Someone asked me yesterday if I was enjoying posting the scathing reviews of Naipaul’s new book on the blog . . . and I have to confess I am. The enjoyment—uncharacteristically malicious as I have to confess it is—comes from seeing critics and venues accustomed to praising Naipaul to the skies sounding like his Caribbean critics. I have just finished the book, which I found truly appalling and very badly written, so this time critics cannot hide behind the argument that he may be saying hurtful things but the writing is “marvelous.” Here COLIN MURPHY reviews The Masque of Africa for The Irish Times. With this one I am calling a moratorium on posting more of these reviews . . . unless, of course, something truly extraordinary comes out.
IS VS Naipaul a racist or simply a misanthrope? The question is not an original one. Edward Saïd described him as peddling “colonial mythologies about wogs and darkies”; Paul Theroux, his one-time acolyte, said he had “race on the brain” (and said much worse, too); Derek Walcott has accused him, in comic verse, of “self-abhorrence”.
The surprise, perhaps, is that the question suggests itself so early, and so often, in The Masque of Africa , an account of his travels in various African countries, in pursuit of an understanding of “African belief”. There are the glib dismissals of various peoples: the rural poor of Ivory Coast who are “not yet a peasantry”; in Ghana the “idle fellows” surviving by selling bush meat by the roadside; in Gabon a passing reference to Chinese logging companies as expressing “the Chinese hatred for the earth”.
Then there are the repeated, thematic references to Africans as unable to control their fertility, their appetite or their waste. An orphanage in Ivory Coast brings to mind “Africa drowning in the fecundity of its people”; in Uganda he notes that, “given guns and left to themselves, they would easily eat their way through the continent’s wildlife”; at Yamoussoukro, mountains of garbage around the cathedral are evidence of “Africa reclaiming its own”.
In Lagos airport he reflects on the chaos and the apparent excess displayed at the baggage carousel, before being subjected to a mildly amusing ordeal of misunderstandings and apparent indifference by taxi drivers and hotel staff. This takes six pages. It has the wearied tone of the rants you hear in expatriate enclaves across Africa, from people lamenting the quality of their maids or the fecklessness of the local police.
I’ve done both, admittedly. Our maid robbed us wholesale, and I’ve paid my share of nuisance bribes. But it is the ubiquity of these experiences that renders them banal. In societies with huge inequality, and without cohesive government, people will reasonably seek to maximise the economic return from transactions that in wealthier societies might be considered to be bound by trust or obligation, not by profit.
This is called “rent seeking” by the academics; Naipaul uses an expressive Ugandan word for it, “hongo”, and he obsesses about it constantly, undermining his encounters with religious elders with an ever-present anxiety about if and when he will be expected to produce a bottle of schnapps or other customary gift. (Invariably, he fails to have the gift with him.)
The book is marred by apparent sloppiness as well as prejudice. He makes use of repetition as a stylistic device, but there is egregious repetition also. A grisly piece of lore about Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the Ivorian president and king, held that he had himself chopped into small pieces and boiled as part of a rite to gain eternal power – after boiling he re-emerged as a snake, then became man again. It is not a story that the reader is likely to forget quickly, but it is recounted in detail twice, in separate chapters, 20 pages apart.
Yet just when I have given up on Naipaul as a grumpy, tired and lazy old sod, something happens: a coherence emerges out of his previously inchoate inquiries into belief; with it, an apparently heartfelt intuition for the violence of colonisation. It coincides with his arrival in Gabon and continues through his account of South Africa, a country in which I have lived. I suspect it is no accident that both societies are more organised, less chaotic, and that his chief interlocutors in each are educated whites – a Peace Corps volunteer gone native in Gabon; the writer Rian Malan in South Africa – able to guide him through the mysteries of faith and race in his own language.
In Gabon he is moved by the integrity of the “old forest”, and his inquiries into Pygmy beliefs and other rites are less cluttered with demeaning asides. In South Africa, however, he finds his inquiries into belief are “stymied”; he sees that “here, race was all in all; that race ran deep as religion elsewhere”.
Fatima, his guide to the Apartheid Museum, explains for him “the great pain and, with that, the deception, for Africans, of political freedom and the end of apartheid”. Winnie Mandela gives him a succinct, impassioned account of Xhosa beliefs and of the disillusion found at the end of the South African rainbow. (“Peace throws up heroes like Tutu,” she observes, acidly but with magnificent contrariness.)
Seeking to understand the apparent dichotomy between Naipaul as colonial bore and Naipaul as sympathetic postcolonial interpretor I turn to his 2001 Nobel lecture. A further Naipaul emerges there: a young boy in Trinidad, of poor Indian heritage, knowing “almost nothing”, “surrounded by areas of darkness”. Those darknesses were the places that for other children comprise a complex sense of identity, and, when he became a writer, they became his subjects: “The land; the aborigines; the New World; the colony; the history; India; the Muslim world . . . ; Africa; and then England . . .”
He became a writer in order “to fill out my world picture . . . to make me more at ease with myself”. Seen through this prism, his tropes of African malaise appear more personal, less judgmental; an attempt to understand the follies of the colonial and postcolonial conditions (what he calls “colonial schizophrenia”) rather than a simply reflex rejection of their failures.
The question we opened with remains unresolved. As Joan Didion observed, in a sympathetic essay for the New York Review of Books : “He has become a question.” The surprise, perhaps, is that he is searching for an answer himself. The masque of the title is not merely the African pageant Naipaul observes; it is also the mask he dons.
The review appeared originally at http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/weekend/2010/1023/1224281785661.html