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The novel was published in 1960, just before Senegal became independent. It is based on a famous railroad strike which occurred in 1947-48. The novel focuses on the late stages of French colonialism. Sembene writes a dramatic and compelling story about the strike. He also uses it to make economic, political, and cultural points, as well, in support of Senegal’s struggle against the French and labor’s struggle with management.

The novel will seem familiar in form and style. That is, it’s a realist-didactic, strike novel that utilizes Western techniques. It is a political novel. The narrative is direct and sequential. The novel may seem long, but it’s a relatively easy and “good” read. It has a “cinematic” quality in its emphasis on visual imagery, setting, and action. The opening descriptions of place (Bamako) and person (Niakoro) are typical. So is the set-up for “Thi s: The City” on page 13. Note, as well, how the narrative seems to “pan” the market place on pages 15 and 16. The large number of characters and the way the setting moves from place to place may pose some difficulty, but they’re fairly simple to sort out. The map helps with places. Making lists of characters associated with each town helps, as well.

The action takes place in several locations (an interesting filmic term)–primarily in Bamako, Thi s, and Dakar. The map at the beginning shows the locations and suggests that the story is about a whole country and all of its people. There is a large cast of characters associated with each place. Some are featured players–Fa Keita, Tiemoko, Maimouna, Ramatoulaye, Penda, Deune, N’Deye, Dejean, and Bakayoko. Others part of the populace. You could say that the fundamental conflict is captured in two people, Dejean (the French manager and colonialist) and Bakayoko (the soul and spirit of the strike.) In another sense, however, the main characters of the novel are the people as a collective, the places they inhabit, and the railroad.

Economic, Political, and Social Change: The world Sembene portrays is in flux, maybe even in turmoil. Economic, political, and social changes are underway. The strike intensifies the forces of change and sharpens our awareness of them. “The times were bringing forth a new breed of men, they were also bringing forth a new breed of women.” The novel relies a great deal on opposition and conflict to define and dramatize the issues (tribal-modern, management-labor, men-women, French-Bambara, France-Africa, White-Black), but Sembene does’nt leave things in simplistic dichotomies or oppositions. Note, for example, the way the railroad, the trains, are portrayed as the “machine.” “The machine has ground everything together this way and brought everything to a single level.” The people are dependent on it. They almost despair over its loss–”the loss of the machine.” A typical, humanistic, strike novel might cast this as the terrible dehumanization of the worker in a grinding capitalist technology. But for Bakayoko, perhaps Sembene’s spokesman, “The kind of man we were is dead, and our only hope for new life lies in the machine, which knows neither language or race.” It’s a new world. People must move on and live in it.

Race, Class, and Gender: The novel portrays ways in which these separate categories become iintertwined in experience. Each category, first of all, is relevant to the novel. Both the Africans and the French are highly conscious of race–”the obstacle which until now had been insurmountable–the color of their skin” (77). The French assume “the right to an absolute authority over beings whose color made of them . . . men of another, inferior condition” (177-78). The traditional roles for African women are clearly portrayed –especially through Niakoro and Assitan. But things are changing: “The women became conscious that a change was coming for them, as well” (33). This is made clear through characters like Ramatoulaye, N’Deye, and Penda–and in the end, all of the women who march on Dakar. The French regard the differences between Africans and Europeans as cultural, as well as racial, as a matter of superior and inferio. Giving in to striker demands, e.g. would be “a ratification of the customs of inferior beings” (181). The Africans, on the other hand, switch the terms to class: “You do not represent a nation or a people here, but simply a class. We represent another class, whose interests are not the same as yours” (182). Think about the way these ‘conditions’ (categories) interact in the novel–how they are tied together in the conflicts and changes Sembene portrays.

Discourse and Language: Sembene makes discourse and language political and cultural issues, not simply matters of communication. Most of the French colonialists do not speak or understand an African language. They believe the speech and cultures of Africa are primitive and inferior. Bakayoko’s use of language in the racecourse scene (pp.213ff)–his ability to switch from one to another and thereby influence the crowd and fool the French–belies the assumption of superiority. The earlier scene between labor and management (179ff) also turns interestingly on discourse. The literate demands and intelligent behavior of the strikers undercut the assertion that they are children. In the end, language fails the French. They do not have a discourse to engage the strikers in any but a superior-inferior relationship. Dejean becomes frustrated and angry (he is speechless) and can only strike out at Bakayoko.

Form and Style: Writing Against The Grain. The narrative is familiar. The strike novel is a common Western type. The heroic, almost super-human leader, Bakayoko, seems typical. The descriptive or cinematic technique is familiar, as well. Nevertheless, Sembene writes against western colonialism and western values. He uses Europe to oppose Europe. It’s important to consider, therefore, how he transforms both the discourse and the form of the novel into something subversive. Is there some kind of “reinvention” of the novel going on here?

Poetics of Politics: In novel and film, Sembene creates a kind of “poetics of politics.” Sembene is committed “to promoting and transforming traditional culture, to using the cultural developments of Western society in the interests of Africa. Sembene was (sic) more interested in finding a dialectical relationship between the two cultures than in an uncritical nostalgia for pre-colonial pure African-ness.” (Laura Mulvey.)

* What is the purpose of placing a map at the beginning of the novel?

* What is the purpose and effect of the visual portraits Sembene gives of towns and places? (Note, especially, the opening of the novel and the beginning of chapters.)

* Sembene portrays several generations–e.g., Fa Keita, Niakoro, Bakayoko, and Ad’jibid’ji in Bamako. Why does he? What is the effect or point?

* What reasons do the workers give for going on strike?

* The characters also can be grouped according to their relationship to the strike, their attitudes toward French and African cultures, and by race, class, and gender. How do these different groupings help you understand the themes of the novel?

* What do Dejean and the other French think about the Africans? How do the French describe the differences?

* Sembene portrays several different types of women–Niakoro, Assitan, Ramatoulaye, N’Deye, and Penda, e.g. How would you characterize each? Why does Sembene give us so many types?

* What is the collective role of women in the novel? Does it change as the action progresses?

* On page 34, the narrator says “And the men began to understand that if the times were bringing forth a new breed of men, they were also bringing forth a new breed of women.” What does that mean?

* Bakayoko is described as “the soul of the strike.” (186) What does this mean? Why does he not appear until p. 170? Why does Maimouna say, “In Bakayoko’s heart there is no room for anyone”? (196)

* Bakayoko often said: “The kind of man we were is dead, and our only hope for a new life lies in the machine, which knows neither a language nor a race.” What does he mean?

* Niakoro says (p. 88) that “our world is falling apart.” (An allusion to Achebe?) Fa Keita replies: “No woman; it was your son who said, ‘Our world is opening up.’” What is the point of this exchange?

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