Thursday, January 20, 2011

Masque of Africa - A difficult Act to Pull Off

Have you heard of a travelogue about old beliefs, myths and rituals of a place? That’s what Masque of Africa by VS Naipaul is all about. The book excludes (or includes very briefly) everything that a reader interested in Africa would like to know, like its current economic prosperity, its effects and politics. The Masque of Africa is about how the continent’s medieval beliefs and practices have survived the wave of modernity in Africa.

Naipaul focuses on economic development in Africa only to the extent of pointing out the lack of it, eloquently describing impoverished children devoid, as he argues, of any future, lack of hygiene, bad roads etc.

But frankly, despite these deficiencies the book works. The book is well researched and presents a lot of information that, however repulsive, will hold the reader. We all know Africa is a land of strange practices but we didn’t know how strange they could be. Some eating habits – like cat and bat meat – and rituals are really strange. In South Africa, a cruel ritual performed in the streets takes Naipaul aback challenging his belief that liberation would have softened a people.

The book does not completely steer clear of worldly pursuits like politics and history. It documents the history of many places; one of them is the anti-apartheid movement. Naipaul also presents an interesting biographical piece on Gandhi.

This was my second Naipaul travel book. After reading his Million Mutinies Now, I had been looking forward to the arrival of this book. I’m not fully satisfied, nor does it compare favorably with his Million Mutinies Now. But to hold your reader with a topic as staid as African belief is a feat not many can achieve.

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