Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Book of the Month: The Masque of Africa (V.S. Naipaul)

In the second section of his most recent, quite possibly his last, non-fiction book, Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief, V.S. Naipaul recounts an incident. He is in Nigeria and, in the company of his local guide, a Muslim named Adesina, he is visiting a babalawo —a soothsayer. On a little table in front of the babalawo are his magic things (Naipaul’s words), amongst which is a ‘sensationally dirty’ school exercise book. After the fee of the consultation is settled—the soothsayer initially demands a thousand dollars, but Adesina, ‘used to this kind of outrage’ remains calm and beats him down in the end to something much smaller—Naipaul has to ask the babalawo a question. Naipaul asks, ‘Will my daughter get married?’ (Naipaul does not have any children of his own, but his second wife has a grown-up daughter from her first marriage). The babalawo is thrown by this question. He says, ‘I thought only black people have such problems.’ The babalawo is nevertheless willing to give an opinion. He consults his exercise book, performs some rituals using cowry shells and two small gourds tied with a piece of string. Finally he is ready to tell Naipaul the future: ‘The girl,’ declares the babalawo portentously, ‘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 is quite excited. Adesina and his brother (both of whom, despite being Muslims, believe in and have maintained links with the traditional religion), Naipaul remarks, ‘the babalawo had them all in the palm of his hand.’ Then Naipaul says, ‘But what he [babalawo] has told me is good. I don’t want the girl to be married.’ Naipaul concludes the incident with the wry comment: ‘I believe only the reverence of Adesina and others saved the day.’

The above is a rare moment of light relief in an otherwise doleful book.

V.S. Naipaul, the recipient of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature, is a man who has reinvented himself in a literary career spanning more than five decades during which he has produced approximately thirty works of fiction and non-fiction.  He started off with novels. His early novels were brilliant works of satirical comedies with the Caribbean islands (where he was born and bred) as the backdrop. The two works from this period which stand out, for me, are Miguel Street and The House for Mister Biswas. Naipaul’s later fictional work became more sombre, assumed, for want of better phrase, more gravitas, and, as years went by, the humour—so fresh and evident in his early novels—vanished completely. You get a flavour of things to come in his 1967 novel Mimic Men, which, in parts, still has comic moments. The grave, almost mythical, tone of his fiction is really set from A Flag on the Island (which won the 1971 Booker Prize) onwards. The three novels from this period which I think are outstanding are (in chronological order): A Bend in the River, An Enigma of Arrival, and A Way in the World. A Bend in the River is perhaps my most favourite Naipaul novel, but A Way in the World is extraordinary, too. It is not a conventional novel at all; rather it is a complex interweaving of personal memories, stories of possibly real life characters, and historical metafiction: it is, quite simply, awesome.

Naipaul did not build his reputation solely on fiction, though. Had Naipaul restricted himself only to writing fiction, he would still have earned his place in the annals of world literature. I do not know what the critics would have made of his later fiction, but certainly his early fiction would have been acknowledged—perhaps still is—as fiction which opened gates for talented Commonwealth Writers (Salman Russhdie, Rohinton Mistry, Caryl Philips etcetera).

However, Naipaul did not write only fiction. From 1960s onwards, he began to travel. He travelled to different corners of the European Empires. The fruits of his travels were a kind of reportage books with a difference.  Naipaul has written a trilogy of books on India, the country of his ancestors; on South Americas; the Caribbean; and two books of astonishing prescience from his travels in the Islamic countries. In these books Naipaul evolved a style that was adopted by other writers, most notably Paul Theroux and Shiva Naipaul (Naipaul’s younger brother who died of a heart attack when he was only forty, and is a largely forgotten name these days). These travel writings—they are not typical travelogues, as already mentioned—established Naipaul’s reputation as a contrarian writer, who was not afraid to express views that were considered as ‘politically incorrect’. (Add to this Naipaul’s recent penchant for making seemingly outrageous statements in his interviews, which generate a lot of ill-feeling towards him—although he seems not to care, revel, even, in this persona (should we call it a masque?)—and you get an idea why Sir Vidia has become a controversial character in British literary scene.) In these peregrinations Naipaul casts himself as an ‘outsider’. He has no allegiance to anyone or anything except truth, or what he sees as truth. He is not wedded to any ideology or philosophy and tells it as he sees it. As far as possible he lays out for the reader what he sees or discusses (with others) without any sensor (as it were); on the rare occasions when he passes a judgment (or comment) he appears acutely aware of the limitations—prejudices if you may—of his vision. It is this, together with the quality of his writing, that has won Naipaul his fans (probably not many) amongst whom I include myself.

The Masque of Africa with its somewhat imprecise subtitle—the Glimpses of African Beliefs—is Naipaul’s first work of non-fiction in over a decade. In it he returns to the continent he first visited 44 years ago and which provided a backdrop to some of his fiction. Starting with Uganda—where he spent several months as a writer in residence at the Makerere University in Kampala (a version of which he used some years later in A Bend in the River—the country, not the university)—Naipaul visits five more African countries: Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Gabon and South Africa.

Naipaul is mainly interested in finding out about the traditional religions of Africa, the older, animistic beliefs and practices that were prevalent in the continent before the two great religions of the world—Christianity and Islam—arrived and  asserted themselves—imposed, even,—on the population. Naipaul wants to know, bearing in mind the theme of his travel, what has happened to the traditional religions of Africa.

The theme is not new. It has been examined—in particular the clash between the older and the more modern (for want of better phrase) religions and the apparently unbridgeable differences between their doctrines and explanatory models—in fiction before: the superb Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe) and almost equally remarkable Purple Hibiscus (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie). What we get in The Masque of Africa is the non-fiction version, or Naipaul’s version of it.

Naipaul famously said once, ‘An autobiography can distort; facts can be realigned. But fiction never lies: it reveals the writer totally.’ By his own yardstick, The Masque of Africa lends itself vulnerable to the charge of Naipaul distorting or not reporting faithfully— either because his memory has played tricks with him or because what he has heard does not fit into his pre-conceived notion about Africa—what he hears in his meetings with the Africans. Indeed in his review of the book William Boyd (a favourite writer of mine; he writes entertaining novels, but let’s face it—he is never going to write anything that would make you pause and think and examine your conceptions) brazenly says that the ‘transcribed monologues’ seemed ‘bogus’ to him. That is an astonishing accusation to hurl at a writer renowned for his searing honesty. Boyd gives some bogus sounding (to me) explanations why he doubts the veracity of Naipaul’s conversations with the Africans:  it would appear that Boyd’s view of Naipaul’s travel writing is changed forever by what he calls the French Effect (referring to warts and all ‘authorized’ biography of Naipaul by Patrick French, never mind that both Naipaul and his second wife have since expressed bitterness and reservations about the biography). At the end of the day these are subjective impressions which cannot be explained away rationally. For what it is worth none of the conversations with the various people Naipaul meets in the course of his travels seemed inauthentic to me. However, it would be fair to say that some of the conversations make uncomfortable reading. Here is an extract of the conversation between Naipaul and a distinguished academic, a former dean of the University of Gabon, a man of mixed ancestry (French father and African mother) but, who, Naipaul comments, ‘like many people of mixed ancestry, appeared to be embracing the African side of his inheritance.’ This man, a lawyer by profession, who thinks of himself as a political scientist and teaches political anthropology at the University of Gabon, is also a passionate believer in the traditional religion of Gabon and has, as Naipaul puts it, ‘come to a poetic understanding of the place of forest in the Gabonese mind.’ The lawyer gives Naipaul examples of his encounters with the supernatural. When Naipaul asks him whether he can define the religion of forest more closely, he replies, ‘in a precise, academic way’:

‘We cannot call it a religion. It is a set of beliefs. We don’t pray to God because in our understanding God is not accessible to humans. It [he meant the idea of God] has many other problems and has no time for humans.’

Does this sound ‘bogus’? How about the following? After describing to Naipaul the levels of ‘organic world’, the lawyer explains the ‘initiation ceremony’:

‘You remain afraid. Initiation and ritual only give you a path through the forest. You are not protected against others, women especially. Women are very important in the society. They are the real power. A woman may not exercise power, but she gives it to her son. We are a matrilineal society, and women give life. This country was not made for men. Women’s bodies are stronger, and so they are witches. There are many ritual sacrifices where the eyes are removed and tongues torn out of living victims. Every day there is a ritual sacrifice. White skin is very prized here, and for that reason I cannot let my light-skinned children out in the evening.’

Naipaul then asks the lawyer the importance of the tongue and the lawyer replies that ‘they’ remove the tongue to get energy. When Naipaul asks him what he thinks about it, the lawyer replies, ‘There is no name. It is too shocking.’ Then, for the first time in this entire piece, Naipaul gives the reader a glimpse of what he thinks, his judgment as it were: ‘It was a relief to hear him say that. He had spoken of ‘energy’ in such a positive way I thought he might have been more accepting.’

The format of The Masque of Africa is similar to Naipaul’s earlier travel writings, a genre that he created. He travels to countries; he visits places in these countries and observes; and he talks and listens. He meets people and asks them questions. You get the impression by the very nature of these encounters that they are not random; that the people Naipaul meets are ‘recruited’ by his contacts in the country he is visiting because they are ‘interesting’. Almost everyone Naipaul meets during his African travels and whose conversations he records for the reader is a well educated African occupying a high position or holding down a white collar job, who has interesting things to say about Africa and its old religion.

And what does Naipaul find when he speaks to these selected individuals? He discovers that underneath the patina of Christianity and Islam, the old, traditional religion lives on. Some of these individuals are comfortable with it and in their minds have dual identities without any cognitive dissonance, such as some of the Nigerians Naipaul meets, who consider themselves Catholic Christians belonging to the Yoruba tribe and have no hesitation in performing traditional rites not approved by ‘modern’ religions. Some others, like Nicole, the lady police body-guard Naipaul is provided with in Gabon, have rejected the old religion totally and become staunch Christians. In Gabon Naipaul, with Nicole, visits an isolated establishment in the village of Lope, deep in the forest, where the tribal chief has promised to show him the siren of the river—a white woman. As it happens Naipaul does not avail himself of this offer as he is feeling too tired. This is what Naipaul says:

‘She [Nicole] was Christian, but she had the old Gabonese anxiety about water, an inauspicious element. The talk about the white sirens at the bottom of the river wouldn’t have pleased her at all; and she had been praying and praying, against hope for much of the time, that the river trip wouldn’t take place. Now, miraculously, her prayers have been answered, giving her, I suppose, yet another proof of the power of the prayer.’

In Libreville, where Naipaul is invited to witness an initiation ceremony—a performance, as Naipaul is aware, for the benefit for the visitors, arranged by a Frenchman who has married a Gabonese woman—Nicole accompanies Naipaul. But she refuses to go to the ceremony. Naipaul comments:

‘She was a Christian and wanted no part of this spirit talk. The drumming and chanting might have been done only for tourists, but it agitated her. Working her lips but not speaking loudly, she was saying ‘Hail Mary’ again and again, speaking her Christian charm against whatever charms were in play here, and unwittingly paying tribute to the power of African spirits.’

Not all Africans Naipaul meets are as won over as Nicole is by Christianity. In Uganda he meets an educated middle class woman who is raised as a Christian. Naipaul describes her as ‘someone overtly Christian but with a love for her roots’. This woman equates the traditional African religion with the African culture.  Says she:

‘Modernity wants us to sweep our culture away, and that will manifest itself in a political upheaval. A conflict between Christianity and traditional religion. In the Lango tradition when there was a drought, or it was prolonged, all the elders got together and made sacrifices, and it would rain while they were at it. My grandmother told me this. But the missionaries called it devil worship. Culture does not die—today it is called witchcraft. My grandmother produced twins who died. They had to be buried in a special way, in hollow pots, and a shed had to be built over their grave, to protect and shade them. Every year my grandmother went there to tend the shed, feed the grave, and sing and dance there. When she became a Pentecostal she had to stop that, as it was not allowed. She had to remove the shed, and she was so afraid that the twins would come and kill her living children. I talk to myself so as not to get confused. To me it is all about belief and what treats you well. In traditional religion it was not about money. It was a communal spirit and people come together for common cause like the drought.’

And, Naipaul concludes:

‘Gradually from the tragedies . . . and from conversations with good people, the visitor arrives at the unsettling idea of a poor country, still vulnerable—in its people, living on their nerves, and even its landscape, which might be despoiled—after forty years of civil conflict, still waiting for an upheaval which may solve nothing.’

Depressing? Yes. Far-fetched? I am not sure. Racist? Definitely not.

Although Naipaul does not directly say this, the impression you are left with—the impression Naipaul wants you to be left with—is that on the whole ‘outside’ religions such as Christianity, foisted upon the Africans by a bunch of fanatical missionaries—exemplified by ‘Doctor’ Schweitzer (who is briefly mentioned)—, who had no love or respect for the old African beliefs, were inimical to the African culture. The Africans were told, as the Christianity sought to impose its intellectual superiority, that their traditional beliefs and ideas about nature and divinity were mere superstitions, of low value. The Africans were compelled, almost, to feel ashamed of their heritage which was dismissed as mere mumbo-jumbo (the book traces the origin of this word and links it to an ancient African (Nigerian) custom). It was cultural imperialism of the worst kind, and its effect was calamitous. The closest Naipaul comes to voicing this is to imply that if left to its own traditional beliefs Africa ‘might have arrived at its own more valuable synthesis of old and new’. It is a compelling argument, all the more so because Naipaul does not actually make it; he leaves it to the reader to figure it out.

For the best part Naipaul refrains scrupulously from making any value judgments. Occasionally, though, the mask slips; and what is revealed is weary exasperation. For example, in Ivory Coast, the land of ivory, but ‘now without the elephants that by their death provided the ivory of their tusks’, he describes two ‘cruel’ elephant monuments: one of a female elephants with her calf (elephants, Naipaul informs, is food in this part of Africa), and a tall, awkward obelisk composed (Naipaul says, ‘wickedly’) of elephant tusks alone.  In the same section, towards the end, there is a detailed description of how bats are caught and boiled before they are eaten in the Ivory Coast. These fruit bats or their fleas, the reader is informed, are carriers of the deadly Ebola virus. ‘The victims bleed helplessly till they die. No one knows for sure how the virus jumps from bat to man; but a good guess is that the virus is transmitted by the eating of the bat.’ Naipaul ends the section with a prognostication that is almost Biblical:

‘So the darkening of Abidjan [capital of Ivory Coast] sky at dusk was not only part of the visual drama of West Africa: it was like a plague waiting to fall on the men below.’

In the first country he visits, Uganda, Naipaul talks about a chimpanzee sanctuary set on one of the islands of Lake Victoria: forty two animals, he informs, whose parents and animals had been killed and eaten by Africans, who are ‘great relishers of what they call as bush meat’ and—Naipaulian acerbity, this—‘given guns and left to themselves would easily eat their way through the continent’s wildlife.’

Naipaul is similarly unsparing when it comes to looking at (and presenting to the reader) his own instincts and impulses; and they, too, at times, make uncomfortable reading. In Gabon, Naipaul comes to know about the Pigmies, ‘the small people’—‘the first inhabitants of the forest’—, from the local Africans, although he never actually meets one.  After listening at length to Claudine, one of his guides in Gabon, this is how Naipaul records his feelings:

‘Even with Claudine’s knowledge of the pigmy ways, and her love for them, it was hard to arrive at a human understanding of the pigmies, to see them as individuals. Perhaps they weren’t.’

This need not appear as chilling (or racist) as it did to some reviewers. What Naipaul seems to be saying here is that he found it very difficult to understand how it might be to be a pigmy, so different (or alien) he found their ways from his. He is acknowledging a deficiency. In any case, not all the Gabonese Africans seem to have the love for the ‘first inhabitants of the forest’. Naipaul meets a Gabonese tribal chief and traditional healer of the Fang tribe (appointed by the Gabonese government). This man, who was baptized and confirmed, but decided that ‘the traditional religion was strong in him’, tells Naipaul how he was trained in the religious rituals of the tribe. This is what he says:

‘My grandfather had gone south on an old walking road and he had captured two pigmies. He owned them. The pigmies have the power and we keep them just like you keep pets. You can do anything you like with your pet, but there is something in the pet that you don’t have. We kept them and we pitied them. . .’

While the main theme of these travels, as suggested in the title, is to understand—or try to understand—the traditional African beliefs, there are two parallel streams that run throughout the length of the book.
The first is Naipaul’s affection towards animals, in particular domestic pets such as cats and dogs. This is the only time the otherwise detached, at times almost haughty, Naipaul comes closest to betraying his emotions. And Africa provides him with unending supply of starving kittens and dogs with skin conditions. Whenever possible Naipaul gives them milk or feeds them; on many occasions, however, he is a helpless observer to their misery.  It is only when he is describing the plight of these animals that Naipaul’s prose appears to lose its cool, as in the following paragraph:

‘The land is full of cruelty which is hard for the visitor to bear. From the desert countries to the north long-horned cattle are sent for slaughter here in big, ramshackle trucks, cargoes of misery that bump along the patched and at times defective autoroutes to Abidjan, to the extensive abattoir area near the docks. And there in trampled and vile black earth these noble creatures, still with dignity, await their destiny in the smell of death, with sometimes a calf, all alone, without a mother, finding comfort of sort in sleep, a little brown circle on the dirty ground, together with the beautiful goats and sheep assembled for killing. The ground around d the abattoir goes on and on. When sights like these meet the eyes of the simple people every day there can be no idea of humanity, no idea of grandeur.’

A tad over the top, perhaps, towards the end, but heartfelt; it seems almost as if that Naipaul reserves such empathy as he has for the animals and has nothing left for the humans.

The second stream is Naipaul’s anxieties about money. He comes across as a miser. In his travels he visits a number of shrines, tombs, witchdoctors, and soothsayers in different countries. And they all want money or gifts, which Naipaul is most reluctant to give them. In almost every meeting with the medicine-men and tribal chiefs he is inwardly calculating and agitating about how much it is going to cost him, worried that he might be ripped off. And the funny thing is he does not pay for anything on even a single occasion; he makes his African guides pay the money every time. In one visit to a tribal chief in Ghana, Naipaul is expected to present the chief with a bottle of schnapps (the only alcoholic drink the chief is allowed to accept) which would then be offered as libation to the ancestors. Naipaul does not take with him schnapps—which, you think, wouldn’t have emptied his bank account—, and notes nonchalantly that it was a good thing that his African guide had brought with him the liquor bottle. I didn’t quite know what to make of this (other than that it fit the description of Naipaul as skinflint in Paul Theroux’s memoir, Sir Vidia’s Shadow). It is quite funny, though I am not sure that it is intentional.

With a few exceptions—Ghana and South Africa—Naipaul generally steers clear of the political contexts of the countries he visits. I do not think it is an oversight on part of the great man, and absence of political context does not detract a jot from the enjoyment the reader derives from the book. The Masque of Africa is an attempt to examine the cultural, traditional beliefs of the African countries Naipaul visited and the extent to which these beliefs, subterranean under the Christian and Muslim dogmas, guide the daily lives of inhabitants; it is not a chronicle of the political upheavals in these countries, which, in any case, are too many (and too frequent, in some cases) to have been done justice to in this book.

Naipaul is a keen and acute observer. Nothing escapes him. This is his strength, as in his meetings with the former military leader of Ghana, Jerry Rawlings, and the former wife of Nelson Mandela, Winnie Mandela. Naipaul is in his elements when he describes these meetings. At other times, though, he strikes a slightly shrill note in his descriptions of poverty and dirt (which seem to be everywhere he goes); it tends to get a tad wearisome after a while. That is not to say however that what he has written is untrue. In one of the countries he visits Naipaul is appalled by what he sees: the roads are in disrepair; garbage litters the sides of the road, uncollected; trim bungalows are replaced by ugly, corrugated shacks— themselves in dilapidated states; and the green hills he remembered so well have all but disappeared. He writes simply:

‘It seemed to me I was in a place where a calamity had occurred.’

The country is Uganda which saw its population, in the forty years since Naipaul first visited it, explode from 5 million in the 1960s to 30 million in the first decade of 21st century, despite decades of civil war and AIDS epidemic, and which, lest we forget, was not without its own brand of racism when, during the tyrannical reign of Idi Amin, it persecuted and ultimately drove away tens of thousands of Asians who had lived peacefully in that country for generations, for no other reason than they were of a different race.

Over the years Naipaul has been accused of many things by his detractors: misanthropy, misogyny, cruelty, racism and, following the publication of The Masque of Africa, of Fascism (by Robert Harris who earns his living by writing racy thrillers which, while they might be made into F grade Hollywood films and fetch him a packet, would not require, it would be safe to assume, to exercise more than 10% of the neurones of an averagely intelligent person). The viciousness of the attacks on Naipaul has reached a higher decibel since he was awarded the Nobel. I have to say that none from the usual list of accusations thrown at Naipaul was evident to me in Masque of Africa, which—give or take an odd loose sentence—is an honest attempt by a non-believer (ancient or modern religions) to arrive at a humane understanding of the centuries-old African beliefs.

The Masque of Africa is an outsider’s view of the African countries he visits. The outsider does not claim to have special knowledge of the African countries; he does not even claim to have special affection for these countries; neither does he have any pre-conceptions; he is a visitor who owes allegiance to no one and nothing save his artistic integrity. He sees, he notes, and he tells what he sees. If that makes some of us uncomfortable, that is of no concern to him.

And when the observer is the greatest living prose writer of our times the result is a dazzling spectacle of melancholic beauty.