(Melville House, 2012)
Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s Ambiguous Adventure is a deeply personal novel that traces a boy’s fall from spiritual fervor to apathy and the consequences of that lost faith. The book manages to cover considerable ground in its 160 pages: the African diaspora; the collision between indigenous and colonial cultures; how religion and education can ensure imperialistic power; and finally, how individuals can become expendable experiments to their conquerors.
Published in 1961, Ambiguous Adventure immediately won popular acclaim and was awarded the Grand prix littéraire d’Afrique noir, but was largely unavailable until Melville House re-published it in April, artfully translated from the French by Katherine Woods, best known for her 1943 translation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince.
Samba Diallo wants to study the Koran and devote his life to God in his Senegalese village. His aging imam, Thierno, sees Samba as his successor and thus mentors him with great austerity. The first sentences of the novel demonstrate their dynamic: “That day, Thierno had beaten him again. And yet Samba Diallo knew his sacred verse. It was only that he had made a slip of the tongue.”
Despite Samba’s spiritual training, the local elders decide that the children must adapt to modernity to survive. Samba is sent to the colonist’s “new school” and then eventually Paris to study philosophy. He acknowledges that his scholarship only exacerbates his moral confusion: “I can’t help wondering if there hasn’t…been a little of the morbid attraction of danger. I have chosen the itinerary which is most likely to get me lost.”
The second half of Ambiguous Adventure details Samba’s embrace of scholarship, university life, and the joys of studying major Western thinkers like Socrates and Descartes. One of the thematic undercurrents throughout the novel, as expressed through Thierno and Samba, is the Socratic notion that a wise man admits he’s not certain about anything: “I do not know what I believe. But the extent is so vast of what I do not know, and what I ought indeed to believe…”
Samba’s adventure, then, culminates in the worst kind of homecoming. The rupturing of his identity is a fate he cannot escape—or survive. And his people, who pushed him into the West, must now find themselves lost in their own land, with no competent leader.
Ambiguous Adventure foretells a grim future of a global monoculture, dramatizing the swift ruin of a people who must choose between marginalization and assimilation. Before he leaves Paris, Samba explains to Adèle, a woman his age also of African descent, how his transformation began with engaging in the French language: “Perhaps it was with their alphabet. With it, they struck the first hard blow at the country of the Diallobé.”
And thus Kane’s lucid and philosophical novel about the ramifications of embracing the laws, language, and schools of one’s enemies ultimately becomes an examination of the secular life that many subjugated and compromised people are forced into.