The Most Secret Memory of Men by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr; The Extinction of Irena Rey by Jennifer Croft – review

<span>‘Surreal metaphors and multi-page dream descriptions’: Mohamed Mbougar Sarr.</span><span>Photograph: ©DR</span>
‘Surreal metaphors and multi-page dream descriptions’: Mohamed Mbougar Sarr.Photograph: ©DR

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.

Winner of the Prix Goncourt in 2021, Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s The Most Secret Memory of Men (translated from French by Lara Vergnaud) nods to The Savage Detectives in its epigraph and title. It is likewise a literary quest, built around a young Parisian writer’s search for the legendary Senegalese author TC Elimane, whose only novel, published in 1938, was hailed as a masterpiece before being pulped in a plagiarism row.

Spanning the first world war to the near present, the trail leads from libraries to lapdancing bars, from the tale of a Jewish publisher in 30s Paris to Elimane’s friendships with real-life figures in Buenos Aires, to – finally – a female student whose livestreamed suicide outside the Senegalese parliament sparks protests in Dakar.

The gags give the reader something to hold on to amid labyrinthine turns

The style as well as the sweep is Bolañoesque: surreal metaphors, multi-page dream descriptions and a sense of ease in whichever world capital the novel finds itself, not to mention bouncy sex (the search is sparked by a chance encounter with a writer eager for the narrator to suck her breasts), and the sense, above all, of a wild goose chase stretched to outsize length. The fortunes of Elimane’s lost novel, satirically documented through excerpts from his critical reception, tell a story of literary racism, even – or especially – when the book is praised. But as well as indictment, there’s rueful fun at the expense of a writer’s lot: the narrator’s own debut sells 79 copies “including the ones I bought out of my own pocket… And yet 1,182 people had liked the post I put on Facebook to announce the pending publication”.

The gags give the reader something to hold on to amid labyrinthine turns that recall Bolaño in their challenges as much as their pleasures. At one point the narrator thinks of Elimane’s prose as “crypto-symbolist bullshit”, and the pyrotechnics of Sarr’s narrative sometimes resemble fireworks in fog. It best succeeds when his style and preoccupations mesh: witness the vim of the narrator’s boozy four-page rant about the authenticity trap faced by African writers, or a sex scene in which he has a vision of the future in a bead of sweat dripping from the chin of his Colombian-Algerian girlfriend.

Bolaño’s spirit also infuses The Extinction of Irena Rey, by Jennifer Croft, best known as the translator of Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk. Set in Poland, the story follows eight squabbling translators holed up in a village on the Belarussian border to work under strict embargo on the latest manuscript by heavyweight Polish author Irena, who abruptly disappears almost as soon as they arrive. As they scour nearby woodland – and her hard drive – for clues, theories fly (kidnapping, mushroom poisoning) as awareness dawns of how little they knew the woman they call “Our Author”.

Akin to the first segment of Bolaño’s 2666, about the backbiting among a group of academics devoted to a reclusive German writer, Croft generates an enjoyably talky sex comedy out of barely concealed rivalries. But as in 2666, horror underpins the humour; we’re never allowed to forget that the novel takes place on ground soaked in 20th-century bloodshed, as Croft’s send-up of literary mores – see one translator’s “hipster Nokia” – is shadowed by the memory of the Holocaust.

Both gossipy and profound, the novel makes hay with intellectual questions of Croft’s day job as well as the nuts-and-bolts aspects of the translation trade. Steady tension comes from the conceit that the book itself is translated: the words of the narrator, Emilia, Irena’s regular Spanish translator – she’s an Argentine writing in Polish – come to us via Irena’s US translator, Alexis, an Arkansan frenemy whose footnotes poke fun at the text’s portrayal of her as a schemer.

There’s a climactic duel – remember how in The Savage Detectives a poet and critic face off on a beach? – and at the core of both these books, like Bolaño’s before them, is the paradox of literary ego: the compulsion to write in the face of writing’s ultimate irrelevance. As Sarr’s narrator recalls hearing: “You might never succeed in literature. You might end up bitter! disappointed! marginalised! a failure! … I told them: No one ever succeeds in literature, so you can take your success and shove it wherever you like.”

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 Delivery charges may apply

The Extinction of Irena Rey by Jennifer Croft is published by Scribe (£16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply