|Recently I’ve found myself reading a number of memoirs by authors who grew up in various parts of Africa. This one stands out as unique, mostly because it is so unremarkable. There’s no civil war, no violence, no rape. The only bloody scenes are those describing ritual circumcision, and even these showed a communal event of initiation and coming-of-age rather than an act of brutality (as in other books that address the subject). Injustice in society never came forward as a theme. To be honest, it reminded me much more of gentle French childhood memoirs such as La gloire de mon père than what I have come to expect from African memoirs.
The narrative winds along peacefully, describing Laye’s childhood in Guinea during the early part of the 20th century. It’s a story that strikes a universal chord: love between parents and children, experiences of being bullied in school, the blurry transition between childhood and adulthood. It introduces us to several layers of Guinean society: Laye is the son of a goldsmith and shares a bed with his father’s apprentices, but at various times he spends time both with his grandmother in rural Guinea and with his uncle in the capital city.
Written five years before Guinea’s independence from France, this book is one of the first major works of Francophone African Literature. In view of this fact, I found it surprising how little France’s involvement in Guinea’s history and society was addressed in this book. Without previous knowledge, I wouldn’t have known that the world described in this book was under French rule. The only hints towards this fact were that the narrative was written in French, and that the book’s final conflict centered around whether or not Laye should leave his homeland in order to go to France and continue his education. Yet perhaps in the 1950s, even a peaceful and unassuming literary description of African existence was an act of courage.