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French Forum 28.3 (2003) 125-128

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Adele King. Rereading Camara Laye. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002. xv + 210 pp.

Since its first appearance, a cloud of suspicion has surrounded the novel Le Regard du roi (The Radiance of the King), published under the name of Camara Laye in 1954. In print only one year after his [End Page 125] much-admired autobiographical novel L'Enfant noir (The Dark Child), the second work was written in a jarringly different style, strangely Kafkaesque and uncanny. In 1981, soon after Camara Laye's death, Lilyan Kesteloot published the following statement in the latest version of her anthology of Francophone African literature:

Camara Laye est mort en 1980. Il m'avait dit (et il faut bien le signaler enfin) que Le Regard du roi avait été écrit par un Blanc. Cela n'enlève rien à son mérite personnel, mais devrait stopper les savantes spéculations des critiques européens sur l'âme et la mystique noire à propos de ce roman. Ce n'est pas un hasard si les critiques africains étaient restés étrangement silencieux sur ce si bel ouvrage, et les étrangers auraient dû leur en demander la raison... 1

In fact, African critics had not been silent at all. Wole Soyinka famously denounced Le Regard du roi in 1963, accusing Camara Laye of a kind of inauthenticity that seemed just short of plagiarism: "imitativeness." "I think we can tell when the line of mere 'influence' has been crossed," Soyinka wrote; "Most intelligent readers like their Kafka straight, not geographically transposed."2 Birago Diop noted the death of Camara in his diary with this remark: "L'Enfant noir était bien de chez nous, mais non Le Regard du roi."3 But Senghor certified the authenticity of Le Regard du roi: "un Européen n'écrit pas comme cela."4

Le Regard du roi has thus been in limbo for a long time: cloaked in uncertainty, yet still discussed by some critics as an authentic work within the oeuvre of a single African author.5 Two recent publications have pulled the heritage of Camara Laye in precisely opposite directions. In August 2001, the New York Review of Books published Toni Morrison's essay "On The Radiance of the King." As a footnote to that essay announced, it "appears in different form as the introduction to a new edition of the novel, just published by New York Review Books" (a new book-publishing arm of the Review).6 In the same issue, an advertisement announced a new series of books, "NYRB Classics," including The Radiance of the King. In the essay, Morrison claims that this novel "accomplished something brand new... in fresh metaphorical and symbolic language... " Camara produced "a fine art of subversive potency" (18), and he did this in "a sophisticated, wholly African imagistic vocabulary" (18, emphasis added). "Camara Laye offers... an Africa answering back," Morrison says, to writers like Bellow and Hemingway (19). Apparently unaware of the doubts about [End Page 126] Camara's authorship—even as she sets out to correct "much of the novel's appraisal" (20) by other critics—Morrison recasts The Radiance of the King as a journey "deep in the heart of Africa's Africa" (20, emphasis added)—of African authenticity; and New York Review Books sells it as such. A letter that I sent (twice, in August and November 2001) to the New York Review, informing them of the questions surrounding Camara's authorship, was ignored and never printed.

Simultaneously, Adele King, author of a previous study of Camara Laye, was attempting to get to the bottom of the mystery. She did exactly what was needed in the circumstances: genuine literary sleuthing. Fighting against her own desire to protect Camara's reputation and legacy, not wanting a "scandal," King nonetheless pressed forward. She found compelling evidence, if not a "smoking gun," that Camara was not the sole author of either L'Enfant noir or Le Regard du roi. Thus King not only confirms Camara's confession to Kesteloot, but, more surprisingly, argues that L'Enfant noir was the result...