Mr. Grumpy Goes Back to Africa

Pick up the collected essays of any member of what we might imagine as a dream team of postcolonial literature

Pick up the collected essays of any member of what we might imagine as a dream team of postcolonial literature and it will include an annoyed complaint about V. S. Naipaul. Salman Rushdie, Edward Said, Chinua Achebe, Derek Walcott–each has publicly registered his disgust with the Nobel Prize winner from Trinidad. Mr. Naipaul’s novels are one source of dismay, but what enrages everyone is his travel writing. At issue is Mr. Naipaul’s callous treatment of respective homelands or religions, his use of minor samples to draw broad and negative conclusions, his unfairness, prejudice and blind pessimism. But also, really, it’s that even though his work is exasperating, ill-informed and usually kind of offensive, people still think he’s great.

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Consider the bulk of Mr. Naipaul’s travel oeuvre. It’s pretty repetitive. He goes to some non-European place–India, Congo and Iran are some previous destinations–and, in a style that Mr. Rushdie called “a novelist’s truth masquerading as objective reality,” Mr. Naipaul complains. He complains about the natives’ disrespect for hygiene, regular garbage collection and the tenets of the Enlightenment. He subjects his readers to the country’s abhorrent lack of concern for his own personal comfort, dietary preferences and taste in architecture. If the destination had also been a former colony, Mr. Naipaul depicts the colonial era as the only respite such countries have had from the chaos and tyranny of their own people. Then he gives the book a vaguely imperial title: An Area of Darkness, or India: A Wounded Civilization, or, his latest effort, The Masque of Africa.

The Masque of Africa is ostensibly about how traditional African religions have co-existed with Islam and Christianity. Mr. Naipaul sees the latter two as external influences and, one gathers, somehow inauthentic. He calls the Christian-Muslim-traditional medley “African belief,” and he travels to Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Gabon and South Africa to document its manifestations and–cultural determinist to the end–figure out how it continues to affect the quality of African life.

His haphazard methods, though, are not up to the task. Each country he visits is allotted its own chapter, and each chapter can be broadly distilled into the following storyline: Mr. Naipaul arrives and might describe the airport; he is driven through the streets and rates the quality of garbage collection (“moraines of uncollected garbage” is a descriptor he uses twice); then he connects with his local contact, usually a member of the professional class. The transcribed conversations with these contacts are invariably the most enlightening part of the book, but are, like everything else, haphazardly presented. The contact kindly shepherds Mr. Naipaul to visit the local spiritual guru or hallowed religious shrine, where Mr. Naipaul frets about how much the guru or shrine tour guide will milk him for the soothsaying or history lesson. (“I felt the witchdoctor’s bill growing by the minute,” he writes in Uganda). Then Mr. Naipaul sees a stray kitten and the fate he imagines it will suffer at the hands of nasty Africans fills him with pathos. “Christian prejudice and African ideas about spirits and familiars combined to make life hard for cats especially, and even Muslims were affected,” he writes.

In Ghana, for example, Mr. Naipaul meets up with Kojo, a dentist with “an aristocratic African reticence that made him underplay everything.” Kojo introduces Mr. Naipaul to Pa-boh, an expert in the religious practices of the coastal Gaa people. Pa-boh is a Christian, and has raised his children as Christians, but apparently has studied Gaa religion. Mr. Naipaul does not clarify something so banal as credentials–he admits he is not even sure how to spell Pa-boh’s name. At least Pa-boh lives in a part of Accra where garbage collection is privatized, so on that point Mr. Naipaul’s mind is at ease. He asks Pa-boh to introduce him to a Gaa high priest, but when Pa-boh takes him there, Mr. Naipaul becomes so concerned about how much he will have to pay the guy that he leaves. Then Mr. Naipaul goes to see former president Jerry Rawlings. At Mr. Rawlings’ estate he sees “the first happy kitten I had seen in Ghana.”

Vague generalizations pervade the book. After describing the moraines of garbage in Ivory Coast, Mr. Naipaul  quips, “Africa reclaiming its own.” Later he discusses “Africa drowning in the fecundity of its own people.” He complains that the government of South Africa “in a fit of African-ness” had allowed immigration from other African countries, “reducing great buildings and great highways to slum.” Then there are the animals: Mr. Naipaul modifies Victorian libels about cannibalism from fear that Africans will eat missionaries to fear that they will eat kittens. Even the old cartoon image of the missionary in a cauldron is recycled when he describes the way he hears cats are killed in the Ivory Coast (he never actually witnesses or corroborates any of this). He laments the fate of cats, dogs, cows, crocodiles and guinea pigs as comestibles, eschewing any mention of trophy hunting and trade in skins, horns, tusks, fur and live animals. Instead we learn that Africans, “given guns and left to themselves would easily eat their way through the continent’s wildlife.” Sometimes the themes mingle: “There were two dogs on a mound of garbage, and the poor creatures were the color of garbage.”

The greatest mystery of the book soon becomes why a man who hates Africa so much has gone back there to write another book. Two of his novels, In a Free State and A Bend in the River, are set in Uganda and Congo, respectively, and he has gone on these complaining journeys before. It’s well established that Mr. Naipaul traveling in Africa means Mr. Naipaul seeing nothing and judging everything. As Paul Theroux wrote in Sir Vidia’s Shadow, his book-length character assassination of Mr. Naipaul, “Africa frightened him so badly he cursed it, wishing it ill until the curse became a dismissive mantra that ignorant readers could applaud: ‘Africa has no future.'”

Take this description from his 1980 book A Congo Diary:

“How quick they are in places managed by others; how quickly they degenerate in places run by themselves. This evening, for instance, my adventure with the café au lait and the Coca. No Coca; no milk, only a dribble in a dirty metal jug–but the boy had brought the coffee.”

This is classic Naipaul: lament that some toxic colonial institution has gone to shit since independence, rely on individual and irrelevant experiences to make sweeping generalizations about a continent’s entire population and also confuse his reader. So did he want café au lait and coca, the reader asks herself, or just coca? Didn’t he get a café au lait, even if it wasn’t to his standards? Is this really what counts as an “adventure” for an internationally acclaimed author? Surely the “boy” was a man? And yeah, the service did use to be quicker when the manager had a chicotte.

Apparently readers in Europe and North America find this blindness somehow satisfying, perhaps because in its blank dismissals it relieves them from the effort of actually having to learn anything about a place. It’s insensitive, boring, unenlightening and badly written–and yet it is still treated with reverence. A Congo Diary was one of those special limited-run projects authors use to enhance their cult of personality. The copy that I read, in the capacious library of a prominent international university, was number 110 of 330 special editions, with carefully stamped, cream-colored paper and a red and black leather cover, its flyleaf signed by Mr. Grumpy himself.

For Mr. Naipaul has won the Nobel Prize, and has written some beautiful novels, so this indulgence is tolerated. If Mr. Naipaul’s dependable audience of colonial nostalgists picks up The Masque of Africa, they will be satisfied to learn that, according to Mr. Naipaul’s unverified rumors, Africans commit human sacrifice, eat kittens like popcorn and still haven’t figured out a system of dependable trash collection (never mind which nations generate the most trash–out of sight, out of mind). One can only wish Mr. Naipaul a safe return back home, where, as Mr. Walcott wrote in his essay on the author, “The sense of England is not so much of setting out to see the world as of turning one’s back on it, of privacy, not adventure.”

Mr. Grumpy Goes Back to Africa