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Authors: Cheikh Hamidou Kane

Ambiguous Adventure


“A fine novel … The philosophical dialogue between the West and Africa has rarely been better presented than in
Ambiguous Adventure …
The hero of the novel, the deliverer-to-be and paragon of the new generation, returns from France a total spiritual wreck, his once vibrant sense of community hopelessly shattered. Summoned to assume the mantle of leadership, his tortured soul begs to be excused, to be left alone. ‘What have their problems to do with me?’ he asks. ‘I am only myself. I have only me.’ Poor fellow; the West has got him!”


“From within his profoundly Muslim personality, Diallo manifests the quintessence of African humanity and the destiny of the black race.”


“My favorite novel … a complicated but brilliant novel about interracial relations.”


“It is a work that summarizes and brings into focus the ideas and attitudes that lie at the center of inspiration of all French African writing.”


“Exceptionally beautiful.… highly original … oddly moving.
Ambiguous Adventure
is an indispensable book for anyone wishing to delve into the psychology of colonialism.”


“Cheikh Hamidou Kane, avoiding the temporal and political element of his subject matter, the anguish of being black, lands upon a reflection that concerns us all: the anguish of being human.”




was born in 1928 in Matara, Senegal, the son of a local chief. Having started at a Koranic school, he went on to a local French primary school, and eventually was sent off to read philosophy and law at the Sorbonne in Paris. Subsequently, he studied at the École Nationale de la France d’Outre-Mer, which had been founded by the French government to train colonial administrators. During Kane’s years in Paris he wrote a novel based closely on his experience,
Ambiguous Adventure
, and after his return to Senegal in 1959 he set about getting it published, while also taking a job as a governmental bureaucrat. The novel was published in 1961 to immediate acclaim, and the following year won the Grand Prix Littéraire d’Afrique Noir. Kane meanwhile went on to rise in ministerial positions in the Senegalese government, serving as Director of the Department of Economic Planning and Development, Governor of the Region of Thies, and Commissioner of Planning. He has also worked for UNICEF in Lagos and Abidjan. Kane lives in Dakar.

, besides being known for her translation of
Ambiguous Adventure
, is perhaps best known for her 1943 translation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s
The Little Prince

is a Nigerian writer, poet and playwright. In 1986 he became the first African ever to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. He was imprisoned in Nigeria for his opposition to dictatorship. He is the author of, among many books,
Ake: The Years of Childhood, Climate of Fear
, based on the prestigious Reith Lectures, delivered on the BBC, and a memoir,
You Must Set Forth at Dawn


I was by no means the only reader of books on board the
Several other sailors were diligent readers, though their studies did not lie in the way of belles-lettres. Their favourite authors were such as you may find at the book-stalls around Fulton Market; they were slightly physiological in their nature. My book experiences on board of the frigate proved an example of a fact which every book-lover must have experienced before me, namely, that though public libraries have an imposing air, and doubtless contain invaluable volumes, yet, somehow, the books that prove most agreeable, grateful, and companionable, are those we pick up by chance here and there; those which seem put into our hands by Providence; those which pretend to little, but abound in much


Originally published in French as
L’aventure ambiguë

Copyright © René Julliard, 1962

Translation © Walker & Company, 1963

Afterword is excerpted from
Myth, Literature and the African World
© 1976 Cambridge University Press. Reprinted with the permission of Cambridge University Press.

First Melville House printing: February 2012

Melville House Publishing
145 Plymouth Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201

The Library of Congress has cataloged the paperback edition of this book as follows:

Kane, Hamidou.
[Aventure ambiguë. English]
Ambiguous adventure / Cheikh Hamidou Kane.
   p. cm.
“Originally published in French as L’aventure ambique”–T.p. verso.
eISBN: 978-1-61219-055-6
I. Title.
PQ3989.2.K3A2 2012




THAT DAY, THIERNO HAD BEATEN HIM AGAIN. And yet Samba Diallo knew his sacred verse.

It was only that he had made a slip of the tongue. Thierno had jumped up as if he had stepped on one of the white-hot paving stones of the gehenna promised to evildoers. He had seized Samba Diallo by the fleshy part of his thigh and, between his thumb and index finger, had given him a long hard pinch. The child had gasped with pain and begun to shake all over. Threatened by sobs which were strangling him in the chest and throat, he had had the strength to master his suffering; in a weak voice, broken and stammering, but correctly, he had repeated the verse from the holy Book which he had spoken badly in the first place. The teacher’s rage rose by one degree.

“Ah! So you can keep from making mistakes? Then why do you make them? Eh? Why?”

The teacher had let go of Samba Diallo’s thigh. Now he was holding him by the ear and, cutting through the cartilage of the lobe, his nails met. Although the little boy had often submitted to this punishment, he could not hold back a slight groan.

“Repeat it! Again! Again!”

The teacher had shifted the grip of his fingernails, and they were now piercing the cartilage at another place. The
child’s ear, already white with scarcely healed scars, was bleeding anew. Samba Diallo’s whole body was trembling, and he was trying his hardest to recite his verse correctly, and to restrain the whimpering that pain was wresting from him.

“Be accurate in repeating the Word of your Lord. He has done you the gracious favor of bringing His own speech down to you. These words have been veritably pronounced by the Master of the World. And you, miserable lump of earthly mold that you are, when you have the honor of repeating them after Him, you go so far as to profane them by your carelessness. You deserve to have your tongue cut a thousand times …”

“Yes, master … I ask your pardon … I will not make a mistake again. Listen …”

Once more, trembling and gasping, he repeated the flashing sentence. His eyes were imploring, his voice was fading away, his little body was burning with fever, his heart was beating wildly. This sentence—which he did not understand, for which he was suffering martyrdom—he loved for its mystery and its somber beauty. This word was not like other words. It was a word which demanded suffering, it was a word come from God, it was a miracle, it was as God Himself had uttered it. The teacher was right. The Word which comes from God must be spoken exactly as it has pleased Him to fashion it. Whoever defaces it deserves to die.

The child succeeded in mastering his suffering, completely. He repeated the sentence without stumbling, calmly, steadily, as if his body were not throbbing with pain.

The teacher released the bleeding ear. Not one tear had
coursed down the child’s delicate face. His voice was tranquil and his delivery restrained. The Word of God flowed pure and limpid from his fervent lips. There was a murmur in his aching head. He contained within himself the totality of the world, the visible and the invisible, its past and its future. This word which he was bringing forth in pain was the architecture of the world—it was the world itself.

The teacher, who was now holding a burning faggot from the hearth very close to the child, was looking at him and listening to him. But while his hand was threatening, his eager gaze was full of admiration, and his attention drank in the words the little boy spoke. What purity! What a miracle! Truly, this child was a gift from God. In the forty years that he had devoted himself to the task—and how meritorious a task it was!—of opening to God the intelligence of the sons of men, the teacher had never encountered anyone who, as much as this child, and in all facets of his character, waited on God with such a spirit. So closely would he live with God, this child, and the man he would become, that he could aspire—the teacher was convinced of this—to the most exalted levels of human grandeur. Yet, conversely, the least eclipse—but God forbid! The teacher was driving this eventuality from his mind with all the force of his faith. Still looking closely at the child, he made, mentally, a short prayer: “Lord, never forsake the man that is awaking in this child. May the smallest measure of Thy sovereign authority not leave him, for the smallest instant of time …”

As he intoned the sacred text the little boy was thinking, “Lord, Thy word must be pronounced as Thou hast spoken it …”

The blazing faggot was scorching his skin. He jumped up, gave a spasmodic shake to the light shirt he was wearing, and sat down again, his legs crossed, his eyes lowered to his writing-tablet, some steps away from the teacher. He took up his verse once more, and rectified his error.

“Here, come close! When vain thoughts distract you from the Word, I shall burn you … Pay attention: you can do that. Repeat with me, ‘God, give me attentiveness.’ ”

“God, give me attentiveness.”


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