North of South by Shiva Naipaul Simon and Schuster, $10.95
By Judith E. Matloff, July 13, 1979
ACCORDING TO SHIVA and V.S. Naipaul, Mistah Kurtz—he ain’t dead. His capacity for barbarism is alive in African dictators who act like capricious children in fatigues, and in Australian tourists who visit Africa to prove racism is justified because the natives are so in competent.
The two Trinidadian writes are brothers, which partly explains why their recent books on Africa both argue that the heart of darkness has relocated to a new bend in the river, just north of South Africa. They have not left Conrad far behind in their assertion that Africa is a dark and irrational continent.
The books differ stupendously in their quality, but that’s thoroughly explainable. V.S. Naipaul, who is the superior writer, has more experience. He has produced 15 books since 1952, but his diversity in style is more remarkable than his productivity. V.S. Naipaul has mastered social satire, essays on development, historical accounts and pessimistic novels about racial conflict and independence in the Third world. Although writing about disparate societies, Naipaul displays an astute sociological ability to muster and link problems common to all former colonies.
A Bend in the River is in the same genre as Naipaul’s later novels-those set in tropical areas where a blacked majority has recently seized power. A Bend takes place in the interior of a guerilla-ridden African nation. It is stifling hot, and the wet bush seems to reinforce the violence lurking in men’s souls. An Amin-like dictator rules the nation, periodically purging his national youth guard and murdering potential rebels.
Ferdinand, one of the “young black men of Africa who rise from the bottom to the top with nothing, because he is young and a black and African” fears he will not survive the president’s arbitrary purges. A well-meaning missionary is beheaded by the very people he is trying to educate. And the protagionist’s store is seized because he is an East Asian and thus a “traitor.”
Salim, the protagionist, is an archetypal Naipaul character—East Indian, sallow, passive and alienated. Salim’s lethargy reflects his anxiety about the ultimate, senseless violence. As the president’s forces creep deeper into the interior, Salim becomes more desperate. He tries twice to rouse himself, via an affair and a flight to London where illusions of a Western civilized arcadia lie. But neither succeeds as a safety-value. Salim renounces all hope and returns to Africa, only to find that the violent abyss has widened.
A Bend is yet another of V.S. Naipaul’s impeccably crafted books. He maintains a level of tension that becomes almost intolerable; the reader can feel the vines and the president’s guard coming too close to his house. This is writing that makes one want to open a window or turn on a fan. Or keep a gun by the bedside.
The author’s capacity for developing his characters’ humanity forces the reader to empathize with all of them—the wealthy white Europeans, black African cab drivers or Asian shopkeepers. His humanity does not extend, however, to his women characters—nymphomaniacs on whom he vindictively inflicts sexual abuse and mutilation.
Another weakness is Naipaul’s pessismism about Africa’s future. He fells ruination and debauched immorality will scar Africa’s future as they have scarred its past. Naipaul consistently uses examples from unstable areas like Zaire and Jamaica and ignores relatively stable ones like Tanzania and Kenya.
But because he is from a developing nation himself, V.S. Naipaul has a perspective a Westerner cannot glean. Naipaul’s perspective as an East Indian in a black nation sets him apart from other Third World writers. This gives him a curiously advantageous literary position—he is both a participant and observer in his society.
IT MUST BE hard to follow in the footsteps of a famous and brilliant older brother. Unfortunately, Shiva Naipaul cannot compete with his brother’s polish or his sensitivity. Both are missing from North of South. The book is a montage of conversations held or overheard by the author during a six-month visit to Kenya, Zambia and Tanzania. For Shiva Africa is a land of hypocrisy, deceit and irony. Some of his examples are apt: an African student loves books but hates to read; young boys selling peanuts are condemned as capitalists in Tanzania; religious Hindus devour beef sandwiches; a white tourist asks her companion, “In Burundi do the tall ones kill the short ones or do the short ones kill the tall ones?”
But Shiva’s persistent sardonic tone undermines his anecdotes’ effectiveness. The reader tires quickly of his smug arrogance, and yearns for some affirmative statement about Africa. Everyone on the “dark continent” seems to be a caricature—all racist and drugged white tourists, or insufferably dogmatic bureaucrats.
The work has two other major flaws. First, Shiva presents no connecting analysis to link his anecdotes. This approach aggravates the reader’s impatience with Naipaul’s tone—as he becomes increasingly weary from traveling overland, so the reader becomes more tired of nasty asides.
Second, Shiva’s theoretical point that “the African soul is a blank slate in which anything can be written” is offensive. For Shiva, Pan-Africanism, Tanzania’s self-reliance and the rebirth of Swahili mean nothing. He sees only Kenyans worshipping the West’s wealth and culture. And Shiva, like his brother, does not give enough credit to the governments and people of these nations who are struggling with the racial and class problems of a colonial past.
Shiva Naipaul is most weak where his brother is strongest—the ability to empathize with all the people he writes about. He does not try to understand why a nouveau riche black Kenyan has two freezers (which she never uses), whisky at every meal, gold-painted nails, and an expropriated mansion too large for her needs. He simply finds her ludicrous and tasteless.
Where V.S. Naipaul is a universalist, drawing parallels among the people he sees, Shiva Naipaul is a defensive separatist. This sense of separation stems in part from the nature of a travelogue, which forces him to keep a distance from his subjects. For hi, sanity only exists in the industrialized West—i.e., England. The nightmare only begins when one boards the flight to Africa.
Both Naipaul brothers see Africa through Conrad’s eyes—as a ruined land where logic is an anomaly and men become corrupted. But for V.S. Naipaul, the entire world is a senseless, despondent morass. For Shiva, civilization and Mistah Kurtz are only dead in Africa.