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Ambiguous adventure

Cheikh Hamidou Kane

Ambiguous adventureOne of the great classics of the African Europhone canon is a text (originally published in French, in 1962) by the Senegalese author Cheikh Hamidou Kane: it is called (in its English translation) Ambiguous Adventure, published by Heinemann in their African Writers’ Series in 1972.

The words that come to mind to describe the unique qualities of this text are ‘purity’ and ‘spirituality’. Kane’s novel describes the fate of the Diallobe people, who consider their Muslim culture as immemorially African and adequate to their situation. But then the colonial French domination of their society begins to require (according to the assimilationist policies of this European power) the education of their brightest and most promising youngsters, especially the exceptional child Samba Diallo, in French culture.

In his own culture, the child has been subjected to a course of training in Muslim theology which appears so harsh as to be akin to torture. “The child’s ear, already white with scarcely healed scars, was bleeding anew” (4), we learn on the second page. Yet the physical pain to which the child is subjected does not damage him, because he loves what he is learning, loves and is loved and treasured by his teacher. But their sphere of spirituality is beset, they know, because “the woodcutters and the metal-workers are triumphant everywhere in the world, and their iron holds us under their law” (10).

Yet among the Diallobes themselves, one of the most influential figures, known as The Most Royal Lady, feels that “the time has come to teach our sons to live” (27). Inexorably, she and her brother, the chief of the Diallobe, realise their people are being pushed into a stark choice: to remain wholly dedicated servants of their God and starve or be enslaved, or to lose their God, the essence of their living culture, and ‘survive’. The inevitable conclusion, voiced by the Lady, is “that we should agree to die in our children’s hearts and that the foreigners who have defeated us should fill the place, wholly, which we shall have left free” (46). It is a choice which leaves them “labelled, conscripted, administrated” (49).

The Knight, the great man who is Samba Diallo’s father, himself realises the homogenising effects of modernisation and Europeanisation: it is for a person or a people “to lose their original colours”, to merge into “the wan tint that filled the air roundabout” (70). The Knight tells a French colonist: “Your science is the triumph of evidence, a proliferation of the surface. It makes you the masters of the external, but at the same time it exiles you there, more and more” (8). In their own situation, by contrast, “Life ... is a ... work of piety” (100).

Samba Diallo, having completed his schooling in the French school in Senegal, gets sent to France where he studies philosophy, falls in love, and loses all sense of purpose or selfhood. He discovers what he calls the “niggardly” quality of the “quest” of the more recent philosophers, such as Descartes (114); but the nevertheless overwhelming effect (on the young man himself) of this triumphant culture is an “emptying” (126).

Neither of two possible alternatives, represented by two young women — a French Marxist and the daughter of an exiled West African, who hates the French — satisfies him. He seems to himself “like a musical instrument that has gone dead” (150). Having been sent to France to learn “the art of conquering without being in the right” (37; 152), it is only in death (after his return) that he can achieve the sense of “arriving”, of “entering the place where there is no ambiguity” (177).

As this brief overview indicates, Ambiguous Adventure is a profoundly melancholic novel, but with a lyrical beauty in the writing. Almost despite its overt narrative of defeat and loss, it generates (in the cherishing tenderness of its telling) an impression of value and of vitality that could never be merely obliterated, not even by the devastation caused by cultural conquest.

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