An Unhappy Time
The Masque of
Africa by VS Naipaul
The throwing of mud at an older author by a younger one is never pretty, and Paul Theroux was naughty to have done it. But with the passing of time, some of the judgments cast at VS Naipaul in Theroux's Sir Vidia's Shadow (1998) and elsewhere seem valid. They are certainly borne out by this mainly laborious travel book, which seeks to examine the workings of African traditional belief. The occasion for this "travelling on a theme", as Naipaul likes to call it, is a series of recent trips in Uganda, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Ghana and South Africa, with occasional reference back to previous visits to some of those countries during the 1980s and the 60s.
The book does try to take a good shot at explaining its subject. Rightly, as the title suggests, it identifies performance as a key aspect of some African religions. But Naipaul only scratches at the surface, and that is no surprise. Given the complexity and diversity of African magical belief, anthropologists are far better equipped to investigate it than novelists or travel writers. The Masque of Africa does get much better in the last third, with good descriptions of west African forests and the fetishes that are still worshipped in them.
Alas, these paragraphs are far too few. Overall, the book suffers by comparison to travel titles that similarly try to cover a large part of African experience, such as Theroux's own Dark Star Safari (2002) or Dan Jacobson's The Electronic Elephant (1994). It is fairly amazing that Naipaul should have made these kind of journeys in his late 70s but what critical allowances should be made for that, I don't know.
The opening chapter of is set in Uganda. It focuses on the tombs of Mutesa and other Bugandan Kabakas at Kasubi. Naipaul's reflections on this Unesco World Heritage Site, its history, its use of local materials, its uneven floor suggesting burial of sacrificial remains, would have more validity if he had mentioned that it burned down in March this year.
More lowly aesthetic forms than the lost tombs spike Naipaul's irritation: hand-painted advertisements on the sides of shops, a field of folk art that is developing into something larger and more important, to him are simply "bright and repetitive". This cultural hauteur spills over into a patronising attitude to Ugandan history in his consideration of the "little country with its great suffering".
What there is, if Naipaul is to be believed, is a Ugandan national character. Because John Hanning Speke, the explorer, writes in the 1860s that Mutesa's people are very hygienic, for students today living amid mounds of garbage, "it would have gone against their instinct". Yet elsewhere, rubbish is "just the African way".
He never writes of Africa with anything remotely approaching love. Throughout, instead, he worries about something called "trouble". Whenever it is on the horizon, he tries to make a quick exit. "It seems as if we are asking for trouble...The trouble came later . . . There was some trouble about the lights – some bulbs had gone... Already something was in the air and was pricking my nostrils, a sign of trouble to come."
Another thing that troubles him is the cost of it all ("I felt the witchdoctor's bill growing by the minute"). It is hard – at any rate this reader finds it hard – to dispel the impression of a writer who resents the experiences he has chosen to undergo, in order to produce his material. He seems to have suffered asthma in the course of these journeys, but by the time he is being pushed through the bush in a wheelbarrow, one is not sorry.
There are also problems in the texture of the book. There are a number of repetitions, such as telling us twice about the bark-cloth that hung to the floor at Kasubi, concealing the "forest" where the Kabakas reside after death. Or, again, "Richmond (who had a Danish ancestor)". Maybe Naipaul, with these repetitions, is trying to develop a Gertrude Stein-like prose style, or he doubts the reader's capacity to retain information. They certainly read very strangely, as if added by another hand. That could be a kind of magic but I doubt it's the Fang masters, lacking as they do the "analytical intelligence" required for literary work.
(R) thedailystar.net 2010