Acclaimed writer and Nobel Laureate VS Naipaul has spent much time traveling in and writing about Africa. But his views of the continent are ignorant and bigoted, like those of most foreign visitors before him. It is disappointing that such a towering literary figure who should know better chooses to see Africa and her people through a lens of racism and colonial prejudice.
Towards the end of his magisterial Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (the final volume completed in 1776) Edward Gibbon pauses to reflect on how by the 15th century the Greeks – the creators of modern civilization – began to take serious notice of the newer nations of northern Europe, which they “could no longer presumed to brand with the name of barbarians.” Relying on their accounts, he sketches the “rude picture” of the “life and character” of Germany, France and England. Of particular interest to Gibbon, who was English, is the account of the Greek Byzantine writer, Demetrius Chalcondyles (1423-1511), of life in England during his time. What distinguished the English from other Europeans, Chalcondyles wrote, was their singular disregard for marital honour or female chastity. The English had the habit of throwing their wives and daughters on male visitors who would sleep with them as a sign of welcome; and among their friends, women are “lent and borrowed without shame.” Gibbon affects to disbelieve this account, vainly protesting that “assured of the virtue of our mothers, we may smile at the credulity, or resent the injustice, of the Greek.” Chalcondyles’ account, he wrote, “may teach an important lesson, to distrust the accounts of foreign and remote nations, and to suspend our belief of every tale that deviates from the laws of nature and the character of man.”
Gibbon’s compatriots have never taken this lesson to heart. At the height of their imperial triumphalism only decades after Gibbon’s death, the English virtually invented modern travel writing as a sort of forensic tourism. But the initial impulse was sometimes exalted, particularly in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Noteworthy in this regard was the body of work produced by the explorers dispatched to West Africa by the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior of Africa (formed in London in 1788), of which the most luminous were the accounts of Mungo Park. Park’s method – once arrived in West Africa, in the area where modern The Gambia occupies, he took time to learn the local Mandingo language, and showed appropriate respect for African sovereignty, showing deference to chiefs and local notables, and respecting even slaves as only less privileged human beings – was so exalted compared to what we are now all-too-familiar with that it is probably pointless to hold it as the gold standard. But it is worthy of note for that reason. Later in the 19th century came what Graham Greene has derided as “the white sneer”, part of something quite new – British superiority: it was the period of what the historian Philip Curtin has called “pseudo-scientific racism.” Exemplifying this was Richard Burton’s Wanderings in West Africa (published in 1863) and W. Winwood Reade’s Savage Africa (1864): vulgar and voyeuristic tracts that the Pan Africanist Edward Blyden acidly described in 1887 as the work of “brooding and irregular minds”. They were period pieces; in the decade leading to World War II, a different kind of travel writing emerged: Graham Greene’s Journey without Maps (1936), an account of his trek from Sierra Leone through Liberia, and Geoffrey Gorer’s African Dances a year earlier, were rigorous and sensitive and honest accounts, unsentimental about empire, and illuminating Africa in profound new ways. These books remain important historical records.
By the time VS Naipaul, a hugely talented writer who won the Nobel Prize in 2001, made his forays into Africa, beginning in the late 1960s, much of what can be ‘discovered’ in Africa had been written about; there was hardly anything exotic about the continent to ‘explore’. Naipaul, born in Trinidad of Indian heritage, is himself a product of empire; but a long residence and success in England has transformed him, at least in his own eyes, to an Englishman of the Evelyn Waugh-type, sniffing at postcolonial countries with the kind of cultivated disdain that people less dark than himself would be shy of exhibiting lest they be accused of racism. Naipaul has, of course, faced this accusation, most prominently from his contemporary from the Caribbean, the great poet Derek Walcott. But since he is so clearly a ‘wog’ himself, who surely must have faced racist slights in England, this kind of reproach has merely added to his myth as a supreme artist, beyond definition.
Naipaul was, however, rather careful during his first encounter with the continent: out of about nine months spent in East Africa, mainly in Uganda, in 1966, he allowed himself only a magazine article on Idi Amin’s coup and a section, albeit the longest, of his novella, In a Free State (1971).
I first read this book in the home of a Jamaican British lawyer who – like many other Caribbean intellectuals – disdained Naipaul but almost compulsively read his books anyway, in London in 1997. In that novella, like other colonial novels that preceded it (particularly Greene’s Heart of the Matter, set in British-ruled Sierra Leone of the 1940s) Africa is only background; the key characters are European expatriates: actually a very odd English couple driving through a disrupted Uganda under curfew, facing violence, and then seeking refuge in a European compound. This was true to Naipaul’s knowledge and rather wise of him. I was hypnotized by the writing at first: though I found the narrative inferior to Greene’s, Naipaul’s simple elegant sentences and brilliant scenes combined to produce supreme entertainment. Any time Naipaul lingers a little on an African character, however, humour shades into disgust. In a hotel scene, an African bartender leaves behind him “little disturbances of smell”; and about some well-dressed educated Africans – perhaps diplomats or politicians or civil servants – the narrator glibly says, “They hadn’t paid for the suits they wore; in some cases they had had the drapers deported.” This was at the time that Idi Amin had expelled Indians in Uganda and confiscated their businesses; and Naipaul, sympathetic to the Indians, now felt that all Africans in Uganda were complicit in the theft. This was a first glimpse into Naipaul’s dark convoluted mind.
It was during his time in Uganda that Naipaul met the young American soon-to-be-writer, Paul Theroux, who in 1998 published an entertaining and blistering account of his long friendship with Naipaul, depicting him as a desperate sort of snob and misogynist who reserved a special kind of cruelty for weak and defenceless people, and Naipaul’s attitude to Africans as racist. The book didn’t shock anyone who had followed Naipaul’s writings and pompous pronouncements over the decades, but Theroux was condemned all the same by many critics for back-stabbing – until, that is, the publication of Patrick French’s authorized biography of Naipaul, The World is What it is in 2008, which fleshed out these charges in excruciating detail.
In 1975, on assignment for the New York Review of Books, Naipaul spent several weeks in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), out of which emerged a long article, “A New King for the Congo”, in that magazine, and a novel – said by some to be Naipaul’s most accomplished – A Bend in the River. These two works best encapsulate Naipaul’s attitude to Africa, and they deserve to be read closely. Both works are a rather tendentious tribute to Joseph Conrad, who set three important works – two stories, ‘An Outpost of Progress’ and the famous novella The Heart of Darkness; and The Congo Journal – in the country: Conrad’s influence on Naipaul is like a milestone around Naipaul’s neck where Africa is concerned; and this influence both fires and limits his vision of the continent. It was clearly from Conrad that Naipaul derived his interest especially in that Central African country.
Naipaul arrived in Zaire shortly after Mohamed Ali’s famous rumble-in-the-jungle fight with Foreman: the place was still in the news for his mainly American readers. Naipaul’s interest in politics and history here, as elsewhere in his many writings, is perfunctory and idiosyncratic: in fact he has very little political instinct, for which he is proud, and hardly any aptitude for serious historical inquiry, a judgment he may contest. He appeared curiously uneasy about educated Congolese he met, including university students who could talk intelligently about Stendhal. He detected among them a certain kind of ‘rage’ – a favourite word of his – the sort of ‘resentment’ which he felt will “at any time be converted into a wish to wipe out and undo, an African nihilism, the rage of primitive men coming to themselves and finding that they have been fooled and affronted.” Pretentious, meaningless, pompous talk, of course; and over and over again he invokes Conrad, as in this defining paragraph: “To Joseph Conrad, Stanleyville…was the heart of darkness. It was there, in Conrad’s story, that Kurtz reigned, the ivory agent degraded from idealism to savagery, taken back to the earliest ages of man, by wilderness, solitude and power, his house surrounded by impaled human heads. Seventy years later, at this bend in the river [my emphasis"> something like Conrad’s fantasy came to pass.” He was referring to Mobutu, Zaire’s then hopelessly corrupt leader, who – unlike Kurtz – had been “maddened not by contact with wilderness and primitivism, but with the civilization established” by the likes of Kurtz.
This theme – of an Africa of nihilism and lurking danger from which any sensible person should escape – is fleshed out in the novel that followed, A Bend in the River (1979). In it Naipaul, now more confident and certainly more arrogant than when he wrote In a Free State, is adventurous. The narrator is a dislocated Indian trader who is trying to find a fortune in a rapidly disintegrating Congo. The place had had its civil wars, and a strongman had emerged, who uses European mercenaries and his own brutal troops to impose some kind of order. This order is wholly patrimonial, but the strongman has style: he even articulates an ‘ideology’, and publishes a book of his own sayings, which he deems to be as wise as Mao’s. His vision is large: he is intent on creating a ‘new man’ in an Africa that can square up with the world. He creates a new city, the Domain: but this Domain is a hoax; it is the work of Europeans, and, once left to Africans, to whom it has no meaning, it will return to ‘bush’. This is very obviously Naipaul’s view of postcolonial Africa: Africa has gone to seed after the European colonialist left; the villas they built – like the villas the Romans left in Britain – now turned into primitive camping sites. “The big lawns and gardens had returned to bush; the streets had disappeared; vines and creepers had grown over broken, bleached walls of concrete or hollow clay brick.” In the end, there is the inevitable chaos and violence; and Salim barely escapes with his life – to Europe, that bastion of solidity, security and civilization, the place where Naipaul long called his home.
Since postcolonial Africa, then, is a both hoax and dismal failure, there must be an essential Africa that has survived all the great cruelties, the slave trade (about which the novel makes flippant references), the colonial intrusion, and the postcolonial meltdown. Naipaul gives a hint in the novel that this essence is religion, African spirituality: something that has survived the great foreign onslaughts; that has withstood even the two greatest imperial religions since antiquity, Christianity and Islam, which elsewhere had swept away all other religions they had encountered. Christianity destroyed the mighty state paganism of Rome and Islam overwhelmed the state Zoroastrianism of the great Persian Empire almost upon encounter. Have both failed in Africa? But this is not the question that interests Naipaul, who himself has professed to have no religion. “I suppose you can say,” Indar, a character very much Naipaul’s alter ego, says in the novel, “that some people have been so depersonalised by those religions [Christianity and Islam"> that they are out of touch with Africa.” This, in fact, is an iteration of an old European pathology that modern Africans, unable to fully negotiate the foreign influences with their inherited cultures, are sucked into some kind of neurotic dualism and have lost touch with a romantic old Africa. Naipaul carried with him this dubious idea through his ‘travel on a theme’ in Africa for his The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief (2010), what might be said to be his crowning work on the continent.
He found full support for this idea from Susan, “a poet of merit and a literature teacher”, in Uganda: eager perhaps to impress her famous visitor, a potential promoter, Susan tells Naipaul what he clearly wanted to hear: “My people had a civilisation… The missionaries … brainwashed us ... When a person or race comes and imposes on you, it takes away everything, and it is a vicious thing to do.” In Gabon, where Naipaul celebrates the lush rainforest (he finds African spirituality there) and then bemoans the fact that the Chinese (who he claims hate nature) will soon denude it, another star-struck intellectual tells Naipaul, “The new religions, Islam and Christianity, are just on the top. Inside us is the forest.”
It is a theme that Naipaul has explored before, though tangentially, in an article on Ivory Coast that appeared in the New Yorker magazine in 1984. In the article, “The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro”, Naipaul appeared to admire the great achievements of that country under its veteran leader, Houphouët-Boigny. They included Abidjan (the country’s capital), which “begun unpromisingly on the black mud of a fetid lagoon” had become a great commercial and sophisticated city. So postcolonial Africa, after-all, is not all failure? Having made this allowance, however, Naipaul then discovers a féticher who was famous with the locals; and then he lingers round the crocodiles in an artificial lake by the presidential palace. Finally, Naipaul began to wonder whether Abidjan and Yamoussoukro weren’t standing on sand, the perishable creation of magic.
African religion, in Naipaul’s view, is a reckoning after magic; and Naipaul believes that such ‘earth religions’ send the mind back to the “beginning of things”. No one, of course, will go to Naipaul for instruction on African religion, about which there are many excellent studies. One reads him for the beautiful sentences, and to get a taste of his latest prejudice.
In The Masque of Africa Naipaul records his impressions of the role of religion in Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Gabon, and South Africa in 2008–2009. He finds this role everywhere overwhelming. In a reminder of the parable that one should never go back in old age to a place where one had a good time in youth, Naipaul is appalled by Uganda, which he found overpopulated with cruel people who throw garbage all around their cities and eat cats. He seems to like West Africa, particularly Ghana, better: he finds Accra a city of municipal order, clean and well-maintained. His impression of Ghana is, of course, helped by the generosity of one of his Ghanaian hosts, who saves the stingy Naipaul the trouble of paying some bills, but he is right about Accra. In parts of Ghana, however, he is appalled by stories of people who eat cats. He warms up to JJ Rawlings, a former president of Ghana, partly because the cat in his house where Naipaul is entertained seems to be happy, and Rawlings’ wife is a charming hostess. He collects horrible stories of “kitchen cruelty” in Ivory Coast: the locals, despite living in cities, kill cats in a particularly brutal way and eat them. In a previous visit, a member of the country’s ruling elite had entertained Naipaul to dinner, and Naipaul accordingly makes admiring comments about the country’s elegance (and makes scornful statements about Ghana). This time, the Ivorian elite, preoccupied with their political troubles, are not at hand to share Naipaul’s luminous company at home, and Ivory Coast has become a land of cruelty and backwardness. He finds mounds of garbage everywhere he goes. From self-loathing Richmond, a servant of his Ghanaian host – these are the kinds of people Naipaul likes, his key sources for the book – Naipaul collects and foolishly relates a nasty rumour about Houphouët-Boigny indulging in human sacrifice as fetish practice. You will not know from this stupid account that Houphouët-Boigny was a life-long Catholic, was a member of the French parliament, and served with distinction in several ministerial positions in France before leading his country to independence in 1960 as its universally admired leader.
In Nigeria, he is at first almost overwhelmed by the energy and chaos of Lagos before admiring its entrepreneurial spirit. He is horrified by the garbage there, too. Miles away from Lagos, he gets undiluted pleasure from a pristine forest enclave the Yoruba use as religious sanctuary: here again he seems to find the essence of African spirituality in the forest. When he gets to Northern Nigeria, Naipaul’s old antipathy towards Islam is on display: he starts seeing moraines of garbage right outside the small airport, and he bemoans the poverty and illiteracy presumably created by Islam in the area. He reports seeing “innumerable, thin-limbed” Muslim children “in dusty little gowns, the unfailing product of multiple marriages and many concubines.” Though politics are very large in the Nigeria, and though Boko Haram was already active, you get no sense of that in Naipaul’s fluent but idiotic account. You will not even know that the country produced the eminent writers Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, both of whom have written with great penetration about politics and religion in Nigeria. Naipaul has made disdainful remarks about both writers, and Achebe long dismissed Naipaul as an absurd modern-day Conrad spouting “pompous rubbish” about Africa. The section on South Africa, the weakest in this very weak, perfunctory and pointless book, is second-handed: Naipaul relies on the guidance of controversial South African writer Rian Malan. Even amidst its great sophistication and complexity (“the skyscrapers of Johannesburg did not stand on sand”, Naipaul says, sheepishly), Naipaul hears of fetish people dealing in human body parts in Johannesburg. He meets with Winnie Mandela, who expresses her disappointment with the new South Africa. Naipaul then indulges in his typical idiosyncratic reflection on the country’s past, and he concludes: “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”. This is, of course, awkwardly Conradian; and, of course, it is nonsense.
How, then, can one sum up Naipaul’s long, almost obsessive, engagement with Africa, a continent he clearly does not like? Naipaul was in his 70s, an asthmatic and hefty old man struggling to walk, when he made the long trip for The Masque of Anarchy: frequently he grouses about inconveniences, little troubles, and about reasonable requests for money by seers, fétichers, fortune-tellers, and others for their time. He clearly felt that he had something new and important to say about Africa. In an interview after the book’s publication, Naipaul spoke about a ‘developing sympathy’ for Africa that sent him back there in his old age, “to write of Africa in another way…I was looking for the human breakdown, as it were. I had to be very particular. I didn't want to write about politics, or local internal trouble. I just wanted to stay with fundamental beliefs, if I could find them.”
Naipaul’s idea of sympathy is as mysterious and meaningless as his Africa. And is the work of seers, fétichers, fortune-tellers an example of ‘human breakdown’? Is it fundamental to African belief or is it a money-making endeavour which– though important in some settings – is actually tengential to African belief ? Surely, Islam in Northern Nigeria is old enough to be considered indigenuous there? It is nonsensical to consider the two great religions, Islam and Christianity, with their large moral, philosophical and humanitarian claims, foreign in any country where they are widely practised. Only an ignorant bigot can make such claims; and though an accomplished and sometimes insightful writer, Naipaul has revealed himself, over and over again, as a bigot where Africa and its people are concerned. He has not evolved (a favourite word of his).
So The Masque of Africa fails, and fails resoundingly. Perhaps Africans should stop taking note of such blinkered travelers – they harp back to previous centuries, and Africa, despite its current troubles, has moved on.
* Lansana Gberie is a Sierra Leonean academic and journalist and author of A Dirty War in West Africa: The RUF and the Destruction of Sierra Leone (London, 2005).
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