Monday, August 14, 2017

The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye

"The king is coming!" she said, suddenly raising her arms.

"People have been telling me that for years and years," said Clarence.

"But this time, he really is coming!  He is leaving his palace, and he is coming.  He is sitting on his steed, and his pages are all riding beside him and all his vassals are making way for him.  The great red cloud is rising straight into the sky, rising high and straight as a pillar, and covering the whole sky... Do you follow me, you poor white man?  The king is on his way.  He no longer gets ready to come: he has already started!  He is coming!"

Clarence is a white man in Africa.  He's a penniless white man in Africa, on the run from his gambling debts, and cast out of genteel white society, but he thinks because of his whiteness he'll be able to find an audience with the king, who will provide him some kind of employment.  He befriends an old beggar, who says he will help succor the king, but whose intervention fails, leading them to go south where they expect the king will visit next.  There, Clarence waits for years, enduring the boredom and repetitiveness and inscrutability--as he sees it--of West African society, all hoping that the next day will be the one where the king finally returns and grants him an audience.

The Guinean Camara Laye makes a bold choice to write this novel from the perspective of a white man.  At its most basic level, Clarence is a parody of the protagonists Africa novels written by white men like Hemingway, Conrad, and Saul Bellow.  He hears the drumbeats in the public squares of the towns as indeterminate noise, unable to "read" the messages they pronounce.  He suspects the beggar of walking in circles through the jungles each day on their journey to the South, depositing him in the same hut every night.  He fails to differentiate between the two scampish young boys who are their traveling companions--though the fact that their names are Noaga and Naoga probably doesn't help.  In the southern town of Aziana, where he waits for the king, he fails to realize even after years--years!--that the women who visit him in the night are all different members of the town magistrate's harem, and not the wife he's been provided.  For similar reasons, he fails to understand where all the half-white children in the town have come from ("They get darker as they grow older," he's told), or that the beggar has sold him to the magistrate as a slave.

Camara's point seems clear enough: there's a lot of nonsense about the "dark heart of Africa" from white men who either refuse to take the time to understand it, or because they need the symbolic darkness of Africa as a canvas on which to paint their own normative whiteness.  (This is Achebe's exact point about Heart of Darkness.)  But I'm struck by the bravery of Camara choosing to abandon his own subjectivity as a Guinean to inhabit a mind as idiotic and priggish as Clarence's, even declining to name the African nation where the book is set.  From Clarence's eyes, after all, it's all the same.  Even to satirize the "white gaze," that must have been difficult.

The results owe a lot to Kafka, but the faceless bureaucracy that controls the lives of men is replaced by a symbolic Africa that Clarence is forced to inhabit but in which he can never find rest.  The Radiance of the King is often surreal, as when Clarence has a vision of being adrift in a river, hemmed in on all sides by women with the faces of fish (are they manatees, as his friends insist, or is this another dupe?), or when he visits a fortuneteller who operates by having sexual intercourse with snakes.  In Kafka the state always wins because power is so imbalanced; for Camara, the Kafkaeseque is a consequence of an inversion of power--if the white man could only listen, and see, what might is life in Africa be like?

At the end, Clarence is aghast at the life he realizes he's been living, as a prostitute and a slave.  When the king arrives, he feels too ashamed to request the audience he's been awaiting for years.  He hides, naked, in his own hut.  But the king--a slender young man who walks through the town like a god--seeks Clarence out with his eyes, rests his gaze on Clarence, and calls him out of his hut.  I don't want to apply Western, white, or Christian readings where they're not warranted, but I was amazed by how much this read to me--a Western white Christian--as a Christian allegory of total depravity and indiscriminate grace.  Perhaps that's wrong.  But it does seem like a message of hope in a postcolonial world: a white man, shook free of his pretensions once and for all, called into reconciliation by the spirit not of the Africa he's imagined but the Africa that is.

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