AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
Against the background of persistent rumors that Camara Laye's four novels were not in fact his creations but were the products of various hands--allegations that Adele King examines extensively in her book Rereading Camara Laye--the paper considers the arguments invoked to support the case against Camara Laye and argues that these claims are not sufficiently grounded to justify denying Laye authorship of the works attributed to him. The case of Laye is placed in the general context of textual ownership in francophone Africa, as exemplified by the work of writers such as Bakary Diallo, Birago Diop, and Amadou Hampate Ba for the light it throws on the transition from the oral tradition to the conventions that govern authorship in modern times.
Ever since the publication in 1954 of Le regard du roi (The Radiance of the King), barely a year after the appearance of L'enfant noir (The African Child), there have been misgivings about Laye's authorship of the book. The remarkable difference between his first two novels gave rise to doubts that Laye could have accomplished within a year the impressive development that the second book appeared to have registered. Lilyan Kesteloot in particular is known to have openly expressed the view that Laye was incapable of writing Le regard du roi, and her repeated pronouncements on the subject, in print and otherwise, have fueled the suspicion that has been gaining ground since the mid-seventies, to the effect that not only was Laye not the sole author of the second novel, but that in fact the book was entirely the work of someone else to whom he had merely lent his name for publication. (1)
While this case has been simmering, as it were, over the years, the francophone literary world has been rocked by the affair of Yambo Ouologuem, who was accused of large scale plagiarism in the composition of his prize winning novel, Le devoir de violence (Bound to Violence), a charge that Calixthe Beyala has also had to contend with more recently with respect to her string of highly successful and controversial novels (see Hitchcott's article in this volume). It is thus not surprising that attention should be focused anew on the case of Camara Laye, which Adele King has now examined at considerable length in a book entitled Rereading Camara Laye in which she undertakes a comprehensive review of what might well be called l'affaire Laye. According to her, this is a case not just of plagiarism and large-scale borrowing, but something far more serious: a case of outright literary fraud, consisting of a claim by Laye to the authorship of works not of his own creation. On this point, her conclusion is unequivocal:
After nine years, many letters and interviews, and research in available files, I now feel confident that Laye was helped in the composition and writing of L'Enfant noir and was given a manuscript of Le Regard du roi to which he contributed little. (4)
Adele King's indictment of Laye--for this is what her book amounts to--can be summed up quite simply. From both internal evidence related to textual coherence and cultural references as well the external circumstances of Laye's encounters during his years in Paris as she has been able to reconstruct these in her investigations, Laye could not have written the first two novels attributed to him. It is of interest to note here that King's examination brackets Le regard du roi with L'enfant noir, both of which she now concludes must be attributed in varying degrees to two characters complicit in the fraud: one a Belgian, Francis Soulie, a renegade intellectual involved, like Paul de Man, in Nazi and anti-Semite propaganda in Brussels during the Second World War, and the other a Frenchman, Robert Poulet, an editor at Plon, Laye's Paris publisher. Between them, King asserts, these two men played a preponderant role in the manufacture of what she now considers Laye's false literary career. Two other characters, both female, are mentioned as having at some time or the other had a hand in the composition of his first book: Aude Joncourt and Marie Helene Lefaucheux, both shadowy figures whose fleeting appearance thickens the plot, so to speak, of the complex narrative that Adele King develops in her account of Laye's authorial adventure.
It needs to be said at the outset that despite the assertive tone of her book, the case King endeavors to make against Laye remains unproven, and must be considered ultimately unconvincing. It is true that she uncovers some interesting and even disquieting facts related to Laye's literary career and the various individuals involved with it. However, it is far from certain that the evidence that she marshals over some 200 pages of her book--admittedly, an impressive work of scholarly research and investigative zeal--justifies the certainties that she offers. She admits that she has no definitive proof (no "smoking gun" as she calls it) and it is noteworthy that she has to rely on conjectures and hearsay in order to fill in the gaps in her account.
Indeed, a disturbing feature of the book is the way it abounds in statements and assertions that are far from illuminating, such as the following which occurs in a note tucked away at the end of the book: "Laye told a Nigerian student of my husband's at Ahmadu Bello University, who was studying French in Dakar in 1974, that a white woman had written L'Enfant noir" (177 n3). We are not told who this student was and under what circumstances what would have been a major confession by Laye was obtained by him or her. What is more, the statement is contradicted in another passage where King quotes from a letter to her by Kesteloot, in which we learn that Laye himself had mentioned "an unknown novelist," presumably Robert Poulet, as having helped him to write the first book. (Be it noted, in passing, the vagueness of the description, not so much expressed in Laye's words as attributed to him by Kesteloot, and dutifully quoted by King). In a second letter, Kesteloot adds to the confusion by suggesting that Poulet had also written Le regard du roi, an allegation to which she returns in a 1982 article in Notes Africaines, in which, writing after Laye's death, Kesteloot publicly casts doubt on Laye's authorship of the novel. The section of the article quoted by King is symptomatic of the simplicities that have gone into the charge against Laye:
Then a very fine novel, Le Regard du roi, appeared under his name, with a style and a subject matter quite different [from L'Enfant noir]. The clear reference to Kafka, the mystical quest, were very little in the thoughts of the Laye we had known; the sophisticated expression, as well as the reference to Mossi culture, coming from a region that Laye hardly knew, were other elements that divided critics on the authenticity of this book. For us a conversation with him on the subject convinced us that he had loaned his name to support the work of a French friend. (qtd. in King 62-63)
It is legitimate to probe the validity of these assertions. Assuming that Laye's second novel marked a change of style and subject matter (the extent of which is open to dispute), why should this fact, a normal development in any literary career, be held against him? It is not clear either why the reference to Kafka is interpreted as evidence, a priori, of skullduggery rather than the mark of an influence--a point to which we shall return. And on the question of authenticity, one might ask whether the Frenchman who is alleged to have written the novel would have a better acquaintance with Mossi culture than Laye. Kesteloot's article provides no answer to any of these questions. Finally, Kesteloot departs altogether from the textual scrutiny with which she begins and proceeds to an ex cathedra judgment in which she assumes the Olympian posture of an infallible authority. The gratuitous character of the last statement in the passage cannot but strike one as breathtaking, but what is interesting is that the "French friend" is identified in another letter to King, in which Poulet is finally brought out of the shadows and is specifically named by Kesteloot as having written and then offered the second novel to Laye, in circumstances that must appear to us as extraordinary and even bizarre, especially in the light of the explanation that Kesteloot offers for Poulet's motivation:
But why would Poulet, who was already publishing at this time, have made this curious deal? Perhaps a taste for a challenge: "Can my novel be taken as written by a Black?" [...] With a real person such as Camara Laye, his white man would have no risk of being found out, at least at the beginning. And also he would be helping a pleasant young black man, who needed the money and was a bit naive. (qtd. in King 66)
Kesteloot's explanation is, to say the least, disingenuous. We should add to this the glaring inconsistencies between her various statements, with Poulet's status as a writer seen to fluctuate and the direction of the flow of generosity between him and Laye reversed from one statement to another. All this lends an arbitrary air and even a tendentious character to Kesteloot's interventions.
It has been necessary to enter into these rather trivial matters because King's reliance on the kind of evidence we have been reviewing undermines the credibility of her work. More important, the …