Naipaul’s strange masque

I’m 115 pages into V.S. Naipaul’s The Masque of Africa, and it’s one of the weirdest books  I’ve ever read; so strange, you’re afraid to speak about how odd it is. After finishing Naipaul’s biography, it’s clear he was brought up with a fear of blacks and what they represented to his class of East Asian-Indian Trinidadian society. It’s something he was never able to leave behind. The book is about a six-month trip he took through  the heart of old Africa, in the sense that he was in search of whatever remnants of primeval tribal culture he could find, particularly the spiritual and religious aspects. Certainly, a promising subject for him. But to watch him flounder around, you wonder is this the same writer of the earlier nonfiction books who could take apart a culture in 50 pages? The problem is you can’t be sure of what he’s trying to do here. It may be the ultimate writer’s fatigue or possibly an experiment,  some new approach to storytelling (that so far he and I both seem to be trying to untangle). He’s a master of prose. We know that, but the prose here is constantly exuding irony (intended and not intended), condescension, put-ons, farce and cascades of clunky one-liners that highlight naiveté, stupidity, obtuseness, ignorance,  on top of which he casts himself as a an awkward character whose rapport with his subjects is based on all of the above. It’s such a literary wreck, you’re forced to keep reading for the wrong reasons. There must be a point to it all, but so far it has eluded him and me.  I have no choice but to keep reading in hope of the best and enthralled that it may be what it appears to be––simply bad, a writer whose style and personality have broken down but in a bravura act been put on display for all to see. A sort of ultimate who cares after the Nobel Prize. I just got the quirkiness of the style: it’s Dick and Jane go to Africa. That makes me, and you, the readers, children who will read any little story that keeps chugging along. A sample:

Since life (and death) are so full of snares, there are many ablutions to be done and many taboos to be observed. It is better to be barefoot. For the high priests especially it is taboo to have the soles of their feet covered; these important people must always have a link to the earth. If they are caught wearing shoes, they can be fined. Full shoes are allowed in some shrines, but not slippers. Wherever the high priest walks becomes holy, because he is the physical representation of the spirits, and is possessed by the spirits. The high priest wears white and carries a broom in his hand. The broom stands for his cleansing function.

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