L’Aventure ambiguë, 1961 (Ambiguous Adventure, 1963)
Les Gardiens du temple, 1995
Although he is best known for Ambiguous Adventure and little else, the importance of Cheikh Hamidou Kane (KAH-nay) in African literature remains assured. Ambiguous Adventure is a novel that examines the confrontation of two cultures, as do so many other African novels. Yet it describes the clash in spiritual and religious terms rather than in the usual economic and political ones. This juxtaposition reveals much that is profound and not subject to changing circumstances.
Kane’s social situation combined with his active intellect to produce a lasting and disturbing work. He was born into an aristocratic Toucouleur family (Muslims since the eleventh century) and attended a Koranic school until the age of ten, when he entered the French school system. He finished a philosophy baccalauréat at the Lycée of Dakar in record time. This introduction to Western thought influenced his decision to study in Paris, where he followed a double course of study in philosophy and law.
It was in Paris–faced with the daily confrontation of his culture with that of the European–that he began his novel, perhaps, like many African writers abroad, to overcome solitude and homesickness. The protagonist, Samba Diallo, is recognizable as Kane himself in his youth, with the same provenance, the same education, and the same disorientation that probably troubled the author.
Samba, on the verge of completing his Islamic studies, is sent to the French schools by his elders, important leaders of the Diallobée people, so that he may discover why people who are wrong have conquered those who are right. Samba then goes to Paris, but the solitude and sadness that marked him in primary and secondary school keep him from indulging in activities that are less than intellectual. He does meet a young French woman who tries to convince him that the resolution to his (and Africa’s) turmoil is Marxism, but he resists this answer.
He does not resist, however, the other attractions of Western philosophy, and he realizes that in delving into these subjects he has somehow betrayed his earliest training. He returns to his native land, but he can no longer be what he was. The absurd consequences of his death–he is stabbed to death by a madman in a graveyard–underscore the hopelessness of Samba’s situation: He cannot make a choice between the two cultures, and a synthesis appears impossible. Death has become the only release that can be afforded Samba Diallo.
The novel suffers from oversimplification, which results in false logic; the West also has its spiritual and religious side, after all, and perhaps some happier resolution might have been found in that area. Nevertheless, there is a universal dimension to the conflict between spirituality and materialism, a dimension that might have been blurred by a deeper grasp of Western culture.
Kane wrote Ambiguous Adventure ten years before it was published; it is understandable that, while the colonial presence was still in Africa, the appearance of something as nonpartisan and as unconcerned with politics as Kane’s novel might not have been well received. Published after Senegal’s independence, it served as a reminder that many of Africa’s problems caused by colonization were only beginning and that political self-determination was not an automatic route to identity and integrity.
Kane returned to Senegal after his French education and became an important administrator in the newly independent country. In 1995, he published a sequel to Ambiguous Adventure called Les Gardiens du temple (the keepers of the temple). It offers a new vision of Africa in which the protagonists, representing postcolonial conflict, are led to embrace a new democratic agenda.