Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 431
Camara Laye (kah-mah-rah LAH-yeh), a young Guinean boy from a highly respected family of the Malinke people. Although somewhat timid, he is curious, intelligent, affectionate, and sensitive. As he moves from early childhood through adolescence, his advancement through the colonial French school system takes him away from his home in Kouroussa to Conakry (the capital of Guinea) and, finally, sends him to Paris to continue his studies. Through recounting his childhood memories, he seeks to preserve, defend, understand, and, perhaps, mourn the passing of the traditional way of life of his youth. These vignettes include observing his father’s mysterious familiarity with a small, black snake (“the guiding spirit of our race”), watching his father and mother at work, experiencing the seasonal rhythms of his grandmother’s farming village, and participating in various traditional ceremonies of initiation, including that of circumcision. Laye’s departure for Paris at the end of the novel contrasts the anguish of leaving traditional Africa with the attraction of the unfamiliar Western culture.
Camara’s father, a blacksmith, goldsmith, and sculptor. Steeped in the traditional ways of his people, he has powers that can be described only as supernatural. These powers are most clearly seen in his relationship with a small, black snake and in the spirituality, craftsmanship, and theatricality he exhibits while working with gold. Although he clearly regrets that much of his traditional wisdom and knowledge will not be passed on to his son, he recognizes that the boy’s destiny is different from his own: The Africa of the future will need citizens with technical skills and Western education. When the boy is harassed by older students at the local school, the father is willing to come to blows with the school’s principal to defend his son’s rights. At other moments, when Camara is tempted to abandon his educational project, his father urges him to persevere.
Camara’s mother, a member of another respected Malinke family. She also possesses magical powers. Because the crocodile is her totem, she is able to draw water from the river without fear of these animals. On one occasion, she alone is able to revive a horse who appears to be under a spell. The provider of food, discipline, and, above all, unqualified love, she is not always able to accept the fact that her son is growing up. She suffers greatly each time an event in his life (whether a move to a new school or a traditional African rite of passage) threatens to distance him from her.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 515
The central character is Laye, himself. He portrays himself as a happy child, fitting perfectly into a coherent and benevolent culture in which each individual has an identity and a role. As he grows into young manhood, though, he finds himself pained by his need to leave the village and travel farther away in order to fulfill himself intellectually. He seems to know early that this separation is his fate, so he experiences nostalgia for his home long before leaving it.
Other than this feeling of loss (or perhaps because of it), Laye portrays himself as happy and content. When he has problems with school, his father solves them. When he loses a friend to death, he is comforted by thoughts of religion. It is important to the central idea of the story that this character should be happy; he is the product of a culture which is being idealized.
Laye’s father and mother represent two aspects of the African culture which Laye idealizes. The book begins with a poem of dedication to his mother, a prayer that she will know how much he loves and values her. It is she with whom...
(The entire section contains 993 words.)
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