“I’m going to give you some advice: never attempt to say what a great book is about,” one young man of letters tells another early in Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s novel The Most Secret Memory of Men.
Or, if you do, the only possible response is “nothing.” A great book is only ever about nothing, and yet, everything is there. Don’t ever fall into the trap of wanting to say what a book that you think is great is about. It’s a trap set for you by the general consensus. People want a book to necessarily be about something. The truth, Diégane, is that only a mediocre or bad or ordinary book is about something.
This is a pretty obvious nudge and a warning for all readers and reviewers. It’s also a cocky promise, one that Sarr keeps. 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.
Its narrator, Diégane Latyr Faye, is, like Sarr himself, a youngish francophone Senegalese writer; the novel appears, at first, to be a sparkling satire of the African literary diaspora in France—“the Ghetto, as it’s affectionately called by certain shit-talkers, including me.” Its residents include Faustin Sanza, an unknown poet who has given up composing verse, not because his poetry has failed to find readers but because “he no longer believed in the poetic word,” and Eva (or Awa) Touré, “an entrepreneur, a self-empowerment coach, a diversity model, a galactic example,” and, inevitably, an author. The book she has not been able to keep herself from writing is entitled Love Is a Cocoa Bean, and Diégane considers it not just “soporific and dull” but “a methodical negation of the very idea of literature.”
On the other hand, Diégane admires the writing of “the sensual, dynamic Béatrice Nanga who I hoped would one day asphyxiate me between her breasts,” and especially of his Congolese friend Musimbwa. One of their favorite pastimes is passing judgment on reviewers, readers, and literary elders for their failings and condemning the previous generation of African writers for the ways they got
themselves stuck in a box, a box that was in fact a trap, a cage, a snare, a noose, which required that they be simultaneously “authentic”—meaning different—but nonetheless similar—meaning comprehensible (again, in other words: marketable in the Western context in which they were maneuvering).
Diégane and Musimbwa are similarly stuck and likewise maneuvering for recognition in the West:
No African writer established in France will admit that publicly. They’ll all deny it, adopting a rebel pose for good measure. But deep down, it’s a dream harbored by many of us (for some, it’s THE dream): induction into the French literary world (which it’s always helpful, in said posturing, to mock and shit on). It’s our shameful secret, but also the glory about which we fantasize; our servitude, and the poisoned illusion of our symbolic elevation.
Diégane’s debut novel has earned him, from a reviewer in Le Monde, “the formidable, dangerous, actually maybe even diabolical label of ‘a francophone African writer full of promise.’” He has already reached the point of regretting this first book as hopelessly flawed and plans to write another, much better one. Inspiration comes his way one night in a Paris bar when he catches sight of the formidable Marème Siga D., “the black angel of Senegalese literature,” an older writer who is famous for her talent and boldness. She has left Senegal permanently and written autobiographical books that have shocked and outraged her compatriots with their frankness. Diégane, casting around for a way to snag her attention, ends up propositioning her. Her seeming acceptance sends him, as she leads him to her hotel room, into a state of increasingly hilarious panic:
She entered the elevator, a terrible smile on her lips. As we rose to the thirteenth floor, I plunged, toward utter ruin. Siga D.’s body had known, done, tried everything: What could I offer her? Where could I take her? What could I think up? Who did I think I was? Those philosophers who extol the inexhaustible virtues of erotic inventiveness never had to deal with a Siga D., whose mere presence wiped away my sexual history. How should I go about it? The fourth floor already. She won’t feel anything, she won’t even feel you enter, your body will liquefy against hers, it will trickle down and be absorbed by the sheets, by the mattress. Seventh. You won’t just drown inside of her, you’ll disappear, disintegrate, crumble, she’s going to obliterate you.
Diégane’s discomfiture turns to awe before her naked body, whose beauty is “entangled with suffering; an immodest body, tried and tested; a body without harshness but one that wasn’t frightened of the harshness of the world.” Siga D. is a “Spider-Mother,” he thinks,
whose vast composition was interwoven with millions of threads of silk but also of steel and maybe blood, and I was merely a fly mired in that web, a fascinated and fat, green-hued fly, caught in Siga D., in the lattice and density of her lives.
The Spider-Mother guesses immediately that Diégane is a writer; she toys with him but also treats him with kindness. She shares a song from her childhood, a strong joint, and—most precious of all—a few pages, read out loud, that send shivers through his body.
In this way Diégane is initiated into the mysteries of T.C. Elimane, a writer who he has believed, until then, was “a mere flick of a match in the deep literary night.” The few known facts about Elimane are that he was from Senegal; that in 1938 in Paris, at age twenty-three, he published an acclaimed novel, The Labyrinth of Inhumanity; that the novel was embroiled in a scandal of some sort; and that he disappeared, never to be heard from again. The elusive writer has played a huge part in Siga D.’s life, though, and is about to do the same in Diégane’s. She gives him her copy of The Labyrinth of Inhumanity—one of the few that may still be in existence.
T.C. Elimane is inspired by a real person: the Malian writer Yambo Ouologuem, to whom Sarr has dedicated The Most Secret Memory of Men. Ouologuem’s Le Devoir de violence (1968) was acclaimed by French critics as a uniquely authentic, groundbreaking African novel (“perhaps the first African novel worthy of its name,” one critic wrote).1 It won the Prix Renaudot, but afterward Ouologuem was accused of plagiarizing passages from Graham Greene, who sued and halted its publication, as well as from the French writer André Schwarz-Bart and others. His defense was that the passages were meant to be obvious citations and had originally been in quotation marks. But the scandal seems to have cut his career short; he returned to Mali and disappeared from public view, living a reportedly reclusive and increasingly religious life in the countryside until his death in 2017.
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. We only ever read the first paragraph of The Labyrinth of Inhumanity:
In the beginning, there was a prophecy and there was a King; and the prophecy told the King that the earth would grant him absolute power but demand, in return, the ashes of old men and women, to which the King agreed; he immediately started to burn the elders of his kingdom, before scattering their remains around his palace, where, soon, a forest, a macabre forest, grew, which would be called the labyrinth of inhumanity.
It is one of the dark jokes of Sarr’s novel that we never glimpse more than this of a book that alters the lives of everyone who reads it. Diégane begins a diary
to record the extent to which The Labyrinth of Inhumanity has left me a poorer man. Great works impoverish us and must always impoverish us. They rid us of the superfluous. After reading them, we inevitably emerge emptied: enriched, but enriched through subtraction.
He shares The Labyrinth with the other residents of the Ghetto. Opinion is divided but passionate. As it should be, according to Béatrice Nanga: “A true writer…sparks fatal disagreements among true readers, who are forever at war.” Diégane, of course, agrees:
T.C. Elimane wasn’t classic, he was cult. Literary mythos is a gaming table. Elimane sat at that table and laid down the three most powerful trump cards there are: first, he chose a name with mysterious initials; then, he only wrote a single book; finally, he disappeared without leaving a trace.
Elimane’s book is “both cathedral and arena.” It offers the writers who follow him “the chance to tear each other limb from limb in pious and bloody literary jousts.”
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. Sarr makes Diégane well aware of how ridiculous and even pathetic it is to care this much about writing—to want, more than anything in the world, to write a great book. But he also makes him a true believer, a man who, high on an unspecified drug one night on a Paris bench, receives a visitation from literature itself “in the guise of a woman of terrifying beauty,” only to be reminded by an inner voice
that desire isn’t enough, that talent isn’t enough, that ambition isn’t enough, that being a good writer isn’t enough, that being well- read isn’t enough, that being famous isn’t enough, that being highly cultured isn’t enough, that being wise isn’t enough, that commitment isn’t enough, that patience isn’t enough, that getting drunk off pure life isn’t enough, that retreating from life isn’t enough, that believing in your dreams isn’t enough, that dissecting reality isn’t enough, that intelligence isn’t enough, that stirring hearts isn’t enough, that strategy isn’t enough, that communication isn’t enough, that even having something to say isn’t enough, nor is working tirelessly enough; and the voice also says that all of that might be and often is a condition, an advantage, an attribute, a strength, of course, but then the voice adds that in essence none of those qualities are ever enough when it’s a question of literature, because writing always demands something else, something else, something else.
Of course, the central conceit of Sarr’s novel wouldn’t work if he didn’t show, in every sentence, that he and Diégane are writers. Diégane’s voice is at once exalted and self-deprecating, romantic and ironic, full of a grandiosity that is self-conscious but sincere. It goes on flights of fancy, slips into melancholy reveries, winds itself up into excitable declarations; it moves from high intellectual registers to down-and-dirty conversational ones, creating humor in its sudden swerves. (It is in connection to this voice that I sometimes found myself quibbling with Lara Vergnaud’s otherwise excellent translation, which more than matches the original’s momentum and eloquence. But some of the wit or wordplay is lost along the way; the incredible fluency of Diégane’s inner monologue occasionally hits awkward snags in English.)
Sarr has written three previous novels: one is set in a community taken over by Islamist militants2; another follows African migrants trying to integrate into a small Italian town. The third, De Purs Hommes (2018), explores the violent stigmatization of homosexuality in Senegal and showcases many of Sarr’s talents: an ability to vividly conjure the atmosphere and grain of life; a narrative voice that is witty, erudite, and sympathetic; an interest in infusing his story with larger metaphysical questions yet a willingness to leave the answers to those questions suspended, unsettled.
Still, The Most Secret Memory of Men is of a different scope and caliber than any of Sarr’s earlier work. It is a tour de force, an all-in bet at that table of “literary mythos.” And a winning one. In 2021, this book inspired by the disgrace and silencing of an African writer half a century ago won France’s highest literary prize, the Prix Goncourt. Sarr has entered the literary establishment that the book skewers, gained the fraught recognition that Diégane admits he craves.
Diégane begins researching Elimane and learns that after his book’s publication, he was feted as a phenomenon, dubbed a “Negro Rimbaud,” held up as evidence of colonialism’s success, suspected of being a hoax (because a Black man could not possibly write so well), criticized both for not being African enough and for painting such a dark, violent picture of his homeland. A racist scholar accused him (falsely) of lifting his story from the myth of the Bassari people; another discovered that he had interpolated quotations from Western literature throughout his work. Arguments broke out over whether this constituted plagiarism or a brilliant reinterpretation. Elimane refused to comment and simply disappeared. His publishers were forced to apologize and destroy all copies of the book.
Diégane becomes obsessed with figuring out what happened to Elimane and—just as importantly—what he may have written after The Labyrinth. His search ranges from World War II Paris to 1960s Buenos Aires to a village in Senegal. The tale he unfolds is full of mysteries and revelations, betrayals and abandonments, conflicting versions of events and strange twists of chance (although as one character says, “Chance is merely a fate unknown to us, a fate written in invisible ink”). It takes off in unpredictable directions and then doubles back on itself in eerie, improbable, utterly satisfying coincidences.
We learn the story of Elimane’s origins, which lie in a village in Senegal and a love triangle involving two seemingly opposite brothers. When they are still boys, their father tells them that colonialism is there to stay a long time and that by the time it ends,
we will be something else. Our culture is stricken. The thorn is in its flesh and there’s no way to take it out without dying. But we can live with the thorn and leave it in our body, not like a medal, but like a scar, a witness, a bad memory, like a warning against future thorns. There will be other thorns, in other forms, in other colors. But this one, this thorn, is now part of our great wound, meaning our life.
The boys grow up divided by this wound—one stolid, jealous, blind but gifted with a secret vision, attached to the traditions of his community; the other brilliant, seductive, transformed by his French education and enamored with the possibilities it offers. The woman they both love, Mossane, is ultimately undone, not by their rivalry but by the inexplicable, unbearable loss of her son, Elimane.
We hear from the young Jewish couple who published Elimane’s book, from a reporter who followed his traces and became convinced he was versed in black magic, from a Haitian poetess who was his lover in Buenos Aires. Siga D. tells her own story: her hatred for her father, her near self-destruction in the streets of Dakar, her irreparable break with her home country. Characters step into the story, redirecting it, expanding it; then they take off, disappearing as mysteriously, in some cases, as Elimane himself. Each narrative answers some questions and raises others, solves some mysteries and introduces new clues.
This book that hinges partly on accusations of plagiarism borrows and reimagines freely, wears its many influences on its sleeve. Its title is a quote from Roberto Bolaño on the eventual, ineluctable solitude of the work of art and what does and does not withstand the passage of time. Sarr makes up writers based on real ones and turns real writers—Witold Gombrowicz, Ernesto Sabato—into characters in his story. He invents histories, documents, letters. He references Greek and German philosophers and Symbolist French poets, Senegalese music and folk beliefs. The portion of the story that is set in the African village, which dramatizes the way colonialism tore people apart, struck me as an echo of the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih’s great novel Season of Migration to the North (1966).
As every character in the book hunts for, waits for, looks for some version of Elimane, we follow along, traveling to different times and places, through distinct, memorable atmospheres: landscapes of dread, yearning, revelation. The book shifts, with incredible ease and smoothness, from one genre to the next: social satire to folktale to romantic melodrama to noir. Sarr’s bag of tricks is not necessarily new, but he performs each one so flawlessly that you end up shaking your head, asking: How did he just do that?
In Nazi-occupied Paris, we search for Elimane alongside his Jewish friend and editor, Charles Ellenstein, sharing his dawning realization of the danger he is in:
It’s not only the fact that he doesn’t recognize the city that is putting him in this state, it’s also, mainly, the feeling that the city doesn’t recognize him. Or the opposite: the vague feeling that it absolutely recognizes him, that every street has identified him and every building is watching him. The entire city is whispering his name, and that’s what frightens him.
In the 1980s, also in Paris, we chase a man who might be Elimane through a nighttime park with Siga D., who is studying philosophy and moonlighting as a stripper. An older, wealthy African man has been showing up at the club in Place Clichy where she works. He sits with his back to the stage; his solitude is so intense it has a color, “a halo of milky purple lined with thin green.” He is scary, possibly dangerous, wreathed in a shadow of death; after Siga D.’s friend Denise gives him a lap dance, she become haunted and ill. Yet Siga D. trails him through the park as he sings a tango, and the world shifts around her:
In place of the park benches I’d walked past, there were now trees, but foreign trees, taller than the species typically found there. Their branches were longer and their trunks more imposing; as for the foliage, the leaves were so densely packed that they resembled spheres of compact black resin. I glanced up: the very clear sky that I’d been looking at a few seconds earlier was no longer visible, except through gaps in the thick canopy that had woven itself above me…. Around me, the park as I’d known it no longer existed. This was another park, a park that belonged to a different world, a different city. My surroundings had completed their silent and invisible metamorphosis: everything had changed without appearing to, as if, without my realizing, without anything moving even, the park had become a jungle.
Siga D. also happens to be high out of her mind; she bursts into giggles and then breaks down in sobs, goes from terrified to angry to relieved when, in the end, Elimane—if he was ever there—slips through her fingers again.
Diégane’s friend Musimbwa also follows Elimane, in his own way. He returns to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to write from the place where all his writing originates: the dry well in which he hid, covering his ears, while his parents were butchered, for no reason or gain, by marauding troops. The letter in which he recounts this murder is one of the most precise, tragic, and indelible depictions of evil I’ve ever read. It comes suddenly, near the end of the book; yet far from feeling gratuitous or out of place, it adds what feels like one final necessary element, a measure needed for the book’s balance.
Finally, Diégane pursues Elimane back to their native Senegal, arriving as enormous antigovernment protests are breaking out. He visits his happy, concerned parents and reunites with Aïda, the lover he has been pining for over the course of the book, a photojournalist who is there to cover the protests. In a single run-on show-off sentence, Sarr infuses their lovemaking with the excitement of everything that is going on around them and the intimation of loss:
Every revolution begins with the body, and Aïda’s body is a city rising up, a city on fire that will never turn to ash, and my fight is here, because the fight, the struggle, is what elevates man, and this cause is worth it, my fight is here because there’s nothing more beautiful than waging battle in a city that you love even if you feel like you don’t always know it . . . I love this city, because it doesn’t surrender entirely, with the same movement it leans in and pulls away . . . and it moves in a way that leaves no choice to whoever finds themselves here but to go along with it, to trust with eyes closed, to follow along a trajectory that appears to be aimless but never is, that resembles the rambling of a mad person but is in fact the initiation of the revolutionary, the only true revolutionary there is—the lover—who, at the end of the journey, will discover that they’re not ready, because you’re never really ready for this kind of thing, but they will have understood the meaning of great sacrifices for just causes.
And yet Diégane doesn’t believe in the possibility of Aïda’s love or of homecoming or of political action as much as he believes in that of—you guessed it—literature. He will turn his back on all of those things and go on looking for Elimane.
At one point Diégane argues:
Nothing beautiful is written without melancholy…. You open a hatch of sadness, and literature sends up a big laugh from the hole. You enter a book like it’s a lake of black, icy pain. But at the bottom, you suddenly find yourself at a party: the joyful ambience of sperm whales tangoing, seahorses zouking, turtles twerking, giant cephalopods moonwalking. You always start with melancholy, the melancholy of being human.
That is true of this story; it is often sad and yet its telling is undertaken with such confidence, bravado, and joy that its effect is electrifying. Sarr makes Elimane’s silence and absence into a collapsed star, a black hole at the center of his book; then he pours into it everything his imagination and talent can come up with. As Diégane says, “Encountering someone who’s gone silent, truly silent, invariably prompts reflection about the meaning—the necessity—of your own words.” But neither he nor Sarr can stop his own words from bursting forth—exploding like fireworks, unfurling like banners. They light up every page of this book that refuses to be “about”; that refuses, with great ingenuity, to be reduced to a simple political or moral reading. It is, in other words, an actual literary experience, a draft so good and intoxicating that you just want to drain it down to its last, perfect sentence.