The Most Secret Memory of Men

„To write or not to write.“ These are the last words of the novel „The Most Secret Memory of Man“ by Senegalese author Mohamed Mbougar Sarr.

This last sentence is not an end but a promise: it is about the love of literature, about the need to put something on paper that is of literary value. Nothing more and nothing less. A text that can still captivate people even after a hundred years. A text that wants to be read over and over again that will be memorized. In short, it is about everything.

To write or not to write.

Mohamed Mbougar Sarr presents his fourth novel, „The Most Secret Memory of Man“. His previous works have already delighted both critics and readers in France. Nevertheless, he was surprised when he got shortlisted for the 2021 Prix Goncourt. Ultimately, his book won over the jury, and he received the most prestigious literary prize in France. This award catapulted Mohamed Mbougar Sarr virtually overnight into other spheres of the literary world. At age 31, he is among the youngest authors ever to receive this honour. In his case, it is even something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because his novel character Diégane Latyr Faye dreams of one day receiving the Goncourt for the book he has yet to write.

„A great book is never about anything, and yet it contains everything.“*

„Is it the novel of your life?“ is a question that Mohamed Mbougar Sarr has had to answer in numerous interviews. He takes it in his stride and points to the fact that time is clearly on his side. For him, writing is and remains his great passion, more than that, a vocation which ultimately does not cease to exist with the Prix Goncourt. Quite the opposite.

Paris is the Eldorado of Francophone African writers.

The discussions in a bar on the Place de Clichy, where a small circle of friendly writers from the young African literary scene in Paris come together, revolve around the creation of meaningful, profound, true literature. Sometimes to inspire each other, other times to make their self-imposed exile more bearable or even just to get drunk and share a bed for the night.

One of them is the young Senegalese writer Diégane Latyr Faye. In 2018, he heard about an untraceable cult book by a lost Senegalese author, which is said to have been published in 1938: „Le Labyrinthe de l’inhumain“ (The Labyrinth of the Inhuman). However, the author, celebrated by the literary popes of his time as the „Black Rimbaud“ (Le Rimbaud nègre), soon fell out of favour. The initial enthusiasm turned into mistrust. Could such an outstanding text come from the pen of an African? The book made waves and ultimately led to a literary scandal. The accusation: plagiarism, a string of quotations from great French writers – a sacrilege. T. C. Elimane disappeared from the scene without speaking out about it.

However, Diégane considers the book to be a masterpiece. He is captivated by the text. It becomes his obsession and he sets off on the trail of the mysterious T. C. Elimane. His search takes him from Senegal via Amsterdam and Paris to the literary salons of Buenos Aires.

A literary thriller and great storytelling at the same time.

From then on, the novel’s plot unfolds in layers before our eyes. We enter the story almost simultaneously with Diégane. We are there when clues become more and more apparent when the background and abysses of time open up. Letters, newspaper articles, diary entries, interviews, stories from friends… it is confusing, and sometimes only well-hidden clues can help us discover who is speaking. Moreover, what is true … and what is not? The story takes shape with each additional layer of information, and we get closer to the truth. Again and again, the reader finds a key that fits into the lock in another place. Not revealing too much: Doubts remain – and in the end, the truth does not quite emerge from this labyrinth.

Mohamed Mbougar Sarr draws the tension between Africa and the West with humour and a good dose of self-irony. Between white critics and people-of-colour authors. Between colonial masters and Africans who wanted to surpass their former enslavers in their „civilization“ and way of life. However, also among the migrants who, in their self-imposed exile, are moving further and further away from their loved ones and culture back home. The reality of their lives includes a belief in spirits and black magic – things that are difficult to convey in the West but are a reality in many regions of Africa.

Romantically inclined and thoroughly emancipated.

Last but not least, Mohamed Mbougar Sarr is a romantic who believes in great love. He creates terrific, emancipated female characters, without whom this story could never have been told. The rhythm of the narrative changes, the language accelerates, and the sentences get shorter. He sensitively beguiles not only his beloved in a few love scenes that are full of eroticism without ever being vulgar.

A fascinating plot develops against the backdrop of 20th-century history.

The search for the purely fictional, mysterious literary genius of the 1930s spans a wide historical arc. From the colonial era through both world wars, in which young men from the colonies served as cannon fodder, to the Holocaust and the blond Nazi officers who roamed the streets of Paris during the German occupation of France. Later came the wars of independence and the post-colonial conflicts in West Africa with their atrocities. The fates of the protagonists who crossed the paths of the legendary author over time are closely interwoven with historical events. They are the setting and political background of T.C. Elimane’s life. A story that remains exciting and surprising to the very end.

With „The Most Secret Memory of Men“, Mohamed Mbougar Sarr has succeeded in writing a novel with exuberant language and the eternal stories of love, hate and madness.

Mohamed Mbougar Sarr was born in 1990 in Dakar, Senegal. He was the eldest of seven sons in Diourbel, east of the capital. He attended the Prytanée Militaire in Saint-Louis and then a preparatory class for the Grandes Écoles (CPGE) in France. He was eventually admitted to the École des hautes études en sciences sociales, EHESS, in Paris, where he studied literature and philosophy. Mohamed Mbougar Sarr has already published three novels, for which he was awarded the Prix Stéphane-Hessel and Grand prix du roman métis, among others. He received the Prix Goncourt in 2021 for „The Most Secret Memory of Man“.

„Die geheimste Erinnerung der Menschen“ by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, translated from French to German by Holger Fock and Sabine Müller, was published by Hanser Verlag in November 2022.

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* Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, La plus secrète mémoire des hommes, Éditions Philippe Rey/Jimsaan, Paris, 2021, P. 50
Foto, Mohamed Mbougar Sarr; Copyright: DR/Courtesy of Philippe Rey; Credits: Hanser-Verlag

Book cover, credits: Hanser-Verlag