I couldn't wait for V.S. Naipaul's The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief to come out. Naipaul is one of my favorite writers. In his amazing A House for Mr. Biswas, he describes the post-colonial experience, my post-colonial experience, the way nobody else knows how to do. Naipaul is hated by many for his condescension, his nasty personality, his male chauvinism. He is even more hated for refusing to participate in the facile celebration of national independence and an even more simplistic condemnation of the empire. Any search for one's "authentic" self, as Naipaul demonstrates time and again, is a farce. Any "return to one's roots" is silly. Naipaul's honesty about his painful and complex relationship with the Empire has garnered him many enemies. His impeccable style has angered those willing to dismiss him as a quack who only got his Nobel Prize for political reasons.
Many of those who enjoy Naipaul's novels have found his travel books unpalatable. His India: A Wounded Civilization makes many of his reader fume with rage. I have no doubt that the same will be true for The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief. Since I don't know as much as I would like about either India or Africa, I always prefer to read Naipaul's travel books in terms of what the writer is telling me about himself in these books, rather than what he has to say about the places he visits.
Overall, I think the book is a failure. "Against that ordinariness, which consumed everything, there was no defense", says Naipaul about modern-day Kampala almost at the beginning of the book. This statement defines, in my opinion, the general mood of the book. Naipaul never warms to his subject. He lists the things he saw in Africa without offering the profound analysis he is capable of. He allows his voice to be colonized by the numerous interviews with the people he met, most of whom offer nothing but platitudes, such as "We have to have honor for the sake of our fathers," "We have to wake up to our responsibility." In order to offer the readers some respite from the unrelieved boredom of these stories, Naipaul relates stories of African belief that can be seen as shocking, unusual, or exotic. He attempts to substitute analysis with an endless lithany of details about each practice he discusses, which fails to make these stories any less mundane. When that is not enough to interest either the author or his readers, Naipaul enumerates some of the news items from a local newspaper: "Man burns 10 to death in hut," "My husband was hacked to death as I watched," "Accused of burying her son alive," etc. As hard as Naipaul tries to link these events to African belief, he fails since I could read any such piece of news and more in our local St. Louis Metro area newspaper.
[To be continued. . .]