Ousmane Sembène, Les Bouts de bois de Dieu

by Chris Bertram on July 1, 2022

More than forty years ago, before I went to university, I was living in Paris and became an “organized sympathiser”, a candidate for membership, of the Trotskyist sect Lutte Ouvrière. The training for people like me consisted, of course, of reading some Marxist classics, but also of making one’s way through a list of novels that included, as I recall, Zola’s Germinal, Christiane Rochefort’s Les Stances à Sophie, Malraux’s Les Conquérants and La Condition Humaine, Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, London’s The Iron Heel and certainly some others that I forget. One of the books that I never got round to was Ousmane Sembène’s Les Bouts de bois de Dieu, and I had more or less forgotten about it until a contact on social media with whom I share many mutual friends reported reading it after a trip to Senegal. So I thought I would give it a go.

It is one of the most remarkable novels I have read in the past several years and deserves to be widely knows as a classic. It is an epic constructed somewhat in the manner of a great Russian novel (think of Grossman’s Life and Fate, for example) and centres on a strike of African railway workers, against the French rail company and the colonial administration in 1947-8. The strikers are poor, many of them are illiterate, they are Muslims, many are in polygamous families and they are regarded by the French as savages and by their religious leaders as people who ought to be grateful and know their place. Yet they have their dignity and cannot accept that they are worth less than the whites who work on the railway, that they should have no entitlement to family support, or to a pension in their old age. So they strike, heedless of the advice of their elders who had done the same ten years before.
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