Ousmane Sembène Analysis
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 ,...
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