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Friday, 12 November 2010

Review: The Masque of Africa, VS Naipaul (2010)

One thing I hear from time to time is how Africa is fruitlessly and frustratingly homogenised by Western commentators and the media. Under the label 'Africa' lie hundreds of millions of souls and dozens of countries in a broad range of climatic regions, some landlocked, some small, some polarised by religion, others simply invisible. How, then, can Naipaul, the Nobel Prize winner (in 2001), honestly sit down at the launch's presentation table and diligently sign copies of this book for Ulrike and Sarah and Gianna and still keep a straight face? How can he honestly think it possible to encapsulate truths about that enormous continent and all of its peoples, in one small volume that purports to say something useful about "African belief" as the subtitle advises us it deals with? Thankfully, Naipaul adhered the modest "glimpses" to that compendious rubric, and thereby saved himself a whole load of embarrassment.

I think the honest reader will not be disappointed with the book, despite this failure of courage by the author. Why, after all, didn't he visit all African countries instead of just six? Is he too frail of body to attempt such a task or was he simply overcome by it? But it will have to be enough that he accompanies the reader to Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Gabon, Ivory Coast and South Africa. There's no more time, unfortunately. It's getting late and we're tired of all this hobbling about in fields of grass as thick as an Afghan hound's pelt. Hush and be still. Let's see what we can find.

Quite a lot, as it turns out, and all of it elaborated in Naipaul's beautiful, concise prose, as simple and unadorned as a spoon. This implement is, of course, fashioned out of the best Sterling silver and not rough wood. So we're shown around by an educated Westerner, one who, to all intents and purposes, shares at least a majority of our prejudices and desires. Prejudices against cruelty to animals, children, women and the weak. Desires for fair-dealing, wisdom, intelligent conversation, and healthy food and sleep as restorative interludes between exotic encounters with village headmen and shamans. A desire for ordered, stimulating life. Fear of being hoodwinked. Or worse.

Belief is a tricky subject. It's what we instinctively rely on to negotiate everyday life. For a Ghanian or a Gabonese or a South African black, the pressing urgency of modernity can be a threat inasmuch as it clashes with the old ways, the ways of the ancestors. Naipaul ventures into contested territory that lies between the demands of the global economy and those of the forefathers. It's a location every African appears to be coming to terms with in his or her own way. For Naipaul, the contrarian liberal, it's a fascinating place to write about. Hence the book.

And of course, Naipaul is aware of his incipient failure. The journalistic style enables him to point to the specific when challenged on the grounds of the general. "I didn't go there," he can say. "I was too tired to continue that day," he might add. "I left a pair of sunglasses in the car in Abuja and then the sun made my eyes water so I didn't really see what happened after that." It's OK. We understand, Vidia. It's really not a problem.

The devastatingly abysmal national reputation tolerated by most African leaders and citizens on almost any modern scale of reckoning may be a contributing factor in terms of the homogenising influence of the media and Western commentary generally. Naipaul attempts to get behind the sad tales of corruption, inefficiency and quotidian tragedy by bringing his intellect to bear on the minutiae of African belief systems. These often clash with imports such as Christianity and Islam but, as Naipaul finds, the imports are also changed by the encounter. They become Africanised, which is something that seems not to occur for the author himself.

For those interested in witch doctors, magic charms and potions, voodoo and bloody rituals, this book is going to be a dud. What it shows, rather, is another way of dealing with the world, a world that is qualitatively different from that found in the West, which of course is a place where the state has taken precedence over the ancients, and the law has been long codified in writing rather than being handed down along lines of descent from father to son and from mother to daughter. And the writing is so good that you will need to concentrate. If you start dreaming because of a particular image you stumble across, it may take several paragraphs before you realise that you have completely lost the plot. Never mind. With Naipaul it's always a pleasure to do a quick recap before venturing on, again, into the shadowy core of the continent.

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