December 2010 - January 2011

Arts & Letters

Magical thinking

By Aravind Adiga
Shamans at a funeral ceremony, Ivory Coast. © Fulvio Roiter / Corbis
Aravind Adiga on VS Naipaul’s ‘The Masque of Africa’

For over 40 years now, VS Naipaul has met, interviewed and annoyed people in dozens of countries to produce a body of travel writing that challenges the basic tenets of a liberal world view. Multicultural democracies such as India and the UK treat binary distinctions of identity (white–black, Christian–Muslim) with scepticism. See things from the other person’s perspective, you are told; we are all made of the same human stuff, after all. This is mushy, third-rate thinking for Naipaul. The differences between human beings, he insists, are more important than the similarities. Some things in this world – the rule of law, science, straight roads, sanitation – are objectively good, and there are a few societies, primarily in the West, that provide such things for their citizens. Most South American, Asian and African nations satisfy their residents with religion, military bravado or the cult of the dictator; after a while, such societies collapse into barbarism and civil war. Showing little enthusiasm for the normal sort of tourist highlight, Naipaul spends most of his time in an African or Asian country observing toilet habits, checking the straightness of roads, and sampling local novels before coming up with a savage thesis about his host nation – that it exists in “darkness”, for example, or shows “childishness”.

Travel writing of this nature was bound to be controversial but, as Patrick French’s biography of Naipaul points out, his Trinidadian origins spur him to seek out and revel in controversy. There are three great trade routes along which the Naipaul controversies steer. The first is his depiction of India. When I was growing up in a small south Indian town in the 1980s, I was told to keep away from Naipaul’s two travel books about his ancestral land – An Area of Darkness (1964) and India: A Wounded Civilization (1977). No one has written as harshly about India as the young Naipaul, who saw a land mimicking western concepts of democracy and law without understanding them. Yet India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990) – Naipaul’s Lotus Sutra – was so compassionate, so insightful in its vision of India as a land that grows through strife, that his differences with Indians were settled at once. Sir Vidia is now treated like royalty each time he visits Delhi – flattered, feted and claimed as a native son.

Islam is the second controversy. Intrigued by Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution, Naipaul travelled through Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia to write Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981), the central epiphany of which is that Islam works by sanctifying rage. Naipaul saw Shia Muslims, night after night, lament the death of Ali and the betrayal of Hussein – events that took place over a thousand years ago – as if they were recent wounds; through ritual, music and liturgy, Islam offered the continuous sensation of intoxicating rage, which explained the unstable nature of Muslim societies. He revisited those countries to write Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples (1998), which suggested that Islam is not a religion in the way that Christianity or Buddhism are, but an imperialising force that uproots converts from their native setting. To prove they are true Muslims, despite their distance from the sacred soil of Mecca, the converts of Asia alienate themselves from their food, dress, speech and ancestry. You leave the book feeling that Islam could never form the basis of authentic personal or political experience in Asia. Naipaul’s critics point out that Islam has many sacred sites in India and Pakistan, that the religion has been liberating for lower-caste Asians, and that Islam can coexist with – and even nurture – strong regional identity in Asia. Together, the two books constitute a cranky minority report on Islam.

The third controversy is the most bitter: that in his travel books about the Caribbean and Africa, Naipaul has written about black people in ways no white man could ever have got away with. Critics say that Naipaul’s Africans are invariably “mimic men” (to borrow the title of his 1967 novel) who fail to understand the western institutions (government, law, police) they are aping, and whose societies are collapsing in ways that reinforce the most clichéd ideas about the Dark Continent.

Also disquieting is Naipaul’s fixation on the physicality of Africans; there are too many mask-like faces and angular, dark, shining bodies in A Bend in the River (1979) for my liking. The man does not seem to enjoy his time in Africa much, yet he keeps writing about it. I wonder if it is a substitute for writing about his native land, Trinidad, from which he is apparently estranged. Whatever the reason, after a decade in which he has published only a few baffling, bantamweight books, the 78-year-old has gone back to Africa to produce a full-length work, The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief (Picador, 325pp; $34.99). This time his theme is traditional African religion.

Starting from his old haunt, Uganda, and working his way through Ghana and Nigeria, Gabon and the Ivory Coast, he interviews the holy men and witchdoctors of Africa’s living pagan present, and speaks to Muslims and Christians who retain ties to the old faith, before going down to South Africa to see how folk religion survives in the continent’s most modern nation. It promises to be a fascinating subject, and the book fulfils a part of this promise. We move through the slums and traffic of Lagos to find a shaman who will answer all personal questions (Naipaul touchingly asks if his own daughter will marry); we are taken to the sacred groves of Nigeria, and to men who seek spiritual energy in the forests of Gabon.

Just when The Masque of Africa starts to seem like one of his first-tier books, Naipaul’s personality hijacks it. When he learns that residents of the Ivory Coast enjoy eating cats by boiling them alive – Naipaul is apparently a cat person – he decides that the whole country is worthless: “The thought of this everyday kitchen cruelty made everything else in the Ivory Coast seem unimportant.” Later on, in South Africa, when he finds that animals are eviscerated in magic rituals, he decides that the entire place is a let-down: “I thought it all awful, a big disappointment. The people of South Africa had had a big struggle. I expected that a big struggle would have created a bigger people, people whose magical practices might point the way ahead to something profounder.” Perhaps tellingly, the most moving part of The Masque of Africa turns out to be about an Indian – Mohandas Gandhi. How Gandhi’s time spent in South Africa fits into this book is not clear, but Naipaul writes about it with feeling, as if it were the only thing of value in a cat-boiling, cow-eviscerating continent.

India, even in Naipaul’s early, excoriating books, is a country that is open to Hegelian forces of historical change and growth; his Africa is static. Flying in to Uganda, Naipaul looks down and thinks:

The shiny new corrugated-iron roofs gave you the feeling that in spite of the bad recent past, forty years as bad as anything in Africa – murderous tyranny followed by wars and little wars – there might be a money frenzy down there now.

Indeed, when he lands in Uganda, he finds banks, new houses – but where have they all come from? The population has grown, Naipaul says, so the banks must have followed. As if by magic. But the magic lies only in Naipaul’s thinking about Africa. Some African nations have better human development indices than India does. Their progress is real, and it can only have happened with community, government and civil society – forces he never acknowledges. It is as if Naipaul cannot accept the idea of modernity in Africa. Wherever Africans are in harmony with “nature” – as in the sacred groves of Nigeria and the forests of Gabon – he approves; wherever they are in full contact with modernity, as in South Africa, he feels they are out of place. Shamanism and the boiling of live cats may be part of African life, but the book presents them as if they were the only authentic parts of the continent.

For nearly half a century, Naipaul has made a powerful case for enlightenment. He has warned against the temptation, in a changing world, of glancing back at the tribe and its sheltering darkness; he has urged us to look to the bright metropolis for our values. Yet, as The Masque of Africa shows, his writings on Africa remain the weakest part of his oeuvre: a purblind spot in the gaze of the man who sees more clearly than anyone else around.

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