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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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.”Skip to next paragraph
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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.