The Masque of Africa

If you’rebothered by political incorrectness, discovering that V. S. Naipaul has writtena travel book about Africa should have you ready to assume the brace position. It’slike finding out that Norman Mailer left behind an unpublished manuscriptdetailing his true views on women, or that the elderly Ezra Pound wrote an epicpoem about Jewish bankers. According to his erstwhile protégé Paul Theroux,Naipaul once remarked that  “Africansneed to be kicked” and said their continent is “obscene, fit only forsecond-rate people.” Anyone who has read his novels and travelogues knowsthat he despises illiteracy, violence, and above all the failure to bend theknee to literary genius. When Naipaul meets Africa, then, expect a train wreck.


Naipaul’s best and worst work has come from Africa. A Bend inthe River, set inZaire, is among the finest novels ever to emerge from the continent, but Halfa Life, setpartly in Mozambique, must rank among the most sluggish victory laps by arecent Nobel Laureate. His present book, The Masque of Africa, isNaipaul’s first travel writing since 1998’s Beyond Belief, and ittakes on the question of African belief—the fundamental views of the world heldby people he meets in Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, Gabon, and South Africa. ForNaipaul the Uganda portion marks a return: he lived and taught there in the1960s, a catastrophic period portrayed memorably by Theroux in Sir Vidia’sShadow. Heseems to have mellowed considerably since then. Theroux’s Naipaul was calledupon to judge a campus literary competition and announced that the entries wereso bad that he would award only one prize, called Third Prize. Now Naipaulmostly 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 asurprising mixed success. Naipaul, who was 77 when he finished writing thisbook last year, will rightly be indicted by cultural policemen for a wide arrayof strange and firm opinions, often rooted in the usual antiquated view ofAfrica as a more rural and backward place than it actually is. These objectionsare predictable and often valid. He mentions his disappointment that the Pygmyforests of Gabon are not the dark, primeval “Hansel and Gretel”forests of his imagination. And his reverence for animal life—particularly catsand dogs, whose conditions he reports literally everywhere he goes—perhapsreflects a Western or Hindu sensibility that makes for a poor way to judge thehealth of a place like Nigeria or Gabon. More seriously, Naipaul’s impliedargument, that traditional African animist beliefs explain the cultural andpolitical currents of the continent, is fundamentally undeveloped, since ittakes the form not of an argument but of a series of disconnected episodes. Isuppose subtitling your book “Glimpses of African Belief” lets youget away with a lot of impressionistic work on African religion, but still oneyearns for a more rigorous test of this idea.


That said, what surprises is the overall vigor and attention thatNaipaul applies to the task of traveling to a range of African destinations andinterrogating people about what they think about the world. Naipaul hasapproached 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 othersources that might guide him in understanding how illiterate civilizationsreacted to conquest by literate ones. Naipaul adduces the passage from Tacitusabout the Germanic tribes’ unwillingness to build temples and shrines, sincethey refused to insult their gods by imprisoning them in structures. Thecomparison is a rich one, and it is one of several moments when Naipaul showsthat he is at least being more original than the critics who accuse him of whatis at root the same political incorrectness so gloriously flaunted in his Islambooks.


One might even go further. Ultimately The Masque of Africa‘s most serious flaw is notdenigration of Africans, but rather a kind of resigned impartiality toward them.Naipaul shakes his head repeatedly at the problem of the persistence of culturein illiterate societies, but he seems resigned to the fact of the illiteracyrather than willing to embrace the nonliterate cultural systems that do exist. Heallows his subjects to speak, sometimes at great length and in directquotation, about their views of, say, the supernatural, the spirits of trees,the role of magic in everyday life. Compare Naipaul’s results to those ofEdward E. Evans-Pritchard, for example, in Witchcraft, Oracles, and MagicAmong the Azande, and onesees that these systems are rich in ways Naipaul does not convey, and managealso to be internally consistent. To find political correctness, one still hasto look for a politician, and to find insight about Africa, one is still bestserved by looking for an anthropologist.