Splendors and miseries of a Goncourt Prize

My little finger assures me: the novel The most secret memory of men will not be enthroned under the Christmas tree in a crowd of Quebec homes. Less easy to access than First blood Amélie Nothomb (Renaudot Prize), although richer and more ambitious, her star would nevertheless deserve to shine in the distance. The brick of 457 pages is far from the works to read an evening lost by the fireside. With his quest for identity and his passion for the word, this fourth novel by Senegalese Mohamed Mbougar Sarr is a long-term savor. Literature is an invitation to an inner journey. How about this book as a gift, after all?

Of course, Quebec had highlighted as elsewhere last November the award of the prestigious Goncourt to this first winner from sub-Saharan Africa, barely 31 years old. In France, the novel was released last summer under a hot rumor, then was reissued after its price. We had to take the time to reactivate the presses.

Thereby The most secret memory of men will it have taken several weeks before landing across the Atlantic on the shelves of our bookstores, under a “buzz” effect that has already fallen. There have been criticisms here and there. But everything goes so quickly today that the media fanal does not shed light on a face, a name, a work for long. It takes a star of letters like Michel Houellebecq, goncourized in 2010 with The map and the territory, to ignite the media.

Since then, the turmoil around the most important French literary prize has been discreet. Fewer amateurs read patient, subtle and tasty works. The collective power of concentration has fragmented by exploding on the Web. The breath commanded by long-term reading becomes weaker. In Quebec, we read more in-house authors. But one does not exclude the other, and it is good to fly elsewhere from time to time.

One hundred years earlier, the Martinican René Maran had received the Goncourt for his novel Batouala, then his compatriot Patrick Chamoiseau had received him in 1992 for Texaco, but this West Indian island remains French territory. Add award-winning authors from the Maghreb. Coming from black Africa, this is a first. No, the successive juries of Goncourt had not breathed much sea breeze over the years. From now on, the Parisian Francophonie blushes too much to look at each other in the white of the eyes. The literary institution sent a message of inclusion urbi et orbi from the Drouant restaurant in Paris, the official setting for the awarding of the laurel. Political, this Goncourt? Not only.

Because the author, established in Beauvais, north of the Paris Basin, deserved this tribute. The breadth of his novel, his references, his admirably crafted style, his mad love of literature, his unsupported but devastating portrait of colonization, share with us terrible journeys of dispossession. His travels as a Senegalese writer in Paris and elsewhere are played out in two eras. At this song of negritude, Aimé Césaire would have applauded.

The award of the Goncourt could arouse a feeling of collective pride in the birthplace of the winner. Hmmm! Since his victory, Mohamed Mbougar Sarr has received the tomatoes thrown from there. The most secret memory of men makes a discreet mention of his hero’s bisexuality. But it is above all the author’s previous novel, Pure men, published in 2018 in France and banned in the native country, which re-scandalized by ricochet. A more confidential gay literary prize in Paris for his body of work has hit the nail on the head. Furies are unleashed, including those of many outraged imams. Homosexuality is criminalized in Senegal and punishable by five years in prison, if not lived in hiding and in terror. In Pure men, the author courageously approached the fate of Senegalese gays, qualified as men and women (góor-jigéen in Wolof) and mistreated accordingly, even as outraged corpses. He denounced the hypocrisy of his society. Thunder and lightning!

Mohamed Mbougar Sarr has been accused of being behind LGBT groups. Any light cast on this iconoclast seems dangerous to some compatriots, even harmful for the morality of young people. Sus to his work! Failing to be a prophet in his country, the novelist has an interest in remaining in Beauvais, we say to ourselves. But in which latitudes is his true homeland located?

With premonitory accents in The most secret memory of men, addressing the artists of the black continent, the laureate writes: “It will of course happen that bourgeois France, in order to have a good conscience, consecrates one of you. And we sometimes see an African who succeeds and who is set up as a model. But deep down, believe me, you are and will remain strangers, whatever the value of your works. You are not from here. “

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