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The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye

The Radiance of the King (1954)

by Camara Laye

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It was a little frustrating and slow for me. I felt the author did a great job of re-creating, in a surrealistic way, the confusion and disorientation and lose of identity that a person feels in entering a totally new culture. But sometimes the conversations seemed to go on quite a long time. I think it is the kind of book that person will come back to after thinking about it for a while and read more carefully. It's a slow, meditative kind of read. ( )
  kaitanya64 | Jan 3, 2017 |
In this book, Camara Laye turns the story of the white man visiting Africa on its head, because the experiences of the somewhat hapless white protagonist are seen not only through his eyes but through the reality of African landscapes and people. Clarence has been shipwrecked in Africa, lost all his money gambling with other white people, been kicked out of the white hotel, and is on the verge of also being kicked out of a dirty and decrepit African inn for nonpayment when, in the midst of a celebration linked to the king's arrival in town, he meets a beggar and a pair of teenage rascals. They take him in hand, help him out of a jam when he gets arrested, and allow him to accompany them to the south where, eventually, the king will probably show up, as Clarence believes that, largely because he is white, he can get a job working for the king. Thus begins the tale of Clarence's travels through the forests and his experiences in the town in the south where he winds up and where he is given a job that he doesn't understand.

And much of this book is really about Clarence's lack of understanding or, more accurately, his inability to see what is readily apparent to the Africans around him. From the original town, where buildings seem to fade away, to the forest, where he feels walled in by the trees and thinks he's being led around in circles, to the town he winds up in, where he has difficulty distinguishing women from each other, Clarence simply can't see what's in front of his eyes. He also can't hear the music and drumming and thinks it's all the same, and is overwhelmed by smells. He thinks people are making fun of his inability to understand their perspective. While the African landscape and town come alive in Camara's writing, as do some vivid characters, much of the book is also symbolic, for example Clarence's inability to stay awake as he his traveling through the forest and his need to be supported by the teenagers (who turn out to be the grandsons of the ruler of the town they end up in) -- Clarence is literally sleep-walking. Towards the end of the book, Clarence starts having dreams and visions in which what is really going on becomes clear to him although he still believes he is dreaming.

This book is more complex than I can really convey. On the surface, it is the story of Clarence's adventures and misadventures, but there is a lot more depth to it in terms of the nature of perception and openness to experience. A lot of it is very funny too, as there is a satiric aspect to it as well. I gained some insight into this book from the introduction by Toni Morrison to my NYRB edition.
9 vote rebeccanyc | Jan 24, 2014 |
Started great; middle was way slow and terribly confusing; end was okay. Less than half-way through I felt like I was reading "The Castle" and several of Kafka's short stories set in the tropics. A 4 star for winding everyting together and setting the scene in a different area; not 4 stars because the writing just wasn't that goo. ( )
1 vote ebethe | Jan 2, 2009 |
This is an odd book, very odd, that kind of defies description. I falls broadly into the category of books written specifically to challenge European ideas about concepts such as ‘race’, ‘civilisation’ and ‘Africa’. To this end it is comparable with books such as ‘Things Fall Apart’ or ‘Heart of Darkness’. However, Camara’s book is a weird mix of farcical events, hallucinogenic interludes and quasi-religious moralising. It follows Clarence, a white European who finds himself broke and destitute in a West African nation. He goes in search of employment with the king, assuming his white skin will mark his superiority and elevate him above the natives. However, his hopes of an audience recede as he is manipulated and deceived by those around him, events which eventually puncture his certainties about his innate European superiority.
The two books I mention above have a subtlety of approach that is entirely lacking from ‘The Radiance of the King’. Books that challenge preconceptions are always welcome, but Clarence’s preconceptions are that whites are better than blacks, and that everyone (white and black) should accept this. This is something of a caricature of contemporary racial attitudes (at least in the environment I am in), so the effort put in to challenging it seemed a little silly. Other scenarios involve him fleeing the police through the streets lead by a bare-chested women who, when Clarence expresses worry about being recognised, tells him not to worry because everyone would be looking at her breasts. This was presumably designed to challenge the newsreel idea that African women were habitually topless. And again he is duped into sleeping with a different woman every night, believing that they are all the same person, presumably because they all look the same to him. The book was written in the 1950s, and sets out to challenge a 1950s brand of racism which, while I am not naïve enough to believe that nobody still has those ideas, didn’t resonate with me today.
The farcical storey line, and tone, didn’t engage me, but just when I thought my attention was slipping away the book would transform into weird hallucinogenic scenarios that were, to say the least, bizarrely placed and executed. The book would earn 5 stars for uniqueness, but possibly only 1 for focus. It was an interesting reading experience, and one which I’m glad I had, but I still can’t make my mind up whether or not I actually enjoyed it.
3 vote GlebtheDancer | Nov 8, 2007 |
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» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Camara Layeprimary authorall editionscalculated
Kirkup, JamesTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Morrison, ToniIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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When Clarence reached the esplanade he found his way blocked by such a vast, dense crowd that at first he felt it would be impossible to get through.
"Am I not a white man?" cried Clarence.
"The white men do not come here, on the esplanade!" retorted the black man, using the same abrupt tone of voice as he had used before.
"No, this esplanade would not be the place for white men to put in an appearance," Clarence thought bitterly. "They wouldn't let themselves be shoved around by all these black men; they would more likely be sitting in their villas, where it was cool, or else playing cards and sipping iced drinks on the veranda of the hotel."
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0940322587, Paperback)

At the beginning of this masterpiece of African literature, Clarence, a white man, has been shipwrecked on the coast of Africa. Flush with self-importance, he demands to see the king, but the king has just left for the south of his realm. Traveling through an increasingly phantasmagoric landscape in the company of a beggar and two roguish boys, Clarence is gradually stripped of his pretensions, until he is sold to the royal harem as a slave. But in the end Clarence’s bewildering journey is the occasion of a revelation, as he discovers the image, both shameful and beautiful, of his own humanity in the alien splendor of the king

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:11 -0400)

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NYRB Classics

2 editions of this book were published by NYRB Classics.

Editions: 0940322587, 1590174550

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