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V.S. Naipaul in Washington on The Masque of Africa

V.S. Naipaul in Washington on The Masque of Africa

Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul spoke about his new book Thursday evening at Washington's historic 6th & I Street Synagogue, and Baltimore Sun copy editor Jeff Landaw gives us this report:

The difference between the native kingdoms of Africa and the Roman Empire, according to V.S. Naipaul, was written language.

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Reading from his new book, "The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief," Naipaul, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001, observed that the Baganda kingdom, the dominant people in what is now Uganda, built roads as good and straight as the Romans'. But without the "cumulative effect" of a written culture, the roads were taken for granted, he says, and the knowledge that produced them and other achievements, like grass houses that kept the rain out, faded into myth and legend. He remembers being "staggered" in 1966, on his first visit to Uganda, by the beauty of the tombs of the Baganda kings, or Kabakas, in 1966; by the time he finished the first chapter of "Masque," the tombs had been vandalized by a "disturbance" in Kampala, the capital, whose cause he didn't mention.

Naipaul first visited Uganda in 1966 and taught in Kampala as a young man (born in 1932, he now moves slowly, seemingly tired, and his short stature comes, for some reason, as a surprise. But my wife found something "adorable" about him and said, "Just to hear his voice is marvelous"). He has written several novels set in Africa, and nonfiction books about India, the United States and the countries conquered by Islam, which is an important presence in his current book.

Why, asked George Andreou, his editor at Alfred A. Knopf, did he write this book now? Why the countries he visited: besides Uganda, Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire (for which Naipaul uses the former name, Ivory Coast), Gabon and South Africa? And why, religious belief? Naipaul, whose spiritual kinship with the skeptical Joseph Conrad is well known, replied that he's always been interested in belief, in "the beginnings of civilization, and I'm attracted by religions that seem to come out of the earth." That is the link, he said, between Roman and African religion.

Roman polytheism, Naipaul said, was "essentially a primitive religion." He quotes the historian Livy, writing at the peak of Rome's power, that "Rome is a great power because the Romans are a religious people," and adds, "… and by that he meant, people who consulted the gods before they did anything important." While the Romans were also attracted to the Greek idea of philosophy, their religion, he said, was more like African belief than like the Judeo-Christian tradition of the West: Its main concerns were "not to discover the good life, how one should live, but how do you make your way in the world without being swallowed up" by bad luck. There were spiritual powers it was possible to "negotiate" with by asking one's ancestors to intercede or by using charms and spells.

Naipaul admitted one embarrassing incident, testing a medicine man by asking him whether his imaginary daughter would get married. The medicine man said he hadn't expected such a question from a non-African; the thing could be done, but it would be expensive. "One does bad things sometimes," Naipaul said.

Islam and Christianity succeeded to the extent that they did in Africa because, Naipaul said, "of the way they spread belief in the afterlife." It's important to people, he explained, to know that they can go on living even when they're dead. Islam succeeded more than Christianity, he said, because Christianity comes with "historical pain" because of the "overwhelming history" of the colonial powers, while Arabs and Muslims "share a little bit of the unhappiness of colonial peoples."

Photo by Carolyn Djanogly courtesy of Random House

Naipaul, whose wife, the Pakistani Muslim journalist Nadira Khannum Alvi, accompanied him to the reading and the reception and book signing afterward, has been highly critical of radical Islam in his two books about the conquered countries, "Among the Believers" and "Beyond Belief," the latter of which he dedicated to Alvi. The countries he wrote about were in Asia, Andreou said; were things different in Africa?

"In Africa," Naipaul replied, "they're quite content with this now. They're quite content with the afterlife and they're willing to forget everything" else because, unlike in other countries, Islam coexists with traditional ways. But cultures have been weakening and social order has been breaking down; people complain, Naipaul said, but that was "something I couldn't study. … I was not doing the sociological side."

Did the 19th-century Kabaka of the Baganda, who let the British Christian missionaries in along with the Muslims make a mistake? Andreou asked. Should Africa have been "left to its own"? The Kabaka, Naipaul replied, felt a "philosophical need for some more grandiose idea" than the native religion offered; where, he was asked, would the "philosophical regeneration of the people" have come from without books? It is "my wishful hope," Naipaul replied, "not historically based, but I think they might have done it."

The other form of African belief Naipaul examines is "the cult of the leader," as an example of which he cited Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the leader of the Ivory Coast who built a new capital, Yamoussoukro, with a Roman Catholic cathedral meant to dwarf St. Peter's in Rome and a presidential palace surrounded by a moat full of crocodiles to whom the people fed live chickens. Returning there years later, Naipaul found the local belief weaker; while the church was "looked after" and seemed "rather grand," the "water in the moat around the palace … was a little dirtier," a line that drew laughs from an audience that appeared to be mostly white with a sprinkling of Asians.

Like Conrad, Naipaul has been called an apologist for imperialism, but he said, "What is wrong is people who think, because [it's] Africa, one mustn't be critical." Perhaps because of that, his respect for animals doesn't seem to have resonated with the animal-rights movement in Britain, where he has lived for "50, almost 60 years," but finds "much more homogeneity of thought" than elsewhere. "People don't like the idea of animals having rights," he said. "It's another way of saying we should treat animals well. … All living creatures have a right to a reasonable way of living."

Asked by a member of the audience which English-language writers had been wrongly passed over for the Nobel, Naipaul answered that besides Conrad, "Mark Twain should have had it," but the Swedish Academy of his time "thought he was a comic writer and this is trivial." They wanted "dark Scandinavian thoughts," a line that the audience applauded.

Another audience member asked which cultures Naipaul had seen seemed best to foster "general happiness," and how the United States could be made happier. "Well," Naipaul replied to more laughter, "I think you're pretty happy here. You've done it, you've pulled it off." Among other cultures, the happiest he'd seen was Indonesia's island of Java, before it got "eaten up a little bit" by Islamic radicalization. Why wasn't it eaten up more? "Their being farther away" from the radical centers.

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Which books did he consider his best, a third audience member asked, and why? That question, Naipaul said, is "usually asked by people who don't want to read the work." Do it yourselves, he urged the audience, "find out for yourself, make your own way."

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The 6th & I Synagogue was built in 1908 in what was then Washington's Jewish quarter and is now the edge of Chinatown. The original congregation moved out several decades later and sold the building in 1951 to an African Methodist Episcopal church, which in turn announced plans in 2002 to move. Its is now a "nondenominational" synagogue and arts center that aims to bring people to the neighborhood. Besides Naipaul, whose appearance was co-sponsored by the Washington bookstore Politics & Prose, Elie Wiesel, Nancy Pelosi and President George W. Bush have appeared there. Salman Rushdie is due to speak there Nov. 17 to discuss his new novel.

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