Saturday, September 25, 2010

Africa through Naipaul's eyes

For my travel books, I travel on a theme. And the theme of The Masque of Africa is African belief. I begin with Uganda, at the centre of the continent, do Ghana and Nigeria, the Ivory Coast and Gabon, and end at the bottom of the continent, in South Africa. My theme is belief, not political or economic life; and yet at the bottom of the continent the political realities are so overwhelming they have to be taken into account. Perhaps an unspoken aspect of my inquiry was the possibility of the subversion of the old Africa by the ways of the outside world. The theme held until I got to the South, when the clash of the two ways of thinking and believing became far too one-sided. The skyscrapers of Johannesburg didn’t rest on sand. The older world of magic felt fragile, but at the same time had an enduring quality. I had expected that over the great size of Africa the practices of magic would significantly vary. But they didn’t. The diviners everywhere wanted to “throw the bones” to read the future and the idea of “energy” remained a constant to be tapped into by the ritual sacrifice of body parts. In South Africa, body parts, mainly of animals but also of men and women, made a mixture of “battle medicine”. To witness this, to be given some idea of its power, was to be taken back to the beginning of things. To reach that beginning was the purpose of my book.
V S Naipaul: The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief (Picador India, Rs 595)

Naipaul knows Africa well. He has lived and worked in East Africa: “Home Again” in A Way with the World (1994) is based on his time there. In a Free State (1971) and A Bend in the River (1979) are both “about” Africa. Overall, Naipaul’s vision of Africa has been remarkably constant, you might say even rigid: The Masque of Africa merely reiterates his earlier views that Africa is a dreamlike and threatening place that resists understanding, that eats away at reason and the technological products of reason. Joseph Conrad, the man from the fringes of the West has been one of the major influences on Naipaul and many of the images of Naipaul’s Africa have come out of Heart of Darkness. Unlike his three books on India — An Area of Darkness, India: A Wounded Civilisation and India: A Million Mutinies Now — which reflect a growing understanding of the complexity of the subcontinent within the framework of history, there is little such generosity with Africa as a whole.

Full report here Business Standard

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