In the 1940s, Ousmane Sembene was part of a transportation workers’ strike in Senegal. In 1960, he used some of those experiences to create the novel Les bouts de bois de Dieu (God’s Bits of Wood), a vivid, strong novel that shows both the power of French colonialism and the power of the people working to escape its yoke.
The novel examines a railway workers’ strike, and takes place primarily in three towns that the railway runs through: Bamako, Thies, and Dakar. Each town has its own issues and its own struggles. Early on, it becomes clear that the French administrators have the upper hand: they tell merchants not to extend credit for food to those on strike, and after a few days, they also cut off the water supply. This has an unexpected effect: the women, who, in their society, had been silent and docile partners, must now provide (which usually means scavenge) food and water for the household. They begin speaking in the men’s assembly, standing beside their husbands and sons as equal members of the strike. “Les hommes comprirent que ce temps, s’il enfantait d’autres hommes, enfantait aussi d’autres femmes,” says Sembene — The men understood that these times created new men, but also new women.
And it’s this kind of new society that Sembene examines during the entire novel. The story weaves back and forth between the small towns and the large city. Each chapter is named after a man or a woman whose point of view is at its center. Sembene represents all kinds of voices: the old, the young, the passionately Marxist, the uneducated, the self-educated, those educated by the French, the religious and the strikebreakers. How is it possible to make a society where all these are equal, where black railway workers get the same rights and the same pay as white railway workers? Sembene doesn’t shy away from the issues of condescension and racism that plague the strike negotiations, but neither does he make his railway workers perfect. Some of them are infatuated with Europe; others are greedy or hostile; still others — more visibly flawed, like prostitutes and blind women — have more to offer the movement of the strike than anyone else. Each character is unique, easy to remember despite the large cast. Sembene addresses issues of language, the role of women, changing identity, and the cultural cost of industrialization, all without seeming heavy-handed.
There is one small flaw and one great gift in this book, and the gift far outweighs the flaw. Despite Sembene’s enormous talent for depth of character and perspective (whether or not the character is likable becomes irrelevant — you know them), his white characters, the railway administrators, are cardboard cutouts. They issue condescending platitudes (these men are children! I can manage them, I’ve been in the colonies twenty years!) and have fulfilled their function. The book would have been a little richer with more understanding of what lay behind their actions. However, I hasten to add that there are far, far more books in French about white French people than about Senegalese people; if Sembene decided it wasn’t his job to do an apology that had already been done many times, I am not going to be too critical.
The gift I spoke of is that Sembene can brilliantly depict both a group (even a mob) and an individual, and he can show how the two are related. His scenes are always darting between the two perspectives. Women mass before French soldiers holding fire hoses. They are shouting, shaking their fists, linking arms. We see the thoughts of one woman we know well, then another. The fire hoses turn on, and the women in front bend down to avoid the battery of the water; one, distracted by her child’s cry (a child we know), does not, and she drowns. A crowd is no crowd without each person; unless each person works for the cause, there is no group. Sembene reminded me most of reading Zola, except with the added benefit of a century’s Marx and Freud and war and a few years of postcolonialism.
The book takes its title from a Senegalese/ Malian superstition. According to tradition, you don’t count people, for fear of attracting the attention of the gods to what a large household you have. Instead, you count “bouts de bois,” bits of wood, useless to the gods. Sembene shatters this superstition, showing how important it is for every human being to stand up and be counted. This book has big ideas behind it, but it’s the people who count, at every turn and on every page. This is a tremendous novel.
*Note: the brief translation here is my own, as I read this in French. There is an English translation by Francis Price, published by Heineman.