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,1 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 their popularity has something to do with a sort of guilt-relieving effect on readers living in the Western countries rejected by the newly independent nations, that’s one of those accidents. He wrote what he saw.

My term for these essays in travel is “tableaux,” because they are built out of scenes that elegantly evade the standard ambitions of travel writers toward the didactic and the comprehensive. These scenes are written to be beautiful in themselves, and typically, they are. Of his line of approach, Naipaul says elsewhere:

It is a writer’s curiosity, rather than an ethnographer’s or journalist’s. So while, when I travel, I can move only according to what I find, I also live, as it were, in a novel of my own making….

Naipaul’s characterization of his travel journalism as resembling a novel he inhabits should be taken seriously and kept in mind as one encounters these creations.



For my travel books I travel on a theme…. My theme is belief, not political or economical life…. Perhaps an unspoken aspect of my inquiry was the possibility of the subversion of old Africa by the ways of the outside world. The theme held until I got to the South, when the two ways of thinking and believing became far too one-sided.

Naipaul had been to Uganda before, in 1966, on a six-month writer-in-residence gig at Makerere University. Kampala has decayed since then. The once soothingly blank green hills bracketing the city are swamped now with undistinguished housing. The university, its population swollen to thirty thousand, up from four thousand when he was last there, is a mess: “mildewed halls and dormitories…outside, [the students] lived helplessly amid garbage.” There is a word of praise for the botanical garden built by the British.

Next, religion. Kampala is located within the boundaries of the old Buganda empire, whose king, or kabaka, the guardian of the tribal religion, had invited first the Arabs and Islam, and then the Christians, to replace the old belief system. Naipaul observes:


Foreign religion, to go by the competing ecclesiastical buildings on the hilltops, was like an applied and contagious illness, curing nothing, giving no final answers, keeping everyone in a state of nerves, fighting wrong battles, narrowing the mind.

As Naipaul states in his introductory note on the dust jacket, he has chosen to concentrate on the present significance of the old African beliefs, magical beliefs in particular. From the broad range of indigenous religious practices—divination, supplication, piety toward ancestors—he selects the magical dimension, sorcery in particular, muti (the ritual use of animal and human body parts) above all, as the central focus of this whole book, whose subtitle is, properly, “Glimpses of African Belief.” (Along the way, Naipaul makes some brief, friendly allusions to the attitude toward nature in the old beliefs.)

In the contemporary African religious arena, immense forces are at play—and few of them have any connection with the practice of the old religions. Not even glimpsed by Naipaul, for example, as he offhandedly explores the power of muti, are the ongoing outbreaks of bloody communal violence between Muslims and Christians; or the faith-based persecution of homosexuality and murders of homosexuals; or the faith-based guerrilla wars (the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda); or the faith-based conflict over the mismanagement of HIV/AIDS and campaigns of polio vaccination. All of the foregoing horrors are florid during his sojourn. This is not to say that the survival of witchcraft beliefs, especially in the rural areas, does not lead to recurrent injustice and suffering, but muti is not at the heart of the religious agony of Africa today.

The author visits the shrine-tomb of the Kabaka Mutesa. In preparation for the visit he asks a descendant of the kabaka why the foreign revealed religions “wrought such havoc with African belief.” The answer:

Both Christianity and Islam would have been attractive for a simple reason. They both offered an afterlife; gave people a vision of themselves living on after death. African religion…was more airy, offering only the world of spirits, and the ancestors.

At the tomb, the author admires the workmanship of its grass structure. A kitten is kicked around by a child at the site. Naipaul learns later that human sacrifices went into the foundations of the building. This leads to retellings of other ritual atrocities carried out by the founding kabakas, and of vaster horrors from the days of Milton Obote and Idi Amin.

Naipaul probes around in the direction of local witchcraft practices. There is a droll scene of his visit to a witch doctor, where his appointment is entirely consumed by protocol and maneuverings over money, so that no messages from the spirits are ever given. This makes a perfect shaggy dog story.

A lot has been written about African witchcraft. Detailed typologies have been worked out, distinctions made between the ends it addresses or serves, such as predictions of the future, determinations of guilt, grief counseling, revenge. For Naipaul, it’s once over lightly, yet he is still able to dream up a very far-reaching construct of its power: “To live in a world ruled by witchcraft, a world liable to irrational dissolution in its details, is to be on edge”; thus “being on edge can…turn to pain. It is of this pain, of people driven to extremity…that many of the items in the newspaper speak every day.” This leads to a summary of the reporting of crimes in the local paper, a few relating to crimes associated with witchcraft, most of them not dissimilar to items readily found in the police blotters of big-city America.

The Uganda episode draws to a close with Naipaul visiting the palace of the Queen Mother of Toro, another relic kingdom. He has the idea of an excursion to local sites connected with the traditional African religions. He says, “But since our arrival my interest in this part of the program had gone down and down.” No visits to significant sites take place. It’s almost comic, the frequency with which Naipaul’s desire to interrogate the culture is thwarted by his own waning interest or the annoying shenanigans of retainers to the occult elite.

What does Naipaul come up with? The pursuit of his subject matter has yielded a couple of offhand suggestions as to why the Baganda religion failed in its contests with rival European brands. One of these is the speculation that the ancestral afterlife available to males (only) was insufficiently attractive in comparison with others on offer. Another is the failure of the Baganda to develop writing and “scripts.” But other kingdoms had done so, and they had been taken down, too.


Finally, he causally connects, in an indefinite way, the history of political violence in Uganda up to the present with witchcraft beliefs. Here, a glance in the direction of the old imperial powers would certainly be in order, given the backstage role of the British in encouraging and supporting the vile Idi Amin. But Naipaul has declared his intention to ignore “political or economical life” in The Masque of Africa, except when, as “at the bottom of the continent,” they are “so overwhelming that they have to be taken into account.”



In Lagos, Naipaul asks a successful businessman with a vagarious religious trajectory what he knows about traditional African religious belief:

We have traditional deities that are well known internationally. Then there are sacred sites or shrines and festivals. There is a grove here. It is a recognized UNESCO site and here they have the festival of Osun Osogbo. Followers of the goddess gather here in hordes and they pray for what they want with the priests and priestesses. The sheer scale of human traffic at this festival is awesome. People come from Brazil, Cuba, the USA and Haiti, and it goes on for a week. On the final day a virgin with a big calabash on her head walks to the river followed by legions of people, and she pours the contents of the calabash into the river, giving it a libation. I was crushed by the people. I could not see the virgin.

As a specimen of the comedy to be found in Naipaul’s representations of conversations with informants, this is a gem. The businessman (a contractor, no name given) describes what the Yoruba religion looks like. As art (Naipaul’s) or as transcription, it is brilliantly illustrative of the weakening grasp of traditional religion among those not immersed in it from childhood. This is a meta-reply, and a good example of other exchanges the author presents.

The building blocks of Naipaul’s Nigerian sortie are the same ones we have seen employed in Uganda: snapshots of urban deterioration, population overgrowth, sardonic inspections of sacred buildings linked to the surviving subsystem, the old Nigerian tribal kingdoms (there is an informal king of Lagos), traces of progressive, humane attitudes showing occasionally in the comments of Western-influenced businesspeople (“an important business executive…was the only Nigerian I met who was an animal-lover”).

The descriptions of the collapse of the built environment can be snarky, as in this comparison:

In the distance, hugging the shores of the creek, was the great fisherman’s settlement, a degraded Venice, shacks on stilts just above the dark water which fed the shacks and which they in turn soiled.

Naipaul secures an introduction to a babalawo, a Nigerian soothsayer/herbalist/magician:

The little sanctum was full of unassorted things…. A mysterious object took up much of the room: it was part of an electric worktable…. This was clearly a found object of some importance, and the babalawo didn’t intend to let it go; he sat next to it.

Here is Naipaul’s account of this experience: “The babalawo’s cell became like the ship’s cabin in Room Service [sic] with the Marx Brothers, endlessly receiving new people.” This time, Naipaul does extract, from the babalawo, a long harangue on Yoruba cosmology, which he repeats in rough summary form. Naipaul is naughty with the babalawo, requesting a forecast of whether his daughter will marry. Of course, Naipaul has no daughter. The pulse of mockery beats close to the surface. In Naipaul’s get-together with intellectuals in Kano, in the Muslim north, he reports, “A third man, modest and attractive, said he was ‘a tiny writer’ in English.” Throughout the rest of the discussion, this man is referred to as “the tiny writer.”


Ghana, Ivory Coast, Gabon

In these three venues, Naipaul continues to add to the pile of evidence that folk religions are shrinking, or more interestingly, adapting by hybridization with Islam or Christianity.

Ghana: Naipaul skips a pursuit of the Ashanti religion. “The Ashanti religion…was not too intrusive. The same couldn’t be said of the religion of the coast Gaa people.” He goes for the Gaa, whose religion proposes a world so saturated with signs needing interpretation that a believer will require constant priestly interpretations of them. It also provides a route to eternal life as an ancestor: it is attainable for males who live rightly. What “rightly” means is not elucidated.

From the introductory note to The Masque of Africa:

I had expected that over the great size of Africa the practices of magic would significantly vary. But they didn’t…. In South Africa body parts, mainly of animals, but also of men and women, made a mixture of “battle medicine.” To witness this, to be given some idea of its power, was to be taken far back to the beginning of things….

To reach that beginning was the purpose of my book.

For an investigator whose subject is the inner structure of beliefs, Naipaul leaves many pertinent avenues unexplored. He leaves Ghana in distress after learning that dogs are on the menu in the north, and cats in the south.

Ivory Coast: After a lapse of twenty-seven years, Naipaul returns to discover that the leader-cult devised by President Félix Houphouët-Boigny has unraveled since the man’s death. After him, the most politically stable and prosperous country in West Africa abruptly descended into chaos: “The day came in 2004 when gangs of black men roamed the streets of Abidjan looking for white people to kill.”

The author is increasingly perturbed by the extreme cruelty to animals in this region. Abattoir practices are described. In the Ivory Coast, live cats are boiled for dinner. He says, “The thought of this everyday kitchen cruelty made everything else in the Ivory Coast seem unimportant.” The reader fully understands this emotionally, but it does constitute a bar to the carrying out of the author’s intended investigation of these strange and complex cultures. “Everything else” was surely not unimportant. As he says himself, “The land is full of cruelty….” All kinds of cruelty.

Gabon: Naipaul gets an impressionistic condensation of Gabonese folk belief from a former dean of the University of Gabon. Naipaul asks “whether in this ritual of honoring the ancestor there was contained the idea of virtue, the good life.” The answer is no. This Paris-educated man frequents witch doctors for advice in much the same way that Ronald Reagan and his wife consulted Jeane Dixon and President Lincoln went to séances, but in Naipaul’s vignettes, such reminders will not appear.

Naipaul goes to a “village” to witness an “initiation” (quotation marks his). There is staged dancing and drumming. The village is owned by a French entrepreneur. Naipaul is impressed by the energy of the performers. Later, the army captain appointed to be his bodyguard by the Gabonese defense minister, whose guest Naipaul is during the entire sojourn in Gabon, takes him to a genuine village of sedentarized pigmies (Naipaul uses this spelling of the word). It is the great forest and the “energies” it contains that provide the paramount metaphorical components in Gabonese folk belief. The pigmies are understood by urban Gabonese to have their own nexus with the great Unseen, and are consulted by those who can reach them. Naipaul attends a genuine initiation ceremony but finds it inferior to the tourist concoction available from the French tourist impresario.


South Africa

Naipaul’s journey ends in South Africa, the richest and most advanced country in independent Africa. His probings, so far, have seemed to forecast a dim future for the continent’s folk religions: sites sacred to it are in disrepair, its feudal sponsors are losing ground, the bloodlettings its rites stimulate have been criminalized, even if the penalties are unevenly enforced. But in South Africa, he reaches a paradoxical conclusion. Apparently, here, it’s not over for African folk beliefs, especially folk beliefs of the most sinister and transgressive kind. In Johannesburg, the author is appalled to discover the extensive spread of squatting in the abandoned tower blocks of the city center. He is even more appalled when he finds a vendor in charge of a comprehensive stock of magical paraphernalia—powders, roots, seeds, and a broad selection of animal body parts for use in muti:

In addition to the horse heads there were a number of heads of deer, split down the middle with a single blow from a sharp knife or axe…so that the brain of the poor animal could be taken away from the cranium and hawked about; and it was done so quickly that the thin-muzzled heads were still dainty and undamaged…with eyes that continued to look alive and interested and unafraid.

The effect of this discovery on Naipaul is explosive:

I thought it all awful, a great disappointment. The people of South Africa had had a big struggle. I expected that a big struggle would have created bigger people, people whose magical practices might point the way ahead to something profounder. It was impossible for any rational person to feel that any virtue could come from the remains of these poor animals. As it was impossible later to feel that any succour the local diviners offered could put right the great hurt that the big city and its ancillary too-stringent townships inflicted on the people who lived in them. There was nothing here of the beauty I had found in Nigeria among the Aruba people, with their cult, as it seemed to me, of the natural world; nothing here like the Gabonese idea of energy which was linked to the idea and wonder of the mighty forests…. You came to a feeling that its politics and history had conspired to make the people of South Africa simple.

Even given the author’s demonstrated sympathy for the suffering of animals (and he is a vegetarian), this weird outburst is quite a surprise. At the end of the book, whose “theme is belief, not political or economical life,” except in the “overwhelming” case of South Africa (witness the deer heads), he develops a contradictory view, one that in essence takes back his previous approach to interpretation. Now, it must be the “stringency” of the old imperialists that led the conquered peoples to susceptibility to the cruelest practices in their indigenous religious heritage, and made them “simple.”

There is further shock in store for the author. His informant Fatima, who has a checkered religious past, tells him, “Even if you are a Christian you will sacrifice an ox for the ancestors. In some places they sacrifice the ox or cow and wrap the body in the skin for burial. The animal has to scream so that the ancestors hear it….” He says, “And just as that Ivory Coast way of preparing cats for the table made everything else in the country seem unimportant, so that sacrificial way with cattle darkened everything else here.”

The last straw, for Naipaul, is what he hears from the leader of an unnamed youth organization who is a ferociously anti-Western Zulu traditionalist: this man, who has a significant following, attacks Western culture generally, not excluding Cinderella and pixies, fast food franchises, and Nelson Mandela. The youth leader devotes the last part of his tirade to a defense of the cruel practices of ritual slaughter. To Naipaul, this means that the nativist sentiment for beastly practices, somehow encouraged by the Boers and the Brits (a theory largely at odds with his “findings” in the first 202 pages of the book), threatens to carry the day in South Africa. It’s a puzzle.

The last interview is with Winnie Mandela, who, like the youth leader, attacks her former husband as a sellout and betrayer of the black revolution. She has unkind remarks for Bishop Tutu and some kind ones for her ancestors, whom she consults when she feels she needs to. An oddity of this particular interview is that it was conducted by Naipaul’s second wife, Nadira, who is not to be found in the room as Naipaul presents the occasion. A further oddity is that when it was published in the London Evening Standard earlier this year, Winnie Mandela alleged that it had never taken place, which of course it had.

There it ends, almost. The final element in the South African episode is a retelling of a parable from Rian Malan’s book My Traitor’s Heart (1990), about a couple, Neil and Creina Alcock, who had dedicated their lives to the service of black South Africans and the struggle against apartheid. Neil was killed in an ambush as he was driving to an indaba, a peace meeting he was to attend to arrange a truce between warring local Zulus. From this sad event, Naipaul derives an insight: “After apartheid a resolution is not really possible until the people who wish to impose themselves on Africa violate some essential part of their being.” I have no idea what this means. I believe that Naipaul is a great artist who in his nonfiction ventures has a tendency to fall apart. When the dynamic of his observation demands a convincing intellectual summation, often he falters, says anything, resonantly, and bemuses the reader.


I think I was correct in calling these travel accounts “tableaux.” They are not country studies of the sort the State Department produces. They are art objects.

Trying to figure out Naipaul’s foundational worldview is too hard for me. It’s a secret he works to keep. He strews around all manner of conflicting clues. Is he an Empire Loyalist? Not really. Not if you read his columns of acidic comment on modern England published in the Illustrated Weekly of India in the 1960s. And not if you read his The Loss of El Dorado (1969), a powerful indictment of the settling and ravaging of Trinidad.

Is he a champion of the insulted and injured? Sometimes, with reservations—and often he forgets that their poverty is making somebody up the pyramid happy and rich. He has written in praise of the fundamentalist ideology of Hindu nationalism. Does that have anything to do with the murmurs of tenderness he expresses toward certain features of the old African religions—a tenderness appearing so fitfully and faintly earlier in The Masque of Africa that its reemergence in this last chapter is rather perplexing? I don’t know. He is passionately against cruelty to animals. One can be certain of that.

This Issue

November 11, 2010