In the second post in our December book club on The Radiance of the King, Laila Lalami talks about the story of The Radiance of the King and the unique ways in which it addresses the protagonist’s complicated personal journey. Also see Laila’s introductory post—Editors.
I want to start our discussion of The Radiance of the King by talking about the story itself. In the novel, Clarence, a white man of undefined origin and occupation, lands on the coast of Africa (which coast, you ask? We are not told) and in short order he loses all his money, in a gambling game, to a group of white men. He is evicted from his hotel, and the owner decides to keep Clarence’s trunk as collateral for the unpaid bill. Now Clarence is desperate; he wants to figure out a way to get his belongings, since his only possessions now are the clothes on his back, which are already showing signs of wear. He stumbles onto a street celebration for a local monarch, and immediately and rather arrogantly thinks that the king might hire him as an advisor, or at least vouch for him to the hotel owner, or, at any rate, know what to do to save Clarence from the misery in which he finds himself.
But all Clarence’s attempts to catch the king’s eye fail, and he ends up having dinner with a beggar and two young boys with the mirror-names of Nagoa and Noaga. The beggar tells Clarence that the king is heading to the southern parts of his realm, and so Clarence follows the beggar to the two boys’ village, which just happens to be in the south. There, Clarence will await the appearance of the king and finally get to ask him for the favor. He lives in a hut, wears a boubou, befriends some of the village people, and gradually loses touch with his previous life, to the point that even the favor he wanted to ask the king starts to change into something else, a different kind of favor. It’s clear, though, that the king is ultimately the savior, the one who will resolve everything and fix every problem. Until then, Clarence must bide his time in the village.
The Radiance of the King was published in 1954, and inevitably the question of colonialism presents itself to the reader. Clarence’s contempt for black people is very palpable in the early pages of the novel. Everything about them seems odious to him, from their way of dancing to the food they eat. He is especially revolted by the smells he perceives–long passages are devoted to his descriptions of odors on people, animals, food, and plants–and of the physical effect the smells have on him, including persistent headaches. Clarence’s arrogance for everyone around him ultimately leads him to make decisions that cost him very dearly.
However, Camara Laye’s great talent in this book is to take the narrative in a direction that moves away from the more obvious tropes one would expect in an anti-colonial novel. Clarence’s decisions, although seemingly disastrous, end up leading him to a journey of self-awareness. Here the novelist calls upon us to move beyond race, to reexamine what it means to be a human being seeking salvation in a world that ultimately makes little sense. I am curious what you, dear readers, make of Clarence’s transformation in the novel, and whether it was what you expected it to be.