Cheikh Hamidou Kane
Paris, Julliard, 1961. 209 pages
Nick DiMartino, University Book Store, Seattle
Praised by Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, this 1962 African classic opens in the Diallobé country of Senegal in colonial times. Eight-year-old Samba Diallo is pinched and gouged by a Koranic teacher while learning from the holy Book. Battling for his soul are the old schoolmaster who kneels in prayer 20 times a day and Samba's aunt, the six-foot-tall Most Royal Lady, who calls an assembly of the Diallobé to urge them to send their children to the school of the enemy who has defeated them.
Young Samba Diallo is facing an educational crisis: to cling to the old ways or go to the new foreign school to learn “how better to join wood to wood” and “the art of conquering without being in the right.” The second half of the story finds Samba Diallo in Paris, wondering, “Is what one learns worth what one forgets?”
The writing style is formal, lyrical and occasionally elliptical, revealing information after the fact. Still, the story's philosophical concerns are nakedly human and timeless: How do you push away the anxiety of approaching death and get up in the morning to go to work? How do you make your working life into a prayer? Violating all stereotypes, these are African tribesmen who discuss Pascal and Descartes.
This dense little book has layers of cultural depths that Western eyes can't easily penetrate. There's a climactic murder for rather obtuse spiritual reasons and an inexplicable conversation in the last chapter between two unnamed characters who may be in the afterlife. Still, Ambiguous Adventure is hauntingly urgent, provocative and occasionally overpowering.
Cheikh Hamidou Kane's L'aventure ambigue (1961; Grand Prix Litterature d'Afrique Noire, 1962) is another volume from Heinemann's historic African Writers Series. It is Kane's first novel and his most significant work (he spent much of his later life as an administrator for the Senegalese government), written while he was a philosophy student in Paris in the 1950s. It is autobiographical at a deep level, as the protagonist Samba Diallo is born of a high-status family (the “Diallobe”; Kane is of a Fulani political family), receives a traditional Koranic education (i.e. memorizing the Koran) as a child and is then sent to receive a “Western” education in Paris for the anticipated benefit of his society: all in common with Kane himself.
The novel is highly didactic, consisting mostly of dialogues between Samba Diallo and his elders, teachers, and a family of African acquaintances in Paris. The language is elevated and elegant (my Heineman edition is an English translation by Katherine Woods), and the movement from childhood through college and final return to Africa is artfully handled with a sometimes dream-like atmosphere and some nice descriptions of the African sky. Having said that, it is patently a vehicle for a sustained discussion of the relationship of the materialist “West” and traditional religious philosophy. In this case that religion is Islam, which makes the book timely for contemporary readers but also separates it from much of the African literature of the time in that it lacks some of the specificity of place (and ethnicity) one finds in other period works.
There is a psychological undercurrent here that I have not seen mentioned in any of the few scanty discussions of the book I can find by Googling around: the fact that the young man is sent by his elders to a faraway place where he loses his cultural bearings must have been a source of resentment. This after years at the Koranic school where his beloved teacher is very free with corporal punishment which here as in other African novels is presented in graphic detail but not obviously censured. Thus the reader must wonder if some of the internal conflict which is the subject of the book is displaced anger about the denial of self-determination experienced by a tribal scion. I note too that the narrative is coolly controlled and there is never any direct expression of anger, even as the book ends with the young protagonist's apparent death.
Meanwhile the overt message is that the loss of godliness, both in terms of religious dogma and personal spirituality, is too high a price to pay for the worldly advances of Western technological materialism. Of course this is an entirely conservative message. It is also a problem specific to sophisticated, educated elites in the post-colonial world - it is the problem of the college student. Thus the novel does not appear, from my attenuated, strange perspective, as progressive as it must have to African and French readers of the 50s and 60s.
If the status of religion in modern society is a serious interest, this book is an intelligent discussion of that. It also is written at a fine, elegant level. But it is ultimately an evangelical tract and a bit idiosyncratic compared to most of the novels in the African Writers Series.