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God's Bits of Wood by Ousmane Sembene

God's Bits of Wood - Ousmane Sembène, Francis Price

Sometimes foreign books in translation leave me cold, and sometimes I enjoy them although they’re quite different from the novels I’m used to reading, and it’s hard to tell in advance which books will be which. Happily, this one, written by a Senegalese author and relating the events of a labor strike in French West Africa (primarily set in what is now Senegal) in 1947-48, fell into the enjoyable category. But it is different from your standard English-language novel: it’s very much the story of a community rather than one or two individuals; though its chapters tend to focus on particular characters, the larger story follows a numerous cast in three primary locations (Dakar, Thiès and Bamako). It’s also a book that requires patience at the beginning, as many characters are introduced, but stick with it and they’ll sort themselves out.


It’s easy to imagine this book being taught in university classes, as it deals directly with big issues: classism and workers’ rights, racism and colonial power. Though the author is a man, it also deals extensively with women’s role in society; the book has many prominent female characters, who come into their own during the course of the strike, while the men of their communities are out of work. But while the author makes no bones about the politics of his work, it doesn’t end there, nor are the characters mere symbols or types; both they and their surroundings feel real. And the plot builds as it goes and includes several fights, marches and other dramatic scenes. One gets the sense of an epic struggle, with stakes much higher than better pay for railway workers. As the workers and the community learn to assert their own power, we can already see independence on the horizon. (It's probably no coincidence that this was published in 1960, the year of Senegal's independence; there is perhaps a bit of national myth-making at play.)


At any rate, the translation is good, there are some vivid descriptions, and there’s a sense of place and the ways the strike changes the culture. The story also turns out to be an interesting one. Not a new favorite, but I liked the book and would recommend it.