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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 novel The Castle (1926). 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. 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 Lorifo, his childhood friend in L'enfant noir, whom he married later in 1953. They had four children.

After earning a scholarship Laye moved in 1947 to France, where 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.

Laye's first novel, L'Enfant noir, was awarded the Priz Charles Veillon. In it Laye portrayed nostalgically his 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!" 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. The Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe considered the book "too sweet" for his taste. 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."

Le Regard du roi, which came out in France in 1954, is generally regarded Laye's most fascinating work. It 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's novels. The ending of the story, in which Clarence gives himself under the magnetic spell of the king, 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. "... there are clear indications in the novel that Laye constructed the novel as a synthesis of Kafka and the African folk-tale," wrote Abiola Irele. However, Adèle King has suggested in Rereading Camara Laye (2002), that the real author of the novel was not Laye, but a wealthy Belgian homosexual 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.

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's regiment, and he was imprisoned for a brief period. 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. When Laye's wife Marie visited Guinea to see her family, she was imprisoned for seven years.

Laye's Dramouss (A Dream of Africa), was published in Paris in 1966, breaking 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.

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 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. In the 1960s and 1970s Laye gathered 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. 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: The Facts on File Companion to the World Novel: 1900 to Present, ed. Michael D. Sollars (2008); 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); 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 (transl. 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 (transl. 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 (transl. 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  (transl. by James Kirkup, 1984)

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