Camara Laye Essay - Critical Essays

Laye, Camara

Laye, Camara 1928–

Laye, a native of Guinea, is a novelist and short story writer writing in French. He is considered a leader in contemporary African literature.

In The Dark Child Camara Laye shows his understanding and respect for African traditions, and in The Radiance of the King he makes this tradition work on a stranger.

In The Dark Child Camara Laye shows the new spirit of French West Africans towards tradition. He did not consider his African childhood as something remote, primitive, something to be ashamed of. On the contrary: looking back on it from a distance, and having learned the technical skills European education had to offer, he discovered these skills had been animated, and had been more closely related to man, in his native civilisation….

[The Radiance of the King] is full of symbolism. It 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, as Sénghor says of all African art. Clarence, a European, finds himself without the help and support of his countrymen in an African environment. He is without money, without hope of outside help. He is thrown exactly into that position in which many Africans often find themselves in the European world. He has to conform. And thus he gradually becomes initiated. The whole book can be considered as a lesson in African wisdom….

Noaga and Nagoa, the two boys who accompany Clarence all the time, are neither good nor bad. At any time they take their chance; they steal where there is an opportunity. Clarence is often worried about them, at times he is shocked, at times compelled to admire. They never consider life too seriously. There is no question whether they are to be redeemed by the King or not. "Tomorrow we go with the King," they say. Their redemption is not a question of good or evil, they cannot be rejected by the King, because already they live life as a unity. Clarence on the other hand can only be redeemed after he has learned that his moral problems are not essential. This is one of the strongest arguments against the Christian interpretation of the end of the book….

The end of the novel, often misunderstood, means that even the white man in Africa can be redeemed and accepted when he shows his will to learn and not only to teach. And that Camara Laye in all his lessons does not consider the African way of faith and redemption the only one imaginable and superior. He wants to say that it is the only right way for Africa and that it is of equal value with an other way of mankind.

Janheinz Jahn, "Camara Laye: Another Interpretation," in Introduction to African Literature: An Anthology of Critical Writings from "Black Orpheus," edited by Ulli Beier, Northwestern University Press, 1967, pp. 200-03.

Camara Laye has employed symbolism as an extremely positive medium….

The fact that his characters are likeable and like each other is crucial to the positive quality of Laye's symbolism…. While we do observe the terrors and degradation to which human flesh is heir, we are concerned in [Le Regard du Roi, translated as The Radiance of the King] with far more than a mere psychological morass. Instead of being asked to remark with horrified surprise that human beings are more vicious and malicious, that the individual is more completely ostracized than we had suspected, we are constantly startled by the opposite discoveries: that in spite of all the obstacles in the way of human relationships, men do make contact with each other.

The characters say what they really think and what they really feel. Laye uses the style he has adopted to eliminate social convention and formal restrictions which obscure in every-day relations the truth that is in each heart. But this frankness does not lead in Laye's world, as one might expect, to anger or resentment. When the characters learn what other characters are actually thinking about them, this does not engender a sullen animosity or a self-defensive counter-attack. Rock-bottom truthfulness leads to a plain answer, and so the statement of what in our actual society is concealed by pseudo-politeness and cynical pretence, becomes the route to real communication….

[If] human beings are likeable, and illogical human behaviour can be as surprisingly attractive in its ramifications as unattractive, and if the symbolic method here reveals to us not so much the primitive bestiality of humanity but rather its unexpected niceness in many situations, then it is easy to understand how Camara Laye is able to use this mode to examine the positive potentials of the extremely complicated pattern of existence which human beings have presented to them….

The Radiance of the King is a very serious work but it is the opposite of tragedy. Clarence questions the whole basis of his existence. He doubts his own worthiness, but these doubts prove to be unfounded. The exact nature of what Clarence doubts about himself is, I think, of great interest. The book raises the question of how one human being justifies his social existence among other human beings….

[Though] the racial issue finds a place in the whole pattern, colour is primarily used in The Radiance of the King as a symbolic representation of man's individual separateness. Certainly the racial issue is resolved as part of the larger harmony which is achieved. Because he learns to accept both his environment and himself, Clarence is himself accepted. This is narrowly relevant to the white man's need to accept his relationship to humanity as a whole; but it ultimately portrays the universal necessity for every man, whatever his colour, to come to terms with his total environment—and, again, with himself….

Camara Laye seems to escape from all the preconceptions belonging to most of our approaches to the subject of religion, and genuinely to make a reassessment. He asks crucial questions with a refreshing openness—such questions as: What is an adequate god figure? What is the relationship between the human and the superhuman? What are we to understand by worthiness? And, as I say, I believe he has got as near as anyone to free himself from preconceived assumptions.

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. In some senses it is a picaresque novel: it is a journey book like Henry Fielding's novels or Mission to Kala. But it is a specific journey, a search. And the search might be compared to the quest for the holy grail—the great myth of early Christendom. The book is profoundly religious yet genuinely without any established dogma; and in this it is very much a book of the twentieth-century world as a whole; a book which perhaps had to emanate from Africa because Europeans cannot escape from the obsessive religious patterns which they are involved either in accepting or rejecting….

The Radiance of the King withdraws from all convention, cliché and sentimentality, and yet is not afraid of using fundamental words, like love, in their full sense. Camara Laye is concerned to re-establish a true link between the idea of love and the idea of religion…. The concept of love with which Camara Laye is concerned is the monopoly of no particular religion and no particular race. It is, after all, a white man who is accepting the absolute appropriateness of a black god figure, but within a pattern of symbolism which finally frees us from the limitations of colour and the limitations of race.

David Cook, "The Relevance of the King in Camara Laye's 'Le Regard du Roi'," in Perspectives on African Literature, edited by Christopher Heywood (copyright © 1971 by University of Ife; published in the United States in 1971 by Africana Publishing Company, a Division of Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc. and reprinted by permission), Africana, 1971, pp. 138-47.

[A] "trapped" portrayal of the African who has been assimilated, and then found it impossible to accept his own traditional culture, has played a part in a number of … significant Francophone African works: … [including] Camara Laye's autobiography, L'Enfant noir (The African Child) (1953)….

[It] is with Laye that the picture of the "assimilated" novelist takes on its most significant twist: the négritude novel. Usually négritude is thought of as a poetic movement, but in the works by Camara Laye, African cultural values have been so thoroughly woven into the novel's form that the result is a kind of assimilated presentation of African values, African traditional life: négritude. The result is a much more unified introduction of anthropological materials into the texture of the novel itself, rather than the inclusion of ethnographical background in isolated passages. The African cultural values have been so deftly handled in the works of Camara Laye that the reader is almost unaware that they are there. It is this use of what I call "assimilated anthropology" that, I believe, is the major distinction between the Francophone African novelist and the Anglophone African novelist, for the Francophone writer has remained much closer to the French classical tradition, changing the novel in fewer ways than his Anglophone counterpart, and, as a result, has produced a more intellectualized concept of African traditions, values, and life….

L'Enfant noir is undoubtedly one of the most significant works by an African writer and certainly the most readable autobiography by a writer from tropical Africa. It is also, I feel, an illustration of Laye's early attempts at unifying cultural materials into a coherent artistic achievement. Anthropological materials are introduced into the narrative, yet, for the most part, they are left unexplained. Laye wants the reader to accept them at face value, and admits that he often has no explanation for the unusual happenings he has recorded…. The clear, matter-of-fact tone records incident after incident in the child's growing awareness of the Islamic/animistic world around him. By the end of the narrative, the reader feels an immense sense of personal loss at a way of life which has rapidly come to a halt. L'Enfant noir is a beautiful account of traditional African life, as delicately wrought as a Dürer engraving, a detailed tableau of the paradise Laye knew in his youth and later lost.

Dramouss, Laye's third book, published in 1966, is a sequel to L'Enfant noir, and the most striking element, that immediately jolts the reader, is the harshness of the book when it is compared to Laye's first work. The softness, the sense of oneness and wholeness expressed in the earlier book is missing in Dramouss, which is ostensibly concerned with Laye's life in France and his return to Guinea after living several years in Paris. Laye's interest here is in politics in post-independent Guinea—in the failures of the African regime to live up to the pre-independence promises. As such, this work moves beyond the sense of the personal, which was so vitally important in L'Enfant noir, to a concern with problems of nationhood, nationalism, and political charlatanism, resulting in one of the most scathing commentaries on African political institutions written by a Francophone African writer. The publication of Dramouss also led to Laye's forced exile from Guinea to Senegal.

Le regard du roi (The Radiance of the King), which was first published in 1954, is, in the view of several critics of African literature, the greatest of all African novels. The novel has won this distinction, it seems, because of Laye's ideal assimilation of African materials into the novel form. As has so frequently been the concern with African novelists, Laye too is outwardly at least concerned with the conflict between African and Western civilization, yet his treatment in Le regard du roi is unlike any other we have seen. His main character is not African but European, and instead of recording the conflicts that an African encounters in his exposure to the West, Laye, in this lengthy novel, has reversed the usual pattern and presented a European and his difficulty in coming to grips with Africa. Laye's story goes far beyond this, however, for it is not simply a confrontation which ends in confusion or tragedy, but a story which begins in chaos and ends in understanding, grace, and beauty. The white man may be the protagonist, but Africa is the antagonist. It is the hero's ability to comprehend the magnitude and the complexity of the African experience—to realize that his own culture has little significance at all—which leads us to a basic aspect of what Senghor has seen as the final evolutionary stage of cultural syncretism—"reformed négritude," a kind of world culture which embodies the best of all cultures. Instead of being destroyed in the process, or trapped forever between two cultures like Medza in Mission terminée, Laye's hero becomes assimilated into the African culture and through this process achieves salvation….

[The] final paragraphs of Le regard du roi constitute one of the most beautiful passages in all African literature. The reader coming upon this ending for the first time cannot help being deeply affected, deeply startled….

If Laye spells out his meaning a little too clearly at the end—and I do not believe that he actually does—this, too, as the reader thinks back over the entire novel, may be interpreted as part of a wider fabric textured with ideas of grace and salvation which are present almost from the very beginning of the narrative. There are any number of indications throughout the story that death can be the only fulfillment for Clarence, a final union with the king and Africa. The only major differences I see in Laye's Le regard du roi when it is placed next to Anglophone African fiction are an absence of direct transformation of oral literary materials into the text of the story, and a more limited sense of the situational aspect of African fiction. Nevertheless, it can be argued that Camara Laye's Le regard du roi is of all African novels that which fits best into the situational category, since 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.

Charles R. Larson, "Assimilated Négritude: Camara Laye's 'Le regard du roi'," in his The Emergence of African Fiction, Indiana University Press, 1971, pp. 167-226.

L'Enfant Noir [The African Child] is the story of young Camara Laye in the background of upper Guinea where he lived with his family and friends. It's a very self-centred novel. One is surprised to see that there is nothing in that novel which comes from outside; there is no influence of the conflicting cultures in the background which must have existed in Conakry at the time. There is no shock of impact between the consciousness of the child and his environment in Laye's relationship to his surroundings. His psyche is very much a product of the young boy's growing up in a very well organized traditional society. The main issue flowing from this is a criticism that Camara Laye has not at all dealt with the problems created by the French system of colonization….

And yet somehow, one would have thought that the novel L'Enfant Noir by its very closed atmosphere, by the fact that it excludes all talk about a foreign culture, by the fact that there isn't a single European in it (there are no elements of antagonism, culturally speaking), would be the strongest justification for Negritude and for its advocates to welcome the book in that it states that there is a stable society existing independent of Western influences and in that it demonstrates that. This is a viable system: the society within itself caters for every aspect of the social life of the village.

L'Enfant Noir is followed up by Camara Laye's second novel Le Regard du Roi, which is translated as The Radiance of the King. Here we meet Clarence, a European who is bankrupt—and this, for a white man in Africa, is a terrible thing to happen. He finds that he hasn't any means of earning a living, and the only hope for him lies in working in the court of the king. But this is not as easy as one would have thought, because every task has its spiritual significance. Being a foreigner, he finds that he has not got the understanding, the feeling for simple tasks like, for example, being a drummer…. He has to adapt himself to a new society, a society which does not need him in any way, a society whose conceptions of life, of the value of life and the values in life are completely different from his own. In the end, Clarence's search for the king with whom he hopes to hold an audience 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….

This is a very significant part of Camara Laye's thought if we follow it from L'Enfant Noir. There is this very dense atmosphere of self-sufficiency in his traditional African location. We feel that the European is shocked by the fact that there is a self-sufficient society and that he has to conform to it within its limits if he is to survive….

Camara Laye's third novel Dramouss [translated as A Dream of Africa] which has just come out, is mainly a diatribe against the political errors of President Sekou Touré, and I don't think it concerns us very much here. We can see his first two novels are a very positive assertion of his own identity. He lays open a challenge to anyone who is foreign to it to accept this identity for what it is, to try to understand it, and then to seek to merge the two—as when Clarence is finally received by the king.

One could suggest that Clarence is going to be absorbed into the society. That could mean Western civilization is going to be absorbed into Africa—which I rather doubt—or that the spiritual development of a being is the ultimate factor in juding humanity, and not race, colour, religion or political ideology. I think it would mean more likely that Camara Laye did not talk about hunger just accidentally. He meant, probably, that there is a lot that is complementary between the two cultures. Unless one is prepared to see the African traditional heritage for what it is, as something separate, independent, self-sufficient, and, unless from that point of view, one tries to understand, and cooperate with, the African, unless this is done, there is no hope of there ever being a fruitful meeting point between the two. From the point of view of assimilation, it is suggested that there should be an assimilation in reverse. The European has to become, to a certain extent, a part of the African society in order to understand it; whereas in the actual political situation, the African has always had to become a part of the European mainstream in order to understand it and create the synthesis, the balance.

Jeannette Macaulay, "The Idea of Assimilation: Mongo Beti and Camara Laye," in Modern Black Novelists: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Michael G. Cooke, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971, pp. 132-41.