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The Most Secret Memory of Men by Sarr

Book Review: ‘The Most Secret Memory of Men’ by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr

The Most Secret Memory of Men

The Most Secret Memory of Men, by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr is a wonderful novel about the nature of art, literature, and colonialism. While at initial glance the first two may seem to have little in common with the third item on the list, as the book progresses Sarr gradually shows us how a European culture can insinuate itself into a former colony’s every breath.

Among the expatriate Senegalese literary community living in Paris there exists a myth of a book: The Most Secret Memory of Men. As far as anyone knows not a single copy of the book even exists and the author has disappeared. Written and published in the 1930s it was initially hailed by critics as a great work. However, a backlash fuelled by racism and colonial snobbery resulted in everything from scathing critics to accusations of plagiarism being levelled against the author.

The scandal was so great the work’s publisher was forced to recall all copies of the book. While there were occasional rumoured sightings of the author, he basically disappeared as well, and almost all traces of him and his work vanished as if they had never existed. 

In modern day Paris our story’s protagonist, an up and coming Senegalese writer, becomes fascinated with the work and its author. He makes it his personal mission in life to find out as much as he can about this book and its author. He reaches out to an older member of the Senegalese writing community and she confesses she actually has a copy of the manuscript, and is indirectly released to its mysterious writer.

She recounts her investigations into his life and tells how she found out he was her uncle’s son. On his death bed her father had told her about his brother who was so enamoured of Senegal’s colonial rulers he had left his pregnant wife behind to go and fight in WW1 and never returned. In the 20s and 30s the son followed in his footsteps, ostensibly for an education, but to also seek out what might have happened to his father.

Through various sources Sarr has his lead character gradually unwind the mystery of both the manuscript and its author. He, and we, learn about the fates of his Jewish publisher during the Nazi occupation, about the author’s mysterious life in France during the same period, and finally, how he ended up back in Senegal.

Sarr does a brilliant job of teasing out the information – as we see and hear it through the eyes of more than just our guide through this literary labyrinth. As the trail leads back to Senegal our protagonist is forced to confront certain truths about his writing and literature in general. He’s always written in French – the language of the colonizer – not the language of Senegal. What does that say about him, his writing, and Senegalese culture in general? 

Sarr doesn’t spell anything for us, but he does lead us to the obvious conclusion that for a literature to be genuine it has to be in the language of the land it came from, not created in someone else’s tongue. Of course this book was originally published in French, and won prestigious French literary awards, which is part of the great irony Sarr is portraying in his novel

How is an author from a former colony supposed to become recognized if his country’s language isn’t – if its considered backward and not the language of literature? He or she can’t – they must compromise. Until the world allows people like Sarr to write in the home language of his country we will never be free of the spectre of colonialism.

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of three books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion" and "Introduction to Greek Mythology For Kids". Aside from Blogcritics he contributes to Qantara.de and his work has appeared in the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and has been translated into numerous languages in multiple publications.

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