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Beyala doesn’t need to steal

Chris Dunton and M&G reporters

NOT even Britain’s publicity-hungry Booker Prize could have come up with the scandal that rocked the French literary world last week. Calixthe Beyala, winner of the 100000-franc Acadmie Franaise’s Grand Prix du Roman, was accused of plagiarising Ben Okri’s 1991 Booker winner, The Famished Road.

Beyala denied plagiarism: “I know Ben Okri well. We lived in the same world and come from the same poor background.” She claimed such borrowings were common in African literature and threatened to sue the critic who had pointed out the similarities.

Okri, however, retorted: “I don’t buy that. It’s not part of the literary tradition. I want people to read me, but I don’t want people to steal from my work. If there is a case, then it’s a matter for the courts.”

Beyala, a Franco-Cameroonian writer who has won two other major prizes, won the prize for her eighth novel, Les Honneurs Perdus (Lost Honours). Critics had praised it as “a new beginning for African literature”.

Beyala said the accusations of theft are motivated by “racial hatred. They’re trying to destroy me.” In May this year, however, she was successfully sued for “partially counterfeiting” a novel by the American Howard Buten.

Beyala is not the first African author to be embroiled in a plagiarism row. Mbulelo Mzamane was accused of plagiarising Jospeh Lelyveld’s Move Your Shadow and, in 1968, Yambo Ouologuem was charged with unacknowledged borrowings from Graham Greene for his novel Bound to Violence, just after this had won the French Prix Renaudot. Ouologuem defended himself convincingly, showing that the original manuscript acknowledged borrowings in quotation marks – omitted by his publisher. It can be argued that his borrowings, transformations, parodies and pastiches resulted in a post- modern novel before its time, full of clashes and contradictions.

The oddest thing about l’affaire Beyala is that for her to take, unacknowledged, other writers’ work seems astonishingly pointless.

She is a very fine writer indeed, with a powerful continuity of thematic interests shining through a series of novels. Heinemann has published three of the seven in English translation. Loukoum, reviewed in these pages a year ago, is a more genial, less harrowing novel than its predecessors.

Two of these – The Sun Hath Looked Upon Me and Your Name Shall Be Tanga – were issued by Heinemann a few months ago. Short novels of great intensity, both are about the search by young African women to escape the continuum of oppression by men and by conservative women.

In both there is a fiercely determined urge to witness: female characters describe in often shocking detail the specifics of their lives and yet insistently (and sensitively) generalise on women’s experience.

In a recent essay, she wrote: “I come into the world out of female crack … a comical black plum bawling away till I die.”

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