Born in 1932 into a middle-class Indian family in colonial Trinidad, the novelist V. S. Naipaul began by writing about his home, then proceeded to the wide world beyond, where his investigations of the perplexities of selfhood amid the ruins of empire won him the Nobel Prize in 2001. Profoundly anti-idealistic, he seemed an unlikely Nobel winner, eschewing the liberationist enthusiasms of his fellow 1960s-era Caribbean writers in favor of a darkly mordant view of human possibility. The gloom and pitilessness with which he views our modern condition have fueled such broodingly powerful works of fiction as In a Free State, Guerrillas, and above all, A Bend in the River, the opening sentence of which offers perhaps the most crushing statement of nihilism in all of modern literature: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” Repeatedly in Naipaul’s pessimistic fiction, the postcolonial person emerging from European dominion proves doomed; freed from cultural servility, yet lacking durable traditions of his own, he oscillates between appetite and rage, grandiosity and self-loathing.

An accomplished travel writer, Naipaul has visited far-flung locales for news of cultural confusion and moral mayhem. He frequently engages religion, not as a believer, but as a skeptic interested in how religion intertwines with history and politics to shape—more often limit—individual lives. His new book returns him to a place he visited forty years ago. Africa, Naipaul confesses, “eluded” him back then, and now he sets out to catch its essence, which he locates in the residuum of animist belief underlying Africa’s precarious modernity. His voyages to Uganda, Congo, Ghana, Nigeria, Gabon, and South Africa yield a mix of anthropological description, diary notes, and journalism, all mustered to shed light on “the nature of African belief...[and] the world of spirits and the ancestors.”

A “masque” suggests rituals, and Naipaul duly describes shrines, ceremonies, and dances. But his title also hints at a disguise—the uncertain face Africans wear in the modern world, beset by a bewilderment of identity, their ancient beliefs obscured by overlays of evangelical outsider religions. To examine this mask, Naipaul interviews emblematic Africans like the educated Ghanaian, Kojo, “[whose] life had been so varied, full of unconnected or disparate parts,” that he hadn’t “worked out a way to pre-sent himself.” Through such disparate parts, Naipaul’s subtitle suggests, one can “glimpse” African beliefs.

But “glimpse” also suggests something fleeting and superficial, and my guess is that even an admirer of Naipaul is likely to close this book disappointed. In the past, the author’s notorious curmudgeonliness has often been rescued by the penetration of his observations and the depth and implication of his pessimism. Not here, alas. Sarcastic and smug, The Masque of Africa fails the basic traveler-writing challenge of seeing things anew. Rarely do we get the sense of Naipaul being struck by something that challenges an existing idea. On the contrary, he seems only to see what he already believes about Africa.

And that is mostly filth, demoralization, and danger. Arriving in Nigeria, he shrinks from the “chaos” of the Lagos airport. “It was horrible,” he writes, watching “the swollen black suitcases of Nigeria,” “the dangerous tumble of fat suitcases” on the baggage carousel. He observes a family whose teenage daughter periodically gives her younger brother “a good hard kick...or vicious cuff.” Outside, the airport reception area is “full of menace: raw concrete beams overhead, raw concrete pillars in front.” One wonders, what kind of experience can readers have in a country where even the suitcases and concrete at the airport are menacing?

This isn’t playing fair; Naipaul writes with a loaded pen. Endlessly he retails stories of Africa’s “casual cruelty,” taking sardonic pleasure in describing how the eighteenth-century Bugandan king, Sunna, at war with the neighboring Wasoga, took prisoners and “cut [them] up into small pieces,” because “it had long been Sunna’s wish to make a little mountain, a pyramid, of Wasoga flesh and bone.” A woman watches soldiers dismember her grandfather with an axe, then stuff the pieces into an anthill. Four brothers in Uganda strangle their aunt, remove her jaw and tongue (“no doubt for some private magical purpose”), and dump her in a banana field for dogs to eat. And on and on. I wonder about the veracity of these accounts. Is it really true that “hundreds” of innocent bystanders were summarily sacrificed at the 1993 funeral of Ivory Coast president Félix Houphouët-Boigny? Or that Gabon today hosts “many ritual sacrifices where the eyes are removed and tongues torn out of living victims?” Or that a “witch doctor” in a Johannesburg market sells the dismembered breasts of a white woman? Passing along rumors of dubious provenance, Naipaul gives his book a shine of lurid hearsay.

Beyond its gruesome violence, the Africa we visit in these pages is a place of annihilation and ruin. Visiting Uganda’s royal tomb, Naipaul is disappointed to find no kingly view of the hills, only “shacks and garbage ever spreading, that pressed in on the king’s tomb,” noting cryptically that “against that ordinariness, which consumed everything, there was no defense.” In Uganda he visits a chimpanzee sanctuary and indulges a dire reverie:

Just a little weakening of the central authority here, and all the elaborate support of the chimpanzee sanctuary would wither away.... Fifteen minutes or less with a gun could reduce these animals to the African bush meat their parents had become. The paths of the sanctuary, maintained now with so much trouble, would become overgrown; the neat grass roofs of the huts would slip and collapse.

Why is Naipaul bent on depicting Africa as “a calamity” in progress? It isn’t a matter, say, of the continent’s chronic food shortages, which he barely mentions. The answer has more to do with his view of civilization. Though he grew up with a colonial subject’s resentments, in the end Naipaul embraced the values of his colonizers, was educated at Oxford, and has lived his adult life among the rural English gentry. As novelist and traveler he has frequently satirized the Third World’s “mimic men” and “half-made men,” former subjects who bear what he calls, in this book, “the burden of newness”; he’s appalled by what he sees as the evanescence of their peasant traditions and the insecure self such paltry traditions engender. “How do Africans live with their African history?” he muses, lamenting their “absence of a script and written records,” their reliance on “the oral story [that] gives them only myths.” No particular friend of Christianity and Islam, Naipaul nonetheless presses the advantages of “a great world faith...with a great literature and famous solid buildings,” compared with “the much smaller thing, of grass,” that Africans possess.

Famous solid buildings! Such remarks illuminate an abiding dread of the emptiness of nature versus the solidity of a civilization measured in architecture and monuments—and in the intellectual monuments of literature, law, codes, and doctrines. Naipaul recalls being a boy in Trinidad, dismayed by the island’s skimpy sense of the past and imagining that “the light and heat had burned away” its history. “You couldn’t feel that bush or sea had a history,” he writes. “To have a sense of history you needed buildings, architecture.” A lifetime later, visiting Albert Schweitzer’s community in Gabon, he notes “no architecture, only nondescript tropical buildings, in ochre-coloured distemper, of no distinctive style, that seemed to have eaten up the past.”

These are both deeply revealing passages, and strange ones. How can nature burn away history? How can banal or merely functional architecture devour it? Significantly, in the current book it is only in South Africa, where he can discuss at length the novels of Herman Charles Bosman, or ruminate on the Afrikaner monument celebrating the Great Trek of the Boers, that Naipaul gets into high gear. Such objects to him are the stuff not only of criticism, but of civilization and, finally, of the self; and he clings to them ferociously, as if without them he will revert to being the terrified colonial boy who once looked in the mirror and saw absolutely nothing. Naipaul has made his career literally raising the fear of nothingness to an art form. It is through his obeisance to this fear, and not (in the harsh words of critic Edward Said) merely by purveying “colonial mythologies about wogs and darkies,” that he left himself open to Said’s charge of becoming, culturally and politically, “a witness for the Western prosecution.”

Even if one rejects that charge, The Masque of Africa has faults to spare. Naipaul’s prose feels both slapdash and repetitive—at one point he starts eleven sentences in a row with the pronoun “he”—and is so laden with parenthetical thoughts that it often feels less like writing than jotting. His rendering of African belief systems, lacking an anthropologist’s perspective, reads like parody (“To sneeze on the right side is good; to sneeze on the left is bad”). And while it may sound churlish—the man is seventy-eight, after all, and still out there traveling—I can’t help noting how obsessively Naipaul worries about expenses. Again and again he clutches his change purse, frets over how much he’s going to have to shell out to guide or chief or shrine-keeper, and plots his escape back to his hotel.

Harder to forgive is his condescension, his insistence on seeing Africans as simpleminded. Does he truly believe that in Gabon “only three colors are known: red, black and white”? In Accra, a Ghanaian guide with a European surname comments insightfully on provincial life, prompting Naipaul to reflect with surprise that “he had, after all, a gift of analytical thought”—before deciding that it “had perhaps come down to him from the Danish ancestor.” Worse still is his near-constant disgust. Visiting a Nigerian diviner, he fixates on the filthy condition of the man’s fetishes, including a notebook “furred with dirt, as though handled and handled by unwashed thumbs and fingers,” adding that “I didn’t wish to look too closely.” The shrine evokes “something lavatory and disagreeable,” and sets off a “tickle in my nose...that called for antibiotics.” This is Africa as infection, and included in the chapter “Sacred Places,” it again comes perilously close to mockery.

I’ve long maintained a firewall between my judgment of a writer’s life and work. One reason writers write, after all, is that they tend to be their best selves in the act of writing, rather like faith that affirms itself in the act of prayer; more important, any book you revere is one you’re glad exists. Naipaul, however, has all but smashed through my firewall. His contempt and misogyny, his comprehensive surliness, his envy of anyone else’s accomplishment—these and other unwelcome traits were laid out in The World Is What It Is, Patrick French’s excellent (albeit harrowing) 2008 biography. This desultory, dyspeptic and frankly bored travel book, with its lazy assemblage of “points” scored far more trenchantly in Naipaul’s novels, only deepens my disenchantment.

As antidote, I find myself turning back to his early book Miguel Street. An artfully simple chronicle of life in his hardscrabble island hometown, Port of Spain, it captured a milieu where cruelty existed, but was spiritedly counterbalanced by laughter and the gamesmanship of the streets, the jocularity of character and of “characters.” Both warmly affectionate yet somehow wholly unsentimental, its stories played a variant of literary calypso on the page and succeeded in catching a peculiarly bittersweet comedy—the full range of the human, in other words, which once, long ago, this author embraced.


Funding for this essay has been provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. 

Related: A Zairian Journey, by Rand Richards Cooper

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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Published in the 2010-10-22 issue: View Contents
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