Oral Literary and Historic Echoes from the Novel, Bound To Violence, by Yambo Ouologuem


Malian writer, Yambo Ouologuem’s most famous novel Bound to Violence first published in 1968 satirically portrays Africa before and during colonial subjugation whilst assessing the role of local overlords who in league with Arab slave dealers, sold their subjects into bondage. After winning the prestigious French literary prize, Prix Renaudot, Yambo received much media attention, being widely reviewed, appearing on T.V. shows and being interviewed and featured in many prominent publications and with the book being translated into numerous languages. .

Despite allegations that it contained materials drawn from other works, Bound to Violence has been widely read and acknowledged as a wonderful book which this writer himself affims makes quite a compulsive as well as a gripping story though with too horrible revelations to make.

Born in 1940 in Bandiagary in the Dogon country, in Mali to a ruling class family, Ouologuem, the only son of a land owner and school inspector, quickly learnt several African languages and gained fluency in French, English and Spanish. After matriculating at a Lycee in Bamako [capital of Mali] Yambo went to France to continue his education at Lycee de Charenton in Paris and then continued his studies for his doctorate in Sociology. Upon returning to his home country in the late 70’s he was made director of a Youth centre near Mopti in central Mali where he remained until 1984. He has led a secluded religious life in the Sahel ever since.

This novel, his first and only, has been widely hailed as the first truly African novel. ‘It fuses legend, oral tradition and stunning realism in a vision arising authentically from black roots.’ He draws on the history and culture of the great medieval empire of Mali in which Nakem was central in the 13th century, and dominated onwards by the Saif dynasty, whose rule was characterized by ruthlessness marked with bloody and tragic adventures. After a brief, violent fresco depicting Nakem’s past, the story moves into the 20th century with the Saifs still in power. But when the French arrive as colonizers, they unwittingly become puppets in their astute hands. But still these native rulers continue to dominate by shadowy and occultic means.. Scenes of violence and eroticism, of sorcery and black magic appear as natural parts of human activity there. From this frightful and horrific background emerges the book’s main protagonist, Raymond Spartacus Kassoumi, the son of slaves who was sent to France to be educated and groomed for a political post which could well be the next step to his becoming another puppet to the Saifs.

Ouologuem goes on to show how the ancient African emperors, the Moslems, and finally the European colonial administrators were responsible for the black African’s ‘slave mentality.’ They produce’negraille’ a word coined by Ouologuem himself to indicate this servility. His skepticism over the potential for liberation through struggle was also pronounced.

The first part of the novel compresses the history of the first seven hundred years of the Nakem Empire starting from around the year 1200 A.D. with brutality, violence, oppression and corruption,. Slavery iwas also widespread there with ‘a hundred million of the damned … being carried away. This went on along with :’ Cannibalism: ‘one of the darkest features of that spectral Africa …’

The Arabs had conquered the land [settling over it ‘like ……and the common black] man … suffers for it. Religion – Islam -is abused in order to consolidate and keep power. It ‘became a means of action, a political weapon.’

The brief second part captures the coming of the whites at the close of the 19th century. The empire is ‘pacified and divided up by the Europeans, with the French controlling whatever remains of Nakem. Hope that life will improve is seen as:

Saved from slavery, the [negroes] welcomed the white man with joy, hoping he would make them forget the mighty Saif’s meticulously organized cruelty.

But the exploitation continues unabated as each side uses the blacks to suit their own ends. The Saif remains influential and powerful even under the French administration whilst the subjugated commoners still have little chance of living tolerable lives.

Much of the book, contained in the third section titled ‘Night of the Giants’, is set in the first half of the twentieth century where horrific incidents such as the Saif’s indiscriminate wielding of whatever power he has left, lots of ugly violence like the Saif’s curious assassination technique through trained asps proliferate.

Shrobenius adds another dimension to the exploitation. Learning lately about Nakem, he comes there to buy relics, masks and other cultural artifacts. The Saifs themselves contributed to spreading this exploitation and fraud by making up stories and selling whatever cultural legacy can be procured. Tons upon tons more are thus donated towards the further spread and intensification of what became known as ‘Shrobeniusology’. This explicitly shows the mechanism by which the new elite came to invent its traditions through the science of ethnography. Later after Shrobenius has popularized African art in Europe many others came to purchase pieces. No originals now left, Saif had slapdash copies buried by the hundredweight and then dug out later and sold at exorbitant price.

Saif made up stories and the interpreter translated. Madoubi repeated in French, refining on the subtleties to the delight of Shrobenius, that human crayfish afflicted with a groping mania for resuscitating an African universe – cultural autonomy, he called it, which had lost all living reality;…he was determined to find metaphysical meaning in everything…African life, he held, was pure art. Then,’…henceforth Negro art was baptized ‘aesthetic’ and hawked in the imaginary universe of ‘vitalizing exchanges.’

Then after describing the phantasmic elaboration of some interpretative forgeries by the Saif he announces that ‘…Negro art found its patent of nobility in the folklore of merchantile intellectualism..’Thus comes the exposure of the network of fraudsters starting from Shrobenius himself, the anthropologist, as apologist for ‘his’ people; that swallows enthusiastically and unquestioningly these exoticized products; African traders and producers of African art, who understand the need to maintain the mysteries that render their products as exotic; traditional and contemporary elites who require a sentimentalized past to authorize their present power. All of them are thus exposed in their complex and multiple mutual complicities.

‘Witness the splendor of its art – the true face of Africa in the grandiose empires of the Middle Ages, a society marked by wisdom, beauty, prosperity,order, nonviolence, and humanism, and it’s here that one must seek the true cradle of Egyptian civilization.

Ironically, all this earns Shrobenius a two-fold benefit on his return home. He mystified his people well enough to get them to raise him enthusiastically to a lofty Sorbonnical chair. He also exploited the sentimentality of the coons, who were only too pleased to hear from the mouth of a white man that Africa was the womb of the world and the cradle of civilization. The ordinary blacks thus gladly donated masks and art treasures by the tons to the acolyte of ‘Shrobeniusology’.

Ouologuem then goes on to precisely articulating the interconnections of Africanist mystifications with tourism and the production, packaging, and marketing of African art works.

An Africanist school harnessed to the vapors of magico religious cosmological, and mythical symbolism has thus been born: with the result that for three years men flocked to Nakem- ..middlemen, adventurers, apprentices, bankers, politicians, salesmen, conspirators – supposedly ‘scientists,’ but in reality enslaved sentries mounting guard before the Shrobeniusological monument of Negro pseudo symbolism.

Already it had become more than difficult to procure old masks, for Shrobenius and the missionaries had had the good fortune to snap them all up. And so Saif – had slapdash copies buried by the hundredweight or sunk into ponds, lakes, marshes, and mud holes, to be exhumed later on and sold at exorbitant prices to unsuspecting curio hunters. These three-year-old masks were said to be charged with the weight of four centuries of civilization.

Ouologuem in this way forcefully exposes the connections in the international system of art exchange, the international art world, and the way in which an ideology of disinterested aesthetic value – the ‘baptism’ of ‘Negro art’ as ‘aesthetic’ meshes with the international commodification of African expressive culture which requires the manufacture of Otherness . [ Appiah, Kwame Anthony]

There is Raymond Spartacus Kassoumi, a child of poverty who takes advantage of French schooling and achieves academic success through advanced studies in France. There also he experiences failure . He discovers the particularly inescapable long reach of Saif. On his return home his thoughts of a triumphant return were broken by his discovery that he and his country were again being manipulated by the ruling Saif.

Some hope however comes from the brief concluding section ‘Dawn’. Abbe Henry, the hunchback priest obsessed by the tragedy of the Blacks, half-crazed with the christian duty of love is humbly beautiful as the despair of a Christian soul is now a bishop. The last section consists almost entirely of a dialogue between Abbe Henry and Saif, both philosophical discourse and power struggle. This Saif appears vanquished, but Ouologuem reminds us:

one cannot help recalling that Saif, mourned three million times, is forever reborn to history beneath the hot ashes of more than thirty African republics,

Using various elements of oral literature Ouologuem enriches the narrative in exploring a wide span of African history to establish how Africa was like before and after the onslaught of the Arab and European slave dealers and colonizers. there

Oral literature enriches the texture of Ouloguem’s narration thus giving it its vivacity, its uniqueness, its semblance of authenticity and its immediacy. Given the wide span of African History explored encompassing well over 700 years from 1202 to 1947 the narrative method has of necessity to exceed the bounds of the conventional. The narrative thus reads like an epic oral tale told from a communal point of view. The reader thus feels as if he is listening to a tale being related by a Griot which starts like a legend being told in the village square:

Our eyes drink the brightness of the sun and overcome, marvel at their tears. Mashallah! war bismillah!… To recount the bloody adventure of the nigger… – shame to the worthless paupers – there would be no need to go back beyond the present century, but the true history of the Black begins much earlier, with the Saifs, in the years 1202 of our era, in the African Empire of Nakem, south of Fezzan long after the conquests of Okba ben Nafi al-Fitri

The figurative expressions as ‘our eyes drink the brightness of the sun’, the frequent interjections and exclamations in the middle of sentences and the religious incantations give the work its distinctive oral Griot-like timbre. In reading, we could easily imagine ourselves listening to the emphatic and dramatic delivery of the story teller. Through his incantations and his comments interlarding the tale, he shows his emotional reactions to the details being narrated, thus giving us the illusion of being part of an audience keenly listening in the village square with our attention being drawn, as it goes on, to particular details. This effect could best be seen in how our attention is drawn to the way the black commoners are ill-used:

They promised their serfs, servants and former captives that, pending the hostilities which the neighbouring tribe was no doubt plotting, they would be ‘looked upon – hear! – as provisionally free and equal subjects.’ Then, once peace was restored among the various tribes, for the war had failed to break out – out – hee – hee – the same notables promised the same subject that after…hum…hum…a brief’ apprenticeship of forced labor, they would be rewarded with the Rights of Man…. As to civil rights, of them no mention was made. Halleluyah.

The interjections throughout this passage are tinged with mockery as well as scorn. The reader is thus alerted to the insincerity of the promises.. The narrator’s dismay is captured in the closing exclamation: ‘Halleluyah!’

Ouologuem then invokes the lofty and grandiose style and tradition of the African chronicler, the Griot.:

How in profound displeasure,with perfumed mouth and eloquence on his tongue, Saif ben Isaac al – Heit endeavored to mobilize the energies of the fanatical people against the invader; how to that end he spread reports of daily miracles throughout the Nakem Empire – earthquakes, the opening of tombs, resurrections of saints, fountains of milk springing up in his path, visions of archangels stepping out of the sunset, village women drawing buckets from the well and finding them full of blood; how on one of his journeys he transformed three pages of the Holy Book, the Koran, into as many doves, which flew on ahead of him as though to summon the people to Saif’s banner; and with what diplomacy he feigned indifference to the gods of this world: in all that there is nothing out of the ordinary.

In this grand sweep of a sentence Ouologuem gives force to the eloquence of Saif ben Isaac al- heit whose ‘profound displeasure’ allied ‘with perfumed mouth and eloquence’ mobilized the people to frenzied and fanatical onslaught against the invaders. Through parallel structures and repetitions he also shows the prowess of the Saif in spreading a propaganda of terror to further give vent to the furore of the people in attacking the invaders.

Ouloguem also creates the impression of narrating legends based on factual historical occcurences. This is through his constant recourse to historians and griots as suggested in: ‘ Afterwards, wild supplications was heard from the village square…Then pious silence and the griot Kituli of cherished memory ends his tale as follows .’and ‘The consequences of his audacity are related by Mohamed Hakmud Traore descended in an unbroken line from griot ancestors and himself griot in the present-day African Republic of Nakem-Zuiko.’ The impression is thus often given of a teller sifting through the various details from various sources to get at the kernel of the truth. Many a time he would indicate this by either naming the various griots and historians concerned or by merely introducing them as ‘according to one version’ ‘in another version’, ‘still others claimed that’ and so on. His inability to get one authentic report on Isaac al – Heit is explained thus:

At this point tradition loses itself in legend for there are few written accounts and the versions of the elders diverge from those of the griots, which differ from those of the chroniclers.

Through his comments and religious incantations, the narrator conveys the impression that he and his audience share common norms and values. A shared ancestral background is also alluded to through his frequent recourse to such phrases as ‘our era’

Ouologuem repudiates the negritudinist glorification of Africa’s past by portraying it as an unending cycle of violence, greed, debauchery and exploitation, as reaffirmed in the title Bound to Violence and in this extract from an interview of Ouologuem by Linda Hiecht:

….black people in Africa were oppressed. He has enemies too among what they all black aristocracy, and the black man never was a Negro before the black aristocrat sold him as a slave. It was the black aristocrat who made black people become Negroes. If you look at the entire history, you find there were three stages of oppression: blacks oppressing blacks, Arabs oppressing blacks,and whites oppressing blacks. Look, it took me a lot of courage to write this book which is about oppressors who were my own family and I did my best to be as universal as possible.

Ouologuem’s position is then unlike Armah’s anti-negritudinist. For he holds Africans as much responsible for the indignities they suffered as the foreign forces,Arabs and Europeans. Thus, he neither idealizes nor endorses either party. His African world has no political system. Traditional religion too seems absent here. Everything is left in a state of chaos and turmoil with the rulers using people at will. The system of justice evident in Two Thousand Seasons could not be seen here. Ordinary people are continually being misused by the notables. Immoralities of the worst kinds are widely practiced. The history of Africa is thus shown as one unending flow of violence which in turn kept them under such dread that they were scared stiff of even rebelling. Thus Appiah’s submission that it is a repudiation of national history makes much sense though perhaps it could be more apt as a denunciation of racial or continental history.



Appiah, Kwame Anthony , In My Father’s House

Ouologuem, Yambo, Bound to Violence, translated by Ralph Manhein, A Helen and Kurt Woolf Book, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc, New York, 1971

Palmer, Eustace, The Growth of The African Novel, Heinemann

Educational Books , London, 1979

Wise, Christopher[ed], Yambo Ouologuem Postcolonial Writer,Islamic Militant, 1999

‘De l’histoire a sa metaphore dans Le Devoir de Violence de Yambo Ouologuem ‘

By Josias Semajanga in Etudes Francaises, vol 31, no1,etc[1995]

‘Fiction and Subversion’ by A. Songolo in Presence Africaine no 120 [1981]

Interview of Yambo Ouologuem

‘Ouologuem’s Blueprint for ‘Le Devoir de Violence” by E. Sellin in RESEARCH IN AFRICAN LITERATURE 2 [1971]



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