Samba Diallo is content in his studies at the Golden Hearth school, where he is learning to pray and serve God as a good Muslim boy ought to. His studies are difficult, and his teacher must beat him now and then, but the teacher is harshest toward the boys who show the most promise. And Samba shows promise, so much so that his people, the Diallobé, decide that he must leave his village and go to the foreign school, where he will learn “the art of conquering without being in the right.” Senegalese author Cheikh Hamidou Kane tells of the thinking that led to this decision and its effects in the 1961 novel Ambiguous Adventure. The translation by Katherine Woods is being republished by Melville House later this month.
Ambiguous is the right word for much of the situation that Samba and his people face. In order to learn to live in the new world that Colonialism has wrought, Samba must go away, where he might forget the traditions and teachings of his own people. The adults of his community are fully aware of the problem:
“If I told them to go to the new school,” he [the chief] said at last, “they would go en masse. They would learn all the ways of joining wood to wood which we do not know. But, learning, they would also forget. Would what they would learn be worth as much as what they would forget? I should like to ask you: can one learn this without forgetting that, and is what one learns worth what one forgets?”
Much of this conversation reminded me of I Heard the Owl Call My Name, in which the Kwakiutl people mourned the growing gap between the generations as the young went off to the white school. Like the Kwakiutl, the Diallobé realize that they may have to “die in our children’s hearts.” Both situations reveal something insidious about colonialism, namely, the way that what might seem like helpful actions on the part of the Colonial powers can actually be as devastating as guns and cannons would be, but in a different way:
For the newcomers did not know only how to fight. They were strange people. If they knew how to kill with effectiveness, they also knew how to cure, with the same art. Where they had brought disorder, they established a new order. They destroyed and they constructed. On the black continent it began to be understood that their true power lay not in the cannons of the first morning, but rather in what followed the cannons.
The new school shares at the same time the characteristics of the cannon and the magnet. From the cannon it draws its efficacy as an arm of combat. Better than the cannon, it makes conquest permanent. The cannon compels the body, the school bewitches the soul. Where the cannon has made a pit of ashes and of death, in the sticky mold of which men would not have rebounded from the ruins, the new school establishes. The morning of rebirth will be a morning of benediction through the appeasing virtue of the new school.
I could go on. The first half of the book in particular is filled with lengthy, but compelling musings on the relationship between Africans and Europeans and the best way for the Africans to move forward. How should they live in this new order that has been imposed upon them?
Besides being a story the clash between Europe and Africa, this is also a story of faith—and perhaps the loss of faith (which is of course related to that clash). Samba’s studies at Golden Hearth were centered on becoming a good Muslim, but when he leaves the Muslim school, he’s introduced to new ways of thinking about God. The question is what these ideas will do to the faith he has treasured up to now. Samba describes his father as “one of those who do not cease to pray when they have closed their prayer book,” and he mulls over what it means to live entirely in the presence of God and whether it’s possible to live outside God’s presence. He reads and contemplates the words of Descartes and Pascal, and he thinks about the relationship between God and the world and the fate of nonbelievers. And he struggles with what God—and his people—expect of him. As a Christian, I’ve grappled with many of these same questions, which just shows that the big faith questions cannot be confined to one religion.
This novel is imbued with deep and rich wisdom and truth about so many things, but most especially how complex life in the world can be. There is ambiguity at every turn, and all the thinking in the world will not make the answers any clearer. It’s one thing to know right from wrong—and even that is a challenge sometime—but it’s another thing to decide how to live in the right way.
Although on the whole I enjoyed and admired this book, the philosophical musings wore thin at times. Not a lot of things happen in this book; most of the text is people thinking about things that have happened or might happen or should have happen. The action is mostly in people’s heads, but the thoughts are interesting and the writing is vivid, so it works. For my part, the section in Paris worked less well on all these counts. The new characters and new ideas were dull in comparison to what had gone before. The first part, however, was so good that I can forgive the more turgid second half.