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The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief Hardcover – 31 Aug 2010

4.3 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Picador (31 Aug. 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0330472054
  • ISBN-13: 978-0330472050
  • Product Dimensions: 15.9 x 2.7 x 24.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 454,047 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


'[Naipaul] is dry, often irked, sometimes enraged. He is quite rude. But he is also patient (not a trait often associated with him), engaged, funny, self-reflective and thoughtful [...] The Masque of Africa is a book for outsiders, for those who may never visit Africa or may know it only superficially. But it is also a book in which Africans themselves may find something to learn.' --Aminatta Forna, Observer

`Naipaul offers some fascinating insights on everything from Christianity and Islam to political leadership and consumerism, encased - as expected - in sharp and elegant prose.' --Time Out

`There are moments of real insight: Naipaul's no-nonsense approach, although often brutal and sometimes downright rude, reveals some fascinating truths about modern Africans' struggle to place themselves in a world overwhelmed by Western/Islamic ideals and find a faith that fits their changing needs.' --Metro (Non-Fiction Book of the Week)

'Naipaul travels, he asks, he listens attentively and, above all else, he notices, often seeing what others do not or cannot. That acute gift has never left him [...] In this new book, the best moments are those lit by the radiance of sudden and unexpected noticing [...] As he travels, often irritably, through Africa on this, his latest and perhaps final long journey{...}he is sustained by the old ideal of unadorned truth-telling. Like Edgar in King Lear, he speaks what he feels, not what he ought to say - which is admirable and is why, even now, so late in the day, you still read him with all the old fascination, [...] quite unlike anyone else: The Writer, still the only one.' --New Statesman

'Africa is the setting for several of V. S. Naipaul's finest fictional stories. And there is a pattern to the themes in the African works: fear, post-colonial disintegration, isolation, approaching catastrophe, as sense of being trapped in a way of life that is hovering on the borders of savagery. It is an unforgettable vision, but it remains that of an outsider. In The Masque of Africa, Naipaul goes deeper... It has its own value as an investigation into the least discussed aspect of African society today.' --Spectator

'In his latest travelogue, Sir V.S. Naipaul - Nobel laureate, man of opinions, giant of Western Letters - examines the enduring power of [belief in magic] in six African countries... compelling, insightful, often somberly beautiful.' --Sunday Telegraph

'Naipaul's deceptively casual account is of great structural sophistication... He is, in every instinct and at every moment, a man who sees the world under the aspect of the written word. He is, to that degree, an alien presence in an oral, visual culture, but here is the genius of The Masque of Africa: that it dances around that paradox and reveals far more than its uneasy protagonist seems to know.' --Herald

'[Naipaul] does caustically capture a hard truth: the nature and traditions of Africa are being nibbled away.' --Economist

'Nobel Laureate, V. S. Naipaul, arguably the greatest living writer of English prose, is one of our few literary stars to shine with equal brilliance both in fiction and non-fiction... The Masque of Africa is marvelously entertaining. Flashes of the old master illuminate its pages' --Mail on Sunday

'VS Naipaul made his name as one of the defining voices of post-colonial fiction, and was awarded the Nobel prize for his talent in recovering forgotten and suppressed stories... A daring but thoughtful account of the ironies and tragedies of belief in modern Africa.' --Waterstone's Books Quarterly

About the Author

V. S. Naipaul was born in Trinidad in 1932. He went to England on a scholarship in 1950. After four years at University College, Oxford, he began to write, and since then has followed no other profession. He has published more than twenty books of fiction and non-fiction, including Half a Life, A House for Mr Biswas, A Bend in the River and most recently The Masque of Africa, and a collection of letters, Between a Father and Son. In 2001 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
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This is a rather odd book. It would seem that Naipaul, a Nobel prize winning author, just decided to revisit places in Africa where he had university postings several decades ago and try to explore traditional African beliefs. It is a random group of impressions and not a serious, systematic study. However, it is very interesting though I don't think you can be sure how accurate the information is. The impression I got is that traditional beliefs, especially belief in the power of some people to control events through magical rituals, are still very strong, even in areas that are largely Muslim or Christian. People are very fearful of witchcraft and will spend large sums of money and do cruel things to animals (required for sacrifice) to deal with these fears. I wonder if this is part of the reason why evangelical Christianity with its spirit healing and exorcisms is so popular in Africa. The book finishes in S Africa where Naipaul has a brief interview with Winnie Mandela. There is still a lot of anger and hurt that the 'peace and reconciliation' process hasn't touched. A depressing book as it implies that the mindset of Africans will hold back their progress.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I read the reviews of the latest Naipaul book in The Times and The Sunday Times and was immediately intrigued. Both reviews villified the book and went as far as accusing the author of racism. I thought this was such a far-fetched and outlandish opinion ov V.S Naipaul, that I had to find out truth for myself. The book was completely fascinating and original. The author revisits places he had spent time in, in the past, comparing Africa of today with what he remembers it to be in 1966. The present day Africa is overpopulated, decayed, with non-existent flora (all chopped down) and fauna (all eaten out, including the domestic cats, which are usually killed by being boiled alive in a bag). Infrastructure and public works are non-existent, apart from some viral western innovations, such as mobile telephones. The author is excited beyond belief when he encounters a working stretch of train track in Gabon.
His ostensible topic of enquiry is traditional African belief and initiation ceremonies. This gives the author an excuse to talk to people and build a picture of how they see themselves and their respective countries in the modern world. It is not a flattering picture and at times it is a completely appalling one. At no time, however, did I get the impression that the harsh picture emerging was the result of a racist prejudice. Naipaul is a completely honest, trustworthy and credible observer of the African reality. He is very entertaining too. I laughed out loud when I read his description of his visit to one of many witch doctors. The witch doctor had on a table in front of him a school jotter, which Naipaul described as "sensationally dirty".
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Format: Hardcover
Any new book by VS Naipaul is an event to look forward to.
VS Naipaul's latest book The Masque of Africa is his observations of African belief as he moved from Uganda to Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Gabon ending in South Africa. Naipaul finds that Africans are still very much concerned with indigenous belief, spirits and medicine man.

Naipaul's trademark travel writings are his sharp observations of human behaviour and his sardonic wry humour. You won't find the history background in his writings.

Naipaul is 78 this year. That could explain why his writing here is less dense; shorter and simpler sentence structure compared to say his India trilogy written in his much younger and perhaps angrier days. However it is still a joy to read Naipaul's elegant prose.
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excellent service - would use again
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) HASH(0x8f081648) out of 5 stars 22 reviews
26 of 34 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8f0749cc) out of 5 stars An ignoble effort from the Nobel Laureate 8 Dec. 2010
By Rick Skwiot - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I was a sympathetic reader going in. I have read and admired V.S. Naipaul's fiction and nonfiction for decades. I anticipated his newest tome, The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief, enough to pre-order it. But I came away disappointed not only in the book but in the Nobel Prize-winning author as well.

It was bad enough that Naipaul skims the surface here in his investigation of traditional African religion. He seemingly conducted no scholarly research (there is none cited) and interviewed no experts, relying instead on anecdotal evidence taken from literary and political operatives and a few reputed and urbanized holy men, tribal chiefs and witchdoctors. But even then he might have pulled off this disorganized and eclectic travelogue if he had taken the time to actually write some decent prose. But it reads like a first draft, and as Hemingway said, "All first drafts are s***."

Here, for example, is a portion of the Nobel Laureate's account of his visit to the home of former Ghana president Jerry Rawlings:

"The house was well run. No word had been said but, to bridge the gap left by Rawlings and his wife, a well dressed waiter appeared with coffee and fruit juice. I went to the lavatory. I saw the family dogs in two big paved cages at the back of the yard. One cage had small dogs. The other cage had big dogs, a Dalmatian and various hounds, all fine and well exercised and happy. While I watched I saw them fed by a servant who entered the cages with their food. I could have looked at the feeding scene for a long time."

This was the sort paragraph I would love to come across when reading freshman compositions. I would have its author copy it on the chalkboard and then proceed to instruct the class in basic prose craft: When and how to combine sentences. How to vary sentence structure. Where to add sensory details that make a scene come alive. How to use action verbs instead of flaccid state-of-being verbs like "was" and "had." And then perhaps to talk about larger issues, such as developing a taste for what a reader might find interesting. Thus I would also instruct the Nobel Laureate.

I could cite scores of similar examples in the book, but I have more consideration for my readers than does Naipaul, apparently. Now pushing 80, he drags us from one superficial encounter to another, humorless, tired and at times admittedly frivolous. Driven not by desire to grasp and understand African belief but, seemingly, to fulfill a book contract obligation.

His powers of observation dimmed, he seems rather bored by his subject and the people he meets. Perhaps in part because he meets with the wrong people. Much of his reporting is hearsay rather than direct observation. A lot of talk without much point, and even Naipaul himself often questions the credibility of his sources. But the book is well subtitled, as all we get here are mere glimpses of traditional African religion, and no cohesive and revealing portrait.

However, we do stumble across some fascinating tidbits about Islam in Africa: its practice of polygamy and opposition to the nuclear family, seen as selfish and ruinous to societies; the harsh realities of harem life; the use of Egyptian eunuchs as harem guards. Alas, these are contemporary, not historic accounts, albeit second-hand, as Naipaul was denied access to the harems. Nonetheless, one wishes he had devised a way to interview a eunuch or a concubine. He also reports the horrid yet compelling recent history of Uganda, as well as other African locales.

I suspect that Naipaul's agent and publisher encouraged him to write and publish this book, figuring to earn some fast cash off the venerated author. Had they, instead, been looking out for his legacy and reputation, they would have encouraged him to rework or, better yet, recycle his manuscript.
32 of 43 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x92e39888) out of 5 stars Mumbo Jumbo Revisited 23 Oct. 2010
By Gio - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In popular parlance, "mumbo jumbo" is a pejorative label for unintelligible technical language and/or for absurd magical blather. It's a useful term for discussing neoliberal economic theories, such as those of assorted Republican contenders for the role of heir-apparent. In V.S. Naipaul's latest travelogue, The Masque of Africa, Mumbo-Jumbo is a specific, recognizable supernatural personage, a vaguely menacing figure reminiscent of the Norse Loki or the Native American Coyote. The book is replete with such intriguingly 'fresh' details, traveler's snapshots of the quaint and curious. If you expect more than traveler's observation, I warn you, you've chosen the wrong book. Naipaul is quite forthright in subtitling his newest book as "GLIMPSES of African Belief." He's not a sociologist, not a historian, not in fact a scholarly writer of any sort; he's an intellectual tourist with an immense talent for turning his glimpses into delightful prose. Occasionally those glimpses are startlingly thought-provoking, but as a traveler, Naipaul is far more adept at asking questions and noticing anomalies than at systematic analyses. That has always been true of his travelogues, though his two books about journeys in Islam were tougher-minded than this book about a jaunt in Africa.

Naipaul makes his agenda plain: "... the theme of The Masque of Africa is African belief. I begin in Uganda, at the center of the continent, do Ghana and Nigeria, the Ivory Coast and Gabon, and end at the bottom of the continent in South Africa. My theme is belief, not political or economical life; and yet at the bottom of the continent the political realities are so overwhelming that they have to be taken into account." Whoa, Vidiadhar Sahib, that's quite an itinerary! It reminds me of the old joke about the American tourist in Europe: if today is Tuesday, this must be Belgium. But Naipaul has no intention of trying to be thorough or comprehensive; much as his writings have always wrestled with issues of 'belief', in Africa he is honestly a kind of bird watcher, peering through his verbal binoculars hither and yon, hoping to spot something randomly significant. Don't suppose that I'm scorning his method here! I relished this book a lot for its literary mastery, and I found it to be a more 'realistic' depiction of Africa as a place, more accurately descriptive than the bulk of books I've read about the continent as I've seen it myself on a few very short visits.

In his chapter about Nigeria, Naipaul writes: "I had a romantic idea of the earth religions. I felt they took us back to the beginning, a philosophical big bang, and I cherished them for that reason. I thought they had a kind of beauty. But the past here still lived. People like the contractor [one of Naipaul's Nigerian informants] were closer to it, and his words ... gave a new idea: the dark abyss of paganism. Others spoke of that as well, in their own way; and it seemed to me that people near the bottom, who responded more instinctively to things, had the greater fear. The fear was real, not affected, and I felt it was this, rather than ideas of beauty and history and culture... that was keeping the past and all the old gods close." Aha! A 'romantic idea' indeed, or else an astonishing naivete for a Nobel Prize winner! But my nose tells me that Naipaul is being disingenuous, setting himself up as his own straw man. He does that a lot in this book. Plays 'straight man' to his own sardonic self. In fact, he invents an image of himself as a casual traveler careful of his health and his budget, almost a knapsack wanderer. Don't fall for that! He's a renowned author of thirty books, including several best sellers. With his royalties and his Nobel winnings, he really doesn't need to be cautious about overpaying a taxi driver. And he doesn't just 'arrive' anywhere unannounced; his contacts are all in place and his introductions come from the highest levels. If he chooses to impress the reader with the risks involved in visiting a slum or a backwoods shrine, it's only for literary effect. He is, please remember, a very famous and recognizable man in his late seventies, and no African government would risk allowing a mishap to him.

So why? Naipaul is a born poseur whose whole career has been based on fictionalizing himself. Whether you find his poses charming or annoying will depend on you. There are honorable people in this world who despise Naipaul's aloof, judgmental objectivity. He has been lambasted by both liberals and conservatives, usually for NOT taking sides. My impression of him is that he cherishes or at least relishes individual human beings but dislikes the species at large. He has made his distaste for the two "world religions" of Islam and Christianity fiercely explicit, a stance not calculated to make him beloved. In his glimpses of Africa, he is obviously disposed to perceive the worst effects of missionary imperialism from either world religion. He declares: "Perhaps an unspoken aspect of my inquiry was the possibility of the subversion of old Africa by the ways of the outside world."

What! Unspoken? More disingenuousness! Isn't it clear, Viadadhar my friend, that you deeply believe Africa would be a happier place if "we" had left it alone? And in that, I wouldn't disagree.

Honestly, Naipaul is far more distressed about the destruction of the forests and the decimation of wildlife than he is about the 'saving of souls' or the dependency of the global economy on African resources. Still, whether you share his values or not, you won't be bored as a reader by his subtle exposition of them.

The title of this book deserves some scrutiny. "Masque" is not a quaint British spelling of "mask", nor a synonym. It's a verb in one sense, meaning 'to wear a mask'. It's also a genre of musical theater, popular in aristocratic circles in 17th C England, an entertainment for the Elite often performed by the Elite themselves. Both senses are pertinent to Naipaul's book. Again and again, as part of his elite itinerary, Naipaul is shown spectacles of African pagan 'superstition' and ritual, some of them in full regalia, staged for him and for more ordinary tourists. And he enjoys the show. I imagine you and I would, also. A large share of the book is devoted to Naipaul's conversations with his informants from various social classes, his drivers, his hotel servants, his hired guides, but also several extremely protected elites, people like Winnie Mandela, Jerry Rawlings, and the presidents of various banks, who would not be accessible except as part of the Masque. Naipaul seldom reveals his stage machinery, seldom discloses how his contacts were prearranged. He's a sly impresario, this masquer from Trinidad!

I don't imagine that everyone will be satisfied with Naipaul's stance in this book. Those with the most earnest humanitarian concerns and those with the staunchest political opinions will probably accuse him of dilettantish trivialization. Let me say it plainly: this is an entertainment, a masque as artificial as Henry Purcell's "Fairy Queen". If it also stimulates insights, that's "valued added".
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x90ea9ce4) out of 5 stars Interesting, opinionated and sketchy but compelling and worrying. 19 Mar. 2011
By Kathleen Casey - Published on
Format: Hardcover
All the above reviewers have more opinions about V.S. Naipaul'a Nobel, writing, the editing of this book, the author's integrity, intelligience and knowledge than I.

I read the book non stop in two days. My overall impression was that Africa was hot and dirty and impossible. Naipaul conveyed the belief that animism never leaves the African soul, no matter how educted the brain, and that the reason Christianity accomplished inroads was its similiar belief in the power of spirits. Whether either point is true, others will have to say.

I liked the brief portrait of Winnie Mandela, a woman who has been much scorned and vilified. It gave me a different opinion of her, a positive change. And, it reaffirmed my thoughts about Bishop Tutu.

Most interestingly, Naipaul speaks to the destruction of a *legacy* by the commericalization of a leader's image. Listen up, Reaganites!
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8f1884ec) out of 5 stars On the Road Again 4 Sept. 2012
By Eric Maroney - Published on
Format: Hardcover
V.S. Naipaul is 80, and in The Masque of Africa, tries his hand at some of his most successful kind of work, that of the travel writer. Here, Naipaul returns to African countries he visited twenty-five years ago or more, and records his impressions of the changes that have occurred . This being Naipaul, most of those impressions are negative. Part is Naipaul, and part is the appalling conditions of modern day Africa.

Interestingly, his observations about Africa are far tamer that his past utterances about the developing world. An older Naipaul, who every now and again in the book refers to difficulty walking and poor health, has perhaps become slightly gentler in his approach to the world. But don't expect too much. Naipaul is still an acute observer of the what he perceives as cultural and personal shortcomings, and has an acid pen.

This is certainly not his strongest travel piece. But for fans of Naipaul, it must be read.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x8f14ba08) out of 5 stars A diplomatic, clear-eyed visit on the state of African religion 2 Dec. 2011
By Brian Griffith - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Underlying the spontaneous reporting we can detect Naipaul's careful preparation. His visits to religious leaders are set up through a grapevine of contacts. He arrives as a visiting head of the literary world, escorted by local officials of various kinds. He tries to observe protocol carefully, like he was calling on royals in Europe. During his first visits in Uganda and Nigeria, Naipaul seems to accept that African religion revolves around the old cults of kings and tribal leaders. Then he branches out to explore popular religion as a relationship with nature or a means of influencing personal fate. The trip through Gabon shows an especially appealing side of African natural religion. And the trip to South Africa shows folk religion at its most disoriented and grasping. Through it all, Naipaul pays attention to how people regard animals. He feels it is an important barometer of their humanity.
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