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Mohamed Mbougar Sarr's novel, "The Most Secret Memory of Men," and Jennifer Croft's "The Extinction of Irena Rey" were both reviewed.

Mohamed Mbougar Sarr's "The Most Secret Memory of Men" and Jennifer Croft's "The Extinction of Irena Rey" were both the subject of reviews.

Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s novel, “The Most Secret Memory of Men,” and Jennifer Croft’s “The Extinction of Irena Rey” were both reviewed. Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s “The Most Secret Memory of Men” and Jennifer Croft’s “The Extinction of Irena Rey” were both the subject of reviews.

Twenty years after his death, the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño continues to cast a spell, thanks to the wild metaphorical reach of his tumbling sentences, his implausibly encyclopaedic grasp of global affairs and the seductive sense that 20th-century history is a nightmarish riddle to which only literature is the solution. The Savage Detectives and 2666, his best-known books, are at bottom mysteries involving vanished authors – a conceit shared by two new novels conceivably written under his influence.

In 2021, Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s novel The Most Secret Memory of Men won the Prix Goncourt. The book, translated from French by Lara Vergnaud, includes an epigraph and title referencing The Savage Detectives. It shares a common theme of a literary journey, following a Parisian writer as they search for TC Elimane, a renowned writer from Senegal. Elimane’s sole published novel was praised as a masterpiece before being destroyed due to allegations of plagiarism.

The journey covers the period from World War I to the modern day and takes us from libraries to lap dancing establishments. Along the way, we encounter the story of a Jewish publisher in 1930s Paris, Elimane’s relationships with prominent individuals in Buenos Aires, and ultimately a female student whose public suicide outside the legislature in Senegal incites demonstrations in Dakar.

The tone and structure are similar to Bolaño’s works: using surreal comparisons, lengthy dream descriptions, and a feeling of fluidity in any city the story takes place in, plus playful sexual encounters (initiated by a writer who wants the narrator to suck her breasts). Most of all, it captures the feeling of an absurd quest that is drawn out unnecessarily. Elimane’s unpublished manuscript, humorously presented through snippets of reviews, reflects the harsh reality of literary racism, often hidden within or disguised as praise. However, amidst the criticism, there is also a lighthearted acknowledgment of the struggles of being a writer – the narrator’s own debut only sold 79 copies, though the Facebook post about its release received 1,182 likes.

The jokes provide a sense of stability for the reader amidst complex twists that are reminiscent of Bolaño’s challenges and joys. At one moment, the narrator describes Elimane’s writing as “crypto-symbolist nonsense,” and at times, Sarr’s storytelling resembles a display of fireworks in the fog. The book is most successful when the author’s style and themes come together, such as in the narrator’s passionate four-page tirade about the struggles faced by African writers to stay true to their authenticity, or a steamy scene in which he envisions the future through a droplet of sweat on his Colombian-Algerian girlfriend’s chin.

‘Generates an enjoyably talky sex comedy’: Jennifer CroftView image in fullscreen

The influence of Bolaño can also be seen in The Extinction of Irena Rey, written by Jennifer Croft, renowned for her translations of Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk. The novel takes place in Poland and centers around a group of eight argumentative translators staying in a village near the border of Belarus. They have been given a strict embargo to work on the latest manuscript from renowned Polish author Irena, who mysteriously disappears shortly after their arrival. As they search the surrounding woods and her computer for clues, various theories arise (such as kidnapping or mushroom poisoning) as they come to realize how little they truly knew about the woman they refer to as “Our Author”.

Similar to the initial part of Bolaño’s novel 2666, which delves into the gossiping behavior of a cohort of scholars fixated on a secluded German writer, Croft masterfully creates a conversational and comedic tale rife with thinly veiled competition. Yet, just like in 2666, a darker theme underlies the humor. The story continuously reminds us that its setting is a world tainted by the atrocities of the 20th century, as Croft satirizes the pretensions of the literary world, with nods to a translator’s “trendy Nokia” phone, while the shadow of the Holocaust looms.

The novel expertly tackles both thought-provoking topics related to Croft’s career and the practical details of the translation industry, giving it a gossipy yet profound tone. The concept of the book being translated adds an element of suspense, as the words of the narrator, Emilia, a Spanish translator from Argentina writing in Polish, are relayed to us through Irena’s American translator, Alexis. Alexis, from Arkansas and somewhat of a frenemy, playfully inserts footnotes that mock the book’s depiction of her as a manipulative character.

There is a dramatic finale in the story, similar to the showdown between a poet and critic on a beach in The Savage Detectives. The central theme of both books, as in Bolaño’s previous works, is the contradiction of literary ego: the desire to write despite the fact that writing ultimately lacks significance. As the narrator in Sarr’s book remembers hearing: “You may never achieve success in literature. You may end up bitter, disappointed, marginalized, or deemed a failure…I responded: No one truly succeeds in literature, so you can discard your idea of success.”

The Most Secret Memory of Men by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr (translated by Lara Vergnaud) is published by Harvill Secker (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Source: theguardian.com