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Book 79: Senegal (French) – Les Bouts de bois de Dieu = God’s Bits of Wood (Sembene OUSMANE)

In this way the strike established itself in Thiès. An endless strike which was, for many, along the whole length of the line, a time of suffering, but, also for many, a time of reflection. When the smoke finished floating over the savanna, they came to understand that the time had finished, the time of which the old people had spoken to them, the time when Africa was a kitchen garden. It was the machine which now reigned over their country. In stopping its motion over more than fifteen hundred kilometres, they became aware of their power, but also aware of their dependence. In truth, the machine was in the process of making new men of them. It did not belong to them, it was they who belonged to it. In halting it, it taught them this lesson.

[my translation]

 

This novel is set in three towns along the French-built railway from Dakar (Senegal) to Bamako (Mali). As the interminable 1947 railway strike drags on, the railwaymen and their families suffer intolerably from hunger and thirst and injustices by the colonial authorities, and eventually their destitute women also become more militant. The action takes place in three cities: Dakar and the railway town Thiès (Senegal), and Bamako (Mali).
The workers’ struggle represents the larger struggle for the people to overturn the power relationship with the French colonial administration. In the end, solidarity triumphs. This is not without a terrible cost, to themselves as well. Even their own social order is challenged. Different people have different ways of attempting to deal with the situation and the colonial régime. When a relative becomes a strike-breaker he is put on trial by them, despite being an elder and so traditionally worthy of more respect. Payments for polygamous families also cause conflict. As so often in revolutions and wars, it is the women who become prominent in keeping day-to-day life functioning and in forwarding the struggle (and, it has to be said, are sadly often suppressed back into their former roles afterwards). The high point is their protest march from Thiès to Dakar.
There is the cruel irony that, although there is no water to drink, the authorities use a but water cannon to disperse the protesters (who call themselves ‘God’s Bits of Wood’).

A great study of the price people have had to pay to achieve freedom, and still have to pay to get adequate working conditions.

 

OUSMANE, Sembene (1923 – 2007), Les Bouts de bois de Dieu, Paris?, Pocket, 2013 (originally published 1960?), ISBN 978-2-266-24581-4

Translated into English as: God’s Bits of Wood (Harlow, Heinemann, 2008, ISBN 9780435909598)

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Book 59: Madagascar (French) – Nour, 1947 (RAHARIMANANA)

Ambahy – Night which tears and lacerates itself at the dawn of lucidities, on some eyelids that close to dreams. It gently pours me into the cold shadow which opens naked on the stones. The sun strips the world and, from modesty, the wind blows in the sands, blinding the eyes. I resume my steps and rush them ceaselessly on in all my wanderings. How slow the shadow is in reaching us… I am already only a dream, a stroke from the times that fray in fantasies. To drift in the shadows that stretch and lengthen.I stumble my breath on stones that obstruct my lungs – spit! Spit!, I stumble my steps on the beach still pregnant with darkness.

                Blood, my blood on the black sand.

[my translation]

 

Madagascar is where I would have been at the moment – sadly I had to postpone my holiday there until next year due to an outbreak of the plague there! All my best wishes for the safety of everyone there. For as long as I can remember I’ve had a fascination with Madagascar and have wanted to go there. Travelling there via literature proved even more difficult; at the time I started this reading program there were apparently NO novels translated into English. I finally settled on Nour, 1947 by Raharimanana, which was written in French (and HAS been translated into Spanish as Nur, 1947).

 

This novel is a poetic, mythologised history of the Great Red Island. It is very obvious that the author (who now lives in France) is also a poet, and very often the language is more poetry than prose, though not written in verse, so heavy is the imagery and it can be not easy to tease out the tale. Magic, mythology and history co-inhabit the story. Much of it reads like a dream (sometimes a nightmare).

The title refers to the abortive revolt of 1947 against the French colonialists. Nour is a heroine figure, who meets a tragic end when she is shot by the French, and who was loved by a WWII rifleman. It is a multiple text. Interspersed with the poetic history of the island, the story of Nour and Dziny and the bloodied revolt are diary entries from befuddled missionaries trying to civilise the ‘natives’ in the previous century.

I think of Madagascar as largely peaceful and unified, but that must be a misreading of its history. Going by this story, the red soil must be soaked with blood from inter-tribal struggles (ultimately to unify the island) and the fight against colonialism. While it is part of what is obviously a big African tradition of anticolonial.writing, Raharimanana does not spare his own countrymen either. It is tragic, violent, sometimes gory, and pessimistic. But its language and imagery are overpowering.

 

Raharimanana (1967 – ), Nour, 1947, Dijon, Motifs, 2008, ISBN 2-84261-403-8

 

 

Book 21: France (French) – Notre Dame de Paris = The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Victor HUGO)

 

 

It was a truly wondrous grimace which gleamed at that moment in the circular aperture in the rose window. After all the pentagonal, hexagonal and irregular forms which had followed one another at that window without fulfilling that ideal of grotesqueness which had been foreseen by the excited imaginations by the orgy, nothing more was needed to obtain their suffrage than the grandiose grimace which had just dazzled those gathered there.

[my translation]

 

Called The Hunchback of Notre Dame in English, although the French title is more appropriate, this is an über-famous historical novel whose hero, or anti-hero, Quasimodo was adopted by the French as a sort of national symbol. But the novel has a second, or maybe first, hero – the magnificent gothic cathedral itself (hence the title in French). You learn a great deal about its eventful history along the way.

This beauty-and-the-beast story is probably too famous to need summarising here. It is wonderfully atmospheric and evocative of its turbulent age. For a story set in a church it seems very anti-clerical, at least the evil archdeacon is… well, very evil, but Hugo shows us great understanding of where he (and the other characters) is coming from. It is surely one of the greatest historical romances ever written. Hugo himself represents a vital turning-point in the history of the novel.

Quasimodo is a sort of living gargoyle, one of those medieval fantasies from the heights of the gothic cathedrals sprung to life. Despite his grotesque form and hopeless quest, his thoughts seemingly twisted like his body, Hugo has immense sympathy for him, so so do we. It’s impossible not to admire how he flies around his shadowy ream like a gibbon in the forest.

Sometimes Hugo gets carried away with his excursions into the history of Notre Dame and medieval Paris so that parts turn almost into essays. You might like to skim over these slow parts, perhaps to come back to them. But Hugo was like an early conservationist or preservationist in his passion for Paris’ heritage and the need to cherish it. And in this passionate work he has added another intricately incised column into French civilisation.

 

HUGO, Victor (1802 – 1885), Notre-Dame de Paris 1482, Paris, Gallimard, 1966, 1985, ISBN 2-07-036549-2 (originally published 1831)