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The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief (Borzoi Books) Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 19, 2010

3.5 out of 5 stars 22 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Naipaul’s book about the “nature of African belief” is merely the latest expression of a long-held fascination, previously explored in such books as Among the Believers (1981) and Beyond Belief (1998). Erudite but not scholarly, it could be called a travelogue with dialogue; as he visits or revisits Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Gabon, and South Africa, he speaks with a wide range of people, from diplomats and royalty (being a Nobelist grants him greater access than most), to politicians and businessmen, to academics and medicine men. He hears from Christians, Muslims, and those who hold more ancient beliefs. We learn much, particularly how complex and layered these beliefs can be, but more from the speakers than from Naipaul, whose paper-dry narrative style allows for few digressions. He does muse, however, on belief as related to progress, and which beliefs promote or impede progress—though not too much about what constitutes progress. As ever, Naipaul can be prickly, and some offhand observations seem likely to rankle those he’s writing for. In an interesting side note, this book begins in Uganda, where Naipaul first met disgruntled former mentee Paul Theroux, who in Dark Star Safari (2003) retraces his own past in Africa. Naipaul’s safari, though perhaps equally informative, is less rugged and opinionated. And where Theroux rails against Africa’s promise gone unfulfilled, Sir Vidia looks, and listens, and makes few grand pronouncements. --Keir Graff


praise for V. S. Naipaul’s THE MASQUE OF AFRICA
“This latest journey to the continent is part of a larger whole, the developing narrative of a single consciousness…. The Masque of Africa marks a startling evolution of that consciousness…. Still writing with the same spare, acerbic lyricism…Naipaul is willing to express a new attitude, one of self-doubt. This acknowledgement of human frailty—starting with his own—broadens his observational powers immeasurably…. [providing] a new capacity for wonderment [and a] new willingness to explore the authenticity of indigenous African belief…. The tone of this, his most recent foray into the search for life’s meaning, is respectful and sometimes even hesitant…. [W]e move from one voice to the next without really noticing that the speaker has changed. There’s not a lot of unnecessary scene-setting: what’s important is what’s being said…. Naipaul has always revealed a curious admixture of extrovert and introvert on the page…. Now…more adept at switching between these two ways of being with less violence…he has found a greater ability to poke fun at himself…. [With this] new kind of humor—one that, being softer, is even sharper [Naipaul] transcends the shadowy wryness to which his readers have long been accustomed…. [His is a] brilliant and elastic mind.”
         Eliza Griswold, The New York Times Book Review
“A master still at his craft….Naipaul’s writing [is] simple, concise, engaging…. Like Flaubert and Hemingway, Naipaul uses less to say more, and here he has few equals…. [T]he obscurity of his inquiry makes it fresh…. Naipaul’s latest African journey is eyewitness reporting at its best…. [T]he writing [has] a texture, honestly and ground truth that makes high-minded criticism ring somewhat hollow.”
         Alex Perry, Time Magazine
“[Naipaul] is attentive to and gives voice to people, all sorts of people…. In The Masque of Africa, Naipaul uses himself as a character only as a way for us to see others through his conflicts, moods, ears, eyes, and biases. And in between his scenes of sharply observed interactions, we are always surrounded by the people of the continent talking.”
         Binyavanga Wainaina, Boston Globe
“Naipaul gets it. He is dry, often irked, sometimes enraged….But he is also patient (not a trait often associated with him), engaged, funny, self-reflective and thoughtful….in writing shorn of excess…he has a wicked way with syntax….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. Naipaul is a difficult, imperfect narrator who does not care to be liked, but he is an honest one and doesn’t dissemble. Somehow, by the end of it all, and despite his best efforts, I have grown to like him.”
         Aminatta Forna, The Observer (London)
“[O]ne of Naipaul’s most stirring books….[he] combines the objectivity of a disaster photographer and an understanding of history.”
         Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, The Independent (London)
“[Naipaul] provide[s] a narrative order for people to make sense of what has happened to them….His honesty about his failures to connect with people makes us better able to appreciate his breakthroughs. Part of the pleasure of reading him is watching his frustration cool into comprehension….With extraordinary sensitivity, Naipaul registers the beauty of these traditions but also captures their cruelty.”
         Thomas Meaney, Bookforum
“This beautiful and humane book is less Olympian than some of Naipaul’s earlier travel narratives, though the idea that underpins it is so basic that it achieves a kind of majesty. Cruelty to animals and to nature will destroy men too. ‘The ground around the abattoir goes on and on. When sights like this meet the eyes…there can be no idea of humanity, no idea of grandeur.’”
         Harper’s Magazine
“[A] elegiac spiritual return to a landscape he once inhabited in 1966…. Ever fair-minded, soberly reflective, and conciliatory, Naipaul offers his sage observations in the hope that by learning more, we accept greater.”
         Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)
“Naipaul narrates the journey with finely wrought detail, transporting the reader to the landscapes and city scenes he describes. Naipaul is witty, and his writing can be quite charming and delicate. He is also disarmingly frank in his assessments, a quality often not found in discussions of belief…. A sharply written and engrossing exploration of the effects of religious and spiritual belief on societies. Effective both as a vivid piece of travel writing and for its glimpses of belief in Africa.”
         Library Journal


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Product Details

  • Series: Borzoi Books
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1St Edition edition (October 19, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307270734
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307270733
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,278,383 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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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.
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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!
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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!
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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.
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