Updated: September 4, 2010 15:23 IST

Imaginative answer to colonialism

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Not too well known, this masterpiece from the 1950s celebrates the silences in language and other ways of knowing things.

Camara Laye's novel, The Radiance of the King, is an astounding answer to the experience of colonialism. Unlike Chinua Achebe, better known in the English speaking world, or even the more experimental Ata Ama Aidoo, Laye's answer is not given in discursive terms, it is flung out through a great leap of the imagination. And because profound imagination will always go beyond answers, The Radiance of the King is far more than a novel about the colonial experience. It deserves to be known as one of the major fictional works of the 20th century, and one which calls up no easy comparisons.

Laye was born in 1928, in Guinea, to the Malinke tribe, and later went to study in France where he lived through both great solitude and poverty. His political commitment was deep. Some years after he returned, he was imprisoned by Sekou Toure, and later spent most of his life in Senegal under the protection of Leopold Senghor, till his death in 1980.

Laye's protagonist is the Frenchman Clarence who has come to the African continent on a mission whose reason is never divulged. He loses all his money in gambling with other white men, and is left with no option but to seek employment with the king.

Ability to see

In the “dark continent” Laye shows us a darkness that may in fact be in the watcher's eyes. Sight and its absence are primary metaphors in the novel. Always Clarence sees crowds, never individuals, he sees bodies rather than faces, and in women “breasts and buttocks”. He sees chaos rather than an order different from what he has known. Confronted with a dense forest that he finds impenetrable, 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.” What Laye is in fact questioning is not only the capacity for sight, but even the primacy of sight as a value. There are other ways to know things, through all the senses, through the silences in language. But Clarence cannot use the senses even for sensuality, he can only descend to the bestial. In language he demands a factual truth, and is frustrated by its absence.

“Will the king be here soon?” asked Clarence.

“He will be here at the appointed time,” said the black man.

“What time will that be?” asked Clarence.

“I've just told you: at the appointed time.”

“Yes I know. But exactly what time will that be?”

“The king knows!” replied the black man.”

The Radiance of the King is strikingly non-personal, and though it follows a semblance of linearity in its plot, it moves through people and nature and events in which there is as much “reality” as sunlight in a dense forest.

The novel maps Clarence's descent into his own heart of darkness. He loses his money, his clothes, and the function he performs for a tribal chief is as stud for the chief's harem. Here is a rare forging of precision and poetry in dialogue, a singular gift for image making in language, and a canny understanding of the values which Clarence cannot shed. Clarence's wait for the king is long, and transforms from a simple wait for employment, to an infinitely complex waiting, perhaps even for salvation. The novel leads to one of the great unresolved and memorable endings in literature.

Balanced portrayal

At the core of this work is the deftly crafted insight into how the other is perceived, into the power of race that renders people blind when they simply have to face another, without instant judgment. In 1956, when the novel was published, these things would have been overwhelmingly significant, and in different ways now, they continue to be so. The hand of genius though lies specifically in the way the novel avoids positioning two ways of seeing as antagonistic, or rebuffing power through a clichéd sense of superiority. The Radiance of the King is a work far more subterranean and subtle, it allows the two to meet and then stand next to each other.

But the work overflows its core in the way of masterpieces, where nothing is neatly contained, metaphors and meanings far exceed their function. In the endless wait for the king, a blacksmith tells Clarence:

“Its like this: we are waiting for him. Every day and every night we wait for him. But we also get weary of the waiting. And it is when we are most weary that he comes to us. Or we call to him — every moment we are calling him; but however hard we try, we do not call to him all the time — we keep forgetting to call to him; we are distracted for a fraction of a second — and suddenly he appears, he chooses that very fraction of a second in which to make his appearance.”

After these thoughts about the book, one has to reveal that the authorship of this work is controversial. Scholar Adele King, in Re-reading Camara Laye, has set out her research as to why Laye may not have written this work. There is no incontrovertible evidence, but King finds that it is most likely that the book was co-written by Europeans, notably two Belgians, Francis Soulie and Robert Poulet, and Laye may have only contributed to it. This raises many questions about authorship and also what light or shade the author throws on a work. King reports that writers from African countries have kept very silent about this.

In the end though, The Radiance of the King is an original work in the sense that it actually originates, creates something originary. It is not realism, it is not fantasy, it is poetic, philosophical, intuitive and analytic in a way that seems to spring from its own source, whatever that source may actually be.

The Radiance of the King (Le Regard du Roi), Camara Laye, translated from the French by James Kirkup.

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