Characters Discussed

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Camara Laye

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

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

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.

The Characters

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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...

(This entire section contains 515 words.)

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poem of dedication to his mother, a prayer that she will know how much he loves and values her. It is she with whom he has an emotional relationship: She represents a more passionate, mystical side of life, and it is significant that her family are farmers, closely attuned to life through their rituals. Also, his mother is a healer with magical gifts. Laye, in his Westernized narrator’s voice, seeks to explain the miracles she performs but cannot.

The family’s respect for the mother is nearly absolute. Laye notes that people often believe mistakenly that the African woman’s role is subordinate; such stereotypes, he says, are far from the truth. His mother runs the house and, partly through custom and partly through their great mutual affection, controls much of her son’s life—chasing off friends she deems unsavory and checking his room to see that he is not sneaking in girls. Because of her strident nature, some critics have viewed her as a negative character. The narrator makes it clear, however, that her role is appropriate. It is she who links him to the part of the past for which he yearns, unconditional acceptance and love.

His mother has both magical power and the power of love over her son, yet she is doomed to fail when the issue that matters most emerges; despite her pleas, her son leaves for school in France. In recognition and love, his initial poem calls out to her and to that part of Africa which she represents:

Black woman, woman of Africa, O my mother, let methank you; thank you for all that you have done forme, your son, who, though so far away, is still closeto you!

Laye’s father represents a different side of experience. He seems to know early that his son will not follow his trade. He teaches and protects his son, guiding him closely in the ritualistic attainments of manhood. The attitudes learned in these rituals—courage, self-control, and respect for community—become the valued traits of the soon-to-be expatriate.


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

Lee, Sonia. Camara Laye, 1984.

Moore, Gerald. “Camara Laye: Nostalgia and Idealism,” in Seven African Writers, 1962.

Olney, James. “Ces pays lointains,” in Tell Me Africa: An Approach to African Literature, 1973.

Palmer, Eustace. “Camara Laye,” in An Introduction to the African Novel, 1972.




Critical Essays