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Camara Laye: Le regard du roi (The Radiance of the King)

Laye’s second novel was not without controversy. Wole Soyinka condemned it for lack of authenticity, claiming it was too imitative of a European style, Kafka in particular. Other writers, such as Toni Morrison, have, however, acclaimed the work. More recently, Adele King has suggested that Laye did not write the book. While I can certainly see the Kafka reference, to me Alice in Wonderland seems more of an influence than Kafka.

The story concerns Clarence, a white man living in an unnamed African country. At the beginning of the book, he is destitute. He has lost all his money by gambling and, because he has not paid his debts, both gambling and his hotel charges, he has been totally shunned by the white community. He is currently living in a caravanserai, run by an African who is getting impatient with his refusal to pay and has started coveting Clarence’s clothes. At the start of the novel, he has heard that the king is coming to the town and is eager to gain an audience with the king, in the hope that the king will offer him a job, purely because he is a white man. However, when he arrives at the esplanade where the king is to appear, there is a huge crowed He manages to push his way to the front, where there is a group of dancers dancing. He is soon taken in hand by a beggar who offers to help him gain access to the king, the beggar apparently having such access. The beggar recruits the assistance of two of the dancers, called Naoga and Nagao. From here on, his Alice in Wonderland (or, if you prefer, his Kafkaesque) adventure begins.

Initially, the beggar does gain access to the king but reports back to Clarence that there are no jobs available at all, not even the most menial ones. Clarence, the beggar and the two dancers wander round the massive palace but to no avail. Eventually they return to Clarence’s caravanserai where the owner is cajoled, mainly by the beggar, to provide them with food, though he is still awaiting payment from Clarence and still coveting Clarence’s clothes. The beggar persuades Clarence to hand over his jacket in payment, though it is clearly far too small for the owner. The beggar persuades Clarence that his best bet is to head off to the South, where the king often goes and meet him there. However, once they are in the town, they are arrested at the request of the caravanserai owner, who claims that Clarence has stolen back the jacket, which he furiously denies. Nevertheless he is arrested and taken to trial. The trial does resemble to a degree Joseph K.’s trial though, again, it more resembles the trial of Alice in Alice in Wonderland. The judge has already decided that Clarence is guilty, the normal rules of evidence are turned upside down and Clarence is told that the only way to escape punishment is to return the jacket which he denies having. In the end, the beggar persuades him that the only way to avoid punishment is to flee which he does. He is lost in a maze of rooms in the courthouse and when he finally opens a door, he is back in the same courtroom, where only the judge remains, fast asleep. Clarence escapes, with the help of a prostitute, and is reunited with his trio of friends (one of whom has the jacket and has had it all along).

The foursome set off for the South but that is not without its difficulties. Access to the south seems to be through an impenetrable jungle and when they finally manage to penetrate it, they seem to be going round in circles. Eventually they make it to the village of Aziana. Clarence will spend the rest of the book in this village. The beggar disappears but Nagao and Naoga will remain, as it turns out that they were originally from this village. Clarence lives a life of total indolence, cared for by a woman called Akissi, both sexually and in domestic matters, though it seems he does have regular sex with the women in the harem of the naba (the chieftain). He does make some slight contribution, for example”inventing” a soft towel, which the people of the village had never used before. He gets involved in the local politics and, in particular, the rivalry between the keeper of the harem and the master of ceremonies, who is brutally flogged to Clarence’s disgust but the joy of everyone else. But he is getting impatient. He starts seeing things – mermaids and the arrival of the king being two. When the king eventually arrives, the book takes a completely different turn and becomes a religious allegory, which has been a basis for some of the negative criticism.

I cannot really comment as to whether the book is authentically African and nor should I. A book written by a European about an African in Europe and using African styles and imagery would never be condemned for lack of authenticity. Too many African books have focused on the standard theme of the negative impact on African culture of the arrival of Europeans so it is interesting to have a novel of a completely different style. That Laye uses African imagery is indisputable, from the busy town to the jungle and the village of Aziana. That he uses European imagery, such as the courtroom scene is also indisputable. Whether it works is another matter. The end of the book is quite jarring, as it veers from the somewhat sardonic account of the priggish, demanding and unsympathetic Clarence to an account of a man seeking religion. Other parts of the book drag somewhat. But it is a most interesting attempt to write something that, while African, is different from the standard model.

Publishing history

First published by Plon in 1954
First English translation by Collins in 1956
Translated by James Kirkup