Tuesday, October 19, 2010

V.S. Naipaul's The Masque of Africa: A Review, Part I

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. . .]


Lindsay said...

"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."


I do think that some cultures are less violent than others, but ours is not one of the peaceful ones. :(

There are a couple of stories I read elsewhere that I thought of while reading this post: there's this post from Natalia Antonova at Feministe, about a Russian journalist who confronted a guy who was making loud objectifying comments about her, only to be shot in the foot by that same guy; and this post at I Blame the Patriarchy about a recent ruling in the United Arab Emirates that a man can beat his wife as long as he doesn't leave marks. Both of those posts made the point that, as horrible as the things being reported are, they are not unique to the non-western cultures in which they occurred. Violent street harassment *and* tacit acceptance of domestic abuse are both endemic right here in the U.S., and even though there might be cultural factors that play a role in individual cases (Natalia mentions some in her post), it's missing the point in a big way to think that violence and cruelty are only a problem Over There.

(To be clear, I think you get that, and the commenters at I Blame the Patriarchy do too. I was disappointed by how many Feministe commenters were all, "Wow, those crazy Russians!", though, even when Natalia *told them not to make this a let's-all-gawk-at-Russia thing* right there in her post.

Lindsay said...

I also remember wanting to read some of V.S. Naipaul's books right after he won the Nobel Prize. I don't remember which one I ultimately cracked open, though --- I didn't get through it, thought it was a bit dry and hard to get into.

Maybe I'll give A House for Mr. Biswas a try, though. I'm usually a fan of postcolonial fiction, and I like to give much-admired authors several tries before I decide I like them or I don't.

Clarissa said...

Lindsay: how do you manage to link from comments? If you share this knowledge with me, I will be eternally grateful. As hard as I've tried, I can't manage to do this.

I know about this horrible case in Russia. As a person who has been harrassed both in Russia and in the US, I can say that both are equally unpleasant. (A sad smile is supposed to go here.) So I know exactly what you mean.

Clarissa said...

"Maybe I'll give A House for Mr. Biswas a try, though."

-I highly recommend. Not only is it beautifully written, but also the kind of honesty that this writer practices is quite overwhelming.

Lindsay said...

The same HTML codes --- < a href = "your URL here" >blahblahblahtextblah< /a > (but without spaces) --- that you use to link in posts still works in comments.

Clarissa said...

Ok, let's see if I manage to link to this blog from the comment.

Clarissa said...

It worked!!!!!! Thank you, Lindsay, you are my hero!!!!