The Masque of Africa
Glimpses of African Belief
V. S. Naipaul
Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95, 256 pp.
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.