Academic journal article Journal of Caribbean Literatures

A Case of Naipaulexity: V.S. Naipaul's Visions of Africa in "In a Free State"

Academic journal article Journal of Caribbean Literatures

A Case of Naipaulexity: V.S. Naipaul's Visions of Africa in "In a Free State"

Article excerpt

In his reading entitled "Dialogue" on March 20, 2008, at Makerere University in Uganda, V.S. Naipaul discussed his lengthy literary and personal connection to Africa and his intention to write his thirtieth book--a text on Africa's religions:

I've written quite a lot about Africa since 1966. I went to the Congo, spent some time there and gradually came with an important book. I later went to Senegal. I wrote nothing about that because I just couldn't find anything to say about it that was of interest to me. And then I went to [the] Ivory Coast. So I've heard [sic] an experience of love of Africa because East Africa, Congo, Ivory Coast, Senegal--it's quite a lot to get started with and I've written about these places, sometimes only in articles leaving out Senegal. And now when I come to see it myself, when I know that I am near the end of things, I thought I would write my last book about an aspect of Africa which as result of my earlier visit I became interested in--the Africa of its ancestral beliefs, its ancestral religion. It has always fascinated me; this thing about ancestral beliefs and ancestral religion because whenever one is close to them--you look at the sculpture of Africa, the masks--they seem to come from way back. They seem to have an immemorial ancestry, they seem to come from the earth and that makes them fascinating to me. (Muhumuza)

Many wondered if these comments were evidence of a new "milder" Naipaul, since he showed no partiality to his deeply rooted criticism of postcolonial Africa for producing states of violence and corrupt leaders or his pessimistic outlook that Africa "has no future" (Hardwick 49). Others thought this change revealed another layer in Naipaul's complex relationship with Africa, which began forty-five years ago. This article foregrounds this discussion of Naipaul's representations of Africa through the lens of Naipaulexity (Naipaul and his multiple complexities). (1) The term indicates that Naipaul explicitly manipulates his portrayal of African societies in his texts to reflect his (mis)understanding of Africa's history, land, culture, and traditions, which is partly based on his encounters in Africa.

Naipaul made his first trip to Africa in December 1965 when he worked as a writer in residence at Makerere University until September 1966. He quickly became friends with Paul Theroux, an American professor at Makerere University, who describes Naipaul's dismal view of postcolonial Uganda as linked to the fall of European control in Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents: "Outsiders are the key. Take them away and Uganda will go back to the bush. All of this will be jungle" (26). Theroux also recalls Naipaul's negative visions of African societies when they traveled to several East African countries, including Kenya and Rwanda. During this same period, upon his visit to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), Naipaul exhibited an increasingly pessimistic tone and when he returned to the Congo in 1968, he asserted that the postcolonial region had lost its prosperity due, in part, to the withdrawal of the Europeans:

I saw there a rich town, abandoned by the Belgians. Street lamps rusty, sand everywhere, collapsed verandas. The Africans were camping in the houses, just the way the ancient English camped in the abandoned villas of the Romans. Here again in Africa one was back in the 5th century. Native people camping in the ruins of civilization. You could see the bush creeping back as you stood there ... When you have watched the bush returning, you are different from a young man from Harvard or London who is traveling doing his project. (Hardwick 46)

Naipaul's observations of postcolonial societies in Africa provided the material for "In a Free State," the title story of In a Free State and his first text which primarily features an African setting.

Naipaul acknowledges in a forthright manner that his critical attitude towards Africa manifests itself in the composition of "In a Free State. …

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