Monday, April 22, 2024

Mohamed Mbougar Sarr's La plus secrète mémoire des hommes - one of his objectives was to be original without being original

La plus secrète mémoire des hommes
(2021) by Senegalese novelist Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, published in English as The Most Secret History of Men (2023), is the first imitation of Roberto Bolaño I have seen outside of Latin American literature.  Many reviews note that Sarr’s novel is “Bolañoesque,” but I have not found one that notes that it directly imitates The Savage Detectives (1998).  La plus secrète mémoire des hommes, like The Savage Detectives, is about a writer’s search for the forgotten author of a single work (an entire novel this time, not a single poem), it shares Bolaño’s three-part structure, with a many-voiced middle section (it does shift more voices into the third part), and is thematically about the link between writing – publishing, really – and death.

Also, the title of the novel is from the French translation of The Savage Detectives.  Sarr uses a paragraph of Bolaño, with the title, as the epigraph of his novel.  He is not hiding anything:

Charles reproached Elimane for having pillaged literature; Elimane responded that literature was a game of pillaging.  He said that one of his objectives was to be original without being original, since that was one possible definition of literature and even of art, and that his other objective was to show that everything could be sacrificed in the name of an ideal of creation. (232, tr. mine)

Sarr is not as radical an avant-gardist as his creation Elimane, whose novel is explicitly a collage novel.  Or at least I don’t think La plus secrète mémoire is a collage novel.  If I missed all the hidden quotations how would I know.  Anyway.  Elimane and his fictional 1938 novel with the Borgesian name, Le Labyrinthe de l’inhumain, have some distant parallels with Malian novelist Yambo Ouologuem’s 1968 Bound to Violence, perhaps the angriest novel I have ever read, which its merits aside ran into trouble for plagiarism.*  But again, the imaginary Elimane is a deliberate conceptualist, not a plagiarist but a collagist, a trickster.  Plus the difference between an African novel appearing in 1938 versus 1968 is enormous.  The narrator passes a single copy of Elimane’s lost novel around to the entire African literary diaspora in Paris, while Ouologuem’s novel, although banned from sale for a time, is in French libraries.  American libraries for that matter.  I don’t want to push the parallel too far.  But Ouologuem is another bookish ghost in this bookish novel.

It takes him a while, until page 275, but Sarr does hit on a variation or extension or argument with Bolaño’s literary death cult that would likely have made him happy, or angry, and Sarr extends the idea to a good twist all the way at the end.  I thought La plus secrète mémoire had some dullish patches, but persist, I advise.

It’s because of all this, of all this promoted and prize-winning [promue et primée] mediocrity, that we all deserve to die.  Everyone: journalists, critics, readers, editors, writers, society – everyone.  (308)

I don’t agree with this, but that is a separate issue.

I found Sarr’s settings – Paris, Amsterdam, Bueno Aires, Dakar – bland, thinly described.  I’ve been to Dakar – gimme some Dakar, man.  The narrator is in the central market, which “overflows with shouting, arguments, laughter, honking horns, bleating sheep, religious chants” (348) etc., still pretty generic, I was thinking, until this:

I had before me the proof that the most ordinary spectacle of the streets of this city rendered the novel pointless.  Try to exhaust a Dakarian place?  Perec could return and try.  (348)

All right, fine, never mind.  I don’t believe Perec had been mentioned before.  One more writer in a writer-packed novel.


* Michael Orthofer’s review of Bound to Violence goes into the details well. And his review of Sarr’s book is here. 

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Books I read in March 2024 - Literature was a game of pillaging, and this book showed it.

A nice little run at Persian literature this month.  And I am reading in Portuguese again, slowly, slowly.


Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings (1110),  Abolqasem Ferdowsi – See here for notes on this big epic in Dick Davis’s translation.

The Essential Rumi (13th c.),  Rumi – I am not much of a mystic but Rumi, in Coleman Barks’s translations into American free verse, impressed me with his variety of imagery, earthiness, and irony.  I remember Rumi as a major source of little gift books by bookstore cash registers, next to those little volumes of Rilke, but his wisdom is more ironic than that might suggest.

Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz (14th c.), Hafez, Jahan Malek Khatun, & Obayd-e Zakani – There was a “scene” in Shiraz for a while.  Hafez is the drunk pretending to be a Sufi mystic, or vice versa; Jahan Malek Khatun is a love struck princess, an actual princess; Obayd-e Zakani is a dirty young man, then a dirty old man, full of gusto.  Fun stuff, via Dick Davis.

The Colonel (2009),  Mahmoud Dowlatabadi – A grim and depressing novel about betrayal and grief in Iran circa 1988, and before, and after.  Tom Patterdale translated and wrote the detailed, useful notes.  Plenty of references to Shahnameh.



The Demon Lover and Other Stories (1945),  Elizabeth Bowen – Jamesian indirection during the London Blitz, part of almost every story.  Bowen is a lot more material than James, with lots more food and furniture, although in Jamesian fashion food, furniture, and for that matter entire buildings are present in their absence.  Very much to my tastes, except that I have a heck of a time remembering Bowen stories, a cost of indirection.  An invitation to reread.

Eleven (1970),  Patricia Highsmith – If you are asking if I read this collection of horror stories because it plays a part in the recent Wim Wenders movie Perfect Days (2023), yes, that is right.  The story “The Terrapin,” specifically.

Angels in America: Millennium Approaches (1991),  Tony Kushner – I will see it performed in May.  Eager.

The Lowering Days (2021),  Gregory Porter – A Maine novel, earnest and violent.  The striving for wisdom, often aphoristic, was not to my taste – if just one character had a sense of humor – but the George Eliot-like exercise in sympathy was well-done.  And I learned a lot about my neighbors Down East, who are more violent than I thought.

Dr. No (2022),  Percival Everett – The narrator is a mathematician specializing in nothing who is hired by a billionaire who wants to be a Bond villain, so there we have two Dr. Nos, and a good sense of Everett’s sense of humor.  Charles Portis, Ishmael Reed, Thomas Pynchon, César Aira; Everett, or anyway this book, fits in there somewhere.



Ovid's Poetry of Exile (9-17),  Ovid – David Slavitt’s “very loose” translations of Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto, Ovid complaining from exile with humor and personality.

The Wild Iris (1992),  Louise Glück



O Alcaide de Santarém (1845),  Alexandre Herculano – a bit of Portugal’s Walter Scott.  If you’ve been to the Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon you’ve seen his gigantic, ornate tomb, near Pessoa’s little Modernist one.

As Mulheres de Tijucopapo (1981),  Marilene Felinto – An angry feminist Brazilian novel, recommended by my Portuguese teacher.

Contos de morte (2008),  Pepetela – Occasional stories by the Angolan writer, just my reading level.

La plus secrète mémoire des hommes (2021),  Mohamed Mbougar Sarr – I hope to write a bit about this one.  The bit in the title, in my translation, is on p. 232.

Monday, April 8, 2024

Ferdowsi's Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings - No one has any knowledge of those first days unless he has heard tales passed down from father to son

My little Persian literature syllabus in March was built on Aboloqasem Ferdowsi’s gigantic epic Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings (1010), a slender 850 pages in Dick Davis’s 2006 prose (mostly) translation.  He added another 100 pages to the 2016 edition, whether filling out some of the parts he summarized or putting some of the prose into verse I do not know.  A real poetic version would really expand the page count.

No one has any knowledge of those first days unless he has heard tales passed down from father to son.  This is what those tales tell: the first man to be king… was Kayumars. (p. 1)

King Kayumars “taught men about the preparation of food and clothing, which were new in the world at the time” (1).  Fire, irrigation, and domesticated animals soon follow (without fire that first prepared food is perhaps, I don’t know, fermented).Ferdowsi is really beginning at the beginning, taking us from the first king and the beginning of history, including the first plot against the king (still on page one), through the Islamic conquest of Persia.  From legend to history.

The first half of the epic is more purely legendary, with a wars against demons as often as men, although a recurring theme is the great hero serving the bad king.  The most famous bad king tries to conquer heaven by training four giant eagles to carry his throne, equipped with lances, into the sky.  He hangs chunks of meat from the lances for the eagles to chase.  “Others say that he fought with his arrows against the sky itself, but God knows if these and other stories are true” (185).  He becomes famous as an idiot.  I love this story.

The book is split in the middle when it intersects with history with the story of King Sekander (there he is on the left), who I know as Alexander the Great, in this version Greek but also half-Persian and Christian (his banner includes “the beloved cross,” 458).  Sekander spends his reign leading his army across the world, slaying not just enemy armies but also a dragon and a monstrous rhinoceros.

After this extraordinary interlude, the Shahnameh becomes more like a medieval chronicle, more tied to historical sources, maybe a little more dull, although among other good stories there is still a long episode involving a giant devil worm.  Giant magical worms are, I understand, popular right now.

Davis’s version of Shahnameh, so heavily in prose, feels something like a longer version of the prose retellings of the Indian epics, like R. K. Narayan’s Ramayana, that I enjoy so much.  Davis argues that he is mimicking the many oral and written prose retellings of individual episodes that followed on the Shahnameh.  The other Persian books I read, whether later classical poetry by Hafiz or a contemporary Iranian novel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, made frequent reference to characters and episodes from the Shahnameh.  In this branch of literature, essential reading.

Ferdowsi’s epic is late, as epics go, so it is more syncretic, more clearly descended from other sources, than I am used to reading.  The legendary Alexander story, is a centuries-old genre by the 11th century.  Or, to be precise, it is more obviously syncretic, since the Mahabharata and Iliad and Hebrew Bible are also patchworks of earlier stories, but since the sources are all lost the Iliad and so on become the beginning of the tradition.  The Shahnameh’s Persian sources are mostly lost, but traces of the Indian, Greek, and various West Asian legends are quite clear, as well as a mix of Zoroastrianism and Islamism ethics that is something unique.

The syncretism, the mix of things , is one of the pleasures of Shahnameh for someone like me, who has read in a number of epic traditions.  The atmosphere is unusual, too, with lots of jasmine and camphor and people turning “pale as fenugreek.”  The battles, of which there are many, look like this:

The plain became a sea of blood, as if red tulips had sprung up everywhere, and the elephants’ legs glowed like pillars of coral.  (55)

Strongly recommended to anyone who likes this sort of thing, and not to anyone else.  I borrowed the page with Alexander speaking with giant birds (the birds for some reason not visible) from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which owns many more images form the Shahnameh.