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 It’s like finding out that Norman Mailer left behind an unpublished manuscript detailing his true views on women, or that the elderly Ezra Pound wrote an epic poem about Jewish bankers.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.
The rest of the travels mark fresh territory, and the result is a surprising mixed success. Naipaul, who was 77 when he finished writing this book last year, will rightly be indicted by cultural policemen for a wide array of strange and firm opinions, often rooted in the usual antiquated view of Africa as a more rural and backward place than it actually is. These objections are predictable and often valid. He mentions his disappointment that the Pygmy forests of Gabon are not the dark, primeval “Hansel and Gretel” forests of his imagination. And his reverence for animal life—particularly cats and dogs, whose conditions he reports literally everywhere he goes—perhaps reflects a Western or Hindu sensibility that makes for a poor way to judge the health of a place like Nigeria or Gabon. More seriously, Naipaul’s implied argument, that traditional African animist beliefs explain the cultural and political currents of the continent, is fundamentally undeveloped, since it takes the form not of an argument but of a series of disconnected episodes. I suppose subtitling your book “Glimpses of African Belief” lets you get away with a lot of impressionistic work on African religion, but still one yearns for a more rigorous test of this idea.
That said, what surprises is the overall vigor and attention that Naipaul applies to the task of traveling to a range of African destinations and interrogating people about what they think about the world. Naipaul has approached it seriously, returning not only to the early texts on the region (such as the memoirs of John Hanning Speke and Mungo Park) but also to other sources that might guide him in understanding how illiterate civilizations reacted to conquest by literate ones. Naipaul adduces the passage from Tacitus about the Germanic tribes’ unwillingness to build temples and shrines, since they refused to insult their gods by imprisoning them in structures. The comparison is a rich one, and it is one of several moments when Naipaul shows that he is at least being more original than the critics who accuse him of what is at root the same political incorrectness so gloriously flaunted in his Islam books.
One might even go further. Ultimately The Masque of Africa‘s most serious flaw is not denigration of Africans, but rather a kind of resigned impartiality toward them. Naipaul shakes his head repeatedly at the problem of the persistence of culture in illiterate societies, but he seems resigned to the fact of the illiteracy rather than willing to embrace the nonliterate cultural systems that do exist. He allows his subjects to speak, sometimes at great length and in direct quotation, about their views of, say, the supernatural, the spirits of trees, the role of magic in everyday life. Compare Naipaul’s results to those of Edward E. Evans-Pritchard, for example, in Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande, and one sees that these systems are rich in ways Naipaul does not convey, and manage also to be internally consistent. To find political correctness, one still has to look for a politician, and to find insight about Africa, one is still best served by looking for an anthropologist.