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Camara Laye: L’enfant noir (The African Child; US: The Dark Child)

Camara Laye’s first novel is a simple and affectionate autobiographical story of a young Guinean man growing up in Guinea, till his departure to study in France. The novel was written while abroad and is full of nostalgia for his family and his home country. Indeed, on more than one occasion, he comments on various events and customs that he did not understand when they were happening but now he is far away, it is difficult to fully appreciate them. At the beginning, as a boy, he lives with his mother, in her hut. His father lives in a separate hut, as do his siblings. His parents are, however, on good terms. His father works as a jeweller and the young Laye watches him with fascination. However, his mother is critical, feeling that the father risks impairing his health with his work. Young Laye seems to have a carefree life, occasionally visiting his grandmother and uncles, where he helps with the rice harvest and gets into trouble when he and the other boys are set to watch to the fields and fail to do so.

Many African novels tell of the devastation caused by the arrival of Europeans. This is not an issue in this novel. Indeed, till he goes to Conakry, there is no mention of the whites and it is only when he is about to set out for France that they are mentioned (and criticised by his mother, who is not keen on the departure of her son.) The only major problem he seems to have is bullying at school but this resolved when first the father of one of the other victims entices the major bully to his home and then beats him up and then when Laye’s father comes to school and strikes the headmaster. He does go through the circumcision ceremony, including a pre-circumcision ritual, when the boys are left near some lions. The circumcision is painful but the worst is that they cannot have any contact with any women, including their mothers, till the scar has healed, which, for Laye, is far worse than any physical pain. Once he has healed he gets his own hut. His mother still looms in his life, living very close by and driving away his unsuitable girlfriends.

He heads off to Conakry, where he stays with his uncle Mamadou. All the characters are Muslim but Mamadou is particularly devout. He has two wives when Laye arrives and acquires another, Marie, while Laye is there, for whom Laye has more than a soft spot (which is reciprocated). Initially, Laye finds the school too easy and temporarily leaves to do manual work. When he returns, the school has changed and he is successful in his studies, winning a scholarship to study in France. The only – mild – political comment is about the treatment of women, as seen from the perspective of his sister, Fanta. There are no great revelations, no great events, but Laye tells a gentle, loving story of his homeland while he is living in a foreign country. It is in marked distinction to his next novel.

Publishing history

First published by Plon in 1953
First English translation by Noonday in 1954
Translated by James Kirkup