Senegalese novelist Mohamed Mbougar Sarr has become the first writer from sub-Saharan Africa to receive France’s oldest and most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt.
The award, announced Wednesday at the Drouant restaurant near the Opera Garnier in Paris, was hailed as “symbolic” by the French literary establishment, 100 years after the prize – awarded since 1867 – was first won by a black author.
According to the magazine L’Express, this prize crowns “the revelation of the literary year”, “shining proof of the vitality and universality of the French language”. The world noted the “awesome ambition and breathtaking energy” of Sarr’s novel “carried everything before it”.
The decision comes amid an increasingly bitter culture war in France ahead of next year’s presidential elections, with far-right polemicist Éric Zemmour recently calling for a ban on ‘non-French’ names. such as Muhammad.
“I simply feel enormous joy,” said Mbougar Sarr, 31, who is the youngest winner of Goncourt since 1976. The eldest of a family of seven boys, the son of a doctor, he grew up 100 miles from Dakar. before moving to France to study literature.
His novel, The most secret memory of men (The most secret memory of men), tells the story of a young Senegalese writer living in Paris who stumbles upon a novel published in 1938 by an African fiction writer named TC Elimane, nicknamed “the black Rimbaud” by an ecstatic Parisian media. .
The story, described as a reflection on the links between fiction and reality, echoes the experience of the Malian writer Yambo Ouologuemwho in 1968 became the first African winner of another famous French literary prize, the Prix Renaudot, but was later accused of plagiarism, fled France and disappeared from public life.
“With this young author, we returned to the fundamentals of Goncourt”, declared Philippe Claudel, member of the jury. “At thirty-one, he has a few books in front of him. Hopefully this award won’t dampen her desire to write them.
The jury, made up of seven men and three women, “decided on the first vote, there was no need for a second round”, said another member of the jury, Paule Constant. “This book is written in a flamboyant style. It is a hymn to literature.
This year’s award was marred by scandal when it emerged the shortlist included a book by one of the judges’ boyfriends, who had written a scathing review of one of the other award contenders.
The Prix Goncourt is only worth €10 but guarantees notoriety and massive book sales. Previous winners, including Marcel Proust, André Malraux, Simone de Beauvoir and Marguerite Duras, have seen novels sell 400,000 copies. Last year’s winner, Hervé Le Tellier, sold over a million.
The first black winner of the Goncourt Prize, in 1921, was René Maran, whose early childhood was spent in Martinique.
The Prix Renaudot rival, widely regarded as Goncourt’s second prize, was awarded this year to prolific French-speaking Belgian novelist Amélie Nothomb for The prime minister sang (First Blood), dedicated to his father who passed away last year.