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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Ambiguous Adventure

Cheikh Hamidou Kane

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To purchase Ambiguous Adventure

Title: Ambiguous Adventure
Author: Cheikh Hamidou Kane
Genre: Novel
Written: 1961
Length: 178 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Ambiguous Adventure - US
Ambiguous Adventure - UK
Ambiguous Adventure - Canada
L'aventure ambiguë - Canada
L'aventure ambiguë - France
Der Zwiespalt des Samba Diallo - Deutschland
L'ambigua avventura - Italia
La aventura ambigua - España
  • French title: L'aventure ambiguë
  • Translated by Katherine Woods
  • Awarded the 1962 Grand Prix de l'Afrique Noir

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Our Assessment:

B : decent but limited picture of clash of cultures and philosophies

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Cheikh Hamidou Kane's Ambiguous Adventure is a fairly early novel of an African travelling to Europe to study and the resultant clash between traditional African values (in this case also: Islamic values) and those of the West.
       The book centres on Samba Diallo, who comes from a leading family of the area (Francophone West Africa), the Diallobés. (Diallo's background and biography is, in its outlines, very similar to Kane's.) The story begins when Diallo is a youngster and a student at a Koranic school, the Glowing Hearth. A smart boy, he impresses his teacher greatly ("What purity ! What a miracle ! Truly, this child was a gift from God.") -- though that doesn't prevent the teacher from treating him quite roughly.
       There is change afoot, however: the foreign colonialists look to establish a different order. Education is also at the centre of change, and one of the issues facing the locals is whether or not to send their children to the foreigners' schools. Diallo's "elderly cousin", a sort of family matriarch called the Most Royal Lady, believes that the children should learn from the invaders:

The foreign school is the new form of war which those who have come here are waging, and we must send our élite there, expecting that all the country will follow them. (...) If there is a risk, they are best prepared to cope successfully with it, because they are most firmly attached to what they are.
       So the decision is made to send Diallo there, a radical change from the religious education he had been receiving until then. The Most Royal Lady recognizes the risks in sending the boy (and others like him) off to such schools:
The school in which I would place our children will kill in them what today we love and rightly conserve with care. Perhaps the very memory of us will die in them. When they return from the school, there may be those who will not recognize us.
       The first part of the book describes what is essentially this battle for the youth's mind and soul. The second part is the set largely in Paris, where Diallo goes to university -- though the same issues still hanut him. He is not one of those who don't recognize their elders and their heritage after learning from the French; instead, he finds himself torn between the two. The Europeans look to be part of the inevitable future, but he is also drawn to his African roots and the past.
       Diallo's religious teacher sees only the one way: there is nothing beside his god, and he is disappointed by the loss of his most promising pupil. Diallo, however, never entirely forsakes his religious upbringing, remaining a good Muslim (praying as prescribed, abstaining from alcohol, etc.) and always trying to reconcile the Western philosophy he learns with the religious tradition that formed him. He reads Pascal ("Of the men of the West, he is certainly the most reassuring") and thinks he sees some positives in the advancements brought by European civilization. His father maintains otherwise:
Man has never been so unhappy as at this moment when he is accumulating so much. (...) For man's welfare and happiness we must have the presence and the guarantee of God.
       In Paris Diallo finds that both his Diallobé background and his Occidental exposure have shaped his being: "I have become the two". But he is grateful that he at least has an awareness of "the reality of a non-Western universe" and he pities those who don't have it, alienated without anything to fall back on (a Sartrean alienation perhaps not being so unusual in the France of that time).

       There's a certain elegance to much of this Ambiguous Adventure, but the novel is also too simplistic in its message -- and too focussed on the religious. It's not an even playing field, as the author clearly sides with tradition -- which in this case is almost entirely based in religion. God offers all the easy answers: Kane even has a Shakespearean fool-character who brings the point home on several occasions.
       Diallo deludes himself into believing:
I had interrupted my studies with the teacher of the Diallobé at the very moment when he was about to initiate me at last into the rational understanding of what up to then I had done no more than recite
       Diallo thinks a world of "marvelous comprehension and total communion" would have opened up itself to him had the white men not interposed themselves -- failing to consider for even a moment that the magic was only in the moment of believing oneself to be on the verge of that great step, and that the step itself was one that could never be taken. (He even has the gall to state he would achieve "rational understanding" of something that is entirely irrational.) Diallo believes religion offers spiritual fulfilment and seems convinced that it is all that man needs to be whole -- but he has an excuse for not finding or achieving that fulfilment, as he has been corrupted by the West. It's an ugly message and an ugly illusion.
       The book does hold out hope for true enlightenment (and salvation) in a last chapter after Diallo has blacked out -- but it is only in what must be presumed to be his death that liberation from mundane matters (and all that is terrible about our earth-bound existence) can be found: a voice embraces him in -- perhaps -- that initiation he had so longed for. Again: it is a disappointing resolution.
       Ambiguous Adventure remains a book of both historic and literary interest, but it's religious focus is a terrible limitation -- though given resurgent fundamentalism (of Christian, Muslim, and other sorts) Kane may merely be expressing what are again widely-held sentiments.

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Ambiguous Adventure: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Cheikh Hamidou Kane was born in Senegal in 1928.

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