Many of the destinations Naipaul visits in “The Masque of Africa” are places he’s been before, which makes the book a journey not only through geography, but time. Naipaul begins his trip in Kampala, a city where, more than four decades ago, he had done a stint as a university writer-in-residence.
He finds the city dramatically changed, and not necessarily for the better, with development marring the green hills for which Kampala was once famous:
“All those hills were now built over; and many of the spaces between the hills, the dips, were seemingly floored over with the old corrugated iron of poor dwellings.... The roads couldn’t deal with the traffic; even in this rainy season the roads were dusty, scuffed down beyond the asphalt to the fertile red earth of Uganda. I couldn’t recognize this Kampala, and even at this early stage it seemed to me that I was in a place where a calamity had occurred.”
The scene keynotes one of the book’s prevailing theme: how physical displacement might portend spiritual displacement as well. Much later, in the darkly mystical woodland of Gabon, Naipaul wonders if a forest religion can survive if the forest is gone.
Naipaul suggests that the answer might come soon: “Thirty-year [logging] permits have been granted to the Chinese, the Malaysians and the Japanese. They are more ruthless and better equipped than the people who went before, and at the end of their licenses there will almost certainly be patches of desert in what was once forest.”
To read “The Masque of Africa” is to be reminded that spirituality is a private subject for many, a topic not easily explored with relative strangers. But, as in his other books, Naipaul seems to establish a sense of intimacy with his interview subjects.
“The birds sing, and there is great beauty in the trees,” one forest dweller in Gabon tells Naipaul. “And if you see a small path twisting and turning like a snake in the forest you think of an image of the absolute. The search for the truth comes from the forest. I adore the forest, and even if I spend years abroad I have to come back and rush to the forest. I need the thick forest to feel alive.”
People talk openly to Naipaul, one gathers, because he adopts an air of neutrality that invites disclosure. His narratives can unfold for many pages with a sense of objective detachment that is more akin to wire service reportage than personal exposition.