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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

Yambo Ouologuem

edited by
Christopher Wise

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the editor

To purchase Yambo Ouologuem

Title: Yambo Ouologuem
Editor: Christopher Wise
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1999
Length: 241 pages
Availability: Yambo Ouologuem - US
Yambo Ouologuem - UK
Yambo Ouologuem - Canada
  • Postcolonial Writer, Islamic Militant
  • With contributions by Wole Soyinka, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Christopher Wise, and others

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Our Assessment:

B- : interesting overview, but not entirely adequate

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Research in African Lit. A Spring/2001 George Lang
World Lit. Today . Winter/2000 Robert P. Smith Jr.

  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)he first three parts of the book constitute an essential source for study of the reception of Ouologuem and fully justify its acquisition by any serious library. It is, however, the concluding accounts of Wise's own research in the field which make this volume indispensable for future discussion of Ouologuem and open the path for innovative in vivo research into African writing." - George Lang, Research in African Literatures

  • "With this book Wise wanted to locate Ouologuem's reception more squarely within the context of African concerns, sweeping aside the concerns of European critics. He has done this to an impressive degree in part I (which focuses on representative responses to Ouologuem's writing from African critics), in the interviews in part 4, and in his excellent introduction." - Robert P. Smith Jr., 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:

       Yambo Ouologuem was, briefly, a bright light indeed in the literary world. His 1968 novel, Le Devroir de violence (translated in 1971 as Bound to Violence; see our review), made quite a splash. The book won the fairly prestigious Prix Renaudot, was translated into numerous languages, widely reviewed, well received. Then came the (well-founded) accusations of plagiarism -- from the works of André Schwarz-Bart, Graham Greene, and others.
       The American edition (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971) disappeared fairly fast, but the Heinemann edition was in print for a considerable length of time, first appearing in 1971 and reprinted in 1977, 1981, and 1983 (and possibly again thereafter). It was listed in the Heinemann catalogue as recently as 2000, though it now appears to be out of print. After the first edition an acknowledgement was always included:

The Publishers acknowledge the use of certain passages on pages 54-56 from It's a Battlefield by Graham Greene.
       The French edition was apparently banned, and the book is currently not available in French.
       Ouologuem wrote two other books: Lettre à la France nègre (1968), "a collection of somewhat flimsy diatribes" (so Eric Sellin in his contribution to this volume), and some erotica, published under the pseudonym Utto Rodolph, Les Milles et une bibles du sexe (1969). Other than this -- and the many interviews and a few stray articles written around the publication of Bound to Violence -- little has been heard from Ouologuem over the past few decades.
       The plagiarism controversy might have silenced Ouologuem, but regardless of the appropriations in it, Bound to Violence could not be ignored or dismissed. Even in 1990 Thomas Hale could call it "the most controversial novel ever written by an African writer". Of course, few people still remember it or the various controversies surrounding it (but then how many controversial (or not controversial) novels by African authors could most people name ?)
       This collection, edited by Christopher Wise (who also authored four of the fifteen essays, as well as the introduction), serves as an adequate introduction to and overview of Ouologuem's writing.
       Not only is there apparently nothing by Ouologuem in print, there is also relatively little about him that is readily accessible. This is probably about as good as it gets. As a collection of essays addressing major points about Ouologuem and his work it is quite good. But for those who know practically nothing about Ouologuem it fails in certain vital areas.
       The two major weaknesses of the collection are the absence of any coherent biographical summary of Ouologuem's life, education, and career, and the absence of a summary of the plagiarism-debates (and the result of the various court and personal battles). Both biography and the plagiarism episodes are touched on in many of the pieces, but it is a scattered approach that still leaves far too many blanks. Among the vital questions left unanswered are those about what exactly Ouologuem's experiences in France and America were, as well as the legal to-do regarding the plagiarism accusations. For example, in his contribution, first published in 1983, Christopher Miller states: "to this day the French public is still enjoined from buying the novel." Is this still true ? Why wasn't the book banned in the British and American markets ? Or was it ? These seem like fairly basic issues, but they are not touched upon in the book.

       The collection comes with a somewhat exaggerated subtitle: Postcolonial Writer, Islamic Militant. Postcolonial Ouologuem was, but to call him an Islamic militant seems something of a stretch. Bound to Violence certainly isn't an Islamic militant's tract (far from it, in fact), and while Ouologuem seems to have embraced Islam since returning to his homeland he doesn't seem to fit the militant image too well.
       But Wise seems to like to go in for a bit of hyperbole. In his introduction he writes that: "Ouologuem's decision to return to Mali and wash his hands of writing in French was an incalculable loss to world literature." While this is, taken strictly literally, true -- incalculable simply meaning that it can not be calculated (and could be anywhere form completely negligible to immense) -- Wise's implication is that it is, indeed, an enormous loss. While Bound to Violence is a remarkable text, it must be noted that his other two French publications (the pamphlet and the pornography) didn't make too great an impact on world literature -- and that Bound to Violence wasn't entirely a work of his own creation. On the basis of these three texts the loss doesn't look quite so overwhelming.
       The first section offers African reactions to Bound to Violence. There is a useful piece by Wole Soyinka, J. Mbelolo ya Mpiku's fairly controversial discussion of From One Mystification to Another (from Senghorian "négritude" to Ouologuem's "négraille"), and Tunde Fatunde's piece on Images of Working People (contrasting Bound to Violence with Festus Iyayi's Violence). Chris Dutton considers The Representation of Homosexuality in Ouologuem's Le Devroir de violence, a subject that apparently provoked the ire of many Africans. (In the introduction, Wise quotes Cheikh Hamidou Kane's apparently typical misguided belief: "Ouologuem has a concept of love which is atrocious; homosexuality which does not exist in our culture".) Finally, Kwame Anthony Appiah considers Yambo Ouologuem and the Meaning of Postcoloniality.
       The essays in the second section focus on "Ouologuem's controversial method of composition" (a Wise puts it in his introduction). Eric Sellin's piece provides useful information about the plagiarism accusations. In particular, it notes André Schwarz-Bart's generous response when made aware of the possible literary borrowings (he said he was "touched, even overwhelmed" by the honour, and that "Mr. Ouologuem is not indebted to me, but rather I to him"). There are useful particulars about the plagiarisms and the reactions to the accusations, but the essay does not quite suffice as a survey of the far-reaching episode, leaving too many questions unanswered. The conclusion -- "that Le Devroir de violence is largely a paste-up of unoriginal material which has been appropriately adapted to fit the book's general 'structure d'accueil' " -- is also not fully convincingly demonstrated (though it may be true).
       Christiane Chaulet-Achour also offers examples of (mis)appropriations of outside material, comparing passages from Schwarz-Bart and Bound to Violence, as well as other possible sources. Christopher Miller's piece also examines the plagiarism issue, while Caroline A. Mohsen looks specifically at Lettre à la France nègre. As she -- and some of the other authors here -- suggest, Ouologuem's essays shed some light on both his writing technique and his political and creative concerns. (The collection appears never to have been translated into English and does not seem to be readily available, meaning readers generally have to rely on these interpretive essays, rather than being able to read Ouologuem's own words and judge for themselves.)
       Ann Elizabeth Willey offers A Feminist Reading of Yambo Ouologuem, focussing both on his essay-collection and Les Milles et une bibles du sexe -- two works few readers will be familiar with (or will be able to familiarize themselves with).
       The third part of the collection looks at Islamic-Sahelian Influences in Ouologuem's Writings. Thomas Hale's interesting piece focusses on the Songhay influences on Bound to Violence, while Christopher Wise then looks at him as Marabout Novelist. Both essays offer useful background and historical information that Western readers may not be aware of.
       The final part offers three pieces by Wise, focussing on Yambo Ouologuem Today. These are in many ways the most interesting pieces, as Wise goes in search of the author in the late 1990s and describes his adventures and encounters. He goes In Search of Yambo Ouologuem, offering a decent overview of the author and what has become of him. It also makes for a decent detective-adventure story. Indeed, it and the sequel, Yambo Ouologuem Among the Tidjaniya, are more satisfactory as travelogues than literary criticism (or biography).
       Wise describes the scenes quite nicely, and the conversations with Ouologuem are quite interesting -- but Wise does not follow up adequately. The truth of many of the statements could, surely, be determined, but Wise rarely makes any attempt to do so.

       Given how little information about Ouologuem is readily available, this collection is of considerable interest. Wise's pictures of what has become of the author, in particular, are gripping -- but it is unfortunate that there is so little biographical information generally: about Ouologuem before 1968, and between 1971 and when Wise encountered him.
       The essays focussed on Ouologuem's writing offer a variety of perspectives. Several are historically significant, and almost all are of at least some interest.
       The volume is, however, probably only of interest to those familiar with some of Ouologuem's work, or those interested in specific aspects of African literature.

       Note that it is a bizarre world where one is more likely to find a book about an author, than any books by that author. But it is the world we live in. (Blame the publishers !)

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Yambo Ouologuem: Yambo Ouologuem: Books by Yambo Ouologuem under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • Index of books relating to Africa

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About the Editor:

       Christopher Wise teaches at Western Washington University. In 1996-7 he taught at the University of Ougadougou.

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