(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Written in the third person but from the protagonist’s point of view, Ambiguous Adventure traces the education of Samba Diallo from the traditional Islamic practice of reciting the Koran in Senegal to advanced studies of philosophy in Paris. Difficult in French or English, the novel consists primarily of dialogue in which various characters espouse and debate distinctive philosophical values. Rather than merely recalling the chronology of an autobiographical journey into Western higher education, Cheikh Hamidou Kane immerses the reader in the complex dilemma of Senegalese aristocrats, who must decide how to reconcile their own Islamic faith with the materialism of modern Europe. As Samba pursues his adventure in ideas, he becomes increasingly alienated from the worldviews of both the West and French West Africa, thus raising problematic issues for French assimilationist policies in the wake of colonial conquest.

The early chapters of the novel center on debates among the nobility of the Peul people in Senegal. Samba is the spiritual and temporal heir to the traditions of the Diallobe family. By custom, he has been sent to a teacher, Thierno, who trains him in the lore and wisdom of the Koran at the Glowing Hearth, Thierno’s household. As a result of the rigorous discipline which includes begging to sustain himself physically, Samba’s intelligence and devotion prepare him to inherit Thierno’s authority as teacher. Samba’s spiritual revelations originate from his humility before God, allowing him to accept death as the salvation that transcends both the struggles of life and the fear of dying; yet his steadfast, youthful devotion is oblivious to the increasing material poverty that spreads among the people for whom he will eventually be responsible. Samba dreams only of becoming a teacher.

French administrators, however, are building schools in their effort to assimilate the conquered Diallobe. When Thierno refuses to advise the chief on whether to send his people to the new school, Samba’s aunt, the Most Royal Lady, convinces the chief to enroll...

(The entire section is 854 words.)

Extended Summary

Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s Ambiguous Adventure tells the story of Samba Diallo, a member of the aristocratic Diallobé in Senegal. It was originally written in French. Kane bases a great deal of the story on history, particularly on his own experiences. As a child, Samba Diallo is enrolled in a Koranic school, and he shows great ability to memorize and recite the Koran. However, the recently colonized community decides to send Samba Diallo to a French school. Samba Diallo is at first caught up in his studies but soon loses touch with his spiritual identity. These experiences make up his “ambiguous adventure.”

When Ambiguous Adventure opens, Samba Diallo is being taught to memorize the Koran. Although Samba Diallo does not understand what he is memorizing, he pursues his study with dedication, gravity, and natural talent. His teacher, Thierno, is “the teacher,” or spiritual guide, of his people. He is also very old, so much so that it has become a struggle for him to pray. Thankfully, he sees in Samba Diallo a promising successor. Thierno may see great promise in his pupil, but he maintains a strict code of conduct that is enforced through painful pinches and rages if Samba Diallo makes the slightest mistake in his recitation.

Usually, nothing would stand in the way of Thierno’s plans of grooming Samba Diallo as a successor, but life has recently changed for the Diallobé. The French have recently conquered Senegal and have set up a ruling bureaucracy in their new colony. The Diallobé now face difficult choices concerning their future. Perhaps the most pressing question is whether they should send their children to the French schools to learn from the foreigners. Thierno is often asked for his input, but the elderly teacher refuses to answer firmly one way or the other. The chief of the tribe is likewise cautious about committing to one decision or the other. Only the chief’s sister, the “Most Royal Lady,” has a firm opinion, which is that the Diallobé must send their best and brightest to learn from the French. Although Thierno refuses to offer firm guidance on how to proceed with the French, his relationship with the Most Royal Lady is somewhat confrontational, and she views Thierno as unduly obsessed with death and the afterlife.

The Most Royal Lady’s views are often controversial, and she possesses unusual status among the nation’s women. Her status comes in part due to her relationship to the chief. However, she is also respected for her clear mind and direct speech. To resolve the vacillation about Samba Diallo’s future, she calls a meeting of the people. Unlike most meetings, she invites women as well as men to attend. She explains that although she detests the foreign school, she urges the Diallobé to...

(The entire section is 1137 words.)