The Guardian of the Word

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Cultural essence and value lie at the heart of Guinean author Camara Laye’s works. While appreciating the knowledge and customs of Western civilization, Laye valued even more his rich heritage. This is explicit in such autobiographical books as L’Enfant noir (1953; The Dark Child, 1954) and its sequel Dramouss (1966; A Dream of Africa, 1968), where ritual and folklore enlarge personal experience. Laye’s brilliant novel Le Regard du roi (1954; The Radiance of the King, 1956) goes further, ensnaring readers by the exotic force of its mystery and paradox. To Laye, Africa remained both mystery and paradox, a young, protean continent in need of reaching back to its ancient foundations in order to rediscover its national identity. Laye believed that the value of Africa’s past lies in its oral tradition, where morals, history, and social tradition unite to form what he called an “ethical unity that comprises native generosity, loyalty, chivalry, respect for a man’s word, the practice of Islam, the Cora [the African harp], and the Cola [cola nuts are given as a sign of regard].” With the number of griots—oral historians and keepers of tradition—diminishing, Laye saw the need to preserve—in as authentic a form as possible—the oral history of his nation. Especially important to him were the creation myths, for he believed them to be the essential foundation of individual traditional civilizations.

For a month during 1963, Laye taped a series of interviews with Babu Condé, the most learned and talented griot of the Malinké. Le Maître de la parole (The Guardian of the Word), first published in 1978, is the author’s re-creation of Babu Condé’s tale of the events leading to the formation of Mali; this tale is known in the Upper Niger as the Kuma Lafolo Kuma.

Prefacing the tale are two chapters essential for appreciating Laye’s his re-creation. The first gives an overview of Africa as Laye sees her: to him a nation too readily adopting Western standards and too eagerly replacing her ancient culture with technology. Civilization, Laye insists, is not confined to technology; voices of a culture ultimately “tap the mystery of art, of being.” These voices belong to Africa’s griots. An artist before historian, the griot, using ancient formulas, reconstructs history that entertains and instructs. Distortions of fact naturally occur, but the initiated clearly understand that essential truths remain.

The second chapter expands on the role of griots in Africa by giving readers a look at Babu Condé, whose power of the word is so great that he can silence birds. Serving the griot, Laye hoped to serve society’s needs by preserving “the word and the world beyond the word.” He selected the Kuma Lafolo Kuma from the four major categories of Words in order to reveal a few elements new to the study of the Malinké world in hopes that Africa will rouse herself from her historical and moral stagnation. The tale that follows is one to inspire pride in and reverence for the past.

Following the advice of their soothsayer, two brothers, named Dantuman and Mussa, kill the terrifying buffalo of Dô and are given as a reward their choice of the most beautiful woman in the kingdom. By prearrangement they select Sologon, a humpback. Though deformed, Sologon possesses two powerful totems that safeguard her virginity until she is wed to a king, Maghan the Beautiful. Then she conceives her firstborn son, Nankama, destined to become the first emperor of Mali, Sundiata. Throughout childhood, however, Nankama’s future greatness is shadowed by his inability to walk. A target of scorn,...

(The entire section is 1509 words.)

The Guardian of the Word Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

America. CLI, November 3, 1984, p. 280.

Blair, Dorothy. African Literature in French, 1976.

Book World. XIV, June 3, 1984, p. 13.

Booklist. LXXX, June 15, 1984, p. 1438.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXVI, August 8, 1984, p. 25.

Gakwandi, Shatto Arthur. The Novel and Contemporary Experience in Africa, 1977.

King, Adele. The Writings of Camara Laye, 1981.

Kirkus Reviews. LII, March 1, 1984, p. 217.

Library Journal. CIX, May 15, 1984, p. 995.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 2, 1984, p. 6.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, June 24, 1984, p. 24.

Ogungbesan, Kolawole. New West African Literature, 1979.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, March 16, 1984, p. 82.