BORN: 1928, Kouroussa, French Guinea (now Guinea)
DIED: 1980, Dakar, Senegal
The Dark Child (1953)
The Radiance of the King (1954)
A Dream of Africa (1966)
The Guardian of the Word (1978)
Camara Laye has long been recognized as one of the most important French-speaking novelists of Africa. His books confront such modern dilemmas as social and psychological alienation and the search for identity. Laye was exiled from his home country of Guinea in 1966 because of his opposition to its government and was forced to live in Senegal until his death. As a result, much of his writing chronicles the plight of the exiled and the problems of adapting to change and cultural dislocation.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Tensions and Loneliness in Student Life Born in Guinea and raised a Muslim in that nation's countryside, Laye first encountered urban life when he left his tribal village to attend high school in Conakry, the capital of Guinea. In striking contrast to what he had experienced in his birthplace Kourossa, he found Conakry to be frankly modern: Twentieth-century technology was everywhere. The vast difference between the two societies startled Laye and made his life in the capital difficult. Upon graduating from high school, Laye accepted a scholarship to study engineering in Paris. He found the contrasts between African and European cultures even more overwhelming. To ease the tension and loneliness of his student life, Laye began to write remembrances of his childhood in the Guinean countryside. These writings became his first book, The Dark Child. Laye followed up this text with his masterpiece, The Radiance of the King, and even though this novel was a hit from the beginning, response to his next text, A Dream of Africa (1966), was even stronger.
Exile in 1966 Laye's third book resulted in his forced exile from his homeland in 1966. A Dream of Africa comments openly on the dictatorial policies of Guinean leader Sékou Touré, who forced Laye to flee the country with his family. While Touré is criticized by many for failing to institute democracy in his country, he played a key role in liberating Guinea from colonial possession by France. Until the mid-twentieth century, France remained one of the largest imperial powers in the world, controlling numerous territories, many of which, like Guinea, were located in Africa. Laye was to live in neighboring Senegal, under the protection of Senegal's president Leopold Senghor, for the remainder of his life.
Departure from Political Novels In 1970, during a visit to Guinea to see her ailing father, Laye's wife was arrested and imprisoned as an enemy of the state. Because he feared for her safety, Laye never again published an overtly political work. He married a second wife during his wife's imprisonment (a custom in his culture), but when his first wife was released from prison in 1977, she would not accept her husband's new domestic situation and she divorced him.
Laye's next book did not appear until 1978 when, after teaching in Senegal for many years, he completed The Guardian of the Word, his final publication. A marked departure from his earlier works, The Guardian of the Word is an epic novel set in thirteenth-century West Africa about the life of Soundiata (also known at Sunjata), the legendary leader of the Mali empire. The novel is based on an oral account of the period popular among Guinean storytellers, or griots. Laye first heard the story from Babu Conde, one of the best-known of Guinea's griots. Because the novel focuses in part on the conduct of Mali's first emperor and the standards of behavior he set, it indirectly comments on the proper conduct of all governments, something Laye could not afford to do openly. With The Guardian of the Word, Laye drew praise not only for preserving and celebrating a fragment of African culture, but also for bringing to it his own creative force. Laye spent his last days in Dakar, Senegal where he died of a kidney infection in 1980.
Works in Literary Context
All of Laye's books are written according to predominantly European literary modes, yet they paradoxically affirm traditional African life and culture. He succeeds in combining these discordant elements into a satisfying whole that expresses his individual vision. Speaking of The Radiance of the King in particular, Neil McEwan explained that “Laye is an artist in whom sources are entirely absorbed and the question whether this novel is French literature or African seems pointless; it is Camara Laye's.” King noted that Laye transcended his cultural background, concluding that his work “belongs within the tradition of classic world literature, describing a personal and cultural dilemma in accents that speak to all mankind.” Indeed, critical interpretation of The Radiance of the King alone illustrates the disparate ways in which one can understand Laye's influences and style.
“Stranger in a Strange Town” The Radiance of the King is widely considered Laye's finest work. Under one interpretation, this novel is rooted in the “stranger in a strange town” tradition of literature, in which a person about whom little is known enters a town and shakes things up—challenging cultural and political assumptions the town holds. In this tradition are novels like Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. The Radiance of the King centers on a white man alone in an African village. The story takes a white European named Clarence into the African countryside, where he is forced to adapt to the traditional culture in order to survive. He has no chance to earn a living unless he can find his way to the king's court and gain a position there. His search for the king forms the basis of the plot. “Clarence's search for the king with whom he hopes to hold an audience,” wrote Jeannette Macauley, “becomes an obsession. It's the mirage which lures him on through dark forests with people he doesn't feel anything for, with people who do not understand him.”
Possible Alternative Interpretations of The Radiance of the King “Attempts have been made,” Neil McEwan reported in his Africa and the Novel, “to prove Kafka's ‘influence’; on the novel: ‘an African Kafka’; can be praise from some European critics, disparagement from some Africans.” But McEwan believed that The Radiance of the King ultimately suggests “innumerable European writers” and proposed that “symbolist, allegorical, mythic, archetypal, psychological, and comparative-cultural studies seem called for; indeed there are passages … in which one suspects that the author has deliberately provoked and mystified critical attention. …It mocks analysis.”
Because of the ambiguous nature of Clarence's quest, the novel is not restricted to a single interpretation. As Larson stated in The Emergence of African Fiction, “Clarence, who is archetypal of Western man in particular, is symbolic of everyman and his difficulties in adjusting not only to a different culture, but to life itself.” King explained that “the novel deals with the theme of any man trying to adjust to a strange society, of every man's homelessness in the world…. Making this ordinary European a symbol for Everyman is a way of countering ‘black racism,’; a way of showing that the essential human experiences go beyond colour.” If Larson's interpretation is correct, then the novel can be seen as a part of the Existentialist tradition, emphasizing the homelessness and helplessness of human beings but also suggesting the importance of attempting to come together, to make the best of the world, faulted though it may be.
Works in Critical Context
Largely regarded with favor, Laye's most harsh criticism has always been for the political stances his texts seem to take. Some critics of The Dark Child found its political message too muted, but Laye's third novel, overtly political, was enough to force him into exile. Laye's greatest success—indeed, his most highly praised text—remains The Radiance of the King. Although many have offered differing views of the meaning and tradition of this novel, few have criticized the quality of the writing.
The Dark Child Tracing Laye's development from his tribal childhood, through his schooling in Guinea's capital, and to his college life in Paris, The Dark Child poses questions about the preservation of traditional ways of life in the face of technological progress. As Irele noted in an article for West Africa, Laye's autobiography presented “an image of a coherence and dignity which went with social arrangements and human intercourse in the self-contained African universe of his childhood.”
Some black critics of the time faulted Laye for not speaking out against colonialism. They saw his concern with traditional African society as an irrelevancy in an age of struggle for African independence. But Gerald Moore pointed out in Twelve African Writers that the world of Laye's childhood was largely untouched by colonialism. “Though conquered and administered by France,” Moore wrote, “a city like [Laye's native village] was complex and self-sufficient enough to go very much on its own immemorial way. Its people … were not constantly obsessed with the alien presence of Europe in their midst.” In contrast to this view, Irele believed that because The Dark Child celebrated the traditional African ways of life, it was “in fact a form of denial of the assumptions and explicit ideological outgrowth of the French colonial enterprise.”
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Laye's famous contemporaries include:
Wallace Stegner (1909–1993): The American novelist, short-story writer, historian, and environmentalist whose work often focuses on the American West.
Elie Wiesel (1928–): The Romanian-born author who has written extensively about his experience as a Holocaust survivor.
Italo Calvino (1923–1985): The Italian novelist who wrote the acclaimed If on a Winter's Night a Traveler.
Chinua Achebe (1930–): The Nigerian novelist and author of Things Fall Apart, one of the most widely acclaimed novels in African literature.
B. B. King (1925–): The influential American blues guitarist.
Whatever the final judgment regarding the book's stance on colonialism, The Dark Child has been widely praised for the quiet restraint of its prose. Moore explained that The Dark Child “is a unique book in many ways, written with a singular and gentle sincerity, yet with very conscious artistic skill. Laye does not proclaim his negritude or announce the coming dawn; he records what his childhood was, what was the quality and the depth of the life from which he sprang.” In her study The Writings of Camara Laye, Adele King called The Dark Child “a carefully controlled story … presented with economy and restraint. …A particular moment in Laye's life and in the history of Africa has been transformed into a minor classic, in which the autobiographical form has been raised to the level of art.” The book, Eric Sellin noted in World Literature Today, won Laye “instant acclaim and lasting respect as a stylist.”
The Radiance of the King Critical regard for The Radiance of the King has always been very favorable, with some commentators placing it among the very best of contemporary African literature. The book's “clever reversals, dreamlike evocations, surreal efforts and implementation in prose of techniques proper to film,” Sellin remarked, “have caused some admirers to deem it the finest African novel.”
Several critics found a religious symbolism in the novel, with David Cook in Perspectives on African Literature noting that “the book is, of course, cast in the form of a quest—a spiritual quest; though there is nothing pompous, ponderous or moralistic about it.” Likewise, Janheinz Jahn in Introduction to African Literature: An Anthology of Critical Writings from “Black Orpheus,” explained that The Radiance of the King “is usually considered as an ingenious allegory about man's search for God. But I think that the book cannot be seen in this sense only; it is ambivalent, even multivalent.” If Cook's and Jahn's interpretations are correct, then the novel belongs to a tradition at least as old as John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, a spiritual allegory about the life a Christian must live in order to reach Heaven.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
In The Guardian of the Word, Laye spins a tale about Soundiata, the legendary leader of the Mali empire. Here are a few examples of works that attempt to reimagine the myths surrounding legendary figures:
The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970), a collection of poems and short narratives by Michael Ondaatje. This work loosely describes both the myths and the realities of the life of Billy the Kid; the text ultimately suggests that the best thing about the myths that surround Billy the Kid is that they enable people to imagine themselves as the legendary gunslinger.
Grendel (1971), a novel by John Gardner. In this book, Gardner takes the classic epic poem Beowulf and changes the point of view, emphasizing the humanity and sadness of the “monster” whose slaying resulted in Beowulf's fame and fortune.
First Knight (1995), a film directed by Jerry Zucker. This movie offers Lancelot and Guinevere as an ideal match, negating the importance of legendary King Arthur.
Responses to Literature
- Read A Dream of Africa. Laye was exiled because he wrote this book. What do you think Sékou Touré, of whom Laye was critical in A Dream of Africa, was trying to accomplish in exiling the writer? Given that Laye never wrote an overtly political work and stayed out of Guinea after he was exiled, do you think Touré achieved his goals? What do you make of this situation—of Laye's being silenced by Touré?
- You have read the various interpretations of The Radiance of the King. Clearly, although critics agree that the novel is fantastic, they cannot agree on what it means. Now, read the novel. What do you think Laye is trying to say in this novel—about religion, race, the meaning of life, or whatever else you find in the text? Cite specific passages from the text to support your response.
- In The Guardian of the Word, Laye uses the myth and legends surrounding an important figure in African history for fictional purposes. Pick a figure from history and write a story in which you attempt to rethink the legends and myths surrounding your chosen historical figure in a way that makes the legendary figure relevant for today. To see how to do this, read The Guardian of the Word and research the life of Soundiata to see how Laye changed portions of the known history of this figure for his own purposes.
- In many ways, The Radiance of the King and other “stranger in a strange land” narratives emphasize the uniqueness of the cultures they describe—they offer a chance to see one's culture from the eyes of an outsider. Imagine you are trying to describe to a “stranger” the nuances of a cultural experience that is important to you—a wedding or a sporting event are good options. What would you have to explain to this person who has never heard of the wedding practices of your culture and has no idea what the rules of your culture's sports are? Write a story or an essay in which you describe the process of helping this person understand your culture.
Beier, Ulli, ed. Introduction to African Literature: An Anthology of Critical Writings from “Black Orpheus.” Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1967.
Cooke, Michael G. Introduction to Modern BlackNovelists: A Collection of Critical Essays, Edgewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1971.
Heywood, Christopher, ed. Perspectives on African Literature. Teaneck, N.J.: Africana Publishing, 1971.
Irele, Abiola. The African Experience in Literature and Ideology. London: Heinemann, 1981.
King, Adele. The Writings of Camara Laye. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1980.
Larson, Charles R. The Emergence of African Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971.
McEwan, Neil. Africa and the Novel. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1983.
Moore, Gerald. Twelve African Writers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.