I first read Naipaul in the late 1970s. Through the years, many of his words have passed into my own literary memory. After gulping down A House for Mr. Biswas in one sleepless go on bus and train rides through Chicago, I hungrily plowed through the other early comic works: Miguel Street, The Mystic Masseur, and The Suffrage of Elvira. Of these, Miguel Street, and other short story collections have been published in the Everyman’s Library edition titled Collected Short Fiction. When Naipaul received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, I recalled that he had once said about his books, “They will not survive me.” Now it appears that when the irascible old man of letters passes from the scene, his library will not have burned down.
And this is how I received The Masque of Africa; I was grateful that the writer had one more book in him. By the end of the book, I was well aware that while the powers of observation have been undiminished, the ability to synthesize and compress into a simple and sometimes biting elegance has suffered. One can empathetically suggest that writing is hard work, but this is Naipaul, and thus expectations are high; points are not given for effort taken on the arduous road.
But something must be said for, and about, an octogenarian who takes the many bends in the African river. Naipaul’s search for the enduring beliefs that inform African life take him to Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and to South Africa. Though magical realism has never been Naipaul’s style, a magic that is real to Africans pervades this matter-of-fact book.
The Masque of Africa attempts something grand, something along the lines of Naipaul’s previous travel books (An Area of Darkness, India: A Wounded Civilization, and Among the Believers). It looks to explore the contest for the African spirit, but like Naipaul’s travelogue about the American south (A Turn in the South) it falls short. It asks big questions: “Why had the foreign revealed religions wrought such havoc with African belief?” And then it responds unevenly in its early pages: “Both Christianity and Islam would have been attractive to Africans for a simple reason. They both offered an afterlife; gave people a vision of themselves living on after death. African religion, on the other hand, was more airy, offering only the world of spirits, and the ancestors.” Before proceeding to write about human and animal sacrifice (royals being burned alive; kitties being drowned), the author states simply, “So the magic survived.”
There is a theme of magic’s horror recurring throughout the book. Naipaul may have been looking for an animism that was lyrical and hopeful, but with a few exceptions, he found mostly cruelty in the so-called dark continent. Condescendingly, he writes, “Left to themselves, [Africans] would easily eat their way through the continent’s wildlife.” He continues, “The land is full of cruelty, which is hard for the visitor to bear…. Long-horned cattle are sent for slaughter … to the extensive abattoir area near the docks. And there in trampled and vile black earth these noble creatures, still with dignity, await their destiny in the smell of death.” And by repeatedly displaying a surprising tenderness for kittens (“dainty little creature”), he sets up the reader for revulsion: “Cats were eaten; they were part of the bounty of nature, and they could be reared to be killed…. I found out what was the best way in the Ivory Coast of killing a cat or kitten. You put them in a sack of some sort, and then you dropped the sack in a pot of boiling water. The thought of this everyday kitchen cruelty made everything else in the Ivory Coast seem unimportant.”
Naipaul reveals his sympathies in this last sentence. While he observes much that is truly magical in the Ivory Coast and neighboring countries, it is the awfulness of Africa that remains on the surface. The “masque” in the book’s title appears to have come from a mysterious Nigerian figure of masquerade, which informs the author’s précis on a misogynistic phenomenon called “Mumbo Jumbo” (given Naipaul’s recent outbursts about women writers not being his equal, a wag might say that this is the “kettle calling the pot black”). Naipaul’s sympathies lie not with the men, women, or children of the continent, but rather with the vulnerable kitties purring their way into his heart, the wild horses whose heads are on display like witchdoctors’ trophies, and the heads of deer, “split down the middle with a single blow from a sharp knife or axe, the way in a cocoa estate, at harvest time, a cocoa pod, held in the left hand, might be split by a machete held in the right.”
All of this the traveler saw across the length of Africa, but the most damning prose is reserved for South Africa. In a strange mish-mash of a final chapter (Mohandas Gandhi mixed with Zulu kings; Winnie Mandela conflated with Joseph Conrad), Naipaul attempts too much and does a different kind of balancing act; precariously walking the tightrope between the beautiful and the beastly, he finds expectations falling and recoils from the Conradian horror: “I thought it all awful, a great disappointment. The people of South Africa had had a big struggle. I expected that a big struggle would have created bigger people, people whose magical practices might point the way ahead to something profounder…. There was nothing here of the beauty I had found in Nigeria among the Yoruba people, with their cult, as it seemed to me, of the natural world; nothing here like the Gabonese idea of energy which was linked to the idea and wonder of the mighty forests. Here was only the simplest kind of magic which ended with itself, and from which nothing could grow.”
I, too, believe in magic—the magic of words. Naipaul’s early words moved me, shaped me, stayed with me. To compile them into one neat package in theCollected Short Fiction is a gift of sorts from the publisher, with the author’s introduction providing a thoughtful and distanced objectivity about his own youthful writing: “The reader of this book can follow this process of learning and discovery in the stories of the Miguel Street sequence. He may think I claim too much for the stories, but I am speaking here of something very personal, something that tipped me over from despair into beginning to be a writer.”
Perhaps one snippet from Miguel Street can entice a new generation of readers to sample the short, easily digestible fiction, much of it based on the author’s childhood in Trinidad: “What happening there, Hat?” The dialogue is a joy. The dialect takes one to an island that is not quite paradise. Colonialism has ended or is on its last legs, but, of course, the imperialist impulse lives on and informs much of Naipaul’s evolving legacy: “Its theme is of displacement in the modern world, an idea that would have been beyond the imagining of the people of Miguel Street.”
While this is not the time or place to do full justice to the comic genius of the early Naipaul, suffice it to say that reading only the late Naipaul is akin to knowing your grandfather as only a bent-over old man, too quick with the stick on lesser intellects, but curiously gentle with lower beings. It is much better to dig into the sepia-toned photographs and hear stories from your Dadaji’s youth: to listen to the humor, the hunger, the hubris; to engage in the adventure, the anxiety, the aspiration. In the end, how wonderful it is to see the whole fabric of a man, to engage in the fullness of a life, and in the process find one’s own voice and way.
So it is that a writer, like his works, has a narrative. Naipaul has come through a bit battered by his misogyny, his misunderstood worldview, and his misplaced wicked humor. But he has come through; he has had an indelible impact on his readers; and he has made a way in the world.
For future generations of readers who may disconnect from social media and take heed of Harvard educator Howard Gardner’s imploration to enjoy “long summer days or solitary train rides when we first discovered an author who spoke directly to us.”