Ambiguous Adventure

by Cheikh Hamidou Kane

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 499

Characterization in Ambiguous Adventure is so pointedly typed that characters represent variations on the central philosophical tension in the novel: The values of the modern West force a movement from the values of traditional Islamic West Africa toward a universal destiny of oppositions united in nothingness. Science, progress, external evidence, materialism, and light oppose belief, stability, internal devotion, spirituality, and darkness. On the one hand, Islam, from the point of view in the West, is a “fascination of nothingness for those who have nothing. Their nothingness—they call it the absolute.” On the other hand, the West, from the Islamic West African point of view, “is the triumph of evidence, a proliferation of the surface,” which creates “masters of the external,” exiling those masters to a superficial world. For Europeans, truth is revealed day by day. For West African Muslims, truth comes from the belief “in the end of the world” and “takes its place at the end of history.” To the chief, Western values contract and constrain truth to increasingly relativistic, narrow, egoistic concerns. To Lacroix, the Diallobe pursue a cosmic drama that befits a defeated people who revel in absurd fears. Their common ground is only that both “shall have, strictly, the same future” of “the crucible in which the world is being fused.”

That future is the torn conscience of Samba, in which the converging destinies of the West and Africa meet. Consequently, the novel’s theme with respect to the individual turns on a double question: “[C]an one learn this without forgetting that, and is what one learns worth what one forgets?” For Samba, the price of his French education is despair, alienation, and death. Like the fool who kills him, Samba is of two minds. The fool wears a spotless white boubous; yet over it, he wears an old, dirty European frock coat. He has been destroyed by his experience in the West, yet he cannot shed that brittle, hardening experience. Ironically, the fool’s murder of Samba is also Samba’s freedom from his doubled-dressed, agonized consciousness. Kane,however, does not free the reader from the perplexing complications of the two ideologies that clash throughout the novel.

Although Samba finds salvation in a dubious martyrdom that results from his refusal to be hypocritical to the Word of the Koran and in his return to the visible natural world of an eternal, unseen creator, he also negates the very oppositions of the novel’s tension. Death frees him just as Thierno taught him that it would. Dying confirms his devotion to the Word, vindicating his exile into a world of adventurous surfaces and precise evidence. The ideologies, however, remain; all the characters, all the variations of central opposing cultural viewpoints, survive Samba in the novel’s closure of implied nothingness. What is left for the reader is an array of disparate ideas yet to be played out as long as humanity senses the movement of history—or awaits the apocalyptic end of it.

Themes Discussed

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 880

A Spiritual Journey in a Colonial Setting

Ambiguous Adventure opens as Thierno chastises his pupil, Samba Diallo, for his mistakes in reciting the Koran. This opening scene sets the spiritual tone for Samba Diallo’s ambiguous adventure. At a young age, he feels a strong connection to God in spite of the fact that he does not understand the verses he recites. Sadly, by the time he has grown old enough to study the meaning behind the verses of the Koran, the Diallobé have decided to send Samba Diallo to the French school. Samba Diallo is quickly engrossed in his new studies,...

(This entire section contains 880 words.)

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particularly the power of the French language. He is so fascinated with the West that he travels to France to study philosophy.

Samba Diallo is on a spiritual journey, but his country is in the midst of a secular crisis. The Diallobé have been conquered and colonized. They now face difficult choices in an uncertain time. Although the French were militarily powerful, their colonizing bureaucracy seems to be their true strength. The French have managed to discover things about the world that the Diallobé have not, and they have set up schools to teach the Diallobé new things. These challenges are not spiritual, but political.

The Diallobé are divided by these political challenges. The chief of the Diallobé cannot reach a decision. The teacher of the Diallobé refuses to speak conclusively on the subject. Only the Most Royal Lady has come to a decision, and even she does not relish her decision. She argues that the Diallobé must send their strongest, most intelligent children to learn from the French schools. The foreign influence may corrupt the children, but it might also create for the Diallobé a guide for the new world in which they find themselves.

At first, it seems that Samba Diallo has indeed found a path along which his nation can follow. He is a successful student and he is fascinated by the ideas of Pascal. However, after he arrives in France, he begins to see signs of disconnection in the Africans who live there. Soon he, too, is forced to acknowledge that he has lost the path to God, and he is not certain that one can find it anew. Soon after he makes this discovery, his father sends word that he should return to the Diallobé. Upon his return, Samba Diallo is expected to take on the role of his teacher, Thierno. However, Samba Diallo can no longer pray, not even at the grave of his old teacher. The Fool murders Samba Diallo for this, and Samba Diallo ascends to the hereafter. There he is comforted and informed that there is no ambiguity in this new place.

Academics are divided over the meaning and impact of the final scenes of Ambiguous Adventure. Samba Diallo is killed for his lack of devotion, but the novel ends with his experiences in the afterlife. Does Samba Diallo’s death suggest a pessimistic interpretation of Senegal’s political future? In Journeys Through the French African Novel, Mildred Mortimer suggests that Ambiguous Adventure is best understood as a spiritual journey rather than a secular or political one; it begins among the Diallobé, proceeds to take Samba Diallo to France, and concludes with his “final resting place” (65). Therefore, Ambiguous Adventure offers a spiritual resolution. Mortimer goes on to elaborate that the role of the Fool is a “catalyst” rather than a guide. In the first half of the novel, the Most Royal Lady sends Samba Diallo on to the next step of his journey. In the second half of the novel, the Fool takes on her role. Although Kane’s conclusion might not appear to outline a political future for the Diallobé, his conclusion brings a sense of resolution to Samba Diallo’s spiritual journey.

The Nature of the West

Ambiguous Adventure is driven by a conflict between the values of the Diallobé and the French. The difference between these two groups is difficult to see. When Samba Diallo’s father visits Paul Lacroix, the director of the French school, the knight explains that the French have gained a sort of mastery of the external world. However, in that mastery, they have lost themselves. As they find more efficient ways to do things, they remove people from the daily processes and routines that make up life. In these ways, the Diallobé may be less efficient, but they are more engaged in their nation’s work. Ultimately, the mastery of the external world has devalued people, in the knight’s view, because they are replaceable.

When he travels to France, Samba Diallo comes to his own conclusions about the differences between the Diallobé and the French. Samba Diallo reflects that among the Diallobé there was the constant presence of death. In France, the chaos of the world is kept too firmly at bay. As a result, he feels that he has lost the path to God that he once walked, and he now wonders whether he will be able to find it again. He has made friends with Communists who do not value religion. Samba Diallo explains that they make a mistake in dismissing God, but he also admits that his time in France has distanced him from God as well.