By Cheikh Hamidou Kane | Melville House | $21.95
It is exactly fifty years since the Senegalese writer Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s novel Ambiguous Adventure was first published, in French; it appeared the following year in an English translation by Katherine Woods. This translation has now been reissued by Melville House in its Neversink Library, which specialises in resurrecting books “that have been overlooked, underappreciated, looked askance at, or foolishly ignored” and that seem, in one way or another, to have something to say to the present time. Half a century ago, Kane’s novel would doubtless have been “looked askance at,” at least by some. With its focus on the centrality of religious faith, and its sceptical approach to the promise held out by both European-style socialism and technological progress, it would have seemed rather out of step with the way the world seemed to be heading. But things ended up taking rather a different turn, and this novel, written from the heart, now carries with it a strong undercurrent of prescience.
We follow Samba Diallo, a young Muslim boy, as he is plucked, at his family’s instigation, from the Koranic school where his teacher had never, in more than forty years, “encountered anyone who… in all facets of his character, waited on God with such a spirit.” He is to be sent instead to the French school, where he will be trained in the ways of the new world – a world in which “the woodcutters and the metalworkers are triumphant.” The major force behind this decision is the Most Royal Lady (“La Grande Royale”), a formidable member of Samba Diallo’s clan and one who, though devout, knows which way the wind is blowing. “More and more,” she says, “we shall have to do things which we hate doing, and which do not accord with our customs.”
The Most Royal Lady sees clearly what must be done if her people are to survive; they must compromise with the colonial power, and learn its ways. For Samba Diallo, this means being despatched first to the French school and then to further study in France, just as Cheikh Hamidou Kane himself studied philosophy at the Sorbonne. The Most Royal Lady is wise in the ways of the world, so wise in fact that, her gender aside, she resembles an ur-version of the Ancient Wise Man, the stock figure identified by the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina in his angry-but-funny compendium of notes on “How to Write About Africa,” which appeared in the journal Granta in 2005. “The Ancient Wise Man,” observes Wainaina sardonically, “is close to the earth” and “always comes from a noble tribe.”
Samba Diallo’s father defers to the view of his wider family that his son should be sent to the French school, but he is not really convinced. “The world is becoming westernised,” he laments, and instead of taking the time “to pick and choose, assimilate or reject,” his fellow countrymen are rushing headlong into the future, eager to embrace the “new egotism which the West is scattering abroad.” What is being left behind in this headlong rush is harder to define; it is a combination of Islamic faith, cultural identity and affinity with family and place. Samba Diallo learns his new lessons well. He becomes confidently familiar with Socrates and St Augustine and Descartes, but at the same time grows increasingly anxious that he has taken the wrong path. “I have chosen the itinerary,” he laments, “which is most likely to get me lost.”
Samba Diallo returns home without finishing his degree, but it is not entirely clear to him or to us just what he is seeking by retracing his steps: his country, his faith, or merely the past. At one point he seems to dismiss the entire quest as simply an exercise in nostalgia. From the distance of Paris, he muses on whether “it may be, after all, that what I regret is not my country so much as my childhood.” The novel doesn’t end with any easy accommodation between the materialism of the West and the certainties of faith, between the promises of mechanical progress and the wisdom of ancestors. Ambiguous Adventure, as its rather treatise-like title suggests, is not in the business of providing solutions. Nor is it a particularly easy read. It has passages of extravagant mysticism in which it can be difficult to work out just what is what and who is who. And yet it leaves a strong impression of a writer who has thought deeply about questions of modernity and tradition, for whom the very existence of ambiguity, and the impossibility of finding clear answers to the questions he asks, is ultimately intolerable.
AS AN intellectual who is both African and occidental, Samba Diallo has many successors in African writing, which has long been concerned with what it means to be educated into Western notions of modernity and how far that involves the sacrifice of one identity in favour of another. He can be seen in secular and sceptical form in the character of Julius, the narrator of Teju Cole’s recent novel Open City, which has been shortlisted for numerous awards and received the 2012 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for a distinguished first book of fiction. Julius, who is half-Nigerian and half-German, wanders the streets of New York, recording the people he meets and the thoughts and memories they trigger.
His African-ness, and the part it plays in influencing his perceptions, emerges only gradually, as he proceeds to document the city’s present and past. Crucially, though, Julius is no innocent abroad, marvelling at the strange and the different, but a man steeped in the history of Western thought, who belongs but does not belong and who puzzles over what it might mean to have an African-influenced view of the world and a shared African identity. Can there even be such a thing, when there are so many ways of being African? “The way you came into my car without saying hello, that was bad,” a cab driver says to Julius. “Hey. I’m African just like you.”
Samba Diallo has a similarly unsettling encounter, when he meets the daughter of a fellow countryman who, despite the fact that she has been born in France, seems to echo his own sense of aridity and dissatisfaction, as though she does not belong. Is she really like him? “Would she really feel ‘exile’ – this girl born on the banks of the Seine?” he asks himself. But he comes to understand from his meeting with the young girl that there is more to his sense of exile than the fact of geographical displacement. It’s not that his roots are in another country, but rather in another universe – “the reality of a non-Western universe.” •