In many ways, le Docker noir (The Black Docker) reminds me of To Kill a Mockingbird. On trial is a single man, but at the heart of the matter is an entire race, what it means to be black in a white world, which is on the line. And in the end: both are condemned and found guilty, with Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird and Diaw Falla in Le Docker Noir. But the difference is that the latter is a social exposé of dockers and the misery of Marseille’s underclass, and that its pacing and structure is dramatically different: starting with the trial and ending with the plot and the sense of despair that concludes it.
Le Docker Noir is autobiographical work, reflecting the author Ousmane Sembène’s experience as a dock worker in Marseilles in the 1950s: a manual laborer in the hard life of Marseille’s port, he dreams of becoming a writer, publishing his book Le dernier voyage du négrier Sirius (The last voyage of the slave ship Négrius) on the experience of the slaves on the slave ships of the slave trade. But Falla’s life is plagued by the inability to get his book approved by the Parisian publishing houses, and the growing economic crisis gripping the port and its workers. And the ultimate tragedy, the ultimate humiliation and blow is when his book is stolen and published under the name of the French writer Mademoiselle Ginette.
It wins award after award, ones that if Falla himself had published the book, he would never have received. The cruel difference of treatment between blacks and whites is at its starkest here. In a France which proclaims itself egalitarian and just, it shows the harsh light of reality.
But it is hard to avoid a deep feeling of melodrama which pervades the book. The trial almost instantly degenerates into a racist circus, where instead of evidence, real evidence being presented against Falla in the murder of Ginette, it hinges rather on his status on black, about him as an intruder upon French civilization. This is the theme of the book, but it seems to become an over-dramatized story of how a trial would have been, far divorced from actual reality. Certainly, some dramatization is necessary; but the trial as portrayed in the book is simply character assassination and racist theorizing, which even in 1950s France seems very unlikely to have passed in such a way. And I also find placing this extremely dramatic trial first, rather than at the end, is misguided: it transforms the book into a permanent tale of woe and misery, the executioner's axe of despair, the knowledge of what the trial holds in the future overlaying all of it. And it removes tension. Since the crime is known from the beginning, and it is easy as well to suspect the punishment, you already know the outcome, the story’s drama falls by the wayside.
The side plots in the book, with a young woman and her abortion are mostly irrelevant and add little, although the confrontation between Falla and the dock foreman, N’bau, as well as the scenes of the meetings of the Africans as they discuss their collective problems and the death of their comrade are well done and add to the story. It gives a real picture of the life of the downtrodden in Marseille, the tight living space, the hard work on the docks, its cosmopolitan nature. Personal and family life goes with this theme: Falla’s relationship with his girlfriend/fiancée is blasé and typical, but does show the economic concerns that weighed heavily upon them in the time.
As a historical glance at France in the 1950s, Le Docker noir is a great snapshot, but its pacing is off and its style often so melodramatic that it ceases to be sad and becomes absurd. it’s an impressive, if perhaps flawed, first novel from Sembène.