Like all of V. S. Naipaul’s “travel” books, The Masque of Africa encompasses a much larger narrative and purpose: to judge the effects of belief (in indigenous animisms, the foreign religions of Christianity and Islam, the cults of leaders and mythical history) upon the progress of civilization.
From V. S. Naipaul: “For my travel books I travel on a theme. And the theme of The Masque of Africa is African belief. I begin in Uganda, at the center 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 economical life; and yet at the bottom of the continent the political realities are so overwhelming that they have to be taken into account.
“Perhaps an unspoken aspect of my inquiry was the possibility of the subversion of 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. You felt that it would survive any calamity.
“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 far back to the beginning of things.
“To reach that beginning was the purpose of my book.”
The Masque of Africa is a masterly achievement by one of the world’s keenest observers and one of its greatest writers.
About the Author
V. S. Naipaul was born in Trinidad in 1932. He went to England on a scholarship in 1950. After four years at University College, Oxford, he began to write, and since then has followed no other profession. He has published thirty books of fiction and nonfiction, including A House for Mr. Biswas, A Bend in the River, A Turn in the South and a collection of letters, Between Father and Son. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001.
praise for V. S. Naipaul’s THE MASQUE OF AFRICA
“This latest journey to the continent is part of a larger whole, the developing narrative of a single consciousness…. The Masque of Africa marks a startling evolution of that consciousness…. Still writing with the same spare, acerbic lyricism…Naipaul is willing to express a new attitude, one of self-doubt. This acknowledgement of human frailty—starting with his own—broadens his observational powers immeasurably…. [providing] a new capacity for wonderment [and a] new willingness to explore the authenticity of indigenous African belief…. The tone of this, his most recent foray into the search for life’s meaning, is respectful and sometimes even hesitant…. [W]e move from one voice to the next without really noticing that the speaker has changed. There’s not a lot of unnecessary scene-setting: what’s important is what’s being said…. Naipaul has always revealed a curious admixture of extrovert and introvert on the page…. Now…more adept at switching between these two ways of being with less violence…he has found a greater ability to poke fun at himself…. [With this] new kind of humor—one that, being softer, is even sharper [Naipaul] transcends the shadowy wryness to which his readers have long been accustomed…. [His is a] brilliant and elastic mind.”
Eliza Griswold, The New York Times Book Review
“A master still at his craft….Naipaul’s writing [is] simple, concise, engaging…. Like Flaubert and Hemingway, Naipaul uses less to say more, and here he has few equals…. [T]he obscurity of his inquiry makes it fresh…. Naipaul’s latest African journey is eyewitness reporting at its best…. [T]he writing [has] a texture, honestly and ground truth that makes high-minded criticism ring somewhat hollow.”
Alex Perry, Time Magazine
“[Naipaul] is attentive to and gives voice to people, all sorts of people…. In The Masque of Africa, Naipaul uses himself as a character only as a way for us to see others through his conflicts, moods, ears, eyes, and biases. And in between his scenes of sharply observed interactions, we are always surrounded by the people of the continent talking.”
Binyavanga Wainaina, Boston Globe
“Naipaul gets it. He is dry, often irked, sometimes enraged….But he is also patient (not a trait often associated with him), engaged, funny, self-reflective and thoughtful….in writing shorn of excess…he has a wicked way with syntax….The Masque of Africa is a book for outsiders, for those who may never visit Africa or may know it only superficially. But it is also a book in which Africans themselves may find something to learn. Naipaul is a difficult, imperfect narrator who does not care to be liked, but he is an honest one and doesn’t dissemble. Somehow, by the end of it all, and despite his best efforts, I have grown to like him.”
Aminatta Forna, The Observer (London)
“[O]ne of Naipaul’s most stirring books….[he] combines the objectivity of a disaster photographer and an understanding of history.”
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, The Independent (London)
“[Naipaul] provide[s] a narrative order for people to make sense of what has happened to them….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….With extraordinary sensitivity, Naipaul registers the beauty of these traditions but also captures their cruelty.”
Thomas Meaney, Bookforum
“This beautiful and humane book is less Olympian than some of Naipaul’s earlier travel narratives, though the idea that underpins it is so basic that it achieves a kind of majesty. Cruelty to animals and to nature will destroy men too. ‘The ground around the abattoir goes on and on. When sights like this meet the eyes…there can be no idea of humanity, no idea of grandeur.’”
“[A] elegiac spiritual return to a landscape he once inhabited in 1966…. Ever fair-minded, soberly reflective, and conciliatory, Naipaul offers his sage observations in the hope that by learning more, we accept greater.”
Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)
“Naipaul narrates the journey with finely wrought detail, transporting the reader to the landscapes and city scenes he describes. Naipaul is witty, and his writing can be quite charming and delicate. He is also disarmingly frank in his assessments, a quality often not found in discussions of belief…. A sharply written and engrossing exploration of the effects of religious and spiritual belief on societies. Effective both as a vivid piece of travel writing and for its glimpses of belief in Africa.”