Saturday, October 2, 2010

Among The Believers

This appeared in today's Mint Lounge


“Africa has no future”. That is how V.S. Naipaul ended a 1979 interview with Elizabeth Hardwick in the New York Times Book Review. This was just after the appearance of A Bend in the River, his novel set in Africa -- a continent to which he wasn’t a stranger, living in Uganda as writer-in-residence at Makarere University in 1966. Then again, he visited the Ivory Coast in the early eighties, fruit of which was the non-fiction account, The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro. It’s here that one finds the first glimmer of the theme that runs through his new work, The Masque of Africa. Despite his bleak pronouncements on the continent, Naipaul clearly feels impelled to return every so often; this journey may well be his last.

He revisits Uganda and the Ivory Coast, and travels to Ghana, Nigeria, Gabon and South Africa, seeking what remains of primordial African belief: “the older world of magic”, and how it has changed, or not, with the advent of Christianity, Islam and the “modern” way of doing things. He seeks out the grass-thatched palaces of Africa’s original rulers, visits shrines and other reliquaries, meets soothsayers, shamans and witch-doctors, and speaks to those whose lives have been altered by initiation rites. He finds common themes: “Doubles, astral journeys, the fragility and yet the enduringness of ritual, the idea of energy, the wonder of the forest”.

For Naipaul, clear-sightedness has always been the writer’s supreme virtue. Here, however, his view of things is coloured by the past. At the book’s start, he recalls visiting a British-laid botanical garden at the edge of Lake Victoria and adds: “Sometimes (a reminder of the wildness by which we were surrounded, but from which we were protected) the ground of the Garden was flooded in parts by water from the Lake seeping through”. This, then, could be a metaphor for what follows: fear of intrinsic chaos overcoming external order.

He sees dirt and garbage everywhere. On a single page, describing his arrival at Kano, a city to the north of Nigeria, one comes across the words ‘dust’ and ‘dirt’ twice, and ‘garbage’ thrice. The word ‘garbage’ appears thrice on the very next page itself. In addition, he makes much of the supposed African tendency to eat dogs and cats, as well as much of their wildlife. That some of the heartless methods of disposing of felines appear to be the merest hearsay doesn’t seem to bother him. Time and again he obsesses over the amount of money he will have to spend on guides, interpreters, witchdoctors and the like -- although this obsession does yield a fresh insight on one occasion: “…it is strange that rituals which would once have seemed necessary and vital, serving what was divine, beyond money, have to be disregarded when there is no money.”

There are powerful passages, such as the description of an initiation at Libreville, and his marshalling of detail is as acute. Not everyone, for example, would be able to describe a soothsayer’s attire as a “white gown that came out grey in a wash from the local water”. Equally, though, there are other times when his precision and command of the language seem to falter, such as when the local legend of an Ivory Coast chieftain’s rise to power is repeated twice for no reason, or when Unilever is quaintly referred to as “the multinational firm of Lever's” and then, just a few pages later, as “the international firm of Lever's”.

In the closing section, on South Africa, he says, “I expected that a big struggle would have created bigger people, people whose magical practices might point the way ahead to something profounder”. As before, he’s disappointed. Here, “race ran as deep as religion elsewhere”: hardly a new observation. Here, too, he segues into a brief account of Gandhi’s doings in South Africa, which seem out of place as they have no connection to the stated theme of the book.

Throughout, Naipaul is frank about his limitations because of the age at which he is travelling. (At one time, his legs give way while venturing to a witch-doctor’s village; a wheelbarrow appears as a vehicle, and this, understandably, does not suffice.) While one can admire such intrepidity, there are other statements that shock: “It was hard to arrive at a human understanding of the pigmies, to see them as individuals. Perhaps they weren't”. Pronouncements like these remind one of Vivian Gornick’s observation that though much of his writing is strong and original, “the lack of tenderness wears on the nerves”. It is this absence of empathy, in the end, that creates a distance between him and his material.

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