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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Last of the Empire

Sembene Ousmane

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To purchase The Last of the Empire

Title: The Last of the Empire
Author: Sembene Ousmane
Genre: Novel
Written: 1981 (Eng. 1983)
Length: 238 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Last of the Empire - US
The Last of the Empire - UK
The Last of the Empire - Canada
Le dernier de l'Empire - Canada
Le dernier de l'Empire - France
  • A Senegalese Novel
  • French title: Le dernier de l'Empire
  • Translated by Adrian Adams

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting slice of its time and place

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Last of the Empire is a then-contemporary (late 1970s and early 1980s) novel set in Senegal, and while the 'Venerable One', the nation's President who is a prominent figure in the novel, is named Léon Mignane here, the resemblance to Senegal's actual first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, is unmistakable. In an Author's Foreword Sembene amusingly playfully protests entirely too much, insisting the novel: "is not to be taken for anything other than a work of imagination" and that the: "mediocre types portrayed in this book" can't be compared to "our valiant fellow citizens", But there's no question: The Last of the Empire is a reckoning with modern Senegal and especially the declining years of Senghor's rule (with Senghor in fact stepping down from office shortly before Sembene completed the book).
       While the Senegalese politicians are presented in different guises and with other names, The Last of the Empire is otherwise situated entirely (then-)contemporarily, with mentions of the (then) current situations elsewhere in Africa, as well as many of the other leaders of the day (or recent yesteryear -- a deposed Idi Amin, for example). And there are a few direct Senegalese winks too -- "Good old Sembene ...", one character acknowledges .....
       Léon Mignane is "the founder of modern Senegal", and still the dominant national figure -- for better and worse: "Léon is a monarch" one of his ministers says (to himself). Yet not everyone venerates the Venerable One, the francophile whose ideology is one that stresses: "Africa, complement to Europe" is considered too close to Europe (and especially former colonial master France):

Léon Mignane with his Authenegraficanitus has nothing African but his black skin. If he could turn white he would.
       ('Authenegraficanitus' is Sembene's cruel word-invention, leaving no doubt he is referring to négritude.)
       Sembene has a pretty good hook in The Last of the Empire: the novel begins with -- and centers entirely around -- the inexplicable disappearance of the President. It baffles the cabinet ministers who quickly assemble to try to deal with the situation, and answers are slow in coming:
A President who disappears into thin air ! A trick ? Why ? To what end ?
       The novel follows -- slowly -- several characters trying to deal with the situation over the following few days, along with the filling in of some background. The mystery long remains entirely mysterious: the President's driver is soon found killed, but even that provides no answers; there is no trace of the President's blood in the abandoned car, and guesses range from him having made good his escape to some sort of kidnapping. And even as they are eager to find out what happened to the Venerable One, two other consequences occupy them even more: keeping the information secret, especially from the public, and determining what to do next. Theoretically, the Prime Minister is next in line -- but until they know what actually became of the President it's difficult to act. There's a variety of vying for power -- and a great deal of suspicion about motives and ambitions.
       The situation allows Sembene to criticize the creaking regime (a mirror of the real-life one ...). So, for example:
     After having liquidated his companions during the years 1963 to 1970, Léon Mignane had surrounded himself with docile young technocrats. Knowing them to be avid pleasure-seekers, eager for rank and honours, he kept them plentifully supplied with all the little things that deaden a man's will to react, to refuse, to disagree with the Father in charge.
       The rot has now set deeply in, and The Last of the Empire is a novel about the forces that struggle against each other in looking forward (or holding back) as the creaky government structure looks increasingly unsound. It is a novel about the transition of power -- "One epoch ends, another begins" -- cleverly dressed up not as an overt revolutionary novel, but a much more subtle one, the absence of the President a complicating factor in everyone's attempts to effect change (or stabilize the present). A younger generation finds the old priorities no longer serve them, while various political officials seek to hold power (or to let it go). So also one participant observes:
     'All generations say the same thing: "We've been sacrificed." I don't see in what sense we, the élite, can say that'
       The Last of the Empire is perhaps too close and specific a reckoning with Senegal anno circa 1980, but captures a time of African transition quite well, with effective closer portraits of a representative old guard that finds itself being displaced. There's some decent suspense, too, even when Sembene chooses to reveal what exactly happened with the President -- who is a significant presence, both in his absence and in his various present manifestations. Complex shifting relationships with France and Europe, as well as institutions such as the press -- and the public -- are also addressed, with shades of paternalism at every level, in the densely packed novel.
       The Last of the Empire is most interesting as a political thriller -- in the broadest sense of the term and genre -- even as, as such, it quite dated. Certainly valuable as a period piece, it is also (a bit) more than just an historical oddity.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 February 2017

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The Last of the Empire: Sembène Ousmane: Other books by Sembene Ousmane under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Senegalese author and film-maker Sembène Ousmane lived 1923 to 2007.

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