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the complete review - fiction
The Most Secret Memory of Men
Mohamed Mbougar Sarr
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- French title: La plus secrète mémoire des hommes
- Translated by Lara Vergnaud
- Prix Goncourt, 2021
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B+ : nicely done and put together
See our review for fuller assessment.
|The LA Times
|The NY Rev. of Books
|The NY Times Book Rev.
|The New Yorker
|Wall Street Journal
|The Washington Post
|World Lit. Today
From the Reviews:
- "Es handelt sich hier um ein dermaßen funkelndes Werk, dass man zunächst geblendet wird, wenn man versucht, es zu durchschauen. Man muss es nicht durchschauen, man kann darin versinken. (...) Manch ein Scharnier zwischen den Unterkapiteln hakt etwas, weil der Autor es mit Details überlastet. Die geheimste Erinnerung der Menschen ist zweifelsohne ein großes Buch, aber wirklich eines für leidenschaftliche Leser. Mehr noch: Es ist hoch aktuell. (...) Es ist ein gewaltiger Roman." - Cornelia Geißler, Frankfurter Rundschau
- "It includes a host of voices and forms, skillfully rendered in Lara Vergnaud’s sensitive translation, from Faye’s diary entries to critical reviews of Elimane to the intricate oral narratives Faye collects during his search. The novel’s geography extends from Amsterdam to Buenos Aires with stops in Dakar, rural Senegal and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as if to leap over the question of center and periphery. This is a bold response to the threat of silence: to say everything, to be all of literature. It’s also risky for an African writer, as the examples of Ouologuem and Elimane show. It was precisely their irreverent disregard of borders that incensed white readers for whom “that ambiguity was intolerable.”" - Sofia Samatar, The Los Angeles Times
- "The Most Secret Memory of Men turns out to be a truly great book, so sweeping and rich and surprising that it can’t be reduced to being “about” one thing or another. (...) The T.C. Elimane that Sarr creates is a cipher and a shape-shifter -- a ghost, a curse, an inspiration, a savior, a prodigy, a failure, a cautionary tale, a seductive demon. His novel is similarly indescribable, an incarnation of literature itself. (...) This splendidly overwrought attitude toward literature runs through a book in which half the characters are writers prone to sharing long, impassioned speeches about the sacrifices and ecstasies of their vocation. (...) It is a tour de force, an all-in bet at that table of “literary mythos.”" - Ursula Lindsey, The New York Review of Books
- "What might otherwise be dressed up as a simple (if alluring) detective narrative becomes, in Sarr’s hands, a wildly expansive interrogation of everything from the nature of erotic love to the literary canon. We traverse the gamut of genres -- the mystery, the ghost story, the philosophical novel, the historical novel, the magical realist tale -- as Sarr navigates a spider’s web that enmeshes fact and fiction, biography and gossip, authenticity and plagiarism, fame and infamy. This virtuosic pastiche is not without a sense of irony" - Ben Libman, The New York Times Book Review
- "(A) rollicking literary mystery dedicated to Ouologuem and loosely inspired by his disappearance. (...) The Most Secret Memory of Men is an aerobatic feat of narrative invention, whirling between noir, fairy tale, satire, and archival fiction in its self-reflexive meditation on the nature of literary legend. (...) The plot’s endless recursions are a reductio ad absurdum of the quest for authorial authenticity, particularly acute in the context of African literature. (...) At times, Elimane’s to-ing and fro-ing threatens to grow tiresome, especially since his aesthetic and political views never quite come into focus." - Julian Lucas, The New Yorker
- "The seemingly melancholy ending, however, does not cast a shadow over the vitality and jubilation that the novel otherwise evokes. Faye’s fellow African writers expatriated in Paris form a community of friends -- the “ghetto” -- who feverishly believe in the secret promises of literature, which they celebrate by reading, writing, debating and having sex. This effervescence is infectious and casts its charm in times nostalgic for a belief in books and the communities they create." - Henriette Korthals Altes, Times Literary Supplement
- "At each turn, he uncovers fragments of Elimane’s story, which is rendered in a dizzying range of voices, forms and styles, including diary entries, press clippings, book reviews, interviews, letters and oral stories. These threads skillfully connect into a spider’s web that entrap Diégane; the more he finds out, the more he wants to know. (...) Along the way, Sarr delivers stinging critiques of French colonialism, literary tokenism, rank competition among minoritized writers for the attention of the White establishment, and the casual racism and provincialism of critics. The book is translated from the French by Lara Vergnaud, who renders the text faithfully, if at times pedestrianly." - Laila Lalami, The Washington Post
- "In his intricately plotted novel, Sarr has modified some elements of Ouologuem’s biography: (.....) Sarr’s novel, replete with apparently digressive subplots and abrupt, often jarring shifts in narrative voice, nonetheless maintains a discernible focus in terms of its broader storyline. As readers are drawn into the minutiae of Faye’s quest, they progressively come to share his questioning of the role and validity of literature during tragic historical periods. This very rich, often innovative novel is highly recommended." - Edward Ousselin, World Literature Today
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
The Most Secret Memory of Men is narrated by Diégane Latyr Faye.
Born in Senegal, he came to France to continue his education.
Enthralled by literature, he also hopes to become a writer -- getting off to a small start with his novel, Anatomy of the Void.
It only sold seventy-nine copies in its first two months, but eventually it earned him: "a certain kind of attention in the literary world of Paris's African diaspora".
The novel opens in 2018, with Faye announcing that he is leaving Amsterdam, where he has been on the trail of author T.C.Elimane, whose one novel, The Labyrinth of Inhumanity, published in 1938, he considers: "both cathedral and arena", and which has had a profound effect on him and many of his fellow writers.
The Most Secret Memory of Men is, in no small part, a quest-tale, Faye in search of information about the elusive author and his largely forgotten book -- both practically: "erased from literary memory, but also, it would appear, from all human memory".
It received considerable attention upon publication -- but was quickly drowned in scandal, as Elimane was first denounced for his: "shameful rewriting of one of the narratives of Basari cosmogeny", a kind of plagiarism, and then, more seriously, for actual plagiarism, as the novel: "braided into the text, rewritten sentences originally penned by European, American, and Eastern authors of the past. No great text appears to have escaped his rewriting".
As it turns out, the first accusation is a false one, but the second undeniable.
The publishers of the book withdrew it from the market (and went out of business) -- one reason why there are so few remaining copies.
All the while, the already elusive Elimane remained entirely silent on the matters, and soon all traces of him, as of his book, seem to disappear completely.
Faye chanced on a copy of the novel, and was completely swept away by it, and he became obsessed with learning more about it and its author.
Much of The Most Secret Memory of Men then is more documentary, Faye sharing some of the press reactions from when the book came out (and the scandal that then erupted) and then recording the accounts of some of those that knew Elimane, building up a biography through second and third-hand reports.
Like Faye, Elimane is from Senegal -- his actual name Elimane Madag Diouf (the 'T.C.' he published the book under is an homage to his publishers), born in 1915.
A gifted student, he gets a scholarship to study in France and goes to Paris in 1935 -- but he is drawn to writing and abandons his studies.
A young couple -- Thérèse Jacob and Charles Ellenstein -- with publishing ambitions befriend him, and eventually publish The Labyrinth of Inhumanity.
Elimane's identity, and his elusiveness, affect the reception of his work.
As one journalist, Brigitte Bollème, who would write most extensively about the case, noted early on: "His silence casts a suspicious shadow over his work".
Meanwhile, there are critics of the day who, in a time when novels written by (black) Africans are practically unknown, are disappointed not to find the exotic in the novel, one of them complaining:
We were expecting more tropical color, more exoticism, more insight into the purely African soul [...]
The author is well read.
But where is the true Africa in all of this ?
The all-too familiar situation presented itself here for Elimane:
The book's great weakness is that it is not Negro enough.
What pained him was that he wasn't seen as a writer, but as a media phenomenon, as an exceptional Negro, as an ideological battlefield.
In the press, hardly anyone talked about the text itself, his writing, his creation.
While the fuss around the novel dates to the late-1930s, Sarr's description of the literary-critical reception of the work surely also echoes much that he himself has faced in the present day -- all the more so now with The Most Secret Memory of Men having been awarded the highest French literary honour, the prix Goncourt -- where books by authors who are 'other' and 'foreign' are still supposed to meet certain extra-literary expectations, and judged so heavily on those.
Sarr has Faye also still dealing with these issues -- his protagonist wondering:
Are things any different nowadays ?
Do we talk about literature, about aesthetic value, or do we talk about people, about their tans, their voices, their age, their hair, their pets, how they decorate their houses, whether their carpets match their drapes ?
Do we talk about writing or about identity, about style or about media buzz that eliminates the need for any, about literary creation or about sensationalist personalities ?
Of course, it's also impossible to overlook the fact that what Faye seeks is information about the person behind the book, to try to figure out Elimane's 'identity' and history -- ultimately, arguably, simply whether his carpets matched his drapes.
We learn very little about The Labyrinth of Inhumanity -- even in and through the reactions to it --, and can read only a few samples of Elimane's own writing -- personal, autobiographical writing at that: a letter, diary-excerpts.
(Of course, The Labyrinth of Inhumanity, like any book, is meant to 'speak for itself', but since it is fictional and since Faye quotes barely a paragraph from it, readers have to rely on the reactions to the book -- Faye's and others' -- in trying to get any sense of it; it is marked, like the character Elimane, by its (physical) absence here -- and it is the person behind it, Elimane, whose (hi)story Faye cobbles together, at least in outline, that takes on a much more distinct form than the mystery-novel.)
Returning eventually to Senegal, Faye is then also faced with the question of what an author's obligations are -- to speak up ? to take action ?
In staying always almost entirely in the shadows and background, Elimane made a choice of sorts -- continuing also to write, though never publishing.
But Sarr does make him a figure who is also a seeker: we learn that even late in his life Elimane, who traveled widely, explained: "I'm not running away from anything. I'm looking for someone".
Already when he first came to France he had also gone in search of traces of the man he knows as his father, who had gone to fight for the French in the First World War before his son was born, and who disappeared, presumably on the battlefield.
So also one of the questions about Elimane's life is who he was looking for -- still his father(-figure), or perhaps someone else ?
The second and third-hand accounts that Faye provides verbatim highlight different parts of Elimane's life and background.
From an older generation of Senegalese figures, to a variety of fellow African writers, to Elimane's French publishers and journalist Bollème to the woman who knew Elimane when he was in Argentina and hung out with Witold Gombrowicz and Ernesto Sabato, this is a very rich cast of secondary characters, and the slivers of Elimane's life they recount are strongly differentiated by their voices and experiences.
Faye and his quest-story are the uniting thread throughout, and Sarr handles that well, Faye stepping into the background for longer stretches as he listens to various accounts but also with enough of his own story to make him more than simply a narrator-guide.
Identity (and a sense of identity) is central to the book -- not least in some of the secondary characters, such as the suicide Fatima Diop that Faye is confronted with in his native Senegal --, and so there is good reason for this focus on figuring out who Elimane was.
One acquaintance of Faye's argues:
Elimane wanted to become white, and he was reminded that not only was he not, but that he never would be despite all his talent.
He brandished every card of whiteness, culturally at least; these were simply used as reminders of his negritude.
Indeed, among the interesting things about The Labyrinth of Inhumanity is the plagiarism behind it.
Sarr wisely keeps us from knowing exactly how that manifested itself, but of course in one sense the novel is entirely unoriginal -- based entirely on the words of others.
And yet we hear also that that is part of its brilliance, in just how well Elimane did that -- and, after all, practically everything has been written before, practically every combination of words has appeared in print, so isn't that the mark of the craftsman and artist, what one makes of all this familiar material ?
The Most Secret Memory of Men is dedicated to Yambo Ouologuem, and Elimane's scandal is clearly loosely based on the one in the late 1960s around Ouologuem's Bound to Violence (see also the volume: Yambo Ouologuem: Postcolonial Writer, Islamic Militant).
Elimane's path is more extreme -- and of a different time -- but Sarr adroitly brings in many of the issues raised by that situation.
The time-frame -- with Elimane a generation older, and Faye well more than a generation younger than Ouologuem -- is also well-chosen -- not least in showing plus ça change .....
The Most Secret Memory of Men does stray about a bit far and wide, but remains engaging throughout, not least because of its range of experience, especially of its African characters, in Senegal as well as in France -- from the battlefields of the First World War to Paris in the 1930s and in the present-day, and even Occupied France.
(The story also ventures to Argentina, which feels slightly more far-fetched.)
With its cast of writers -- beginning with Faye and Elimane, but including quite a few more -- there is also some interesting reflection on literature and the literary establishment, without the novel bogging down too far in that.
Elimane remains -- presumably intentionally -- rather elusive, and the character can't quite live up to the mystery-man image Faye seems to hope to come to understand -- but then the question of why we care about the identity of an author, rather than simply appreciating the text isn't really answered here either, Sarr/Faye suggesting it shouldn't matter, and yet Faye feeling compelled to find out as much as possible (though ultimately he does seem more concerned with Elimane's fate -- what does it do to a writer to go through what Elimane did ? -- than strictly his identity with all its biographical detail).
The Most Secret Memory of Men is a very solid and thoroughly engaging piece of work -- and if it nudges readers to seek out Ouologuem's Bound to Violence as well, all the better.
- M.A.Orthofer, 12 July 2023
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The Most Secret Memory of Men:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Mohamed Mbougar Sarr was born in Senegal in 1990.
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© 2023 the complete review
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