light little satire of class dynamics and superstition
Mour Diaye, the Director of the Department of Public Health and Hygiene, clears the streets of his unnamed African capital of beggars. In return, he hopes to be promoted to vice-president of the nation. To ensure his appointment, he consults a marabout – a Muslim holy man (according to the book’s glossary) – who instructs him to offer a sacrifice to the beggars in their customary locations. But the beggars are all gone!
La Grève Des Bàttu was originally published in French in 1979. In this English translation (from Dorothy Blair) of the little novella, the author pokes fun at government bureaucrats, at superstition, and at hypocrisy of many sorts. The tone is playful and mocking; and the book is a fun, light read.
But the whole plot hangs on one magical assumption which never really worked for me: throughout, the beggars have significant leverage in that all kinds of powerful people are required by their marabouts to give sacrifices to beggars. So when the beggars go on strike, the people have to come and find them. Yet it doesn’t ring true, either in fact or as a plausible suspension of disbelief. While it is entertaining to see long lines of fancy cars pulling up to the home where the beggars have holed up, coughing up the wealthy to make their required offerings, the flight of fancy doesn’t feel quite airworthy.
If you come across this book and want to enjoy some mild satire, I recommend it: I encountered it in a little bookshop in Banjul, the Gambia, and at 99 pages, I figured I had little to lose. But I wouldn’t seek it out. It was made into a film (entitled Bàttu) in the year 2000 [amazingly not available at Blockbuster!], directed by Malian filmmaker Cheick Oumar Sissoko.
If you want satire, I’ve just started Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow (2006): nothing mild there! And if you want another short but compelling example of Senegalese literature, I recently enjoyed Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter (1981), which explores the travails of women in Senegal’s polygamous society.