Guinea: “The Radiance of the King” by Camara Laye

The Radiance of the King
By Camara Laye
Translator: James Kirkup
Pages: 279
Publication: 1956
Version: New York Review Books Classics
Also reviewed at: The Hindu

The strong sense of outsidership in “The Radiance of the King”  illustrates the clear influence of time spent abroad for author Camara Laye, assuming that Laye is properly credited with authorship.  A controversy about whether Laye received extensive help — or even whether Laye was at all involved — in producing the novels attributed to them has received some attention in literary circles.  Scholars have analyzed the writing of Laye’s two major books — including “The Radiance of the King” and found distinctly European phrasing and descriptions of parts of Africa and traditions Laye would not have been exposed to in his upbringing. In the book’s introduction, Pulitzer Prize winning author Toni Morrison commends Laye’s ability to reveal such a vivid picture of Africa through the eyes of the visitor.  This position has been criticized as being just as naive as Clarence, the novel’s main character.  However, even those who ultimately conclude Laye did not write “Radiance” admit that there is no “smoking gun” to prove he did not write it, and none seem to account for the fact that Laye was exposed to French customs and culture from a very young age, and spent some of his most formative years, beginning at age 19, studying and living in France.  It was during his time in France, seven years into what became a nine-year stay, that Laye produced “The Radiance of the King.”  The book follows a shipwrecked white man as he journeys deeper and deeper into life in an African kingdom where nothing is as he expected.  The phrasings and experiences in the book are familiar to readers of any “stranger in a new land” stories, and evidently for this reason — that Laye could make travelling to Africa such an authentically foreign experience — doubts about the true authorship of the story have persisted.  Without retracing the inconclusive steps of scholars before me and because I am not scared by, the prospect that a stirring and authentic tale of discovery in Africa could have come from Africa, my focus is on the quality of the literary achievement in this work.

The description and imagery of the book are first-rate, and the narrative’s genuine feel of discovery is well crafted.  Clarence’s perspective as the wandering white man is often colored by the hubris and self-satisfaction commonly seen in stories of this archetype.  His sense of justice, entitlement, and normalcy are all holdovers from the life he had somewhere else — despite having set out at some point to flee that life.  Laye does not spend any time on Clarence’s motivations for traveling to Africa, though one can imagine from Clarence’s character that it involved failure on multiple levels in whichever structured society he fled, followed by a misguided belief that seeking out a less-civilized place would allow his natural “superiority” to flourish.  

The beauty of “The Radiance of the King” is in Laye’s construction of the Africa that Clarence finds and the way it contrasts with the character Laye has sent there.  Clarence’s naivete and simplifications of the African way are swallowed whole by a land and a people he makes little or no effort to understand for most of the story.  Rather than having Clarence meet a swift and unfortunate end upon his arrival in Africa — and given his flaws of character, one could certainly understand such a fate — Laye instead brings Clarence ever deeper into his Africa, slowly rubbing out everything in Clarence that came before, and leaving in its place an empty shell.  As the review on The points out, Clarence’s descent into the metaphorical darkness is highlighted by Laye’s descriptions and the interactions Clarence has with the unsympathetic locals.  Never is the message clearer than when he is told: “There are paths. If you can’t see them—and why should you see them? — you’ve only got your own eyes to blame.”

The descriptive scenery that serves as the backdrop for the novel brings to life for outsiders a vision of Africa that comports just enough with expectations to seem realistic, but that remains distant enough to retain its mystique.  The system of justice that provides the framework for most of the turning points in the story, on the other hand, allows the most complete and fascinating insight into the people and culture of Laye’s Africa.  The procedure, the punishments, and the sense of “right” are nothing like what Clarence (or the reader, at times) expects, and the contrasts and their consequences provide most of the main action in the book. 

From Clarence’s expectations on the esplanade when the king first arrives, to his travel south to Aziana with the beggar to the unusual life in Aziana itself, the justice he expects always seems to elude Clarence, though he consistently gets enough of a taste of what he wanted to continue the facade.  The outrageously funny “court” scene when he is accused of stealing the jacket from the inn-keeper is a prime example of Laye’s deft integration of the outsider’s expectations with the realities of the setting.  Penalties are meted out, exchanges are made, and lives go on as Clarence falls further and further into a life he has no control over.  Even this description is probably more the result of the familiarity of these kinds of stories than the experience of actually following this journey, because the truth is that Clarence is stuck in the new place, with its culture, justice, and people, from the beginning, he just fails to recognize it.

The ultimate turning point is when Clarence begins to become aware of the life he has settled into in the South, and the exact nature of the deal that brought him to it.  The revelation itself, and the subsequent punishment given to the master of ceremonies, provides Clarence one last hope for a world that makes sense — indeed, the fantasy is extended when the naba acquiesces to Clarence’s wishes during the punishment — but ultimately, his assimilation into life in Aziana, and his place in it, was never in doubt.

3 comments to Guinea: “The Radiance of the King” by Camara Laye

  • Eric

    I think it’s interesting that you think it could be longer; I thought a lot of it was needlessly repetitive, especially the wanderings in the South. I do agree with you that more character development would be nice. Essentially the only character that’s really fleshed out is Clarence, and he never struck me as more than just a caricature. He’s repeatedly played up as a foolish outsider that can’t see anything – even things that should be readily apparent. And I’m sure that’s what the author intended, but it’s just flat to me.

  • Jordan

    I think that his aloofness is definitely intentional — and certainly overdone. While I see the value of keeping that character, the clueless outsider, throughout the major scenes, it seems like maybe Clarence could have had some moments of clarity sprinkled in on some of the more minor points. An example would be distinguishing the twins. I thought it was kind of needlessly overdoing it to hit us over the head with the “clueless white man” theme by showing us that all natives look, sound and act alike in Clarence’s eyes.

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