TOP 500 REVIEWERon 12 March 2011
... as in East Africa. The book is Shiva Naipaul's travel narrative, set in the late `70's, when he visited Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia for a couple of months. It was only 15 years or so since these countries gained independence from British rule. Zambia was once known as Northern Rhodesia; Tanzania was created by a mis-matched union, at least in terms of size, if not also culture, between Tanganyika (which had been a German colony until the end of WW I) and Zanzibar (a group of small islands off the coast); and Kenya, well, it had been known as Kenya, when it was a British colony, and underwent no transformation in name, or borders. With the independence of so many African colonies in the late `50's and early `60's, there were high hopes for the future; a better life for Africans once their colonial masters were shaken off. Naipual's account was one of the first that indicated that those hopes might not be warranted.
Shiva Naipaul, who died in 1985, was the younger brother of V.S. Naipaul, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001. They were originally of Indian sub-continent origins, born and raised in Trinidad, in the Caribbean, when it was a British colony, and both went into the literary world of London. There is a considerable school of negative opinion about V.S. Naipaul's role in describing "third world countries"; in essence, that he is entitled to say things, due to his origins, that for "politically correct" reasons cannot be said by white men or women. That opinion has been summarized, on more than one occasion, with a pithy, three-word non-PC formulation, in the possessive: Naipaul is the white man's... Concerning V.S., I share some of those negative opinions; however, even though Shiva possesses a fair degree of V.S.'s sardonic outlook, I've always felt he was much more honest and fairer. Among other matters, his outlook is an "equal opportunity" one; he takes on the whites as well as the blacks that he encounters. In brief, Shiva seems so much more authentic.
In the introduction Shiva Naipaul forthrightly addresses the "PC" concerns: "Especially a book about `Africa'- a subject that, in the ex-imperial West, is labeled `fragile,' `handle with care,' `this side up.'" Naipaul also explains the title early in the book. He is talking to one of the hustlers in Kenya, who describes Nairobi, as the greatest place "North of South," with the South meaning South Africa, specifically "Jo'burg." Naipaul commences his journey in the departure lounge in Brussels, flying Air Zaire, and thus via Zaire, for reasons of finance. In Kenya he visits the coast, Nairobi, and the "white highlands," and describes the interactions of the remaining whites with the blacks, "old-style" and "new". Naipaul quotes from his fellow Caribbean, Franz Fanon. He also has his own summation of blacks who have been completely uprooted from their native heritage, and have not had that heritage replaced with "Something of Value,": "They were made up of a number of separate and warring selves. Hence the wild veering between farce, piety and up-to-date cynicism."
In Tanzania, Naipaul reports: "Over the years, President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania has adopted something of the character and style that Nehru affected in the first years of Indian independence, claiming a special place in the moral firmament for himself, his policies and, by extension, his country. He then proceeds to describe a country in which nothing works, including the people; there are shortages of almost all essentials, and Nyerere's policy of "Ujamaa," (familyhood) has a decidedly totalitarian bend. He goes on to Zambia, a "front-line" state in the "war" against what was then Rhodesia, and describes that the economic boycott measures are really non-existent; they are mainly a figment of the imagination of the Left in London.
It is the characterizations of the people that he meets along the way that is the true strength of this book: from the white Austrian who is still trying to run his dilapidated hotel on the Tanzania coast, obsessed with his sea-shell collection; the crazy Dutch woman, with her two young children who wander through the hotel; the black American woman, a true ideologue who walks out of a "dialogue"; the black native hustler in Nairobi with his brief-case; the border officials; and true to his origins, he pays particular attention to the Indian Diaspora which is being uprooted from these countries.
I first read this book not long after it was published, and found the recent re-read most worthwhile. The book has withstood the test of time. I do believe that Shiva is a better writer and observer than his older brother, and if he had not left us in 1985, he may have been awarded the Nobel instead. A solid 5-star read.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on March 19, 2010)