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The Goncourt, the most prestigious French literary prize, was awarded on Wednesday to Mohamed Mbougar Sarr from Senegal, who at 31 years old becomes the first writer from sub-Saharan Africa to be honoured by this prize.
The award, announced on Wednesday at the Drouant restaurant near the Opéra Garnier in Paris, was hailed as “symbolic” by the French literary establishment, 100 years after the prize – presented since 1867 – was first won by a Black author.
“I feel, quite simply, enormous joy,” said Mbougar Sarr, 31, who is the youngest winner of the Goncourt since 1976. The eldest in 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, La plus secrète mémoire des hommes (The Most Secret Memory of Men), tells the story of a young Senegalese writer living in Paris who stumbles by chance across a novel published in 1938 by a fictional African author named TC Elimane, nicknamed “the Black Rimbaud” by an ecstatic Paris media.
The story, described as a reflection on the links between fiction and reality, echoes the real-life experience of the Malian writer Yambo Ouologuem, who in 1968 became the first African winner of another celebrated French literary prize, the Prix Renaudot, but was later accused of plagiarism, fled France and vanished from public life.
Mohamed Mbougar Sarr succeeds Hervé Le Tellier, whose novel “L’Anomalie” was awarded last year at a ceremony in video conference, because of the health crisis related to Covid-19.
The Goncourt Prize, awarded by a jury of seven men and three women, is worth just €10 but guarantees renown and massive book sales. Previous winners, who include Marcel Proust, André Malraux, Simone de Beauvoir and Marguerite Duras, have seen novels rack up sales of 400,000 copies. Last year’s winner, Hervé Le Tellier, sold more than a million.
This year’s award was tainted by a judging scandal when it emerged that the shortlist included a book by the boyfriend of one of the judges, who had written a scathing review of one of the other contenders for the prize.
The first Black winner of the Prix Goncourt, in 1921, was René Maran, whose early childhood was spent in Martinique.