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.

1 comment:

Amateur Reader said...

Xala is interesting! And funny, quite funny. I read the first 15 pages of it yesterday, so that's the basis of my judgement.

I would also strongly recommend the novella The Money Order.

None of these have the scope of God's Bits of Wood. It's shocking how much Sembène could pack into such a short book.