic or grammar, no exit from rhetoric into apodictic, unmotivated discourse. Nor is discourse which denies the validity of discourse itself innocent, as Ouologuem's “plagiarism” demonstrates. There is no guarantee that because one is deconstructing one cannot be deconstructed in turn.

The play of self and other is not a novel criterion against which to read texts, but it is especially relevant here for a number of reasons. In the Hegelian dialect of master and slave, the self/other paradigm is important not only because it defines identity, but because it prepares the way to liberation. Hence, its significance in the colonial or post-colonial context of contemporary Africa. Not that its import is limited to the Third World. The dialect of self and other has a primordial role within contemporary philosophy and psychology in Europe, a background with which many, especially francophone, African writers are conversant. Sometimes it may appear that the self is nothing other than a Western invention, an exquisite fiction few can resist, but that not many from outside the West would have embraced without the extenuating circumstances of colonialism, imperialism and racism. It would be too easy to accept this version of things. The extremes to which Jean-Paul Sartre pushed the left Hegelian dialectic of consciousness had a great impact on French-reading intellectuals world-wide, Frantz Fanon among them. Fanon was present at lectures of both Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, more than passingly interested in forging his own philosophy of liberation, and, when his clinical practice in Algeria led him back to the conflict of self and other as the source of psychic trauma among colonized intellectuals, he was drawn to the message of La Critique de la raison dialectique, in particular its emphasis upon the group or ensemble as the foundation of revolutionary praxis and upon the positive role collective acts of self-conscious violence could play in the discovery of authenticity.6 It would be unfair to ascribe too much of Fanon to Sartre, or of Sartre to Fanon, but V. Y. Mudimbe's conclusion that Sartre's insights “illuminate the trends and situations of African scholarship,” is perhaps not overstated.7 Sartre's landmark preface to Senghor's 1948 Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française indeed had great influence. It offered a brilliant, poetic response to what had become an obvious flaw in the argumentation of Négritude.

La négritude est pour se détruire, elle est passage et non aboutissement, moyen et non fin dernière. Dans le moment que les Orphée noirs embrassent le plus étroitement cette Eurydice ils sentent qu'elle s'évanouit entre leurs bras.8

Though Sartre merely substituted one dialectical sequence for another, a class-oriented for a culture-based one, there was a prophetic quality to his critique. In the ensuing four decades almost all French-speaking African intellectuals have had to confront and resolve not only the issues raised by Négritude, but the issue of Négritude itself. The tactics many have used largely derive from Fanon or Sartre, especially the refusal of “cultural” perspectives.9

It should be clear that the mega-text of Négritude, if I may be allowed this hypostatization, is a “founding” text, paratactic in its principles (“coordinating without conjuncting”)10 and tending to affirm its own identity as well as its congruence with history. It is a text turning on the axis of self and other. The primary works of Négritude, not only those of Senghor, but that exemplary founding text by Aimé Césaire, Cahier d'un retour au pays natal, illustrate this paratactic principle: “self with is coordinated” (i. e., opposed) with other, but is not conjuncted (i. e., explicitly linked with), precisely because the mutual dependency thereby implied is unacceptable.11

Of course the contrast between self and other is also a motif of many European ideological forms: pastoralism, exoticism, primitivism, orientalism. In his recent Blank Darkness: Africanist Discourse in French, Christopher L. Miller delineated the role of altérité in mainstream French texts and related it to desire. Edward W. Said, in his Orientalism and later works, addressed the issue in somewhat different terms.12 But there is a crucial distinction between the self/other paradigm in metropolitan cultures and in the African or other Third World contexts: the European self is ensconced in the seat of power, however alienated the artist there may feel. His vision of the other, perforce deformed by his own premises, is not a source of psychic disruption. It is a diversion, one with sexual implications, something which relieves his claustrophobia. The African writer may well found his perception of the other on projections and his own false premises, but his other is within, or threatens to become so. The power of definition is the ultimate one, and that power belongs to the dominant discourse.

Since the demise of French colonialism, several works have dealt with the image of Africa in French literature and, to greater or lesser degrees, unmasked colonial prejudice.13 It is perhaps too soon to expect an analogous exercise of imagology by African critics—the unveiling of African prejudice toward the West. When such does appear, it will likely be demonstrated that African writers have systematically stereotyped the West. Who has not, including Western writers themselves? Western pastoralism, beginning with Theocritus, is but the first of a long series of ideologies constructed around axiological polarities. The racism Europe perpetrated upon Africa was practiced, for centuries, upon itself. Witness Madame de Staël, who canonized, though she did not initiate, the practice of differentiating North and South, Teutonic and Latin, a dress rehearsal, as it were, for the Africanist discourse Miller describes and to which Négritude was a mimic response. If we follow Umberto Eco and define ideology as a crystallization of connotative chains which can be recognized by their polarity, the positive and negative valences attributed to strings of antimonies which are themselves organized around opposition between self and other, then both these Western forms and Négritude itself are ideologies par excellence and their poles are evident: north/south, intellect/emotion, Teutonic/Latin in early comparative literature theory; white/black, culture/nature, reason/emotion, machine/soil in European racism; black/white, natural/unnatural, rhythmic/arhythmic, passionate/frigid, synthetic/analytic in Négritude.14

Yet despite their underlying similarity, European paradigms of self and other and those contesting them in Africa have different bases. The other in primitivist, orientalist, and Africanist discourse in Europe is a figure of desire and envy, when not of disdain. In a sense he or she is already a possession, and thus external. The other in Europeanist discourse in Africa is a possessor, an oppressor and, paradoxically, within: his power resides within the text and must be conjured away. This is particularly true in Europhone writing. Whence the despair which is common to both Le Devoir de violence and Two Thousand Seasons, one rooted in alienation and taking the shape of a deviant inner penchant toward dualism and hierarchy, an alienation which is easy to exploit given its propensity to ideology. For Ouologuem, this penchant assumes the guise of the dichotomy between the Saif dynasty and the lumpen blacks, the négraille; for Armah it takes that of the abandonment of equality and reciprocity among the Akan and their ultimate acquiescence to the alien principle of kingship.

Contrary to what a facile reading of Armah's text might suggest, he puts the burden of blame for two thousand seasons of bondage upon the Akan themselves, not upon the external oppressors, the Arabs and Europeans (here virtually indistinguishable, both Destroyers). In the words the young prophetess Anoa spoke before the dispersion and diaspora:

You have forgotten the way of our life, the living way. Your ears have stopped themselves to the voice of reciprocity. … Slavery—do you know what that is? Ah, you will know it. Two thousand seasons, a thousand going into it, a second thousand crawling maimed from it. …15

Non-reciprocity breeds hierarchy and inequality both in personal relationships, those between man and wife, potentially egalitarian but iniquitous in practice, and in the structure of the community, which adopted the alien institution of kingship in response to captivity, enslavement, and marginalization. There is something of a logical confusion here, however. Armah portrays oppression as, on the one hand, arising from a moral flaw within the Akan (here standing in for Africans as a whole), and as, on the other, caused by the presence and power of the Destroyers (for which read both the colonizers and their co-opted neo-colonial elites). It is not the role of art to be logical. Armah's attribution of a kind of original sin to the Akan at the same time he denounces those history sent to punish deviation from the true way is certainly no more illogical than that underlying Christianity and is common, I would argue, to founding texts as a whole: for how is an identity to be established without castigating that which is alien and simultaneously claiming an aboriginal source or essence? There is a dilemma implicit in this dual focus: does essence, the kind which founds a group, a race, or any collectivity come from within or without? Is identity essence, or is it une prise-de-position? Is a collectivity best defined against those who threaten it, or in terms of its intrinsic qualities, and whence come those qualities, from what root or germ? It is the function of the founding text to surpass such latent contradictions with a unifying vision of origin and identity, and it is the illusion of textual integrity which lends that vision credence.

In Le Devoir de violence such founding texts are portrayed as invariable instruments of oppression, rhetorical tools of the Saif dynasty whose control over the négraille remains unbroken from mythic times through the grand empires to colonialism and thereafter. In Ouologuem's view, moreover, such founding texts are predicated upon the principle of identity and difference and the “connecting link” between them. There is no better example of his denunciation of the rhetoric of identity and difference than his ferocious satire of the marchand-confectionneur d'idéologie Fritz Schroénius, a barely veiled namesake of the German ethnologist Leo Frobenius, author of the first important European study of African civilization, Kulturgeschichte Afrikas.16 Schroénius' promulgation of African cultural essence not only serves his own interests as trafficker in artefacts, but those of Saif, who exploits them both to refurbish his treasury and to disarm the lumpen blacks with a dazzling image of their importance while at the same time diverting attention from his own despotism. In his words:

Il a fallu que l'impérialisme blanc s'infiltrât là, avec sa violence, son matérialisme colonisateur, pour que ce peuple si civilisé brusquement dégringolât à l'état sauvage, se vît taxé de cannibalisme, de primitivisme, alors qu'au contraire. … la grandeur des empires du Moyen Age constituait le visage vrai de l'Afrique, sage, belle, riche, ordonnée, non violente et puissante tout autant qu'humaniste—berceau même de la civilisation égyptienne.17

Schroénius' discourse is a pastiche of the late Cheik Anta Diop, who held, in his Nations nègres et culture, that African civilization was fundamentally Egyptian (and Egyptian, African).18 But, as current events show, Ouologuem is on target about the myth of the mediaeval African empires and its utility to contemporary despots, for he demonstrates that such a rhetoric of self and other is treacherous to those subsumed within that discourse.

There are many other contrasts between Ouologuem and Armah. The latter has by all evidence attempted to demarcate himself from the former and has therefore cast the Malian into the role of other as well. It is to some extent true, as Wole Soyinka suggested in Myth, Literature and the African World, that Armah represents if not an advance upon Ouologuem then at least a sequel to his thought. Two Thousand Years is text as therapy, as founding gesture of a psychic state in which the cleavages and fragmentation residual to colonialism are transcended. As such it is close to what Soyinka called “visionary reconstruction of the past for the purposes of a social direction.”19 Soyinka was unhappy with Ouologuem's ambiguity and found in Armah alone sufficient clarity of vision and commitment to “humanistic perspectives as inspirational alternatives to existing society.” While recognizing the superior engagement of Armah, I would like to suggest that overcoming the power of the other and transmuting the despair which results from the other's hold does not require a “positive” social program. It is equally possible that such a program, one predicated upon identity and difference, may itself be detrimental.

It is a bias of much contemporary African literature and criticism that commitment is concomitant to future creativity, be the specific program in question mytho-poetic, as for Soyinka, myth-political, as for Ngugi, or Marxist.20Le Devoir de violence is prima facie evidence that this presupposition does not hold. However uncomfortable some may feel with Ouologuem's Nietzschean implications about politics or culture, his strategy is an effective literary one. Armah may well pose an alternative to Ouologuem's assault on the prospects for original innocence in Africa; his is by no means a superior resolution to the problem in literary terms. Indeed, implicated as it is with the quest for pure origins and “definite creation” Le Devoir de violence discounts the very grounds for, Two Thousand Seasons stands in a problematic relation to the former.

Prior to Two Thousand Seasons, Armah's oeuvre was a quintessential expression of despair, existential in tone and comparable as such to Sartre's La Nausée and its antecedent, Rilke's Die Auszeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge, though also addressing a specifically African dilemma: the inability of creative individuals to reconcile with the fragmented and materialistic neo-colonial society which had become theirs, and the subsequent descent into despondency and psychosis. In Two Thousand Seasons this despair persists, but has been attributed both to deviation from the true way and to an outside source, the Destroyers, symbolized by the white sands which soak up the vital currents of the Niger and Volta as they flow north toward the desert. Alienation within this work is a function of white usurpation of black primal force or, alternatively, of black internalization of the principles of whiteness: hierarchy, reification, destruction, and the severing of bonds which relate human to human and humans to the world.

It would be unfair to reduce a work as complex and original as Armah's to a schematic diagram or to a mere instance of influence (interestingly enough, from the French, a language Armah has gone to great lengths to display his knowledge of in Fragments and Why Are We So Blest?). Still, it is significant that he has, in the first place, reintroduced the principal motifs of Négritude and, in the second, fused them into a program which is Fanonist in essence, though more the Fanon of Peau noire, masques blancs, who was concerned with the psychic effects of cultural alienation, than that of Les Damnès de la terre, who affirmed that the only effective catharsis would be violent and political. Fanon exerted an immense influence on many Third World intellectuals, but notably on Armah, whose earlier works lend themselves readily to Fanon's view of disorientation among the oppressed. A text which endeavors to dispel the paralyzing power of the oppressor's world view with an alternative myth of origin, Two Thousand Seasons is also a rehabilitation of the axiological polarities which Senghor, in particular, expostulated.21 It is indicative of the degree to which Armah has willingly polarized his novel that white represents not only European, but also Arab, Moslem culture.

Therapeutic in its intent and sharply polarized in its axiology, Two Thousand Seasons also marks a portentous narratological innovation within Armah's oeuvre, from the first or third person singular voices of The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born, Fragments, and Why Are We So Blest? to the first person plural and vocative. This shift confused many readers upon publication and has been explained as a harkening back to the art of the griot, the African public poet who sings of the collective fate, and, given Armah's concern with disease and cure, to the faith-healer's invocations.22 The early Armah portrayed the failure of various writers, artists, seers, and creative individuals to fuse with the people and then demonstrated their resulting despair, thematically close, because of the very failure to escape European modes, to the existential anguish of a Rilke or Sartre. The Armah of Two Thousand Seasons instead posits himself as a seer who has mastered his despair and who summons his reader to a visionary and purgative mission: “The linking of those gone, ourselves here, those coming; our flowing not along any meretricious channel but along our living way, the way” (xiii). This invocation is reflected in the shift from the descriptive to the vocative mode and the new importance given myth, as opposed to the phenomenological description which pervaded the earlier works. I do not agree, therefore, with those who feel that the “sluggish, somnambulistic” quality of Armah reaches an apotheosis in the 1973 text. Armah is after all not necessarily bigger, but different game. The abandonment of the phenomenological mode was intended to signal the desertion of the ideological mode to which it was attached.

To abandon one ideology does not mean escaping all ideology. Both Négritude and Armah's personal variation on the values which underlie it certainly demonstrate ideological structure in the sense I defined it above. Both are typical founding texts, predicated upon the play of identity and difference, self and other, origin and return to sources. This is not to claim, I repeat, that some texts are ideological and others not, only that certain kinds are more overtly so. Founding texts play upon a general quality of texts, the illusion of inner coherence, and an analogous quality of language, the mirage of representation. But what all texts partake of, founding texts take as their essence. Their aim is to attribute pattern to history and a paradigmatic role within history to the collectivity they espouse, to assert a congruence between the text itself, the myths it conveys, and the singular history of the group who is its subject.

Let us adduce, then, the alternative textual sort offered by Le Devoir de violence. Not that many African writers have followed in Ouologuem's footsteps, not even Ouologuem himself.23 His is a haunting and troubling work, for which there are various reasons, his abjuration of grounds for any ethical response to colonialism among them, as well as the abundance of scatology, blasphemy, and obscenity. An even more perturbing factor for some is the scandal which erupted shortly after the publishing success of the book in France, a cause célèbre too infamous to recount in detail here.24 The tendency has been to look the other way, as if Ouologuem offended propriety not only by his blasphemous attack on African despotism (grist to the mill of Eurocentric prejudice about African political mores), but in the very essence of his work, which through the lens of humanism appears utterly without redeeming value, lifted as it has been from a spectrum of sources and therefore lacking any center, originality, or authenticity.

First, let us address the issue of blasphemy, paramount in the initial pages, especially for a Moslem (as, we should remember, the majority of Ouologuem's compatriots are). It is revealing that European critics have taken as plagiarism the word-for-word parallel between the work's opening lines and those of Schwarz-Bart's Le Dernier des justes. But these lines have more to do with parody than plagiarism. The subtle insertion of Islamic imprecations into, if not a Zionist then at least a Jewish diaspora text, has not been widely remarked upon, but their appearance and the mockery they imply sets the tone for the first third of the narration, vacillating between further parody of griot accounts and ridicule of the Koran: Dieu rafraîchisse sa couche; Dieu ait son âme; la malédiction de Dieu sur lui.25 Most Western readers would be disturbed, offended, or smug that it is a Bishop who reconciles with the despot Saif in the final passages. Many pious African Moslems would not reach either the violations of incest and seraglio taboo or the pornographic sequences of “L'extase et l'agonie.” The date 1202 would have tipped them off immediately that Ouologuem was writing in French for a (post-) Christian audience. If they did continue, they would discover that in this one regard Ouologuem is in agreement with Armah: Islam is a scourge on Africa. Christopher Miller's revisionist version of Ouologuem's use of European texts, though valuable, ignores Ouologuem's allusion to Islamic texts, par for Western scholarship.26 Plagiarism and parody are Ouologuem's main means of dealing with the West, but blasphemy is his preferred mode of transcribing Africa, Islamic or animist, nationalist or marxist. Blasphemy is, like plagiarism, a deliberate violation of codes, the use of the sacred in a secular context.

A blasphemous work by any standards, Le Devoir de violence also suffers from an apparent structural flaw: it lacks a coherent center. I say “apparent” because this very lack of center, upon repeated readings, seems to be a source of strength, of which Ouologuem himself may not have been totally aware. According to Miller, Le Devoir de violence is neither copy nor original; it is a rejection of the norms of European logic and discourse, a “triumphantly hopeless gesture.” Hopeless or not, the text is radically de-centered not only in its inner movement (which is centrifugal), its ethical prescriptions (resolutely negative), and its sources, lifted as they are from a plethora of minor or paraliterary European loci, some Islamic, some African (such as Camara Laye's Le Regard du roi).27 Nor is the African Marxist tradition spared: Sembene Ousmane is glancingly referred to in the passages about railroad organization when the consummate tyrant Saif arranges to sell his lackeys off to the railroads and all the peasants agree (compare this to parallel scenes in Ousmane's Les Petits bouts de Dieu). I, for one, am also curious about the “ancient Arabian, medieval, old Portuguese and old Spanish manuscripts” Ouologuem alleges to have incorporated into his work.28 We in the West have missed an essential point. Ouologuem's plagiarism of Schwarz-Bart, Maupassant, Graham Greene, and Lord knows how many other writers aside, who were the African writers Ouologuem targeted?

Specific reference in the early passages and the outcome of the plot make clear that Ouologuem had in mind a tendency he dubbed “black romanticism,” the weakness of African leaders and their literary counterparts for schroéniusologie: the predilection for high-flown theories of the African soul all the while much more so sordid political realities prevail—a little like the castles in the air Kierkegaard accused Hegel of constructing in the face of human squalor or the Leibnitzian right-mindedness Voltaire took to task. “Véridique ou fabulée, la légende de Saif Isaac El Héit hante de nos jours encore le romantisme nègre, et la politique des notables en maintes républiques” (14). It would be too easy to read this diatribe as pertaining solely to types like Idi Amin Dada or the late Emperor Jean-Bodel Bokassa. It is more to the point to see this attack on Schroéniusology as one upon Négritude in the first place, and all logics of identity in the second. They are, Ouologuem asserts, tools in the hands of tyrants.

In Africa the mainstream tradition is predicated upon social or political solidarity, moral orthodoxy and aesthetic conservatism, but there have been exceptions. I have mentioned the numerous trickster tales in which amorality wins out. But think, too, of the sense of perversity within the Yoruba pantheon Soyinka describes in Myth, Literature and the African World,29 or, as far as aesthetic conservatism goes, of the extraordinary inventions of the Kota peoples of Gabon and the Congo in response to European matériel. Ouologuem resisted the “orthodox” position within African literature. There can be, he reminds us, no unifying vision of what is inevitably manifold and conflictive. All discourse is ideological. None is salutary, including that of the most ardent defenders of African identity.

The change of voice I noted above in Two Thousand Seasons is very different from the proliferation of voice we find in Le Devoir de violence. The former pursues a coherent discursive goal, an explanatory vision of origin, of fall, and reintegration, the fateful cycle prophesied by Anoa. The vocative and first person narrative seeks to bind the reader to the narrator and his vision of the collective fate. Narrator here is more than merely reliable: he is apodictic. Ouologuem's text has no such axis. It moves from legend to griot accounts, from third person depiction of historical intrigue and back again to dramatic discourse. The multiplicity of voice precludes a credible point of view, and the text is open to all discourse. One could therefore argue that despite Armah's attempt to surpass Ouologuem's negativity by recourse to a cogent myth of foundation, it is of a lesser “power.” There is no place within his own system for Ouologuem. On the other hand, Two Thousand Seasons could be inserted into Le Devoir de violence as a sub-text, one of the delusive myths of black romanticism whose function is to obfuscate the exploited—though, and this is important, Ouologuem does not try to lure his reader into the fallacy that authentic consciousness exists, let alone that it might enable the exploited to throw off oppression. All the voices in Le Devoir de violence are bogus, from the mock Arab historians to the griots, from the black romantics to Schroénius, from the lovers (hetero- or homosexual) to the conspirators, even the voices of Saif and Abbé Henry in the concluding dialogue and, finally, that of Ouologuem himself, whose text is not even his own. Yet this disparity of voice and Ouologuem's own mendacity are perfectly attuned to the falsification which is the theme of the work and to the series of forgeries upon which it is constructed. We have here a rare, almost breath-taking integration of form and content, style and matter, theme and expression, motif and literary method. We also have a work which abjures all hope, and this is what has made it so disturbing and such an anomaly within the canon of contemporary African literature. The world of Le Devoir de violence is one of empty gesture, brutal and irreconcilable conflict between men and women and classes and civilizations—and the text itself is one such empty gesture, one grounded in no more authenticity than the psychic energy of the author or of the reader whom Ouologuem abused without shame.

In contrast to Armah, the healer, Ouologuem is the practitioner of “literary magic for the purpose of self inoculation” that Soyinka found in him,30 but one whose gesture purges himself and potentially his readers of what he identifies as the very grounds of despair and delusion: the debilitating belief that history has a meaning and that motivation can be authentic. Here Ouologuem, as well, is indebted to European existentialism. Armah's Fanonist perspective relates back to Sartre's call for collective solidarity through annealing violence. How ironic in this regard that Ouologuem, usually thought of as a paragon of gratuitous violence, actually has more affinity on philosophical grounds with Albert Camus, who rejected Sartre's (and Fanon's) project of revolutionary solidarity through collective violence. In Le Mythe de Sisyphe Camus argued: “Absurde n'est pas ce qui n'a pas de sens. La nature n'a pas de sens. Mais elle n'est pas absurde. Elle est. L'absurde provient des choses qui se détruisent et s'engendrent.” What is it in things that “engender and destroy each other” if not the reciprocal assumption that there is a relation between knowing subjects, the “connecting link” in the strange game in the last pages of Le Devoir de violence.

Les Chinois ont un jeu: le trait d'union. Ils capturent deux oiseaux qu'ils attachent ensemble. Pas de trop près. Grâce à un lien mince, mais solide et long. Si long que les oiseaux, rejetés en l'air, s'envolent, montent en flèche et, se croyant libres, se grisent de battements d'ailes, de grand air, mais soudain: crac! Tiraillés. … Les Chinois trouvent ça drôle, hautement comique et raffiné. … Quand la Providence se garde de les empaler aux branches, avant la fin du jeu, l'un d'eux meurt. Seul. Ou avec l'autre. Tous les deux. Ensemble. Etranglés, éborgés.


Ouologuem seems to imply that what links the birds together (the fowl of what I have termed self and other, identity and difference, black and white) is both contingent, insofar as it is part of a game, and necessary, for the bond, once we are in the game, cannot be severed. There is no hope, as long as we are fowl. And if we are born spectators, like Saif, it is our role to impose the rules of this terrifying game.

If Armah reflected at all on this passage when he read Le Devoir de violence, he probably had a clear idea of his own about that tether between the birds. He would understand it as symbolizing the colonial bond which must be broken before the birds can fly free. Let us therefore not identify too closely Armah's above “linking of those gone, ourselves here, those coming,” with the trait-d'union to which Ouologuem attributes violence and despair. Armah's linking is what I have called paratactic. Coordination and conjunction are its operative principles and the identities of the entities so juxtaposed is independent of whatever binds them. To pursue the metaphor: in syntactic texts, like Ouologuem's, psychic, ideational, or ideological entities cannot be determined without recourse to the relations which define them—from which it can follow that the identity of all entities is questioned, relationships being perforce rhetorical and political.

I submit that the primary ordering principle of African literature both traditional and contemporary is indeed the paratactic one, based upon union, solidarity, and collectivity, especially as defined against an external other. Ouologuem offers an exception. He demonstrates that all connection is inescapably implicated in the play of opposition and that opposition itself is the curse of consciousness.


  1. The germ of this text was presented at the 12th Annual African Literature Association conference at Michigan State University in April, 1986.

  2. Robert Fraser, The Novels of Ayi Kwei Armah (London: Heinemann, 1980) 65–71.

  3. Neither Le Devoir de violence nor Two Thousand Seasons can be called true novels. Asked to describe his work, Ouologuem was reduced not to a loss but, typically, a surfeit of words: “a fresco, an epic, a legend, and a novel” (Interview with Linda Kuehl, “Yambo Ouologuem on Violence, Truth and Black History,” Commonweal, 11 June 1971, 311–14). Likewise, Armah bridges centuries of racial history and to do so resorts to emblematic or “heroic” characterization, cosmological legend and mimicry of traditional story-telling. This is not the place to take up the thorny issue of whether genre resides within critical metalanguage or within the literary system itself, either immanently or as an effect of modeling text upon text. My remarks are intended to allow for both possibilities.

  4. From confundare, to pour together. A related term is satire, from satura, smorgasbord. The underlying principle is heterogeneity.

  5. Robert D. Pelton, The Trickster in West Africa (Berkeley: U of California P, 1980). Denise Paulme, La Mère dévorante: Essai sur la morphologie des contes africains (Paris: Gallimard, 1976).

  6. David Caute, Fanon (London: Fontana, 1970). J. P. Sartre, Critique de la raison dialectique (Paris: Gallimard, 1960). As Caute observes, Sorel is not without influence in such thought.

  7. V. Y. Mudimbe, “African Gnosis, Philosophy and the Order of Knowledge: An Introduction,” African Studies Review 28, 2/3 (June/September 1985): 170. I have argued elsewhere that Sartre and Fanon were both caught up in a rhetoric which was not “African” in origin, but rather derived from the dispositio of the European academic dissertation—which does not prevent it from being relevant to African events. George Lang, “Comment naît une nation,” Actes du VIIIe Congrès de l'Association Internationale de Littérature Comparée (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1980) 337–41.

  8. Sartre, “Orphée noir,” in Senghor, Anthologie … (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1948) 1.

  9. Guy Ossito Midiohouan's “Critique littéraire et nationalisme en African noire d'expression française,” presented at the African Literature Association's conference in April 1986 at Michigan State University, is a thorough working out of this line of thought.

  10. See the definition of parataxis in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: “the coordination of grammatical elements such as phrases of clauses, without the use of coordinating elements such as conjunctions.”

  11. It is apparent, I presume, that this kind of taxonomy is an echo of the shift from basically “paradigmatic” approaches to “syntagmatic” ones that Paul de Man spoke of and recommended in Allegories of Reading (New Haven: Yale UP, 1979) 7–8.

  12. Christopher L. Miller, Blank Darkness (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985); Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1979). I have attempted a definition of these tendencies in my forthcoming “Le Primitivisme,” in Dictionnaire internationale des termes littéraires. Sous la direction scientifique de Robert Escarpit (Maison des Sciences de l'Homme, Université de Bordeaux III).

  13. Léon Fanoudh-Siefer, Le Mythe du nègre et de l'Afrique noire dans la littérature française de 1800 à la deuxième guerre mondiale (Paris: Gallimard, 1969); Marine Astier-Loufti, Littérature et colonialisme: L'expansion coloniale vue dans la littérature romanesque française, 1871–1914 (Paris: Mouton, 1971); Léon-François Hoffman, Le Nègre romantique: personnage littéraire et obsession collective (Paris: Payot, 1973).

  14. Eco called the positive and negative connotations at the “head” of each string the “axiological super-connotations” (iperconnotazione assiologica) and defined ideology from a semiotic point of view as “an ossified message which has become the signifying unit of a rhetorical sub-code” (un messagio sclerotizzato che è diventato unità significante di un sottocodice retorico). Umberto Eco, Le Forme del contenuto (Milano: Bombiano, 1971) 50 and 151.

  15. Ayi Kwei Armah, Two Thousand Seasons (Chicago: Third World, 1979) 26–27. Hereafter cited by page number in this edition.

  16. Leo Frobenius, 1873–1973: An Anthology. Foreword by L. S. Senghor, ed. Eike Haberland (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1973).

  17. Yambo Ouologuem, Le Devoir de violence (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1968) 111. Henceforth referred to by page number in this edition.

  18. Diop, Nations nègres et culture (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1965).

  19. Soyinka, Myth, Literature and the African World (Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1976) 106.

  20. Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Homecoming (London: Heinemann, 1972) and Decolonizing the Mind (London: James Currey, 1986); Georg M. Gugelberger, ed. Marxism and African Literature (Trenton, N. J.: Africa World, 1986).

  21. Senghor's texts are most accessible in Libertés I, II (Paris: Seuil, 1964/1971).

  22. Fraser, The Novels of Ayi Kwei Armah, 68–71.

  23. Adèle King cites the case of Boubacar Boris Diop's Le Temps de Tamango, “perhaps the first example African metafiction,” as deriving from Ouologuem. “Le Temps de Tamango: Eighteen Hundred Years of Solitude,” Komparatistische Hefte 12 (1985): 77.

  24. The notes to Miller's chapter on Ouologuem, Blank Darkness, 216–44, provide a running bibliographical account.

  25. Alif lam ra, the sacred letters of Suras 10–15 (those of Jonah, Hud, Joseph, Thunder, Abraham, and the Rocky Tract) are echoed irreverently throughout these earlier passages, as is Koranic style and reference to Arab historians.

  26. It is evidence of our mutual ignorance that “Judeo-Christian” and “Islamic” scholars have virtually no knowledge of each other, though Africa is the quintessential site at which this dialogue should occur. There is a vast range of West African response to Islam. For Senegal alone, see Mbye B. Cham, “Islam in Senegalese Literature and Film,” Africa 55, 4 (1985): 447–64.

  27. Clarence's journey to the south is parodied in the following: “Mon repas a été drogué … J'obéis à une mécanique intérieure, à une dictée impérieuser. Le Sud. Le Sud” (119).

  28. See the interview with Linda Kuehl, Commonweal, 11 June 1971, 311–14.

  29. Soyinka, 1–36.

  30. Soyinka, 101.

Derek Wright (essay date 1988)

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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 griot or oral historian is, for example, as pervasively in evidence in novels with contemporary urban settings, such as Soyinka's The Interpreters and Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, as are his other stock-in-trade in historical novels which deal with traditional cultures in an earlier period: for example, Achebe's Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God, where the idiomatic oral wisdoms which carry the main themes are encapsulated marginally in the proverbs, fables and folktales that punctuate the narrative. Some historical novels, such as Yaw Boateng's novel of the Ashanti Wars The Return, use oral devices and ideas hardly at all. Some of the most adventurous experimentation with oral narrative forms is not, in fact, to be found in the historical novel proper, set in a specific and limited period, but in two visionary, half-mythical reconstructions of whole eras of African history: Yambo Ouologuem's Le Devoir de violence,1 translated as Bound to Violence, and Ayi Kwei Armah's Two Thousand Seasons.2 This article will focus on the relative gains and losses of these two exercises in simulated orality—the one largely negative and destructive, the other corrective and constructive—and on their polemical implications for the literary status of oral tradition.

Yambo Ouologuem's idiosyncratic pseudo-history of the barbaric cruelty and oppression of Sudanic Africa incorporates a sardonic pastiche of oral narrative which faithfully reproduces the traditional griot's pietistic formulae and rhetorical invocations along with his occasionally gruesome hyperbole. The novel, which even claims to derive from and to quote the works of individual oral historians, begins at the breakneck pace of the griot who is narrating something for the umpteenth time:

Our eyes drink the brightness of the sun and, overcome, marvel at their tears. Mashallah! wa bismallah! … To recount the bloody adventure of the niggertrash—shame to the worthless paupers!—there would be no need to go back beyond the present century …

What is more interesting, when the elders, notables, and griots, peering wide-eyed into the bitter deserts, speak of that Empire, is the desperate flight, before God's implacable “blessing,” of its population, baptized in torture … torn by internicine rivalries and warring with one another for the imperial power with a violence equalled only by the dread it called forth.

… When the Immortal One makes the sun—diamond of the house of His Power—set, then, along with the tales of the oral tradition, the elders intone the famous epic (the value of which some contest, because they deny Saif's Jewish descent, insisting that he was a plain ordinary nigger) written by Mahmud Meknud Trare, a descendant of griot ancestors and himself a griot of the present-day African Republic of Nakem-Ziuko, which is all that remains of the ancient Nakem Empire …

(pp. 3, 4, 6)

The note of critical dissent from a contestable oral tradition is present from the start. The footnote on the first page of the novel directs the reader towards the traditional definition of the griot as “a troubadour, member of a hereditary caste whose function it is to celebrate the great events of history and to uphold the God-given traditions (p. 3). Ouologuem's re-invention of the Saharan history of “Nakem” is not, however, a celebration of the divinely-sanctioned epic exploits of the hereditary caste of feudal overlords from which the griots come, but a savagely ironic indictment of that caste's vicious despotism. Far from imparting a solemn dignity to the modern griot's discourse, the incongruous juxtaposition of oral rhetorical devices with the Islamic Saifs' sadistic cruelty, duplicity and exploitation brings a devastating irony to bear upon both the events narrated and the mode of narrative:

In reality the nobility, warriors in the days of the first Saifs (Glory to the Almight God), had become intriguers for power: Amen, At the death of the accursed Saif (Blessed be the Eternal One!), conscious of their own need of stability (So be it!), they had flung the people into a bath of pseudo-spirituality, while enslaving them materially. (And praised.)

(p. 23)

The parenthetical exclamations and prayer-tags borrowed from oral narrative are brought into disrepute and their seriousness undermined by the author's sardonic attachment of them to unworthy objects. Ouologuem's mock-heroics are a double-edged sword, which, at the same time as it lays bare the supposed but faulty heroism of the subject, also belittles the narrative form which heroises it and implies doubts about its moral and historical reliability. Thus it comes as no surprise when it is revealed that the myths and legends of many of the tales in the oral culture are no more rooted in indigenous folk-lore than the phoney antique masks collected by Shrobenius and the bogus “mixture of pure, symbolic and religious art” concocted for him by the witch-doctor Sankolo. Like the art and religion, the tales too are mere fabrications designed by Saif al-Heit himself to dupe gullible and suspiciously-motivated European ethnologists into taking a spuriously heroic, “Afrolotrous” view of African culture:

Madoubo … spoke indefatigably of symbols, as did his father, who spouted myths for a whole week … Shrobenius's head teemed with ideas. Reeling off spirituality by the yard, the men paced the courtyard with anxious, knit brows … Saif made up stories and the interpreter translated, Madoubo repeated in French, refining on the subtleties to the delight of Shrobenius, that human crayfish afflicted with a groping mania for resuscitating an African universe—cultural autonomy, he called it—which had lost all living reality … African life, he held, was pure art, intense religious symbolism, and a civilization once grandiose …

(pp. 86–87)

As the farrago served up to Fro/Shrobenius by Saif selects only those elements of the African past which glorify it, Ouologuem's version of history, by hypothesizing an alternative oral tradition which has the Saifs themselves as subjects, selects only those elements of the past which debase it. In the author's self-conscious and partly self-mocking counter-creation of Sudanic history as a chronicle of primitive cruelty and enslaved misery, an acrobatic fancy juggles with one outrageous invention after another, with the result that the response to Saif's cynical inventions itself becomes suffused by a Saif-like arbitrariness and deadly whimsicality. Both versions are imaginative constructs which put biased constructions on the past to suit the political and polemical needs of their authors, and the mirror-image correspondence they acquire means that the story which we are reading raises reflexive doubts about its own authenticity. Ouologuem's counter-fictions—the Semitic origin of the Saifs, the cunning manipulative control of the colonists by the colonized, and the ruling caste's restriction of a French education to the serf-class—are all either of doubtful authenticity or deliberately and grossly unhistorical. The implication is that, given the immensity of the African historical vacuum assumed by the author and the impossibility of historical objectivity, this particular griotatary guess at Saharan history is probably as accurate as the Frobenian version or that celebrated in works like the Malian epic Sundjata. Ouologuem does not share the confidence of Armah, in Two Thousand Seasons, that remembered legends preserved in oral form by the communal memory may be at least as reliable, if not more reliable, than recorded histories of selected “fact” kept by the colonizing powers. The Ghanaian writer sets out earnestly to contest and correct an otherwise valued oral tradition, the Malian writer glibly to undermine it entirely.

In the manner of other projected histories which make use of oral memory and relate the odyssey of a whole people—Armah's novel and André Schwarz-Bart's Le Dernier des justes, the formal prototype of Ouologuem's book—Bound to Violence handles the notion of some kind of racial ancestry and destiny running across the centuries and periodically resurfacing in the lives of selected individuals. In Ouologuem's novel, however, the ongoing continuum is nothing so positive as the indigenous spirit of communalism which is the developing force of Armah's “Way” or Schwarz-Bart's inherited burden of redemptive suffering. It is simply the unchanging and apparently unchangeable feudal order of Nakem which has miraculously survived into the twentieth century: the barbaric tyranny of the hereditary Saifs, on the one hand, and, on the other, the perpetual servitude for which the doomed “Négraille” or “niggertrash” develop a fatalistic “imbecile vocation.” The choice of oral forms is integral to the author's vision of history insofar as these forms, like Nakem's history, are irredeemably bastardized: Koranic parentheses are interspersed with, and finally out-number, the Bantu ones. The flamboyant iconoclasm informing these literary manoeuvres insists that there was never a time when indigenous values and forms were separable from those of the Islamic Saifs: the exploitative habits of the early negro-African overlords anticipated the atrocities of the Arab invaders with whom they were happy to collaborate. In spirit, the appalling Saifs have ruled from time immemorial and are our contemporaries and successors. The hope that “the golden age when all the swine will die is just around the corner” is derided as “a false window offering a vista of happiness” (p. 174). The conclusion declares that “Saif, mourned three million times, is forever reborn to history beneath the hot ashes of more than thirty African republics” (pp. 181–82). The novel dismisses with the same contemptuous zeal the idea of a pristine, pre-colonial value-structure, indigenously and authentically African, prior to the Arab and European incursions: this is regarded as another deluded European myth about Africa. Critics have observed that Ouologuem, whilst disallowing the Arab claim to indigenous antiquity in Saharan Africa, takes no interest in destroyed or corrupted indigenous values outside of the undifferentiated feudal context of overlord and slave and, in Soyinka's words, “still leaves the basic curiosity about black historic reality unsatisfied.”3 For some measure of satisfaction on that score one must turn to a comparable African historical novel. Armah's Two Thousand Seasons.

To approach Armah's daring experimentation with the techniques of African oral narrative from the critical assumptions governing discussion of the European novel is to mistake both the formal design and the spirit of the book. Few novels create deliberately unmemorable characters who are merely functions of a collective will or ramble episodically over vast spans of time in pursuit of racial destinies. Even fewer novels start from the premise that certain groups, nations or races and their colonial underlings have engrossed most of the human vices and are wholly predictable because helpless before the evil of their own natures. Abandoning critical investigation for partisan invective, Armah makes no claim to criticize his “destroyers” and “predators” and their African quislings but simply hurls abuse at them, more after the fashion of the Ewe halo than that of Western satire. These features are, more often, the stock-in-trade of epic, saga and chronicle, both in the African oral tradition of the griot and in its written European equivalents: namely, those Homeric and Norse marathons which similarly trace the migrations of whole peoples and celebrate the founding of nations and empires. Doubtless, some Western scholars would claim, however, that the latter use stock epithets with more ironic discrimination and with a more novel-like, fair-minded openness to the variety of human experience than are to be found in Two Thousand Seasons.

Armah's self-consciously staged griot-like discourse is concerned to correct the method of narrating African history as well as the history itself. There are, therefore, some significant departures from story-telling traditions. The author's avowedly anti-elitist standpoint shuns the griot's customary glorification of the matchless deeds of past heroes which is derisively parodied by Ouologuem and, as Isidore Okpewho has observed, rejects the supernatural along with the superhuman and denies the narrator's single creative personality any domineering proprietorship over the events narrated.4 Armah's discourse makes communal and egalitarian ideals not only potentially realizable in the contemporary world but so certain to be achieved that the goals can be described as having already been won. His world-view is essentially secular and humanist. His narrative strategy emphasizes the griot's self-effacing assumption of a common identity with both the specific audience which his tale is designed to educate and the characters of the tale itself. Thus Two Thousand Seasons is not only about reciprocity: its technique enacts reciprocity between the story-teller, his tale and his listeners.

The plural voice of Armah's newly-Africanized narrative form formally announces its agnostic viewpoint in the opening chapter:

We have not found that lying trick to our taste, the trick of making up sure knowledge of things possible to think of, things possible to wonder about but impossible to know in any such ultimate way. We are not stunted in spirit, we are not European. … What we do not know we do not claim to know.

(p. 3)

In Armah's first two novels his scepticism about the differences between the present and an ultimately irretrievable past contributed to an ironic and pessimistic vision. In Two Thousand Seasons, however, he capitalizes on the uncertainty of the past and turns it to positive ends. The narrator does not proceed to a cynical negation of all retrieved “authenticities,” ironically thin though the line may be between the supposed rational ideology of “the Way” and its rivals, those sentimental mystifications and nostalgic hankerings for unreal pasts which are presented as betrayals of the Way's essential aims. His didactic purpose is to cure an errant Africa of its diseased distrust in its own indigenous forms and values, not to reproduce the exact historical origins and developments of those forms and values. It is accompanied by an awareness that the communal memory drawn upon by the “remembrances” of oral narrative is no more unreliable than recorded history, especially when the written record is a European one coloured by colonial prejudices, and that a starkly monochromatic portrait of white devilry and black victimization is at least compatible with Africa's narrow experience of the white man as slaver and colonizer, as material and spiritual destroyer. The dogma of the Way works from the premise that one made-up ethnocentred history, serving one set of ideological needs, is as good as or better than another one which serves different and alien needs. Two Thousand Seasons, as Soyinka has observed, stands in the same relation to the work of black ethnologists and historians such as Cheikh Anta Diop and Chancellor Williams as Rider Haggard and Conrad do to the Eurocentric ethnology of Western scholarship. The Prologue's rhetoric of fragmentation and dismemberment issues a reminder that it is the fragmented part of Africa's history—the colonial period which cut the continent off from its past—that, until recently, has alone constituted “African history” in Western study. Of course, the past is not a total void into which any fiction may be projected. There is a bedrock of verifiable fact to provide yardsticks for authenticity and even Armah's highly postulative, theoretical history, though less concerned with the past than with promise for the future, retains a strong attachment to historical, time-bound reality. The griot's didactic purposes may, however, license historical inaccuracies such as the notions, in Two Thousand Seasons that kings, classes, private property and even adult genesis-fables were all foreign importations (pp. 61, 64, 82, 95, 96), and African hunting skills merely defensive (p. 14). The poet-historian of the African oral tradition is, if only by way of compensation, as entitled to his vagaries of chronology and causation as the Western historian is to his. Armah's story-teller, for example, mixes anticipation and retrospection so freely as to leave less than clear the accounts of those indigenous disruptions of “reciprocity” which appear to pre-date the Arab invasions and of the odd infiltration of the fleeing community by the twisted values of its tormentors.

Armah's innovative, pseudo-oral narrative is, of course, a simulated exercise, a literary affectation. It is rendered in English, not in Akan or Kiswahili, and, since communal readings of novels written in English are rare in Africa, the traditional communal intimacy between the artist and his audience is here a mere fiction of the plural voice. Two Thousand Seasons is the kind of “novel” that a griot would have written if he had had access to literary form. In it Armah artificially resolves the problems of the contemporary African artist by setting his tale in an indeterminate past when the artist was not yet alienated from his society but still immersed in a collective ethos, and then using the griot's voice for the vicarious advocation of communal commitment and popular revolution in a period when this is no longer the case. Since the book's message is aimed not at a traditional audience, however, but at those anglicized Africans who have ventured furthest from what Armah considers to be Africa's true self, there is no necessary inconsistency between its form and its initial African publication. Neither does it matter much that the narrative, in its ideological urgency, draws not upon local tribal memories of a specific community but on the hypothetical race-memory of a fictitious pan-African brotherhood whose names are taken from all parts of the continent: the migrations of the People of the Way suggest the legendary origins of the Akan of Ghana in the medieval Sudanic kingdom of the same name, whilst their acephalous communalism seems to have more to do with the Igbo than the monarchical Akan and the concept of “Reciprocity” would appear, in the light of the book's Tanzanian genesis, to owe something to the ethics of Tanzanian tribal cultures utilized by Nyerere's Ujamaa.

The basic problems created by Two Thousand Seasons are formal, aesthetic ones. The oral tale is designed to be said, not read—to be declaimed, not decoded—and its greatest strengths seldom survive its transposition to written form. In Armah's imitative version, oral in conception but literary in expression, the passage between forms is not helped by an erratic and unhappy assortment of styles, ranging from the oracular and invocatory to the popular and idiomatically American: the harem women effect “the discombobulation of the askaris” (p. 31) and the two mad fugitives from the Arab “predators” have to be kept “from trying more homicide” (p. 47). Armah strains to reproduce an illusion of orality and, specifically, of vatic utterance through a formidable battery of rhetorical questions, lamentations, frenzied alliteration—“This is no hurried hustle hot with sweaty anticipation” (p. 158)—and portentous-sounding adjectivally-launched inversions: “Painful was the groping after lost reciprocity. Fertile had been the rule of women …” (p. 26). The attempt frequently over-reaches itself, however, and produces a lugubrious, almost self-parodying rhetoric which is at home in neither the oral nor the literary form. Traditionally, oral narrative edits itself by recantation and cancellation, never by omission—once something has been said, it exists ineradicably—and is apt to convey emphasis quantitatively rather than qualitatively: by the frequency rather than the manner of expression. This failure in economy, translated into written form, leads inevitably to rhetorical redundancies and to what, in novelistic terms, is some of Armah's most unreadable writing. Here is the Way's crude codification of the subtle phenomenology of perception which, in the first novel, aligns sensory and synchronic continuums with group-consciousness:

The disease of death, the white road, is also unconnected sight, the fractured vision that sees only the immediate present, that follows only present gain and separates the present from the future, shutting each passing day in its own hustling greed.

The disease of death, the white road, is also unconnected hearing, the shattered hearing that listens only to today's brazen cacophony, takes direction from that alone and stays deaf to the soft voices of those yet unborn.

The disease of death, the white road, is also unconnected thinking, the broken reason that thinks only of the immediate paths to the moment's release, that takes no care to connect the present with past events, the present with future necessity.

(p. 8)

The point laboured here, which is more about time than perception or community, is not really given threefold expression but is monotonously restated in the same form without any regard for the chosen vehicles. The narrator does not, after the fashion of the traditional griot, attempt to draw and elaborate upon the peculiar attributes of sight, hearing and thought, which might just as well have been taste, touch and smell. The treatment of the ideology of the Way is similarly marked by a vagueness of definition and a disregard of concrete particulars which are alien to the oral tradition. The obsessive repetition of the Way's sacred trinity of neologisms—“Reciprocity,” “Connectedness’ and “Creation”—is accompanied by so little explication of what they practically involve as a lived social pattern that they eventually become lifeless verbal tags, self-enclosed abstractions which fail to translate into anything beyond themselves (Armah has greater success with the more exploratory treatment of “Inspiration” and “Manipulation” in The Healers). In Two Thousand Seasons the prose too often collapses into a lustreless demagogic jargon—“our way, the way,” “the destruction of destruction,” “the unconnected consciousness”—which is at its most stark in the formulation of the Law according to the Way, the ten commandments as handed down to Isanusi:

One way is reciprocity. The way is wholeness. Our way knows no oppression. The way destroys oppression. Our way is hospitable to guests. The way repels destroyers. Our way produces before it consumes. The way produces far more than it consumes. Our way creates. The way destroys only destruction.

(p. 39)

The scriptural chant suffers from a kind of hermetic banality, a rhetorical stutter which repeats but reveals little and exhorts without enlightening. Only in the Prologue do Armah's poetic powers appear to be at full stretch and to do any real justice to his oral models. Paradoxically, the dazzling inventiveness and exuberant hyperbole of the griot are more in evidence in the author's first novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, than in Two Thousand Seasons, where the literary compromise with oral form, far from being enriched by it, results in a comparatively restricted and impoverished verbal code.

Armah's notion of history, like the largely imaginary model of oral narrative which serves as its vehicle, is theoretical and imprecise. Essentially, the two historical novels are a therapeutic exorcism, at both the private and public levels. On the level of private penance, the alienated individuals of the early novels are implicitly reproved and outgrown in the harsh treatment of Dovi—“The selfish desire of the cut-off spirit was so strong in him” (p. 183)—and the selfless sacrifice of Abena: “There is no self to save apart from all of us. What would I have done with my life, alone, like a beast of prey?” (p. 111). At the public level the therapy is twofold. Firstly, the systematic direction of hatred at Arab and European whites exorcises the sensations of helplessness induced by colonialism and clears the air of negative feeling so that the work of construction may begin: it is a catharsis which prepares the mind for the creation of radical alternatives to the societies left by the imperialists. Secondly, the “destruction” which the whites inflict and which, to the narrator's delirious glee, they eventually draw upon themselves, provides the relief for the oppositional, mainly negative definition of the Way. Whatever the Way is in itself—and there are times when it seems no more than a convenience category for lost virtues—it is initially everything that “destruction” is not: “We are not a people to nurture kings and courtiers. … We are not a trading people” (pp. 95, 98). “Leave the destroyers' spokesmen to cast contemptuous despair abroad. That is not our vocation. That will not be our utterance” (p. xvii). The Way, forgotten and not yet rediscovered, is essentially an unknown quantity. Almost everything that happens in Two Thousand Seasons is a deviation from the Way insofar as it is not engendered by any major weaknesses inherent in the Way itself, and the retention of the mystery enables the author to blame all the evils that befall it on outside forces. Armah has anticipated the problem of definition in his early essay on African socialism:

Negative, anti-colonial feeling is relatively easy to come by. At any rate it does not demand any genius. The development of positive programmes and ideologies is a much more difficult proposition.5

In practice, this means that the rather drab and joyless communalism which the novelist, with at least part of his mind, wants to believe was the indigenous African way of life emerges as something that is more non-European, and anti-European, than specifically and recognizably African. In fact, certain features, such as the total rejection of family and kin urged upon Dovi and Araba Jesiwa in the name of a higher ideal and the overriding of territorial instincts by abstract ideological loyalties, would appear to be highly un-African. Here, as in his early novels, Armah is concerned to question received ideas about “authentic” traditional values but without putting anything positive in their place.

In Two Thousand Seasons Armah does not so much record history as re-invent it. The successful slave rebellion is history as it might and should have been, and as it would and will be once the conditions of the Way are adhered to. At the contrived finale of his last-published novel, The Healers, the historical wheel is brought to a figurative full circle by the enforced regathering of the black peoples of the world in white captivity. The reality of that captivity and the persistence of the askaris in the work of the whites make the wishful speculations of Ama Nkroma at the closing dance less than convincing:

It's a new dance all right … and it's grotesque. But look at all the black people the whites have brought here. Here we healers have been wondering about ways to bring our people together again. And the whites want ways to drive us further apart. Does it not amuse you, that in their wish to drive us apart the whites are actually bringing us work for the future? Look!6

The ideal society of Densu's dream and the egalitarian mini-Utopias erected around Isanusi's “Way” and Damfo's “Inspiration” in Armah's two histories are essentially imaginative hypotheses which make destruction and alienation the preserve of the present whilst harmonious fulfilment belong exclusively to the past—a notion which, in the author's early novels, is the target of considerable irony whereas, in the histories, it is upheld and celebrated. The socialisms of the fifth grove and the healing enclaves are, self-consciously, reality-negating mytho-poetic systems. They are not experienced life-forms to be retained or restored but ideal projections that must be believed in to be created. Their ethical manifestos belong to a higher, speculative order of reality and provide a frame of reference from which the prevailing destruction in the existing reality can be condemned and surmounted. Armah, as griot-like activist, joins in the struggle between creation and destruction depicted in his tale and paradoxically valorizes his new models for progress by inventing an ancestry for them, thus urging the creation of what does not yet exist by insisting that it has always existed. These two orders of reality—the actual and the postulative—are evident in the naming of the characters in Two Thousand Seasons. The rogues' gallery boasts names and accompanying deeds which refer, directly or satirically, to historical personages—Kamuzu to Hastings Kamuzu Banda of modern Malawi, Koranche to the Portuguese-controlled puppet Kwamina Ansa, “the Golden” to Mansa Musa I of ancient Mali—whilst those who serve in the struggle for African freedom—Dedan Kimathi, Irele, Soyinka—are merely items in a list of names. Projected pan-African virtues are thus vaguely opposed to specific historical villainy. Against the stark reality of the latter, the “Way” remains elusively, and evasively, theoretical.


  1. Yambo Ouologuem, Le Devoir de violence, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1968. Translated as Bound to Violence by Ralph Manheim, London: Heinemann, 1971. Page references are taken from the English Heinemann edition and are given parenthetically in the text.

  2. Ayi Kwei Armah, Two Thousand Seasons, London: Heinemann, 1979. Page references are given parenthetically in the text.

  3. Wole Soyinka, Myth, Literature and the African World, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976, p. 106.

  4. Isidore Okpewho, “Myth and Modern Fiction: Armah's ‘Two Thousand Seasons',” African Literature Today, 13, 1983, pp. 4–12.

  5. Ayi Kwei Armah, “African Socialism: Utopian or Scientific?,” Présence Africaine, 64, 1967, p. 15.

  6. Ayi Kwei Armah, The Healers: London, Heinemann, 1979, p. 309.

Robert Philipson (essay date Winter 1989)

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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. I've always believed that my father is something of a genius in spheres where logic holds sway—he is an organic chemist by profession—and his ability in chess and bridge only confirms that assumption. As a child, I was never able to beat my father at chess, even though he would give me the advantage of a knight or rook or sometimes even the queen. (I didn't like that because losing to an opponent who had no queen was particularly humiliating.) My father is a kind and gentle man: he took no pride in beating his son. But his seemingly endless series of losses eventually filled me with disgust for the game. I haven't played chess in twenty years. My father is now sixty-seven, still a vigorous and active man. If we were to play a game of chess now and I were to beat him, I would be more upset than if we had once more rehearsed the scene of my Oedipal failure.

battre quelqu'un aux échecs—In French as well as English, you can “win a game” (where the direct object is inanimate) or you can “beat an opponent” (where the direct object is possessed of intelligence, even if it is the artificial intelligence of a computer). In both languages “win” can be used intransivitively, “j'ai gagné,” but not “beat.” You must beat an opponent, and in both languages the verb has associated meanings of physical violence.

games and play—Johan Huizinga writes, “[P]lay is a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy and the consciousness that it is ‘different’ from ‘ordinary life.’”1 This definition doesn't account for self-directed play. Here there are no rules, as one is not playing against an opponent. What rules are involved in solitary sports such as swimming, running, or even taking a walk? It is no accident that masturbation is also called “playing with yourself.” Must play involve an opponent?—for that is where the necessity of rules comes in. What are the rules of sex—or is that also not play?

Games, however, conform nicely to Huizinga's definition of play. Here the rules are, indeed, “absolutely binding.”

Saïf: Vous voyez … il y a trop de contrainte.

HENRY: Forcément, sourit-il, c'est un jeu; et il ajouta d'une voix différante: et qui a ses régles.

Saïf: C'est qu'il n'y a pas de choix.

HENRY: Si! Vous devenez libre parce que vous n'avez pas le choix.2

j'adoube—In a particularly strict game, once a player has touched his piece, he is committed to move it. Chess and tag are two games where touch is rigidly hypostatized as will. But what a difference between these two acts of touching: it is like comparing the Catholic presentation of the host to a simchas torah dance. The only exception to the above rule is if the player says “J'adoube” [“I adjust”] as he touches his piece. This is what Austin would call a performative speech-act, except that its purpose is not to accomplish an act through ritualized speech (e. g., “I now pronounce you man and wife”) but to void the action of its hypostatized intention. How well this phrase would serve us in both love and art. Alas, the writer cannot pen in the middle of his text, “J'adoube.

chess mates—Chess is always a form of stylized agon, but the context in which the game is played invests the struggle with a range of different meanings. When Bobby Fisher played Boris Spassky, chess became another battlefield in the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. In Shakespeare's Tempest, however, chess provides cultural sublimation for the geo-political contest for territory and power. Caliban's comic attempt to overthrow Prospero with the help of Stephano and Trinculo shows how deeply ingrained the desire for dominance and rule lies within man's animal nature. And it was because Prospero was originally so blind to this truth that he allowed his position to be usurped by Antonio.

I thus neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated
To closeness and the bettering of my mind—
With that which, but by being so retired,
O'erprized all popular rate, in my false brother
Awaked an evil nature, and my trust
Like a good parent, did beget of him
A falsehood in its contrary as great
As my trust was, which had indeed no limit
A confidence sans bound.

(I. ii. 89–97)

In the nature vs. culture axis around which much of The Tempest's meaning ranges itself, disorder springs from rightful authority overlooking the presence of baser instincts. It is not a mistake that Prospero repeats. This history gives special weight to Prospero's injunction to Ferdinand not to “break [Miranda's] virgin knot before / All sanctimonious ceremonies may / With full and holy rite be minist'red” (IV. i. 14–16). When he sends Ferdinand and Miranda to his cell in order to quell Caliban's plot and to bring the others to his power, the betrothed couple are alone and in privacy for the first time. Yet rather than succumb to what Ferdinand calls “our worser genius” (IV. i. 27), the noble pair play chess instead, a sublimation of animal nature, which is also linked to political aggression.

Miranda: Sweet lord, you play me false.

Ferdinand: No, my dearest love, I would not for the world.

Miranda: Yes, for a score of kingdoms you should wrangle, And I would call it fair play.

(V. i. 171–174)

“a battle to the death”—Is chess then only a form of stylized battle, a striving to win? Heidegger reminds us that we falsify the nature of striving if we confound it with discord and dispute and thus see it only as disorder and destruction. “In essential striving, rather, the opponents raise each other into the self-assertion of their natures. Self-assertion of nature, however, is never a rigid insistence upon some contingent state, but surrender to the concealed originality of the source of one's own being. In the struggle, each opponent carries the other beyond itself. Thus the striving becomes ever more intense as striving, and more authentically what it is.”3

In the final section of Le Devoir de violence two battles take place: the rhetorical struggle for Henry's life (which he wins in true Christian manner only by renouncing his desire for life) and the chess game itself. The rhetorical struggle is also a game, for Henry is aware of Saïf's plan to kill him. Using the metaphors of games and rules, Henry lets Saïf know that he sees through him, that, in fact, he imitates him. Like Saïf, Henry plays the rhetorical game, pretending that he doesn't know about the poisonous asp that Saïf has placed in the bamboo cylinder. Everything about the advice that Henry “theoretically” gives to Saïf not only reveals Saïf's consistent strategy in the face of French colonization but also describes Henry's similar strategy in the political (life-or-death) context of his discourse.

—Mais attention au jeu d'autrui, insista Henry, souriant du même sourire entendu à Saïf. Il faut le reconnaître et vouloir s'y reconnaître. Dites-vous, poursuivit-il à doubles sens: Je veux jouer comme s'ils ne me voyaient pas jouer, me mettant au jour sans scandale, d'accord avec moi et avec eux en apparence, usant de leur ruse sans jamais avoir l'air de la forcer ni de la détourner, démêlent ce piège embrouillé, et encore avec prudence, ne touchant à rien sans avoir su ce après quoi il tient. Hors cette prudence, mon cher, peut-on tuer l'autre … au jeu?


But the game is only begun after Saïf has renounced his assassination attempt and reveals not the confrontation of two civilizations sublimated through chess but the harmony of thought between two exemplary figures. The game itself is preceeded by the narrative parenthesis: “Les deux hommes alors se regardèrent, se souriant, et, pour la première fois, acceptèrent de parler le même langage” (206).

freedom and constraint—When opponents agree to play by a set of rules, they “speak” (or act) the same language. The rules of chess are well understood, and they have even given rise to conceptual signifiers (words) which have become metaphors in other spheres: “checkmate,” “gambit,” “end game.” These rules are rigid and unswerving. A player is neither free to move a rook diagonally nor to retreat with a pawn. Yet for all practical purposes, an infinite number of chess games can be generated from a finite, rather small, number of rules. Without these rules, chess could not exist as a game. The affinity of this observation with the structuralist view of language is obvious and extends to transformational grammar. Each language has its own set of rules, which may be finite but can generate an infinite number of meaningful utterances.

Freedom lies not in chaos but in a masterful manipulation of the rules. There is, however, a political dimension in game playing that seems absent in the “grammar” of language: guile. In the conversation that precedes their chess game, Henry tells Saïf that the very essence of the game of diplomacy is to replace force by guile. When Saïf claims, mendaciously, that he does not know how to use trickery, Henry, equally ingenuous, replies, “Vous avez tort de ne pas ruser” (203).

“Ruser?” s'étonna Saïf avec circonspection …

“C'est-à-dire être libre, repondit Henry. L'idée de la liberté n'est pas une idée simple. Elle se métamorphose. Tout comme la structure du jeu. Il y a des moments de la même idée. Une idée prise à une moment quelconque de son mouvement doit se réveler par ce en quoi consiste sa définition. Les hommes se croient libres au moment où il y a la loi reconnue et énoncée. Jouez! je vous dirai les régles. Vous existerez.”


It is, of course, Henry the European who generously offers to tell Saïf the rules.

character and actant—Although the concept of “character” is an old staple in Western literary criticism, structuralism popularized in the concept of “actant.” Actants are members of the dramatis personae who are defined not by their personality traits (Quixotic, Byronic, pragmatic, pedantic) but by the functions that belong to them in the syntagm of the storyline. In his analysis of the folktale, Vladimir Propp lists seven actantial categories: the villain, the hero, the dispatcher, the sought-for person (usually the princess) and her father, the donor, the helper, and the false hero.4 To speak of an actant is to look at the character's function in the structure of the text rather than discussing him, her, or it in the psychologizing terms of “character analysis.” In actantial analysis, both Miss Tita in “The Aspern Papers” and Ariel in The Tempest fall into the category of “helper” no matter how otherwise divergent they might be in personality traits.

The novel is a genre singularly resistant to actantial analysis, Greimas and Brémond notwithstanding. If Le Devoir de violence seems to have an easily identifiable villain in Saïf, who is the hero? Raymond? Henry? Even if such a reductionist analysis of the novel were possible, how helpful would it be?

Chess pieces, however, are much closer to actants in their invariable functions than to characters. Lewis Carroll plays upon this opposition between the necessity of function and the arbitrary nature of character in Through the Looking Glass. The Red Queen and the White Queen are as different in their personalities as they are in color, even though they fulfill the same function vis-à-vis chess strategy. The White Queen is slow and gentle, somewhat woozy; the Red Queen is sharp and imperious. Other memorable characters are the White King and the White Knight.

kings, queens, and sexuality—In the ideology of chess, kings have no sexuality. This accounts for the limitations of their movements; they can only go one square at a time. What we have here is an idealization of kingship, one that sees kings as hieratic actants and not as libidinized characters. Louis XIV's famous dictum—L'ètat c'est moi!—takes on an entirely new dimension here. This hierocratic ideology surfaces in Le Devoir de violence as well. Saïf does his best to drape himself in sacerdotal splendor during the ceremony of submission (41–42). As the Black and White “kings” of the final confrontation, neither Saïf nor Henry is invested with sexuality. (It is true that Saïf has a large harem, but his sexual nature is not revealed in the narrative. The bishop, of course, is ideologically committed to celibacy. Given the unblushing discussion of sexuality that pervades much of the rest of the book, one might assume that the narrative is not turning away from this subject out of prudery.)

Queens, on the other hand, have the greatest freedom of movement of any of the chess pieces. As the queen is the only female figure on the board, she carries within her figure all phallocratic conceptions of a generalized female nature. Thus, the queen's freedom of movement may be fairly equated with a rampant and all-devouring sexuality. The chess queen is, etymologically, a virago: a strong, manlike woman, the most powerful piece on the board. In phallocentric ideology, out of which issues the game of chess, the king is a ruler of no sexuality but upon whom the whole game depends; the queen is an insatiable sex-maniac fortunately allied to the interests of the king. Ouologuem, the complete phallocrat, allows no one the role of queen in his novel. His women are usually sexual objects or victims of barbarism, frequently both.

the “invitation” to play—When Henry asks Saïf if he has a game of chess, the hereditary ruler of Nakem is “manifestly disappointed.”

“Je croyais que vous me compreniez, dit'il. J'en étais même persuadé” (202).

But Henry does understand Saïf, and he uses chess as the metaphor for Nakem's history under the colonialism of the French.

“Mais voyez! les carrés, la ligne des pions que se dressent comme autant de fantassins dans la nuit Nakem, les deux fous tels Chevalier et Vandame, les Deux cavaliers, Kratonga et Wampoulo, les deux tours Kassoumi et Bourémi. Voyez! la reine, tenez! est le plus puissant atout: elle va dans toutes les directions alors que les autres n'ont qu'une direction. Et tout ça, tout ce bagage, c'est uniquement pour sauver la tête du roi—votre conscience—pièce immobilisée. Vous voyez? Tout! … pour défendre le roi. Vous affrontez la vie dans une confrontation franternelle de vos forces, et vous jouez, vous calculez, jouez, vous adaptez, tombez, oui, non, attention, tout mouvement signifie, vous calculez …”


Henry uses chess to bring Saïf into the open, both rhetorically and on the plane of action. In their final interview, Henry lets Saïf know in all manner of ways that he understands Saïf's game and can play it with him on his level—even if it means sacrificing his own life. It is the bishop's command, “Tuez! Saïf,” that shocks the ruler into abandoning his traditional tactics of killing in secret. Even in his own destruction Henry, the European, sets the agenda. As Saïf says, “Vous voyez … il y a trop de contrainte.”

Saïf is initially reluctant to play chess because it is the bishop who suggests it; he feints by claiming he does not know how to play. When he does get the chess board, he brings back with it the bamboo cylinder containing the asp. Henry exposes the strategem by which Saïf means to kill the bishop and in an act of self-sacrifice which insures his tactical advantage in his duel with Saïf, he orders the ruler to carry out his assassination. In the shock that follows, Saïf tries once again and for the last time to disassociate himself from the game. When Saïf, faced for the first time in his life with an opponent of equal stature, says he doesn't have the right to kill him, Henry goads him: “Vous voulez dire: pas la force.”

Saïf: Non. Je n'ai pas le droit, s'obstina-t-il.

HENRY: Le droit sans la force est caricature. La force sans le droit est misère. Avouez!

Saïf: Il n'y a rien à avouer. Le triomphe du droit est celui de la victoire du droit: donc de sa force. Et puis … votre jeu …

HENRY: Le jeu.

Saïf: … Le jeu et tout ça, c'est trop épuisant.

Henry is quick to remind Saïf that his game is the game, the standard European response to any Third World contestation of “rights.” Yet Saïf's satirical tautology—that the triumph of right is the victory of right, and therefore its might—makes a telling point in its colonial context. The French are right only because they are stronger. This formulation drains the concept of “right” of any moral superiority. In the excerpt quoted above, the signifier “droit” ends up allegorized as “force.” Henry, with all the implicit political power of his position as a European and with the newly-acquired moral power of an intellectual equal who is willing to sacrifice himself to maintain that position, forces Saïf to play the game he claimed he couldn't play.

the royal game—Chess symbolizes wonderfully the Western appropriation of more ancient forms of knowledge and culture. Etymologically, English still reflects the innovations in knowledge the West took from the Arab world in such words as “algebra” (from the Arabic al-jebr, the reunion of broken parts) and “zero” (from the Arabic sifr). The game of chess came, as did its very name, to Europe from the Orient. “Some of the Arab terminology remains to this day. Take the word ‘check mate.’ It comes from the Persian sháh mát, sháh meaning ‘king’ and mát meaning ‘helpless’ or ‘lost.’ From sháh also comes the name of the game in many languages: scacchi (Italian), Schach (German), échecs (French), chess (English).5

Such knowledge makes Henry's invitation to Saïf, an Islamic ruler, all the more piquant.

“the master of the show”—If life is a game of chess, as Henry states, who moves the pieces? In Through the Looking Glass, though the characters seem to be moving of their own volition, they are in fact following a chess problem worked out by Lewis Carroll and given in his preface of 1896. “[T]he ‘check’ of the White King at move 6, the capture of the Red Knight at move 7, and the final ‘checkmate’ of the Red King, will be found, by any one who will take the trouble to set the pieces and play the moves as directed, to be strictly in accordance with the laws of the game.”6 However, if the question “Who moves the pieces?” admits of a response in the case of Through the Looking Glass, the situation in Le Devoir de violence is more complex. Are Kratonga and Wampoulo, Bouremi and Kassoumi, Chevalier and Vandame only pieces in a historical chess game? Surely that is taking the metaphor too far. Henry in his original formulation implies that Saïf's hand is the controlling one (“Tout! … pour défendre le roi”), but the hereditary ruler of Nakem, while Machiavellian in the extreme, is not omnipotent. He cannot “move” the White pieces; he can only “take” them.

Le Devoir de violence has little to say about a metaphysical level of reality. Christianity and Islam are portrayed as sham, and Dougouli's animism, while accorded a super-natural power, remains within the sphere of the négraille. The response that Omar Khayyam gives to the question posed above, as rendered by Edward Fitzgerald, is noticeably lacking in Ouologuem's prose.

We are no other than a moving row
Of Magic Shadow-shapes that come and go
Round with the Sun-illumined Lantern held
In Midnight by the Master of the Show;
But helpless Pieces of the Game He plays
Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days;
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.
The Ball no question makes of Ayes and Noes,
But Here or There as strikes the Player goes;
And he that tossed you down into the Field,
He knows about it all—He knows—He knows!

(The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, 68–70)

breaking the rules—Textual chess is not to be confused with a game in the real world. When an author needs to use chess as a metaphor, he will frequently subordinate the prescribed series of moves to the higher requirements of his textual strategy. Lewis Carroll based much of Through the Looking Glass on chess moves, yet in order to maintain the narrative focus on Alice, he was obliged to violate several aspects of the game. As he wrote in the 1896 preface, “The alternation of Red and White is perhaps not so strictly observed as it might be, and the ‘castling’ of the three Queens is merely a way of saying that they entered the palace.”7 Henry and Saïf play an equally “impossible” game. Henry starts out by moving the king, and Saïf replies with his queen. In real-world chess, neither of these pieces could be moved before the pawns which precede them. Textually, however, Henry's first “move” (verbally stated) allows for a crucial ambiguity:

Saïf: Les symboles ne meurent jamais, fit-il, cependant que crépitait au feu le vipère qu'il avait dressée. Voilà des générations que le Nakem est né, et depuis quinze minutes seulement, l'on sait s'entretenir de sa santé.

HENRY: Mais il ne mourra pas, le roi.

Saïf: Jouez! la reine.


Does Henry's pronoun il refer to le roi or to le Nakem? Perhaps both.

the violence of the knights—Kratonga and Wampoulo, the knights of Henry's allegory, are Saïf's hit men. They are unswerving in their loyalty to the ruler and carry out their various beatings and torturings with no trace of emotion. Though Ouologuem has Kratonga talk like a Paris street thug, his execution of Governor Vandame reveals a streak of twisted refinement. He plays with his victim, subjecting him to all manner of degradations before snuffing him out. Professor Obiechina has a fine discussion on the role such violence plays in Ouologuem's novel.

[The] relationship between violence and political domination is well explored in Bound to Violence. As a thesis, its surface implications are fully established as the “niggertrash” are trodden down and totally subjected through “the mighty Saïf's meticulously organized cruelty,” and by Saïf's macchiavellian [sic] elimination of one French colonial governor after another without being found out. The violence we have here has nothing to do with that other kind of purposeless outburst which is often equated with a state of incivility and barbarism. Every single act of violence undertaken by the Saïf or by his hatchetmen with his prompting is a deliberate act, a deliberate policy, geared towards the furtherance of a specific political objective or the breaking down of a specifically obstructive will. The quality and subtlety of it raises the act to an artistic undertaking which adds an extra dimension of narrative realization to the novel. And to further elucidate his point by contrast, the author gives us numerous examples of ugly, uncharted violence, like the murder of Awa by her angry lover, which clearly bespeak of a crude and perverted use of the same instrument which has been so refined in more sophisticated hands.8

Yet we must remain true to the evidence of the novel. Kratonga and Wampoulo too are capable of barbarism. In order to avenge themselves on Kassoumi père for having told Saïf of Awa's murder by their fellow “knight,” Sonkolo, they repeatedly rape his wife Tambira, either killing her outright or driving her to suicide. (The narrative is ambiguous on this point.) For the most part, however, Kratonga and Wampoulo move at Saïf's bidding, geometrically but with unexpected turnings, like their allegorical counterparts. We do not know what oath of fealty these “knights” have sworn. Perhaps they follow Saïf out of love.

HENRY: Mais il ne mourra pas, le roi.

Saïf: Jouez! la reine.

HENRY: De toute façon, en amour … Le cavalier.

Saïf: Mais il y en a toujours un qui aime et l'autre qui tend la joue. Le pion.


the love of pawns—Before the arrival of the French, the empire of Nakem was made up of two opposed classes, les notables [the nobles] and la négraille [the niggertrash], a binary opposition that knew no mediation. Ouologuem's narrative strategy parallels this historical state of affairs. The first two sections of the book, “La Légende des Saïfs” and “L'Extase et l'agonie,” recount only the activities of Nakem's rulers. The third section, “La Nuit des géants,” covers the period of French colonialism proper, after the conquest, and it is no accident that it begins with a detailed account of a relationship between two of Saïf's servants. The intrusion of the French begins the process of breaking down these pure essences of notables and négraille, for it was through French education and the acquiring of Western “civilization” that the future leaders of the African republics came to power. After the establishment of French rule in Nakem, the nobles want nothing to do with the civilization of the conquerors, and, in a policy of class protection unsuspected either by the French or the négraille, they foster “mille six cent vingt-trois mariages” of commoners throughout the empire.

Le peuple, niais, applaudit; cependant, les notables préparaient en réalité l'avenir. De tous ces nouveaux couples, légaux, naîtraient bientôt des enfants, que les notables—à la place des leurs—enverraient à l'école française et missionnaire. Puis-qu'il fallait que la loi française füt faite pour quelqu'un, les notables la firent être pour le peuple. …


The marriage between Kassoumi and Tambira is the first of these to be celebrated, and the biography of their oldest son, Raymond Spartacus Kassoumi, is exemplary of the “progress” that one of the négraille can make under the new dispensation.

Yet the relationship between Kassoumi and Tambira, one of only two in the book to which the name of love could be applied, is born of servitude, nostalgia for the homes from which they were taken, and lust. It is this last that brings them irrevocably together. As Christopher Miller has pointed out, intercourse in Le Devoir de violence always involves a breaching and a destruction of the cogito.9 Ouologuem uses a discourse of madness and interpenetration to represent the love-making of the two servants, the first of the novel's many passages describing sexual activity.

Une brise molle glissa, soulevant un murmure de feuilles; nus tous deux, parmi l'herbe haute, ils laissaient échapper leur soupirs conjugués. Transfigurés et comme délirants, étendus là, sans conscience de rien que de leur possession, de leur pénétration profonde, ils s'étreignaient, sursaturés de l'emmêlement de leur corps; du grisement de leurs gestes; la raison égarée; râlant, divaguant, engourdis de la tête aux pieds dans une attente passionée. La femme portait l'homme comme la mer un navire, d'un mouvement lent de bercement, avec des montées et des descentes, suggérant à peine la violence sous-jacente. Ils murmuraient, sanglotaient au cours de ce voyage, et leurs mouvements, avec insistance s'accélérènt au point de devenir d'une puissance insoutenable, et qui fusait d'eux. L'homme poussa un grognement, laissant son arme aller plus vite, plus loin, plus fort entre les cuisses de la femme. Le venin jaillit; et soudain ils sentirent qu'ils manquaient d'air, qu'ils allaient exploser ou mourir! Ce fut une seconde d'un bonheur suraigu, idéal et charnel—affolant.

Ils s'en éveillèrent, vibrants, fous, muets; las; vidés; oreilles bourdonnantes, Comblés, obsédés, tant ils se sentaient toujours possédés l'un par l'autre.


connotative and denotative signifiers—La belle infidèle, the French say of translation. What linguistic bifurcation occurred so that the signified of the diagonally-moving chess piece ended up as “bishop” in English and “fou” in French? The signified may be the same but the connotations of the signifiers send the speakers of the two languages in very different directions. It was this problem of connotation that so vexed Roland Barthes in his efforts to formulate the science of semiology. Signifiers in a connotative system have a different set of signifieds (“Catholicism” in the case of “bishop,” “madness” in the case of “fou”) than in the denotative system. Barthes dubbed these signifiers of the connotative system “connotators,” then remarked, “… the connotators are always in the last analysis discontinuous and scattered signs.”10 And so the rhetorical impact of calling Chevalier and Vandame the two fous is lost in English if one translates the signified of the French passage by its denotative signifier, “bishop.” Ralph Manheim solves this problem by translating the connotative signifier and adding this footnote: “French fou = fool and, in chess, bishop.”11

the sexuality of “fools”—As governors of the French colony of Nakem, Chevalier and Vandame depend on the Manichean division of the colonial world between black and white. Chess itself is based on such a division, an unbreachable opposition that allows for no ambiguity, no interpenetration, no third term, no mulattoes, and no traitors. A white piece cannot play against its own king. If chess is stylized warfare, it is warfare without the treachery of subordinates. The French governors must play out the institutional roles defined for them by Western colonialism. Their authority must never be questioned, and they must always keep the upper hand. To adopt the vocabulary of Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus, the governors must behave as bodies-without-organs. (Vandame's marriage represents a legal liaison without dangerous sexual overflows.) If the penis breaks away and sets itself up as a desiring machine, it is potentially dangerous to the body-without-organs. The penis must then act in accordance with its Oedipalized institutional role: domination of the partner. Ambiguity or, worse yet, surrender would be fatal. And it is precisely the desires of Chevalier's penis that bring about his downfall. His sex with Awa is filled with role-reversals. While the all-powerful governor seems to have the upper hand with this Black woman, posing to her and carrying out an elaborate seduction tinged with sadism (the ideological role of the official penis), it is Awa who has been sent to seduce the governor and learn his secrets. This role-reversal is reflected in their love-making. After setting his dog on Awa to lick her vulva,

… l'Homme laboura la femme comme une terre en friche, comme un océan frappé par la proue d'une nef. Et, quand il la sentit, râlant sous le coup de l'émotion de ce péché:

“Comment va ma petite négresse? interrogea-t-il, engourdi comme une perdrix dans la bruyère. As-tu joui un peu?

—Oh! jamais je n'avais encore vu ça,” gémit Awa qu'une claque de Chevalier fit aboyer, et elle se lova de plaisir, haletant sous la cruelle caresse, le branlant comme une reine ou une savante putain. Sa bouche semblait toujours affamée du mollusque rose et dodu de l'Homme, et sa langue dans sa bouche le démanageait de suçoter la perle d'un orient somptueux, qui s'écoulait, ecumante comme à regret, de la tige. …


The metaphorical language here is very rich. In addition to the phallic similes of plowing and prowing, the Frenchman's tongue (another desiring machine) is metaphorically subsumed to the Orient. And this rhetorical move only reflects (in colonial ideology) the sexual passivity of Chevalier, for at the end of this extract he is being tongued by Awa. The passage that describes the governor's surrender metaphorically deconstructs the colonialist discourse of discovery and conquest.

Une coupe ruisselante—Awa—une table plantureuse! Eve aux reins frénétiques, elle cajola l'homme, l'embrassa, le mordit, le gratta, le fouetta, lui suça le nez oreilles gorge, aisselles nombril et sexe si voluptueusement, que l'administrateur, découvrant l'ardent pays de ce royaume féminin, la garda pour de bon, vécut une passion fanatique, effrénée, haletante, l'âme en extase.


These elements of jouissance—a fanatical, unbridled, panting passion, the soul of ecstasy—are what place the governor in Awa's power, “lui déliant la langue” [loosening his tongue] and leading to his eventual demise. The Manichean “monad” of the French governor cannot allow itself to be breached by the interpenetration of sex. For the body-without-organs, such a breaching brings with it the threat of death.

the treachery of rooks—In a predictably Oedipal theory of the psychoanalysis of chess, the British Freudian Ernest Jones writes, “[I]t is plain that the unconscious motive actuating the players is not the mere love of pugnacity characteristic of all competitive games but the grimmer one of father-murder.”12 (Jones also comes up with a similar explanation for the queen's power. Since every chess game is an Oedipal conflict, the most potent assistance in attacking the father is afforded by the mother.) In his analysis of the case of Paul Morphy, which occasioned the remarks made above, Ernest Jones postulates that the chess master became mentally ill because his playing of the game was exposed as being “actuated by the most childish and ignoble of wishes, the unconscious impulses to commit a sexual assault on the father and at the same time to maim him utterly: in short, to ‘mate’ him in both the English and the Persian senses of that word.”13 When his own father died, Morphy turned another chess player, the doyen of the English chess world, into the arch imago of the deceased father. “When Staunton eluded him he did so in a way that must have suggested to a sensitive person, as Morphy assuredly was, that his aim was a disreputable one,”14 (i. e., to gain fame and make money) and, after failures in the “adult” world of career and heterosexual love, Morphy withdrew into paranoia and seclusion.

Killing the father is a favorite pastime of the Oedipalized individual constituted under capitalism and its colonial extensions. It is this that provides the clue as to why the sorcerer Bouremi and the servant's son Kassoumi are both put into the same category: both try to break away from Saïf. Bouremi does make an attempt to kill Saïf and goes mad shortly afterwards. In his ravings, a kind of idealism is mixed with cries and execrations of Saïf. “Saïf était une crapule incendiaire, un trafiquant d'esclaves, faux chef, faux Nègre, et faux Juif, l'assassin de Chevalier, et le meurtrier de combine d'autres! …” (96) The reader knows how much truth there is to Bouremi's accusations, but their effects are neutralized by the frenzy of his madness. As Christopher Miller suggests, “While the Saïf dynasty is the only principle of unity [to the empire of Nakem], it is also the principle that resists identity, giving itself all identities in order to dominate consistently and denying any identity to the négraille. The dynasty is unopposable in two senses of the word: it is all things at once and therefore cannot be opposed symmetrically by any one thing; consequently its dominion is total.”15 Bouremi, however, tries one escape. “Contre Saïf je choisis la folie … (97). Unfortunately, he is even more fixated on Saïf in madness than in sanity. And in true Oedipal fashion, he loses both of his wives (symbolically) to Saïf. The first falls sick and dies on the eve of her intended departure to Saïf in order to confess and beg for pardon and the second Bouremi kicks in the stomach when she tells him she is going to have his child. He assumes, of course, that it is Saïf who impregnated her.

sexuality of a rook—Henry's chess metaphor oversimplifies the dualities of Le Devoir's African world. The opposing entities are not only Black and White but also the class division within Nakem itself between the négraille and the notables. These contending forces portend a breakdown in the Manichean oppositions that the rulings classes of both pairs would so much like to keep intact. And this is where the story of that other “rook,” Raymond-Spartacus Kassoumi, becomes exemplary:

Les jours que vécut dès lors Raymond furent ceux de toute sa génération—la première des cadres africains, tenue par la notabilité dans une prostitution dorée—marchandise rare, sombre génie manceuvré en coulisse, et jeté au-devant des tempêtes de la politique coloniale au milieu de l'odeur chaude des fêtes, des compromis—jeux d'équilibres ambigus, où le maitre fit de l'esclave l'esclave des esclaves et l'égal impénitent du maître blanc, et où l'esclave se crut maître du maître lui-même retombé esclave de l'esclave. …


As the above shows, the so-called évolué can revolt against the “father” of his own society by embracing the European. Raymond does this in a literal manner, and this is part of the underlying dynamic of his affair with the Frenchman Lambert. The fact that the love-making between Raymond and Lambert is the most positive, most gentle, and least violent of the whole novel has brought Ouologuem much criticism and censure, particularly from other Africans. One commentator was so frightened by the implications that he had to misread the text in order to make it acceptable: “Cette liaison qui dura dix-huit mois a permis à Raymond de compléter ses études—mais c'était pour lui aussi une torture, une violence morale.”16 Wole Soyinka's reading, while infinitely more sensitive and faithful to the spirit of the text, also reveals a crucial blind spot.

The tender narrative of Raymond Spartacus' affair with the Strasbourgois, Lambert, is such a drastic departure from the rest of the narrative, containing so little of the earlier brutality or cynical undermining, that it reads like a heightened James Baldwin. It is not only tender, it is sympathetic and sincere. … The mercenary calculation of Raymond Spartacus at the start is made ambivalent even in the very first night of copulation. Nothing wrong with that, but what we encounter is not lust, in keeping with Nakem's history of pederasty, sodomy, sexual sadism, etc., but tenderness. Yet nothing till now has suggested Kassoumi's homosexual leanings. The morning request for payment for his services sounds pathetic rather than commercial, and of course he soon graduates to the status of a kept ‘mistress’ in what is clearly no longer a commercial arrangement but one of love. Long after Spartacus has ceased to need Lambert financially, the affair is continued by both. The significance of this episode is certainly elusive. …17

Why a homosexual affair? It's perfectly understandable that an évolué should sexualize White culture and eventually take a White wife. The examples were set by Léopold Senghor and Frantz Fanon. But why a homosexual affair? The whole colonial enterprise of creating African élites was homosexual in orientation, done by men and for men. Women played an insignificant role in the transformation. The process is not so different from male initiation rites among certain African ethnicities where the teachers of the newly-circumcized initiates conceive of their task as a bringing to birth new members of the tribe.18 Raymond's affair with Lambert is an explicit portrayal of the homosexual subtext underlying the dynamic of élite formation. Raymond is not a homosexual, just sexual. It is symbolically appropriate that his initiation into European culture as an évolué should be sexually sealed by a man rather than a woman. “… et cela qui naissait, cela qui mourait, cela qui coulait en sève enrobée de la culpabilité de leurs deux corps, c'était lui, Kassoumi, le fils d'esclave, le Nègre acculé, aliéné, occupé à bien naître” (178). When the affair with the Frenchman comes to an end (Lambert breaks it off for a marriage arranged by his mother), Raymond eventually does take a Frenchwoman to wife, “défiant tous les calcus de Saïf” (182).

the man who would be king—Raymond-Spartacus Kassoumi is an epic hero cast in a novelistic mode. His birth is miraculous (the “oldest” of quintuplets), his youth oppressive (the least-likely-hero motif). He undergoes a long series of tests and trials, including the murder of his mother, the enslavement of his father, and incest with his sister (a royal prerogative, as Deleuze and Guattari point out19). His sojourn in Europe is marked by several descents to a psychological underworld: his depression following his sister's murder and his eighteen-month exile from humanity during World War II. Although he achieves intellectual distinction as a student of architecture, he marries into a boorish family and settles down to a life of mediocrity.

Il avait fini par tout payer, par mener une vie de nègre-blanc,—bourgeoise, restant toujours attaché à Henry et à quelque maîtresse de cabaret, aux services haletants de laquelle il faisait appel, durant les maternités de son épouse.

Mais nul ne se doutait que la guerre était proches et qu'elle allait—accès de fureurs et de dolánces modulant toujours la même litanie—bouleverser le monde, éveiller des exigences nationalistes à Tillabéri-Bentia la terrible, savamment tenue en main par Saïf. Houlmoh! waar rèdoudè!


Raymond returns to Nakem to become a “representative” of his country in the French National Assembly. It is a continuation of the old aristocratic policy of feeding the serfs to the colonial machine. And the people themselves, in seeing one of their own so glorified, jubilate in their own mystification. “Choisir dans ces conditions Raymond-Spartacus Kassoumi, c'était combler le peuple s'exaltant à l'abreuvoir des destinées prodigieuses, et flatter le Blanc qui piaillerait avoir civilisé son sous-développé” (189–90). When Kassoumi realizes this, his rage and alienation deepen. His very existence becomes the embodiment of protest. “Mais la notabilité, ici—comme ailleurs la bourgeoisie—était prête à récupérer ces contestations—libellant, étiquetant, emballant, vendant jusques au scandale” (191–2). Raymond realizes to his horror that no matter what he does, he plays into the hands of Saïf and his class. The epic hero cannot slay the father in this degraded modern world; his crown is hollow. In true Nakemian style, he takes out his frustration by visiting sexual violence on his wife. This only makes the sex better.

trait d'union—On his way to Saïf's palace for the final confrontation, Henry describes to Raymond a Chinese pastime (more games from the Orient) which consists of attaching two birds together by a long string. When the birds are released, they fly ecstatically in different directions until the string is pulled taut. The game usually ends in the death of one or both birds; strangled, blinded. “Nous sommes tous victimes de ce jeu,” Henry tells his protégé, “séparés mais liés de force” (194). It was this connectedness that Henry wished to deny at an earlier point in his career; his religion fostered in him a desire for sanctity. This is underlined in his crucial conversation with Saïf that leads up to the invitation to play. “Je voulais être seul, pur,” he says.

—Mais la solitude s'accompagne d'un sentiment de culpabilité, de complicité …

—Pardon, de solidarité, rétorqua l'évêque.

—L'homme est dans l'histoire et l'histoire dans la politique. Nous somme déchirés par la politique. Il n'y a ni solidarité ni pureté possible.

—L'essentiel c'est de désespérer de la pureté, et de croire qu'on a raison d'en désespérer. L'amour n'est pas autre.


Henry and Saïf share the same idea about the soiling interconnectedness of human beings, but where Saïf says “politics,” Henry says “love.” We have seen above how the act of love brings with it an interpenetration. So do acts of violence. As so much of the sex in Ouologuem's novel shows, the two are not so far removed from one another. The trait d'union, the name the Chinese gave to their game of bound birds, is both the scepter and the phallus, the bishop and the king. “Tous deux avient affronté l'ultime mensonge ou l'ultime vérité de l'existence” (204).

opposing sides—Saïf and Henry are interconnected in both love (there are homosexual undertones in the final chapter) and politics. Their trait d'union is the bamboo cylinder, which rolls between them threatening both, and … the game. The very rocking of the cylinder between the two opponents becomes a Russian roulette. “Doisje avoir peur?” Henry asks.

—Peur? De qui? De quoi? De vous? De moi? De nous, de ca? Je vous préviens … il ne faut pas avoir peur!

—Sinon? fit l'évêque, relevant le défi.

—Sinon vous vous maudirez d'avoir sous-estimé vos forces. Et de toute façon, qu'importe! Jouez! Chaque joueur est un object fonctionnel dont le joueur est le jouet et l'enjeu. Cherchez à piéger le partenaire.

—Et s'il abstient?

—De quoi?

—De jouer.

—Il ne s'abstient pas; il ne s'abstiendra pas. C'est un partenaire. Il doit être pris dans ce mouvement agressif, pendulaire, où une tension en suscite une autre, de sorte que chacun poursuit la mort du piège de l'autre.


If humans are connected through love, they are also connected through politics, and both these links are themselves linked through violence. Yet this violence can be contained by rules, mastered by understanding, played out not through killing but in a game: a game of diplomacy, a game of courtship, perhaps, even, a game of chess.

endgame—By the time Henry and Saïf begin their game, they have agreed “to speak the same language.” It is the language of Nakem. In the final dialogue, Saïf and Henry rehearse the whole geneology of the Nakemian throne. This geneology is punctuated with praises, calls to play, and names of the pieces being moved. Sandra Barkan compares this dialogue to that of an Ionesco play,20 but the chronology of the royal descent is anything but absurd; the whole history of Nakem is encapsulated within it. The game takes on a ritual, incantatory quality, and, ecstatically, Saïf ben Isaac El Héït ends the line with himself: the signified pronouncing its own signifier. Meaning and History coincide, and for the rest of the night dust falls on the chessboard while the opponents “se cherchaient l'un l'autre jusqu' à ce que la terrasse fût salie des hauteurs noirâtres de l'aurore” (207–8).

It is a poetic and mysterious ending. The intricately-worded promise that Saïf will be reborn “sous les cendres chaudes de plus de trente Républiques africaines” (207) adds a note of menace to an already ambiguous ending. It projects toward the novels of disillusionment, when the generation of Raymond-Spartacus Kassoumi has taken over and continued its terrorization of the négraille. But such a future is only hinted at. Le Devoir itself ends on a mystic note, invoking in its final lines Nakem, memory, the throbbing geography of the empire, the medieval elements, and finally, the game: “… à cette heure où le regard Nakem vole autour des souvenirs, la brousse comme la côte était fertile et brûlante de pitié. Dans l'air, l'eau, et le feu, aussi, la terre des hommes fit n'y avoir qu'un jeu …” (208).


This geometrical waltz is all a game
and played by forces we are wont to call
man and the devil, God and Fate
cliches recalled to hide the mess
of which our little dreams are made
a game of chess
The pieces move in forms more pure
than do the passions that stir the hand
to touch a knight or fire a gun
in the rigid square eight-squared
pieces march and minuet
while violence ranges in the room
and lovers lie or play to kill
the time it takes to touch another
soiled human soiling hand
and only then to say


  1. Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1950), 28.

  2. Yambo Ouologuem, Le Devoir de violence (Paris, Seuil, 1968), 206. The page numbers of all subsequent citations will follow in parentheses.

  3. Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of a Work of Art,” in Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 49.

  4. Valdimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, trans. Laurence Scott, ed. Louis Wagner, 2nd ed., American Folklore Society Bibliographic and Special Series, Vol. 9 (Austin: U of Texas P, 1968), 77–78.

  5. Harold C. Schonberg, Grandmasters of Chess (New York: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1973), 14.

  6. Lewis Carroll, “Preface from Through the Looking Glass,” in The Chess Reader: The Royal Game in World Literature, comp. Jerome Salzmann (New York: Greenberg, 1949), 181.

  7. Carroll, 181.

  8. E. N. Obiechina, “Perception of Colonialism in West African Literature,” in Literature and Modern West African Culture, ed. D. I. Nwoga (Benin City: Ethiope Publishing, 1978), 56.

  9. Christopher Miller, Blank Darkness: Africanist Discourse in French (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985), 234.

  10. Roland Barthes, Elements of Semiology, trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967), 91.

  11. Ralph Manheim, trans., Bound to Violence by Yambo Ouologuem (London: Secker & Warburg, 1971), 178.

  12. Ernest Jones, “The Problem of Paul Morphy: A Contribution to the Psycho-Analysis of Chess,” in The Chess Reader: The Royal Game in World Literature, comp. Jerome Salzmann (New York: Greenberg, 1949), 240.

  13. Jones, 268.

  14. Jones, 267.

  15. Miller, 232.

  16. Raymond O. Elaho, “Le Devoir d'amour dans le devoir de violence de Yambo Ouologuem,” L'Afrique littéraire et artistique, 56 (1979): 68.

  17. Wole Soyinka, Myth, Literature, and the African World (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1976), 103–4.

  18. Robert Philipson, “Literature and Ethnology: Two Views of Manding Initiation Rites,” Interdisciplinary Dimensions of African Literature, eds. Anyidoho, et al. (Washington, DC: Three Continents Press, 1985), 178–79.

  19. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oediupus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983), 209–11.

  20. Sandra Barkan, “Le Devoir du violence: A Non-History,” Interdisciplinary Dimensions of African Literature, eds. Anyidoho, et. al. (Washington, DC: Three Continents Press, 1985), 106.

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

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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 be regretted since the English translation, Bound to Violence,4 in several places seems to have obscured Ouologuem's intentions, and in ways which are important here. Some of these places will be mentioned below. Songolo shows that Ouologuem's borrowings are neither gratuitous nor an indication of creative penury, but that they fit into a context of identifiable and valid narrative intentions. He sums up one aspect of the debate:

Le discours polyvalent du Devoir de violence mène dans des directions multiples et inattendues; mais il acquiert en cours de route son identité propre, qui est autre que la somme des textes imités, parodiés ou violés.5

The presence of Le Dernier des Justes and of It's a Battlefield is now plain enough, and the mere fact of their presence has tended to cause critics to cry plagiarism instead of to reflect on how and why structures and passages from Schwarz-Bart and Graham Greene have been absorbed into the structure of a remarkable and individual book. The further list of what Songolo refers to as Ouologuem's modèles is quite extensive.6 The purpose of the present note is not to continue the debate about Ouologuem's use or misuse of his sources, but to suggest an addition to them, Camus, whose work may appear less as a modèle to be imitated in the novel than as an influence on the thinking behind it; and to offer in the light of that influence another interpretation of this polyvalent book. As a result of the scandal attendant upon its early years, and of the strong emotions that parts of it have aroused, Le Devoir de violence has not attracted the mature attention that it deserves. Published opinions have ranged from the thoughtful to the frankly thoughtless, and some of them will be mentioned here. It must be said at the outset that the whole question of the meaning of Ouologuem's novel demands reconsideration. The latter part of the present note will suggest one line of investigation.

While any interpretation shorter than an original is likely to miss something, yet some critics have been almost perverse in their concentration on one or another section of the novel to the exclusion of others. Thus, for example, by almost entirely disregarding the final chapter, and by entirely disregarding major parts of the third, Yusufu Maiangwa was able to conclude that Ouologuem's message “is that violence, in all its ramifications, is a necessary evil, if true and lasting political freedom is to be achieved”;7 and even a critic of the stature of Mohamadou Kane sees the book as principally a satirical and historical novel.8 Satirical it may well be, but consideration of the final chapter shows that if Ouologuem uses history it is to be able to reject history as a model for behaviour, and especially as a model for violent behaviour; in the same way, in fact, as Camus uses history in L'Homme révolté. It will be as well to review the construction of Ouologuem's novel.

The first chapter of Le Devoir de violence, “La Légende des Saïfs,” has drawn a lot of attention because of its perceived dependence on the first chapter, “La Légende des Justes,” of Le Dernier des Justes; and the attacks of Eric Sellin and the gracious reaction of André Schwarz-Bart are well known. It is the story from the thirteenth to the nineteenth century of the imaginary kingdom of Nakem and of its ruling dynasty. But Nakem, as the anagram should have suggested before now, is much less imaginary than has been assumed. Ouologuem has only slightly disguised and embellished the history of the Kanem empire (the Kanem is first mentioned as a province in the eleventh century, and elements of the empire survive) and of the Bornou empire which succeeded it in 1389, and of which the Kanem remained a province. The dynastic rulers of the Kanem-Bornou were the Sefouwa of Béni-Sef, taking the title Maï in Bornou, whence perhaps the Saïf of Le Devoir de violence.

The parallelism between the recorded history of the Kanem-Bornou and the history of Nakem as recounted by Ouologuem is striking, embracing dates, administrative details, and names.9 It is certainly not unique for an African writer lightly to disguise a character or a country by a gentle anagram or a wordplay (cf. “La Côte des Ebènes” of Les Soleils des Indépendances); but the necessary authenticity of the historical element of Ouologuem's novel seems to have gone unnoticed. It is not really until the nineteenth century that Ouologuem begins to simplify. The last Sefouwa Maï was killed in 1846, but to underline the thesis of inherited historical violence Ouologuem prolongs the line, choosing as models first El Kanemi (prince of Kanem, a member of the Sefouwa, but not in direct line, who had taken the title Sheik early in the century, being the effective ruler of Bornou), and his son and grandson. Ouologuem hints at this change in inspiration by referring to “la branche maternelle des Saïfs.”10 He has to simplify again, because in 1893 the grandson of El Kanemi, whose accession in 1881 coincides with the accession of Ouologuem's Saïf of the last three chapters, Saïf ben Isaac El Heït (“dix-huit ans avant l'arrivée des Blancs”), was conquered by Rabah, who, in turn, in 1900, was obliged to cede to the French, as was Saïf ben Isaac El Heït, and in the same year.

A general remark should be made about the historical inspiration for this first chapter. It seems clear that Ouologuem has not been concerned to follow in a servile fashion the history either of the Kanem-Bornou or of the Sefouwa dynasty. It can be shown that he has sometimes adopted details, characters, and incidents from the history of other Sudanese kingdoms: from the Mali, especially, and from the Songhay. The point has been made by many observers that this first chapter is meant to present the history of a “typical” kingdom (and the last paragraphs of the book could be adduced in support of this); but they have all been speaking of kingdoms which were fictifs. Ouologuem's generalization from a well-documented historical reality—the Chronique de Kano being unique amongst such texts in having escaped the Peul destruction of the early nineteenth century—increases the power of part of the message of the first chapter, that the considerable levels of violence that are a feature of the later sections of the novel are not the result purely of the colonial situation, but have historical antecedents. This historical perspective is central to a Camusian interpretation, especially to one invoking L'Homme révolté, in which the legacy of history is basic to the argument. At the same time, by lifting his story beyond the realms of detail, Ouologuem is inviting his readers to see the problem he is dealing with as a human question, or as an African question, rather than as an historically racist or racial one.

The short second chapter, “L'Extase et L'Agonie,” is a link between the distant past and the more immediate past; between the extase of the past and of the resistance and the sempiternelle agonie that colonization seemed to have in store for the négraille, and between the history of a country, or, generalized by its disguise, of a continent (or perhaps of the human race itself), and the story of several individual characters. It serves also to introduce the colonial situation; and in its last paragraph heralds the third chapter. “Crépuscule des dieux?” it asks.11 Night follows twilight, and the giants of today replace the gods of the past. “La Nuit des Géants,” the third chapter, will be followed, naturally and for Camusian reasons, by “L'Aurore.”

The third, long, exploratory chapter, as it displays a change in technique, calls for a change in approach. Since Ouologuem is now presenting a largely unreal story, however more realistic, the identification of historical detail can only answer a limited number of questions. Who or what, for instance, are the “géants”? The colonial powers and Africa? Opposing religious movements? Raymond-Spartacus Kassoumi and Saïf? Possibly all of these. Ouologuem seems to be saying that the great movements, political, ideological, historical, do not offer real solutions. There are parts of this chapter for which historical identification might be sought and which might add an element to the comprehension of the novel; but they now figure more as part of the embellishment. Schrobenius is a good example. It is easy enough to identify him as Leo Frobenius, and the date of his visit to Nakem confirms it. F. J. Kapilenski cites A. N. Mensah as regarding the Schrobenius episode as an obvious satire in which is to be seen “a skit at Senghor as well as Frobenius,”12 a reasonable view given the extreme enthusiasm with which Senghor greeted Frobenius' work.13 There are indications as well in Le Devoir de violence that Ouologuem is extending Schrobenius beyond a simple historical reference to represent a certain form of ethnologie engagée, as, for instance, when he speaks of “la littérature schrobeniusologique salivant […] la splendeur de la civilisation nègre.”14 Mohamadou Kane has said that Ouologuem “se rit tranquillement des nouveaux mythes africains, de la Négritude, de la redécouverte des civilisations africaines, de l'Africanisme insensé et bavard, de l'unité africaine …”;15 but it should be added that he is tilting at these things in passing. Historical identification of Henry might be sought, but whether he represents a real figure or not his presence in the novel, it will be argued below, is due to other considerations. Historically based or not, the third chapter is used to illustrate a wide cross-section of people who take the legacy of history as the directing influence in their lives and as the justification for their actions—major, even dominant, elements of L'Homme révolté. The serious purpose of the third chapter is to be found in the actions of some of its characters, rather than in their identification.

An interesting approach would be to analyse the scenes of erotic coupling. They all take place in this chapter, and occupy a considerable proportion of it. They illustrate many permutations and combinations and explore a variety of racial and social situations, some of which have fired the imagination of critics. Maiangwa was able semiotically to interpret some of them and to arrive at the remarkable conclusion that Ouologuem was advocating the continued use of violence in the struggle for political freedom,16 a view for which there is no evidence in his prurient references, nor anywhere else. Kern distinguishes between the love of Tambira and Kassoumi and all the other relationships:

Although only briefly described, their love is the only sane, healthy, enduring relationship in the whole novel. It contrasts greatly with the erotic bestiality which takes place in Chevalier's bedroom, and the sickness of other relationships, including even the love-hate Raymond comes to feel for his wife. […] Only Tambira and Kassoumi present an intra-racial relationship, warm and straightforward. […] Even his [Raymond-Spartacus Kassoumi's] homosexual affair […] all these relationships are inter-racial. This must obey Ouologuem's purpose in that, insofar as he set out with the theme of violence, he deliberately chose to highlight such relationships which by their nature have a potential of violent conflict.17

But this view does not take into account that there is in fact a strong element of violence in the Tambira/Kassoumi relationship, from overtones of rape at the beginning of it to the scene of the recovery of Tambira's body, which, although described in terms of the purest tenderness, still depends on rape and violent death. Nor is it easy to see that the mere fact of their being inter-racial gives to the other relationships “a potential of violent conflict.”18 It is not the present purpose to investigate systematically the various love-scenes (to use the term loosely) of the third chapter, but to observe that, as a group, they are part of another question which this chapter and the final chapter investigate, the multifaceted question of self-knowledge, of self-affirmation, of the search for one's identity and for communication.

Le Devoir de violence examines these things through the destinies and lives principally of two of its characters, Raymond-Spartacus Kassoumi and Saïf, and investigates to what extent these two characters can come to grips with their destiny. The reader is made aware of Saïf's destiny from the beginning of the book. Raymond-Spartacus Kassoumi's destiny becomes apparent as the third chapter unfolds, and we see that his conception and perception of himself are always related in some way to Saïf. Even when they are related to the Europeans, it is via Saïf. That Raymond-Spartacus Kassoumi is concerned with the search for his own identity is more clearly shown in Le Devoir de violence than in Bound to Violence, in which, for example, “sa gigantesque soif de s'affirmer”19 becomes “its gigantic hunger for self-destruction”; and in which the “[…] c'était lui, Kassoumi […] occupé à bien naître”20 of the original is clouded in the translation with the extra element of rebirth. Both texts agree on Kassoumi's concern for “le vide immense et silencieux au-dedans de son inquiétude.”21 It is this “vide immense,” this absurd and what to do about it, that is the concern of the book and some of the similarities between its treatment in Le Devoir de violence and its treatment in L'Homme révolté will be returned to below.

Particular prominence is given, in Raymond-Spartacus Kassoumi's quest, to politics and to love. Perhaps the most important of the relationships in the book, other than that between Henry and Saïf, is that between Raymond-Spartacus Kassoumi and Lambert, and Ouologuem shows it as much more than a homosexual love affair. It is described in universal terms. For a long while Lambert has no name. He is l'homme or l'autre, and the reader is implicitly asked to treat the episode in existentialist or philosophical terms. The relationship seems to offer, in its intensity and its purity, the best chance of them all for self-knowledge and communication. It is described as “l'apogée de l'ordre naturel de l'amour.” But the problem lies precisely in its intensity. Speaking of Le Don Juanisme in Le Mythe de Sisyphe, Camus says:

Là encore, il y a plusieurs façons de se suicider dont l'une est le don total et l'oubli de sa propre personne. […] ceux qu'un grand amour détourne de toute vie personnelle s'enrichissent peut-être, mais appauvrissent à coup sûr ceux que leur amour a choisis. […] Un seul sentiment, un seul être, un seul visage, mais tout est dévoré.22

And it is at the point where Raymond-Spartacus Kassoumi understands his need to lose himself in the other that the other becomes particularized as Lambert, and the relationship begins to disintegrate.

Towards the end of the third chapter and throughout the fourth the influence of Camus, especially of L'Homme révolté, is very pronounced. That Ouologuem often looks at things, initially at least, from the point of view of Africa and of the négraille no more detracts from the human universality of his book than does Camus' use as a premise of the Second World War and the situation of post-war Europe. Le Devoir de violence may to a certain extent be seen as an illustration, in an African context, of some of the ideas of L'Homme révolté, and as such underlines the general applicability of Camus' essay. The arguments of both texts are, in broad, the same, from the initial question, the legitimacy of legal murder, through some ways of looking at this question (in particular the rôle of history in the justification of legalized violence), to the rejection of nihilism, the insistence on the nous sommes of “Je me révolte, donc nous sommes,”23 and the positive ideas of solidarity, complicity and communication.

Raymond-Spartacus Kassoumi is shown as being unable to control his own destiny, and reference to L'Homme révolté explains his échec. His desire to revolt against Saïf, against the inherited devoir de violence, to be “maître de l'ancien maître,”24 is bound to fail because of his inability to identify himself in other terms than those imposed upon him by Saïf, and, which amounts to the same, by history. Thus, not being in control of his own destiny (he remains the product of history and a piece in Saïf's game, even in the apparent independence of his political future),25—he is incapable of saying no, of being a révolté. The bourgeois-servile implications of his name condemn him, imagined revolt or not. As long as he defines himself in Saïf's terms he remains an esclave; no solution to human or African problems is to be had through Raymond-Spartacus Kassoumi. Camus expresses it clearly:

Il n'y a rien de commun en effet entre un maître et un esclave, on ne peut parler et communiquer avec un être asservi. Au lieu de ce dialogue implicite et libre par lequel nous reconnaissons notre ressemblance et consacrons notre destinée, la servitude fait régner le plus terrible des silences. […] La complicité et la communication découvertes par la révolte ne peuvent se vivre que dans le libre dialogue.26

Which explains as well the rôle of Henry. Defining himself in his own terms, he is the only person in Nakem who can understand and reject the legacy of history as a basis for behaviour; who is, if not before, then certainly after watching the film, a révolté, and who is able to confront Saïf in this libre dialogue. Camus continues:

Tout révolté, par le seul mouvement qui le dresse face à l'oppresseur, plaide donc pour la vie, s'engage à lutter contre la servitude, le mensonge et la terreur et affirme, le temps d'un éclair, que ces trois fléaux font régner le silence entre les hommes, les obscurcissent les uns aux autres et les empêchent de se retrouver dans la seule valeur qui puisse les sauver du nihilisme, la longue complicité des hommes aux prises avec leur destin.

Le temps d'un éclair. Mais cela suffit, provisoirement, pour dire que la liberté la plus extrême, celle de tuer, n'est pas compatible avec les raisons de la révolte.27

Le temps d'un éclair. In the first part of “L'Aurore” there is scarcely a sentence without its parallel in L'Homme révolté. Even the vocabulary of the texts is the same: absurde, histoire, politique, liberté, solitude, solidarité, complicité. As the chapter progresses, as Saïf becomes aware that Henry understands him, Camusian complicity and solidarity become increasingly imminent, and are finally achieved: “Ce fut en un éclair une déchirure sur le visage de Saïf.”28 Here again, Bound to Violence does a grave disservice to its readers by glossing the éclair, translating this sentence as: “Suddenly Saif's face erupted.” It is in this éclair of complicity that Saïf realizes that he does not have the droit to kill Henry,29 and it is to be remembered, in view of the title of the novel, that Camus links “le droit ou le devoir de tuer.”30 He is more explicit:

[…] il s'agit de décider s'il est possible de tuer celui, quelconque, dont nous venons enfin de reconnaître la ressemblance et de consacrer l'identité.31

To stress the fact that Saïf and Henry are now engaged in a libre dialogue Ouologuem modifies his narrative technique. After Saïf's “Je n'ai pas le droit” the narrator largely withdraws and the characters, speaking in direct dialogue form, continue to seek each other until Saïf, definitively renouncing murder, throws the bamboo containing the snake into the fire:

Saïf: Vous voyez … il y a trop de contrainte.

Henry: Forcément, sourit-il, c'est un jeu; et il ajouta d'une voix différente: et qui a ses règles.

Saïf: C'est qu'il n'y a pas de choix.

Henry: Si! Vous devenez libre parce que vous n'avez pas le choix. (Les deux hommes alors se regardèrent, se souriant, et, pour la première fois, acceptèrent de parler le même langage.)32

They have recognized in each other a révolté and have embarked on the “longue complicité des hommes aux prises avec leur destin.” Neither Ouologuem nor Camus sees a general complicité as a simple, rapid, or even as a necessarily achievable outcome, but a start has been made. Ouologuem, in the final paragraphs of Le Devoir de violence, suggests that the history of Nakem is a recurring thing; and Camus, speaking about Europe, says:

Elle voulait entrer en communauté et elle n'a plus d'autre espoir que de rassembler, un à un, au long des années, les solitaires qui marchent vers l'unité.33

“Au cœur de la nuit européenne,” says Camus,34 “la pensée solaire, la civilisation au double visage, attend son aurore”; the “Aurore” that follows Nakem's and Africa's “Nuit des Géants” might only be a small step, but it is identical to Camus' in that it involves precisely these “solitaires qui marchent vers l'unité,” and who, in their complicité, go beyond nihilism. Camus:

Au bout de ces ténèbres, une lumière pourtant est inévitable que nous devinons déjà et dont nous avons seulement à lutter pour qu'elle soit. Par-delà le nihilisme, nous tous, parmi les ruines, préparons une renaissance. Mais peu le savent.35

Just as, given common elements in their themes, more might be said about the relationship between the work of Ouologuem and Graham Greene than simply that Ouologuem has made rather free use of descriptive passages from It's a Battlefield, and bearing in mind that Ouologuem's Parisian studies included English Literature and Philosophy, there is more to be said about the relationship between Ouologuem and Camus; and several approaches open themselves to us. We might see, for instance, Ouologuem's novel as an illustration of the rule proposed at the end of L'Homme révolté: “apprendre à vivre et à mourir, et, pour être homme, refuser d'être dieu”; or note the active rôle of the novel itself in Camus' thinking:

Le roman naît en même temps que l'esprit de révolte et il traduit, sur le plan esthétique, la même ambition.36

Toute création nie, en elle-même, le monde du maître et de l'esclave.37

That Le Devoir de violence is such a création, one of outstanding importance in an African and a universal context—one, to use Songolo's term, with an identité propre—seems beyond doubt, and seemed beyond doubt at its publication. That it continues to be unavailable in its original form is very much more to be regretted than the supposed misuse of some of its sources, which, presumably, has kept it out of print. As one of the first African novels to cast off the bondage of négritude, and in its own right as a work of great individuality (and the Prix Renaudot for 1968), it deserves wider and continuing attention.


  1. As a tribute to Grahame Jones, this subject seemed especially appropriate. Grahame coordinated the French West Indian and West African courses at the University of New England. He was extremely enthusiastic about André Schwarz-Bart, as about so many authors, including Camus and Greene, and was kind enough to take my enthusiasm for Yambo Ouologuem seriously and to acquire one of the last available copies of Le Devoir de violence, which, at the time of his death, he had not had time to read. The comments of such a perceptive literary critic and a great friend would have been invaluable.

  2. John Erickson, Nommo: African Fiction in French South of the Sahara, York, South Carolina, pp. 228–9; quoted in Zell, Bundy and Coulon, A New Reader's Guide to African Literature, 2nd ed., London, H. E. B., 1983, pp. 455–7.

  3. Aliko Songolo, “Fiction et subversion: Le Devoir de violence,Présence africaine, 120, 1981, pp. 17–34.

  4. London, H. E. B., 1971.

  5. Songolo, op. cit., p. 32.

  6. ———. p. 24.

  7. Yusufu Maiangwa, “The Duty of Violence in Yambo Ouologuem's Bound to Violence,” in Kolawole Ogungbesan, ed., New West African Literature, London, H. E. B., 1979, pp. 76 and 79.

  8. Mohamadou Kane, “L'Actualité de la littérature africaine d'expression française,” Présence africaine, Numéro spécial: Réflexions sur la première décennie des indépendances en Afrique Noire, Paris, s. d., pp. 233–5.

  9. See, passim, Basil Davidson, Old Africa Rediscovered, London, Longman, 1970, and R. & M. Cornevin, Histoire de l'Afrique (des origines à la 2e guerre mondiale), Paris, Payot, 1964.

  10. Yambo Ouologuem, Le Devoir de violence, Paris, Le Seuil, 1968, p. 29.

  11. ———. p. 44.

  12. F. J. Kapelinski, “The ‘Coming-of-Age’ of African Literatures,” Actes du VIIIe Congrès de l'Association Internationale de Littérature Comparée, Paris, 1980, p. 254.

  13. Senghor talks about the reception of Frobenius' work in the Foreword to Leo Frobenius (1873–1973), an Anthology, Wiesbaden, F. Steiner, 1973.

  14. Ouologuem, op. cit., p. 189.

  15. Kane, op. cit., p. 234.

  16. Maiangwa, op. cit., p. 76.

  17. Anita Kern, “On Les Soleils des Indépendances and Le Devoir de violence,Présence africaine, 85, 1973, pp. 223–5.

  18. That inter-racial relationships interested Ouologuem, and in terms used in Le Devoir de violence, is apparent from the second letter in Yambo Ouologuem, Lettre à la France nègre, Paris, Edmond Nalis, 1968; but to say, as Kern does: “Only Tambira and Kassoumi present an intra-racial relationship …” in this novel is not the case. There are several intra-racial relationships. The racial question is irrelevant to Ouologuem's thesis.

  19. Le Devoir de violence, p. 175.

  20. ———. p. 178.

  21. ———. p. 179.

  22. Albert Camus, Essais, Paris, N. R. F., Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1965, pp. 154–5.

  23. ———. p. 432.

  24. Le Devoir de violence, p. 191.

  25. A tour, in fact. Ibid., p. 204.

  26. Op. cit., p. 687.

  27. Loc. cit.

  28. Le Devoir de violence, p. 205.

  29. ———. p. 206.

  30. ———. p. 420.

  31. Op. cit., p. 685.

  32. Le Devoir de violence, p. 206.

  33. Op. cit., p. 684.

  34. ———. p. 703.

  35. ———. p. 707.

  36. ———. p. 662.

  37. ———. p. 677.

Edna Aizenberg (essay date October 1992)

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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, bias of literature and criticism, in which formalisms of various kinds ruled the intellectual roost.1 Of course, the response to the response has been swift and loud; the “rediscovery” of history has given small comfort to the previous roost rulers, who have seen their hallowed objectivities and unities shattered in the name of a mixed multitude of ex-centrics: women, minorities, Third Worlders (I realize the term Third World is problematic). Reinstating history, it seems, threatens to unmask how the West (was) won or, at the very least, to unsettle considerably the smooth surface of the master narratives that generations have imbibed.

The previous paragraph reflects a Western bias. Why assume that the story of the West's “rediscovery” of history is everyone else's story? Indeed, even as Euro-North American literature and criticism reconnect with the historical-political context in which works are embedded, largely by acknowledging ex-centric discourses and vindicating the wronged, that move's rehegemonizing potential has been interrogated (see Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin 162–63, 172–73; Jan-Mohammed and Lloyd 182–86). The West is still explicating the West, more critically and globally to be sure, but nonetheless parting from Western conditions (“late capitalist, bourgeois, informational, postindustrial society”) and answering Western needs (resisting the “totalizing forces” of “mass culture”) (Hutcheon, Poetics 7, 6). This unchanged focus could renew the subsumption of the non-Euro—North American into the Western, as well as continue the distortion of non-Western cultural experiences. Linda Hutcheon's important Poetics of Postmodernism both subsumes and distorts when it cites works such as Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, Carlos Fuentes's El gringo viejo (The Old Gringo), and Gabriel García Márquez's Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude) as examples of a “new desire to think historically” (88; emphasis added). The comment fails to recognize that these novels were not produced under normative Western circumstances, primarily as responses to metropolitan exigencies, and also that their desire to think historically is nothing new, since history has never gone out of style in the Third World.

The use of these works to explicate Western developments is therefore dubious, the emphasis on “margins” and “edges” notwithstanding.2 In fact, a more basic question arises when the historical specificity of postcolonial novels is flattened out to illustrate the center's renewed desire to engage history: To what extent has ahistoricism truly been banished? In the metropolis, arguments over this question have revolved around postmodern “simulacra of history” (Jameson, “Postmodernism” 71). The past is present in contemporary writing; but, as Jameson asks, is its presence “direct,” hence historical? Or are we receiving a historical ersatz, “some reconstruction of a past history which was once itself a present”? E. L. Doctorow's fiction—Ragtime,The Book of Daniel, for example—proves, for Jameson, that history is far from present in current literature; for Hutcheon, that it is far from banished: the admission implicit in Doctorow's historical metafiction, that we can only reconstruct the “ideas” of a past, does not necessarily vitiate history, but it does make problematic or revisionist views of history possible (Hutcheon, Poetics 212; see also McHale 90).

Yet what of the “periphery”? From a Third World perspective the question of the West's banishment of ahistoricism takes on a different cast. Here the directness or indirectness of the past is not in dispute: there is simply no past of which to speak. By bracketing the immediate social, linguistic, and literary situation of Third World novels and by disregarding their function as non-Eurocentric “histories of the imagination,” a returned Western historical awareness betrays the persistence of a blind spot—the continuing ahistorical ontologizing of non-Western phenomena, a practice that might well constitute a more serious challenge to the West's historical “recovery” (Rincón 66, 81). The complex and shifting interaction of worlds in today's global village is undeniable, and postcolonial novels do participate. But my focus here, on García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude and Yambo Ouologuem's Le Devoir de violence (Bound to Violence), serves to reveal the absent history: those Third World conditions and exigencies that link postcolonial fiction and a desire to think historically.3

That the two novels have many characteristics befitting the historiographic-metafictional bent of contemporary Western novels illustrates not so much the state of the metropolis as the search for self in societies not Western but heavily marked by the West. Of course, even as I position myself “at the margins,” I take note of my insertion in the Western academy, an insertion that inevitably imposes blind spots of its own. Paradoxically, these blind spots may affect the vision of both the “margins” and the metropolis itself; the “West” is not a uniform beast, and one must keep in mind the historical specificity of Western nations in the relation of “center” and “rim,” imperializer and imperialized.4


One might argue that history is the stuff of which the postcolonial novel is made. This kind of generalized statement invites arguments and the citing of exceptions, but grosso modo history has been a consistent concern of Latin American and African fiction. The Latin American novel was “born” at the moment the Spanish colonies became independent, and many of the significant early novels were historical—an indication that imaginatively re-creating the past is a necessary part of the nation-building project. Works such as Vicente Fidel López's La novia del hereje ‘The Heretic's Love’ (1846), Manuel de Jesús Galván's Enriquillo (1882), Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda's Guatemocín (1846), and José Mármol's Amalia (1851) deal with conflictive moments in Latin America's history: the rivalries and repressions of the colonial period, the tragic relations between Native Americans and Europeans in the wake of the Spanish conquest, the difficulties of achieving postindependence stability and freedom. Noé Jitrik points out that although Walter Scott provided an important example for the nineteenth-century Latin American historical novel, what was in Europe the “desarrollo cualitativo de una continuidad” ‘qualitative development of a continuity’ became in Latin America the “iniciación necesaria de una práctica imprescindible” ‘necessary initiation into an indispensable practice’ (16–17). That is, for Latin Americans the writing of historical novels was not just a way of seeking a particular social or class identity but a search for identity itself: a political-national identity in recently constituted countries fractured by ethnicities and races and a literary identity in an area with a colonized imagination.

The ongoing demands of this search largely determined the persistent historical bent of literary works. In their approaches to history, novelistic techniques, and propositions for self-identification, these works traveled a long way from the foundational texts and varied from the naturalistic realism of such novels of the Mexican Revolution as Mariano Azuela's Los de abajo (1916; The Underdogs), to the oneiric mythologism of Miguel Angel Asturias's indigenist Hombres de maíz (1949; Men of Maize), to the self-conscious metahistoricity of Augusto Roa Bastos's dictator novel, Yo el Supremo (1974; I the Supreme). But left unchanged was the fictional commitment to engage history in response to what Jitrik characterizes as an identity full of prohibitions, constituted by intermittencies (17).

In the 1960s, the renowned Boom writers rejected the documentary tendency of previous Latin American narratives in favor of formal experimentation and the “universal” models of modernism—the modernism known for its ahistoricism. Yet even these writers were fully interested in Latin American history and identity, turning the aesthetic arsenal of modernism to such problems in books like Carlos Fuentes's La muerte de Artemio Cruz (1962; The Death of Artemio Cruz) or Mario Vargas Llosa's La casa verde (1966; The Green House). One Hundred Years of Solitude was part of that moment, participating in its strategies while forming a link with more recent historicizing novels. In these works, the popular and oral modes of recalling that are important in García Márquez's novel become primary features, along with testimonial narrative—as in Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú (1983; I, Rigoberta Menchú)—and they convey the petite histoire of the Native American, the black, or the poor. The concern with the “sweep” of national and continental history that One Hundred Years of Solitude displays is another principal trait of post-Boom narrative; Eduardo Galeano's multivolume rewriting of that history from the pre-Columbian era to the present, Memoria del fuego (1982–86; Memory of Fire [1985–88]), is an example. Post-Boom authors thus controvert and continue the achievements of their famed predecessors: they question the effectiveness of excessive linguistic bravura as a means to liberate history and identity, and they intensify the voices of the local, the marginal, and the ideologically “incorrect”; at the same time, they retain the legacy of the Boom both in the fragmentation and self-consciousness that reveal the fault lines of history and in the exploration of the ways words and narrative configure or disfigure historical events.5

African literature has had a similarly central interest in history. As Abiola Irele writes, the “essential force of African literature” is “its reference to the historical and experiential,” and the main task of criticism is to bring that force “into focus” (11). This emphasis again relates to the traumas of imperialization and a conflictive identity; in Irele's words, “Modern African literature has grown out of the rupture created within our indigenous history and way of life by the colonial experience” (27). It is no accident that early masterpieces of contemporary African writing were historical novels, since the fictive reelaboration of precolonial society and its confrontation with the Europeans—as in Chinua Achebe's seminal Things Fall Apart (1958) and Arrow of God (1964)—directly correlates with the political struggle to gain independence and constitute a new nationality. In Africa, as in Latin America, the desire to come to terms with a fractured history and a still unintegrated national-cultural identity, not metropolitan dictates, induced the enduring importance of the historical.

Later works shifted away not from history but from historical reconstruction in a realist mode, often with gentle nostalgia for the precolonial, to hard-hitting, more formally innovative novels; here a nonidealized past intersecting with a bitter present expressed the disillusionment of the postindependence era: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's Petals of Blood (1977), Ayi Kwei Armah's Two Thousand Seasons (1979), and Bound to Violence exemplify this trend. Like Latin American writers, African authors used the styles of modernism and its successors, including self-referentiality, intertextuality, fragmentation, and the problematizing of historical and fictional narration, not to maneuver an escape from but to engage with history.

Furthermore, as Jonathan Ngate indicates, during the 1960s francophone African writers like Ouologuem adopted aggressive narrative strategies in response to both regional historical distress and the “first stage” francophone novels—Camara Laye's L'enfant noir (1953; The Dark Child) was paradigmatic—that propounded the lyrical view of the past, akin to Senghorian negritude. (I return to this topic later.) In other words, the demands of African history and of a developing African literary tradition primarily determined novelistic shape. As the political-historical anguish of postindependence francophone Africa deepened, novels such as Makombo Bamboté's Princesse Mandapu (1972) still featured political denunciation and a decentering of style, now with an even greater awareness of African speech patterns and an African audience (Ngate 59–61, 107–08). A similar awareness in anglophone Africa led Ngũgĩ to abandon English in favor of Gikuyu and a narrative technique with closer ties to the oral tale. The lessons of modernism as applied to African history, however, continue to echo in his Matigari (1987) through the stress on issues of discourse—who holds the power of rhetoric?—and through the enactment of storytelling and fiction making.

Instead of seeing the historical engagement of postcolonial fiction as evidence of Euro—North American literature's “new desire to think historically,” with the specter, once again, of the “center” absorbing the “margins,” one might argue that the “center” has finally caught up with the “margins.” The Western conditions and needs described by Hutcheon, Jameson, and others—be they multinationalism or a mass culture of the fleeting present and the well-designed package—have had a striking effect. They have forced the West to relearn the history its former colonies have never forgotten and, like those former colonies, to turn Western modes against themselves through a process of hybridizing and indigenizing. Yet, as I have said, my primary interest is not the “center” and what it has learned but the history, exigencies, and searches of the “margins.”


One Hundred Years of Solitude and Bound to Violence treat the Latin American and African pasts by chronicling imaginary but emblematic families—the Buendías of Macondo, the Saifs of Nakem. Both families are founders of a long-lived dynasty and rulers of a fiefdom, and their stories ring with the “sweep of history,” starting in a distant era tinged with legend and reaching modern days. The legend of the Saifs, set in the region of the Mali and Songhay empires, begins in the year 1202, in the fictional Empire of Nakem; it concludes in the post-World War II period, a time of nationalist ferment in French colonial Africa (see Imperato). Likewise, the saga of the Buendías, while anchored in the one hundred or so years of Colombian and Latin American history between formal independence in the mid-nineteenth century and the Cuban Revolution of the late 1950s, harks back to the 1500s, when Spain, poised between medievalism and modernity, colonized a “New World.” The Buendías and Saifs each bear the stamp of this particular colonial experience: the Buendías are descendants of the Spaniards who peopled Latin America's settler colonies; the Saifs, indigenous overlords of territories conquered but not settled by the French. What unites them (and the novels), however, is more significant than what divides them.

In giving the novels the aura of historical breadth, García Márquez and Ouologuem appear to follow consecrated models of historical narration that begin “in the beginning” and move forward to “our time,” thereby implying continuity and progress(ion). These models are Western, particularly the biblical paradigm García Márquez closely recalls in the novel's opening sequences, when the Buendías found Macondo, and numerous later historical writings, scholarly and fictional, whose linear or chronological disposition strives to suppress contradiction and to organize a seamless story, often a grand narrative that provides ideological justification and a sense of purposeful advancement (Lyotard). Some of these models are also non-Western, like the epics of the African oral tradition evoked by Ouologuem—the Sundiata, for instance—but they share with many Western narratives a sequencing, smoothing, and legitimating function through their accounts of the splendorous centuries of ruling dynasties, from the misty originary times of the god-heroes to current, closer times.

That the two narratives seem to conform to “sweep of history” paradigms, Western and indigenous, is no wonder; after all, are not both authors looking for a past order that they can use, along with its discursive patterns, to forge an identity? The answer is that neither Ouologuem nor García Márquez simply follows a line of history, a glorious saga of noncontradictory continuity; to do so, to pretend a seamless sweep, would be, as Ouologuem writes in Bound to Violence, “menu folklore” ‘empty folklore’ (9; 3).6 Rather, his Empire of Nakem is interesting because of “la fuite désespérée de sa population, … disséminée … en groupements … séparés les uns des autres par des tribus diverses … s'escrimant … en rivalités intestines où la violence le disputait à l'épouvante” ‘the desperate flight … of its population, … strewn about … separated from one another by all manner of tribes … and warring … with a violence equaled only by the dread it called forth’ (9; 3–4). The description is a gloss on both the content and the textual configuration of the work; Ouologuem and García Márquez, gesturing toward the linear and progressive, in fact give narrative substance to the violences of that model, interrogating normative European and indigenous schemata at the level of both fabulation and fabulatory strategy. Needless to say, linear progression is not the only model for European or indigenous narration, nor is interrogation of that model exclusive to postcolonial novels; it has also been a project of the Western novel. In the framework of an imperialized history, however, the pervasiveness and ascendancy of the normative take on a different coloring, calling for dismantling with particular force. Thus the violence in the novels—García Márquez's solitude is a form and product of violence—is not incidental, for it is central to each work's exploration of a broken history and an inchoate identity.


Just as problems of historical representation have reentered the Western critical agenda, so have issues of violence and representation—witness, for example, The Violence of Representation: Literature and the History of Violence, a recent collection edited by Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse. In the introduction, the editors, citing Mikhail Bakhtin and Michel Foucault as major influences, underline their aim of exposing the power and violence inherent, but hidden or justified, in a variety of Western texts. They note that two modalities of violence interact in these texts: the violence that is “out there” in the world and the violence exercised on things through words (9). Armstrong and Tennenhouse admit that their Western, primarily Anglo-American, emphasis necessarily makes the collection a “partial statement,” although one of its goals is to expose the “imperialisms” of Western discourse, the physical and verbal violence inflicted on the (neo)colonized (2, 9). Still, in Gayatri Spivak's terms, the subaltern does not speak in the anthology, even though the subaltern began speaking on history, colonialism, and violence, and theorized violence and representation, long before the present Western “discovery” of the topic (xv, 201, 243).

During the 1960s, the period of Bound to Violence and One Hundred Years of Solitude, Frantz Fanon published Les damnés de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth), a meditation—though it is hardly meditative—on the process of decolonization and the development of Third World national polities and cultures. In the first part of the book, “Concerning Violence,” the Martinican-Algerian psychiatrist and political thinker argues that violence is essential for understanding history and representation in the colonized world. The European conquest, which manipulated and exacerbated tribal feuds and the existing injustices of elite rule, was achieved and maintained by dint of bayonets; the “native” was represented as a “nigger,” a “dirty Arab,” the opposite of the sublime inheritors of Greco-Roman culture; and indigenous history was obliterated (30, 37). Fanon writes:

The settler makes history and is conscious of making it. And because he constantly refers to the history of his mother country, he clearly indicates that he himself is the extension … not [of the] history of the country he plunders but the history of his own nation in regard to all that she skims off, all that she violates and starves. The immobility to which the native is condemned can only be called into question if the native decides to put an end to the history of colonisation—the history of pillage—and to bring into existence the history of the nation—the history of decolonisation.


The task for the “native,” then, is to take the violence of collaborationist-colonialist rule and historical discourse and use it as a “cleansing force,” a force that directs rage into positive and creative channels to fight oppression, poverty, illiteracy, and underdevelopment (73).

Fanon repeatedly underlines the role of the intellectual in this process; “On National Culture,” the section of The Wretched of the Earth devoted to the subject, describes the Westernized intellectual reconnecting with the people and confronting degradation and savagery, unafraid if need be to become “just the sort of nigger that the white man wants.” The vigorous styles of writing in this period evince the assumption of Le Devoir de violence, not as an end in itself, but as a strategy of liberation (178, 177). To read Ouologuem's violent, historical-revisionist text is in large measure to read Fanon in a fictional expression.

The links Fanon establishes among colonialism, violence, and representation, made primarily within an African context (although he repeatedly alludes to Latin America), are taken up by the Chilean Ariel Dorfman in his study Imaginación y violencia en América. Dorfman reads the history of the area as an aggression that began long ago, and, like Fanon, whose Wretched of the Earth he cites directly, he traces the effects of violence on the solitary, traumatized psyche of the colonized; on the unstable, incestuous social relations; and on the exploitative and bloody political order. The question, therefore, is one not of violence or no violence but, as in Fanon's formulation, of the uses of violence—most important, the use of violence as a way out.

To plunge into this miasma thus became “el gran acto catártico,” the type of great cathartic act in which Latin American writing in the post-World War II era was engaged, especially during the Cuban Revolution. The narrative aggressiveness that was the hallmark of the new Latin American Boom novel expressed the violence exercised on the minds and bodies of Latin America's people, a violence that finally seemed to promise catharsis and salvation through Cuba's struggle for national liberation. Like Latin American existence itself, the works assumed violent themes and forms: the technical experimentation and linguistic slaps in the face found in the new novels seemed to mirror occurrences throughout centuries of history and reflect developments that now appeared to be coming to a head; they also shook up the reader by shaking up the basis of his or her fictional (and factual) worldview (see Dorfman, Imaginación 9–18, 24, 35–36). It is not incidental that Dorfman devotes a chapter of his book to One Hundred Years of Solitude (Imaginación 139–80); he takes up the theme of violence in García Márquez again in the recent Some Write to the Future.

Fanon's and Dorfman's theorizations indicate that at a crucial juncture—the accelerated decolonization and nation formation of the 1960s—the requirements of history, of Third World history, determined the application of modernism's frenzied fabulatory modes to Latin American and African literature. Although the effectiveness of this application has been challenged as both an “aesthetization” and an exaltation of violence, it unquestionably represented a significant and far-reaching reply, from a postcolonial perspective, to the violence “out there” and the violence exercised through words (see Concha xvii; Miller, Theories 62–63).

Jaime Concha argued that it is time to “dispense” with the “commonplace of Latin American violence,” since in the final analysis all history is violent (xvii); but the intention of Fanon and Dorfman, and of García Márquez and Ouologuem, is precisely to underline Third World violence as the product of a colonialist history, not to dilute or essentialize it as part of an ahistorical, generic category of “violence everywhere.” Galeano, capturing the abiding relevance of that intent, comments that “Latin America is always searching for its identity. … Peoples who are unsure of where they come from, what roots, what mixtures, what acts of love, what violations, are unlikely to know where they are going. But this implies the discovery of our true history, lied about and betrayed by the winners” (qtd. in Martin, Journeys 311).

Such awareness of the particular site of textual production is vital in addressing not only violent narrative content but violent technique as well. Many of the formal devices used in One Hundred Years of Solitude and Bound to Violence—parodic intertextual deflation is an important one—are, as mentioned, found in the repertoire of modernism and its successors. But the links Dorfman and Fanon establish between colonialist outrages and outrageous textuality serve as reminders of the very different functions of metaphorical violence in circumstances scarred by the literal type. A device “in the hands of those who exercise genuine power” assumes quite a distinct cast “in the hands of those classified as powerless.” Site and destination—the final uses of the text—cannot be ignored (see Hutcheon, “‘Circling'” 164, 151).


I turn now to the specific practices of historical subversion and violence of representation in Bound to Violence and One Hundred Years of Solitude. Instead of describing continuity in discussions of history and culture, Jitrik, Irele, and Fanon contrast orderliness with disruption, and authorized with nonauthorized versions of historical events. Fanon in particular focuses on the colonialists as the supposed history makers who see their homeland as the point of reference and who consider the history of the colony an extension of metropolitan accomplishments. There are thus an “official” European version of events and an imposed succession in which the history of colonization becomes another link in the forward march of the metropolis and, by extension, of its fortunate progeny. Ouologuem and García Márquez work against such constructs. In their texts, the shared trials of a usurped history evince a common intent to invert that history, despite the divergences in the colonial pasts. One Hundred Years of Solitude turns the history of Europe on American soil inside out—an image we would do well to remember during the glorious celebrations of 1992. Seen from the perspective of Latin America, it is the history of abandonment, obliteration, and illegitimacy. The initial pages of the novel, which tell of the establishment of Macondo, evoke these motifs, in part through emblematic objects and characters: an astrolabe and a sextant represent the sixteenth-century Spanish voyages of conquest that thrust the people into an unfamiliar world; the buried suit of armor hints at the largely medieval heritage bequeathed to them by Spain; ice and gypsies suggest that Western scientific development and progress arrive from the outside anachronistically if at all (see Martin, “‘Magical'” 104).

What the stepchildren of Spain experience as solitude becomes erasure for the Native Americans. The plague of insomnia that signals the loss of memory by Macondo's early inhabitants is first recognized by two Guajiro Indians, prince and princess of a tribe forced into exile because of a similar calamity. This symbolism reflects a major theme in García Márquez's novel: physical and discursive blotting out and the diverse forms of memory that fight against obliteration. García Márquez pointedly inserts the account of the Native Americans and the insomnia plague in a chapter that explores different ways of recalling and recording: telling stories, writing signs, taking photographs, singing folk songs. These activities rebut authorized renderings—for example, those that have Spain bringing the light of “civilization” to the “savages.”

Illegitimacy also works against the celebration of Spain in America; murder and incest are the two related acts that give rise to Macondo. In connecting foundational and sexual violence, García Márquez overturns the religious and cultural ideals of Hispano-Catholic society—the sanctioned ideals of the colony—that emphasize sexual-racial purity and the Sacred and Legitimate Family. The Iberian obsession with limpieza de sangre ‘cleanliness of blood’ was transferred to Latin America, even though colonial Latin American society was begotten through violation and mixture. In placing the mark of tainted sex on Ursula and José Arcadio and on their progeny—who continually fight the inherited impulse to commit incest and whose sexuality is hardly “sacred”—García Márquez rewrites the expurgated version of colonial history; both founders of Macondo are descended from Spaniards, yet they and their children scarcely conform to the ideal. Macondo is a settler colony, but its inhabitants experience a profound sense of alienation from Peninsular norms.7

Bound to Violence also deflates the colonialist myth of grandeur and continuity by countering its sanitized traditions. Ouologuem begins with the Arab conquest, which predated the European colonialism. In the first section of the novel, the Saifs embrace Islam, the religion of the conquerors and the alleged depository of “spiritual advancement” (22). But juxtaposed with descriptions of the prayer rituals and the educational institutions through which this advancement is to occur are the images of the Arab slave trade, a horror carried on under the guise of pilgrimages to Mecca, and descriptions of the elites' manipulation of such practices as polygamous marriage, which allowed them to engage in convenient political alliances and unholy sexual practices, including incest. European penetration—the metaphor is apt—represents another high-blown rhetoric of altruism masking violence. The pieties of Koranic discourse (which Ouologuem parodies mercilessly, as I discuss later) are replaced by the French colonialists' “mission of civilization” (44). But, again, Ouologuem places the slogans alongside accounts of the conquering raids and rapes (27).

The church, through its missionaries, becomes an important part of the European “spiritual advancement,” for instance, by seizing “idols” and selling them for profit (76). The obliteration of parts of the indigenous heritage through pillage parallels the imposition of French history on the colony; Ouologuem writes with characteristic sarcasm of African schoolchildren studiously commemorating the glories of the Marne and the eternity of Verdun. Naturally, in rendering the glorious continuity of French civilization in Europe and in the colonies, Ouologuem leans heavily on the violence and does not hesitate to salute “l'anonyme négraille” ‘the anonymous niggertrash’ dragged miles away from home and unjustifiably killed in the wars of the Europeans (143; 123).

Colonialist histories are not, however, the only ones that Ouologuem and García Márquez cut up. Perhaps even more ripe for strewing about and deflating through exaggeration are the versions of the native elites, the successors of Spain in Latin America and the predecessors turned successors of France in Africa who have come to rule much of both areas. The two authors write with the aim of upsetting this order: García Márquez under the influence not only of the early phases of the Cuban Revolution, which promised an end to elite control, but also of La Violencia (1946–66), a twenty-year civil war between Colombian conservatives and liberals; Ouologuem amid the travails of postindependence internecine warfare, neocolonialism, and the growing authoritarianism of African presidents (see Tittler). In his biting essay collection, Lettre à la France nègre, an important adjunct to the novel, Ouologuem characterizes his literary-historical project as a shock of truths: white colonialism was a primordial rupture in the history of Africa, but no African is unaware that the colonialism of the black elites preceded that of the Europeans and the Arabs (90).

Exposing this “colonialisme des Notables noirs” lies at the core of Ouologuem's historical revisionism in Bound to Violence:

Véridique ou fabulée, la légende de Saïf Isaac El Héït hante de nos jours encore le romantisme nègre, et la politique des notables en maintes républiques. … Maints chroniqueurs consacrent son culte par la tradition orale et célèbrent à travers lui l'époque prestigieuse des premiers Etats, dont le roi, sage et philosophe, couronnait une épopée qui appelait la plus grande tâche de l'archéologie, de l'histoire, de la numismatique et autres sciences humaines, auxquelles sont venues se joindre les disciplines naturelles et ethnologiques.


Whether truth or invention, the legend of Saif Isaac al-Heit still haunts the Black romanticism and the political thinking of the notables in many republics. … Chroniclers draw on the oral tradition to enrich his cult and through him celebrate the glorious era of the first States with their wise philosopher-king, whose history has called not only archaeology, history and numismatics but also the natural sciences and ethnology to their highest tasks.


Here are encapsulated the various threads in the novelist's attack. The oral tradition, which for many became the repository of “Africanness” and a “people's form” in response to Western denigration of nonliterate cultures, was a frequent apologia for the status quo: the much vaunted griots and their oral epics generally served the conservative role of exalting great figures. Negritude, whose best-known exponent was Léopold Sédar Senghor, the president of Senegal from 1960 to 1980, was another celebration of blackness that could be turned to elite ends. Although negritude was a complex movement with diverse strands, the romanticized vision of a pre-European, spiritually holistic, justly ruled Africa that figured in many of Senghor's writings often served to draw attention away from the abuses, past and present, of the “wise philosopher-king.” The support given to this view of negritude by some European investigators, among them the ethnologist Leo Frobenius (the Shrobenius of Ouologuem's novel), helped to legitimate and canonize it.8 These renditions of African history, elaborated to replace European falsifications, were in effect falsifications themselves, used to cover up the outrages of precolonial elite suzerainty and to justify twentieth-century cults of personality.

Ouologuem replaces the sanctioned museum or tropical-garden image of Africa with what, echoing Fanon, he considers the miserable reality of underdevelopment, slavery, blood, and violence (Lettre 190). (In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon also rejects the cultural-political stance of negritudist “Black romanticism.” Ouologuem's novel dwells on this gory, sadistic sexually perverted subject matter in detail as the notable Saifs act less than notably, providing their people with the only continuity Ouologuem grants (Sahelian) African history—the continuity of recurrent fracturing. In Scribe, Griot, and Novelist, Thomas Hale takes to task earlier critics who dismiss this reading of history as an “invention that had nothing to do with reality”; more often than not Ouologuem is right on target, in some instances anticipating the latest historical studies—although what he offers his readers is unquestionably an “interpretive, creative image” (Hale 138, 146). In the novel, Ouologuem enters the violence of colonialist-collaborationist domination and becomes a “dirty wog” as a cleansing force, in the way Fanon envisions.

The same can be said of García Márquez. The main events of his novel, after the violences of the founding years, are the revolutionary wars and the banana-strike massacre, both instances of violence generated by elite authoritarian control and based on major occurrences in Colombia's history (see Mena; Minta). Again, the author makes the issue of memory and obliteration central, for the conservative oligarchies that dominated Colombia during much of the hundred-year period of the novel literally rewrote history to suit their views. Alliances with neo-colonialism—primarily with North American commercial interests that monopolized sectors of the economy (e. g., the banana plantations)—reinforced the oligarchies' dominance, so that producing versions favorable to these interests became part of the historical rewriting.

The task of One Hundred Years of Solitude is thus to counter the history that García Márquez calls “la falsa que los historiadores habían admitido, y consagrado en los textos escolares” ‘the false one that historians had created and consecrated in the schoolbooks’ (296; 322). The liberal rebellions that Aureliano Buendía leads against the conservative forces, as well as the strike on the banana plantations that ends with the gunning down of workers, are recovered from oblivion and retold from the point of view of the defeated. Against the pretended stability, the author pits ongoing chaos, with only mild hyperbole: “El coronel Aureliano Buendía promovió treinta y dos levantamientos armados y los perdió todos. Tuvo diecisiete hijos varones de diecisiete mujeres distintas, que fueron exterminados uno tras uno” ‘Colonel Aureliano Buendia organized thirty-two armed uprisings and he lost them all. He had seventeen male children by seventeen different women and they were exterminated one after the other’ (94; 104). The prodigious violence and the prodigious sexuality bear witness to the unfinished business of consolidating a nation and an identity on ideals other than the censorships and official pieties of the colony retained in the oligarchy.

García Márquez's novel criticizes both conservatives and liberals; the endless civil wars between them, represented by Aureliano's insurrections, lead to little stability and less change. Further, the dynasty that lives out the pained history of Colombia and Latin America is the liberal Buendía clan, not unelitist itself. García Márquez advocates an end to all forms of elite ascendancy; for all their progressiveness, the liberals—who also had their turns at leadership—are hegemonic as well. Yet it is the conservatives who embody the worst features of oligarchic repression, which they justify under the banner of a God-given power to establish “public order and family morality” (97).

Indeed, the government tries to expunge the story of Aureliano Buendía's wars, so that with time the memory of him is diluted to that of an invented figure; the account of the strikers shot at the station is likewise set forth in judicial documents and elementary school textbooks as a nonevent, because it conflicts with such rose-garden renditions of officialdom as the legal system and the educational network (359). The deluge “decreed” by Mr. Brown (whose portrayal has more than one shade of Ouologuem's Shrobenius) effaces any recollection of the slaughter, just as the insomnia plague wipes out memory in the early epoch of Macondo; but the memory survives through eyewitnesses, by word of mouth, in the testimony of the novel. Like Ouologuem, García Márquez plunges into the nightmare of (neo)colonial Colombian and Latin American history as a strategy of liberation: his task, in the words of the novel, is to annihilate a past “consuming itself from within” (371).

In Bound to Violence and One Hundred Years of Solitude, then, characteristics such as noncontinuity and the problematizing of historical or fictional narration are conceived primarily as responses to local circumstances—not to Western needs or “universal” styles. The issue of authorized and unauthorized renditions of history is of particular import because paradigms imposed on the colonies, to the detriment of the subalterns' own historical identity, forced Third World writing to focus on interrogating history. Thus, a major question of postmodern historiographic metafiction—“How can we know the past today—and what can we know of it?”—is the question of books like Bound to Violence and One Hundred Years of Solitude (Hutcheon, Poetics 92). In these novels, the problems of constructing the past and of having access to it only in textualized form—schoolbooks, judicial records, griots' epics, as well as the counterpractices of stories, folk songs, and contemporary fictional discourse—radicalize the (meta)historicizing tendencies already inherent in Latin American and African writing because of specific world-historical conditions.

This radicalization is clear when we look at an earlier novel such as Things Fall Apart. The surface of its apparently straightforward realist narration is already interpellated when the representative of empire, the District Commissioner, selects the title and the contents of his book on the events just recounted: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger (191). These words close Achebe's work, and they bespeak a sharp awareness of the intertextual inevitability of historical recuperation in Africa; but Achebe's concern is scarcely the undoing of a modernist withdrawal into textual (self-)referentiality to escape the “nightmare of history.” Rather, it is the colonialist construction of the African past, of African history and identity, by means of colonialist textualizations (see, e. g., Morning). Things Fall Apart is Achebe's counter textualization, his undoing of an imperialist discourse that, as Helen Tiffin has underscored, was more than textual, enabling “conquest and colonization and the capture and/or vilification of alterity” (“Post-colonial Literatures” 22). The title Achebe gives the District Commissioner's volume (which another British builder of empire “reads” in the author's next novel, Arrow of God) echoes the title of countless volumes written by European settlers and civil servants “out of Africa”; and the portrait of African (Igbo) life he builds—the language, the customs, the worldview—is a direct rejoinder to novels such as Joyce Cary's Mister Johnson (Aizenberg, “Third World” 88–89).

What Achebe does not make as explicit in his early fiction—it is more obvious in his recent Anthills of the Savannah—is the constructedness, the metahistoricity, of his version of the past. García Márquez and Ouologuem, however, indicate openly that their novels are both “referential” inscriptions and “imaginative” re-creations of history (Hutcheon, Poetics 144). (García Márquez also acknowledges such meta-history in his 1989 novel, El general en su laberinto [The General in His Labyrinth], a journey through Bolívar's final days.) They do so to clarify the ideological biases and economic-political networks that determine historical versions; to deflate these versions and produce more revealing, though more painful, interpretations; and to recognize that, ultimately, all histories—theirs included—are interpretative constructions, fictions that refer to themselves and to other fictions. These objectives lead them not to a valueless relativism—their books definitely have a point of view—but to a greater understanding of just what is at stake in constructing history and in making use of these constructions in the world. Thus each novel puts contestatory fabulatory strategies at the heart of its project, displaying in its narrative economy a violent subversiveness that parallels its content.


The charge of plagiarism leveled at Ouologuem by a number of critics signals the centrality of (inter)textuality in Bound to Violence; García Márquez has not been accused of stealing for One Hundred Years of Solitude, but he indicates that in his book, too, text leads to text, text violates text.

Eric Sellin, Aliko Songolo, Seth Wolitz, Christopher Miller, and Bernard Mouralis, among others, have studied Ouologuem's ravishment of various works: André Schwarz-Bart's Dernier des justes (The Last of the Just), Graham Greene's It's a Battlefield, Guy de Maupassant's “Boule de suif”; ethnographic literature, most prominently Frobenius; African fiction; the Bible and the Koran; the African oral tradition; and Arabic-language chronicles, particularly the Tarîkh el-Fettâch and the Tarîkh es-Soudan. Ouologuem himself expands the list; in the “Lettre aux pisse-copies, Nègres d'écrivains célèbres” (“Letter to the Copy-Pissers, Negroes [ghostwriters] of Famous Writers”), he submits best-sellers by Ian Fleming and a half-dozen popular novelists as “model” texts. The author provides algebraic charts outlining variant combinatoria of humor, description, suspense, violence, and eroticism, along with sample paragraphs of each, to assist in the creative process; he thereby ensures the budding copy-pisser endless potential readings and references—as in nothing less than the Thousand and One Nights (Lettre 167–78).

Sellin, in his article “Ouologuem's Blueprint for Le Devoir de violence,” accuses the author of bad faith, noting that the missive to the copy-pissers “now emerges not as the satire it appears to be but rather as an all-too-real modus operandi” (120). But that is exactly the point, and other critics, working with the concept of intertextuality, have come to evaluate Ouologuem's mode of operation less as perfidy than as necessity—the necessity of undermining accepted discourses about Africa (Mouralis; Miller, Blank Darkness,Trait”). The novel's aggressive inter-cutting of bits and pieces from diverse “sources” is a way of disputing and repositioning these archetypes. Laurent Jenny's comment about the intertextual word is pertinent: “L'allusion suffit à introduire dans le texte centreur un sens, une représentation, une histoire, un ensemble idéologique sans qu'on ait besoin de les parler. Le texte-origine est là, virtuellement présent, porteur de tout son sens sans qu'on ait besoin de l'énoncer” ‘The allusion is enough to introduce into the centering text a meaning, a representation, a story, an ideological complex without any need for spelling them out. The originary text is there, present for all intents and purposes, carrying the entire weight of its meaning, without any need for direct mention’ (266; my trans.).

In Bound to Violence, the opening passage immediately sets the intertextual stage by mimicking oral discourse held as the archetype of African literature: “Nos yeux boivent l'éclat du soleil, et vaincus, s'étonnent de pleurer. Maschallah! oua bismillah! … Un récit de l'aventure sanglante de la négraille—honte aux hommes de rien!” ‘Our eyes drink the brightness of the sun and, overcome, marvel at their tears. Mashallah! wa bismillah! … To recount the bloody adventure of the niggertrash—shame to the worthless paupers!’ (9; 3). The intent of the formulaic rhetoric of orature, and of the Arabic-Islamic discourse characteristic of the chronicles, is, however, inverted by Ouologuem's repositioning: the ironic tone and the startling content (the suffering of the people, not the saga of glorious dynasties or conquests) set into motion a chain of allusive subversions whereby the highly coded forms, their ideological underpinnings, and their historical versions are demolished.

The same inversion occurs with Western texts, ancient and modern. Ouologuem takes on the Bible as well as the discourse of colonialism, a discourse often justified by recourse to Holy Writ: “Saif dit: ‘Que les missionnaires soulagent la misère des humbles … que la loi française donne au pays des fruits contenant leur semence d'ordre et de calme'—et il en fut ainsi” ‘Saif said: “May the missionaries appease the misery of the humble … may French law give to the country the seeds of order and peace”—and so it came to pass’ (81; 66). European authors fare no better: Greene's mild eroticism becomes a commentary on the sexual exploitation of African women; Maupassant's descriptions of European killing European turn into a critique of colonialism replaced on African soil (Ouologuem 69, 55; 144, 124).9 Schwarz-Bart's The Last of the Just, which has been called the blueprint (Sellin) or matrix text (Mouralis) for Bound to Violence, is the European work with which Ouologuem dialogues least violently, perhaps because it tells of a centuries-old violence, by Christian Europe against the Jewish people, that culminated in the gas chambers; there are multiple parallelisms between Jews and Africans in Bound to Violence.

One Hundred Years of Solitude also “steals” and repositions (master) texts of the West as well as colonialist discourse. The Bible, from Genesis to the Apocalypse, is an insistent blueprint, and its diction is continually mimicked: “la noche en que acamparon junto al río … José Arcadio Buendía soñó … que en aquel lugar se levantaba una ciudad. … Preguntó qué ciudad era aquella, y le contestaron …” ‘the night on which they camped beside the river … José Arcadio Buendía dreamed … that right there a … city … rose up. He asked what city it was and they answered …’ (28; 31–32). But the biblical tradition that was an essential instrument of conquest is disrupted: despite the diction, God is absent; Adam (José Arcadio Buendía) begins with banishment from the Garden; the new land is unpromised and violent; the voice of prophecy (Melquíades) speaks and writes not of a divinely ordained future but of a predestined destruction; there is no salvation—although the Spaniards, speaking the Word from the very beginning, had insisted that there was (see Harrison).

The chronicles of the Indies, which, starting with Columbus's diary, were the archetypes of colonialist discourse on the Americas, are likewise alluded to, in Jenny's sense, and given new functions. In his Nobel address, García Márquez refers to these writings—with their tales of monstrous animals, disturbing mirrors, the illusory and sought-for land of El Dorado, and alluvial soils brimming with endless gold—as the germs of contemporary Latin American novels. The rhetoric of the chronicles and of analogous “marvelous” readings of Latin America is so pervasive in One Hundred Years of Solitude that it has come to be considered the novel's defining narrative trait, often under the not unproblematic rubric of “magical realism.” Yet, in the same address, after characterizing the chronicle readings of the New World as “demencia,” García Márquez insists that the continent has no desire to be a mere shadow of a dream: “La interpretación de nuestra realidad con esquemas ajenos sólo contribuye a hacernos cada vez más desconocidos, … cada vez más solitarios.” “El desafío mayor para nosotros ha sido la insuficiencia de recursos convencionales para hacer creíble nuestra vida” ‘To interpret our history through schemas which are alien to us has the effect of making us even more unknown, … even more solitary.’ ‘The major challenge before us has been the want of conventional resources to make our life credible’ (332–33; 209–10; emphasis added).

The author's comments link up with recent studies that examine magical realism in a postcolonial context. In these works, manipulating the discourse of the marvelous is understood as an act intended to reproduce, puncture, and overcome the unreality imposed by the colonialist enterprise. This enterprise first read the New World through the distorted glass of a European imperialism fed by a medieval worldview, and it went on doing so, even though it was the persistence of the “fabulous” stereotypes and the ongoing madness of a colonialist history that kept Latin America “magical” (see Martin, “‘Magical'”; Palencia-Roth; Bhabha; and Slemon, “Magic Realism”). In the magical-realist text, the magical is not part of a self-assured discourse of domination, as it is in the chronicles. Instead, Slemon writes, magical realism foregrounds the “gaps, absences, and silences produced by the colonial encounter and reflected in the text's disjunctive language of narration” (“Magic Realism” 13). Novels such as One Hundred Years of Solitude remain suspended between the language of the magical and the real, not because Latin America is inherently more magical than, say, Spain but because the text enacts the deliriums of a world marked by colonialism, where alien schemata interpret reality and violent discontinuities mark the configuration of time and space.

The notion of a disjunctive or foreshortened time-space is useful for understanding of García Márquez's transformative handling of other works from the Western narrative tradition: “También el tiempo sufría tropiezos y accidentes y podía por tanto astillarse y dejar en un cuarto una fracción eternizada” ‘[T]ime also stumbled and had accidents and could therefore splinter and leave an eternalized fragment in a room’ (296; 322). This pregnant description characterizes the room holding Melquíades's Sanskrit parchments, which are, at the same time, the narrative of Macondo and the Buendías, set down prophetically by the gypsy seer, and a compendium of ages of Western writing. Within the condensed time-space of (post)colonial culture, represented by the magical writerly locales of the novel—Melquíades's room, the Catalonian's bookshop, Gabriel's hotel room—García Márquez mixes epochs, authors, languages in a provocative intertextual freewheeling that undercuts their solemnity and modifies their constitution not only through specific inversions but through the very juxtaposition.

In One Hundred Years of Solitude, the author uses Sanskrit, the Ursprache of Indo-European civilization and the carrier of a high literature with sacred tales of gods and heroes, to recount the hardly sacral foibles of mere mortals living on the outer reaches of Western culture, enduring its lowest exploitations. The text is further “degraded” as a “translation” into mere Spanish and as a patchwork of other texts (Kristeva's “mosaic of citations”), many of them also translations—Oedipus Rex (power, obstinacy, incest), Nostradamus's Centuries (esotericism, prophecy), Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel (fantasy, hyperbole, laughter), Kafka's Metamorphosis (the naturalization of the bizarre), Faulkner's stories of the South. The importance of translation, itself an indication of the intertextual inevitability and cultural hybridism of Third World novels, underscores the heterogeneity and compression inherent in One Hundred Years of Solitude, like the wise Catalonian's bookstore, “un basurero de libros usados, puestos en desorden” ‘a dump for used books, which were placed in disorder’ (310; 338).

But this compressed intertextual “disorder,” this representational violence, contains the promise of a new pluralistic, nonhierarchical order. The jostling of text with text in One Hundred Years of Solitude intensifies the deconstructive and recombinatory possibilities of the novel. It reinforces the power of allusion to pierce the lofty-tragic diction of Western classics, to satirize the persistence of European “magic” in the New World, or to metamorphose ribald and fantastical critiques of European society into a critique of colonialism. The same is true of Ouologuem's maneuvers, where the subverting resonances of translation and intermingling are even more potent, because in Africa “other tongue” and “mother tongue” are at odds: Ouologuem, unlike García Márquez (and most Latin Americans), handles a language that is not his first (Zabus 1). For a “mere” African, the use of French, the minority “langue de culture” imposed on the colonies, to question and jumble the texts of that culture becomes an especially powerful tactic of textual deflation.10 By eroding the hegemonizing potential of consecrated discourses while reinscribing their liberating possibilities through novel, oppositional rubbings together, each author helps construct a truly open dialogue, the real aspiration of a “global” world.


Throughout my discussion, I have referred to deflation through exaggeration, the use of ironic tone, the undercutting of solemnity, and merciless parody as characteristics of García Márquez's and Ouologuem's intertextual violence. Parody, a major form of twentieth-century “inter-art discourse,” is closely aligned with historical consciousness, as artists seek to relate the past to the present in periods of ideological instability (Hutcheon, Parody 2, 101, 82). From a Western perspective, such instabilities include the questioning of the subject, with the concomitant unprivileging of the author and of the text-as-origin, and, in more recent, postmodern times, the revision of modernism's formalist isolation from history. Through parody, received, “used-up” modes, in John Barth's phrase, are shaken and renewed. Their “worldly” dimension is likewise put in doubt, since parody's repetition with a difference, its ironic recoding, is invoked more often than not at the expense of the original text's ideology (Barth, “Literature of Exhaustion” 64; Aizenberg 10, 204; Hutcheon, Parody 4–5, 110, 101–03).

Barth, Gérard Genette, and Hutcheon all cite Jorge Luis Borges as an expert at the palimpsestic text, an author whose inescapable parody of canonic works and forms became an essential model for the renewal of contemporary letters. Not often noted, but relevant to García Márquez and Ouologuem, is that Borges comes from a far-off, southern republic marked by a colonialist history. (For Euro-North American critics, Borges has largely been osmosed into the metropolis, aided by his cultivated “British” persona and political conservatism.) The parodic miniaturization of venerable works of art—the Divine Comedy in “The Aleph,” Don Quixote in “Pierre Menard,” Utopia in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”—became a favorite ploy because it allowed Borges, an intellectual keenly aware of Argentina's outsider status and ambiguous position, to come to terms with the West's history and literary tradition. To see this process at work, one need only read Borges's essay “El escritor argentino y la tradición” (“The Argentine Writer and Tradition”), which advocates the right of Argentine intellectuals, like other colonized or subordinated groups (the Irish, the Jews), to treat the canon “sin supersticiones, con una irreverencia que puede tener, y ya tiene, consecuencias afortunadas”'without superstition, with an irreverence which can have, and already has, fortunate consequences’ (Obras 273; Labyrinths 184).11

For Borges, as for García Márquez (one of his Boom ephebes) and for Ouologuem, irreverent parody cannot be separated from a Third World condition; and that condition, more than Western preoccupations, determines the felicitous lack of superstition in their subversively original works. The individual subject of Enlightenment philosophy is not a burden in much of the world; history, as I have noted, need not be rediscovered. What is needed—and here parody acts as both symptom and cure—is an irreverently violent textual linking of a colonialist past and a post-colonial present. Out of this Third World need, with its hybridizing and indigenizing strategies, comes a vital contribution of the parodic ethos to literary history: a recharging of form that to a great extent explains the status of Borges, García Márquez, and other Latin American and Third World writers as path breakers in twentieth-century literature. One must not forget, however, the hurtful world-historical context of that innovativeness.


As I have said, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Bound to Violence refer not only to other fictions but also to themselves; inter- and intra-art discourse are intimately linked. Both novels close with the text becoming “un espejo hablado” ‘a speaking mirror,’ in García Márquez's well-known formulation (350; 383). When Aureliano Babilonia finally deciphers Melquíades's parchments, we discover that the manuscript written by the gypsy sage is the novel we have been reading; the history of Macondo, “la ciudad de los espejos (o los espejismos)” ‘the city of mirrors (or mirages),’ is the book, and when the book ends, so does the city. Ouologuem similarly reflects the narrative back on itself in his concluding pages, making explicit its status as a tissue of images and words. The last part of the novel describes not new “action” but a film, Zamba, that tells the history of the Empire of Nakem—the story we have been reading. The self-referential mise en abîme is reinforced by a chess game that immediately follows. The last Saif and the last colonial bishop “play out” the violent history of the empire on the board, their play mirrored by a verbal duel that recalls the figures, events, and linguistic techniques of the novel. As dawn arrives, the book comes to a finish, and Saif, the bishop, Nakem, and all its memories dissolve into air, water, and fire, the basic elements—in much the same way that Macondo is swept away by a biblical hurricane; biblos originally meant papyrus, of course, and biblion, book.

But the self-reflexive “game” (the last word of Bound to Violence) sums up the ultimate intention of these books' textual strategies, from the breakup of linearity, to the intertextuality, to the problematizing of narration, to the autorepresentation. What the mirror reveals is history, and if it reveals history to be constructed, it is for the sake of constructing the still-to-come history of Africa and Latin America (see Sommer and Yúdice 206). The mirror held to the book shows the fabrications that led to the violence and the uncohered identity, an identity that these novels struggle to explore, “make credible,” and reconform. Because if the not credible includes ersatz identities such as native-hating Europeans, paradisiacal pre-Europeans, “dirty wogs,” pure-blooded elitist minorities, or wise feudal lords, the credible becomes everything that stands in opposition; that accepts impure and lowly origins, hybridity, the composite; that favors open process over exclusionary stasis. Out of these materials the future identities and histories of the Third World, indeed of the whole world, are to be fashioned. But we must first accept books like One Hundred Years of Solitude and Bound to Violence on their own terms, as mirrors of the solitude of postcolonial societies, whose history is as yet interpreted through alien schemata.12


  1. The antihistorical bias of literary criticism as a response to “positivistic ‘factualism’ and historicist overschematization” is studied by Graff in Literature 124–25 and, more extensively, in Professing Literature. On the engagement of the text with the world, see Said; on new historicism, see Veeser.

  2. For a discussion of the problem from a Latin American perspective, see Rincón 77–81; Yúdice 117–18; Ortega 407–09; and Franco, “Nation” 210–11. Franco cites McHale's use of Latin American works as a recuperation that deprives texts of their “own historical relations” (210); Ortega concentrates on the analogous strategy in Barth's “Literature of Replenishment.” See also Slemon, “Modernism's Last Post.”

  3. In preparing this essay, I have consulted several texts in addition to the critical material specifically cited: on García Márquez and One Hundred Years of Solitude, works by Bell-Villada, González, Jansen, Martinez, McGuirk and Cardwell, McMurray, Montañer, and Morello-Frosch; on Ouologuem and Bound to Violence, works by Barkan, Fatunde, and Wright.

  4. Jameson's “Third-World Literature” and the controversy it ignited illustrate the difficulties of writing about the “edges” from the Western academy. For a critique of Jameson, see Ahmad; Franco, “Nation,” esp. 204–08. Studies of Canadian and Australian literatures stress the need to nuance the understanding of the “West” in the context of histories of imperialization. These histories, Slemon writes, are marked by a “tradition of refusal toward the conceptual and cultural apparatuses of the European imperium,” although neither country is part of the Third World (“Modernism's Last Post” 6). Hutcheon, in “‘Circling,’” likewise considers the Canadian example. She notes, “History cannot be conveniently ignored” (153).

  5. Analyses of the Boom and its relation to the post-Boom can be found in Sommer and Yúdice, esp. 191, 201, 204–06; Martin, Journeys 197–235, 311–67; Sommer 71–75; Larsen, “Juan Rulfo”; Beverly; and Franco, “Crisis.” Critiques of the Boom focus on its extreme faith that a revolution in language is, ipso facto, a revolution in society and on the gaps in its societal-historical concerns. Franco argues that although Boom writers applied the assumptions of literary modernism to the Latin American circumstance, the very reproduction of these assumptions undermined the writers' project.

  6. Parenthetical citations for translations give the page number from the original-language text first, followed by the page number from the English translation.

  7. Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin consider at length the feeling of alienation in English-speaking settler colonies and its expression in literature. These colonies could have “the temporary illusion of a filiative relationship with the dominating culture.” a “privilege” unavailable to colonies of intervention in Africa, for example (26). But what they had was indeed an illusion, particularly in the realm of history. The dissimilarities in colonializations notwithstanding, received European history is “run aground,” as in African and other postcolonial writing (34; see also 133–45).

  8. Cham discusses the conservatism of the oral tradition. On the griot as a form of cultural literacy linked to those in power, see Hale 163. Rogmann studies the ideological underpinnings of Senghorian negritude. For Frobenius's thinking and its connections to Senghor, see Jahn. Irele provides a concise review of critiques of the movement (83–86).

  9. Wolitz analyzes the Greene passage; Miller, in “Trait d'Union” and Blank Darkness, the Maupassant.

  10. Zabus adopts Calvet's term glattophagia to describe French linguistic imperialism in Africa (17). She notes, “More so than English, French emerged as the most eloquent instrument of cultural domination and eradication” (20).

  11. Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin examine the rewriting of canonical stories as a significant technique of postcolonial texts (97–104).

  12. This study was written under a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for College Teachers. I thank the endowment for its support.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Anthills of the Savannah, 1987. New York: Anchor-Doubleday, 1988.

———. Arrow of God. New York: Anchor-Doubleday, 1969.

———. Morning Yet on Creation Day: Essays. Garden City: Anchor-Doubleday, 1975.

———. Things Fall Apart. 1959. New York: Fawcett-Ballantine, 1983.

Ahmad, Aijaz. “Jameson's Rhetoric of Otherness and the ‘National Allegory.’” Social Text 17 (1987): 3–25.

Aizenberg, Edna, ed. Borges and His Successors: The Borgesian Impact on Literature and the Arts. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1990.

———. “The Third World Novel as Counterhistory: Things Fall Apart and Asturias's Men of Maize.Approaches to Teaching Achebe's Things Fall Apart. Ed. Bernth Lindfors. New York: MLA, 1991. 85–90.

Armstrong, Nancy, and Leonard Tennenhouse, eds. The Violence of Representation: Literature and the History of Violence. London: Routledge, 1989.

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-colonial Literatures. London: Routledge, 1989.

Balderston, Daniel, ed. The Historical Novel in Latin America. Gaithersburg: Hispamérica, 1986.

Barkan, Sandra. “Le Devoir de violence: A Non-history.” Interdisciplinary Dimensions of African Literature. Ed. Kofi Anyidoho et al. Washington: Three Continents, 1985.

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Donald R. Wehrs (essay date December 1992)

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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 perspectives, and that recognize through democratic or deliberative political institutions a plurality of voices and interests.1 In this way, anti-colonial fiction may suggest a deep conceptual and moral affinity between the polyvocality affirmed by many African societies and the polyvocality that Mikhail Bakhtin sees as constitutive of dialogic, novelistic discourse.2 By contrast, Cheikh Hamidou Kane's L'aventure ambiguë (1961) and Yambo Ouologuem's Le Devoir de violence (1968) present African cultures shaped in their fundamental metaphysical and political premises by the single-voicedness of the Quran and by the Islamic doctrine of unity as it applies to God, truth, and community. The dialogical imagination may be intolerant only of monological thought, but when such thought lies at the heart of a culture, insistence upon the “dialogical” itself might become a form of imperialism. To the extent that the novel, as a genre, is characterized by a Bakhtinian resistance to monologue through dialogical language and the articulation of a plurality of heterogeneous voices, it might risk complicity with colonialism. Both Kane and Ouologuem make their novels' very existence as novels part of their interrogation of the “ambiguous adventure” of Islamic Africa's encounter with the West.

Kane describes the spiritual struggle of a young African nobleman, Samba Diallo, torn between the influence of his Islamic spiritual master and the influence of Western secularism; Samba's internal turmoil revolves around his relationship with a succession of voices: the voices of his Islamic master, his pious and conservative father, his pragmatic and accommodationist aunt, his European teachers and Parisian friends. But from the first page of the novel, the solicitation of these human voices to “dialogue” is contrasted with the demand of the voice of God not for a response, but for recitation. The novel's first three sentences drive home the point: “Ce jour-là, Thierno [the Islamic master] l'avait encore battu. Cependant, Samba Diallo savait son verset. Simplement sa langue lui avait fourché” (13). The master grabs him by the earlobe and pierces the cartilage with his fingernails while forcing the boy to merge his voice with God's; the boy reflects:

Cette parole n'était pas comme les autres. C'était une parole que jalonnait la souffrance, c'etait une parole venue de Dieu, elle était un miracle, elle était telle que Dieu lui-même l'avait prononcée. Le maître avait raison. La parole qui vient de Dieu doit être dite exactement, telle qu'il Lui avait plu de la façonner. Qui l'oblitère mérite la mort. … Sa voix était calme et son débit mesuré. La Parole de Dieu coulait, pure et limpide, de ses lèvres ardentes. … Cette parole qu'il enfantait dans la douleur, elle était l'architecture du monde, elle était le monde même.


Kane emphasizes that “knowing” the Word (savoir) is insufficient, because that implies being a subject apprehending an object, and hence being in a position to measure and otherwise evaluate the object from some “outside,” neutral position. Recitation lies at the heart of the master's teaching because it elides the distance (existential and critical) indicated by “savoir”: one cannot stand outside the Word because it constitutes “the architecture of the world,” “the world itself.”3 Recitation functions both as the ritualistic acknowledgment of absolute metaphysical claims and as the ritualistic acculturation of mind and body to participation in a “reality” constituted by those claims.4

Within this context, the “ambiguous” becomes identified with all that holds Samba back from merging into God's monologue: the material world, earthly desires, other voices—especially feminine and Westernized ones. Just as Samba must conquer his pain to recite well, so the faithful must turn away from a polyvocality associated with the material, the natural, the feminine, and the Western. Through technological superiority, the West has conquered Samba's homeland; through its capacity to satisfy material needs, the West threatens to exile Samba and his countrymen from dwelling within the “architecture” constituted by the Word. Kane notes, “L'école nouvelle participait de la nature du canon et de l'aimant à la fois. Du canon, elle tient son efficacité d'arme combattante. Mieux que le canon, elle pérennise la conquête. Le canon contraint les corps, l'école fascine les âmes” (60). The sexualizing and feminizing of the threat is important: elle tient son efficacité d'arme combattante; elle pérennise la conquête; elle fascine les âmes. The strongest advocate for Western education among the African elite is Samba's formidable aunt, La Grande Royale, who in bearing and actions little resembles a traditional Islamic woman: “L'Islam refrénait la redoutable turbulence de ces traits, de la même façon que la violette les enserrait” (31). Feared and respected, she “tranchait par voie d'autorité” (31): in her youth, she pacified the haughty Northern tribes “par sa fermeté” (32). Her face resembles “une page vivante de l'histoire du pays des Diallobé” (31), suggesting an intense connection with her people's pre-Islamic, epic-heroic past. However, she uses her “masculine” forcefulness to argue for Western education because she believes it will serve her people in those areas of life that Islam traditionally associates with women: the material, the natural, the finite, the maternal.5 Acting as a surrogate mother to both Samba and her people, she tells the Islamic master, “Cet enfant parle de la mort en termes qui ne sont pas de son âge. Je venais vous demander, humblement, pour l'amour de ce disciple que vous chérissez, de vous souvenir de son âge, dans votre oeuvre d'edification” (35). After the master recalls how her own father died focused exclusively on the Word, she replies, “Je vénère mon père et le souvenir que vous en avez. Mais je crois que le temps est venu d'apprendre à nos fils à vivre. Je pressens qu'ils auront affaire à un monde de vivants où les valeurs de mort seront bafouées et faillies” (38). In a similar manner, at a public assembly she tells the people to send their children to the French school: “L'école où je pousse nos enfants tuera en eux ce qu'aujourd'hui nous aimons et conservons avec soin, à juste titre” (57). La Grande Royale justifies such “killing” through an analogy with agriculture, thereby identifying her maternal solicitude with the “fierce” processes by which nature sustains physical life: “Nous aimons bien nos champs, mais que faisons-nous alors? Nous y mettons le fer et le feu, nous les tuons. De même, souvenez-vous: que faisons-nous de nos réserves de graines quand il a plu? Nous voudrions bien les manger, mais nous les enfouissons en terre” (57). La Grande Royale's use of the agricultural analogy is the exact opposite of how it is used by Christ in John 12:24: “[E]xcept a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” In Christianity, as in Islam, the spirit has ontological priority over the flesh, but La Grande Royale proposes sacrificing the cultural traditions within which the soul dwells so that the body may live.

The question becomes one of what true life is. The Islamic master explains his refusal to moderate his treatment of Samba in the following terms:

Vous voyez que je blesse la vie dans votre jeune cousin, et vous vous dressez en face de moi. La tâche, cependant, ne m'est pas agréable, ni facile. Je vous prie de ne point me tenter, et de laisser à ma main sa fermeté. Après cette blessure profonde, pratiquée d'une main paternelle, je vous promets que plus jamais cet enfant ne se blessera. Vous verrez de quelle stature, lui aussi, dominera la vie et la mort.


Whereas La Grande Royale urges an accommodation with the forces of life (indeed, she urges that human culture take nature as its model), the Islamic master argues that only an education in submission, in Islam, can grant one the spiritual resources to dominate “la vie et la mort.” For the Islamic master, as for Samba's father and the other pious men of the novel, true freedom is found not in the technological manipulation of nature to satisfy material needs, but in the domination of nature through an education in submitting the body to the uncompromising demands of the spirit. What one is freed from, in this view, is the polyvocality of nature and the material, a polyvocality that draws one away from the one voice that matters absolutely. Samba's father reflects:

L'homme civilisé, n'est-ce pas l'homme disponible? Disponible pour aimer son semblable, pour aimer Dieu surtout. Mais, lui objectera une voix en lui-même, l'homme est entouré de problèmes qui empêchent cette quiétude. Il naît dans une forêt de questions. La matière dont il participe par son corps—que tu hais—le harcèle d'une cacophonie de demandes auxquelles il faut qu'il réponde: ‘Je dois manger, fais-moi manger?’, ordonne l'estomac. ‘Nous reposerons-nous enfin? Reposonsnous, veux-tu?’ lui susurrent les membres. … Les voix les plus criardes tentent de couvrir les autres. Cela est-il bon? La civilisation est une architecture de réponses. Sa perfection, comme celle de toute demeure, se mesure au confort que l'homme y éprouve, à l'appoint de liberté qu'elle lui procure.


This quest for domination and regulation of the natural ought not be confused with either Christian renunciation of the flesh or Hindu and Buddhist detachment from the material. Whereas the Christian would die to the flesh to be reborn in spirit and the Hindu and Buddhist would transcend the material through apprehending it as illusory, the Muslim would regard the material as good in itself but in need of “domination” by the spirit lest it engender rebellion, chaos, disorder: fitna.6 Mohamed Ahmed Sherif notes that Ghazali (1058–1111), probably the most influential theoretician of Islamic ethics, argued that

[t]raining the faculties of the soul does not entail uprooting or completely suppressing the faculties of the animal soul, which can only occur after death. It does, however, imply their subordination to the practical reasoning faculty so that the soul is directed towards the right goal, which is happiness. … [Therefore,] good character is achieved when the deliberative faculty of the human soul subordinates the irascible and concupiscent faculties of the animal soul.

(30, 34–35)

This conceptualizing of the ethical problem as one of the proper regulation of a hierarchy leads to conceiving any “voice,” any locus of value, that challenges or complicates the order of rank as a potential threat to ultimate happiness, as an invitation to fitna, which might imperil salvation. Fatima Mernissi points out that fitna (disorder or chaos) also means “a beautiful woman—the connotation of a femme fatale who makes men lose their self-control” (31). Such a semantic range is explicable when we remember that for Ghazali,

the highest form of restraint … ['iffah, the Arabic translation of the Aristotelian sōphrosunē (moderation, temperance)] is to refrain from anything in this world which does not directly aim at ultimate happiness. This ascent of temperance from simple restraint of desire to the exclusion of everything which is not necessary for the ultimate end of spiritual salvation shows how Ghazali broadens the meaning of temperance, not only to include Islamic religious restraint, but also a high ideal of religious asceticism.

(Sherif 64–65)

By locating the struggle for Samba's soul in the conflict between the claims of a polyvocal, heterogeneous, ambiguous, and feminine nature on the one hand and the claims of an univocal, categorical, hierarchical, and masculine cultural architecture on the other hand, Kane gives novelistic articulation to themes and traditions deeply embedded in Islamic philosophy and practice, themes and traditions not just antithetical to Western modernity but also to West African polytheism. C. L. Innes has recently observed that

[t]he Igbo community presented to us in Things Fall Apart is one which has established a balance, though sometimes an uneasy one, between the values clustered around individual achievement and those associated with community, or between materialism and spirituality. Those groups of values tend to be identified as masculine and feminine respectively and are epitomized in the two proverbs, ‘Yam is King,’ and ‘Mother is supreme,’ which dominate the first and second parts of the novel.


Similarly, Kwame Gyekye and Robert Pelton have recently explored how the philosophy and mythology of the Akan-Ashanti people of Ghana balances the claims of above and below, the sky and the earth, the masculine and feminine in ways that suggest that the life of the society depends upon a plurality of divine voices, a range of diverse values, being taken into account.7

With Islam, it is otherwise. The Quran serves as the source for a “cultural architecture” that recognizes the polyvocal, the ambiguous, the interplay of heterogeneities upon which natural life depends,8 but views all that as something to be “dominated” through an education in submitting one's “natural” multi-voicedness to the cadences of God's voice. As Clifford Geertz notes, “The Quran … differs from the other major scriptures of the world in that it contains not reports about God by a prophet or his disciples, but His direct speech, the syllables, words, and sentences of Allah” (1983 110). The single-voicedness and unidirectionality of the Quran's discourse makes the articulated will of God the foundation of the community of the faithful and precludes any space for a “reality” apart from that articulation: “And Allah has made for you, of what He has created, shelters, and He has given you in the mountains, places of retreat, and He has given you garments to save you from the heat, and coats of mail to save you in your fighting. Thus does He complete His favour to you that you may submit” (Sura 16:81). The concept of reality this implies is fundamentally alien to the modern Western notion of a “neutral space” about which different individuals can have different “perspectives” and upon which we may “project” our “interpretations.”9 Within the conceptual architecture of Islam, the “real” (haqq) is inherently partisan and clarity of understanding requires an elision of distance by merging one's own nature and history into that partisan “reality.”10

The community that brings one into participation with the right and the real is, first of all, a community of males. There have been numerous recent studies of the image of women in Islam.11 Their basic direction may be summarized by M. E. Combs-Schilling: despite countercurrents, sometimes quite powerful ones, in the Prophet's life and in the Quran,

Islam's dominant sexual culture allocates to women the position of being that part of humanity that is closest to nature and hence least able to transcend its natural drives, including sexual impulses, and therefore least able to connect with the divine who exists beyond the natural realm. Consequently, females are understood to be in need of male supervision, because men—in the culture's imagination—are defined as able to keep their natural inclinations in control.


Indeed, Ghazali divides “practical science” into three parts: “man's relations with other men” (political science); “the governance of the household, … the manner of living with one's wife, children, and servants”; and ethics proper (ilm al-akhlāq), which he defines as dealing “with the way man ought to act to be good and virtuous in his character and qualities” (Sherif 4).12 Being closer to nature, women are drawn to caring for the body, attending to its plurality of voices. At the center of Islam lies the myth of Ibrahim's sacrifice of his son—the community of faith is created at the moment when the voice of nature is stilled:

Because Ibrahim is willing to slay the child at divine command, God provides a substitute—a ram—and restores the child to the father, for long life on earth and eternal life thereafter. What is more, by withstanding the trial, Ibrahim creates for all of humanity a means of divine connection. … The culture constructs a sacrificial intercourse and birth that overcomes the limitations of male-female intercourse and female birth and makes it an all-male event—even in terms of the animal substitute. The ram is not simply male; he is quintessentially male.

(Combs-Schilling 236; 239)

This spiritual birth requires the marginalization of women because feminine responsiveness to natural ties prevents their acceptance of the ontological hierarchy implied in the sacrifice.

Clearly, the struggle between the Islamic master and La Grande Royale over Samba's education echoes the cultural patterns of understanding articulated by the Ibrahim myth. Indeed, Samba's story may be seen as a reversal, or undoing, of the Ibrahim myth; instead of being excluded from the scene, as is Hajar, La Grande Royale is consulted and her valorization of individual physical life prevails over masculine appeals to spiritual values: Samba is sent first to the local French school and then to Paris. La Grande Royale “wins” because her brother, the chief of the Diallobé, fears that his people will perish unless the elite, through Western education, learns “la connaissance des arts et l'usage des armes, la possession de la richesse et la santé du corps …” (44–45). Like Ibrahim, the chief is faced with the prospect of the extinction of his line; unlike Ibrahim, he yields to “temptation” because he accepts La Grande Royale's claim that European colonialism has demonstrated the separation of the real from the right. She argues, “[I]l faut aller apprendre chez eux l'art de vaincre sans avoir raison” (47). To accept the necessity of Western education is to reject the conception of “reality” demarcated by the word haqq: once that is rejected, the goal of education shifts from entrance into a community formed by recitation to the achievement of a critical distance that allows one to adjudicate between a heterogeneous array of competing voices, each with its “just” claim.

The education that Samba leaves behind has as its base the ideal of integration into the community of the faithful, the umma, through the inculcation of adab—a term that carries a breadth of implication similar to the Greek paideia and the Latin morales.13 Ira M. Lapidus defines it as “correct knowledge and behavior in the total process by which a person is educated, guided, and formed into a good Muslim …” (39). Adab involved an internalization of stylized self-discipline, as in Samba's chanting the Quranic verse well even as his master's fingernails bite through his earlobe.14 This training is coupled with and guided by knowledge, understood in the complex sense covered by the Arabic word ilm. Lapidus notes that ilm refers to “the material of any literate education, but, particularly, it denotes the religious knowledge imparted by the Qur'an, hadīth [traditions and legends about the Prophet and his first followers], and shari'a [the religious law]. Beyond specific religious subjects, ilm encompasses the knowledge of all essential matters revealed by God, and belief in the truth of that knowledge. Ilm, then, is not just intellectual knowing, but knowing charged with feeling. Ilm is insight—an experience of the reality of what is known …” (39). The concept of ilm involves “practical wisdom” in the Aristotelian sense of phronēsis, a form of knowing that implies a form of being, adab and paideia, 'iffah and sōphrosunē: but it also involves the range of meaning covered by the Greek doxa, the received consensus of the community.15 However, unlike that of Aristotle, the Islamic conception of practical wisdom shaped by communal consensus and traditions is co-extensive with metaphysics and relevation: Oliver Leaman points out that when

Aristotle famously expresses doubts concerning the possibility of determinate answers to normative questions (NE 1.3, 1094b 12–18), Averroes [Ibn Rushd] dissipates the Aristotelian vagueness and argues that the answers to ethical questions are to be found in a radically different kind of book, in a study of metaphysics, which could determinately relate the study of the nature of the most desirable end for human beings to the nature of those human beings and their position in the structure of things in the universe.


By contrast, as Martha Nussbaum has forcefully demonstrated, Aristotle emphasizes the improvisational, “rough-and-ready” quality of practical wisdom; standing within the culture that produced Greek tragedy from polytheistic traditions, Aristotle regards responsiveness to the “just” claims of competing values, of heterogeneous voices, as a central good.16 It is notable in this vein that, as Alasdair MacIntyre has pointed out, “sōphrosunē is for the Greeks the womanly virtue …” (1984 136). While there is no lack of intellectual diversity within the Islamic tradition, dialogue is joined within the horizon, inside the community, demarcated by haqq and ilm.17

When Samba's education shifts to the study of French literature and philosophy, he is exiled from dwelling within the conceptual-existential universe described by haqq, ilm, and adab. Abiola Irele characterizes Samba's spiritual anguish as a “failure to achieve a reconciliation between [Western] intellectual disengagement and his continued emotional attachment to his antecedents. … Against the African conception of a personalized universe with which man establishes a familiar and warm relationship, Samba Diallo meets the European conception in which the universe is an objective, impersonal factor, removed from consciousness by the very opacity of its material structure, and without any meaning for man except as a means to the expression of his conquering spirit” (171).18 While this reading is accurate, it could serve equally well to describe the experience of an African from a polytheistic culture. Kane's novel emphasizes, however, that the world into which Samba moves is alien precisely because it is “polyvocal.” He renounces the adventure of ambiguity by refusing to identify the polyvocal with the real and by rejecting the ethical and ontological claim of the feminine. Early in his studies in Paris, Samba argues that until Descartes, Western and non-Western thought shared a common purpose: “Au fond, le projet de Socrate ne me paraît pas différent de celui de saint Augustin, bien qu'il y ait eu le Christ entre eux. … C'est encore le projet de toute pensée non occidentale. … Descartes est plus parcimonieux dans sa quête; si, grâce à cette modestie et aussi à sa méthode, il obtient plus de réponses, ce qu'il apporte nous concerne moins aussi, et nous est de peu de secours” (126). With Descartes, the quest for technological mastery becomes a substitute for relating human existence to an order that renders it significant. Samba's analysis is supported by Hans Blumenberg's argument that, in the ancient and medieval worlds, theory functions as a form of contemplation that reassures man of his teleologically-ordained place and philosophy functions, especially in Stoicism and Skepticism, as a means of curing human reason of its tendency to trouble the soul with fruitless speculations; the modern conception of theory as activity, as the means of controlling and shaping nature, began to emerge when Nominalism eroded confidence that the world and human nature were made to “fit” each other “naturally.” In the absence of that fit, man must depend upon his own investigating skill, his “method,” to find the order in nature and to bring nature into human service.19 Similarly, Charles Taylor argues that in making reason into a method for the technological mastery of nature, Descartes “abandoned any theory of ontic logos. The universe was to be understood mechanistically. … Plato's theory of ideas involved a very close relation between scientific explanation and moral vision. … If we destroy this vision of the ontic logos and substitute a very different theory of scientific explanation, the entire account of moral virtue and self-mastery has to be transformed as well” (144). Clearly, the Islamic concepts of haqq and ilm rest upon holding together what Western thought since Descartes has divided; the understanding of ethical life as “our connecting up to the larger order in which we are placed” (Taylor 123) is deeply embedded in the Islamic tradition's fusion of Aristotelian virtues and neo-Platonic metaphysics.20 Samba prays to retain an identity defined by connection: “Souviens-Toi, comme tu nourrissais mon existence de la tienne. … Je te sentais la mer profonde d'où s'épandait ma pensée et en même temps qu'elle, tout. Par toi, j'étais le même flot que tout” (139). However, he is confronted with a world where those who deny God grow rich, where the right and the real seem severed, where competing claims clamor for his attention, where the “real” seems reducible to value-neutral fields of quantifiable objects. Walking through Paris, he thinks, “Oui … je suis Malte Laurids Brigge. Comme lui, je descends le boulevard Saint-Michel. Il n'y a rien … que moi … que mon corps, veux-je dire. … Il n'y a rien, que mon gros orteil droit” (141).

Unlike Malte Laurids Brigge, who seeks to overcome disconnection in a secular, disenchanted world by attending to the voices of women, by taking the limitless, unconditional love of the Portuguese nun as his model,21 Samba's dialogues with women lead to temptations he ultimately rejects. When his Marxist friend, Lucienne, urges Samba to renounce traditionalism in favor of Leninism, she describes his country as a nurturing but stifling mother: “[L]e lait que tu as sucé aux mamelles du pays des Diallobé est bien doux et bien noble. … Mais, sache-le aussi, plus la mère est tendre et plus tôt vient le moment de la repousser …” (155–156). Samba responds by treating both maternal, natural ties and Lucienne's advice as equivalent seductions: “Je crois que je préfère Dieu à ma mère” (156). When he encounters Adèle, the daughter of a family of Westernized Africans, who aspires to counteract the effects of having spent her entire life in Europe by taking Samba as her teacher, he rebuffs her, refusing the seduction of being regarded by a pretty young woman as the Romantic, exotic Other. When she declares, “Alors, tu dois m'apprendre à pénétrer dans le coeur du monde,” Samba replies, “Je ne sais pas si on retrouve jamais ce chemin, quand on l'a perdu …” (173–174). Recognizing his rejection of her, she cries, breaks off the discussion, and asks to be taken home. Left alone, having resisted the spiritual dangers posed by Lucienne and Adèle, Samba experiences a vision of the Islamic master calling him home: “Toi, qui ne t'es jamais distrait de la sagesse des ténèbres, qui, seul, détiens la Parole, et as la voix forte suffisamment pour rallier et guider ceux qui se sont perdus, j'implore …” (174). Upon his return from France, Samba is hounded by “le fou,” a pious, deranged follower of the deceased Islamic master, and when he neglects the Fool's call for evening prayers, he is struck down. When Samba either awakens or dies (it is unclear, and in a deeper sense equivalent), his subjectivity is enfolded within the voice of Islam, which announces, “Tu entres où n'est pas l'ambiguïté” (190). As John Erickson notes, “A spirit of darkness and peace addresses him, perhaps Azrael, the Angel of Death, who announces the coming of a new world” (200). In this new world, the natural and the feminine no longer threaten: “Dans la forteresse de l'instant, l'homme, en vérité, est roi, car sa pensée est toutepuissance, quand elle est” (190). In the novel's final sentences, ultimate reality is enfolded into the I-thou cadences of Quranic verse: “Je te regarde, et tu durcis dans l'Etre. Je n'ai pas de limite. Mer, la limpidité de ton flot est attente de mon regard. Je te regarde, et tu reluis, sans limites. Je te veux, pour l'éternité” (191). Kane's novel concludes by turning away from the heterogeneous, polyvalent forms of experience to which novelistic discourse, in Bakhtin's view, is acutely attuned. By completing the spiritual journey initiated by the opening recitation, Samba renounces not just secular materialism and the ethics of ambiguity and irony embedded in the Western novelistic tradition, but also the moral and social vision of African polytheism, as Wole Soyinka's impatience with the Islamic master's position indicates: “When life is apprehended solely through its negation, death, existence becomes defined as a temporal illusion. … In the struggle of the secular need against the claims of mystic decadence the Teacher has the final say, and it is No. The Word emerges triumphant” (84–85).

On one level, Le Devoir de violence may be read as a multi-voiced protest on the part of African polytheism against both Islamic and European forms of colonization. Against the single-voicedness of the authoritative Word, Ouologuem creates a text in which the whole concept of voice as a locus of authority is travestied; in a work in which the lines between allusion, parody, and plagiarism are systematically transgressed, every word is saturated with a polyvalence that replicates linguistically the sado-masochistic textures of the “history” it recounts.22 The novel's opening sentences evoke the possibility of community, violate that expectation with abrupt, contemptuous distance, and then suggest that the narrative can only be faithful to the community's traditions by mirroring the sado-masochistic modes of interaction that give its people a “shared” past: “Nos yeux boivent l'éclat du soleil, et, vaincus, s'étonnent de pleurer. Mashallah! oua bismillah! … Un récit de l'aventure sanglante de la négraille—honte aux hommes de rien!—tiendrait aisément dans la première moitié de ce siècle; mais la véritable histoire des Nègres commence beaucoup, beaucoup plus tôt, avec les Saïfs, en l'an 1202 de notre ère …” (9). Ouologuem's “aventure,” unlike Kane's, involves not the spiritual struggles of a single nobleman, but the fleshly sufferings of the multitudes who are divested not only of status, but also of humanity: “la négraille.” The interplay of multiple perspectives (for example, the contrast between “Nos yeux boivent l'éclat du soleil” and the ejaculation, “honte aux hommes de rien!”) leads to a dispossession of voice that is, in part, a radicalization of Romantic irony. The exclamation, “honte aux hommes de rien!” may (a) express contempt for the négraille's susceptibility to victimization, (b) dramatize the contempt of the Saïfs and notables, (c) show how the négraille's abjectness invites contempt, solicits violence as a “devoir,” (d) attack the Saïfs and notables and the West by articulating and hence mocking their contempt, (e) reveal the contempt a contemporary African must experience as a “devoir” to separate himself from cultural patterns of victimization, (f) disclose (and lament) the internalization and mechanistic repetition of psychic aggression and so underscore, paradoxically, the solidarity of masochism between the implied author and the world his text evokes—for a solidarity of masochism may be the African past's peculiar legacy to its children. Lilian Furst notes that if the distance collapses between an ironic narrator and the objects of irony, “[t]he sense of disorientation generated by Romantic irony is intensified … into an intuition of utter anarchy. And just as the narrative strategies of Romantic irony were a direct reflection of its stance, so here too the derangement is graphically represented in the marked preference for labyrinths, for montage, for circular involutions, for the grotesque, for the ironization of the fictional irony, for parody and self-parody” (303–304). While Le Devoir de violence clearly draws upon the European avant-garde tradition of radicalized, “unstable irony,”23 it also suggests, through its deployment of a plurality of voices and investment of polyvalency within any given “voice,” traditional West African connections between the heterogeneity and multidimensionality of language and a multiplicity of divine and natural forces that shape a complex, polyvocal reality. Henry Louis Gates argues that in associating interpretation with the trickster god Esu, the Yoruba people conceive “[i]ndeterminacy … as an unavoidable aspect of acts of interpretation” (22), for Esu “is figured as paired male and female statues, which his/her devotees carry while dancing, or as one bisexual figure” (29); “Esu's two sides ‘disclose a hidden wholeness’; rather than closing off unity, through opposition, they signify the passage one to the other as sections of a subsumed whole. … Esu is a figure of doubled duality, of unreconciled opposites, living in harmony” (30). In a similar way, Ouologuem's people, the Dogon of southern Mali, associate the fluidity, surprisingness, and wonder of language with a pluralistic, polytheistic cosmos: “The Dogon term for symbol is aduno so, ‘the word of the world’; for myth, it is so tanie, ‘amazing word’; and for the whole mythology that is their sacred history, aduno so tanie. Thus the Dogon know well that the story of their existence embodies that existence. This story manifests the life of the world because, in some deep sense, it is the world itself in human speech” (Pelton 167).

Ouologuem reconstructs African history as a dark inversion of Dogon mythology; moving from the brisk recounting of centuries of violence, slavery, and treachery in the first two chapters, the long third chapter, “La Nuit des Géants,” reveals through the story of two generations of a slave family, the Kassoumis, how the processes of the past replicate themselves in the present, how “the story of their existence”—of their coming to be slaves and négraille—“embodies that existence” as slaves and négraille. The novel's incessant self-display, its indictment of its own language and technique, suggests that, “in some deep sense, it is the world [that it portrays] in human speech.” The opening narrative notes how, “devant la ‘bénédiction’ implacable de Dieu,” the blacks dispersed “enfin le long des savanes limitrophes de l'Afrique équatoriale” and proceeded to decimate each other “en rivalités intestines où la violence le disputait à l'épouvante” (9). In response, the Saïfs, rulers of the fictional Empire of Nakem, make the extension of Islam the cover for wars of conquest whose real object is the harvesting of slaves. From the start, there is complicity in victimization. The Saïfs sustain themselves through their capacity to make war, which is ensured through the wealth generated by slaves, who are readily available because slavery is central to the political economy of the surrounding African states: “Afin d'entretenir—bon roi des rois nègres—ce faste avide de bruit et de terres nouvelles, Saïf intensifia, grâce à la complicité des chefs du Sud, la traite des esclaves, qu'il bénit en sanguinaire doucereux. Le Négre, n'ayant pas d'âme mais seulement des bras—contrairement à Dieu—dans une infernale jubilation du sacerdoce et du négoce, de l'intime et de la publicité, abattu, débité, stocké, marchandé, disputé, adjugé, vendu, fouetté, attaché et livré—avec un mépris attentif, studieux, souffrant—et aux Portugais et aux Espagnols et aux Arabes … et aux Français et aux Hollandais et aux Anglais …, fut jeté aux quatre vents” (17–18). Since the Africans “process” each other into “négraille,” they come to see themselves “avec un mépris attentif”: “Sous le coup de la nécessité, le père vendait son fils, le frère son frère …” (20). By the nineteenth century, “[u]n homme valide, robuste et fort, coûtait un peu plus qu'un chèvre” (25); so dependent is the economy upon slavery, that as abolition gains ground in the West, “la traite orientale” (25) and indigenous markets assume increasing importance.

For all its extravagance and gallows humor, Ouologuem's account rests upon historical fact.24 However, the narrative focuses upon the moral and psychic cost of transforming others and being transformed into “négraille.” The price of power for the Saïfs and their collaborators is limitless treachery; if the capacity to exercise violence becomes the sole security, then aberrant sexuality becomes a source of ritualistic reassurance of one's power to transgress limits with impunity: “Au cours des saturnales, l'inceste est licite et même recommandé, conjugué d'actes tels que sacrifices humains suivis de rapports sexuels incestueux et de coït avec les animaux: comme si, Nègre, on eût dû véritablement—ya atrash!—n'être que sauvage” (27). While incest follows “logically” from a social-political order based upon brothers selling each other into slavery, sadism passes into masochism, self-exaltation into self-abasement, as the Saïfs and their retainers flee the precariousness of their lives in orgies that render them indistinguishable from “négraille,” that assimilate their conduct to the expectations of one regarding them “avec un mépris attentif.” In a similar way, the common people are transformed into “négraille” through rituals of violence that leave them with “une résignation essoufflée et muette,” a sense of “la vanité des vies humaines” (10). This violence takes the politically pedagogical form of shattering the fragile human structures that promise futurity (destroying villages, slaughtering children, disembowelling pregnant women), while forcing the slaves to chant “leur dévotion à la justice seigneuriale” (10). The Saïfs use the categorical, hierarchical structures of Islamic culture to impose a “slave mentality” upon the Africans, in which their voices must conform to the voices of their rulers, in which insistence upon “submission” engenders an intense masochism—an identification with the power that humiliates and dehumanizes. Indeed, the Saïfs' severing of natural ties, of earthly sources of significance and communal identity, may be seen as a savage parody of the Ibrahim myth: the Saïfs create a new “community” through replicating God's demand for unconditional obedience and absolute dependence. In doing so, the Saïfs are drawing upon a cultural tradition in which temporal power rests upon religious claims. Richard Roberts notes that when the Islamic Umarian army conquered the Middle Niger valley in the early 1860s, it justified its actions as a jihad: “For Muslims, the world is divided into two parts: the abode of Islam (dar el-Islam) and the abode of warfare (dar al-harb). This duality—Islam versus unbelief and war versus non-war—was deeply embedded in the thinking and justification of Islamic statecraft. The state was called into being to bring belief to areas where unbelief reigned” (89). Furthermore, while the three major divisions within Islam (Sunnite, Shi'ite, and Kharijite) disagree about the processes by which authority is transmitted, their disagreements presuppose that legitimate political power rests upon divine will, upon being Gods' appointed viceroy (khalifā); therefore, political power hinges upon maintaining a symbolic association between the divine and the human, the Prophet and the community (umma), the ruler and the governed.25 Ouologuem suggests that masochistic identification with the ruler's sovereign will is “rewarded” by the cultivation of an equally intense sadism. Saïf El Haram secures power by “provoking” miracles: “un bûcher, par la complicité de la miséricorde divine, s'embrasa tout seul, sur lequel grillaient vifs dix-huit notables …” (16); the crowd, “à court d'extase, … entonnant un chant religieux, à genoux, mugit: ‘Au prodige!’ … Une fête national se trouvait ainsi instaurée” (17). The Empire expands because “[l]a capture des tribus rebelles, des hommes libres, … le sacrifice de leur chef …, devinrent des actes rituels, qui passèrent dans la coutume des frétillants négrillons, dont la barbarie répondit à l'attente de l'empereur et des notables …” (20). By the late nineteenth century, “cet effroyable chevauchement de coutumes, d'exactions, de razzias, de dilettantisme” is “encapsulé dans la vie dévote, féodale, terrienne, oisive et sensuelle de I'Islam …” (27). In Nakem, a political economy based upon slavery reproduces and is sustained by a psychic-moral economy based upon sado-masochism. The “genius” of the great Saïf ben Isaac El Héït, who rules throughout the first half of the twentieth century, lies in his ability to maintain both economies against the political and cultural “aggression” of French colonialism.

Since the French administration robs him of the ability to direct his populace's aggression outward in warfare, Saïf makes violence against women state policy, thus permitting men to relieve their self-hatred while engendering psychic or symbolic complicity in his own violence against his subjects: he orders the infibulation of all virgins and issues a law that “faisait définitivement de la femme l'outil des hommes. … Enfin, nombre d'hommes, vivant en concubinage avec le sexe faible, se trouvèrent heureux d'avoir à conquérir, à l'occasion du mariage, un plaisir nouveau, sadique, fait de volupté et de souffrance …” (62). Ouologuem makes brutal comedy of the potential for the Islamic principle of ontological hierarchy to license “pious” cruelty against women: “[u]ne femme adultère … était pour le moins mise nue, exposée en plein cour royale. … Dans certain cas … un autre supplice … ‘maintenait la femme cuisses ouvertes au-dessus d'un feu de bois, qui lui roussissait les poils du sexe'” (62). By linking sex with mastery, and mastery with violence, Saïf makes cruelty to women a temporary dispensation from the humiliations of colonialism and the powerlessness his own arbitrary rule imposes. Bouhdiba, Messini, and Combs-Schilling note that one response to Western colonialism was to “reinforce still more the tendency to closedness and sclerosis. Arab society was to set up structures of passive defence around zones rightly regarded as essential: the family, women, the home” (Bouhdiba 231)26, since the colonial situation gave new urgency to the subordination of women, Saïf jealously guards his power to “license” masculine governance of the feminine. Learning that two of his slaves, Kassoumi and Tambira, have fallen in love, he asserts his authority over the conjugal bond. Taking the right of the first night, he seeks to subsume sex to violence: “Elle n'endura nulle souffrance à la grande colère de Saïf, qu'un strategème de la femme combla néanmoins: la mariée … avait placé sous elle un sachet empli de sang du mouton, qui s'exprima en éclaboussures que Saïf, sadique, crut avoir fait jaillir du tréfonds de la femme” (63).

Just as the hierarchical construction of sexuality in Islam ensures that erotic love in marriage will not threaten a man's devotion to God, so the inculcation of sado-masochistic forms of sexuality in his people ensures that marriage will not engender patterns of reciprocity and dialogue that would threaten the forms of social order through which Saïf rules; as with his predecessors, Saïf's power rests upon his capacity to reproduce within his African subjects a self-loathing that manifests itself in violence against fellow Africans. When the sorcerer Bouremi seeks to expose Saïf's treachery, he discovers that everyone chooses to regard him as mad; over-whelmed by his powerlessness, Bouremi explodes in homicidal violence against his wife (99). When the assassin Sankolo sees his fiancée Awa watching him masturbate as he watches, forlornly, Saïf's son and the German anthropologist Shrobénius' daughter make love, he experiences a humiliation he can only assuage by murder: “Sankolo abaissa les yeux vers elle. Il sut immédiatement que la femme l'exécrait” (107). Not only does Saïf's political order encourage violence against women as “compensation” for symbolic emasculation, it organizes a vast, illicit slave trade in supposedly “dead” people, who are transformed into zombies through a mixture of drugs and forcible promiscuity. The same Sankolo, escaped from slavery, tells the French governor of a world that is, in part, a parody of the Islamic paradise. Bouhdiba notes that “paradise is peopled with houris. These creatures are as feminine as can be imagined. … On their breasts is written the name of their husband. … Each man has seventy alcoves. … In each alcove are arranged seventy beds; on each bed is a woman awaiting the Chosen One, surrounded by a thousand negresses, each holding a bowl and feeding the woman and the husband. … One's appetite increases a hundredfold. … Man's sexual potency is also multiplied” (75). Sankolo describes enforced promiscuity as a complement to drugs in securing the slaves' acquiescence in their dehumanization; “Comprenez, comprenez, un Nègre, c'est zéro; une Négresse bonne à pourfendre. … Tu seras si bien drogué que tu ne pourras répondre, avec des allures de bête tu hurleras, tes yeux agrandis voudront des femmes, et les gens te fuiront. Tu n'auras plus en tête que deux mots: dabali-travail, travail-dabali. De temps en temps une putain te fera l'amour. Et puis … tu connais la fin: la folie …” (125). Every woman is vulnerable to masculine essays in sadism. When Tambira consults the sorcerer Dougouli about magic to help her sons in their examinations, he humiliates and then rapes her, reducing her to whimpering “comme un chien fidèle” (149); immediately thereafter, she is raped by two of Saïf's assassins so brutally that she either is killed or kills herself. Saïf even plays upon French susceptibility to sadistic sexuality to secure his position. When the governor, Chevalier, learns of his treachery, Saïf sends Awa to seduce him. Chevalier has his dogs strip Awa and participate in his “conquest”; she, in turn, passes on information to Saïf that leads to Chevalier's assassination.

Saïf's encouragement of a sado-masochistic psychic economy reinforces his power by usurping the position and parodying the forms of the Islamic God; at the same time, sado-masochism itself does violence to the basic assumptions of Islam. Lacan notes that Sade, a hundred years before Freud, dissociates the “principe du plaisir” from “sa fonction dans l'éthique traditionelle,” separating the “natural” pursuit of pleasure from the pursuit of the Good, of one's spiritual well-being (119). The unity of the real and the right (haqq) is severed. Pleasure becomes an autonomous, imperious demand that is experienced as an implacable Other: “Désirs … ici seuls à les lier, et exaltés d'y rendre manifeste que le désir, c'est le désir de l'Autre” (137). To the extent that one is compelled to acknowledge and follow “le désir de l'Autre,” one affirms a desacralized universe: “Sade fait glisser pour chacun d'une fracture imperceptible l'axe ancien de l'éthique: qui n'est rien d'autre que l'égoïsme du bonheur” (143). Hence, the sadism that Saïf cultivates is also a masochism not only in the sense of encouraging identification of one's pleasure with Saïf's exercise of power, but also in the sense of inflicting upon oneself through the “text” of another's broken body the lesson that there is no power but violence and no law but force and fraud: within such a metaphysical horizon, Saïf's mastery “makes sense.” Thus, as Maurice Bloch notes in a different context, “[T]he denigration of women serve[s] for the legitimacy of the state” (1989 136).27

Ouologuem explores the possibility of escaping this replication of violence through the story of the Kassoumi family. The first time the narrative pauses to describe the internal life of one of Saïf's slaves, it portrays how Kassoumi is reminded, as he eats from a banana tree, of his lost home: “Et le pays, le pays lointain, peu à peu, l'envahissait, lui renvoyant, à travers la distance, ses formes, ses bruits, ses horizons connus, ses odeurs, et la saveur de la terre verte où courait la brise” (50). This first glimpse of the humanity of the Africans is complicated by its evocation of Marcel's discovery of involuntary memory in A la recherche du temps perdu: “toutes les fleurs de notre jardin et celles du parc de M. Swann et les nymphéas de la Vivonne, et les bonnes gens du village et leur petit logis et l'église et tout Combray et ses environs, tout cela qui prend forme et solidité, est sorti, ville et jardins, de ma tasse de thé” (l. 47–48). Does the Proustian echo suggest the universality of humanity and hence the depth of horror involved in Saïf's gamesmanship, or does it suggest that Africans (including the implied author) are so thoroughly colonized, so fully processed into “négraille,” that they cannot imagine or give voice to their humanity except through assimilating European cultural patterns? Kassoumi's retrieval of memory, his imaginative recovery of his native “pays,” is immediately followed by his first encounter with Tambira, which leads to love, marriage, children, fidelity, and devotion that not even death can weaken. Ouologuem links the recovery of identity with the capacity to love in a way that may be illuminated by Dogon mythology. Just as the first two chapters may be read as a cosmogony, as the creation of a political-psychic “world,” and the third chapter as the replication of those “cosmic” patterns in individual human histories, so Kassoumi's and Tambira's courtship and marriage may be seen in terms of the Dogon belief that divine and human activities spring from love. Amma, the original god, creates two male twins, Ogo and Nommo, promising them feminine twins later. “Ogo fears that Amma … will deprive him of the feminine partner whom he needs to become a creator, and this fear leads him to struggle to posses his placenta, the matrix of creativity. … Even though Amma totally defeats Ogo, banishes him from the divine and human communities, and establishes his obedient twin as the founder and lord of humanity, Ogo's rebellion … determine[s] the shape of creation” (Pelton 168–169). Through his impatience to gain his feminine complement, Ogo forces Amma to depart from his original scheme of producing “four pairs of androgynous twins who could give birth to perfect beings like them-selves” (Pelton 172); he brings into being distinct masculine and feminine identities. However, in its separation into distinct genders, humanity senses its loss of “the primordial bliss of androgyny”; hence, males “experience their sexuality as the drive to rediscover a lost unity, to find that feminine half which life's beginnings promised them” (Pelton 191). From this erotic drive towards complementarity, towards the recovery of the “lost country,” fidelity to the “first memory,” comes the structuring of human communal and physical life upon the dialectics of a twinness that must be culturally achieved: “[M]an's aloneness is only a beginning. … Life in its fullness, as the celebration and renewal of the cosmos, only happens where twinness had not yet been fully realized, but must be sought. If there were not two … there could never be one or three” (Pelton 208). Clearly, the Dogon account of sexuality as the erotic pursuit of complementarity opposes Saïf's (and perhaps Islamic culture's) account of sexuality as the quest for mastery; to the extent that Kassoumi and Tambira follow its patterns, they constitute a genuine “counterforce” to Saïf's tyranny.

Rather like Samba, the Kassoumis' son, Raymond, is subjected to rival educations; the example of his parents is juxtaposed with the example Saïf makes of his parents: the murder of Tambira is followed by killing Raymond's siblings and selling his father into slavery. Like Samba, Raymond studies in Paris, where he replicates the patterns of the Saïfs and notables in relieving his sense of precariousness in an orgy of sensuality that includes (albeit unwittingly) incest. He discovers in the European world the same forms of sadism and violence deployed by Saïf. His homosexual lover cannot resist “un obscur besoin de représailles, plaisir de se venger, de blesser son Nègre” (181); after World War Two, he discovers his Strasbourg house destroyed “par l'occupant: Saïf, l'autre, le mauvais Blanc, boche” (187). After the war, Saïf and the notables cultivate Raymond as a candidate for the National Assembly, as their instrument to maintain power after colonialism, while he imagines that he can use his position against Saïf. However, the day before the election, he turns self-loathing against his white wife, brutally asserting his mastery through forcible oral sex: “il se vide de sa haine de la femme …” (192). Ouologuem suggests not only that Raymond has been ultimately conscripted into Saïf's service, that his psyche has been brutalized into homage to Saïf, making him just one of the “négraille,” a “fils de serf” (193), but also that the self-hatred Africans have so often turned against themselves is now free, in our time, to be turned equally against Europeans.

Were the novel to end at this point, it would be exceedingly bleak. But in the final chapter, “L'Aurore,” Saïf is confronted by a French Catholic bishop, Henry, who has been Raymond's lifelong mentor and has spent forty-five years in Nakem ministering to the “négraille” with such an extravagance of devotion that his life resembles a medieval saint's legend or the hagiography of a marabout. Geertz notes that marabouts are characterized by “extraordinary physical courage, absolute personal loyalty, ecstatic moral intensity, and the almost physical transmission of sanctity from one man to another” (1968, 33).28 Henry combines a marabout's force of character with the selflessness of a desert saint. During World War One, “le doyen Henry—folie confuse du devoir d'amour, pauvrement beau comme le désespoir d'une âme chrétienne—était allé, bossu concerné par le drame nègre, de village en village, de case en case, prêtre ouvrier déjà, piochant la terre des paysans, prodiguant soins et médicaments, et, le soir venu, lisant la Vie des apôtres. … Il lava les pieds de ce petit peuple de déshérités, dont la peau, couverte de pustules écailleuses, était plus froide qu'un serpent, et rude comme une lime” (139–140; 142).29

After Raymond brutalizes his wife, he goes to see Henry, who informs him that he has discovered how Saïf has trained snakes to carry out his assassinations. He also tells Raymond that the Chinese play a game of tying two birds to opposite ends of a long rope, then letting them fly until they tear each other apart as the rope snaps taut: “L'humanité est une volaille de ce genre. Nous sommes tous victimes de ce jeu; séparés, mais liés de force. Tous, sans exception” (194). In the climactic confrontation between them, Saïf tells Henry, “La loi de justice et d'amour est le seul lien profond qui puisse unir, par le haut, nos irréductibles diversités. Par le bas, s'agite … la soif de puissance et de gloire. Mais là est notre richesse et notre complément mutuel, là notre parenté véritable” (203). He proposes a hierarchical partition of the universe that would cede temporal power to a game of violence isolated from “la loi de justice et d'amour.” By revealing that he knows how Saïf uses snakes, that his lifetime of “folie confuse du devoir d'amour” has given him the power to beat Saïf at his own game, Henry insists that the “art de dialoguer avec la vie” (203) reveals the interconnectedness of right and might: “Le droit sans la force est caricature. La force sans le droit est misère” (206). While life is a game, it has “ses règles” (206), the first of which is the inescapable interconnectedness of humanity: “séparés, mais liés de force.” After Saïf, playing chess with Henry, pushes a cylinder containing an asp he had intended for the bishop into the fire, he declares, “Voilà des générations que le Nakem est né, et depuis quinze minutes seulement, l'on sait entretenir de sa santé” (206).

In suggesting that the one possibility of replacing the replication of violence with the “art de dialoguer avec la vie,” with learning to “entretenir” about the nation's health, requires “checkmating” the absolutism of force with the absolutism of love, Ouologuem follows the implications of Dogon mythology, that a sustainable human community is built from the dynamic, tense interplay of oppositional forces, which are linked in a game that has as its first and inescapable rule the law of love: the life-force of humans and the cosmos strive for completion in the complementarity of dualities. Therefore, violence against others breeds and depends upon a sadistic delight in one's own suffering: “Nos yeux boivent l'éclat de soleil, et, vaincus, s'étonnent de pleurer” (9). While Le Devoir de violence leaves the reader with uncertainty whether the sadomasochistic political economy will not be reborn “sous les cendres chaudes de plus de trente Républiques africaines …” (207), it does conclude with an image of balance and complementarity that suggests, in contrast to L'aventure ambiguë, that nature should not be subordinated to a reason bound to a single authoritative voice, but instead that the hope for human community lies in emulating the processes of reciprocity, forgiveness, and longing for intercourse through which the elements of the physical world bring forth new life: “mais à cette heure où le regard au Nakem vole autour des souvenirs, la brousse comme la côte était fertile et brûlante de pitié. Dans l'air, l'eau et le feu, aussi, la terre des hommes fit n'y avoir qu'un jeu …” (208).


  1. For discussions of the plurality of values and perspectives in Achebe's presentation of traditional Igbo culture, see Innes 1990; Ngara 1985 and 1982; Jan-Mohamed 1983, esp. 151–184; Carroll 1980; Cook 1977, esp. 65–94; Taiwo 1976. For Achebe's own account of Igbo polytheism and pluralism, see Achebe 1989, esp. 47–67, 91–99, 126–170. For recent discussions of the need to address the role of African pre-colonial cultural traditions, especially myth and religion, in criticism of African fiction, see Miller 1990, esp. 1–67; Lazarus 1990; Gates 1988; Lee 1984; Okpewho 1983; Chinweizu, et al. 1983.

  2. For discussions of the relationship between polytheism, polyvocality, and polyvalency in African philosophy, see Mudimbe 1988; Gyekye 1987; Pelton 1980. For accounts of dialogic discourse, see Bakhtin 1986, 1984, 1981. For a consideration of Bakhtin's debt to the nineteenth-century Russian tradition of suspicion towards the “hegemonic” tendencies of Western theoretical discourse, see Morson and Emerson 1990, 1989; Morson 1991. For a related account of the responsiveness of novelistic discourse to complex, heterogeneous particularity, see Nussbaum 1990.

  3. The Quran offers abundant grounds for this belief. See, for example, 2: 1–3, 9, 14–15; 3:18–19, 194–199; 5:57–77; 30: 11–60. In all these passages, rhetorical reliance upon sharp antithesis and categorical assertion draws a firm line between inside and outside: “And when they meet those who believe, they say, We believe; and when they are alone with their devils, they say, Surely we are with you, we were only mocking. Allah will pay them back their mockery, and He leaves them alone in their inordinacy, blindly wandering on” (2:24–25); “Surely the (true) religion with Allah is Islam. And those who were given the Book differed only after knowledge had come to them, out of envy among themselves. And whoever disbelieves in the messages of Allah—Allah indeed is Quick at reckoning” (3: 18–19).

  4. On the role of ritual in shaping cultural identity and legitimating political order, see Combs-Schilling 1989; Bloch 1989, 1986; Comaroff 1985; Bourdieu 1990, 1977; Geertz 1973, esp. 87–189.

  5. See Combs-Schilling 1989, esp. 49–76, 188–244, 255–271; Mernissi 1987, esp. 27–64, 108–120; Bouhdiba 1985, esp. 19–42, 212–249.

  6. See John 3:4–21; Romans 5–8; Brown 1988, esp. 5–64, 428–447; Bhagavad-Gita, esp. 2:55–72, 4:18–24; The Dhammapada, “The Fire Sermon”; Combs-Schilling 1989: 95; Mernissi 1987: 31, 39, 41–42, 53–54.

  7. See Gyekye 1987; Pelton 1980, esp. 1–70; Rattray 1930.

  8. For an account of the interplay in Quranic texts between the sexual and the sacred, the masculine and the feminine, see Bouhdiba 1985: 7–18, 72–100.

  9. See Charles Taylor's account of how modern Western conceptions of reality and selfhood were shaped by applying the methodology of the New Science to the task of moral and political philosophy (Taylor 1989: 1–107). Also see MacIntyre 1988, 1984, and Williams 1985.

  10. See Geertz 1983: 188–189.

  11. See Combs-Schilling 1989; Naaname-Guessous 1987; Mernissi 1987; Bouhdiba 1985; Sabbah 1984; Musallam 1983.

  12. By contrast, Aristotle subsumes a man's relationship with his wife, albeit obliquely, under the category of friendship (NE 8: 1162a 15–35); the implications of linking marriage and friendship (philia) are pursued by Plutarch in Coniugalia praecepta (Moralia II: 298–343) and Amatorius (Moralia IX: 306–441). For accounts of the intersection of ethics and love in marriage at the moment that the classical and the Christian traditions merge, see Brown 1988: 5–64; Foucault 1986: 72–80, 150–185; Kristeva 1987: 103–136. For the patristic critique of sexuality even within marriage, see Brown 1988; St. Jerome, On the Perpetual Virginity of the Blessed Mary Against Helvidius (The Fathers of the Church 53: 11–43); St. Augustine, The Good Marriage and Against Julian (The Fathers of the Church 27: 9–51; 35). Mernissi notes in the Islamic tradition a suspicion of sexual love similar to that inscribed in patristic literature: even in marriage, women tempt men with fitna: “The conjugal unit presents an even graver danger than ephemeral sexual embrace: erotic love has the potential to grow into something much more encompassing, much more total. … The conjugal unit is a real danger and is consequently weakened by two legal devices, polygamy and repudiation” (114–115).

  13. See Jaeger 1945, esp. 1:3–184, 298–331; Havelock 1963; Putnam 1965, esp. 64–104; MacIntyre 1984: 121–145; Brown 1984: 23–37.

  14. See Lapidus 1984: 45; Sherif 1975: 33, 65–76, 105–158; Chittick 1989, esp. 145–170, 212–231.

  15. Quranic hermeneutics has traditionally been divided between tafsīr bi'l-ray (interpretation by reason or private judgment) and tafsīr bi'l-ma'thūr (interpretation according to “what has been handed down” in the hadīth (the stories about the Prophet and his companions), R. Marston Speight notes that “Bi'l-ma'thūr covers the same range of meaning as ilm, but it is a less dynamic expression of the latter” (66). For a discussion of the centrality of doxa to the pre-Socratic thought, see Vickers 1988; for Aristotle's linking of the conception of “communal opinion” to the philosopher's task of accounting for “appearances,” see Nussbaum 1986, esp. 240–317.

  16. See Nussbaum 1986: 1–84, 240–394; 1990: 54–105. The fate of “practical wisdom” (phronêsis, prudentia) in the West betrays a vexed relationship between the right and the real that derives from the twin sources of Greek polytheistic conceptions of reality divided pluralistically, potentially tragically, between diverse sources of power and value and the intense otherworldliness of early Christianity. On the one hand, there is the Ciceronian tradition of linking doing well and doing right in prudentia (see De Officiis I:xliii-xliv, III; Blumenberg 1987a: 430; Blumenberg 1987b: 204–206); on the other hand, there is a tradition of emphasizing the incommensurability of “worldly wisdom” and “true reality” from Boethius' separation of philosophy from fortune (The Consolation of Philosophy, Books II, IV) to Dante's account of Fortuna's arbitrary rule over worldly splendor and empty goods (“li splendor mondani,” “li ben vani”) in Inferno VII: 73–96 to Luther's doctrine of the two kingdoms.

  17. The interpretation of individual hadīths, their relation to Quranic exegesis, the role of example (sunna) in ethical education, the relation of law and mysticism constitute some of the sources of intellectual controversy out of which various “schools” emerged. See Rippen 1988 and Lapidus 1984. Much like Thomas Aquinas' Summa Contra Gentiles, Ghazali's The Incoherence of the Philosophers establishes what Paul Tillich calls “the theological circle” (1968 I:11–14) within which debate may occur.

  18. Also see Miller 1985; Erickson 1979: 189–201; Soyinka 1976: 79–85.

  19. See Blumenberg 1983, esp. 125–226, 343–434.

  20. See Sherif 1975: 105–158; Lapidus 1984: 38–61; Leaman 1988; Chittick 1989, esp. 255–274.

  21. See Rilke, Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge, esp. 213–226.

  22. On the breadth of “borrowings” in Le Devoir de violence, see Miller 1985; Erickson 1979: 225–229; Soyinka 1976: 98–100.

  23. The term is coined in Booth 1974.

  24. See Roberts 1987, esp. 21–75; 84–100; 113–134.

  25. For the Quranic roots of the theory of the khalifā, see Kister, in Rippen 1988, esp. 84–86. For a discussion of political authority in Islam, see Dabashi 1989 and Esposito 1984. For the history of Islamic expansion in Africa, see Roberts 1987: 76–134 and Trimingham 1968. For the role of symbolic identification in instituting and reproducing political authority, see Combs-Schilling 1989: 157–174, 188–205; Geertz 1968.

  26. See Combs-Schilling 1989: 255–309; Mernissi 1987: vii-xxix, 165–177; Bouhdiba 1985: 231–249.

  27. For examples of the interconnection between the ritualistic subordination of women and the legitimation of a male-dominated political order in Madagascar and Morocco respectively, see Bloch 1989, 1986, and Combs-Schilling 1989.

  28. Also see Geertz 1968: 43–54.

  29. For an account of the desert saints, see Brown 1988: 210–338.

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Principal Works


Further Reading