In the final installment of our book club discussion of Camara Laye’s The Radiance of the King, Laila Lalami discusses the ways in which Laye’s book went against the literary conventions of writing about “the dark continent.”—Editors
As I mentioned in an earlier post, the NYRB edition of Camara Laye’s The Radiance of the King includes an introduction by Toni Morrison. In it, she offers a sharp condemnation of a particular interpretation of Africa that was common in the work of certain white writers (Joyce Cary, Elspeth Huxley, et al.) in the first half of the twentieth century, and shares her own awakening to the work of Chinua Achebe, Ama Ata Aidoo, and others. “But,” she writes, “coming upon [Camara Laye’s The Radiance of the King] was shocking. This extraordinary novel accomplished something brand new.”
What it did, Morrison argues, is to take the cliche of the white man traveling to Africa and turn it on its head. Specifically, Camara challenges three literary tropes of Africa: as impenetrable, as sensual, and as dark. The landscape, in Camara’s book, is organized and cultivated, though Clarence, the protagonist, is blind to this order. The women who have sex with Clarence do so not out of sexual appetite but in order to bear children for the tribe, though, once again, Clarence remains ignorant; he persists, against all evidence, in thinking that Akissi is just one woman, and wonders where the mulatto children in the village come from. And the journey in “deep, dark Africa” leads to a very different kind of “enlightenment” for Clarence than the one seen in, say, the work of Joseph Conrad.
And now a final note. The Radiance of the King was translated from the French by James Kirkup, an English poet and travel writer. He also translated Camara’s earlier book, The Dark Child, Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs, and many other works of fiction and non-fiction. Camara’s novel is rendered idiomatically into English, with occasional details that remain in the original French (as, for example, a character’s mention of the fée Carabosse, from Perrault’s fairytale, or not having “a sou” to his name.)