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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Knight and His Shadow

Boubacar Boris Diop

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To purchase The Knight and His Shadow

Title: The Knight and His Shadow
Author: Boubacar Boris Diop
Genre: Novel
Written: 1997 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 193 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Knight and His Shadow - US
The Knight and His Shadow - UK
The Knight and His Shadow - Canada
Le Cavalier et son ombre - Canada
Le Cavalier et son ombre - France
  • French title: Le Cavalier et son ombre
  • Translated by Alan Furness
  • With a Foreword by Nasrin Qader

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nicely twisted story-telling tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       As befits a novel featuring a knight in its title, The Knight and His Shadow is fundamentally a quest-tale: Lat-Sukabé receives a message from the woman he still loves but who disappeared from his life eight years earlier, Khadidja -- a cry for help: "Lat-Sukabé, come before it's too late". He sets out for out-of-the-way Bilenty, where she is apparently to be found, but his account is from his time in the nearby town where he has to arrange the pirogue-trip to Bilenty.
       The novel is presented in three acts, covering the three days of his stay there, a holding pattern of sorts. Having embarked on his quest, he must see if he really has the will to see it through -- a journey that, he comes to realize, might be something completely different from what he had expected (or talked himself into), Khadidja's siren-call not quite what it seems to be and his quest perhaps a more personal one than it ostensibly seems.
       Diop structures the novel cleverly. Having Lat-Sukabé narrate the account might already hint that this is also a story of personal (self-) discovery, but the transitions lead the reader -- and the protagonist -- there in an unexpected way.
       The account begins fairly straightforwardly, Lat-Sukabé checked in to the Hotel Villa Angelo and hoping to arrange passage to his final destination with the (elusive) local ferryman. While he's not exactly warned off, even the locals are a bit surprised by his ambition -- one asking him:

     Have you really thought out what you are doing ? You don't go to Bilenty just as if you're going to any old place, my boy.
       The waiting-time gives Lat-Sukabé time to recall and recount his time with Khadidja -- and what drove them apart. It began with Khadidja getting a desperately needed job -- as a storyteller. An unusual sort of storyteller: as the person who arranges the position explains:
You will talk and nothing else. You can talk about whatever comes into your head about everyday life or you can just make up stories. You're compleyely free, Madam. No one here is going to reproach you for anything you say.
       But Khadidja will have no interaction whatsoever with her audience -- she won't even know who he is: "You will never meet the Master", she's told.
       Accepting the job -- they very much need the income --, Khadidja imagines she knows who she is talking to. A young boy, she assumes, and she tries to tailor her stories to him, practicing them at home with Lat-Sukabé. Eventually, however, she realize she was mistaken about whom she has been telling her tales to.
       One story, in particular, then seems to have particularly gripped her: that of 'The Knight and his Shadow'. Indeed, the confusing present-day situation seems to be due in part to her confusing fact and fiction -- having lost herself long ago in it:
I couldn't get exactly what she was trying to say. She seemed to want me to believe that she and the Knight were living together at Bilenty, and that the miracle child, Tunde, was going to appear out of a hillside, thanks to their heroic efforts, in order to save the entire black race. Her famous phrase, "Lat-Sukabé, come before it's too late," might even be taken to mean, in one analysis, let's say a secondary one, that I shouldn't on any account miss the coming into the world of the famous Tunde.
       Lat-Sukabé recounts both how the tale of 'The Knight and his Shadow' came about, and then the story itself at considerable length: a quest-tale told within the quest-tale. 'The Knight and his Shadow' begins with a fantastical creation/transformation story unleashing, as it were, the Knight-figure. Much of what occurs around him is familiar from the history of many African (and other) countries, from political take-overs to the more specific and closer to home example of ethnic slaughter -- the two factions at odds here called the Mwa and the Twi. Half allegorical, half grounded very much in the real, 'The Knight and his Shadow' within The Knight and His Shadow is very much reflection of and commentary on near-contemporary Africa; as eventually becomes clear, it is in many ways as real as the framing story -- which, in its conclusion drifts evermore into the mythical itself.
       Madness hovers over much of the narrative -- Khadidja even admits to mental imbalance, and it seems the easiest explanation of what became of her, but even the narrator is compelled to defensively claim that he is not mad -- but aside from perhaps relying too easily on that easy excuse and explanation The Knight and His Shadow is a neatly turned tale.
       Lat-Sukabé is told:
She gradually got submerged in her own story, Khadidja, like someone sinking into quicksand.
       Arguably Lat-Sukabé, in turn -- and before the reader's eyes -- , does too. It makes for a novel with several layers to it -- layers which are rewarding both separately and, together, in the larger whole.

       This is the first volume in Michigan State University Press' new African Humanities and the Arts series, and it comes with a Foreword by Nasrin Qader. Arguably, this is indeed the sort of volume that will most likely find an audience in college classrooms, and Qader's introduction is helpful even to non-academic readers in giving a general idea of how and where to place the author and his work. Nevertheless, it seems a bit too heavily academic to start things off (not to mention mentions of the "limpidity of language" in Diop's writing, and "Diop's distinctive limpid style" ...). Worse yet, it both summarizes (too) much of the tale and warns -- surely too much -- of the complexity of what lies ahead.
       It's difficult to judge how much readers should be warned or prepared for what's to come; especially with regards to foreign literature that, on some levels, might seem forbiddingly foreign, but I'd have more faith in readers -- and think readers are better served if they come to this (and indeed most) text(s) without this sort of baggage: The Knight and His Shadow is certainly strong enough a text to hold its own all on its own -- and that without overwhelming readers.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 March 2015

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The Knight and His Shadow: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books from and about Africa
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       Senegalese author Boubacar Boris Diop was born in 1946.

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© 2015-2021 the complete review

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