Originally appeared in The Barnes and Noble Review .
The Masque of Africa
If you’re bothered by political incorrectness, discovering that V. S. Naipaul has written a travel book about Africa should have you ready to assume the brace position. It’s like finding out that Norman Mailer left behind an unpublished manuscript detailing his true views on women, or that the elderly Ezra Pound wrote an epic poem about Jewish bankers. According to his erstwhile protégé Paul Theroux, Naipaul once remarked that “Africans need to be kicked” and said their continent is “obscene, fit only for second-rate people.” Anyone who has read his novels and travelogues knows that he despises illiteracy, violence, and above all the failure to bend the knee to literary genius. When Naipaul meets Africa, then, expect a train wreck.
Naipaul’s best and worst work has come from Africa. A Bend in the River, set in Zaire, is among the finest novels ever to emerge from the continent, but Half a Life, set partly in Mozambique, must rank among the most sluggish victory laps by a recent Nobel Laureate. His present book, The Masque of Africa, is Naipaul’s first travel writing since 1998’s Beyond Belief, and it takes on the question of African belief—the fundamental views of the world held by people he meets in Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, Gabon, and South Africa. For Naipaul the Uganda portion marks a return: he lived and taught there in the 1960s, a catastrophic period portrayed memorably by Theroux in Sir Vidia’s Shadow. He seems to have mellowed considerably since then. Theroux’s Naipaul was called upon to judge a campus literary competition and announced that the entries were so bad that he would award only one prize, called Third Prize. Now Naipaul mostly refrains from insulting his hosts and even singles out one as having “merit” as a poet.