Sunday, October 3, 2010

Rites and wrongs

V.S. Naipaul’s vast corpus has been characterised by several distinctive features: the luminosity of his prose; the ability to go beyond the surface currents of history and capture something far more important but elusive; the underlying mood of cultures in crisis; the artfully presented (some might say constructed) interviews that often poignantly reveal psychological burdens and complexities of history more than historical tomes do.

His own judgments can, of course, be frustrating at times: too quick, sometimes ignorant, sometimes wilfully provocative, too much at odds with the complexities he himself presents, rarely sympathetic. In fact, one of the paradoxes that mark his writing is that he is an author capable of recreating the depth of predicament like almost no one can. But that imaginative reach does not translate into an ability to sympathise. It is an interesting question whether Naipaul sees what he is able to, precisely because he does not have a trace of sympathy; as if to sympathise is to expose yourself to illusion. And if there is a psychological thread running through his oeuvre, it is a refusal to succumb to any illusion.

In many ways, Naipaul’s latest book, The Masque of Africa, is his weakest and thinnest. It is ostensibly an exploration of Africa’s original religions, their rites and practices, long subjugated by two different forces. On the one hand, there is modernity, with its masks of rationalism and enlightenment, that delegitimises the enchanted world of rites and spirits, totems and sacrifices. On the other hand, there is the pressure of the great world religions, Islam and Christianity, that also bring, as Max Weber had described, their own forms of rationalisation and disenchantment, by sidelining a chaotic world of traditional religion through systematic theology. The book is, at one level, about this process in Africa — its deep fragility and inability to entirely colonise the “original” religion.

Full review here Indian Express

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