The Goncourt Prize was awarded to Mohamed Mbougar Sarr for The Most Secret Memory of Men (Philippe Rey / Jimsaan), Wednesday November 3. After a 2020 edition which rewarded Hervé Le Tellier (for The Anomalies) by videoconference, it’s again from the Drouant restaurant, in the 2e arrondissement of Paris, that the jury announced the news. Also in the running: Christine Angot for The Journey to the East (Flammarion), Sorj Chalandon for Eson of a bastard (Grasset) and Louis-Philippe Dalembert for Milwaukee Blues (Sabine Wespieser Editor).
In the same place, and in the process, the jurors of the Renaudot Prize have also made their choice known. He focused on Amélie Nothomb, for First blood (Albin Michel).
It is an understatement to say that Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s fourth novel was a favorite: this book selected for all the major autumn prizes (including that of World), most of the literary critics interviewed by Weekly Books a few days before the vote predicted a coronation by the most coveted of French literary distinctions.
An impressive ambition
Its author, born in 1990 in Senegal, was however not the most famous of the selection; nor its two publishing houses (the French independent publisher Philippe Rey and the Senegalese Jimsaan), regulars in the prize race. Neither did his text appear to be the easiest to access. But the impressive ambition and dizzying narrative energy of The Most Secret Memory of Men carry everything in their path.
We do not advise you to ask its author: ” What does it talk about ? “” This question embodies evil in literature “, humorously asserts his narrator and obvious double, Diégane Latyr Faye, a young Senegalese writer. He follows in the footsteps of a novel published in 1938, The Labyrinth of the Inhuman, by a certain TC Elimane, who made the latter a darling of pre-war literary Paris, nicknamed “the Negro Rimbaud”. Before accusations of plagiarism lead to the destruction of the book and the disappearance of Elimane.
“The indecent literature”
Throughout Faye’s research, the stories become embedded, one narrator often hides another, we move between continents (from France to Senegal, from Amsterdam to Argentina), eras and literary genres. (diary, press extracts, interviews, story tinged with fantasy, learning novel…). Still, the face of Elimane slips away. Still, Diégane Latyr Faye, supported by the mysterious writer Siga D., the one who put him The Labyrinth of the Inhuman in his hands, continues his meditation on literature, its powers and its dead ends (” Literature ; there was and never would be anything but literature; indecent literature, as answer, as problem, as faith, as pride, as life ”). Written in the shadow of the Chilean Roberto Bolano (1953-2003), The Most Secret Memory of Men is certainly a very cerebral novel. But it also turns out to be vibrant with sensuality, certainly political – whether it evokes the colonialist climate in France in the 1930s or the revolts in the contemporary Dakar – and often funny.
In particular when he describes the circles of African writers (or aspirants) living in Paris (“The ghetto”) and the dream, nourished by ” a lot of us “, from “The dubbing of the French literary milieu (which it is always good, in its posture, to mock and to conch). It is our shame, but it is also our fantasized glory; our servitude, and the poisoned illusion of our symbolic elevation ”. It is not impossible that Mohamed Mbougar Sarr rethought these brave lines when he learned that he was, at 31, the winner of the most prestigious French literary prize.
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The 2021 Goncourt Prize for Mohamed Mbougar Sarr and his novel “The Most Secret Memory of Men”