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Prize battle strips Academy of all honour

It is hard to imagine what Calixthe Beyala and the Academie Francaise could possibly have in common. She is a winsome black woman writer from French Cameroon in her thirties with a certain iconoclastic bent. The Academy is the self-perpetuating and predominantly male club of France's great and good which stands guard over France's scholarly tradition. But it was to Beyala that the Academy awarded last year's prize for the best novel, a work called, prophetically, say some, Lost Honours.

Now, both the Academy and Beyala are in the dock. They, for having put the weight of their authority behind a plagiarist. She, not just for plagiarism, but also for recidivism.

The first aspersions on Beyala's work were cast by the satirical investigative weekly le Canard Enchaine, in early 1995, when passages from her book, Little Prince of Belleville, were compared with very similar passages from novels by two American writers, Howard Buten and Charles Williams, which had sold well in France.

Pierre Assouline, editor and director of the glossy books monthly Lire, took up the cudgels. For him, Beyala's artistic integrity, or lack of it, has become something of a crusade. She calls it persecution.

Last May, after months of bitter allegations and counter- allegations, the first victory went to her detractors.

In a lawsuit brought by Buten's French publisher, Beyala was found by the court to have "partially counterfeited" his novel. She and her publishers, Albin Michel, were ordered to pay a total of 100,000 francs (pounds 11,000) to Buten, his translator and his French publisher, Le Seuil.

The case, according to Assouline, bore more resemblance to a seminar on comparative literature than a court of law. Under pressure from her publisher, it was said, Beyala decided not to appeal.

Assouline has since found passages and episodes from Beyala's work that appear to have been culled from other several works, including Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple.

Paule Constant, the French author of a novel called White Spirit, has added her voice to the accusations. At first, she told Lire magazine, she did not want to believe it. "But when I examined the text, whole passages of my book sprang out at me from the mould that imprisoned them."

Although Beyala did not formally contest the verdict of the court, she was forthright in defending herself outside it. She talked about "coincidence" and scenes half-remembered. She accused her detractors of spite and suggested she was being singled out for criticism because she was a woman and black.

After the court's judgment, however, there was general surprise that Beyala's most recent novel, Lost Honours, was even nominated, let alone shortlisted, for last year's prestigious Academie Francaise prize. When it was pronounced the winner on 24 October, there was consternation.

Some of the judges defended their choice by citing what they called "a very French tradition from La Fontaine to Proust" which had left the border between borrowing and pastiche "poorly defined". "Everyone takes their inspiration from everyone else," was another defence.

Reviewing the selection process in the just-published February issue of Lire, Assouline renewed his campaign. If this year's prize had to go to Albin Michel, he said - alluding to the alleged "share-out" of prizes among the publishers, that publisher had more than one entry.

"But," he went on, "for reasons that would seem not to have much to do with literature, it had to be Beyala and no one else" and he accused "certain members of the Academy" of using "all their talents and social graces" to win over the rest. Others talked about the "susceptibility of some judges to female charms". Now Assouline claims to have found striking similarities between passages of Beyala's winning novel and Ben Okri's The Famished Road.

She responded with charges of misogyny. This weekend, though, she was stung into giving a long, rambling response which was published in the daily Figaro.

Addressing the problem of apparent borrowings from other works, she says her novels (10 so far) derive from the African "oral tradition" where existing ideas and phrases are repeated and embellished.

She refers to herself as a "mere woman", accuses Assouline of hounding "a poor black come from nowhere" and says her experience makes her wonder whether anyone "born in a shanty-town" can be "fully recognised as a writer in Paris?"

There, for the moment, the case rests.