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.

The hero, if there is one is Ibrahima Bakayoko, a charismatic leader with a complicated domestic and love life. Yet for a good half of the novel he does not feature, we are waiting for him. Instead, after the initial decision and some ensuing violence and death, most of the action focuses on three groups of households, in Bamako, Thiès and Dakar and on the struggle of the women to survive in the absence of wages. Sembène is a master of description and of set-piece scenes that capture the essence of the conflict: the killing of a ram belonging to a quisling character, the trial of a strikebreaker, raids by teenage apprentices armed with slingshots, the death of a grouchy old caretaker who is trying to catch rats to eat, the raids by colonial authorities and the resulting death and destruction, a march by the women of Thiès to Dakar to demand justice, the embittered ranting of the old colonials, the prison and the torture of detainees. He also conjures wonderful characters: Penda “the whore” who hates men but fights alongside them, N’Deye Touti who wishes she was white and suffers that harsh lesson that she is not, Maïmouna the blind woman with her twin babies that nobody knows the paternity of, Fa Keïta the elderly and devout railworker who preaches forgiveness and humanity in the face of colonial cruelty. In many ways the women, often the polygamous wives of the striking men, are the central characters: depicted with dignity, agency and not at all as they might feature in the white liberal imagination.

In brief, I cannot recommend it highly enough. There is an English edition in the Heinemann African Writer’s series (where the author’s name is given as Sembene Ousmane) but I haven’t checked the translation which seems to have many fewer pages than the original (but maybe the print is small). It would make a great movie on the scale of Dr Zhivago, but they don’t make them like that any more.



Stephen 07.01.22 at 4:18 pm

I’m afraid this is another of the Highly Recommended Books I Am Unlikely To Have Time To Read.
Curse of the drinking classes, again. Could CB please let me know: are there any white characters in it who are represented more or less favourably?


Chris Bertram 07.01.22 at 5:35 pm

@Stephen that is a very peculiar question to ask about a book you have no intention of reading.


James Landry 07.01.22 at 6:03 pm

Thanks for the recommendation! Looking forward to taking a look. One aspect of Senegalese life is the tariqas and marabouts of West African Islam. Is there much discussion of them and their influence on society in the novel?


Stephen 07.01.22 at 6:41 pm

CB: it’s not that I have no intention of reading the book, just that (as I said) I have other calls on my time. I’m sure you can understand the difference. If it does indeed have any white characters in it who are represented more or less favourably, I would consider it as more balanced and better worth reading.But if it’s from a time when you “became an “organized sympathiser”, a candidate for membership, of the Trotskyist sect Lutte Ouvrière” I might not expect balance.

Incidentally, when and why did you cease to be a Trotskyite sympathiser? Not that I would hold your former beliefs against you. Tempora mutantur …


Chris Bertram 07.01.22 at 6:42 pm

I didn’t really spot that in the novel. Religious belief is generally positively portrayed when it is a matter of the simple faith of characters in God and it plays a role in moderating feelings of anger and revenge, but official religious leaders are portrayed as corrupt accomplices of French colonial rule who preach acquiescence.


Ray Vinmad 07.01.22 at 8:40 pm

Years ago I went to see a film festival with his films…I had no idea he wrote novels!

Besides Satyajit Ray I cannot remember every going so wild over a director at a film festival. His movies are SO good.

Faat Kine. My brain erases a lot of movies but I remember this one extremely well.

All the movies were centered on women’s perspectives (or so I remember)–though he’s not the only male director to pull this off, it’s rare to do it so well. They are also vividly acted films–for lack of a better word.

Thanks for reminder. Now I want to know much more about him (which I probably did and have forgotten it all) and re-watch these movies if I can find them. And of course read this novel.


faustusnotes 07.02.22 at 2:21 am

It sounds great Chris, but every time I try to read a book recommended to me at CT I get burnt … I will give it a go and see if my past bad experiences are restricted only to SF recommendations.


Bart Barry 07.02.22 at 11:00 pm

If it does indeed have any white characters in it who are represented more or less favourably, I would consider it as more balanced and better worth reading.

You should try The Clansman by Thomas Dixon. Sounds like it’s right up your alley.


J-D 07.05.22 at 12:30 am

If it does indeed have any white characters in it who are represented more or less favourably, I would consider it as more balanced and better worth reading.

This is a ludicrous criterion by which to judge. Titus Andronicus is not one of Shakespeare’s best reputed plays, but I don’t believe any of its critics would say that one of its flaws is that has no black characters who are represented more or less favourably.

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