By Simphiwe Rens

Book Review: Xala

Author: Sembene Ousmane

For a book written in the 1970s, I will admit I was pleasantly surprised at how direct and strangely insightful this piece of literature is with its tackling of issues around human sexual relations and other marital issues. Sembene Ousmane, in this book, takes us through what I felt to be a multi-layered but short narrative of a wealthy polygamist in post-colonial Senegal. Known as El Hadji Abdou Kader Beye, the protagonist is introduced to us as a successful black businessman with various contacts and a multitude of business ventures which secure his and his two wives’ lavish lifestyles. All goes fairly well until El Hadji is forced, very cleverly, to marry a third wife. I believe ‘forced’ is a fair word to use in this regard as this decision was taken under what felt to me like an intelligently executed process of persuasion from Yay Bineta – a character I found extremely forthcoming and incredibly forceful in her ways. Yay Bineta is the godmother to El Hadji’s third and youngest wife, N’Gone, who’s marriage to El Hadji sparks a very interesting period of animosity and unrest betwwen El Hadji and his other two wives.

What particularly took me by surprise was what happens on the evening of El Hadji and N’Gone’s wedding. This very occurrence captures the beginning of an underlying thematic that carries the narrative for a better part of this book. Mentioning this theme, my fellow TransAfrican, would actually give away a big part of the novel which I think readers should discover during their own engagement with this piece. The results of this situation El Hadji finds himself in, I will mention, provides an oddly humorous but eye-opening spin to the novel which honestly doesn’t become any more gripping as it didn’t always succeed in capturing my attention completely.

The book is very simple to grasp as Ousmane’s writing is quite straightforward. I did, however, find the incorporation of certain cultural terms rendered in Senegalese terminology a bit distracting which didn’t often help in boosting my enjoyment of the piece. What I am still grappling with is a way to most effectively describe the ending of this novel and I’m still struggling. Well, for now, let’s leave it at this: you will either be shocked and repulsed or, if you’re a more adventurous reader with a thing for bizarre endings; this might be a great ending in your eyes. As for me, ‘indifferent’ captures my stance.


My Rating: 5.5/10

The reason I rate this book a five and a half is because of its sense of an undervelopment of certain characters and storylines. Also, the ones that are exposed to us are, I personally felt, often not doing much to spice up the piece. As a writer, Sembene Ousame is good and should not be judged on this book alone. Is it worth your time, my fellow TransAfrican? I say, yes! For one reason only, the author’s tackling of key issues around sexuality, polygamy, intimacy, as well as post-colonialism discourses in Senegal.

Lesson from the book:

The book, very interestingly, encapsulates the author’s personal stance on capitalism in Africa, ‘middle-classness’ and its role in reproducing a different kind of colonialism. One that Ousmane argues is no different to colonialism prior to independence. Lesson here is that perhaps not much has changed in Africa even after independence has been widely gained.

Interesting Fact:

There’s a motion picture of the novel available on YouTube. This movie, just as the book, is not effective in its presentation of the issues Sembene tackles in his novel which, I found, sometimes tended to read like a film in its textual presentation.

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