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The Dark Child by Camara Laye
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The Dark Child (1954)

by Camara Laye

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Originally published in 1954, and written in French, this is a memoir of the author’s childhood in the village of Koroussa, in French Guinea. Laye was a cherished child and his memories are sweet and poignant. Laye’s up-bringing was traditional, but he was sent away to school, and in the end, goes to school in France. This is bittersweet for Laye and his family; he and his father are well aware that a European education is the best hope of advancement, but this takes Laye away from his family and culture. Laye’s mother is just devastated and feels that she has lost her favorite son.

This is an easy book to read, as the style is simple and direct. One of the chief values of the book is the preservation of memories of a traditional African childhood. I recently read an essay by [[Chimamanda Adichie]] in which she mentions both [[Chinua Achebe]] and [[Camara Layes]]’s works as giving her a window into what the lives of her grandparents and great-grandparents were like; information that otherwise would have been lost to her due to colonialism, civil violence, and famine.

Throughout the book I was aware of how much is lost through colonialism. For example Laye writes:

“On the day of the harvest, the head of each family went at dawn to cut the first swath in his field. As soon as the first fruits had been gathered, the tom-tom signaled that the harvest had begun. This was the custom; I could not have said then why it was kept and why the signal was only given after the cutting of a swath from each field. I knew that it was customary and inquired no further. Yet, like all our customs, this one had its significance, which I could have discovered by asking the old villagers who retained this kind of knowledge deep in their hearts and memories. But I was not old enough nor curious enough to inquire, not did I become so until I was no longer in Africa.”

Laye discusses the role of women in his village. His mother was a strong character and notes that “the women’s role in our country is one of fundamental independence, of great inner pride. “ Laye’s father was clearly a gentle and loving man, and I don’t doubt that his own mother’s role in the family was one of considerable power. However, I suspect that there were layers of oppression fo women that Laye chooses to ignore, or was unaware of. The religion was Islamic, layered with animism. Polygamy and female genital mutilation were practiced. ( )
  banjo123 | Feb 10, 2014 |
Guinea.

According to some sources, this is not a memoir but a novel, or "literature," though the protagonist has the same name as the author. I will approach it as a fictionalized memoir; it is better as an autobiography than it is as a novel. This tale from 1954 fits in the "leaving for school" rather than the "leaving due to war" subgenre. For this reason, and because it stops short of Laye's experiences in France, it is more romantic and, despite the author's inner turmoil about leaving, less conflicted than many of its ilk. It tells an interesting enough story of growing to manhood, including initiation rites and adolescent circumcision that make it interesting to read in conjunction with Somé's Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman and Fadumo Korn's Born in the Big Rains: A Memoir of Somalia and Survival. However, the unanswered question lingering at the edges of this narrative involves the larger changes in the author's community (and his view of it) due to his maturation and coming of age and to the changes in African colonialism and self-governance. I would like to know how his understanding of his village changed even after a few years studying in the capitol, whether he in fact returned from France, as his mother wished, and if so, what he found. The author foreshadows this question less than halfway in: "But the world rolls on, the world changes, perhaps more rapidly than anyone else's.... and the proof of it is that my own totem--I too have my totem--is still unknown to me" (p. 75). This memoir would have been better had he illustrated this statement (and others like it) rather than leaving it as a loose end. ( )
  OshoOsho | Mar 30, 2013 |
Childhood of a young man that grew up in Guinea. ( )
  autumnesf | Dec 26, 2011 |
In the first 90 pages of this book, the great drama involves influential parents intervening to stop schoolyard bullying and in the second 90 pages of this book, the great drama involves the foreskin being chopped from the author's penis. ("Later on, I went through an ordeal much more frightening than Konden Diara, a really dangerous ordeal, and no game: circumcision." Oh my god!!)

And in case you were worried that your pulse might slow in the dying chapters of the "novel," in the last fifteen pages, there is some canned hand-wringing about hurting a mother's feelings by traveling to another country to pursue your education. I have never read an African novel with less substance or less style.

It boggles my mind that Laye wrote this book in his twenties. It has no youth in it whatsoever: no playfulness; no striving; no struggle and no love. It felt like the sanitized nostalgic reminiscences of an old man who reached his age without acquiring wisdom or wit and whose primary concern is making the circumstances around his youth seem as pure, well-designed and dignified as possible.

The persistent non-happening of this book might have been elevated if the author was insightful or reflective; but the closest thing he offers are perhaps a dozen scattered rhetorical questions like, "Do we still have secrets?" "Are we not always consumed with longing?" "Do our hearts ever rest?"

Um? Our protagonist has a heart? He longs for something? Could've fooled me. Closest we come to experiencing that longing is his rhetorical question, which has no power whatsoever.

There are so many wonderful books about growing up in Africa and there are some pretty decent ones romanticizing village life and traditional crafts. This is not one of them. It would be a shame if this was even one of the first twenty books that you read by an African author. I swear by the five yours I wasted that there is nothing between the covers but ink.

If you set out to write a book that is designed to make your parents feel better about your exile and the role they had in shaping your destiny; perhaps the product is inevitably doomed to an earnest and artless one-dimensionality. ( )
  fieldnotes | Jul 9, 2011 |
This is a fairly short and simple autobiographical account of a boy growing up in Guinea in the 1930s and 40s. Camara Laye wrote it in 1954 while studying in France, and you can feel the nostalgia for his homeland. Although the writing style is quite understated, the emotion is communicated quite effectively, and it's very moving in places.

As the title suggests, the book only deals with his childhood, and it is faithful to a child's outlook on the world. At the start, his entire world is the veranda around his father's hut. Then it gradually expands to the rest of the concession, then to school, the town of Kourassa, then the wider country of Guinea when he goes off to study in the capital Conakry. Finally the link with childhood is severed altogether as he gets on a plane to France.

The mixture of pain and excitement at each stage of growing up is beautifully rendered. He wants to be part of his family, to follow his father as a blacksmith or his uncle as a farmer, but always knows that his success in school is moving him further away from that. He is being marked out for a different future, his family are sacrificing to give him something better, and he wants that, but also wants to stay where he is. His parents, too, are caught in this conflict of wanting him to succeed but knowing that his success means his departure from their lives.

Quite a bit of time is spent describing the circumcision rite, which may be of anthropological interest to some, but was for me more interesting as a symbol of the other changes he goes through in the book, the pain and fear at something new, the loss of the old, but also the anticipation of being a man, the pride he feels when he is given his own hut and his own grown-up clothes.

I enjoyed this book as an insight into a life at a moment of great change, starting in a very traditional setting and moving very quickly into different worlds. A lot of the political context is absent - French colonialism, for example, is only a shadowy presence in the book - but I don't see this as a fault. This is a childhood memoir, and does no more or less than you'd expect: it gives a faithful depiction of the author's early years. I found it interesting and quite moving. ( )
  AndrewBlackman | Nov 3, 2010 |
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» Add other authors (8 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Camara Layeprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Jones, ErnestTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kirkup, JamesTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 080901548X, Paperback)

The Dark Child is a distinct and graceful memoir of Camara Laye's youth in the village of Koroussa, French Guinea. Long regarded Africa's preeminent Francophone novelist, Laye (1928-80) herein marvels over his mother's supernatural powers, his father's distinction as the village goldsmith, and his own passage into manhood, which is marked by animistic beliefs and bloody rituals of primeval origin. Eventually, he must choose between this unique place and the academic success that lures him to distant cities. More than autobiography of one boy, this is the universal story of sacred traditions struggling against the encroachment of a modern world. A passionate and deeply affecting record, The Dark Child is a classic of African literature.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:03:01 -0400)

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