Vitabu Books Review | The Radiance of the King & My Not so Cogent Connections

I'm musing. I just read Barbara Genco's Ten Nonfiction Books (For Adults) to Fall In Love With posted on January 1st. Symbolic date because it just so happens the first day of the year is Camara Laye's birthday. Being the mush that I am, I planned to re-read The Radiance of the King and post a 1/1/11 'why-you-should-read-this' review. But I got caught up with end-of-year stuff. Just the kind one gets busy with at the top of a new year. Still, I found time to re-meet Mr. Camara and, after our re-acquaintance, I scheduled a Vitabu review for another symbolic date: February 4: On this day in 1980, Guinean-born Camara Laye died in poverty and exile in Dakar, Senegal.

I was all set for a remembrance February. Until I stumbled upon Genco's article: specifically the 10th review: Simon Winchester's Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories. (Harper Collins). In the interest of full disclosure, I'm not sure I've ever read a Simon Winchester story but the title, and Genco's line, had me hooked:

A “furiously and demonstrably living” sea, the Atlantic covers about 33 million square miles and is home to a seemingly infinite variety of flora and fauna. So much is contained in this book: geology, oceanography, tales of discovery and exploration, the Napoleonic wars, piracy, the slave trade, whaling, the great age of Yankee clippers, the sinking of the Titanic, U-boats, undersea exploration, fish ecology, oils spills, global warming, and so much more. Readers will relish how Winchester masters the pitch and roll of fact, makes cogent connections, and uses digressions to add color and vitality.


So I made my own connections, cogent or not, to Radiance. I wondered if Clarence, the main character, was perhaps one of those million Atlantic stories. Might he be a runner upper for a list of “esteemed high-seas [mis] adventurers” who'd experienced the Atlantic ocean's “furiously and demonstrably living” sea, but never made it home to tell its “tales of discovery and exploration... the Slave trade... and so much more.”

On the front cover of 2001, New York Times Review edition of Radiance is a photograph of a handsome, charismatic African man in a boubou. On the back, the caption reads King Dinah Salifou, Nalu, c. 1885. Dinah is regal: strong jaws, fiery eyes and beautifully crafted hands with slender, unoverworked fingers. In one hand, he holds prayer beads and the other hand lies furled up on one leg. The image is the most central icon of the book that's been called a masterpiece of African literature; and yet may not be written by Camara, as Adele King says in Rereading Camara Laye. Another book I haven't read.

I found Radiance a classic “tale of discovery and exploration” of a white guy in black Africa. "It is not made clear what compels this journey," writes Toni Morrison in Radiance's introduction. "He is not on a mission or game hunt, nor does he claim to be exhausted by the pressures of Western civilization.”


I'm thinking, in 2011, maybe Clarence was one of those “high-sea adventurers” we hear so much about these days. According to news reports, they sail unassisted across the Atlantic Ocean; they are single-handed and go non-stop around the world. Hm....wish I could do that!

Clarence makes land in rough seas off an Atlantic coast after about 20 attempts. He runs into the expat community, in a downtown hotel that I would’ve sworn was Freetown's City hotel in Graham Greene-like heydays. “The spacious veranda with its neatly arranged tables and swaying fans”

We meet Clarence, as Ms. Morrison puts it, when “immediate circumstance is he has gambled, lost, and heavily in debt to his white compatriots, hiding among the indigenous population in a dirty inn." How a man who says he “didn't like cards and never used to touch them” could play himself into such debt is kind of puzzling. But Clarence is broke, desperate for work and making his way through what Ms. Morrison calls a “solid crowd of village” to catch the attention of the region's biggest employer: the King.

Curiously, Clarence has an unusual reaction to smells. He drifts into a trance every time he's hit by an “odor of warm wool and oil” and, much later we learn, “flower perfumes, vegetable molds, and a hothouse of decaying blooms.”

In the crowd, he encounters two “mischief looking” teenage boys and a “cunning beggar.” A tall giant of an old man in rags, he sniggers at Clarence when the foreigner announces why he was there. “I shall present myself to the king as soon as he arrives.” The old man looks Clarence up and down and replies “I shall put in a good word for you.” For some reason, this exchange brought Kenny Rogers' lyrics to mind. (Sorry, eclectic taste in music).

"Son, I've made my life out of readin' people's faces,” I imagined the old beggar saying. “And known' what their cards were by the way they held their eyes. So if you don't mind my sayin', I can see you're out of aces.”

But if the beggar saw much else in the gambler, Camara Laye doesn't let him play clairvoyant. So lots of questions about Clarence's Atlantic ocean story remain unanswered for me: Where is he from? What had he done before he sailed Atlantic's “furiously and demonstrably living” seas?

It would have been nice to learn Clarence's story, but Radiance still makes for a really fantastic book. You're taken on a magical tour of frescos on a crenelated castle with a literal stairway to heaven; a dirty stop out of an inn; a warren of a palace of justice and winding alleys before you're broken through to fields of millet, groundnuts, rice, maize and luminous red corn and forests of palm trees that backdrop onto an immense green wall — more forest with bush paths heavy with a must that keeps Clarence in sleep wandering motion... Well, except for the nights spent in villages when lots of women come wandering into Clarence's room laden with gifts.

When the crafty beggar, Clarence, and their two young companions get to Aziana— the boy's hometown where the grandfather is the naba—it's as if I'd been traveling along with them. I was as ready to stop, kick off my shoes and rest.

Life is idyllic: Wine, dance, laughter, easy friendship with a eunuch. Clarence even learns to weave and he has 'fallen in love' with Akissi. Their romance flutters only to die when Clarence is forced to acknowledge that it was for “a cock the beggar sold him to the naba” followed by a "dazzling epiphany." I got mine, too, because The Kafka, Aphorism 13 at the very front of the book suddenly made sense: "The lord will pass through the corridor and looking at the prisoner will say: This one must not be locked up anymore: he is coming to me." Cue Brenda Fassie's Going to meet the King.

I don't know whether you do the same: Make cogent, or not so cogent, connections with songs, books, and news articles. But here are some niggling thoughts after my not so cogent connections: What if Clarence were real, one of the million Atlantic stories? What high-sea adventuring tales would he tell? What would he say about the slave trade? What if we transported Clarence the “fighting cock” in Aziana c. 1880 to 2010, would he be in the news—like the young African males found in Glasgow — a 20-something white guy who'd been sold into sex slavery? Would he be the first known male sex slave brought into Aziana? Not trafficked for physical labor, but for sex; forced to stay against his will, lured there by the promise of work?

I wonder, too, what Camara Laye, and Simon Winchester, (I'm reading him next) would make of my musings with Clarence in the vast ocean of a million Atlantic stories. Or as a poster man for sex slaves.


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