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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Bound to Violence

Yambo Ouologuem

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To purchase Bound to Violence

Title: Bound to Violence
Author: Yambo Ouologuem
Genre: Novel
Written: 1968 (Eng. 1971)
Length: 182 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Bound to Violence - US
Bound to Violence - UK
Bound to Violence - Canada
Le Devoir de violence - Canada
Le Devoir de violence - France
Das Gebot der Gewalt - Deutschland
  • French title: Le Devoir de violence
  • Translated by Ralph Manheim
  • Also translated by Christopher Wise, as The Duty of Violence, in The Yambo Ouologuem Reader (2008)
  • Awarded the Prix Renaudot, 1968
  • The Heinemann edition notes: "The Publishers acknowledge the use of certain passages (...) from It's a Battlefield by Graham Greene"

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Our Assessment:

B+ : passionate, energetic, messy

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic Monthly . 4/1971 Phoebe Adams
Book World . 6/6/1971 Paul Theroux
Christian Science Monitor . 1/4/1971 Geoffrey Godsell
The Nation . 31/5/1971 C.R.Larson
National Review . 6/4/1971 E.B.Meyer
New Statesman . 9/7/1971 Mervyn Jones
The New Yorker B- 13/11/1971 John Updike
The NY Rev. of Books . 23/9/1971 John Thompson
The NY Times Book Rev. A 7/3/1971 John A. Williams
Time . 15/3/1971 Melvin Maddocks
TLS . 9/7/1971 .
TLS . 12/4/2024 Tobias Warner
Wall Street Journal . 6/10/2023 Sam Sacks

  From the Reviews:
  • "Bound to Violence, a first novel, is a great one (.....) It deserves many readings, since mistaken views are apt to come out of the first. (...) Ouologuem writes of surviving all oppression and, perhaps, even thriving on it. His novel is something of a skyscraper. It has multi-levels, a variety of actions, characters and scenes, all neatly confined to the French-touched African experience." - John A. Williams, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Bound to Violence (...) conveys, through Ralph Manheim's translation, a startling energy of language. (...) The intelligence expressed by the book seems all too withering, all too Gallic." - John Updike, The New Yorker

  • "As tempting as it is to understand Ouologuem as a collagist, Bound to Violence is far more than the sum of its borrowings. (...) The tone is alternatingly poignant and sardonic, while the plot punctuates moments of intimacy with outbursts of shocking cruelty. (...) The original English translation by Ralph Manheim from 1971 has been only lightly updated. He handled Ouologuem's energetic and varied styles well, but it still feels like a missed opportunity not to have allowed a new translator to try their hand at the author's samples with fuller knowledge of their provenance." - Tobias Warner, Times Literary Supplement

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:

       There was a lot of fuss about Le Devoir de violence in the years after it was first published. It won a prestigious French literary prize and was widely (and generally positively) reviewed and well received. It was rendered into English by heavyweight translator Ralph Manheim and received a great deal of media attention. The book was widely reviewed in the US and UK and Ouologuem was interviewed and written about in many prominent publications. The author even appeared on the Today show, NBC's popular morning news-entertainment programme. (Times sure have changed: when was the last time a foreign author of literary fiction appeared on any American news programme ?)
       To add to the excitement came a flurry of accusations of plagiarism. Bound to Violence clearly incorporated passages from Graham Greene's It's a Battlefield, André Schwarz-Bart's The Last of the Just, and works by Guy de Maupassant. Beside the legal issues these appropriations raised they also caused a media-backlash.
       As recently as 1990 Thomas Hale could speak of "the most controversial novel ever written by an African writer" (in his book Scribe, Griot, and Novelist, and the excerpt reprinted in Yambo Ouologuem: Postcolonial Writer, Islamic Militant, ed. Christopher Wise (see our review)). Perhaps so, but who really remembers one-hit wonder Ouologuem nowadays ? Bound to Violence was still listed in Heinemann's 2000 catalogue; now it appears to be out of print. The French original is also unavailable; it is unclear whether it has been available at all since the early 1970s. (In a 1983 article, also reprinted in Yambo Ouologuem: Postcolonial Writer, Islamic Militant, Christopher Miller states that: "To this day the French public is enjoined from buying the novel.")

       Bound to Violence is certainly an interesting and even exciting novel. The plagiarism complicates matters -- a great deal, actually -- but there's no doubt that Ouologuem wrought (one way or another) something quite remarkable.
       The novel focusses on the fictitious African country of Nakem. Ouologuem recounts its history, from grand empire to French colony and the truncated modern African Republic of Nakem-Ziuko. The ruling dynasty of Saifs dominates the history of the land, from ancient times to modern.
       Bound to Violence has four parts. The first is a compressed history of the first several hundred years of the Nakem Empire, starting around the year 1200. It is a brutal, violent, oppressive, corrupt country. Slavery is widespread: "a hundred million of the damned -- so moan the troubadours of Nakem when the evening vomits forth its starry diamonds -- were carried away." There's even cannibalism: "one of the darkest features of that spectral Africa over which hung the malefic shadow of Saif al-Haram."
       The Arabs had conquered the land (settling over it "like a she-dog baring her white fangs in raucous laughter"), and the common (black) man -- the négraille, as Ouologuem calls it, translated here as "niggertrash" -- suffers for it. Religion -- Islam -- is abused in order to consolidate and keep power. It "became a means of action, a political weapon."
       The brief second part sees the coming of the Whites at the close of the 19th century. The empire is "pacified" and divvied up by the Europeans, with the French controlling what remains of Nakem. There is the hope that life will improve:

Saved from slavery, the niggertrash welcomed the white man with joy, hoping he would make them forget the mighty Saif's meticulously organized cruelty.
       Each side uses the niggertrash to their own ends. The Saif remains influential and powerful even under the French administration; the subjugated commoners still have little chance of tolerable lives.
       The bulk of the book is taken up by the third section, The Night of the Giants, set in the first half of the twentieth century. There are still all manner of horrific incidents as the Saif indiscriminately wields what power he has left. From female infibulation to the Saif's curious assassination technique (using trained asps) there is a lot of ugly violence here.
       Beside the Saif the stories of two other figures are particularly important in this section. One is Fritz Shrobenius, transparently based on German archaeologist and anthropologist Leo Frobenius. He comes to learn about Nakem -- and to buy relics, masks, and other cultural artifacts. The Saif -- uninterested in history -- makes up stories and sells whatever cultural legacy can be procured. More -- tons -- is donated by the niggertrash "to the acolytes of 'Shrobeniusology' ". Later, after Shrobenius, this "salesman and manufacturer of ideology", has popularized African art in Europe many others come to purchase pieces. Since no originals are left, Saif "had slapdash copies buried by the hundredweight" and then sold at exorbitant prices.
       Another significant figure is Raymond-Spartacus Kassoumi, a child of poverty who takes advantage of the schooling offered by the French and achieves academic success that allows him to pursue his studies in France. He meets both success and failure in France, experiencing highs and lows. Beside his varied academic experiences he also is reduced to becoming the lover of a wealthy Frenchman and encounters his sister in a bordello -- finding that the long reach of Saif is practically inescapable. Raymond eventually returns to Nakem, in what he thinks is triumph, only to find that the ruling Saif is again manipulating him (and his country).
       The brief concluding section, Dawn, offers some hope. Abbé Henry,
the hunchback priest obsessed by the tragedy of the Blacks, half crazed with the Christian duty of love, as humbly beautiful as the despair of a Christian soul
       is now a bishop. The last section consists almost entirely of a dialogue between Henry and Saif, both philosophical discourse and power struggle. Saif -- this Saif -- appears vanquished, but Ouologuem reminds the reader:
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.

       Bound to Violence is an odd book, careening wildly about. Hundreds of years of history are compressed into a few pages, while brief episodes -- Raymond's homosexual corruption, various misdeeds by any number of the Saifs, the training of the asps, the visit from Shrobenius -- are more languorously drawn out. The shifts are radical and unexpected. From broad satire (the Shrobenius episode) to inconceivable violence (throughout) to isolated glimpses of humanity, Ouologuem throws it all in.
       It is a furious flurry of a novel. Scenes are off-puttingly direct and touchingly circumspect. The language veers between carefully controlled and completely overblown. Generally, Ouologuem's style works -- but there is some horrible writing here too: "the caressing sun nibbled at her insolent, swollen breasts", for example. Indeed, sex, especially, is problematic throughout:
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 ....
       (Ouologuem also published a book of pornographic short stories, Les Milles et une bibles du sexe, under the pseudonym of Utto Rodolph in 1969. We haven't ever seen a copy, and can only dream about how bad it must be.)
       Ouologuem's novel is also controversial because of its approach to Africa. There is almost no romanticizing here, and it is a complete counter to Senghorian "négritude" -- as Ouologuem intended it to be. The portrayal of native blacks as victims not only of the Western colonial powers, but also of the Arabs (and, significantly, the religion of the Arabs, Islam) was also a significant step. The portrayal of blacks sold by each other was also an uncommon one. Ouologuem's tone, at times, is one of contempt for the victims, doomed, he suggests, to remain as such forever.
        The reach of history is one of the more impressive aspects of the novel. While only a relatively small portion of the novel is devoted to the time from 1200 to the 19th century, there is no romanticizing of the pre-European past. The niggertrash was subjugated long before then.
       Little is holy to Ouologuem, and it is this sweeping all-out assault that makes the novel a success. Relentlessly, until the very end, Ouologuem portrays a sick society and a people that can not help themselves. The unscrupulous powers that be are also largely untouchable. It is not a book that will please many people, but that makes it no less effective or impressive.

       And the plagiarism ? The plagiarism complicates matters. The styles vary greatly throughout the novel, and once one knows that pieces have been borrowed it is difficult not to see the whole as a grand collage of material appropriated elsewhere. This is unfair to Ouologuem: the book is also bursting with originality. Still, if, as Christopher Miller suggests (in Trait d'Union, reprinted in Yambo Ouologuem: Postcolonial Writer, Islamic Militant), "hardly a page of Le Devoir goes by without incorporating a passing reference to or an outright theft from some precursor", then this weighs quite heavily on the text.
       The story of the plagiarisms remains unclear. In a 1998 piece reprinted in Yambo Ouologuem: Postcolonial Writer, Islamic Militant, Christopher Wise repeats Ouologuem's claims that the French publisher removed the quotation marks around the passages in question, as well as stating that "the novel had been translated into English without his consent." Wise also states that Ouologuem claimed "Bound to Violence had been published before he'd even signed a contract."
       The various competing claims remain murky. As to the missing quotation marks: it is unclear what purpose they might have served even if they ever existed. Without concomitant attribution it doesn't really make that much of a difference -- and once one starts acknowledging the borrowings the text gets sidetracked in that tangle.
       Do the plagiarisms make a difference ? Aside from the fact that it is just bad form to steal what others have written (and that it is also, in many cases, against the law), it would not appear to add as much to the text as it distracts from it. Among the greatest weaknesses of the novel are aspects of its uneven collage-like quality, which is more pronounced in some places than others. Weaving in passages from other works no doubt accentuates this fault -- if it isn't, in fact, the outright cause.
       Of course, there are those that say Ouologuem plagiarized with a very real purpose. Our favourite theory (care of Christopher Miller): that the novel is, in fact, "an assault on European assumptions about writing and creativity." If so, he certainly paid a high price for it.

       Bound to Violence is many things, including a literary-historical curiosity. It is a wildly uneven book, but still very worthwhile. And ultimately it is more interesting as a piece of literature than for the controversies surrounding it (especially the plagiarism controversy -- though it too raises valid and important questions that continue to appear to be unanswered).
       Worth seeking out.

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About the Author:

       Yambo Ouologuem was born in 1940, in what is now Mali.

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