The Masque of Africa

How are are Africa’s religions faring in the 21st century? Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul visits to find out.

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    The Masque of Africa:
    Glimpses of African Belief
    By V.S. Naipaul
    Knopf
    256 pp., $26.95
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Born in Jamaica in 1932 to a Hindu family, V.S. Naipaul moved to England as a young man to study and pursue a career as a writer. In a series of novels, essays, and travelogues that was recognized with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, Naipaul has drawn upon his personal origins to explore what happens when two worlds meet.

He is particularly interested in the intersection between Western modernity and traditional cultures, quite often in postcolonial countries once governed by Europeans.

Naipaul is perhaps the only Nobel laureate whose literary output has focused so heavily on travel writing. His unusual stature as a travel writer stems from the unusual nature of the travel books themselves. They’re psychologically dense, drawing on reams of interviews with locals to render a narrative that’s as much as landscape of the mind as a landscape of the map.

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In The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief, Naipaul travels to Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Gabon, and South Africa, exploring how indigenous religions, as well as Christianity and Islam, are faring as Africa faces the 21st century.

Many of the destinations Naipaul visits in “The Masque of Africa” are places he’s been before, which makes the book a journey not only through geography, but time. Naipaul begins his trip in Kampala, a city where, more than four decades ago, he had done a stint as a university writer-in-residence.

He finds the city dramatically changed, and not necessarily for the better, with development marring the green hills for which Kampala was once famous:
“All those hills were now built over; and many of the spaces between the hills, the dips, were seemingly floored over with the old corrugated iron of poor dwellings.... The roads couldn’t deal with the traffic; even in this rainy season the roads were dusty, scuffed down beyond the asphalt to the fertile red earth of Uganda. I couldn’t recognize this Kampala, and even at this early stage it seemed to me that I was in a place where a calamity had occurred.”

The scene keynotes one of the book’s prevailing theme: how physical displacement might portend spiritual displacement as well. Much later, in the darkly mystical woodland of Gabon, Naipaul wonders if a forest religion can survive if the forest is gone.

Naipaul suggests that the answer might come soon: “Thirty-year [logging] permits have been granted to the Chinese, the Malaysians and the Japanese. They are more ruthless and better equipped than the people who went before, and at the end of their licenses there will almost certainly be patches of desert in what was once forest.”

To read “The Masque of Africa” is to be reminded that spirituality is a private subject for many, a topic not easily explored with relative strangers. But, as in his other books, Naipaul seems to establish a sense of intimacy with his interview subjects.

“The birds sing, and there is great beauty in the trees,” one forest dweller in Gabon tells Naipaul. “And if you see a small path twisting and turning like a snake in the forest you think of an image of the absolute. The search for the truth comes from the forest. I adore the forest, and even if I spend years abroad I have to come back and rush to the forest. I need the thick forest to feel alive.”

People talk openly to Naipaul, one gathers, because he adopts an air of neutrality that invites disclosure. His narratives can unfold for many pages with a sense of objective detachment that is more akin to wire service reportage than personal exposition.

Here and there, however, Naipaul offers a personal disclosure of his own, as when he professes to being moved by certain African religious rituals, despite his apparent skepticism about religion.

In Africa, Naipaul finds much to be skeptical about. He doesn’t romanticize tribal religion, noting that shrines, ostensible sources of contemplation, can also be places of danger, too. “The land is full of cruelty which is hard for the visitor to bear,” he writes of the Ivory Coast. Naipaul’s alertness to both beauty and darkness recalls Joseph Conrad, a writer Naipaul has mentioned as an early influence.

The best reason to read V.S. Naipaul is that he tends to bring news long before the news cycle catches on. In 1990’s “India: A Thousand Mutinies Now,” Naipaul thoughtfully anticipated India’s rise on the world stage. In 1998, three years before the World Trade Center towers fell, Naipaul’s “Beyond Belief” chronicled some of the more disturbing aspects of Islamic extremism. “The Masque of Africa” is a perceptive report on a part of the world that rarely makes the front page – at least, not now. But given Naipaul’s gift for prescience, readers would do well to pay attention.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

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