The Radiance of the King, by Camara Laye, arrived in my mailbox one day, courtesy of some benefactor. Its unaggressive length (279 pages) enticed me just to pick it up and read it, and now I’m eager for time to allow me to read it again.
The story concerns Clarence, a shiftless and fairly useless white guy, adrift in Africa. Blinded and befuddled by haughtiness, ensnared in gambling debts, Clarence demands to be brought to the King, into whose service Clarence assumes he will be taken. Several roguish African guides conduct Clarence south, where the King is expected to appear, some day. And in the village where Clarence is parked to wait for the King, Clarence is sold, for a use – historically hilarious – that we come to understand much sooner than he himself does.
Justice, humility, self-deception, degradation, grace, the acquisition of some small wisdom, and the complex relationships between them are among the matters that are explored, with great subtlety, over the course of Clarence’s journey, but no description of the book’s content nor speculation on its purposes can begin to suggest the pleasure of reading it. This resides in the author’s wit, charm, finesse, and originality, and in his elegant, vividly imagistic prose, gorgeous even in translation from its original French, shining and breathing with vitality.
Camara Laye was 26, we learn from Toni Morrison’s introduction to this New York Review of Books reissue, when he wrote Le Regard du Roi. It is his only work of fiction, though he wrote autobiographical works, journalism, and plays. He was born in Guinea, studied automobile engineering in France, and died at the age of 52.
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