Authors: Cheikh Hamidou Kane
The emphasis is, however, on Islam. The contest for the soul of Samba Diallo, a contest which began in his childhood against the demands of secularism and spreads in later maturity to the more complex and precarious arena of Europe, is waged on behalf of an Islamic vision of being. The godlessness that is Europe is an implacable ogre: “I have learnt that in the country of the white man, the revolt against poverty and misery is not distinguished from the revolt against God. They say that the movement is spreading, and that soon the same great cry against poverty will drown out the voice of the muezzins.” The humane motivation that brought Communism into existence as an irresistible social force is prejudicially acknowledged to facilitate the purpose of its self-indictment. The charge is impiety, the verdict a foregone conclusion. The human spirit is endangered; this is the summation of discourse among the Diallobé’s learned and wise. Metaphor and imagery reinforce the bias—what chance has the pejoratively evoked image of hammer and sickle against the star and the crescent, against the replete immediacy of Kane’s Glowing Hearth?
That quality of the language of the Koran which Kane describes as a “sombre beauty” he tries consciously to capture in his own prose. The quality comes out even in translation, cleanly sculpted yet mysterious and often elusive, suggestive of much that is left unspoken, layers of perception that need paring away. No criticism of the manic excesses of the Teacher of the Text is permitted to creep into the writing; his explicit sadism (a familiar feature not only of Koranic teachers but of the traditional village schoolmaster) is subsumed in the Teacher’s great love, the mystic purity of his motives; torture by blazing
faggots is the “incandescence” of the Text. Given into the hands of the Muslim sage for instruction, Samba Diallo masters the Word, learns the virtues of humility by subsisting, with other pupils, solely on charity. Perfection is sought constantly, even the art of begging: “In the name of God, give to those who beg for his glory. Men who sleep, think of the disciples passing by!” The moral insertions are phrased with a lyricism that seeks to replace the missing oral flow of the marabouts: “Men of God, death is not that night which traitorously floods with darkness the innocent and lively ardour of a summer day. It warns, then mows down in the full mid-day of the intelligence.” Even the teacher is impressed by Diallo’s improvisations. He calls them “beautiful and profound.” Hamidou Kane is a diligent expositor of the Faith.
At last, Samba Diallo, for whom even a physical fight is controlled and experienced as a kind of mystic choreography culminating in a catharsis of body and mind, leaves his homeland to grapple with more formidable foes than an envious fellow pupil. The contest is more than individual. The crises of decision already revealed in the leadership of the Diallobé—the Most Royal Lady, the Chief of the Diallobé, the Teacher—have involved the future of entire generations in the personal odyssey of Samba Diallo, yet the hero’s inner conflicts are intensely individual and spiritual. His chosen subject, philosophy, facilitates exposition of the contested ground. We have already listened to his father and Monsieur Lacroix in a well-matched contest over the truths of their separate worlds. There, Diallo’s mission, his destiny, is defined in staggering pan-ethnic terms with a sonorous invocation of cosmic arbiters that sounds excessively impassioned:
“Do not do violence to yourself, M. Lacroix! I know that you do not believe in the shade; nor in the end of the world. What you do not see does not exist. The moment, like a raft, carries you on the luminous surface of its round disc, and you deny the abyss, from which will come great gusts of shadow upon our shriveled bodies, our haggard brows. With all my soul I wish for this opening. In the city which is being born such should be our work—all of us, Hindus, Chinese, South Americans, Negroes, Arabs, all of us, awkward and pitiful, we the under-developed, who feel ourselves to be clumsy in a world of perfect mechanical adjustment …” (
“God in Whom I believe, if we are not to succeed, let the Apocalypse come! Take away from us that liberty of which we shall have known how to make use. May Thy hand fall heavily, then, upon the great unconsciousness. May the arbitrary power of Thy will throw out of order the stable course of our laws …” (
From within his profoundly Muslim personality, Diallo manifests the quintessence of African humanity and the destiny of the black race. The materialist atheism of the West is assaulted with the West’s own dialectical weapons. His individual loneliness and the precariousness of his role is underscored by encounters with degenerate negroes who have fallen victim to the blasphemies of Europe. The humanity survives but another price has been extorted from Diallo; he experiences god-abandonment, his faith becomes uncertain.
Through it all runs a secondary thread; one that does not, however, occupy a level of secondary relevance but could indeed, depending on individual inclination, be regarded as a crucial theme of the work. An obsession with death and mortality has been the basis of the Teacher’s instructions to his pupil; it is to stay with Diallo for the rest of his short life and indeed to colour both his spiritual and intellectual approach to existence. Mortality, decay, and transience have become the focus of perception—thought, matter and phenomenon are made relative to this centre of reality and, recalling the Teacher’s own preparation for death, there is a temptation to consider that Samba Diallo has been used (and warped) by the Teacher in what is his own personal battle. The Teacher’s conversation with the Royal Lady on the subject is very revealing. Her objections are overridden, but the opposed arguments are hardly objective. The turbid vision of existence to which the Teacher exposes a seven-year-old child earns our sympathy for the woman’s insistence on the positive in life; a different reading and a re-location of the centrality of themes makes this a key scene and a disquieting one.
suggests, from this other perspective, the waste of a sensitive and spiritual individual whose social fulfillment has been sacrificed to an old man’s quest for death-serenity. In the view of the Faith this would be an acceptable offering. The Teacher has embodied the Word, “he has the Word, which is made of nothing corporeal but which endures …” It is consistent that he has championed the virtues of the negation of the social being against the Royal Lady’s insistence on usefulness. “As for me,” declares Diallo in Paris, “I do not fight for liberty, but for God.” The paradoxes in Diallo’s understanding of God
are perhaps responsible for the following interpretation: that because he strives to see God as the ultimate attainment, death and corruption—being also the ultimate attainment—have become fused in his inner awareness with God. It is hard to escape this conclusion, given confessions like this one from the anguished youth:
“It seems to me, for example, that in the country of the Diallobé man is closer to death. He lives on more familiar terms with it. His existence acquires from it something like an aftermath of authenticity. Down there, there existed between death and myself an intimacy.” (
And a moment later:
“It still seems to me that in coming here I have lost a privileged mode of acquaintance … No scholar ever had such knowledge of anything as I had, then, of being.… Here, now, the world is silent and there is no longer any resonance from myself. I am like a broken balafong, like a musical instrument that has gone dead.” (
Can this language be separated from his later expressions of the feeling of god-abandonment?
“The scene is the same. It has to do with the same house, hemmed in by a sky more or less blue, a countryside more or less animated, water running, trees growing, men and animals living there. The scene is the same, I still recognise it.
Lucienne, that scene, it is a sham! Behind it, there is something a thousand times more beautiful, a thousand times more true! But I can no longer find that world’s pathway.” (
His mutterings during his early necrophilic excursions also complement his Teacher’s dicta on the theme. To the Princess’s protest that the new generation will have to do with the world of the living, that the values of death will be scoffed at and regarded as bankrupt, the Teacher declares: “No, Madame. Those are the ultimate values, which will still have their place at the pillow of the last human being,” An effective play on words and temporal associations, which nevertheless begs the question. When life is apprehended solely through its negation, death, existence becomes defined as a temporal illusion; Diallo’s crisis of belief is the familiar crisis of one who sees existence as meaningless and the desired reality as elusive. His death at the hands of the Fool now makes sense; it is both symbolic and logical—within the logic of all drama of the absurd wherein the human component of a social architecture is displaced and deprived of a bearing, of significant or meaningful relations. Diallo, would-be “artisan” of the citadel against the Western abyss, has somehow permitted the weakening of his foundation. It is appropriate that he should be slain by a waywards splinter from the crumbling edifice.
What emerges triumphant? This orientation of emphasis towards the metaphor of contest is by no means comprehensive, but it is inevitable from the point of view of our overall theme. The victor is not traditional Diallobé society, nor the West which was responsible for the
weakening of Diallo’s spiritual roots, but the doctrine of death; the Teacher; the Word of Islam. As Diallo has foreseen, the Teacher does not leave him even after death. From beyond the grave he reaches out to summon him, first creating Diallo’s epiphany through the medium of the Fool, then through the same agency granting him absorption within the long-sought Ultimate. The quest-circle has been completed. The lesser pupil has preceded him in thought—thus the Chief of the Diallobé in a letter to Diallo on the death of the Teacher: “The hour strikes when, if I had this choice at my disposal, I should choose to die.” It is the lesser concession that he later makes: “Alas, I cannot even do as your old teacher did, lay aside that part of myself which belongs to men and leave it within their hands, while I withdraw.” But Samba Diallo
his designated successor. In the struggle of the secular need against the claims of mystic decadence the Teacher has the final say, and it is No. The Word emerges triumphant.