Rites and Wrongs: Naipaul’s New Books

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, writing for The Indian Times, looks at Naipaul’s The Masque of Africa and is not impressed.

V.S. Naipaul’s vast corpus has been characterised by several distinctive features: the luminosity of his prose; the ability to go beyond the surface currents of history and capture something far more important but elusive; the underlying mood of cultures in crisis; the artfully presented (some might say constructed) interviews that often poignantly reveal psychological burdens and complexities of history more than historical tomes do. His own judgments can, of course, be frustrating at times: too quick, sometimes ignorant, sometimes wilfully provocative, too much at odds with the complexities he himself presents, rarely sympathetic. In fact, one of the paradoxes that mark his writing is that he is an author capable of recreating the depth of predicament like almost no one can. But that imaginative reach does not translate into an ability to sympathise. It is an interesting question whether Naipaul sees what he is able to, precisely because he does not have a trace of sympathy; as if to sympathise is to expose yourself to illusion. And if there is a psychological thread running through his oeuvre, it is a refusal to succumb to any illusion.

In many ways, Naipaul’s latest book, The Masque of Africa, is his weakest and thinnest. It is ostensibly an exploration of Africa’s original religions, their rites and practices, long subjugated by two different forces. On the one hand, there is modernity, with its masks of rationalism and enlightenment that delegitimises the enchanted world of rites and spirits, totems and sacrifices. On the other hand, there is the pressure of the great world religions, Islam and Christianity, that also bring, as Max Weber had described, their own forms of rationalisation and disenchantment, by sidelining a chaotic world of traditional religion through systematic theology. The book is, at one level, about this process in Africa — its deep fragility and inability to entirely colonise the “original” religion.

The Masque of Africa begins with Naipaul’s recollections of Uganda in the late Sixties, and then meanders through an assortment of countries from Nigeria to South Africa, charting through anecdotes the persistence and revival of traditional religion in Africa. Much of the book is preoccupied with a range of often chilling rituals, and you often wonder quite what the point is. Here and there, and particularly in an opening reference to Paradise Lost, there are hints that Naipaul is after a theodicy, or more precisely an anti-theodicy. The rationalism of the advanced religions, in some ways, abridges the complexity, violence and contingent character of most of life experience. It is not just the pressures of identity that lead Africans to a re-engagement with complex practices like witchcraft, diviners, ritual sacrifice of body parts, etc; it is that these rituals re-enact the messy process of history. Rationalism, in its secular or religious variant, denies chance, but more importantly the blood and gore that make us who we are. Naipaul’s foray into traditional religion is to make the blood and gore up front and central.

This could have been a powerful book, except that it is too lazy in its execution. Here, he makes no intellectual effort to engage with or weave in the history of the subject he is writing about. It is almost as if, like a colonial adventurer, he wants to discover these rites unmediated by any prior thinking. There is an almost naive quest to reach what he calls beginnings, as if observing a rite can take you into a primordial world, as if you do not need the intellectual labour to understand what exactly is going on when someone claims that a ritual sacrifice of body parts can tap into some source of energy. In short, the anthropology is thin.

There are some Naipaulian virtues still on display. The physical descriptions, expressed in his short, precise and clear sentences, are often quite powerful; they encompass the environment as well as an assortment of macabre and often violent rites. There are one or two moments of interesting psychological self-presentation. Early on in the book, a friend of his in Uganda, Susan, explains coping with a traumatic and violent history: “It is a case of being aware that there are so many influences vying for my being. I become a melting pot of experiences. I have many parts coming into one another rather than being one holistic whole.” Or, the very last paragraph, where Naipaul quotes from Rian Malan’s book on South Africa, My Traitor’s Heart, “I think you will know what I mean if I tell you that love is worth nothing until it has been tested by its own defeat.” Naipaul’s gloss on this is equally pithy, but far more enigmatic. He takes this as an elliptical way of saying “that after apartheid a resolution is not really possible until the people who wish to impose themselves on Africa violate some essential part of their being”. But such moments that provoke thought are rare in this book.

There have been other powerful meditations on the theme of violence, religion and sacrifice — ranging from René Girard to, more recently, Roberto Calasso’s The Ruin of Kasch. There is no obligation on Naipaul to engage in a scholarly sense with these kinds of meditations. But this lack of engagement vividly drives home a question: What exactly is Naipaul trying to do? Has he become one of his own tragic characters, where the virtuosity remains, but the substance is thinning?

For the original article go to http://www.indianexpress.com/news/rites-and-wrongs/691333/0

Image from http://searchingforlaugh.blogspot.com/2007_09_16_archive.html

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