The Radiance of the King

by Camara Laye

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Characters Discussed

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Clarence, a bankrupt, middle-aged white man in Africa. His previous occupation is not mentioned. Having lost all of his money and even incurred debts playing cards with his peers, he has been evicted from his hotel and landed in a miserable inn, where he also owes money. Destitute and wholly dependent on Africans in this tribal society, he thinks that he, as a white man, will be admitted to see the king and will be taken into the king’s service. His quest takes him from Adramé, a city of the North, to Aziana, a village of the South, in the company of an old beggar and two young dancing boys. Through painful, strange, and bewildering adventures, Clarence comes slowly to comprehend that his values (money, time, work, rights, and sex) carry no weight here; his color only makes him different from others. The beggar barters him to the Naba, the ruler of the South, for a donkey and a woman. Clarence is used to breed mulattoes through women from the Naba’s harem under the influence of aphrodisiac scents; the discovery that this is what is happening is deeply humiliating to him. When Clarence is stripped of his false pride and values, he does come into the radiance of the king, who draws him into his embrace, the end of his quest.

The beggar

The beggar, a cynical old African in rags who accompanies Clarence to the South. Abrupt in speech, contradictory, sharp, and repetitive, he responds not only to Clarence’s questions and comments but also to his thoughts, interpreting events and sometimes enlightening, sometimes confusing, and sometimes irritating Clarence.


Nagoa (nah-GOH-ah) and


Noaga (noh-AH-gah), young grandsons of the ruler of the South. They are lively and mischievous boy dancers who accompany Clarence and the beggar on the journey to the South, often annoying the beggar and teasing or interpreting for Clarence. In the last scene, Clarence sees them among the chosen who surround the king.

The Master of Ceremonies

The Master of Ceremonies, a hard, legalistic man assigned by the king to organize festivities. It is he who reveals to Clarence that the latter has been sold into slavery and for what purpose.


Akissi (ah-KEHS-see), the African woman who is Clarence’s wife. She comes and goes, waiting on him and doing what he asks. Only as part of the denouement of the story does Clarence learn that she has left their bed each night, to be replaced by a woman from the Naba’s harem.

Samba Baloum

Samba Baloum (SAHM-bah BAH-lewm), a eunuch and guardian of the Naba’s harem. He lets Clarence look inside briefly.


Diallo (dee-AHL-loh), the blacksmith who is trying to forge a perfect ax blade for the king. His dialogue with Clarence helps to clarify some principles.


Dioki (dee-OH-kee), an old village fortune-teller from whom Clarence tries to learn when the king will come. His contact with her and the snakes that surround her fills him with revulsion. He does not receive an answer to his question.

The Characters

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In order to portray Clarence’s quest for spiritual salvation undeterred by cultural conflict, Camara Laye inverts the archetypal story of the African’s alienation in Europe that was begun in his first autobiographical novel, L’Enfant noir (1953; The Dark Child, 1954), and continued in his third novel, Dramouss (1966; A Dream of Africa , 1970). Clarence, however, undergoes much more than a difficult adaptation to an alien culture: He rep-resents an archetypal parody of African history in its subordination to the colonial empires of Europe. Instead of black slaves...

(This entire section contains 860 words.)

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being taken to the New World (the symbolic North of European values), Clarence is sold into slavery in the South. Without understanding language, values, or culture, he is expected to assimilate the customs of a community in which he has no role except reproduction, thus satirizing the Western tendency to associate sensuality with blackness. Simultaneously, it is precisely that sensuality with which Clarence must come to terms, if he is to be saved by the King. His technological contributions, the rational inventions of the towel and shower, are, symbolically, the “cleansing” remnants of the Cartesian categories to which he unsuccessfully tried to cling while in Adrame. Yet, however much the historical exploitation of Africans by the West weighs in the allegory,Clarence, through Laye’s sympathetic, limited point of view, is never mistreated or even labeled a slave. Instead, he enjoys the tolerance and patience of his fellow villagers. He appears to himself to be a beast only when he discovers his role as stud—the Africans treat him with the respect accorded to his humanity.

Gradually, this respect permits Clarence to shed not only his clothes but also his fear of sexuality. Every other person in Aziana has a specific role; as Clarence comes to accept his own participation in the communal harmony of the village, he is less and less egocentric in his disgust at his erotic impulses. From his Western point of view, he is a lecherous sinner; in the tolerant view of the Africans, however, he is creating life, affirming sexuality as the origin of life, which is sacred. Consequently, his shame is genuine, but overcoming his repression is also, because of that shame, the source of the humility which he must have in order to be accepted by the King. Accepting the beauty of open sensuality prepares Clarence, ironically, to believe in the transcendence of the body. To revel without rational constraint in the natural world’s lush vitality is to overcome the very limits of appearance: The last enclosing structure of his mind, his hut of shame, melts away in order to permit Clarence to embrace the grace of the King.

Clarence, then, represents the light that emerges from the spiritual strength of African darkness. His name, unusual at best in French West African fiction, suggests the combination of clarte (clarity, light) and clair (light, lucidity, comprehension) and forms an implicit pun on his white skin. To move from the outcast status of a poor white among Europeans in Adrame to the fusion with the radiance from the King’s gold, symbolic of “the purest kind of love,” is to move from an alienating reason that is based on class hierarchy to a balance between spirit and body that is the radiance of salvation. Clarence, in short, despite the comic digressions resulting from his confused self-identity and cultural ignorance, finds the universal power of human love and overcomes both his racism and his repression.

In his quest, the other characters help Clarence to accept ambiguity, learn tolerance, and comprehend the limits of his own egotism. In the North, the judge adheres strictly to the rules, sentences him, and then celebrates his escape. In the South, the Master of Ceremonies develops the judge’s rigid, legalistic thought, while Samba Baloum provides development for that side of the judge which is jovial companionship. Clarence learns both to reprimand and to laugh at himself. Nagoa and Noaga, perhaps suggesting a parody of the white stereotype that “all blacks look alike,” embody a natural joy in exposing the superficial categories of rational thinking; they consistently undo the Western rigid sense of language. As dancers, they constitute an oral performance that spontaneously disrupts the logic of written texts. As Clarence comes to know the two boys, he perceives acutely the details of nature and culture but with a decreasing need to fit those perceptions into his patterns of moral abstraction. Akissi, who enables the harem women to sleep with him, teaches Clarence that sexuality is sharing rather than possessing love. Each of these characters, however, is human; each is subject, like the beggar, to a mixture of dignity and crudity, kindness and cruelty. While uncorrupted by colonialism, none of the characters is portrayed as an idealistic “noble savage.” Dioki, for example, is demeaning and terrifying even while she provides Clarence with the vision of the King that brings him hope in the midst of his despair. The comic social dynamic of Aziana, rather than idealizing Laye’s characters, reveals the author’s humanistic affirmation of the universal need for grace. All Aziana waits for the King; all need love to quash the xenophobia.


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Deduck, Patricia A. ” Kafka’s Influence on Camara Laye’s Le Regard Du Roi,” in Studies in Twentieth-century Literature. IV (Spring, 1980), pp. 239-255.

Harrow, Kenneth. “A Sufi Interpretation of Le Regard du roi,” in Research in African Literatures. XIV (Summer, 1983), pp. 135-164.

King, Adele. The Writings of Camara Laye, 1981.

Obumselu, Ben. “The French and Moslem Backgrounds of The Radiance of the King,” in Research in African Literatures. XI (Spring, 1980), pp. 1-25.

Salt, M.J. “A Literary (and Social) Context for The Radiance of the King, by Camara Laye,” in Lore and Language. III (1979), pp. 62-72.




Critical Essays