WWB Book Club: The Radiance of the King
As I mentioned a few days ago, Words Without Borders has asked me to lead a book club discussion of Camara Laye’s The Radiance of the King. My first post is already up on their site. Here’s how it starts:
When my friend Mark Sarvas introduced his book club discussion of Sándor Márai’s The Rebels, he wrote that “as an American of Hungarian descent, taking on Márai was an obvious and overdue choice for me.” I confess to a very similar bias in my own choice. When I was presented with a list of books to pick from, I naturally gravitated to a novel by a fellow African, in this case Camara Laye, whose Radiance of the King I had not read before. Generally speaking, African authors who write in French, or indeed in any of the native languages of Africa such as Gikuyu or Berber or Swahili, are not nearly as known or read in the United States as those who write in English. So the opportunity to discuss Camara Laye was also an opportunity for me to invite readers to consider a different African book and a different African author than those with whom they may already be familiar.
Camara Laye was born in 1928 in Kouroussa, a small village of Guinea, which at that time was under French occupation. He attended Qur’anic school as well as elementary school in his village, but moved to Conakry, the capital, in order to continue his education. In 1947, he moved to Paris to attend engineering school. His experience of double dislocation—from his village to the city, from Guinea to France—appears to have inspired in him a deep nostalgia for home. His first novel, the semi-autobiographical L’Enfant noir (usually translated as The Dark Child), was published in 1953, and was met with a mixture of admiration and hostility: Admiration for Camara’s storytelling skills, and hostility for his depiction of an idyllic village childhood at a time when the country was under colonial rule. These reactions remind me of those reserved for Moroccan novelist Ahmed Sefroui’s La Boîte à merveilles, published in 1954, and which also depicted a happy childhood under/despite French rule. Some scholars today may consider both novels ethnographic works, while others may emphasize the tribute they pay to ways of life later disrupted by French rule.
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