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God’s Bits of Wood by Ousmane Sembène, translated by Francis Price
Since spending a week in Dakar last month, I’ve been on a Sembène kick. The famed film director was also a prolific writer; he only turned to film when he realized he could reach a wider audience through that medium. I started with Xala, his 1973 novella, which he later adapted for the screen, about an entrepreneur who eventually goes bankrupt trying to find a cure for his xala, or impotence. It’s a stirring class critique and modern fable all in one. I followed that up with 1960’s God’s Bits of Wood, or Les bouts de bois de Dieu, considered by some critics to be his best work.
The 1947 Dakar–Niger railway strike is the focus of this richly observed novel, which shifts points of view over and over again without sacrificing detailed characterization. For six months, railway workers from Dakar to Bamako went on strike, asking French management for family allowances, pay raises, and work breaks, among other demands. Sembène takes readers through those months with an omniscient eye, as he depicts the strike’s ongoing toil on the people.
There’s Niakoro, an older Bambara woman who remembers the first strikes in 1938. She lost both her husband and her son to the violence that erupted as a result. There’s Niakoro’s remaining son, union leader Bakayoko, and his adopted daughter, Ad'jibid'ji; free spirit Penda; Ramatoulaye, wife of a striker and a matriarch who takes matters into her hands when her brother’s beloved ram ransacks their compound, spilling precious bags of rice; and even Isnard, a white Frenchman who is full of racist condescension toward Black Senegalese people. At some point, briefly, gruesomely, Sembène inhabits the point of view of a rat.
Sembène doesn’t gloss over the violence of French soldiers and police officers, nor the hunger and thirst families experienced once the French cut off access to their water supply. Sembène was a committed socialist in real life, but he avoids didacticism or an overly polemical tone. The result is an engrossing, epic story that clocks in at only 248 pages. Well worth the read. ●