Moved by wonder

Moved by wonder

Lord Naipaul delves deep into Africa's 'religions of the earth'

Harish Trivedi
January 12 , 2015
03 Min Read

Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Gabon and South Africa, while his chosen subject of exploration is, in his own (uncharacteristically poetic) phrase, ‘religions of the earth.’ By this, he means the older pagan and animistic beliefs and customs, especially those relating to indigenous healing and soothsaying. He finds them lying not far below the surface among many Africans who are officially and outwardly adherents of Islam or Christianity, which he calls “the foreign-revealed religions”.

But there is nothing drily anthropological about the book; Naipaul writes as ever with a novelistic liveliness of observation and a sense of human comedy. His stated theme keeps bobbing into and out of view in an easy rhythm, as he goes exploring each country at an old-fashioned leisurely pace. He waits for days to meet the people he is keen to meet, he is driven around mostly uncomplainingly on bumpy roads, and once, deep in a forest in Gabon, when his “nervy frail legs” give out, he is even put in a wheelbarrow. He is often “moved by wonder” when he gets to his destinations. “The sacred grove took my breath away.”


Everywhere, he finds people to talk to. They are delineated quickly, not as portraits but as sketches. Some are important in their contexts, some even internationally so, such as Winnie Mandela, but most are ordinary people leading humdrum lives. They are not “native informants”; they are more interlocutors and narrators. Naipaul doesn’t interrupt them with many questions; he lets them have their self-revelatory say. When someone becomes “too random and glib”, he simply indicates it’s time for him to leave.

What he reports is often startling. He tells of a custom in Uganda, prevalent until the nineteenth century, according to which the crowning ritual for a ruler required his mother to get rid of his brothers, including her own other sons; this number was, in one case, thirty. This makes for a variation on our Mughal practice of the aspiring prince often doing away with his brothers. This may also put Idi Amin and Milton Obote in some kind of a historical perspective, though Naipaul himself does not make that connection. He reports such facts in a flat and level tone, leaving us to make our own inferences.

If anything, his comparisons work the other way. He seems ever ready to listen to myths “calling once more for a suspension of disbelief” but he is far from credulous. When he is taken to a soothsayer, he asks, “Will my daughter get married?” And when the prediction is no, he says that’s good, for he doesn’t want her to get married. (He has no children.) This sounds like the bad old Naipaul all over.

Naipaul left his native Trinidad for England at eighteen, and his first major travel book was on India, An Area of Darkness (1964), a much reviled book because of its much misunderstood title — for what he meant was not that India was a benighted country but that despite his Indian ancestry he knew little about it. He has since travelled more widely than, perhaps, any other Nobel-winning writer, and he has illuminated in his own acute manner what for most of us were areas of darkness if not, as here, the Dark Continent itself.

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