How To Write About Africa by Boniface Mongo-Mbousa

Writer’s Brief

In 1968—the year of the Paris Uprising—Malian writer Yambo Ouologuem found fame with the publication of his novel Le Devoir de Violence, an African epic drenched in blood, chronicling a history of cruelty and human treachery. The novel won the Prix Renaudot and established its author as a vital voice in contemporary African literature and thought, a critic of “négritude” whose tactic of truth-telling involved the language of violence, eroticism, barbed irony, and polemic assault.  Charges of plagiarism—involving, in particular, pages of Graham Greene used in Le Devoir de Violence—are frequently cited as the rationale for Ouologuem’s current retirement and seclusion.

Forty years later Christopher Wise publishes The Yambo Ouologuem Reader, which brings together three of Ouologuem prose works, including Wise’s new translation of Le Devoir de Violence (here titled The Duty of Violence, as opposed to earlier English renderings as Bound to Violence) alongside the political “pamphlet” collection A Black Ghostwriter’s Letter to France and an excerpt from The Thousand and One Bibles of Sex, a work of erotica that likewise assaults the myths of the “open sensuality” of Africa, of “bodies overflowing and voluptuous under African skies.”

1. Wise’s translation of Le Devoir de Violence features some marked differences to the 1968 version, translated by Ralph Manheim, the prolific and widely acclaimed English translator of major German and French works, including books by Hitler, Freud, Proust, Brecht and Grass who died in 1992. Notably Wise changes “bound” to “duty” in the title, he also translates “négraille” as “black-rabble,” as opposed to Manheim’s “niggertrash” (interesting to explore how Aimé Césaire’s use of this word has been translated). We read Wise’s translation in comparison to Manheim’s.

2. The absence of a properly annotated version of Le Devoir de Violence has long been lamented by the critics and readers – one that includes the textual borrowing: André Schwarz-Bart’s le Dernier des Justes and Graham Greene’s It’s a Battlefield, traces of the Koran and the Bible, snatches of the griots’ oral tales, the works of historians and ethnologists, influences of sixteenth to twentieth-century french classics, and so forth. We provide a fully annotated excerpt of one of the book’s more controversial passages.

3. We go in search of the original Le Devoir de Violence manuscripts (Ouologuem and Editions de Seuil’s versions) and narrate the story of the search.

The leads so far: Ouologeum stated that his editors at Editions de Seuil revised his manuscript by removing citations without consulting with him – see Ouologuem, Yambo: “Polémique: Le devoir de violence,” Figaro Littéraire, no. 1360 (10 juin 1972), III (17).
In “In Defence of Yambo Ouologuem,” Kaye Whiteman, former deputy editor of West Africa testifies to having seen the manuscripts in question: “an original manuscript hand written in an old exercise book”
Ouologeum claims his manuscript was last in the hands of his lawyer (“Polémique: Le devoir de violence,” Figaro Littéraire, no. 1360, 10 juin 1972, III [17])
Publisher Editions de Seuil have yet to make public their copy of the manuscript – despite numerous calls.

Reading List

  • Ouologuem, Y 2003 Le devoir de violence. Le Serpent à Plumes
  • Ouologuem, Y 1968 Le devoir de violence. Éditions du Seuil
  • Ouologuem, Y 1969 Lettre à la France nègre: billet ouvert à toutes les victimes de l’antiracisme. E. Nalis
  • Ouologuem, Y 1971 Bound to violence (Ralph Manheim, trans.) Heinemann
  • Ouologuem, Y, 2008, The Yambo Ouologuem Reader: Duty of Violence, A Black Ghostwriter’s Letter to France, and the Thousand and One Bibles of Sex (Christopher Wise / Trenton NJ eds), Africa World Press
  • Wise, C 1999  Yambo Ouologuem: postcolonial writer, Islamic militant. Lynne Rienner Publishers <>
  • Schwarz-Bart, A. 1996 The Last of the Just. MJF Books
  • Greene, G 1977 It’s a battlefield. Penguin Books
  • Douin, J 2003 “Ouologuem, voix discordante”, in Le Monde des Livres
  • Mouralis, B 1987 “Un carrefour d’Écritures : Le Devoir de violence de Yambo Ouologuem”, in Nouvelles du Sud n°5, Paris.
  • Achour, C 1982 Abécédaires en devenir,  Éditions de l’ENAP
  • Kone, A 1993 Des textes oraux au roman moderne. Etudes sur les avatars de la tradition orale dans le roman ouest-africain, Verlag Für Interkulturelle Kommunikation, Frankfurt
  • Songolo, A 1981 “Fiction et subversion : Le Devoir de violence”, in Présence Africaine n° 120, 4th quarter
  • Ouologuem, Y 1969 Lettre à La France nègre, Edmond Nalis, Paris.
  • Césaire, A 1960 ‘Cahier d’un retour au pays natal’, Présence Africaine, Paris.
  • Kane, C H 1961 ‘L’Aventure ambiguë’,  U.G.E., coll. 10/18, Paris
  • Rimbaud, A Une saison en enfer, postface by Xavier Bordes, Mille et une nuits, Paris.
  • Rimbaud, A, A Season in Hell & The Drunken Boat (Patti Smith Intro., Louise Varése trans.)  2011 Bilingual edition. New Directions, New York
  • Achour, C “Le Devoir de violence de Yambo Ouologuem ou la ‘gymnastique opératoire de l’écriture’” unpublished article, based on a reworked chapter of her thesis.
  • Rosen, E  1991 Sur le grotesque l’ancien et le nouveau dans la réflexion esthétique, Presses Universitaires de Vincennes, Paris
  • Genette,G, 1982, Palimpsestes, la littérature au second degré, Paris, Le Seuil

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