“I was a little boy playing around my father’s hut. How old would I have been at that time? I cannot remember exactly. I must still have been very young: five, maybe six years old. My mother was in the workshop with my father, and I could just hear their familiar voices above the noise of the anvil and the conversation of the customers.”
So begins Laye’s enchanted tale of growing up in the village of Koroussa, French Guinea. The cradle of the child’s first and dearest memories is this idealized Africa, where the supernatural powers of his crocodile-taming mother and his father’s craft as a goldsmith, are normal parts of the everyday life in this universe.
The beautiful, almost unreal village, doubled with a sophisticated, poetic language is a metaphor of Africa itself, a land of long-living traditions and spirituality much praised in the Négritude movement of the 1950s and 1960s that aimed at bringing forth the riches of the African cultural heritage.
The boy’s childhood is framed by colorful figures in the village, such as Uncle Lansana, his friend Kouyaté, the beautiful young Marie, and traditional ceremonies heavy with spiritual meaning. However, as in any magical world, the balance provided by traditional stability is threatened when the winds of modernity bring with them Laye’s coming-of-age and the possibility of a new life far away from home.
The Dark Child, published in 1953, is one of the earliest African novels, from a second-wave of African writers in the 50’s, whose works surrounded the clash of cultures colonialism wrought. (Later published as The African Child), it is the first novel of Guinean author Camara Laye, and is considered a classical African novel due to the fairy tale-like language and its colorful, illo tempore imagery. In spite of this idealized vision of Africa, a darker shadow roams over the atmosphere of this novel, bringing with it the responsibility and the compromises of maturity. And these compromises mean going to distant France in search of education and a better life.
However, the book does not focus so much on the dream-like world itself and instead focuses more on the representation the child has of it. The world as the reader sees it is mostly a creation of the child’s view, the vision that he himself has of this world. Childhood itself is a magical world, regardless of where one lives.
The Dark Child is a modern bildungsroman in which the attraction of distant worlds echoes the author’s need to see as many places and things as possible… if only to have a more complex perspective about his homeland.
The Dark Child by Camara Laye
Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 1953 | ISBN: 978-0809015481
Review by Ioana Danaila
Ioana Danaila was born in Romania. She graduated from University Lyon 2 Lumière with a Masters in Postcolonial Literature and a First degree in French for Non-Francophone people. She has published short stories and translated books from French to Romanian. She speaks Romanian, French, English, and Spanish and teaches English to high school students in France.