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.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 06 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Pope on Trial

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
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The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

From the Reichstag fire to Stalin’s show trials, the craft of disinformation is nothing new.

We live, we’re told, in a post-truth era. The internet has hyped up postmodern relativism, and created a kind of gullible cynicism – “nothing is true, and who cares anyway?” But the thing that exploits this mindset is what the Russians call dezinformatsiya. Disinformation – strategic deceit – isn’t new, of course. It has played a part in the battle that has raged between mass democracy and its enemies since at least the First World War.

Letting ordinary people pick governments depends on shared trust in information, and this is vulnerable to attack – not just by politicians who want to manipulate democracy, but by those on the extremes who want to destroy it. In 1924, the first Labour government faced an election. With four days to go, the Daily Mail published a secret letter in which the leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev heralded the government’s treaties with the Soviets as a way to help recruit British workers for Leninism. Labour’s vote actually went up, but the Liberal share collapsed, and the Conservatives returned to power.

We still don’t know exactly who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, even after exhaustive investigations of British and Soviet intelligence archives in the late 1990s by the then chief historian of the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett. She concluded that the most likely culprits were White Russian anti-Bolsheviks, outraged at Labour’s treaties with Moscow, probably abetted by sympathetic individuals in British intelligence. But whatever the precise provenance, the case demonstrates a principle that has been in use ever since: cultivate your lie from a germ of truth. Zinoviev and the Comintern were actively engaged in trying to stir revolution – in Germany, for example. Those who handled the letter on its journey from the forger’s desk to the front pages – MI6 officers, Foreign Office officials, Fleet Street editors – were all too ready to believe it, because it articulated their fear that mass democracy might open the door to Bolshevism.

Another phantom communist insurrection opened the way to a more ferocious use of disinformation against democracy. On the night of 27 February 1933, Germany’s new part-Nazi coalition was not yet secure in power when news started to hum around Berlin that the Reichstag was on fire. A lone left-wing Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught on the site and said he was solely responsible. But Hitler assumed it was a communist plot, and seized the opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway: destroy them. The suppression of the communists was successful, but the claim it was based on rapidly collapsed. When the Comintern agent Gyorgy Dimitrov was tried for organising the fire, alongside fellow communists, he mocked the charges against him, which were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Because it involves venturing far from the truth, disinformation can slip from its authors’ control. The Nazis failed to pin blame on the communists – and then the communists pinned blame on the Nazis. Dimitrov’s comrade Willi Münzenberg swiftly organised propaganda suggesting that the fire was too convenient to be Nazi good luck. A “counter-trial” was convened in London; a volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror was rushed into print, mixing real accounts of Nazi persecution of communists – the germ of truth again – with dubious documentary evidence that they had started the fire. Unlike the Nazis’ disinformation, this version stuck, for decades.

Historians such as Richard Evans have argued that both stories about the fire were false, and it really was one man’s doing. But this case demonstrates another disinformation technique still at work today: hide your involvement behind others, as Münzenberg did with the British great and good who campaigned for the Reichstag prisoners. In the Cold War, the real source of disinformation was disguised with the help of front groups, journalistic “agents of influence”, and the trick of planting a fake story in an obscure foreign newspaper, then watching as the news agencies picked it up. (Today, you just wait for retweets.)

In power, the Nazis made much use of a fictitious plot that did, abominably, have traction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged text first published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be a record of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world – not least by means of its supposed control of everyone from bankers to revolutionaries. As Richard Evans observes, “If you subject people to a barrage of lies, in the end they’ll begin to think well maybe they’re not all true, but there must be something in it.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that the “big lie” always carries credibility – an approach some see at work not only in the Nazis’ constant promotion of the Protocols but in the pretence that their Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 was spontaneous. (It is ironic that Hitler coined the “big lie” as part of an attack on the Jews’ supposed talent for falsehood.) Today, the daring of the big lie retains its force: even if no one believes it, it makes smaller untruths less objectionable in comparison. It stuns opponents into silence.

Unlike the Nazis, the Bolshevik leaders were shaped by decades as hunted revolutionaries, dodging the Tsarist secret police, who themselves had had a hand in the confection of the Protocols. They occupied the paranoid world of life underground, governed by deceit and counter-deceit, where any friend could be an informer. By the time they finally won power, disinformation was the Bolsheviks’ natural response to the enemies they saw everywhere. And that instinct endures in Russia even now.

In a competitive field, perhaps the show trial is the Soviet exercise in upending the truth that is most instructive today. These sinister theatricals involved the defendants “confessing” their crimes with great
sincerity and detail, even if the charges were ludicrous. By 1936, Stalin felt emboldened to drag his most senior rivals through this process – starting with Grigory Zinoviev.

The show trial is disinformation at its cruellest: coercing someone falsely to condemn themselves to death, in so convincing a way that the world’s press writes it up as truth. One technique involved was perfected by the main prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, who bombarded the defendants with insults such as “scum”, “mad dogs” and “excrement”. Besides intimidating the victim, this helped to distract attention from the absurdity of the charges. Barrages of invective on Twitter are still useful for smearing and silencing enemies.


The show trials were effective partly because they deftly reversed the truth. To conspire to destroy the defendants, Stalin accused them of conspiring to destroy him. He imposed impossible targets on straining Soviet factories; when accidents followed, the managers were forced to confess to “sabotage”. Like Hitler, Stalin made a point of saying the opposite of what he did. In 1936, the first year of the Great Terror, he had a rather liberal new Soviet constitution published. Many in the West chose to believe it. As with the Nazis’ “big lie”, shameless audacity is a disinformation strategy in itself. It must have been hard to accept that any regime could compel such convincing false confessions, or fake an entire constitution.

No one has quite attempted that scale of deceit in the post-truth era, but reversing the truth remains a potent trick. Just think of how Donald Trump countered the accusation that he was spreading “fake news” by making the term his own – turning the charge on his accusers, and even claiming he’d coined it.

Post-truth describes a new abandonment of the very idea of objective truth. But George Orwell was already concerned that this concept was under attack in 1946, helped along by the complacency of dictatorship-friendly Western intellectuals. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he warned in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.”

A few years later, the political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that Nazis and Stalinists, each immersed in their grand conspiratorial fictions, had already reached this point in the 1930s – and that they had exploited a similar sense of alienation and confusion in ordinary people. As she wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” There is a reason that sales of Arendt’s masterwork – and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – have spiked since November 2016.

During the Cold War, as the CIA got in on the act, disinformation became less dramatic, more surreptitious. But show trials and forced confessions continued. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans induced a series of captured US airmen to confess to dropping bacteriological weapons on North Korea. One lamented that he could barely face his family after what he’d done. The pilots were brought before an International Scientific Commission, led by the eminent Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, which investigated the charges. A documentary film, Oppose Bacteriological Warfare, was made, showing the pilots confessing and Needham’s Commission peering at spiders in the snow. But the story was fake.

The germ warfare hoax was a brilliant exercise in turning democracy’s expectations against it. Scientists’ judgements, campaigning documentary, impassioned confession – if you couldn’t believe all that, what could you believe? For the genius of disinformation is that even exposure doesn’t disable it. All it really has to do is sow doubt and confusion. The story was finally shown to be fraudulent in 1998, through documents transcribed from Soviet archives. The transcripts were authenticated by the historian Kathryn Weathersby, an expert on the archives. But as Dr Weathersby laments, “People come back and say ‘Well, yeah, but, you know, they could have done it, it could have happened.’”

There’s an insidious problem here: the same language is used to express blanket cynicism as empirical scepticism. As Arendt argued, gullibility and cynicism can become one. If opponents of democracy can destroy the very idea of shared, trusted information, they can hope to destabilise democracy itself.

But there is a glimmer of hope here too. The fusion of cynicism and gullibility can also afflict the practitioners of disinformation. The most effective lie involves some self-deception. So the show trial victims seem to have internalised the accusations against them, at least for a while, but so did their tormentors. As the historian Robert Service has written, “Stalin frequently lied to the world when he was simultaneously lying to himself.”

Democracy might be vulnerable because of its reliance on the idea of shared truth – but authoritarianism has a way of undermining itself by getting lost in its own fictions. Disinformation is not only a danger to its targets. 

Phil Tinline’s documentary “Disinformation: A User’s Guide” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, 17 March

This article first appeared in the 06 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Pope on Trial