The oldest and most prestigious literary prize in France, The Prix Goncourt, has been awarded to 31-year old Mohamed Mbougar Sarr from Senegal. He’s the youngest winner since 1976 and the first from sub-Saharan Africa. Critics have been raving about ‘The Most Secret Memory of Men,’ his novel about a young Senegalese writer living in Paris.
The jury made a unanimous decision to award Mbougar Sarr the prize after just one round of voting, calling his work “a hymn to literature”. The prize will bring him literary fame and huge book sales, says Caroline D. Laurent, a specialist in Francophone African literature in France. We asked her more.
The author of the 2021 Prix Goncourt-winning novel ‘The Most Secret Memory of Men’ (La Plus Secrète Mémoire des Hommes), Mbougar Sarr is a young Senegalese author who grew up outside Dakar and moved to Paris to continue his studies. At just 31, he has already published three other novels, his first in 2015: ‘Encircled Earth’ (Terre Ceinte), ‘Silence of the Choir’ (Silence du Chœur) and ‘Pure Men’ (De Purs Hommes).
Starting his studies in Senegal, he began his doctorate at the prestigious School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris, working on poet and Senegal’s first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor. Writing got in the way and prevented him from ever finishing and graduating. He now lives in Beauvais, a city north of Paris.
‘The Most Secret Memory of Men’ plays with reality and fiction. It tells the story of a young Senegalese author, Diégane Latyr Faye, who lives in Paris. In high school in Senegal he had come across mentions of a mysterious novel published in 1938 by a Senegalese author called T.C. Elimane, ‘The Labyrinth of the Inhuman.’ Unable to find a copy, he had put his quest aside, considering it to be one of the many lost books of literature.
But, by chance a few years later, he meets a Senegalese writer, Siga D, who gives him a copy of the book. The reading (and numerous re-readings) of what he considers to be a masterpiece revives his desire to find out what happened to the mysterious T.C. Elimane.
‘The Most Secret Memory of Men’ is a novel about writing and literature. It is full of literary references – like to celebrated Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño and prolific Polish author Witold Gombrowicz. But it’s the obscure references that are probably the most interesting: the fictional T.C. Elimane’s book and his fate echoes that of real-life Malian author Yambo Ouologuem – who Mbougar Sarr’s own novel is dedicated to.
Winner of the 1968 Prix Renaudot for ‘Bound to Violence’ (Le Devoir de Violence), Ouologuem sparked controversy after a 1972 article in the ‘Times Literary Supplement’ claimed he had plagiarised several authors, including Graham Greene and André Schwarz-Bart. He returned to Mali and never published again.
Just as the narrator of Mbougar Sarr’s novel, Diégane Latyr Faye, is his alter ego, T.C. Elimane is Ouologuem’s.