Felwine Sarr: “In imagination, Switzerland is an oasis, an unreal enclave, a metaphor”

Felwine Sarr is one of the most active and discussed African intellectuals on the French-speaking scene and beyond. After studying economics in France, he taught this subject for thirteen years at the Gaston-Berger University in Saint-Louis, Senegal. He is currently a professor of African philosophy at Duke University in the United States. In 2021, he is the guest of the French chair at ETHZ. aphrotopia (Philippe Rey, 2016) is a worldwide bestseller. Author of several essays, plays and short stories, Felwine Sarr is responsible, in 2018, with Bénédicte Savoy, for the report on the restitution of African cultural heritage. In Dakar, she founded the Ateliers de la Pensée in the company of the philosopher Achille Mbembe. His publisher Jimsaan, created with the writer Boubacar Boris Diop, publishes, among other things, at local prices, the works of the Prix Goncourt 2021 Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, in co-edition with Philippe Rey. All these aspects of his work find wide repercussion in the press, including in the newspaper columns. Climate (04.17.2021).

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Also, in this new academic year of 2022, when we asked for an interview with the author of The places where my dreams live (L’Arpenteur/Gallimard), he insists that this meeting be dedicated to his novel: “I struggle against confinement in the figure of the intellectual-essayist: even when I publish fiction, people want me to talk about ideas. But my real place is the literary work, because dahij, those short proses with which I forged my language. In this “spiritual combat”, published in 2009, he wrote: “This book is a jihad. An internal war. A jihad to get out of myself, my race, my sex, my religion, my determinations. A jihad to go my way.” A “kalashnikov, weapon of the desire for freedom”, loaded with poetic, musical and spiritual references as well as The places where my dreams live.

Far from Cain and Abel

Thus, from Dakar, where the writer spends part of his sabbatical, in front of the great library that we believe to be full of writings from all over the world, it will be, therefore, above all a matter of literature. The places where my dreams live compares the fate of the twins, Fodé and Bouhel. The first stayed in Senegal where he works as a carpenter and lives happily with a consultant, Marème. He becomes the spiritual heir of a sage, Ngof, and must take charge of the initiation of young people according to the Serer rite. Bouhel studied semiology and comparative literature in Orléans.

“I wanted to write a novel about brotherhood that went against the stereotype of enemy brothers, breaking with fratricidal stories, the rivalry between Cain and Abel. A relationship where the biological bond frees and protects. The two brothers have the same cultural matrix, but their choices differ. Their love resists physical distance, transcends obstacles.” When Bouhel finds himself in great danger, when a tragedy sends him to prison, Fodé, in the distance, blames himself for not having carefully watched his brother, who is too busy accompanying the young people in the ritual. “To whom do we owe care? Fodé finds himself in conflict between the demands of his community and the closest circle. There is a geometry of attention to be respected without failing or failing.

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The places where my dreams live it is built along two geographic axes: North-South, between Senegal and France; East-West, from France to Poland, because Bouhel lives a love story with Ulga, a space physics student from Warsaw. “Without being programmatic, I wanted to show two symbolically dominated universes – “the other Europe” and Africa. His students are “accepted but not welcome” in the West, as Ulga puts it. She and Bouhel unite in the solidarity of their strangeness.

be in your right place

Another anchor point, Switzerland. When Bouhel needs to rebuild after a tragedy that ruined his love relationship, his studies and his relationship with himself, he takes refuge in Geneva, a city where he had already found support in the past. “In imagination, Switzerland is that closed place at which wars stop. An oasis to rest from the struggle, an unreal enclave, a metaphor. Initially a waiter in a cafe, Bouhel found a job editing ancient texts from a monastery, thus joining the copyists of the Middle Ages. “He has come full circle and found a fair relationship with himself and others. He is in the right place, in the right place.”

In Poland, Wlad, Ulga’s brother, diagnosed with schizophrenia, nurtures a strange utopia. It’s about bringing back Pope Wojtyla, who he believes is still alive. He will return from his exile to save his country from moral abandonment. Between Fodé’s mystical journey and Wlad’s delirious drift, the line is thin. “Great visionaries, wanderers, mystics and madmen often come together. Furthermore, they are all deprived of legitimacy. But if Fodé’s initiatory approach is socially accepted, based on a common grand narrative, Wlad upsets the established order. The solution he proposes is laughable, but his objective is not so incongruous: it is always about expanding the field of human consciousness. And to keep evil at bay, to prevent it from corrupting the social body.

When a spiritual universe has been negated and destroyed like African religions, it survives as a relic or folklore.

The crossing undertaken after his death by Fodé’s master, Ngof, may recall that of the bardo by the deceased in Buddhist spirituality. It’s tempting to know where she occupies the mind of Felwine Sarr, a master of martial arts. “The journey of souls after death is a motif in all mythologies. I’d rather see a connection between the Serer world the twins come from and Christian beliefs. When a spiritual universe has been negated and destroyed like African religions, it survives as a relic or folklore. Fodé maintains the legitimacy of the grand narrative that sustains his culture. When Bouhel needs to rebuild after the tragedy, he finds a moment of help from a monk, brother Tim, in the discipline of a convent. I bring together Ngof and the religious: both seek an answer to the question of the meaning of life in their own mythology”.

Inhabit the world of dreams

Women are the strong figures in the novel. They are in action: “Na Adama, the mother of the twins, is a powerful woman who makes her home a place of serenity connected to the cosmos. Mother of Ulga, wife of Fodé, Marème maintains the balance between tensions and repairs faults. With Ulga, Bouhel can form an equal couple. I wanted to restore the bright side of existences despite the ambient cynicism. I’m not naive, I know the darkness of the world, but that’s not all.

The places, in this novel, are never just geographical: “We can inhabit the world of dreams as a space as physical as the one we live in. They are the ones who set us in motion. If we ignore this dimension, we are missing something. as already in Dahij, Char, Césaire, Borges, Fanon are true interlocutors. Bouhel really exists in the world of books. He dialogues with his authors out of synchronic time.”

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Another thread runs through the book: the music. An art that Felwine Sarr practiced a lot, with the Dolé group then, today, with Daaray Samadhi in which afro-folk, jazz, music and reggae intersect and merge. The book is supported by a soundtrack – Cesária Évora, Wasis Diop, the psalms of the convent’s monks. “I wish the reader could click on the musical references to hear them: they really are part of the story.”

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