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Cheikh Hamidou Kane: L’aventure ambigue (Ambiguous Adventure)
Kane admitted that this novel was, at least in part, autobiographical. Kane was called Samba by his family (it is a term used for the second son) and the hero of this novel is called Samba Diallo. Like Kane, Samba Diallo is a Peul but also a keen Muslim. (94% of Senegalese are Muslims.). The novel starts with him as a young child at Koranic school. His teacher, a man he will look up to for the rest of the book, has identified something special in young Samba and is determined to have him become a good Muslim even if he has to use force to do so. Young Samba frequently gets beaten but seems to take it in his stride.
His father is a chief and the master proposes to him that he take Samba fully under his wing to train him, away from his family. The father concurs. The training is harsh. The boys, even though they come from rich and important families have to go out and beg for their food. In fact, they go to Samba’s family to beg. His cousin, a formidable lady known as Grande Royale, is concerned that Samba is becoming obsessed with death, when she speaks to him, and urges his father to bring him home to focus on life.
It is Grande Royale that introduces one of the two main themes of this novel, namely that the French are taking away the traditional values and culture of the Senegalese but, nevertheless, the Senegalese need to learn the ways of the French if they are to survive and succeed in the modern world. In particular, the Senegalese should ask he French how to conquer without being right. When a French school opens in the region, she urges the people to send their children there.
Samba goes to this school where he meets two white children, Jean and Georgette. who are sent there by their father. Jean finds Samba strange. It is Samba’s father who points out to Paul Lacroix, the father of Jean and Georgette, the difference between the two cultures. The French only believe in what they see. I know that you do not believe in the shade; nor in the end of the world. What you do not see does not exist. The moment, like a raft, carries you on the luminous surface of its round disc, and you deny the abyss that lies about you.
Samba is sent to France to continue his education and he studies philosophy. He accepts the need to be in France, to study there, but he is not particularly happy. Why philosophy? I can’t help wondering if there hasn’t also been a little of the morbid attraction of danger. I have chosen the itinerary which is most likely to get me lost.
He meets Pierre-Louis, another African, and his family. They seem to be more pragmatic, though critical of French colonisation. Samba, meanwhile, struggles with his conscience and his religion. I believe that I prefer God to my mother, he says. Should he stay in Paris or should he go home? He tells Pierre-Louis that he misses his childhood more than his country but also that he definitely does not fit in. The world is silent, and there is no longer any resonance from myself. I am like a broken balafong, like a musical instrument that has gone dead. I have the impression that nothing touches me any more.
Meanwhile, back home, his master has become close friends with a madman. No-one knew where he came from but he seems to have fought for the French army, presumably in one of the world wars. It is soon apparent that he may be mad and simple but he is a wise fool. It is he who sums the views of the French: they have no more bodies, they have no more flesh. They have been eaten up by objects. In order that they may move, their bodies are shod with large rapid objects. To nourish themselves, they put iron objects between their hands and their mouths.
There are two main themes to this book: how to live as a religious person and how to reconcile the nature of African culture and the culture of the modern world, with its technology and, in particular, its world-view where all that matters is what can be seen and what can be touched. It is interesting that, as mentioned nearly all Senegalese as well as all the Senegalese characters in this book, are Muslim, a religion that is just as alien to traditional African culture as French culture and Christianity. This issue is not mentioned, with Islam being considered the sole valid religion.
While I found this book interesting, not least for its treatment of a theme all too common in African novels, the influence of the West on Africa and African culture, I did not really enjoy it. As the quotes used above show, the characters all too often speak in a language far removed from the language used by ordinary people. Their language has a strong philosophical and/or religious tone, often tends to use aphorisms and feels as though they are merely mouthpieces for a particular religious and philosophical point of view, rather than real people. Kane is deadly serious about his views on religion and the France-Africa relationship and that is fine but I feel that he is more of a philosopher and religious man than novelist.
First published in 1961 by Union Générale d’Editions
First English translation 1962 by Walker and Company