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The masque of Africa : glimpses of African…
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The masque of Africa : glimpses of African belief (edition 2010)

by V. S. Naipaul

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215982,898 (3.72)17
Member:VivienneR
Title:The masque of Africa : glimpses of African belief
Authors:V. S. Naipaul
Info:London : Picador, 2010.
Collections:Your library, Books Read, Read 2019
Rating:****
Tags:Non-fiction, Africa, Travel, Religion, Ghana, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Uganda, Nigeria, South Africa, Read 2019

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The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief (Borzoi Books) by V. S. Naipaul

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» See also 17 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
More than a travel narrative, Naipaul examines religion and mythology in six African countries and compares present practices with those of his last visit in the sixties, and in the time before colonization. His writing is down-earth with short, sometimes acerbic sentences, that might be considered blunt if they were not tinged with humour or describing risible situations, which happen surprisingly often. But Naipaul has a way with words: even a brief description of a dog in the street conjures up a vivid image of the event. Impressively parsimonious, he negotiates keenly with guides, witch doctors, drivers and so on, often backing out of a trip that he thinks might cost more than he has been quoted. Writers who know Africa have strong opinions of this work that has been described as "cliched" and even "toxic". While much of the information is unverified or of mythical origin, it was provided by those who might just be enjoying themselves by recounting an amusing or shocking anecdote. But then, a renowned sceptic himself, Naipaul may have been just along for the yarns too. Recommended for the armchair traveller.

A favourite quotation: "Directly, with no beating about the bush, he {the soothsayer} asked our business. I didn't know what to say. I couldn't say I had come only to have a look." ( )
  VivienneR | Aug 13, 2019 |
Naipaul's latest tome which is chiefly about traditional beliefs and practices in some of the African countries like Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Gabon and South Africa. He has stayed true to his rather acerbic style and wit. Colonialism and it's remnants of civil life have done little to alleviate the lot of the average African. Their legacies have been rapidly taken over by the tropical jungle and the people have fallen back on their traditional ways of Shamanic beliefs, witchcraft, polygamy, internecine tribal warfare and the ill effects of modern global trade like rampant logging and poaching. All together a very grim and unredeemable scenario.
  danoomistmatiste | Jan 24, 2016 |
Naipaul's latest tome which is chiefly about traditional beliefs and practices in some of the African countries like Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Gabon and South Africa. He has stayed true to his rather acerbic style and wit. Colonialism and it's remnants of civil life have done little to alleviate the lot of the average African. Their legacies have been rapidly taken over by the tropical jungle and the people have fallen back on their traditional ways of Shamanic beliefs, witchcraft, polygamy, internecine tribal warfare and the ill effects of modern global trade like rampant logging and poaching. All together a very grim and unredeemable scenario.
  kkhambadkone | Jan 17, 2016 |
This book, and its reviews on goodreads, taught me a couple of things. Most importantly, I realized how important a book's title can be. I picked this up at the Museum of African Art in D.C., where it was on super-sale. There were a number of fetish objects in the museum, which were much more powerful than most of the modern art around them. The curator's notes suggested that much of this was a response to the slave-trade (especially from Benin), which would have been so catastrophic for the people there. That piqued my interest--in the U.S., you hear a lot about the effect of slavery on slaves (justifiaby), but not much about the effect on the places from which those slaves were, for want of a better word, kidnapped. So I was to learn more about traditional African religion. Unfortunately, the books at the Museum's store were all about how great it was/is to be African. They mostly featured very colorful dresses.

So Naipaul was the closest I got to what I was looking for. And here is the importance of titles: this is not a book about African religion. Many reviewers seem almost aggressively angry about that fact, pointing out that Naipaul did no scholarly research, just relates anecdotes, talks about his own feelings etc etc... Well, all that's true. But this book is obviously travel literature. You don't browse J-Stor when you're on holiday.

The second thing I learned follows directly from this: I have no criteria with which to judge travel literature. What am I looking for here? There's little intellectual content, but V.S. does a reasonably good job highlighting the emotional and political importance of traditional religion, as well as how the 'major world religions' get swallowed up by it. The style is readable but hardly admirable. It's repetitious. There's an awful lot in here about how bad Naipaul feels when animals die, but not much about how he feels when people are forced into poverty and suffering. He seems like a bit of a prick, although sometimes conscious of that prickiness.

I learned very little about African religion. But I did learn that I need to read more, better travel literature. My wife recommends Fermor. I'm open to other suggestions. And I also learned that I should read more Naipaul, because if this--a pleasant way to kill an afternoon--is as bad as he gets (which I suspect it might be), the good might be very, very good. ( )
  stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
I quite liked this book, a collection of six linked essays set in sub-Saharan Africa (Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Gabon, and South Africa). The book offers a nuanced portrait of what a sociologist might call the 'performativity' of identity in several African societies in transition. Naipaul, who won the 2001 Nobel prize in literature, is too good a writer to use such an infelicitous term. Instead, he just recounts the performances, bringing the reader along to experience them as directly as possible, without academic theories or an interpretative framework to clutter it up. Traditional belief isn't the key focus; Naipaul's questions about belief are the trigger for people to speak and act their evolving identities, and that's the real heart of the book.

The title signals Naipaul's intent. Notwithstanding the cover art, it's not the 'mask' of Africa, but the 'masque' - a spelling on both sides of the Atlantic that describes costumed and highly stylized theater. And that's what Naipaul encounters, over and over again, as he meets with people to learn about traditional culture. If this were truly a study of indigenous religions, then yes, it would be superficial - but it's really about the way people manage their identities in the modern world, repurposing aspects of traditional culture, grabbing others from Christianity or Islam, and inventing others from scratch. The inconclusive conversations, the non sequiturs, the implicit or explicit demands for money or gifts: these are central to the story. They mirror the relative cultural and ecological integrity of each country Naipaul visits. In the country with the most intact forest - Gabon, where a resident describes the jungle as an impenetrable green wall - Naipaul encounters the most satisfying ritual. Consistent with the theme of the book, though, it is a performance through and through, organized by a French expat married to a Gabonese woman. It moves Naipaul more than the 'genuine' ritual he sees a couple days later in a remote village: "... I preferred the Frenchman's metropolitan creation in Libreville, and not only because its human material was richer, its dancers more accomplished. It used the same local materials, but it added style and finish, and I did not think it lacking in spirituality or feeling."[175].

I suspect that the title, the Masque of Africa, also alludes to Joseph Campbell's four-volume Masks of God (1962 - 1968), which attempts an overarching account of all religious mythologies. Naipaul never mentions Campbell directly, but one can't write of traditional religion or mythologies without responding intellectually to Campbell. Not that Naipaul necessarily likes or respects Campbell's approach. There are lumpers and splitters among anthropologists as among biologists. Campbell was an extreme lumper, seeing all religions as a reflection of a single mystic human impulse. In Masque, Naipaul goes to the opposite extreme -- not merely summarizing the differences between, say, traditional beliefs in Nigeria and Ghana, but treating each person, each experience, as so particular as to defy abstraction. If there's a broader meaning or rubric that makes sense of beliefs across the six countries, Naipaul won't say so.

Of course, Naipaul is a careful and highly skilled writer. His 'just the facts' approach only looks that way; there's plenty of artifice here. Recurring themes weave through the six essays: the social strain of rapid population growth; the devastation of wild animal populations hunted for bush meat; the ubiquity of casual cruelty to cats and dogs. But these, like the periodic references to traditions of human sacrifice and the brutalities of colonialism, are largely props for the masque, reminders that African societies have undergone dislocating, and sometimes violent, change. The core of the book remains the (often improvised) explanations Africans give him of their traditions and beliefs, and the way they act out their identities when Naipaul comes to visit. It's a lively read, inviting empathy and introspection. ( )
  bezoar44 | Sep 18, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0307270734, Hardcover)

Like all of V. S. Naipaul’s “travel” books, The Masque of Africa encompasses a much larger narrative and purpose: to judge the effects of belief (in indigenous animisms, the foreign religions of Christianity and Islam, the cults of leaders and mythical history) upon the progress of civilization.

From V. S. Naipaul: “For my travel books I travel on a theme. And 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.
“Perhaps an unspoken aspect of my inquiry was the possibility of the subversion of old Africa by the ways of the outside world. The theme held until I got to the South, when the clash of the two ways of thinking and believing became far too one-sided. The skyscrapers of Johannesburg didn’t rest on sand. The older world of magic felt fragile, but at the same time had an enduring quality. You felt that it would survive any calamity.
“I had expected that over the great size of Africa the practices of magic would significantly vary. But they didn’t. The diviners everywhere wanted to ‘throw the bones’ to read the future, and the idea of ‘energy’ remained a constant, to be tapped into by the ritual sacrifice of body parts. In South Africa body parts, mainly of animals, but also of men and women, made a mixture of ‘battle medicine.’ To witness this, to be given some idea of its power, was to be taken far back to the beginning of things.

“To reach that beginning was the purpose of my book.”

The Masque of Africa
is a masterly achievement by one of the world’s keenest observers and one of its greatest writers.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:04:37 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

For my travel books I travel on a theme. And the theme of 'The Masque of Africa' is African belief. I begin in Uganda, at the centre of the continent, do Ghana and Nigeria, the Ivory Coast and Gabon, and end at the bottom of the continent, in South Africa.

» see all 4 descriptions

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