The Radiance of the King

by Camara Laye

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Opening in medias res, The Radiance of the King is narrated in the third person but from the point of view of Clarence, a white man whose limited perceptions reveal ironic discrepancies between what he experiences and what he comprehends. He waits for the black “king of kings” in the midst of a crowded esplanade in Adrame, a fictional African city in the North, hoping that he can find employment in the King’s service. Gradually, the novel relates Clarence’s background. He was nearly shipwrecked while crossing a reef to enter this unnamed country; reaching Adrame, he then lost his money by gambling with other Europeans, resulting in his humiliating eviction from a European hotel and his subsequent residence in a ramshackle African inn where he also cannot pay his bills. While waiting for the King to make his rare ceremonial appearance, Clarence meets an old black beggar and two unruly boys, Nagoa and Noaga, whom he cannot tell apart. When Clarence expresses his desire to have an audience with the King, the beggar dismisses the request as impossible. Clarence responds by asserting his presumed superiority: “I am not ‘just anybody.’... I am a white man.”

The beggar, however, seems indifferent; white men are not permitted to see the King and do not usually mingle with the natives. When the King appears, Clarence is overwhelmed with awe at the sight of a frail, white-robed, gold-braceleted boy. Clarence accepts the beggar’s offer to plead his case before the King, but while the beggar is gone, Clarence hears screams. Nagoa claims that they come from the King’s sacrifices of his unfaithful subjects, although Noaga says that the cries come from devoted subjects, who alone are worthy of sacrifice. When the beggar returns, having failed to gain an audience for Clarence, he responds to Clarence’s confusion by denying that there have even been any screams or sacrifices. Unable to clarify the events in which he is enmeshed, Clarence, obsessed with seeing the King, agrees to accompany the beggar to the South, where the King is expected to make his next appearance.

Returning to the inn to retrieve Clarence’s clothes, the party shares a feast and gets drunk on palm wine. During the conversation, Clarence perceives only ambiguity and nonsense in the Africans’ customs; nevertheless, he is determined to see the King, and he is too mortified by his debts to re-turn to the Europeans. Because Clarence cannot pay his bills, he reluctantly settles his account by surrendering his suit coat to the innkeeper. As the party prepares to depart for the South, Clarence is arrested for theft. The trial proceeds from one absurd non sequitur to another, while Clarence at-tempts to use rational persuasion to argue his innocence yet fails. Un-known to him, the boys have stolen back his coat, but Clarence’s self-defense is regarded as evidence that he is inherently a liar and should therefore be imprisoned. Panic-stricken, Clarence allows the beggar to help him escape. Just as he is about to be apprehended by the guards after a wild chase through “the street of Africa,” Clarence is rescued by a topless dancer who offers him sanctuary in her home. Her father, Clarence realizes, is the judge from his trial, but the judge acts as if there had never been a trial. He hosts a jovial feast before Clarence, the beggar, and the boys depart on their journey to the South.

As far as Clarence is concerned, the travelers wander for days in circles through a dense rain forest. Disoriented by the odor of tropical plants that seem to drug him, he almost...

(This entire section contains 1154 words.)

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gives up hope of ever seeing the King when they arrive at Aziana, a village surrounded by the forest. The local ruler, the Naba, is the boys’ grandfather; seemingly, he generously provides Clarence with a hut and a wife, Akissi, while the visitor waits for the King. Actually, however, the beggar has traded with the Naba; in exchange for an old woman and a donkey, the beggar has sold Clarence as a stud to the Naba’s harem. Each night, Clarence is drugged by the scent of white flowers and fails to realize that he sleeps with a different woman from the harem. Gradually, through friendships with Samba Baloum, the eunuch who supervises the harem, Akissi, who treats him as she would an African man, and the boys, Clarence becomes part of village life, shedding his clothes, learning to weave, and inventing towels and a shower. He does not, however, understand his role, and he feels ashamed of his sexual appetite and lack of work.

Jealous of Clarence’s sexual prowess, the Naba’s humorless Master of Ceremonies reveals to Clarence his actual role. Yet even after Clarence sees the many mulatto children in the harem, he refuses to accept the truth. The Master of Ceremonies is punished for telling Clarence about his secret role, but Clarence, failing once more to comprehend any logic in African justice, stops the public whipping out of pity. Rather than admire Clarence’s compassion, the villagers, including the Master of Ceremonies, consider Clarence’s intervention a travesty of justice: By disrupting the sentence, he has undermined the completion of justice, thereby creating lingering shame for the Master of Ceremonies and introducing guilt into the village as a whole for failing to sustain its principles.

Understanding finally that he cannot alleviate his self-revulsion for being the village stud by disrupting the rituals of Aziana, Clarence feels unworthy to see the King, should he ever come. He does not understand, moreover, why Diallo, the blacksmith, is making his finest ax for the King, who, in fact, may not even want it. Clarence slips deeper into depression and confusion, dreaming of Fish-Women who pursue him. In desperation because of his obsession to see the King, yet seized by his own sense of degradation, he visits Dioki, a sorceress who lives with snakes. She agrees to show him the future, and, while she couples erotically with her snakes, Clarence has a vision of the King beginning his tour to Aziana.

In Clarence’s confusion of dream and reality, he becomes certain only of the King’s arrival. Goaded by the Master of Ceremonies, he convinces himself that he is unworthy to see the King, that he is sinful and useless. When the King does arrive, Clarence hides naked in his hut. As the King receives his subjects and accepts their gifts, Clarence cannot bring himself to look at him for long. Then, suddenly, Clarence senses that the King’s eyes are searching for him. He begins to walk toward the King; the walls of his hut having “melted away,” Clarence, “ravaged by the tongue of fire, but alive still,” kneels before the King. Beckoning Clarence to come closer, the King opens his arms, and Clarence kisses his heart while the King embraces him “for ever.”