Naipaul’s Mysterious Africa

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Chris Steele-Perkins/Magnum
A sangoma, or traditional healer, with her apprentices, Soweto, South Africa, 1981

It’s hard to be fair to V.S. Naipaul. Fans who have gotten pleasure and enlightenment from the work of this supremely gifted literary artist face a daunting prospect. Here’s a new book, The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief, the latest of his exercises in forensic tourism in the third world. His previous books in this genre have been mordant classics, most of them. But today, the terrain between reader and book is dominated by increasingly polarized right/left critical pigeonholing of the import of his work; and by eruptions of authorial terribilità infantile in the form of insults, feuds, and streams of self-contradictory ex cathedra political utterances.

Hanging over the varying approaches to Naipaul’s work is the bad air released by Patrick French’s biography, written with his subject’s full cooperation. The glamour of Naipaul’s achievements (the great novels, the formidable travel works, the essays, the Nobel Prize) and the sympathy elicited by his heroic overcoming of the obstacles facing a poor “Trinidadian of Hindu descent” in racist London and its literary world of the 1950s and 1960s are dissipated by the horrific account of his conduct with the women in his life. This material is so dire that some readers will be tempted to pick up the lens of abnormal psychology in order to interpret much of his work.

The Masque of Africa records Naipaul’s impressions of Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Gabon, and South Africa in 2008–2009. Naipaul has dealt with Africa primarily in his fiction, notably and fully in his major novel A Bend in the River, and partially in In a Free State, Half a Life, and Magic Seeds. He published a long article on the Ivory Coast in 1984, one on the Congo in these pages in 1975, and another on Mauritius in 1972.

Roughly characterizing Naipaul’s travel books, one might say that they are beautifully written, in his highly controlled lyrical-realist style; the character portraiture is deft and the selection of significant detail is inspired. They are deeply pessimistic about the prospects for the nations newly freed from Western colonialism. (The exception is India, in his last visit there, where the late unshackling of capitalist impulses leads to a more optimistic view.)

Bleak comedy abounds. Naipaul is complexly both humane and censorious toward the poor and their shortcomings. His investigations tend to arrive at or assume cultural explanations for the weaknesses of the new independent states. In India’s case, for example, Naipaul identifies the psychosocial aftereffects of the Muslim conquest seven hundred years ago as a primary obstacle to progress, though, for example, the caste system predated it. He is not sparing on the evil legacies of imperialism, when he gets around to them.

Fiction and the travel books form the double keystone to Naipaul’s career. The travel books have been commercially successful. If …

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