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A classic of African French-language literature, regularly reissued in paperback format, Les bouts de bois de Dieu is a militant novel written by the Senegalese Ousmane Sembène. Inspired by Marxism, the narrative stages the class struggle at work in colonial Africa through the romanticized evocation of the Dakar-Niger railway workers’ strike of 1948. With tight writing and no Manichaeism , the novel has not aged a single wrinkle.
The classic of the classics
The Woods of God is the classic of African classics, taught today in all good schools across the French-speaking world. Americans talk about ” African canon To designate the essential works of the continent, of which this book is undoubtedly a part. Released in 1960, it is the work of the Senegalese Ousmane Sembène. The latter is better known as a filmmaker, but it is undoubtedly because we forget that the “father of African cinema” began his career as a novelist. In reality, Sembène had several careers: he was a fisherman, a tirailleur during the Second World War, a railway worker, a chain worker at Renault factories in Paris, a docker and a trade unionist in Marseille, before embarking on a career as a novelist, then filmmaker.
According to his biographers, Sembène had early stopped his studies at the age of 13. He had recovered there during the long years he spent in Marseille after the war. He followed courses in the schools of the Communist Party and especially read a lot, borrowing books from the library of the port, held by the CGT. This is how he discovered Germinal of Emile Zola who served him for The Woods of God, Sembène’s most successful novel. The mastery of narration, the economy of means, the efficiency of the narrative which characterize this novel are all the more astonishing since man was a complete autodidact in literature, who had not passed through any school of ” creative writing “
What does the novel say?
The Woods of God is the fictionalized account of an historic event, the great strike of railway workers on the Dakar-Niger line, which took place in 1947-1948. Sembène’s novels always start from a social indignation. It was already the case for his first novel The black dock worker (1956) whose starting point was the strikes of Marseille dockers during the period of the French colonial wars. These strikers were trying to prevent the loading of arms for Indochina. The Woods of God is dedicated to strikers who struggled for almost six months to wrest from their employers decent wages, a pension and family allowances, rights previously reserved for French employees.
The author, who worked as a railroader at the time, followed the strikers closely, and witnessed the sacrifices and courage of the actors personally. This is all that his book stages through a narrative shared between the three big cities, namely Dakar, Thiès and Bamako, served by the railway line. Progressively, the tension increased and we saw the strikers and the colonial police confronting each other in an increasingly violent manner.
The war that the two camps are waging and that the novel tells with a consummate sense of the dramatic and the tragic, has an epic dimension because its challenges seem to exceed the demands of the moment and engage the future. These challenges are borne by exceptional men, but also by determined and courageous women. The prominent role that women play in this novel is truly revolutionary, which earned Ousmane Sembène to be qualified at the time of the publication of the novel ” first African feminist novelist “
Ousmane Sembène’s literary and cinematographic work is distinguished by its denunciation of the moral and material suffering of which women are victims in African society. But the novelist refuses to represent women only as victims. In The Woods of God, he placed them at the forefront to better reflect their importance in the evolution of social and political life in Africa. Wives, mothers or sisters of the strikers, we see them in solidarity with the revolt of their men. They are the soul and the weapon of the strikers’ protest.
It is also the great march undertaken by women between Thiès and Dakar and its accomplishment despite many obstacles, which will be decisive in the successful outcome of the railway workers’ strike. It is probably no accident that this heroic adventure is set to music and directed by Penda, a former prostitute. By falling under the rifle bullets, it imposed itself as a martyr of the cause and as such perhaps the real protagonist of the story, and in a way more important than its male heroes.
Three reasons to read or re-read this novel
You must read this novel to savor the storyteller’s talent as a novelist who skillfully mixes narration, description and portraits, without disdaining humor and a taste for spicy detail. The result is captivating.
Readers will also appreciate the power of the fable behind the militant work. In his analysis of Wood pieces of God, Wole Soyinka mentioned his epic dimension as the main interest of this novel. ” And as it happens in all epics, humanity is renewed “Writes the Nigerian playwright and novelist. For Soyinka, the revolt that is at the heart of the plot of this novel is a call to Africans to transform their society by taking charge of their own destiny.
Finally, we cannot stress enough the strength and grandeur of the universe without Manichaeism which unfolds in these pages. Here, steeped in respect despite the antagonisms which oppose them, beings live and die for their ideas and aspire to a world where we “fight without hatred”, as recalled by the lament with which the story ends. It is undoubtedly this humanism underlying Ousmane Sembène’s committed vision that makes the reading of his work so fascinating.
The Woods of God, by Ousmane Sembène. Available in pocket collection, Pocket Presses, 379 pages (First publication in 1960).