Authors: Cheikh Hamidou Kane
“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 that lies about you.
The future citadel, thanks to my son, will open its wide windows on the abyss, from which will come great gusts of shadow upon our shrivelled 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.”
It was becoming quite dark now. Lacroix, not moving, heard in the shadow this strange prayer:
“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 not 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.…”
“WHY SHOULD THEY WISH ME TO KNOW?” THE teacher was thinking. “They know better than I do what it is that they want. At bottom—”
He interrupted himself to scratch energetically at his side. Raising the fold of his boubou he saw a fat brown bug running over his skin. He picked it up, delicately, and set it on the ground, then he went back to his bed.
“At bottom, they have already chosen. They are like a woman who consents to intercourse: the child that is not yet conceived is calling to her; it must be that the child shall be born. This country awaits a child. But in order that the child may be born the country must give itself.… And that—that … But also, in the long run, would dire poverty not fill our hearts with bitterness? Dire poverty is the enemy of God.…”
The teacher’s whole right side was hurting him. He turned over on his back.
Nothing in the teacher’s house, this day, had risen toward heaven—neither the flame of the hearth nor the echo of young voices. The teacher had reduced his prayers to the strict minimum. He who used to sleep little because he was always praying had remained in bed since morning, and his body, unaccustomed to such soft treatment, was fatigued by this repose.
Upon this silent house, however, was concentrated the
thought of the entire country of the Diallobé: upon this house and the unquiet form which it held in its bosom, like the almond enclosed in its shell.
The teacher could have said Yes—that was easy—and the country would have exploded with joy. It would have been easy for him to say No, and the country would have obeyed him. He was saying nothing. The men of the Diallobé sensed the drama that was going on within him, and thought of their teacher both gratefully and with compassion.
“My God,” he prayed, “Thou hast willed that Thy creatures should live on the solid shell of appearance. Truth would drown them. But, Lord of truth, Thou knowest that appearance proliferates and hardens. Lord, preserve us from exile behind appearance.”
It was on the evening before that the delegation had come. They were led by Ardo Diallobé, first son of the country. Also to be noticed among them were Dialtobé, the master of the fishermen, Farba, the teacher of the griots,
the chief of the guild of smiths, that of the guild of shoemakers, and many besides. The teacher’s house had been filled to overflowing.
“Master,” Ardo Diallobé had told him, “the country will do what you say.”
“I will say nothing,” the teacher had replied, “because I know nothing. I am only the humble guide for your children, and not at all for you, my brothers.”
A silence had followed this, and then the first son of the Diallobé had taken up the plea again:
“The Word, certainly, can suspend itself like a garment, master. Life does not suspend itself. The time has come for our country to reach a decision. The chief of the Diallobé has said to us, ‘I am the hand which acts. It is you, people of the Diallobé, who are the body and the brain. Speak, and I shall act.’ What shall we say?”
The teacher, then, had stood up.
“I swear upon the Word that I do not know. What a man really knows is for him like the succession of numbers: he can say it over indefinitely, and take it in all senses, going on without limits. What I could say to you, on the contrary, is short and plain: ‘Act,’ or, again, ‘Do not act.’ Nothing more. Do you not see for yourselves how easily that can be said, and how there is no more reason to say
The teacher had spoken with vehemence, and he was looking at all of them at the same time, as if to communicate to each of them the conviction that he knew nothing. But they had remained gloomy. Perhaps the teacher had spoken in words that were too lofty. As he returned to the subject now, he was seeking to explain himself in another way:
“People of the Diallobé, I know what you are waiting for. You do not know what you ought to do. And so you have thought, Let us go to see the teacher of our children, so that he may tell us what we ought to do.… Isn’t that it?”
“Exactly,” the first son of the Diallobé agreed.
“You are waiting for me to indicate to you what you ought to do, as ten indicates the following eleven to the man who can count. Isn’t that so?” the teacher went on.
There was a murmur of acquiescence.
“People of the Diallobé, I swear to you that I have no such knowledge as that. As much as yourselves, I should like to know.…”
The men who were gathered there looked at one another in deep uncertainty and dismay. If the teacher did not know, then who would know? The country must reach a decision nevertheless. Travelers coming from distant provinces were reporting that men everywhere had chosen to send their children to the foreign school. These new generations were going to learn how to build dwelling houses, how to care for the bodies within those dwelling houses, as the foreigners knew how to do.
The teacher did not notice when his guests left him. Having spoken, he had become lost in his thoughts once more.
When the fool came, he found the teacher in the same position, lying straight out on his back, one arm along his side, the other folded over his face, above his eyes.
The man who thus arrived was belted into an old frock-coat, under which the least movement he made revealed that he was wearing the ample garments of the Diallobé. The age of the frock-coat, and its doubtful cleanliness over the immaculate neatness of the boubous, bestowed an unusual appearance upon this personage. His physiognomy, like his clothes, left an impression of strangeness. Its features were immobile and impassive, except for the eyes, which were never quiet for an instant. One might have said that the man knew a secret which was baleful to the world, and which he was forcing himself by a constant effort to keep from springing to his lips. The inconstancy of his ever-roving glance, the changing expressions of which died almost before they were born, raised a doubt, after
the first impression, as to whether this man’s brain could contain a single lucid thought.
He spoke little—and that was since people had begun to call him “the fool.”
This man, who was an authentic son of the countryside, had left home some time before, without even his family knowing where he was going. He had been absent for a number of years, then one morning he had suddenly turned up, buttoned into his frock-coat. At the time of his return he had been very loquacious: he claimed that he had come back from the white man’s country, and that he had fought against the white men there. At first he was taken at his word, though none of the other sons of the countryside who had been in this white men’s war said that they had ever seen him. But, fairly soon, people began to doubt his recitals.
In the first place, this was because his story was so extravagant that it was difficult to put any faith in it. But even more than the extravagance of the narrative itself, it was the man’s histrionic art that worried them. In measure as he recounted events, the fool would begin to relive, as if in a frenzy, the circumstances of his recital. One day, in explaining how he had been wounded in the abdomen—in fact he did have a scar there—the man had suddenly crumpled up, then fallen, his arms on his abdomen, while a rattle of agony came from his throat. After that, his fellows had taken pains to avoid him, while he himself would recover from his crises only to go in search of indulgent listeners, before whom he would bring the events of his memories dramatically to life.
One day he found out that he had been nicknamed “the fool.” Upon that he relapsed into silence. But the nickname clung to him nevertheless.
Now, the man sat down beside the teacher, whom he believed to be asleep, in order to wait for him to wake up.
“Oh, it is you?” the teacher said as he opened his eyes. “What are you doing there?”
“They are tiring you very much, aren’t they—all these people?”
And the fool pointed vaguely to the houses around the teacher’s dwelling.
“Chase them away,” he added. “You will chase them away, won’t you, the next time they come?”
For the fraction of a second his burning glance had the look of one waiting anxiously for a reply.
“Tell me, you will chase them away, won’t you?”
“Yes,” the teacher agreed, “I will chase them away.”
The other man quieted down.
“Now they are coming to you,” he said. “They are humble and gentle, like sheep. But you must not deceive yourself. At bottom, they are not sheep. It is because you are still there, with your empty house and your poor garments, that they still remain sheep. But you are going to die, you and your poor house also. Then speedily their nature will change; I tell you, from the time of your dying. It is only your survival that delays the metamorphosis.”
He leaned down and, with passion, kissed the teacher’s hand. The latter sprang up, pulled back his hand as if it had been burnt, then, changing his mind, held it out to the fool, who began to caress it.
“You see, when you die,” the fool said, “all these houses of straw will die with you. Everything here will be as it is down there—you know, down there.…”
The teacher, who had gone back to lying down, wished to get up, but the fool, gently, held him back. He simply drew a little closer to him, and delicately raising his head
from the floor he placed it comfortably against the fleshy part of his thigh.
“How is it, down there?” the teacher asked.
A furtive expression of happiness came over the fool’s face.
“Truly? You want me to tell you?”
“Yes, tell me.”
So the fool spoke:
“It was morning when I disembarked there. From my first steps in the street I felt an unspeakable anguish. It seemed to me that my heart and my body were contracting, together. I shivered, and I came back to the enormous debarcation hall. My legs were soft and trembling under me. I had a great desire to sit down. Around me, the stone floor was spread out like a brilliant mirror of sound that echoed the clattering of men’s shoes. At the centre of the immense hall I noticed an agglomeration of upholstered armchairs. But my eyes had hardly fallen upon them when I felt a return of that nervous twitching, as if my whole body were in exaggerated revolt. I set my valises on the floor and sat down right on the cold stone. Passers-by paused around me. A woman came up to me. She spoke to me. I thought I understood that she was asking me if I felt all right. The agitation of my body quieted down, in spite of the cold of the pavement, which penetrated my very bones. I spread out my hands, flat, on this icy tiling. I even was seized with a desire to take off my shoes, to touch with my feet that cold glaucous brilliant mirror. But I was vaguely conscious of an incongruity. I merely stretched out my legs, which came in contact all along their length, so, with the frozen floor.”
The teacher raised himself slightly to look into the
fool’s eyes. He had been struck by the unexpected coherence of this recital. His surprise increased when he saw that the fool’s gaze was now fixed. He had never seen him like this. The teacher laid his head again on the man’s knees and felt that he was trembling slightly.
The fool went on:
“Already a little group had formed around me. A man cleared a way to me and took hold of my wrist. Then he made a sign that I was to be put on a nearby sofa. When eager hands were held out to lift me from the floor I pushed them aside and with a free movement of my own I got up, towering by a head above all of them. I had recovered my serenity, and now that I was standing up all they could see of me was that I was solidly built and perfectly healthy. Around me, I sensed that the people were consulting with one another, a little surprised at my sudden resurrection. I stammered some words of apology. Then I bent down and, easily picking up a heavy valise in each hand, I walked through the circle of flabbergasted spectators. But no sooner had I got into the street than I felt that nervous twitching attacking me again. At the cost of considerable effort I kept anything from being seen, and I hurried away from that place. At my back I felt the weight of many eyes fixed upon me, through the windows of the immense hall. I turned a corner of the street and catching sight of a door set deep in a wall, I put my valises on the ground and sat down on one of them, sheltered from the solicitude of passers-by. It was high time, for my trembling was beginning again to become apparent. What I felt went deeper than the mere revolt of my body. This trembling, which was again subsiding now that I was sitting down, seemed to me to be my body’s fraternal echo to an inward
disturbance. A man passing by me seemed to want to stop. I turned my head away. The man hesitated, then shook his own head and went on. I followed him with my eyes: his square back was lost among other square backs, his grey gabardine lost among other gabardines; the dry clatter of his shoes was mingled with the sound as of castanets that ran along the level of the asphalt. The asphalt.… My gaze traversed the entire extent of what lay before me, and I saw no limit to the stony surface: down there, the icy feldspar, here the light grey of the stone, the dull black of the asphalt; nowhere the tender softness of the bare earth.