Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The Radiance of the King unites the technical elements of African traditional literatures and the modernistic surrealism of the European novel. The society of the archetypal African village evokes the thirteenth century kingdom of Soundiata, and the King resembles the kings of medieval Mali in that the processions and remote governance are, loosely, historically based. Just as the griot, the storyteller-historian, served as the intermediary between ruler and subjects, at whatever level of feudal bureaucracy, Laye mingles dream and fable, present reality and fragmented legend, to ground his novel in the traditional tale. Repetition of phrases and motifs and the use of stock figures such as the trickster (the beggar), the seductress (the dancer), and the unfaithful wife (Akissi) are common characteristics of the oral tradition. In traditional stories, time and place are frequently left unspecified; characters, such as the two boys, Dioki, and the Fish-Women, often undergo metamorphosis, changing because there are no absolute categories of being. Juxtaposed to the traditional fabric of the novel are the comic absurdities of Franz Kafka’s novels, but, while obvious influences and correlations have been cataloged by critics, Laye’s use of Kafka is to transform the nightmares of modern bureaucracy from the pessimism of existentialist anguish into the dreams of an African spirituality that is essentially optimistic about human nature. From the impersonal brutalities of Kafka’s bizarre state Laye creates personal hope within communal harmony.

The influence of not only Kafka but also European surrealism in poetry contributes to but does not limit Laye’s affirmation of the negritude movement’s espousal of African sensuality and harmony with the natural world. Insofar as negritude asserted sensual, emotional well-being as the center of African metaphysics, then Laye’s novel embodies those moral principles as communion among all things, with the primary value bestowed upon the community. Yet unique to The Radiance of the King is its ultimate rejection of negritude’s limits: Race and culture as determinants of value and judgment are undercut by the novel’s emphatic conclusion, which gives superiority to mystical vision and the transcendence of those very values upon which negritude based its aesthetic claims. In a period when negritude dominated African writing, Laye’s genius was to affirm yet question its assumed monopoly over sensual, mystical experience and fiction.