Ousmane Sembène Essay - Critical Essays


What is most obvious about Ousmane Sembène is his social conscience. His novels, based on a Marxist-Socialist ideology, have an essentially political function. They have a contemporary setting and are concerned with Africa’s transition from a traditional tribal mentality to a cosmopolitan one. Two issues that receive considerable attention are the plight of women in a polygamous, Islamic society and the plight of the ordinary person trapped and enslaved by the capitalist elite. In fact, given his Socialist leanings, Sembène emphasizes the inequalities of class as much as those of race. This distinguishes him from other Francophone writers, such as Senghor, whose insistence on the uniqueness of the African—his intuitive, emotional nature vis-à-vis the rationality of the Caucasian—subordinates political and social realities in an attempt to define and glorify cultural phenomena. The rejection of negritude as a realistic or useful principle, seen especially in his last novel, aligns Sembène with Anglophone writers such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, though they do not share his ideological emphases.

In spite of his Marxism, Sembène consistently creates romantic heroes. Perhaps the novel form dictates such dominant personalities; perhaps Sembène has not found a way to reconcile form with content—though, as Gerald Moore has argued, there is detectable a shift from heroic individualism to communal action between Black Docker and God’s Bits of Wood. Yet even in this third novel, Sembène obviously admires the special powers of Bakayoko. Perhaps, instead, Sembène is simply not an orthodox adherent to the concept of anonymity in the Socialist state. Certainly, the personality of the author himself plays a dominant role, and though one cannot identify the creator with his creations, the choice of heroes seems to follow the pattern of Sembène’s own life. Theprotagonists of the first three novels are all political activists, engaged in one way or another with the struggle for recognition and independence.

Beginning with L’Harmattan, livre I: Référendum, however, the central characters are more ambivalent and retiring. This may reflect only the tendencies within the society, but it probably relates to Sembène’s own withdrawal from direct political activity and his assumption of the authorial role—a conflict anticipated as early as the first novel. One must also admit that Sembène is more or less critical of such political neutrality, while at the same time generating considerable sympathy for the ambivalent character. It is not easy to generalize about Sembène’s protagonists, but his first three are essentially working-class men of a revolutionary stamp who rise to a kind of prominence through their own efforts, while the later heroes have already achieved status in society but have lost their integrity or have failed to make their influence felt in the world of politics and social realities. All of these male protagonists, with the exception of El Hadji in Xala (and even he eventually obtains one’s sympathy and rises through his humiliation above the members of his class), are presented as superior types.

What is noticeable about the protagonist in every novel, including the fallen hero El Hadji, is a recurring trait that must originate in Sembène’s own personality—a resistance to authority. To some extent, one must expect this motif in novels of a Marxist persuasion. Embedded as it is in the character of his heroes, however, this insistence on individual freedom is not so much ideological as personal and psychological. What Sembène creates are men and women with strong egos that defy any manipulation of the social or intellectual life. It is not Marxism, therefore, that is actually at the root of Sembène’s novels, but a stubbornness and a pride in the integrity of the individual that no political system—capitalist, Socialist, or whatever—has the right to violate.

Black Docker

Black Docker, Sembène’s first novel, bears a superficial resemblance to Albert Camus’s L’Étranger (1942; The Stranger, 1946) with its alienated, misunderstood hero, convicted of murder in a tense trial scene, subjected to prejudice, and left alone in prison at the end, wrestling with his soul. It is as though Sembène were looking for a model to guide him in this first literary attempt. In any case, Black Docker is clearly exploratory in structure, purpose, and theme. Rather than follow a simple chronological pattern, Sembène begins in medias res, at the time of Diaw Falla’s trial: first the reactions of his mother back in Senegal; of his pregnant mistress, Catherine; and of his fellow dockers; then the trial itself, which is carried to the moment of the jury’s decision. At this point, Sembène returns to the past to give a picture of Diaw’s dual life as docker at the port of Marseilles and as aspiring novelist.

Diaw’s first role gets him involved in a confrontation with his white employers, and his second brings frustrating rejections by the publishing establishment, until the promises of a well-known white woman novelist lead him to deception and murder, as she publishes the novel under her own name and he, in an attempt to get his due, accidentally kills her. Sembène then returns to the trial scene, where the jury declares Diaw guilty and sentences him to life imprisonment. The novel closes with a philosophical letter from Diaw to an uncle in Senegal.

In addition to this melodramatic structuring to gain suspense, Sembène makes several attempts to capture local color, especially the African district in Marseilles. There are also scenes of physical violence and love, but the most dramatic, perhaps, is the trial itself, which climaxes with Diaw’s reciting from memory the final chapter of his prizewinning novel to demonstrate to an incredulous audience that he is indeed the author. Such melodramatic coloring surely owes something to Sembène’s longtime fascination with Western cinema. The protagonist himself is both a leader of the working men and a sensitive intellectual. Yet one must admit that the main source for this hero is not the movies but the life of the novelist himself. Sembène is, among other things, exploring the autobiographical potential in fiction.

Various details of Diaw’s life identify him as a fictional variation of his creator: born in a fishing village, son of a fisherman, reared and educated by an uncle who taught him French, and in his early life an indolent boy of the streets, a compound of gentleness, stubbornness, and violence. What is most obvious is Sembène’s own experience as a docker in Marseilles, during which time he, like Diaw, began writing his first novel. Diaw’s two novels, indeed, resemble Sembène’s. In the first, Africans stage an escape from a slave ship; Sembène’s own first novel is symbolically an attempt by Diaw and others to escape from slavery within the white society of France. Diaw’s second novel anticipates Sembène’s subsequent fiction, in that it is set in Africa, not in France, and focuses on the confrontation between the old and the new in contemporary African societies.

Furthermore, within Black Docker is stated a theory of the novel that seems to fit both Diaw’s and Sembène’s authorial intentions. One of Diaw’s friends cautions him about his duties as a writer: He must have a cause, that is, he must be a spokesman for his people; he must see things as they are; and he must have the courage to speak his mind. Later, when Diaw is out of work, he understands the warning. He vows to avoid the naïve, to acknowledge life for what it is, a battle. This is also an implicit acknowledgment of an earlier warning, that individuals like Diaw who rise above their class eventually forget and hence betray the people. Sembène is obviously making a commitment to remain a spokesman for the ordinary person. This novel is the first installment of that commitment.

In spite of its melodramatic devices—which Sembène never completely abandons—Black Docker is a novel of ideas. It espouses a Marxist ideology, attacking the capitalistic establishment, the entrenched social prejudices against black (and white) dockers, the legislative and judicial processes, the penal system and penal code, and in particular the manipulative education of youth to accept blindly the old ideological assumptions. The theorizing goes beyond social criticism to a wistful, paradisiacal dream for the future, a world in which everyone’s work is pleasurable, so that physical labor does not condemn the mind to dullness. In his final letter home, Diaw wishes for the son he leaves behind a sense of beauty and freedom, human dignity, and thoughts unsullied by false values and prejudice. Black Docker does not anticipate such a paradise in the near future.

It does, however, contain Sembène’s defiance of any authority that presumes to control his mind. The novel is an attack on slavery in all of its forms. Moore may be right in seeing a conflict between the romantic form and the Marxist content—though he is probably interpreting Sembène’s Marxism too rigidly—but he surely is wrong to say that Diaw’s individualism reveals itself as a desire for fame. Diaw turns to authorship as a social tool and as an escape from the brutalizing effect of manual labor under white masters. Diaw’s striking out against his white employer on the docks and his confrontation with Ginette, who expropriated his manuscript, are violent, physical symbols of his defiance. The recitation from his novel in a court of justice is his intellectual defiance against the whole racist society.

Ô pays, mon beau peuple!

The circumstances in Sembène’s second novel, Ô pays, mon beau peuple! (oh country, my beautiful people!), resemble those of the first, but with significant variations. The struggle continues between Africans and the white establishment, but now on African, not on French, soil. Sembène returns to his native Senegal, a symbolic shift in setting that he will maintain, with one minor exception, in all of his subsequent fiction. The uncontrolled and destructive violence of Diaw gives way to the purposeful (if romanticized) combativeness of Faye Oumar. The latter has a white wife, whom he loves and respects, rather than a mulatto mistress, whom Diaw is slow to admit into his inner life—suggesting not only a complete rejection of racism but also a public and private commitment to one woman. Oumar’s personal and social goals are more clearly unified than Diaw’s, and though the white authorities defeat them both, Diaw’s suffering as a scapegoat is essentially personal, while Oumar’s, being sacrificial, has meaning for a whole community.

The structure of Ô pays, mon beau peuple! is not nearly as complex as that of Black Docker. It follows a basically chronological pattern. Oumar, after fighting in the French colonial army during World War II, returns home with a French wife, Isabelle, to Ziguinchor-Casamance, Senegal. Part 1 deals with their adaptation to the provincial environment, the building of a private home somewhat apart from the family compound and the community, Oumar’s return to fishing as a livelihood, and finally the antagonisms between Oumar and his family because of his white wife and his changed mentality. Sembène again establishes suspense, but in a more direct manner. In the opening pages, Oumar defends African passengers aboard a riverboat against the physical and verbal abuse of a white merchant. Since striking a white man under any circumstances is still felt to be taboo, an ominous cloud hangs over Oumar’s life. This scene also announces the dominant motif in Sembène’s work, the obsession with personal freedom. It is felt as well in Oumar’s rebellion against his father’s traditional authority.

In part 2, as the rainy season begins, Oumar violates family tradition and turns farmer. His home has become a rendezvous for the young people in the community to discuss political and social issues. He again has a direct confrontation with the white community, as he instigates a strike among female dockworkers. The relationship with his mother improves as his wife begins learning her language and demonstrates a respect...

(The entire section is 5066 words.)