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by Bamber Gascoigne

Camara Laye (1928-1980)


Guinean novelist, short story writer, and essayist, who first gained fame in the 1950s with his novels L'Enfant noir (1953, The African Child), a poetic re-creation of the author's childhood days, and Le Regard du roi (1954, The Radiance of the King). The latter work with its theme, a frustrating quest for an unattainable authority, has been compared to Franz Kafka's The Castle (1926). There has been a controversy about the authorship of the book since its publication. Laye's third novel, Dramouss (1966), was banned in Guinea.

"Am I not a white man?" cried Clarence.
"The white men do not come here, on the esplanade!" retorted the black man, using the same abrupt tone of voice as he had used before.
"No, this esplanade would not be the place for white men to put in an appearance," Clarence thought bitterly. "They wouldn't let themselves be shoved around by all these black men; they would more likely be sitting in their villas, where it was cool, or else playing cards and sipping iced drinks on the veranda of the hotel."

(in The Radiance of the King)

Camara Laye (sometimes referred to as Laya Camara, the latter being his family name) was born in the ancient city of Kouroussa, Upper Guinea, into a devout Muslim family of the respected Malinké clans. At that time the country was under French rule. Laye received an European education, but also became familiar with Malinké culture. His father was a goldsmith; both of Laye's parents were reputed to possess supernatural powers. His father connected with his ancestors through a small, black serpent.

Laye grew up in his grandmother's compound in Tindican, an area of Kurussa, and was raised a Moslem. He attended a Koranic school and continued his education at a French school, and then at the College Georges Poiret, a vocational school in Conakry, Guinea's capital. During this period he met Marie Lorofi, his childhood friend in L'enfant noir, whom he married later in 1953. They had four children.

Like many other talented students of his generation, Laye moved in 1947 to France after earning a scholarship. He studied in Argenteuil at the Central School of Automobile Engineering, gaining a certificate as a mechanic. When his scholarship expired, he supported himself in odd jobs, at the Simca auto-assembly plant and Paris public transport, and continued studying at the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts, and the Technical College for Aeronautics and Automobile Construction. In 1956 he obtained the diploma of Engineering.

L'Enfant noir, Laye's first novel, was a nostalgic re-creation of the author's happy childhood, his parents, education, initiations of Malinké culture, ritual circumcision, and the end of his youth. The protagonist, a young boy called Fatoman, observes his surroundings and people, without always fully understanding them. Laye uses simple language, leaving much to the imagination of the reader. When Fatoman pulls Fanta's hair and she asks why he does it, the answer is indisputable: "Why, I said, shouldn’t I pull it. You are a girl!" The book was awarded the Priz Charles Veillon. Laye's idyllic portayal of the daily life of an African child was not accepted by politically orientated critics, who saw that it refused to confront the problem of Africa's collision with Europe. Not denying the merits of Laye's narrative, the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe considered the book "too sweet" for his taste and the Camerounian Mongo Beti asked how it was possible that Laye seemingly never witnessed "the smallest imposition by the French colonial administration." ('Laye, Camara,' in World Authors 1950-1970, ed.  John Wakeman, 1975, p. 837) Thomas Lask in the New York Times saw that it was a "tender re-creation of African life, mysterious in detail but haunting and desirable in spirit."

It is generally regarded, that Le Regard du roi, which came out in France in 1954, is Laye's most controversial and fascinating work. This allegorical tale tells of Clarence, a shipwrecked impatient European. He is thrown on the coast of Africa, and wants to see the king – "I am not 'just anybody,'" he says. "I am a white man." However, the king of the unnamed territory is an inaccessible figure, who has just left for the south. On his disorienting journey after him, in the company of a mysterious beggar and two teenagers, Clarence becomes a different kind of person, more able to answer to the king's call when it comes.

Critics have often pointed out similarities between Clarence's nightmarish, absurd experiences and the labyrinths of Kafka, whom Laye acknowledged his debt. He once described Kafka as "Europe's greatest writer and my greatest influence. When critics find my novels difficult it it because they don't know Kafka."  ('Laye, Camara (1928-1980),' in The Facts on File Companion to the French Novel by Karen L. Taylor, 2006, p.  220) The ending of the story, in which Clarence gives himself under the magnetic spell of the king (""My lord! My lord!" Clarence kept whispering."), is in opposition to Kurtz final phrase, "The horror! The horror!" in Joseph Conrad's Heart of the Darkness. And when Joseph K. is full of angst, Clarence is not without hope, or humor – Joseph K. or Kurtz would never find themselves in a harem as a breeding stud. Again, African reviews were mixed, Présence Africaine dismissed the work as a distortion of the real relationship between the whites and the blacks.

Soon after the publication of Le Regard du roi, readers raised questions about the authorship of the novel. Laye's first and second novel were very divergent in style and content. "I had to skim dozen's of pages in order to get interested in the story. I didn't feel Africa," said Léopold Sédar Senghor. (Impostors: Literary Hoaxes and Cultural Authenticity by Christopher L. Miller, 2018, p. 99) The American academic Adèle King suggested in Rereading Camara Laye (2002), that the real author of the novel was not Laye, but a wealthy Belgian homosexual and war criminal named Francis Soulié, who contributed to little magazines under the name of Gille Anthelme. Originally King set out disprove these rumors. Soulié had befriended in the 1950s Laye, who lived in an apartment belonging to him. Moreover, the Belgian scholar Lilyan Kesteloot said that Laye told her before his death in 1980 "that a white man had written Le Regard du roi." (Ibid., p. 91) King also claims that four people, among them a French delegate to the United Nations, helped Laye to write L'Enfant noir.

The most prominent defender of Laye's authorship, the Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, wrote in her introduction to the book, that "Camara Laye not only summoned a sophisticated, wholly African imagistic vacabulary in which to launch a discursive negotiation with the West, he exploited with technical finesse the very images that have served white writers for generations. The filthy inn where Clarence, the protagonist, is living could be taken word for word from Joyce Cary's Mister Johnson; his susceptibility to and obsession with smells read like a play upon Elspeth Huxley's The Flame Trees of Thika; his European fixation with the "meaning" of nakedness recalls H. Rider Haggard or Joseph Conrad or virtually all travel writing." (The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye, introduction by Toni Morrison, 2001, p. xv)

In 1956 Laye moved to Africa, settling first to Danomey (now Benin), and then to Ghana. Guinea became independent in 1958, and Ahmed Sekou Touré was elected president. Laye was made the first ambassador to Ghana. He served a number of posts outside Ghana before returning to Conakry, where he worked for the Department of Economic Agreements, and was then appointed Director of National Institute of Research and Documentation. Laye found himself increasingly in conflict with the policies of President Sekou Touré, and he was imprisoned for a brief period for criticizing the Touré government as anarchic, violent, and dictatorial. In the mid-1960s he fled with his family to the neighboring Ivory Coast before settling in Senegal. There he worked as a research fellow at the Institut Fondamental d'Afrique Noire, and participated in the movement opposing Sekou Touré. To see her family, Laye's wife Marie went to Guinea in 1970. Upon her arrival at Conakry, she was arrested by government agents and put in the infamous Boiro camp prison for seven years.

Laye's Dramouss (1966, A Dream of Africa) was written in Senegal.  This work, published by Éditions Plon in Paris like Laye's previous novels, broke his twelve years long silence as a novelist. It continued the story of Fatoman, but was more political. Fatoman, after returning to his home, has difficulties in readjusting himself to his old surroundings in Africa. The idealized way of life he had longed abroad is corrupted by political violence. Sekou Touré appeared in the story thinly disguised as the "Big Brute". In a prison Fatoman sees a dream in which a black lion brings peace to Guinea. When Laye was informed that the title of his book had been translated as A Dream of Africa, he said, "Ah, Dramouss in Africa is a genie of prayer to Mohammed and the Archangel Gabriel." ('Laye, Camara (1928-1980),' in The Facts on File Companion to the French Novel by Karen L. Taylor, 2006, p. 221)

In Senegal Laye's economic situation was difficult. Alone with seven children to take care of, he took a second wife, Ramtoulaye Kanté, by whom he had three children. After being released in 1977, Marie, who was a Catholic, considered her position in the family unacceptable, and divorced. In 1975 Laye became ill with a kidney infection, but with the help of an international campaign, money was raided for his treatment in Paris.

Laye had gathered in the 1960s and 1970s material from oral storytellers, the griots. His last work, Le Maître de la parole (1978, The Guardian of the Word), was based on a Mali epic, as told by the master griot Babou Condé, whose version of the legend of Sundiata, a 13th.century leader, he had taped. The collection of native songs and lore received the Prix de l'Académie Française. Laye died in exile in Dakar on February 4, 1980.

For further reading: 'Laye, Camara' by Ada Uzoamaka Azodu, in Dictionary of African Biography, Volume 3: Hailu-Lyaut, edited by Emmanuel Kwaku Akyeampong, Henry Louis Gates (2012); 'Laye, Camara (Laya, Carama)' by Thorpe Butler, in The Facts on File Companion to the World Novel: 1900 to Present, ed. Michael D. Sollars (2008); 'Laye, Camara (1928-1980),' in The Facts on File Companion to the French Novel by Karen L. Taylor (2006); Rereading Camara Laye by Adèle King (2002); Coming of Age Through Colonial Education by Ralph A. Austen (2000); 'Camara Laye' by Brian Evenson and David Beus, in Postcolonial African Writers, ed. Pushpa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima Jagne (1998); The Snake and the Lion: Spiritual and Political Commitment in the Works of Camara Laye by Brenda J. Bertrand (1994); L'imaginaire dans les romans de Camara Laye by Azodo Ada Uzoamaka (c. 1993); L'Enfant noir de Camara Laye: sous le signe de l'éternel retour by Jacques Bourgeacq (1984); Camara Laye by Sonia Lee (1984); The Writings of Camara Laye by Adèle King (1980); 'Camara Laye: The Aesthetic Vision' by Gerald Moore, in Twelve African Writers (1980); The Function of Characters in Four Works by Camara Laye by Paul R. Bernard (1976); 'Laye, Camara,' in World Authors 1950-1970, ed.  John Wakeman (1975); 'Assimilated Negroitude: Camara Laye's Le Regard du roi' by Charles R. Larson, in The Emergence of African Fiction (1972); 'Camara Laye: Idealist and mystic' by A.C. Brench, in African Literature Today, no. 2 (1969); 'Camara Laye: An Interpretation' by J.Jahn, in Black Orpheus 6 (1959)

Selected works:

  • L'Enfant noir, 1953 - The Dark Child (translated by James Kirkup, Ernest Jones, Elaine Gottlieb, 1954) / L’Enfant noir (edited by Joyce A. Hutchinson, 1966) / The African Child  (U.K. title, 1959)  
  • Le Regard du roi, 1954 - The Radiance of the King (translated by James Kirkup, 1956;  introduction by Toni Morrison, 2001) 
  • 'Et demain?', 1957 (in Présence Africaine 14-15)
  • 'Les yeux de la statue', 1957 (in Présence Aftricaine 13)
  • Camara Laye, écrivain guinéen, 1965 (ed. Roger Mercier, Monique and Simon Battestini)  
  • Dramouss, 1966 - A Dream of Africa (translated by James Kirkup, 1968)
  • 'The Black Man and Art', 1970 (in African Arts, 4)
  • Le Maître de la parole: Kouma Lafôlô Kouma, 1978 - The Guardian of the Word = Kouma Lafôlô Kouma  (translated by James Kirkup, 1984)

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