The problem with Africa

At its best, V S Naipaul’s Masque of Africa is marked by moments of startling clarity and insight —

The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief
V S Naipaul
Picador, 336pp, £20

In his delightfully sarcastic essay "How to Write About Africa", Binyavanga Wainaina, the Kenyan-born writer and gourmand who is now a restless citizen of the world, offers some helpful tips to aspirant travel writers. "Always use the word 'Africa' or 'darkness' or 'safari' in your title," he begins, urging the writer who is setting out on his journey to treat Africa as if it were one rather than 54 separate countries, so as to hasten generalisation. "Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat," he continues. "Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation."

It's unlikely that V S Naipaul has read Wainaina's essay - he has low regard for the work of nearly all contemporary writers - but it's very likely that Wainaina has read Naipaul and many other esteemed non-African chroniclers of decolon­ised Africa, including Ryszard Kapuscinski and Paul Theroux. Wainaina's essay is jaunty and playful in tone, but the tips of his well-directed arrows of scorn have been dipped in poison and they are aimed straight at the heart of all those who presume to know and write about Africa from the outside, without knowledge of African languages or local cultures. From Conrad and Céline to Georges Simenon and, more recently, the French Canadian Gil Courtemanche, author of the novel A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, sub-Saharan Africa has long provided a ready-made setting for narratives of moral disintegration. Africa, as Chinua Achebe once put it in an essay on Conrad, is reflexively presented as the "other world", the "antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilisation".

Wainaina is especially contemptuous of those writer-travellers who seek to establish their impeccable liberal credentials, as well as explain how they first fell in love with Africa. Naipaul has been accused of many things - of misanthropy, cruelty, orientalism, racism and, just a few weeks ago by the august thriller writer Robert Harris, in a review of The Masque of Africa, of fascism - but never of being a liberal. (In this new book he has made few concessions to progressive courtesies, though he no longer uses the word "negro" as he did in his early writing.) Nor does Naipaul claim to love Africa.

So what is it, if not love, that compels him to return so often as a traveller and in search of a subject? "For my travel books I travel on a theme," he says. "The theme of The Masque of Africa is African belief."

By "African belief" he actually means what he mostly calls "magic" and the rest of us would call animism. Naipaul seems to think that there is something intrinsically and peculiarly African about "magic" - about ancestor worship, witch doctors, totemism, pagan initiation rights and so on - but there isn't, as any anthropologist would tell you. For Naipaul, the attempt to understand African "magic" is to be "taken far back to the beginning of things", back to the side of the African that, he writes, "resisted rationality". He could have saved himself a lot of air miles and no little anguish if he had stayed at home in Wiltshire and read instead, or perhaps reread, James George Frazer's celebrated comparative study of religion and magic, The Golden Bough, which discusses the cross-cultural similarities of the world's myths, primitive religions and rituals.

In the foreword to the Picador edition of his first non-fiction book, The Middle Passage (1962), an account of a long journey through the Caribbean, Naipaul says that "the novelist works towards conclusions of which he is often unaware, and it is better that he should". But there is a sense that the aged Naipaul is no longer surprised by what he encounters on his travels, as he was when he was working on The Middle Passage, or travelling extensively through India for the first time. Nowadays, you could say that he travels to reach conclusions about Islam or Africa of which he is already fully aware, that travel for him narrows the mind, affirms prejudices. In Gabon, for instance, he meets a lawyer who tells him that "the new religions, Islam and Christianity, are just on the top. Inside us is the forest." Inside us is the forest. Isn't this exactly what Naipaul would have wanted to be told in Gabon?

Naipaul likes to present himself as being without influence or ideology: he travels, he asks questions, he listens attentively and, above all else, he notices, often seeing what others do not or cannot. That acute gift has never left him. Even in this new book, a minor offering by a writer approaching the end, the best moments are those lit by the radiance of sudden and unexpected noticing. The worst are when he lurches into the kind of generalisation that is the keynote of so much writing about Africa by non-Africans: "Africa [is] drowning in the fecundity of its people"; "moraines of uncollected garbage . . . Africa reclaiming its own"; and so on.

The Masque of Africa is Naipaul's first travel book since Beyond Belief (1998), in which he journeyed through Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan and Indonesia as part of a continuing investigation into the influence of political Islam in the world, and is his first attempt to write first-hand about Africa since some of the great essays of the 1970s and early 1980s.

However, Africa has been present in some of his more recent fiction. The novel Half a Life (2001) was set partly in a nameless African country that was a thinly disguised Mozambique at the point when the old mixed-race, or "mulatto", elite, with their vast plantations and estates, were losing hold of power as the Portuguese prepared their chaotic retreat. In that novel, the central character, Willie Chandran, an ethnic Indian who has been living in London, is fascinated by the Africans he sees around him but whom he can never properly know or understand - theirs was "an African life at which I could only guess", he says. Later, restless and increasingly unhappy, he visits African prostitutes in a garrison town that has been cut out of the humid bush; these scenes of sex are among the most luminous and affecting in what is a very strange book, among Naipaul's most Conradian in its ambiguities and ambivalent positioning.

Naipaul, who is 78, is operating in twilight mode as he travels through Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, Gabon and finally South Africa, doing the fieldwork, as he always has, but now with the shadows lengthening around him. His style is much sparer, his still-graceful sentences no longer as multilayered or richly detailed. At times, the effort seems too much. On one journey he returns after many years of absence to Yamoussoukro, Côte d'Ivoire (in the 1980s he published a fine long essay titled "The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro"), birthplace of the country's founding president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny. It was here that Houphouët-Boigny built, as a memorial to himself, the world's largest cathedral, the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, with its signature dome echoing St Peter's in Rome.

During his first visit, Naipaul called Yamoussoukro one of the "wonders of black Africa", but now he loathes what he sees and hates what he hears and hurries away. The whole episode feels curiously perfunctory, reading more like a postscript to the original essay than an exploration of the larger themes of the book.

In his original essay on Côte d'Ivoire, he had written that "true life was there, in the mysteries of the village" rather than in the artificialities of the modern African city. Yamoussoukro, with its spectacular airport, golf course and luxury hotel, showed one face to the world during the day and quite another at night. At night, one had a greater sense of the mysteries of Africa, or so Naipaul thought. But this time in Côte d'Ivoire he makes no attempt to venture out into the villages. He leaves, despondent, reflecting on the rape of the land and the disappearance of the elephants, hunted into oblivion, from whose ivory the country took its name.

After this, his next stop is Gabon, the setting of Simenon's African novel Tropic Moon, which dramatised the last, listless days of corrupt French colonial rule. What interests Naipaul about Gabon is its dense forests: "A little way inland the true forest began, primal and tall and tight." He wants to know about the forest lore and how the forest-dwelling pygmies live, what they believe and how they structure their lives. He has absolutely no interest in the wider politics of Gabon, and says nothing about the country's oil wealth or about the career of the Francophile Omar Bongo, who ruled from 1967 until his death in 2009 (he was succeeded by his son) and was both the world's longest-serving leader who was not a monarch and one of the richest people in Africa.

This is a baffling oversight: the lack of socio-political context is one of the failures of the book. At least, when in Ghana, Naipaul rouses himself to sketch some of its troubled post-colonial history. In an amusing scene, he has lunch in the home of the former military ruler and president Jerry Rawlings, where we learn that the despot's house is "well run" (good), the pets are kindly treated (even better) and Rawlings himself is "built like a boxer" (Naipaul does not specify at which weight Rawlings would have boxed, so the simile is meaningless).

There is a sense of last things in all of this, of a kind of leave-taking. In old age, Naipaul, his curiosity still dictated in part by his colonial Trinidadian background, returns to some of the African places he visited as a younger man, and there he finds no signs of progress, general improvement or enlightenment. He finds, instead, only more evidence of human rapacity and carelessness. "The land is full of cruelty which is hard for the visitor to bear," he concludes as he leaves Côte d'Ivoire. "The bush was almost barren of wildlife, but these people were managing to squeeze out the last remnants, while their fertile land remained largely unused," he says towards the end of his stay in Ghana.

None of this is surprising. It's exactly what one expects Naipaul to say. Yet, for all this long-nurtured pessimism, Naipaul has managed to carry his burdens through the decades: he began as a comic writer, one capable of great empathy, tenderness and forgiveness, and has ended by allowing himself to be caricatured by Robert Harris and others as a kind of latter-day Oswald Mosley. This is as absurd as it is unfair, because in one important sense he has never really changed. From the beginning, when he left Trinidad on a scholarship to Oxford, Naipaul has been consumed by an idea of the writer as truth-seeker, loyal to no one or nothing but himself, or at least loyal only to the persona he has created of himself as the great-souled writer. Or, more simply, in his own self-description: The Writer, as if there were only one.

As he travels, often irritably, through Africa on this, his latest and perhaps final long journey, complaining along the way of the usual money worries (Naipaul is exceedingly wealthy, but always alert to those he feels are ripping him off), of inferior hotel rooms and the mistreatment of animals, especially cats, he is sustained by the old ideal of unadorned truth-telling. Like Edgar in King Lear, he speaks what he feels, not what he ought to say - which is admirable and is why even now, so late in the day, you still read him with all the old fascination while at the same time recognising what a deeply odd and eccentric man he is, quite unlike anyone else: The Writer, still the only one.