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Tarnished radiance?

Essay | 20 minute read
A Guinean writer impressed his peers with a book that combined African and European literary traditions - until its authorship came into question. The strange case of Camara Laye

Far across the sea-wide river, the tower-blocks of Kinshasa flashed in blue and purple neon against the night. On our side of the Congo, we sat in a riverside restaurant in Brazzaville and talked as the tree frogs croaked loudly all around. European divide-and-rule imperialism in Africa has left few stranger legacies than this watery landscape. Capital of the compact Republic of Congo, Brazzaville in parts still has the leafy, laid-back air of a French provincial city transplanted to the tropics.

Just over the huge river, Kinshasa – once Léopoldville, where Belgium ran the hellish slave-state colony that later became the Democratic Republic of Congo – has exploded into a seething megalopolis. I had travelled to Brazzaville for a literary festival co-organised by the Franco-Congolese novelist and memoirist Alain Mabanckou. He had planned the programme as an uncommon – perhaps unique – meeting-place for writers drawn from the French-, English- and Portuguese-speaking countries of Africa. Literature, in Mabanckou’s perspective, might help to heal entrenched divisions.

So it was that I sat beside the Congo and heard a novelist from the DRC reminisce brilliantly about his exploits across the river, amid those shining towers. In Koli Jean Bofane recalled how, as a young man in the big city with no capital except his wits, he had built up a liquid-soap business in the skyscrapers of Kinshasa – and then taken over the management of one of those blocks. Without rancour, as the river churned and the frogs rasped, he mused that people in the West (and that includes writers) ‘have it easy. They don’t have to fight.’

After his adventures in Kinshasa, as an émigré in Belgium, Bofane had to fight again to forge a literary career. Mathématiques Congolaises, his first novel for adults, is a coming-of-age story about a street-smart scamp in Kinshasa, Celio. He tries to apply the maths he loves to the ordeals of urban life. Quantum mechanics meets slumland Bildungsroman as Celio plots the upward curve of his career. Mathématiques Congolaises came out in French in 2008, and won a clutch of prizes. However, you can’t read it in English: there is no translation. Indeed, In Koli Jean Bofane only acquired visibility in the English-reading world in 2018, when a US academic press published a translation of his satire Congo Inc: Bismarck’s Testament.

Europe’s nineteenth-century carve-up of Africa – cultural and linguistic as much as political and economic – means that the cartographies of empire still determine much of what we know, and what we read. In the wake of stellar successes such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Anglophone authors of West Africa – above all, of Nigeria – now have a fairer wind to blow them towards the markets of the English-speaking world. But imperial demarcations still erect barriers that make it tough for any Francophone author to cross those old lines.

Mabanckou, who teaches at UCLA in Los Angeles and has won warm plaudits for his fiction in translation, has very few counterparts today. Among French-language African authors of the twentieth century, several illustrious names have either fallen out of print or else gained very few translations in the first place: Ahmadou Kourouma from Ivory Coast; Ousmane Sembène from Senegal; Sony Labou Tansi from Congo-Kinshasa. In Brazzaville, I met Henri Lopès: not only a giant of Congolese writing but, briefly, prime minister of the independent Republic of Congo. His landmark satirical novel of African autocracy, Le Pleurer-rire, was translated in 1987 as The Laughing Cry – but you’ll have to venture deep into the second-hand bush to find it now. Thanks to its adoption on US college courses, Mariama Bâ’s feminist classic from Senegal, So Long a Letter, has survived in English. It’s a rare exception. For the most part, the Anglophone world appreciates the African nations of ‘La Francophonie’ as a nursery of great footballers – the Drogbas, the Tourés, the Eto’os, the Adebayors – not of great authors.

When I set out to select the titles discussed my book The 100 Best Novels in Translation, those days and nights in Brazzaville came vividly to mind. Insofar as available translations would allow, I wanted at least a couple of my choices to reflect the rich currents of French-language fiction that have flowed out of Africa over the past century. The virtual disappearance, in English, of figures such as Lopès and Sembène made it a frustrating task. Still, Mariama Bâ had endured thanks to the overhauling of student syllabi. And I already knew that another French African masterwork I remembered fondly had a secure place on one well respected classics list.

This book was The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye. Published in Paris in 1954, Le regard du roi is the second work signed by Camara Laye. A young writer born to a Malinké family of blacksmiths in Upper Guinea in 1928, Laye (his given name; ‘Camara’ is his clan) had first come to France on an automobile engineering scholarship in 1947. Laye’s 1953 debut, The Dark Child (L’enfant noir), had attracted attention and acclaim in France. Its poised and sensitive narrative tells of a boy’s progress from the traditional village life of his childhood through adolescence as a student in Conakry – capital of Guinea – until the eve of his departure for France. Subtly pitched between fiction and memoir, artfully shaped but manifestly rooted in personal experience, The Dark Child tempers a young man’s journey of self-discovery with aching nostalgia for the rural ways, with their harmonious blend of Islamic and animist beliefs, that he leaves behind as ‘the world rolls on’. Change in Africa erodes traditions so that ‘we are ceasing to be what we were’.

Apart from its – slightly disconcerting – strain of lyrical conservatism, The Dark Child recognisably counts as a promising first book: the bittersweet record of a voyage towards self-fulfilment that brings loss in its train. In 1954, scarcely a year afterwards, Laye followed it with The Radiance of the King. Still in his mid-twenties, the technician-writer from Guinea had now, in seemed, blossomed into a fully-fledged modernist. He tapped into existentialist, mystical and even Surrealist styles and themes in an eerie fable that upends the stereotypical yarn of a white man lost in the ‘dark continent’.

Clarence, the protagonist, is a European drifter in an African nation. Homeless, indebted, he has forfeited the wealth and status that colonial privilege would otherwise guarantee to someone of his race. In a city called Adramé, he glimpses from afar an African ruler whose majesty and glamour entrance him. Two young tricksters – Nagoa and Noaga – tantalise him with enigmatic tales of the King, his laws and his glories. Clarence’s dream-like quest to meet the King takes him through the ordeal of a bizarre trial and then, accompanied by a helpful beggar and the two scamps, through dense rainforest on a journey to the south.

In a village named Aziana, he lives, without any understanding of his role, as a sort of stud or sex-slave: a generator of offspring for the neighbourhood chieftain, the Naba. Reduced to a fool and a chattel, Clarence lives in the hope that the King will visit Aziana and rescue him from this absurd fate. Eventually, after yet more indignities, he enters the royal presence to find that an ‘extraordinary radiance’ flows from the sovereign, whose heavenly beauty combines ‘adorable fragility’ and ‘formidable strength’. Clarence’s sufferings have not been in vain. This destitute and demoralised European, bereft of identity and hope, will be redeemed by the African grace of a sacred ruler whose boundless love has ‘enveloped him forever’.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2018 (Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images)

For Laye, just twenty-six, The Radiance of the King represented a startling transformation. Shades of Kafka (which Laye acknowledged from the start) join a mystical sensibility and a hallucinatory narrative voice to fashion a fable which somehow folds political, religious and existential elements into one another. At the same time, the novel sustains a gnomic, riddling and often comic tone that seems to mock every bid to interpret it.

Laye never published anything like it again. In 1956, by now a minor celebrity who had won favours from the colonial ministry in Paris, he returned to Africa. In 1958, Guinea became independent (as the first French colony to choose formal separation from Paris). However, Laye soon fell out with the post-independence president Ahmed Sékou Touré, who quickly degenerated into a dictatorial strongman. Laye spent much time abroad, endured house arrest back in Guinea, and after 1965 lived in exile in Senegal.

In 1966, he published another autobiographical novel, Dramouss. In Dakar, he developed a career as a researcher into the history and traditions of the Malinké people and the griots – bard-musicians – who preserved their heritage. During this period, he got to know Alex Haley when the American came to Africa to research his bestselling epic, Roots. Laye’s investigations into the Malinké past underlay his final book, published in 1978. The Guardian of the Word (Le maître de la parole) channels the stories told by one famous griot into a mythic chronicle of the origins of the great medieval empire of Mali. Laye died in 1980, aged fifty-two.

Even within its author’s work, The Radiance of the King stands alone: lapidary, mystical, whimsical, trance-like. Yet its heart lies in a brazenly radical reversal of the white man’s trek into some benighted ‘heart of darkness’ that had shaped so much European fiction about Africa. In contrast, Clarence journeys into the African light. The wisdom, the faith, the ritual of a traditional African community – embodied in the King – will save him.

The poet James Kirkup – who had already translated The Dark Child – published his translation of The Radiance of the King in 1956. In 2001, New York Review Books reissued it as a volume within their ‘Classics’ imprint. This edition arrived with a prefatory essay by Toni Morrison. The Nobel-laureate novelist makes a superbly eloquent case for the work as a definitive riposte to racially-skewed tales of Africa. For Morrison, Laye has ‘exchanged African “enigma” and darkness for subtlety, for literary ambiguity’. She salutes the fine art of Clarence’s ascent out of ‘immaturity and degradation’, and celebrates a work that shows ‘an African culture being its own subject, initiating its own commentary’. However, Morrison also accepts that this outlier of a novel ‘violently disrupted’, and for the only time, the ‘autobiographical groove’ of Camara Laye’s career.

I recalled the sophisticated fairy-tale mode of the novel from my first reading – its sly magic and knowing artifice. When I returned to it, confident that it should find a place in my book, those qualities struck me more forcefully than ever. But I soon realised that a little worm of doubt was creeping into my enjoyment. For European critics of the 1950s, keen to support the aspirations of the new African literature but steeped in the cults of Kafka and Surrealism, in existentialism, or else in the modernist mysticism that surfaces in the work of novelists such as Graham Greene and François Mauriac, The Radiance of the King must have felt almost too good to be true. Here was a fresh, authentically African voice that miraculously harmonised with almost every dominant chord being sounded across post-war literary Europe.

Could it be too good to be true? After further research, I reluctantly concluded that it was. Some African writers had long expressed their distrust of this exotic, outlandish parable. The Nigerian novelist, poet, dramatist and critic Wole Soyinka scoffed that ‘most intelligent readers like their Kafka straight, not geographically transposed’. Disagreements swirled around the work. Not ‘African’ enough for its foes, to its admirers it conveyed an Africa of sensual mysticism and profound, Sufi-inflected faith that colonial-era writers had ignored.

Had Laye – in 1954, still an apprentice talent at an impressionable age – sold out his African heritage to the literary taste-makers of France, with their absurdist and Surrealist fetishes? Or had he boldly found a way to tell a truly Guinean story in an eclectically modernist style? It transpired, however, that there existed a third, much more disturbing possibility: that Camara Laye either did not write The Radiance of the King at all, or that he wrote it with so much external guidance that it hardly counts as his work. Rumours to that effect had drifted around the French literary scene since the 1950s. Lilyan Kesteloot, a Belgian-born specialist in African literature who died this February, had claimed after Laye’s death that he admitted to her that he did not write the novel.

Picture by Maxime Niyomwungeri/Unsplash

The whisperings refused to go away. The US scholar Adele King had, in 1980, published the first monograph in English devoted to the Guinean author’s life and books: The Writings of Camara Laye. Now she set out to disprove Kesteloot’s assertions and to reclaim the integrity of Laye’s work. King recognised that, as an insecure immigrant writer in early-1950s Paris, Laye had ‘like most authors … had editorial help, perhaps more help than others’. As for the claims that others had not merely edited but created the work published by ‘Camara Laye’, King ‘regarded such rumours as racial prejudice’. They surely belonged to that long, ignoble strain of racist thought which assumed that, say, visiting Europeans must have carved or at least inspired the exquisite classical sculpture of Ife and Benin. In 1950s Africa, literary masters of modernist ambivalence and complexity – Soyinka himself, Chinua Achebe, Christopher Okigbo, Léopold Senghor among them – had flourished in their newly-independent states. Why should the gifted young Guinean not join their ranks?

To her distress, King’s investigations found that the rumours did hint at an underlying truth. In 2002, she published Rereading Camara Laye. On the basis of her meticulous literary sleuthing, she decided that even The Dark Child had been written with substantial editorial help from two idealistic Frenchwomen who had sought to guide the young author and open doors for him in literary Paris. One of them was Marie-Hélène Lefaucheux, a Resistance heroine and leading figure in 1950s human rights and feminist circles.

At the time, Laye opposed outright independence for French Africa. He backed instead the more conservative option of home rule within a Commonwealth-style entity, the ‘Union Française’. King argues that this talented, vulnerable – and probably naive – young author became, in effect, a tool of the French overseas ministry in the final phase of direct colonial control. It is certainly the case that The Dark Child contains no criticism of French rule in Guinea, while The Radiance of the King sidesteps political conflict entirely in its pursuit of an allegory of spiritual rebirth.

But if The Dark Child counts as a collaboration, then so do other key works of modern literature. Famously, Ezra Pound dismantled, truncated and reassembled the first draft of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. The legendary editor Maxwell Perkins refined and transformed the manuscripts that became F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. No one considers that the intervention of these shaping spirits invalidates the works they changed. So is it just cultural racism that leads some critics to believe that an African writer who benefits from editorial support in Europe somehow forfeits creative identity as a result?

With The Dark Child, that argument might well apply. However, the hidden history that King uncovered behind its successor posed a far more fundamental threat to the status of Laye’s body of work. Put baldly, she makes a compelling case that Laye wrote little or nothing of The Radiance of the King. Rather, he was ‘given a manuscript … to which he contributed little’ and published it under his name. So who did manufacture this dreamy African classic? A Belgian author and editor, once convicted of wartime collaboration with the Nazis, named Francis Soulié. King asserts that ‘Soulié is the principal author of the second novel credited to Laye’. Despite his far-right entanglements, Soulié also had close affinities with the Surrealists – always strong in Belgium. Laye and his first wife, Marie, had lodged with Soulié in Paris; it was from Soulié’s address that he sent the manuscript of The Dark Child to his eventual publisher, Plon.

Another key actor in the creation of The Radiance of the King was a second Belgian man of letters with a right-wing background – and one also tainted by wartime collaboration. This was Laye’s editor at Plon, Robert Poulet. He had, King explains, ‘a reputation as an excellent literary critic and stylist who would help authors revise their manuscripts,’ and duly applied his alchemical skills to the novel.

Whatever his political orientation during the war years, what matters most in connection with The Radiance of the King is that Francis Soulié was gay. The transcendent beauty of the King himself, and Clarence’s entwined sensual and spiritual yearning for intimacy with this semi-divine figure and his ‘blazing purity’, have a homoerotic charge that’s difficult to miss. In contrast, the broad comedy of Clarence’s liaisons with the Naba’s harem feels ribald, risqué, but not remotely erotic. And when Clarence has a grotesque vision of an encounter with hybrid ‘fish-women’ in the river, he experiences revulsion at ‘the glittering opulence of those dead-white breasts’. Elegant, ethereal masculinity attracts; coarse and earthbound femininity repels. No passages at all like these occur in Laye’s other books.

Soulié seems to have cherished his ideal of Africa – however far removed from modern realities. In King’s interpretation, he willingly became a secret patron to Laye. He, and to a lesser degree Poulet, served as the ghostwriters whose spectral influence suddenly transformed this semi-autobiographical witness to a vanishing rural culture into a Kafkaesque fabulist with Surrealist and existentialist leanings. King painstakingly compiles a jigsaw of circumstantial evidence to build up a complete picture of Laye’s transactions with Soulié and Poulet. She insists that ‘I did not want a scandal’, and refrains from using the pejorative terminology of the literary detective: the vocabulary of ‘hoax’, ‘fraud’, ‘imposture’ and ‘plagiarism’.

Here was a precarious young man from a sheltered background, armed with a fragile gift but few resources, stranded in the colonial metropolis and desperate to make his way. If some clandestine deal did bring benefits both to Soulié and Laye, their partnership took place within the routine late-colonial business of exploiting African talent and ambition – commonplace in Europe then, and perhaps today.

In large part because no manuscripts are available for examination, King makes clear that ‘I do not, however, have a smoking gun’. She could not prove beyond all possible doubt that Francis Soulié wrote, wholly or substantially, The Radiance of the King. But had she argued strongly enough for his central presence in the work for me to omit this novel of dubious provenance from the list of candidates for my 100 Best volume? With acute pangs of regret, I decided she had.

No later scholar has overturned King’s evidence, though several have shown themselves hostile or sceptical towards her research. Kenneth Harrow, for instance, thinks King has no reason to believe that Laye could not have experienced a mid-twenties growth spurt in his writing that led within months from the delicate simplicity of The Dark Child to the coterie extravagances of The Radiance of the King. Creative artists can, and do, grow up fast. He maintains that – stimulated by the literary hothouse of 1950s Paris – Laye could have written the novel. However, Harrow then admits that ‘it does indeed seem probable that Laye was not the author… alas’.

The most systematic attempt to defend Laye’s sole authorship has come from the eminent Harvard Africanist, Abiola Irele. Yet Irele takes issue in general terms with racially-warped preconceptions about the limits of a young African novelist’s style and vision, rather than arguing in detail against the material that King unearths. He acknowledges that ‘it is reasonable to suppose that … Poulet and Soulié served as mentors for Laye’ in his discovery of European modernism. He grants that the unequal exchanges between African authors and European patrons at the time led to works that he categorises as ‘supervised literature’. And his conclusion hardly adds up to a resounding rebuttal. Irele merely proposes that ‘the originating consciousness of all the works attributed to him was Laye’s’, and that ‘he was responsible in large part for their composition’.

That ‘originating consciousness’ may indeed have shaped The Radiance of the King. Whatever view you take of its authorship and authenticity, it remains a haunting, fascinating and rather beautiful novel. As Adele King affirms, the books attributed to Laye ‘were classics before’, and so ‘they should be classics now’. Besides, if Soulié essentially composed Laye’s second novel, why did a writer of such uncanny skill not publish a string of significant works under his own name? True, authors stained by an actual or suspected history of Nazi collaboration found themselves excluded from much of post-war French culture.

But a style and voice as distinctive as those that drive The Radiance of the King would surely have found other public outlets. The critic Daniel Delas suggests that Soulié, an outsider to the mainstream literary scene thanks both to his political follies and his homosexuality, accepted and enjoyed the role of a ghostly puppet-master. He might have ‘savoured it … as revenge on an unjust destiny’. Or could it be that Laye’s presence and inspiration alone allowed the minor littérateur Soulié, just this once, to excel himself? In this reading, Laye himself becomes one of the Malinké griots he studied – a storyteller in touch with ancient forces and insights that others imperfectly record.

Whatever the motives, whatever the actions, of the players in this murky chronicle, the consequences feel melancholy. Vanishingly few classics of Francophone African literature have any sort of visibility in the Anglosphere. And it turns out that one of them – the work, moreover, that comes packaged with a passionate, persuasive endorsement from the only African-American Nobel laureate in literature – may well not have been written, in whole or in part, by the name on its cover.

This is hardly a crime story: a straightforward case of a literary hoax or stunt, hatched and enacted purely to deceive. Think of it more as a ghost story: a haunting of Africa by Europe, and of Europe by Africa, that ensnared the tentative early steps of one of the countless migrant hopefuls who flocked, and still flock, from the distant hinterlands to the capitals of empire. In Francis Soulié’s no doubt unrequited attraction to the quietly charismatic young man who seemed to embody his own dream-Africa, consider it as a kind of love story too.

These days, the cynical strategies of cultural kidnap and manipulation that Laye suffered in Paris would hardly manifest themselves in quite such blatant ways. Yet fledgling African authors who come under the wing of fashionable agents and major-league publishers may still succumb to a metropolitan machine of marketing and promotion that has its own best interests, rather than theirs, at heart. Today’s literary puppeteers use subtler means to ensure that their preferred version of Africa becomes the one that global audiences get to read.

Meanwhile, the Congo-wide gaps in our translation record keep many outstanding writers from Africa who have a strong voice in other languages – such as In Koli Jean Bofane himself – out of Anglophone readers’ grasp. We can hardly erase Africa’s imperial history of conquest and appropriation: the plunder of minerals and mentalities alike. But we can ask that the globalised English-language publishing industry gives us access through translation to a deeper, broader picture of the continent. If not, then another Africa will continue to shine across the river, within sight but still out of reach.

Boyd Tonkin’s ‘The 100 Best Novels in Translation’ is published by Galileo. ‘The Radiance of the King’ by Camara Laye, translated by James Kirkup and introduced by Toni Morrison, is published by New York Review Books. ‘Congo Inc.: Bismarck’s Testament’ by In Koli Jean Bofane, translated by Marjolijn de Jager, is published by Indiana University Press

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