Senegalese academic Felwine Sarr has a new novel out. The French title Les Lieux Qu’habitent Mes Rêves translates to The Places Where My Dream Lives. The novel was published earlier this year by Gallimard.
Sarr, who teaches and researches on contemporary African and African diaspora philosophy at Duke University, was last year named among one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people. One of Sarr’s most well-known works in English is Afrotopia, which was translated from French and published in 2020. As is evident in Sarr’s work, he believes in the decolonization of knowledge. He has consistently critiqued the myths and prejudices through which African worlds have been represented in western thought. He is an author who thinks that Africa can invent itself beyond the dominant models.
The Places Where My Dream Lives is a philosophical novel that builds these ideas. It tells the story of Fodé and Bouhel, twin brothers who take divergent paths, though they are driven by the same destiny. In this beautiful reflective, volcanic novel, we follow, on one hand, Fodé’s who will become the new initiation master of his village and who will be interested in traditional knowledge allowing him, for example, to get out of his body and become entirely transformed. On the other hand, we meet Bouhel who is studying in Europe. He is passionate about literature and the beauty of the world through academic knowledge. One is a carpenter and makes the transmission of traditional knowledge his priestly vocation while the other pursues his personal legend, in search of a muse to nourish his romantic work and his imagination as a writer. One is sedentary, marries a woman from his village and the other has a romantic relationship with a Polish student and even accompanies her to Warsaw. Although their lives are different, the brothers are the double of each other and are two archetypes of human beings subjected to the same existential questions about life, its grand purpose, and how best to find it.
Fodé and Bouhel are not alone in Sarr’s fictional world. Marked by the significant quest for oneself and by a questioning of the deep meaning of human existence, Sarr’s novel contains a gallery of singular characters: Ulga, Vladimir, Ngof, Marème, Igor, brother Tim, Martha, Na Adama. Figures of love, pride, fraternity, incomprehension, superconsciousness, commitment to humanity, these characters impose themselves on readers as symbols. The novel is polyphonic in the sense that there are several characters who speak and who tell their own story, with their own unique voice.
The first philosophical task of Sarr’s novel is to make readers believe that if Fodé and Bouhel were not brothers, they would still have been twins, symbolically. This is because they are bound by the same human condition and the events of their lives, although differentiated by the elements that constitute their specific experiences. Basically, this novel says that human beings are essentially brothers in the journey of life, that we are all twins in some way. In truth, humans always end up meeting around the same human issues as if they were all tied together by the same familial bond.
From their various places of concern and their opposing destinies, Fodé and Bouhel inhabit the same deep meaning that they want to give to their existence. They both are willing to understand what the purpose of their life is. One of them is studying semiology and dreams to become a wise man of a great culture. While the other one, rather a naturalist, is looking for a better understanding of nature and its various phenomena. For these two characters, faith, religion, is not an answer in itself, but rather a place from which springs questions about life. For example, Fodé agrees to follow the path of the ancestors, Bouhel does not like the straight path. He is is drawn to uncertainty, a lover of what he calls his “deep inner side”. He prefers to get lost than to follow a pre-determined path. As a result, he is a creator of worlds. While Fodé expresses his devotion in prayers, Brouhel’s asceticism is writing. A little pagan, impious, Bouhel lives in his own misunderstanding of things. As he says to himself, there is an idea according to which, one does not touch grace with impunity, inevitably a cosmic reaction will be triggered.”
In The Places Where My Dream Lives, Sarr offers two characters who embody the beautiful and the just. He leads us to understand that life is not limited to the places we know, but that there are other places reserved for the initiated, for the seers and that this testifies to the abyssal, sprawling depth of the human existence.