A writer knows he is working well when people start to hate him. V. S. Naipaul has always warmed to this aspect of the enterprise. For more than fifty years, he has, with enviable regularity and evident delight, brought his readers the bad news from four continents. His prophecies never fail to outrage, all the more when they are right: In the 1960s, he pronounced the failure of Black Power politics in the Caribbean before it left the cradle; in the 1980s, he followed the logic of Muslim fundamentalism to its grim conclusions while Mohamed Atta was still in shorts. But perhaps no prediction has been more widely reviled—and passionately rebutted—than a single off-the-cuff comment Naipaul made after the publication of A Bend in the River in 1979. Asked about the future of Africa, he said it didn't have one.
How strange, then, that Naipaul's new book should be a searching inquiry into Africa's past with an eye to its future. The Masque of Africa retraces Naipaul's steps from forty years before, when he first went to Africa to write about the dictators slashing up the continent. Now he returns to examine wounds deeper beneath the surface: the remnants of earth religions that have survived the conquests of Christianity and Islam. With extraordinary sensitivity, Naipaul registers the beauty of these traditions but also captures their cruelty. The Masque of Africa is full of sacred groves and magic herbs—but also boiled cats and severed horse heads. For all his claims to hold no views, Naipaul has barely concealed his agenda behind these portraits of belief. The spiritual resources of Africa are, he thinks, like its natural resources, tragically limited—and, in many cases, morally blinding. As if issuing instructions for how to build a civilization from scratch, Naipaul tells us which indigenous ingredients can be added and which must be kept out. It comes as little surprise that his ideal Africa turns out to be one capable of producing a writer like himself.
For something personal is drawing Naipaul back to the continent. It has to do with his own beginnings, growing up in Trinidad in the 1930s and '40s. As a Hindu child in Port of Spain, there was nothing sacred about the island—the sacred places were all back in India. As for the blacks Naipaul encountered, few of their native beliefs would have survived slavery. One of Naipaul's great aims as a writer has been to trace the tributaries of Trinidad's various peoples back to their sources. He has investigated the India of his ancestors, the eradication of the original Amerindians of Trinidad, the lands of Muslim conquest, and now the origins of African belief. Taken together, the books constitute a longue durée history of the island. They do not attempt to reenchant it—that has never been Naipaul's goal—but they provide a narrative order for people to make sense of what has happened to them.
Readers of Naipaul are by now familiar with his travel routine. First, there is the inevitable snafu of arrival. Naipaul likes to head straight to the nearest international hotel—the less character, the better. In Lagos, Nigeria, he is picked up by the wrong driver, taken to the wrong room, and forced to call one of his fixers to straighten things out. Then come the money problems. Each time he sits down with a witch doctor, he fixates on the bill like a man in a gypsy cab. The meetings themselves often go nowhere. At one consultation with a Nigerian babalawo, Naipaul is invited to see some shrines in the soothsayer's yard:
In a corner, looking like something lavatorial and disagreeable, were the three shrines with the oracles the babalawo had made with his own hands. For the believer it would have been a high moment, being permitted to see these sacred things; but for me the moment came with a noticeable tickle in my nostrils: a touch of asthma on the way.
What is happening here? This is more a comedy of discomforts, it seems, than an effort to get to the bottom of things. But that is Naipaul's way: His honesty about his failures to connect with people makes us better able to appreciate his breakthroughs. Part of the pleasure of reading him is watching his frustration cool into comprehension. Naipaul may be the last writer to believe in the author's ability to capture objective truth if he concentrates hard enough. This faith opposes every strain of contemporary thinking and yet, when fanatically applied, produces the impression that Naipaul misses nothing.
The problems with The Masque of Africa come where Naipaul's anthropology slips into sophistry. He repeatedly suggests, for instance, that Africa's addiction to bush meat has stifled its agricultural development. Less ludicrous is his claim that the demands of the earth religions compete with those of modern society. It's not so much traditional African belief itself that worries Naipaul, but rather how Africans' adherence to "tradition" abets their resistance to squarely confronting the challenges of the modern world. Renouncing the ways of the West may be psychologically satisfying, but Naipaul believes people are mistaken to think they can insulate themselves from its advances. He sees this dynamic particularly at play in South Africa, where, increasingly, tribal traditions cover for a lack of political imagination. In Soweto, Naipaul visits Winnie Mandela, "soft in body," who, much to his amazement, still consults the graves of her Xhosa ancestors. But Naipaul never spells out why these beliefs cannot be successfully combined with viable politics. Syncretism of any kind is out of the question for him. "The people of South Africa had had a big struggle," he writes. "I expected that a big struggle would have created bigger people, people whose magical practices might point the way ahead to something profounder."
Naipaul finds his bigger people among the Pygmies. In one of the most surprising passages of the book, he meets Mobiet, a Peace Corps volunteer–turned-freelancer, whom local Pygmies have initiated into the mysteries of the Gabonese forest. Naipaul listens to Mobiet describe at length the power of the eboga initiation rites: "I know that if you analyse all the plants of Gabon you cannot activate the healing process unless you know the language of the plants." This is the sort of assurance that Naipaul would have skewered, or at least skeptically probed, in one of his earlier books, but here he simply takes Mobiet at his word. "Initiation had worked for him," he writes, and approvingly notes Mobiet's decision to have his children educated in America. By contrast, Naipaul reserves his greatest disdain for Africans who see their culture as a satisfactorily closed system. In Johannesburg, Naipaul meets Joseph, a Zulu traditionalist, who rails against Western hygiene, bans on polygamy, and animal rights activism. "Why do you want the animal to be slaughtered in another way which you think is more humane?" he asks Naipaul. This sort of sentiment repels him. "It was impossible," Naipaul writes, "for any rational person to feel that any virtue could come from the remains of these poor animals."
The Masque of Africa is streaked with blood: throats of cows slit for sacrifice, bats shot from the sky with slingshots, horse heads for sale in the market—even human body parts available for the right price. Worst of all, Naipaul's favorite pet is everywhere on the menu:
The best way of killing a cat, assuming you had invited someone to dinner and didn't want to create a scene, was to stretch the animal's neck, the way people in England killed a rabbit. But when you did that you could be badly scratched. The surest way—if your guests didn't mind the racket—was to put a cat in a sack and beat it with a stick until it was dead. Another good way was to drown it. You used a sardine as bait to attract the cat to a container with water, and then you poured and poured water. The cat swallowed a lot of water and the virtue of this method was that it was much easier afterwards to tear the bloated cat's skin off.
Naipaul's disgust here seems genuinely to override his other responses. "The thought of this everyday kitchen cruelty made everything else in the Ivory Coast seem unimportant," he writes. The kind of check on the senses required for killing animals in close quarters is for Naipaul a damning commentary on the society at large. The proximity between animals and animism itself ironically allows for more brutality: Outside of your tribe's totem every animal is fair game. Not to see this man-on-animal cruelty means not to see man-on-man cruelty, either. "During the elections the ANC and its rival call each other cockroaches, snakes, and dogs," a South African tells Naipaul. "During intense debates where animal metaphors are used, real blood will flow."
The blood of animals running through this book is a sustained commentary on African blindness. The way out of this blindness, Naipaul suggests, is to join up with what he has called "universal civilization" and abandon all pretensions to local self-sufficiency. It is a hard creed, but nevertheless a corrective for much of what passes these days for communitarian commitment. Consider The Masque of Africa in comparison to the most popular African-travel book of our time: Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father. In Kenya, Obama meets his half-brother Mark who is there on a break from his studies at Stanford as a physicist. "You don't ever think about settling here?" Obama asks. "There's not much work for a physicist, is there, in a country where the average person doesn't have a telephone," Mark answers. It's a perfectly pitched, Naipaulian response. But Obama is not satisfied: "Don't you ever feel like you might be losing something?" His half-brother replies: "Other things move me. Beethoven's symphonies. Shakespeare's sonnets. I know—it's not what an African is supposed to care about. But who's to tell me what I should and shouldn't care about?" For Obama this is still not enough. As A Masque of Africa shows, something precious always is lost in the bargain for modern civilization, but for Naipaul it is worth the price if it yields a man who wants to hear and see things for himself.
Thomas Meaney is an editor of The Utopian and a doctoral student in history at Columbia.