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Kafka and Laye—Literary Influences in “The Radiance of the King”

By The Editors

In this installment of our discussion of The Radiance of the King, Laila talks about the influences at play in Laye's work, the contentious issue of the book's authorship and the ways in which Laye is most like—and unlike—the author he quotes in the epigraph to his book.—Editors

Let us now talk about literary influences in The Radiance of the King. There is a big twist that happens about halfway through the novel. I will not reveal it here for fear of spoiling the book for you, but suffice it to say that this is the sort of thing one comes across often in African tales. Recall that Camara Laye grew up in a small village in Guinea where the tradition of telling stories at night, after a long day's labor, was alive and well. He recounts such experiences in his first novel, The Dark Child, which was loosely autobiographical. His last novel, a retelling of a Malian epic titled The Guardian of the Word, and on which he worked for many years, was based on interviews with local griots, the oral storytellers.

In addition, The Radiance of the King could be said to be an homage to Kafka. It starts with an epigraph from the Czech author, and shares several character types and plot points with Kafka's The Castle. For instance, just like K., our protagonist, Clarence, arrives in a strange village to try to make contact with a higher authority (the Castle for K, the king for Clarence.) K. is assigned two assistants, Arthur and Jeremiah, while Clarence meets the twins Nagoa and Noaga who accompany him on his journey, and into whose village he moves. K. attempts to communicate with the Castle official via Barnabas the Messenger, and Clarence has to trust the character simply known as "the beggar" to lead him to the king. But there are also major stylistic and storytelling differences between the two novels. Whereas Kafka's tone is deeply pessimistic throughout the book, Camara's is laced with humor, and the novel's ending is overtly hopeful and redemptive—one could even make the argument that it's didactic in the way of many oral stories or fables.

This brings me to the question of authorship. As I mentioned in my introduction, the publication of The Radiance of the King barely a year after The Dark Child, the differences in genres between the two books, and the slightly more existential quality of the second novel, have given rise to some questions as to whether Camara really wrote that second book. These rumors appear to be based on allegations by a Belgian critic named Lilyan Kesteloot in a work that was published after Camara's death, and against which he could no longer defend himself. These allegations were later investigated by an American academic, Adele King, who also had to rely on second-hand accounts and hearsay, and who also cast strong doubts on the authorship of the novel.

It bears noting here that the publication of Camara's first two books only one year apart does not mean that they were written in the interval of one year, and in any case one can't hold the speed of publication against the author, since each novelist works at his or her own speed. The surreal quality that some doubtful critics attribute solely to a foreign influence, or more troublingly to a foreign hand, can also be found in many, many African tales. There is, too, a certain repetitiveness in dialogue that can be found throughout the work of Camara Laye, so the allegations don't seem to justify questioning authorship—not any more than, say, for Shakespeare. (For those who would like to read a detailed commentary about the controversy, I would suggest the article "In Search of Camara Laye," by F. Abiola Irele, which appeared in Research in African Literature.) What about you, dear reader? Do you discern any literary references or influences besides the one I've mentioned? Do tell.

Published Dec 17, 2007   Copyright 2007 The Editors

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