A weary traveler

For the past decade controversy has dogged Sir Vidia Naipaul, winner of the Nobel Prize, a writer whose every utterance produces howls of outrage, charges of racism, dandyism, and elitism from critics (mostly in the U.K.) who struggle with “multiculturalism” as a philosophical trope. Alongside these charges of racism, Naipaul also stands accused of personal malfeasance — the abandonment of a dying wife, brutal misanthropy, marrying his mistress with his wife barely in the ground.

And now, Naipaul’s latest book, “The Masque of Africa,” subtitled “Glimpses of African Belief,” has produced equal amounts of rancor and disdain among those same critical cliques in Europe. Having traveled in the Third World and written about its problems, mainly religious and economic, Naipaul, now in his late 70s, recently traveled to six African countries (Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Gabon and South Africa) to, in his own words, judge the effects of belief in indigenous animisms, the colonially imposed religions of Christianity and Islam, and cults of ancestors and mythical history, upon the progress of civilization and rationality in Africa.A big job to be sure.

In the Ugandan countryside and its capital, Kampala, Naipaul visits sacred places and faith healers, trying to judge the conflict between native religion offering the world of spirits and ancestors as against the mighty religions imposed on Africa from outside — Islam in chief. However, Uganda is also the home to a particularly virulent and spiteful form of evangelical Christianity spawning oddball churches whose themes aren’t so far from native beliefs. Africa, as always, abounds in faith healers, herbalists, fortune-tellers, curse-casters, witches and shamen. Some, as one in a small, hot room in Nigeria where Naipaul is taken in an official motorcade of sorts, advertise framed certificates of their own authenticity so that “no believer need feel ashamed.”

No travel book focused on Africa could ever avoid economic and ecological observations. The Ivory Coast, still mostly forested, is being assaulted by foreign logging corporations, chiefly Chinese (who Naipaul observes, “hate the earth”) and Japanese, which are gradually bringing the forest to its knees, destroying the soil, polluting rivers, and clearing the jungle of its natural inhabitants, the Pygmies, who are widely despised as “animals” at best. Elsewhere, especially in Nigeria, Naipaul laments the situation of cats and dogs, who are maltreated and then eaten. Cats are particularly brutalized as they represent malign spirits.

The best parts of “The Masque of Africa” are very good indeed, showing Naipaul’s particularly brilliant descriptive powers of language and perception in fine form. On the other hand, Naipaul, at age 78, has barely the physical wherewithal to travel in Africa for even a few months collecting observations and notes for his book before breaking down. Real travel writing is hard work, and one can tell early on that Naipaul no longer has the stomach for African travel — the fetid, moldy, insect-ridden hotel rooms, the rattling bus rides over dusty backcountry roads, the terrible food and uncomfortable waits for bleary-eyed or drunken immigration officials to act.

Instead, Naipaul travels like a prince — motorcades, helicopters, jets, official cars, everywhere accompanied by letters of introduction and formal diplomatic sponsors. He’s a celebrity and expects to be treated as one. The great travel writers of our time like Naipaul, Theroux or, earlier, Robert Byron, expect to endure extreme hardship as the price of truth. That price is probably too high for Naipaul to pay these days.

And when Naipaul undertakes to write about South Africa, the book breaks down. One can almost sense Naipaul aching to get home to his Wiltshire house, his books, tea and acclaim. Of South Africa he can make only a few observations, visit Winnie Mandela at Soweto, talk briefly to an Afrikaner or two. Then he’s gone in a haze of platitudes, his major themes — the persistence of African superstition despite an overlay of Christianity and Islam, Africa’s lack of written history underpinning its gasping civilization, disorganized economic thought, the “Big Men” who’ve spoiled the post-colonial African experience — each now a barely registered shadow of itself.

Naipaul’s great travel books like “An Area of Darkness” (1964, about India) and “Among the Believers” (the Middle East and Muslim World, 1980) are far behind him. Yet the cultural strangeness of animism, sorcery, magic, incantation, ancestor worship and human sacrifice, continue, in some inexplicable way, to hold his imagination in thrall. “The Masque of Africa,” at times beautifully written, is sloppily observed, timid and, much of the time, exhausted in its execution. Nevertheless, Naipaul is always worth reading.