In the fall, I’ll have the opportunity to teach a class on francophone African literature and culture. This is a subject I’ve done a reasonable amount of reading and study on, but it’s not a class I’ve taught before, so I’ve spent the past several weeks doing research and working on my syllabus: choosing the films, poetry, history, and especially the novels I want my class to read during the course of the semester. Of course, Francophone Africa is a big place, and I want my choices to be fairly representative, both regionally and in time, from the pre-colonial oral tradition through colonial days to the postcolonial narratives we see in the past fifty years or so. I’d also ideally like to have at least one or two women authors, even though the field is dominated by males, especially the farther back you go. It’s been a complicated business!
What’s been an uncomplicated pleasure is reading the material in order to make my choices. The first novel I read was the 1953 classic autobiographical novel The Dark Child (L’enfant noir) by Camara Laye. The novel is written in the first person, and tells the story of a young boy who lives with his family in French Guinea. He belongs to a caste which is primarily blacksmiths and goldsmiths, and his father does this important work for the people of the region. The setting is idyllic: although the novel is set during the colonial period (there are railroads and “white” schools), no white people are in evidence, and the family is free to make its own decisions. The novel seems to represent an earlier way of life, one that has existed for generations before the colonizers arrived. The boy visits his uncle’s farm, learns his father’s trade, and comes of age with the traditional Muslim circumcision ceremony. After this, he travels to Conakry to stay with another uncle for his studies at the “French school.” His ambitions grow larger than the family farm, and the concluding scene sees him on an airplane, bound for Paris.
The Dark Child was gentle, a pleasure to read, much more like a memoir or a reminiscence than any record of conflict or struggle. There are moments of tension, such as when the boy must tell his mother that he has decided to go to France:
–You shut up! You’re only a kid, nothing at all! What do you want to do so far away? Do you even know how they live over there?… No, you know nothing about it! And tell me, who will take care of you? Who will mend your clothes? Who will make your meals?
–Come on, said my father, be reasonable: White people don’t die of hunger!
–So you don’t see, poor fool, you haven’t yet observed that they don’t eat the way we do? This child wil get sick; that’s what will happen! And me, what will I do then? What will happen to me? Ah! I had a son, and here I have a son no more!
For the most part, however, moments of conflict are brief. This is a book about the supreme importance of family, about respect for tradition, about courtesy, about rules. The Dark Child mixes magic into daily life (genies, prayers, dreams, totems), not because it’s “magical realism,” but because magic is life:
Even though the marvelous was familiar to me, I was mute, my astonishment was so great. What did a serpent have to do with my father? And why precisely that serpent? We didn’t kill it, because it was my father’s familiar spirit! At least, that was the reason my mother gave.
This book reminded me in some ways of a Marcel Pagnol book or film, except set in Africa: the coming of age, the hero-worship of the father, the eventual understanding of larger issues, the gentle, loving evocation of the countryside. The Dark Child is not a powerful book of struggle, but it’s well worth reading.
* Note: All translations in this review are my own, but this book has been translated into English by Ernest Jones and James Kirkup.