Mr. Grumpy Goes Back to Africa

Vs naipaul - gettyEmily Witt in The New York Observer:

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.

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.