In 2021, the Senegalese author Mohamed Mbougar Sarr won the prestigious French literary prize Prix Goncourt for his novel The Most Distant Memory of Men. (The English translation by Lara Vergnaud will be published in Ocober 2023.) At the end of 2022, Hanser Verlag published a German translation, and sought to arouse the interest of readers through a digital search for clues. Winners of this promotional game would be invited to meet the author in Munich. This attention-grabbing strategy was a good fit because Diégane, the protagonist of the novel, also sets out on a search: After the legendary book of a Senegalese writer, T. C. Elimane – thought lost – falls into his hands, he sets out to find him.
Diégane himself comes from Senegal, but is studying (somewhat carelessly) in Paris and working on his second novel. Elimane’s only novel The Maze of the Inhuman, published in 1938, fascinates him. His research leads him to old press reports that first celebrate Elimane as a “Black Rimbaud”, as if African authors had to be measured against a European standard, and then condemn him for plagiarising and not writing a work of his own. Elimane does not seem to have commented at all. Shortly after this public uproar over Elimane’s novel, the Second World War breaks out, making it even more difficult to trace him. But Diégane does not give up. He even travels to Amsterdam, traces Elimane’s story to Buenos Aires and then to a village in the north of Senegal. In this way, he puts together Elimane’s story piece by piece, although some grisly details will forever remain speculation. People who do not actively tend their own public personas inevitably become projection surfaces of various fantasies.
The Most Distant Memory of Men is a stirring celebration of literature. At the same time, the Eurocentrism that characterises not only the literary world is taken to extremes. Diégane, Elimane, and his parents before him, have to position themselves in a world that sees everything of African origin as backward. This creates a tug-of-war between the compulsion to conform and conscious adherence to one’s own values and traditions. It is clear that there is no escaping the complex legacy of colonialism.
The Most Distant Memory of Men is not only an exciting search for clues motivated by a love of literature. The novel mischievously holds up a mirror to the European literary establishment. I was all the more pleased that Hanser Verlag invested in this book with its digital promotional game. Let’s see what Other Press comes up with for the English translation that will be published in October.
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