Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Sembene Ousmane

God's Bits of Wood (French original, Les Bouts de bois de Dieu, 1960) is the only novel by the Senegalese writer Sembene Ousmane that I've read, I gather from my follow-up research that many consider it his best. I think I'll go on to read Xala (1973) which looks interesting.

This book is a narrative of the real-life Dakar-Niger railway workers' strike of 1947-1948. The strike was long, bloody, and ultimately successful: the African workers were given the same rights and benefits as the French workers (the French and whites in general are called toubabs by the locals). A sticking point was the practice of polygamy by the Muslim African workers: the French authorities had refused to give family allowances to men with multiple wives, with accompanying reactionary rhetoric about degeneracy, too much breeding and so forth that outraged the deeply moralistic Senegalese and Malian workers. The French underestimated the abilities of deeply committed cadres of organizers, and repressive violence that had been sufficient in earlier labor disputes this time provoked the mass participation of the women, something hitherto unheard of. Thus the strike was a major turning point both for labor relations between the French colonial authorities and African workers, and for the political culture of the workers' community.

The perspective is that of the workers and their families in the gritty maintenance hub of Thies, where families one or two generations out of subsistence farming have been transformed into a classic proletariat that assembles at the plant gates for the morning whistle and returns to the shanty town at night. Ousmane depicts a large community of disparate characters, all with their own strengths and weaknesses and their own roles to play. There is a conspicuous absence of the heroic individual in favor of a communal dynamic driven both by tradition and by modernization. In fact the title is an idiomatic African phrase (the Africans here speak Ouolof and Bambara) used to avoid using specific names, which is thought to attract demons, a manifestation of a deeply-held value of humility.

This kind of social realism requires quick sketching of numerous characters and it is impressive that Ousmane manages to pack so many personalities and relationships into a 248-page novel. There is Bakayoko the itinerant organizer, offstage for the first part of the novel as he is walking the backcountry with his hat and his pack taking the message to remote villages along the line. He is completely dedicated to his cause but needs the help of Lahbib who has a better sense of political tactics. N'Deye Touti attracted to both Bakayoko and Beaugosse; when Beaugosse sides with the toubabs on the grounds that they represent progress (a not uncommon opinion) N'Deye Touti chooses Bakayoko, only to be stung by his rejection as he must move on with his work (Maimouna, the blind woman who sees much, had warned her of this). Bakayoko, who already has a wife, is against polygamy anyway (as in all societies there are the conservatives and the progressives to be found here), although he might have given in for Penda, a young woman with a reputation as the town's harlot who emerges as a brave leader on the women's hard march to Dakar, where she is shot down by soldiers at the bitter end. Mame Sofi reviles Penda and is on the lookout for witches, an obstructive nativist presence until her consciousness is raised by the march.

Ramatoulaye, one of the central characters, is a wife and mother in her 30s who wants no trouble but is inexorably drawn in to the struggle by her innate good character. Her brother, El Hadji (an honorific for a man who has made the hadj to Mecca) Mabigue, represents the Imams who are depicted here as apologists and enforcers for the authorities and the status quo. In this critical appraisal of the clergy, the social realism weaving a large cast of characters together, and the background of a bitter labor dispute the book reminded me of the Irish author James Plunkett's Strumpet City (1969) which takes a similar approach to the bitter Dublin dockworker's strike and lockout of 1913. Both novels treat of early conflicts that lead on to much larger subsequent events.

As with so many West African writers Ousmane celebrates the organic democratic behavior of deeply spiritual village Africans, even after they are thrust into semi-urban settings where they feel displaced. He also is typical of African writers in his focus on the suffering and the stoicism of individuals, indicting many destructive forces but none more than plain callousness and the smug hypocracy of the privileged. He is an excellent writer all around, my last point would be that unlike some of his contemporaries he does not let his didactic intent coarsen his prose. Readers get a sophisticated political education without a sense that they are swallowing any medicine at all. Highly recommended.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Siege of Krishnapur

It was because of my interest in Irish literature and history that I first discovered J. G. Farrell, when I read his wonderful book Troubles (1970), the first of a trilogy of novels about the British Empire (and the subject of an earlier post here). A novel that is page-for-page laugh-out-loud funny is very rare indeed. Novels that manage to walk the reader, through simple story-telling, up to the plain facts of economic, historical and political injustice, and the inexorable processes of collective guilt and historical dialectic over which humans only imagine they have any control, are also precious. To see them combined in one novel with so much grace and wit made me an instant devotee.

Noting that it was the second book of the trilogy, The Siege of Krishnapur, that won the Booker Prize in 1973 only added to my anticipation of a book that I wouldn't have missed anyway; I'd been looking forward to it ever since I tore open the Amazon package and added it to the Stack some months ago. Meanwhile I also have an interest in the contemporary Indian English-language novel and one of my recent favorites is Pankaj Mishra's The Romantics (2000), a wise and charming book, so another good sign was that Mishra wrote the Introduction to the NYRB Classics edition (needless to say I didn't read it before finishing the novel. Don't ever do that! Usually I don't bother with Intros at all). To top it off this is an adventure novel set during the Great Mutiny of 1857, when new rifle cartridges covered in impure animal grease precipitated a revolt of the Hindu sepoys (Indian soldiers). So my anticipation was high as I watched Seige progress through the Stack.

I've just finished it, and in none of this was I disappointed. I thought that Troubles was one of the best books I'd read in quite a few years, and The Seige of Krishnapur, while in some ways a different sort of exercise, absolutely qualifies for the same level of praise. It stands with the imperial writings of Paul Scott, Joseph Conrad, George Orwell, Anthony Burgess: I doubt that an Englishman will ever write a better book about the Raj (I hope that an Indian writer may).

Farrell is his own man. His psychological insight is acute (and neverendingly witty), but he has written an old-fashioned novel of blazing adventure with riveting action scenes, where wholly believable characters have wholly believable thoughts in the midst of the most horrific episodes. I'm an academic in my day job, but the thoroughness and precision of his research into the period, the technical expertise about the rifles and cannons, the fluency with Victorian mores, poetry and religion, and the elegance with which this research is woven into the narrative reflect a degree of concentration that your humble blogger fears he might never achieve. As in the earlier novel there is a sense of overall composition, of an immense concept arranged into a story and unfolding in a most disciplined way, as if Farrell had envisioned the entire narrative before carefully rendering it in 344 seamless pages.

Other similarities with Troubles are interesting. Perhaps his most gratifying quality is his realization of the way that people think of the strangest things in the most inappropriate circumstances. This is exactly right about people. Most writers aim for compositional elegance by editing out of their characters' interior monologues everything that is not literally storyline, but Farrell harnesses our out-of-control stream of consciousness to reveal character (Virginia Woolf is also a master at this). Personal character, and the way character is both the wellspring of action and at the same time practically irrelevant to the fate of people caught up in immense historical processes, is one of his signature preoccupations; he has an effortless talent for evoking it.

This is the same effortless (or at least he makes it appear effortless, like all good artists) talent that makes him so funny. He is funny, and humanely, wisely funny, under any and all circumstances. This is a book that depicts a great deal of suffering and violence. Troubles, although culminating in inevitable violence, is not a war novel as such, and thus its appeal lies largely in the humorous sadness, the sad humor, of its depiction of the follies of silly human beings. One sits with it chuckling aloud. Seige is a much more intense and critical book, and too much writing for laughs would run the risk of gratuitousness and cynicism. Still Farrell's gift of trenchant wit succeeds in imbuing the novel with an irresistible background of laughter; it is just a more cosmic laughter, sad and jester-like.

One last observation: In both novels we live with the English characters, the colonialists. We experience the events through their eyes. Both the Irish and the Indians are remote figures, menacing, misunderstood, suffering, but we are never in their heads. I think Farrell understood that both his comic sense and his psychological insight were both thoroughly English and simply acknowledged his own limitations as a creative artist, but this structural element also serves to keep the larger theme in focus. He is aiming his critique at the English; he's just so good that his work is universal.

When he was 44 he was hit with a wave and swept out to sea. The third book of the trilogy, The Singapore Grip (1978), is nine books down in my Stack.