Not long ago my partner Jenn and I were visited by a couple we first met in Brooklyn, but who later moved to Paris. John is a jazz trombonist from Montana. Ana is a Parisian actress and translator from a Portuguese family. Before they said goodbye, Ana looked over my bookcases, picked out a small, seemingly unnoticeable book, and asked to borrow it.
The book was Ambiguous Adventure by the Senegalese author Cheikh Hamidou Kane, translated by Katherine Woods and published by Heinemann in 1963. It was an oddly appropriate choice: not just because it was originally written in French but because it is a meditative, highly crafted book that seems as European as it is African.
It is tempting to say that Ambiguous Adventure is not really a novel but a prose poem or extended meditation. The actions of the characters are barely sufficient to move the narrative from one dialogue to another, and the dialogue itself is relentlessly high-minded and philosophical, unlike anything ever spoken by a real person. Yet anyone about to decide that this is not a “real” novel must acknowledge that it contains a number of expertly drawn characters and landscapes, that its language is exceptionally beautiful and sometimes highly original, and that the experience of reading it is oddly moving.
We first meet Samba Diallo, the protagonist, as a young boy studying the Koran. His teacher beats him for making the slightest mistake in his recitation, or jabs his earlobe with a sharp thumbnail. Yet we gradually realize that things are not exactly as they seem. The teacher is not just a sadist: he punishes Samba in order to drive him to even greater excellence, believing that the boy has a divine gift and might reach “the most exalted levels of human grandeur.” Samba himself is devoted to the teacher, and responds to what he is learning on the level of faith as well as language. “The Word of God flowed pure and limpid from his fervent lips.”
Samba’s people, the Diallobé, are demoralized and slowly dying out. The French have conquered their country, bringing a new day “spangled over with smiles, with cannon shots, with shining glass beads.” Samba’s older cousin, an imperious woman known as the Most Royal Lady, calls a meeting of the community and proposes that Samba be sent to one of the new Western schools. She hates these schools, but believes that the children of the elite must go there in order to learn “the art of conquering without being in the right.” Samba, a gifted student and the son of a high-born father, is a prime candidate.
Samba excels at his Western school just as he did in his Koranic studies. Years later he muses that he was conquered by the letters of the French alphabet. “When I learned to fit them together to form words, to fit the words together to give birth to speech, my happiness knew no further limit.” Yet Samba’s Western education leaves him with a sense of unease that he spends much of the book attempting to define.
Ambiguous Adventure is an indispensable book for anyone wishing to delve into the psychology of colonialism. Samba breaks off his Koranic studies just at the point, he believes, when he is about to attain “rational understanding of what up to then I had done no more than recite.” At his Western school he enters what he believes at first is a world of “marvellous comprehension and total communion,” only to be gradually disillusioned.
Living in Paris, Samba feels a spiritual loss and a sense of disconnection from his land and people—even from his understanding of death. He comes to hate the people who have colonized his mind, but understands that his hatred is the product of frustrated love. I loved them too soon, unwisely, without knowing them well enough. Do you understand? They are of a strange nature. They do not inspire simple sentiments. No one should ally himself with them without having observed them well beforehand.”
Geoff Wisner is the author of A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books That Capture the Spirit of Africa. He also blogs at www.geoffwisner.com.