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The uninterested traveller


A free-ranging precisely observed, but highly superficial, commentary on various subjects other than African belief.

The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief; V.S. Naipaul, Picador, 20.

“African belief” is the stated theme of The Masque of Africa, V.S. Naipaul's latest and perhaps last travel book. “I had a romantic idea,” says Naipaul, “of the earth religions. I felt they took us back to the beginning, a philosophical Big Bang... To reach that beginning was the purpose of my book.” However, in all his travels through seven African countries, he is unable to commit to that purpose. Instead, he gives us a free-ranging precisely observed, but highly superficial, commentary on hygiene, infrastructure, animal rights, race and various other subjects that catch his fancy on his way. Nor is this roving eye the result of an overflow of his enthusiasm beyond the bounds of his theme. It is disappointment in his chosen subject — stemming from a lack of real interest in it — that averts his gaze elsewhere.

Missing framework

For a theological inquiry to be fruitful, some initial framework of analysis is required, a sense of what questions religions deal with, and why; of the purpose of customs, rituals and mythologies; and of the purpose of faith in general. Naipaul, however, brings no such understanding to his travels. So he is ill-equipped to investigate the crises he uncovers. At the outset, for example, he is confronted with the major conflict of African belief in the modern day, to wit, that “to believe in the African religion was to be on the defensive. There was no doctrine to hold on to... there was only a sense of the rightness of the old ways...” On the other hand, “the doctrines of Islam and Christianity, world faiths, had a philosophical base and could be expounded.” So the colonisers' religions had gained ground among the locals- and traumatised their sense of self. “When a person or race comes and imposes on you”, says Susan, a literature teacher in Uganda, “it takes away everything.” Habib, a Muslim businessman, tells Naipaul something similar. “We were brought up in the faith, and that dictates that African religion is paganism... it was a tool to control our African mind...”

In what way, if any, did the old religions speak to the African mind? What was lost, and what was gained, by the arrival of the foreign religions? And what might be the way ahead, for the post-colonial African struggling with his or her faith? Surely a book that wishes to examine African belief must grapple with these questions? But Naipaul shows neither the ability nor the inclination for that task. In an early paragraph, eloquent but utterly uncaring, he dismisses Susan's trauma as “a very long illness”, which in the course of time simply “became life.” Therefore: “I did not, after this, ask her about African history, the oral tradition and myth.” This same distaste for what is patently the theme of his book shows up throughout his travels: he wants to hear nothing of local “myth-making”, he finds local rituals lacking in “style and finish”; he visits witch-doctors only to fret about their fees; and ultimately, rather than hearing their stories, he takes to literally fleeing from them.

Real theme

Which begs the question: if not an understanding of African belief, what is Naipaul looking for, through his travels in that continent? Unfortunately, it seems he is looking only to serve a selfish and tawdry sentimentalism, a superficial yearning for a natural paradise full of friendly forests and animals, uncluttered by poor people and their children. The figure Naipaul cuts is not of any social scientist, but of a city-fatigued tourist in search of Nature's succour. And his interest in African belief is only to the extent that it can provide him that succour. So a sacred grove outside Lagos was “all very moving” to him; not because he cared to understand the myths that lent it its sanctity, but just because it was an animal sanctuary.

The fact, however, is that the worship of animals usually entails a great deal of brutality towards them. And this seeming theological paradox would have made for interesting study but Naipaul, not being interested in the inquiry, is merely disappointed and then disgusted. From the tombs of Uganda to the streets of Nigeria, his observations start to fill with a doe-eyed love for dogs and kittens and a corresponding loathing for the poor who might hunt and eat them, for garbage and for children; for the human condition. At times this attitude, so selfish and superficial, is almost comic, as when Naipaul waxes eloquent on the “noble creatures, still with dignity”, who are awaiting slaughter in an abattoir in the Ivory Coast. He rages then: “when sights like this [the slaughter] meet the eyes of simple people... there can be no idea of humanity, no idea of grandeur.” But only pages earlier he was relishing meat stew at the house of a former President where, however, the Dalmatians were “all fine and well exercised and happy.” Unenlightening and un-self-aware observations like these largely constitute his book.

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