THE YAMBO OUOLOGUEM READER: The Duty of Violence, A Black Ghostwriter's Letter to France, and The Thousand and One Bibles of Sex

Yambo Ouologuem
translated and edited by Christopher Wise
Africa World Press ($34.95)

by Spencer Dew

In 1968—the year of the Paris Uprising—Malian writer Yambo Ouologuem found fame with the publication of his novel Le Devoir de Violence, an African epic drenched in blood, chronicling a history of cruelty and human treachery. The book, thick with assassinations, magical potions, and even orgies of drunken cannibalism, revolved around slavery and, more broadly (if not, as Ouologuem would argue, synonymously) the relation between white Europeans and black Africans. The dried asp venom scraped into a guest’s champagne, the vaginal douche of pepper essence and red ants, the roasting men whose bodies give birth to serpents—such romantic grotesqueries speak not only of a legendary past but also of a present political reality. The novel won the Prix Renaudot and established its author as a vital voice in contemporary African literature and thought, a critic of “négritude” whose tactic of truth-telling involved the language of violence, eroticism, barbed irony, and polemic assault. Yet some of Ouologuem’s language was not his own. Charges of plagiarism—involving, in particular, pages of Graham Greene used in Le Devoir de Violence—are frequently cited as the rationale for Ouologuem’s current retirement and seclusion.

The Yambo Ouologuem Reader brings together three of Ouologuem prose works, including a new translation of Le Devoir de Violence (here titled The Duty of Violence, as opposed to earlier English renderings as Bound to Violence) alongside the political “pamphlet” collection A Black Ghostwriter’s Letter to France and an excerpt from The Thousand and One Bibles of Sex, a work of erotica that likewise assaults the myths of the “open sensuality” of Africa, of “bodies overflowing and voluptuous under African skies.” In this short text, tourists on safari experience the “intoxication” of “an uncanny and aggressive style of sexuality, a sensation that evoked for them the violent eroticism of the bullfight.” Nodding to the French tradition of intellectual/mystical engagement with eroticism (see Georges Bataille, for instance), Ouologuem skewers White views of the so-called “Dark Continent,” sardonic even in his cataloguing of ripe fruits and reaching a climax (literally, with “lava… yellow like an egg-yolk, thick and abundant like the contents of an ostrich egg, spewing in every direction”) with an unnamed African (“The Black”) masturbating a lion.

In A Black Ghostwriter’s Letter, Ouologuem turns to “the satiric genre of the pamphlet” in the hope “that it will be ferocious enough that it will put an end to the comedy of the whimpering Negro, who is nonetheless untouchable—and that it will also cause both Blacks and Whites to at last stop wallowing in bad conscience, especially those who are audacious enough to love one another, but who endlessly complain of not knowing how to express it.” His thoughts here are arranged in letters addressed to various categories of people and addressing various themes—to racists, for instance, who find in their racist beliefs a profound use value, protecting them from the reality of the world; or on the formulaic nature of popular novels, which, Ouologuem argues, can be created just as simply using templates, asexquisite corpses for the mass market. Race relations and the legacy of slavery are Ouologuem’s foremost concerns, however, and he proceeds with the “contention that Negroes have lived up till now like slaves, since they have always defined themselves (not in relation to themselves) but first and foremost in relation to Whites.”

Translator and editor Christopher Wise, author of the critical text Yambo Ouologuem: Postcolonial Writer, Islamic Militant, includes a brief introduction, a tiny “Suggestions for Further Reading” (consisting entirely of criticism on Ouologuem and related African texts, with no listings for Ouologuem’s other work, including his poetry), and an essay by Kaye Whiteman, reprinted from the journal West Africa, offering some personal anecdotes regarding the plagiarism controversy (hinging on an account of seeing Ouologuem’s manuscript to Le Devoir with quotation marks and reference to incorporated texts). The attention given to the plagiarism charges vent anger at Graham Greene for not defending Ouologuem’s practice and conflate various forms of artistic borrowing, as when Wise insists, in angry defense of Ouologuem, that “few art historians speak of ‘plagiarism’ or ‘theft’ when discussing the paintings of Picasso, Braques, or Mogdiliani” (sic). Yet what this volume sorely lacks is any in-depth explanation of what, precisely, Ouologuem’s techniques of “borrowing” were and how such practice relates to his aesthetic sensibility or political goals. The protests of Wise and Whiteman are actually counterproductive in this regard, raising suspicion rather than representing a solid defense.

Part of the problem may rest in the fact that the volume is constructed for the reader who is already familiar with Ouologuem and interested merely in a fresh translation. There is scant contextualization or explanation of Ouologuem’s ideas, despite the fact that a basic understanding of “negritude”—especially in the thought of Léopold Senghor—is essential to understanding The Duty of Violence. A responsible editor would have situated Ouologuem in terms of African nationalism and devoted at least some space to the specifics of the “négraille” that Ouologuem offers as a dramatic contrast to Senghorian negritude. In a footnote Wise explains that he has rendered this word as “black-rabble” rather than, as in other translations, “niggertrash,” but these terms signify in radically different ways, with “black-rabble” hardly packing much derogatory emphasis, which was certainly Ouologuem’s intent with “négraille.” The footnote mentioned above is, moreover, one of very few notes in the text, which lacks a critical apparatus and offers no commentary on the Ouologuem works themselves, neither tracking the known cases of textual borrowing nor glossing obscure or puzzling references (such as the occurrence, throughout The Duty of Violence, of what seem to be muqatta`at, the mysterious letter combinations of the Qur’an).

“The truth is that the various journalists, sociologists, ethnologists, Africanists, literary types, Negrophile ‘specialists,’ and so on, who write about Africa, are seeking to invent an Africa that can serve as a backdrop for them to reveal to the entire world their own genius,” Ouologuem writes in A Black Ghostwriter’s Letter, insisting that Africa continues to be enslaved in “the magic lamp of literature.” The most pressing question raised by this Reader, however, is to what extent Ouologuem was aware of his own tenuous position in regard to this dynamic. How did Ouologuem imagine his violent vision of African history, his assaultive pamphlets, and his engagement with eroticism as a means of breaking such enslavement? While Wise has offered a potentially valuable contribution to the Anglophone world with these translations, this volume is too enigmatic to be of interest to anyone unable or unwilling to research and contextualize Ouologuem on their own.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009