Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Ousmane Sembène’s social background is different from that of many of his Francophone African contemporaries: He was not educated in French-speaking schools in order to be integrated into the African-French power structure. He was reared in a fisherman’s family, serving in the French army during World War II and working as a stevedore. His partly self-imposed distance from the corridors of power is reflected in his writings. Xala shows his anger at the mindless voraciousness, the simple consumerism of the “new African.” What is the meaning of freedom, Sembène seems to ask, if its fulfillment is a life of further oppression by one’s own countrymen?

El Hadji is the primary target of Sembène’s satiric attack. Self-involved and foolish, he is willing to cheat his fellows, bleed the lower classes, and call such behavior good business. The whole narrative builds toward the final confrontation between El Hadji, once all-powerful, and the miserable beggar, whom he cheated years before.

This ending shows Sembène’s pessimism. The beggar and his troop of victims amply avenge themselves on El Hadji, covering his naked body with spittle as he stands helpless. El Hadji finds this humiliation less great than the continuance of the xala: Masculinity is the only one of his possessions that he can now hope to regain. Yet this defeat of El Hadji does not result in a lasting gain for the beggars: The last sentence of the book indicates that they will be shot as they emerge from El Hadji’s house. The vision of Xala is indeed a grim one.