V.S Naipaul strikes again, this time in Africa. He recently returned from a six month trip to Uganda, Gabon, Nigeria, South Africa and Cote d'Ivoire and he's written a book about his travels. What he had to say reads like something out of an 18th century European explorer's narrative. Apart from helping to start a very big bonfire, the next best thing this book could be used for is script material for Uncle Ruckus in The Boondocks. This is an excerpt from the Evening Standard:
Essentially the book is Naipaul's idiosyncratic search for Africa's spiritual core. He collects experiences and stories of faith and belief on an odyssey across Uganda, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Gabon — eventually travelling to South Africa, a country that he says he finds “mesmerising and profound”. But others he also found repellent, such as Ivory Coast: “I found out what was the best way of killing a cat or kitten. You put them in a sack of some sort and then you dropped the sack in a pot of boiling water. The thought of this everyday kitchen cruelty made everything else in Ivory Coast seem unimportant,” he writes.
The book is a dazzling spectacle of original travel reporting by the greatest living prose writer as he approaches 80, fearless in writing about what he sees and feels. In South Africa he notes human body parts made by witchdoctors into a mixture of so-called “battle medicine” for respectable middle-class Africans. Such images inevitably and understandably jar with those who want Africa to be progressive with economic hope for the 21st century. “I am nervous that people see the book as anti-Africa or use it to make some sort of political point,” Naipaul says. By choosing specifically not to dwell on the economics or the politics of Africa, he aimed to gauge what he perceived as the different inner nervous systems of Africa.
“Truth stares you in the face. You just pick it up and write it. It has not been my intention ever to create trouble, even from my very first book,” Naipaul says. He is more weary than wary of his armchair critics. “People who don't travel to look [for themselves] have their own precious principles, which … go beyond observation or truth and if you go against their principles with your observations, they do not like it. So that is the provocation.”
Naipaul is never deflected from what he perceives as harsh or unfashionable truths, however unpalatable. He has airily dismissed the Caribbean culture of the Seventies as “manufactured societies, labour camps”. Tony Blair was like a pirate who imposed on Britain a “plebian culture”. The fatwah by Ayatollah Khomeini on Salman Rushdie, he once joked, is an “extreme form of literary criticism”.
He is also used to the passage of time eventually making him seem more prophetic than provocative. When, 30 years ago, he wrote harshly about Islam as a potent global difficulty, he was castigated as a racial stirrer. Now his view is considered by many as mainstream. “What happens after a while is that what appears so bold, fire-burning and house-destroying eventually appears OK. I have gone out and done the work; that is my ticket really.”
His first visit to Africa was in the Sixties. This book was the result of his travels nearly 50 years on. “This time an unspoken aspect of my inquiry was the possibility of subversion of old Africa by the ways of the outside world. To witness the old world of magic was to be given some idea of its power and to be taken back to the beginning of things. To reach that beginning was the purpose of my book. To go in search of the beginning of things. It is very exciting, was at the time, to feel one is in touch with the beginnings of thought, the beginnings of metaphysical ideas. So that was what I meant by going back to the beginning — probably a romantic idea.”
The fact that there is no written culture in Africa, he says, was “a great drawback”, adding “I talked about this to people in Africa. They did not see it like that. They thought it just one of those little things that would be put right eventually. They did not see how fundamental it was not having a writing, a literature, a past you could turn to. I wondered why they could not do the writing.”
Not that he underestimates the power of “old Africa” but he sees it as limiting. “What they feel is very profound and it goes down to their very being. But they have no idea of history, though. No idea of a past. This is true of Africa generally. There is not a book in which you can see where you were 100 years ago and that for me is very disturbing.”
His soft hypnotic voice unleashes many stings in the tail. “I have been interested in earth religions that take you back to the remotest past of men.The simplicity took one's breath away. Yet profound belief comes from, as it were, very educated people, people with a gift of thought and everything else, and you can't say that about Africa, it is all emotion.”
For Naipaul, the country he found it hardest to get a handle on was South Africa. “I found it a very hard place to have a point of view, and that is half the battle. I became very frightened in a way that I was never frightened before. I felt stymied in South Africa and saw here race was everything; that race ran as deep as religion everywhere. I thought that I may not be able to do this book there. To be frightened was a new experience. I do not know whether it was age or what but it went away.”
Naipaul made his initial reputation in fiction with A House for Mr Biswas but his Noble Prize for Literature was as much for his travel writing as his novels. “There are few rules for travel, for instance, not too much about oneself — you have to be a seeing eye or a feeling mind.” He was intensely curious about the behaviour of the people, and the stories he encountered, and was at times shocked. “The unhappiness that people get caught up in, the women who try to kill their children — all of that was new to me.”
He was very moved by the sight of the vast forests in Gabon but he also saw and heard things there that chilled him to the bone. “There is a bad side, certainly in Gabon, they kill and the kinds of people they like to kill are children — it has to be a child or an older person, children because they are nearer to the beginning, an old person because they are near the end of life. All very sinister,” he says.
Naipaul may have gone in search of faith in Africa but he has none himself. “I believe in the endless processing of experience. My philosophical attitude does away with the need for faith. I also have no fear of death. None at all,” he says.
His mind is still razor sharp — this new book means a world tour — and his career has ben bolstered by having recently hired Andrew “The Jackal” Wylie as his new literary agent. Naipaul says he would like to please him by writing a novel next. But he simply does not know if he has it in him. He has been reading a book about how Oscar Wilde no longer wanted to write after he came out of jail. “His editor pressing him to write was asking him to become unhappy. Wilde wanted to be happy at that stage after coming out of jail. So I am just wondering if for a man of nearly 80 writing another book is inviting a kind of unhappiness on himself?”