Wednesday, October 20, 2010

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

At the very beginning of the book, Naipaul shares that he decided to come back to Africa because it was a place that inspired A Bend in the River, one of his greatest masterpieces. To me, it seems like the author decided to visit the place that inspired him so much decades ago in search of his somewhat lost creative spark. He mentions in The Masque of Africa that while he was writing his 1979 novel, he hardly saw anything around him. It's obvious to any one who read A Bend in the River that this novel had a lot less to do with Africa than it had with Naipaul's own post-colonial experiences. This is why his attempts to open himself up to Africa and African belief systems fail so badly: he is a writer who writes beautifully about himself, but has no interest for nor patience with things that don't concern him personally.

Since none of what he sees around has any connection to his experiences, Naipaul feels page after page with gratutitous stories of a lonely, starving kittens and of how much (almost to the cent) he had to pay for every encounter with every person. Whenever the author tries to talk about daily life in Africa, he only manages to produce a string of trivialities. To give just one example:
Uganda was Uganda. Education and school uniforms, giving an illusion of possibility, was easy; much harder was the creation of a proper economy.
It seems like even his signature style that has captivated readers all over the world has deserted Naipaul here. Of course, whenever he abandons the fruitless attempts to discuss things that are of no great interest to him and returns to his favorite subject of himself, Naipaul is back to his beautiful and incisive writing. For example, the passage where he describes his arrival at the airport in Lagos is truly delightful. Then, however, he goes back to a plodding retelling of what people he finds eminently boring (which is pretty much every single person on the planet aside from himself) told him about African belief systems.

From time to time, Naipaul's sly sense of humor breaks through the tedium of his narrative and he regales us with playful little stories about his African experiences. In Nigeria, Naipaul visits a babalawo and asks him to answer a question that supposedly bothers him a lot: "Will my daughter get married?" After showing his surprise that such questions perturbed men from far away lands, the babalawo proceeds to offer his answer:

The babalawo said, “The girl is not going to get married. You have many enemies. To break their spells we will have to do many rituals. They will cost money, but the girl will get married.” Everyone in the room was quite excited. Adesina, his brother, the guide: the babalawo had them all in the palm of his hand. I said, “But what he’s told me is good. I don’t want the girl to get married.” The babalawo looked appalled.

I know that if I were in Naipaul's place I wouldn't be able to resist a similar piece of feminist playfulness. I just wish the writer showed us this side of himself a lot more in this book instead of being ponderous and grave most of the time.


KT said...

Now I want to read the book. One of the reasons why I love travel writing is the way little things can bring about moments of profound revelations, and humour. Wish I could write like that.

And I love Naipaul, yet wonder if the turn-ons of the book will be enough to offset the turn-offs.

Thanks for the review.

mari said...

Interesting review. Not sure I'm going to read this one just yet...I discovered Naipaul in college when I was assigned In A Free State which I thought was something of a mindblower. Loved it, and went on to read several of his other works.

BTW, did you ever read Theroux's book about their friendship? I think it's called In Sir Vidia's Shadow. Very interesting, kind of sad, too.

Clarissa said...

I'm resisting either of Naipaul's famous biographies (the one you mention and The Worl Is What It is). I know that the biographies will tell me that Naipaul is a condescending male chauvinist, a snob, and a very unpleasant person. I kind of guessed that from his books as it is. Still, he is a genius and nothing in his personal life will change that for me.

Clarissa said...

"And I love Naipaul, yet wonder if the turn-ons of the book will be enough to offset the turn-offs."

-He writes a lot about Nigeria and I'd love to hear your take on his impressions of your country.

KT said...

I'll get a copy then.