Camara Laye is considered to be one of the most important Guinean writers of the twentieth century. He was born in the relatively remote town of Kouroussa in Upper Guinea to parents of metalworker lineages. In Laye’s autobiographical novel The Dark Child, his father appears as a strong and wise man whose supernatural powers as a smith blend well with his Muslim beliefs; Laye’s mother is depicted as loving, strong in her own right, and a major influence on his life. Laye attended the local Islamic school and the French government primary school before leaving Kouroussa to attend the École Poiret, a technical high school, in Conakry, the capital city of the colony. Against his mother’s wishes, he accepted a government engineering scholarship and completed a professional certificate at the Centre École Automobile near Paris. When the scholarship ended, he supported himself as a mechanic at the Simca car factory while attending evening classes at a technical college.
Living alone, cut off from his family, and suffering from frustration and loneliness, Laye wrote his first work, The Dark Child (called The African Child in a later, less bowdlerized and abridged translation), in an attempt to keep alive his memories of his Guinean childhood. He probably never intended to publish this work, but a French friend encouraged him to show it to a publisher. The novel, released in Paris in 1953, was welcomed by French critics and was awarded the Prix Charles Veillon in 1954. Though it has been criticized by some militant African writers, the novel remains a beautiful account of African village life. It is especially valuable for the warm and sensitive portrait of Laye’s mother.
The financial success of The Dark Child allowed Laye to complete his second novel, The Radiance of the King, in 1954. This work is a symbolic allegory about the humiliation and redemption of Clarence, a white gambler in Africa. Stripped of his European identity, Clarence is saved by embracing the black spirituality lacking in the West. The success of this novel, published in 1954, equaled that of his first novel with the non-African public. In 1956, after a period as attaché at the Ministry of Youth in Paris, Laye returned to Guinea to work as an engineer. After Guinean independence in 1958, he served on diplomatic missions to several African countries, including Liberia and Ghana, before being appointed director of the Centre de Recherches et d’Études in Conakry. As early as 1960, his bitter disappointment with President Sekou Toure led to an unofficial sentence of house arrest.
During this period, Laye was working on a third novel, A Dream of Africa. Toure apparently heard about the work’s critical focus and asked to see the manuscript before publication. After the president read the manuscript, in which he was satirized as the “Big Brute,” Laye was given the option of making major changes in the work or going into exile. Laye chose the latter. He, his wife Marie (his childhood girlfriend in The Dark Child), and their four children left for the Ivory Coast. Shortly thereafter, President Leopold Senghor of Senegal offered Laye a position at the Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire in Dakar as a researcher in the oral traditions of the Maninka peoples. This work led to the publication of his last work, The Guardian of the Word, which is a version of the Maninka legend of Sun Jata (or Sundiata), the thirteenth century founder of the Empire of Mali.
Laye was a troubled man in exile. Marie was detained by Toure when she returned to Conakry in 1970 to visit her ailing mother. Left with their seven children during his wife’s eight-year internment, Laye married again. He had two more children with his second wife, Ramatoulaye, a Maninka woman from the eastern part of Senegal. When Marie returned to Senegal in 1978, she immediately sought a divorce. During this time, while working on another novel to be entitled The Exiles, which was apparently never completed, Laye suffered repeated physical illnesses and mental instability requiring intermittent periods of hospitalization. His death on February 4, 1980, was announced over Radio Senegal by President Senghor, though it was hardly noticed in the Western press. To many who came to know African literature in the immediate postcolonial years, Laye was his continent’s preeminent novelist. If he had any rival for that distinction at the time of his death, it could only have been the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe or the Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o, whose works were more widely available than those of their Francophone contemporary.