(Published in the Business Standard on September 12, 2010)

“I think it’s very good to ask yourself who you are and why you’re here and what has made you.” In 1974, when V S Naipaul made that statement to an audience of students, he had been asking himself those questions for over a decade. Twelve years had passed since he had written The Middle Passage, his first collection of travel writings; 16 since he had written his first novels.

The Middle Passage is still an essential Naipaul work. It was a brave book to write at the time, and it set some of the rules by which Naipaul would travel, then and later. Intended as a kind of triumphal tour—the Prime Minister of Trinidad sponsored the trip around the Caribbean and some of the colonies of South America—The Middle Passage became a savage portrait of lost men, living in a “borrowed culture”, unaware of the extent of the losses colonialism had inflicted on them. He set down his own responses—flinching, as when he infamously described the sound of the steel bands of the West Indies as noise, often repelled—as faithfully as he did the lives and responses of those whom his open, merciless gaze fell upon.

“Other travelers, more haunted, carry questions, not answers or explanations, around with them wherever they go, and look to everywhere to give them some understanding, or even movement towards resolution, of the issue that is their lifelong companion (V.S. Naipaul is the archetype of this),” wrote Pico Iyer in a recent essay on different kinds of travelers. This is an accurate portrait, perhaps more accurate than the one we currently have of Naipaul the curmudgeon, or Naipaul the genius: polarizing labels that over-simplify one of the world’s most complex writers.

In his seventies, Naipaul had no need to embark on a journey to Africa. This decade is set aside for the writing of memoirs, for late novels, or collections of essays: it is not, conventionally, an age at which most writers would set themselves the task of another exploration, or undertake the discomfort, physical and mental, of a journey with the intention of understanding the beliefs of a continent. But in the decade before he wrote The Masque of Africa, Naipaul had remained a traveler, choosing to meet revolutionaries in India as part of the research for his most recent novels, Half a Life and Magic Seeds. (It was a journey of mutual disillusion.)

The Masque of Africa will not go down in the ranks of Naipaul’s greatest travel writing. “I found the place eluding me,” he writes of his return to Uganda after 42 years, and as he travels through Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Gabon and South Africa, the continent remains elusive. His explorations take him to witch doctors, animist shrines, forest initiation ceremonies. His observations on the thoughtless cruelty of some Africans to animals, especially to cats, who may be killed in a variety of ways of ascending brutality, become a running refrain, a sideways comment on the conflicts and bloodshed he doesn’t directly address. He ends by referencing Rian Malan, the author of My Traitor’s Heart—handing us over to a writer whose understanding of Africa is deeper and more nuanced than Naipaul can manage himself.

The Masque of Africa has been judged harshly for its stereotypes (“rubbish is the African way”, he comments of the piles of garbage he sees everywhere in Uganda), and for its limitations—Naipaul, once the most incisive of travel writers, can barely go beyond the surface of things in this book. This is Naipaul as a tourist rather than a travel writer, and it is his honesty about the narrowness of his journey that stands out.

Naipaul struggles with the difficulties of understanding cultures where the history is oral, not written. (In his view, not shared by Wole Soyinka and others, the oral tradition is always inferior to the written, because memory will not last beyond a few generations and may be wiped out entirely in a bloody war, a famine.) It is the practice in this century for journalists and travel writers to edit out the many filters between them and their experiences: the reader rarely sees the fixers, the interpreters, the useful local characters who will offer potted histories of a place.

Naipaul makes it clear that his African visit is mediated: he is too often at the mercy of those who take him around, as in one comic case where he walks too far, and is offered a wheelbarrow (inadequate to the task) for the next leg of his journey. He sets down the omissions and the gaps in each stage of his journey, and it is this honesty that may redeem an otherwise unconvincing, limited travelogue. As an inquiry into belief, The Masque of Africa falls short of Naipaul’s other journeys into faith and belief; but as an explication of the necessary limitations of travel writing as a genre, it is a surprisingly candid work.