Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Book Review: North of South by Shiva Naipaul

North of South by Shiva Naipaul
Some things defy description. For example, an LSD trip or the inexplicably surreal atmosphere a first-time traveller to Africa encounters. Imagine travelling to Africa, dropping a hit of acid and then later trying to describe the experience to someone who has done neither? In fact, Shiva Naipaul's book, North of South: An African Journey, has nothing to do with drugs. But he does a good job of capturing the incomprehensible absurdities that inevitably rain down on the heads of visitors to the dark continent.

In 1977, Naipaul had the idea of traveling to East Africa and writing about countries which had shaken off the shackles of colonialism. How had the politics of the new regimes affected the people? Had colonialism actually been good for Africa? What did the blacks, whites and browns (Asians) in Africa think about the state of affairs? It was a broad-brush outline in advance of his journey, and his publishers and editors were as leery of the relative lack of focus as he was himself.

The result is one of the most cynical and relentlessly unsympathetic accounts of the doomed nations and people of Africa that has ever been written. In short, just the kind of book I enjoy. Naipaul has the ability to quickly size up people he meets on his journey and deftly bludgeon them into memorable caricatures. The descriptions are larded with sarcasm and vicious wit, but more often than not, the absurd contrast between people's words and the apparent reality of the situation is enough to do the job. Naipaul puts everyone he meets through the wringer, regardless of colour, creed or social standing. At the time, Naipaul's book garnered some negative reviews, and he was labeled a racist by more than a few people. But if  anyone of any literary accomplishment were to write a similar book today, it would result in a tsunami of criticism and calls for career-ending sanctions.

I spent a year in Africa a few decades ago, and have also subsequently spent many years in various third-world countries. And so the descriptions in the book ring true. The invincible dishonesty, shamelessness and short-sighted, self serving behaviour that drag people and nations into a cesspool (largely) of their own making. The bizarre feeling that the people are like a race of vicious children who are forever amazed that they can create reality anew with each new lie as they attempt to cheat other human beings. The desire to be led by others and the willingness to believe every ridiculous, head-up-the-ass lie they are told. To live in such a society is to know that if someone with power enters a room with chocolate cake smeared on his face, 99% of people present will act like nothing is out of the ordinary, and the other 1% will volunteer to lick the person's face clean in hopes of gaining some kind of benefit.

Naipaul begins his journey in Kenya and the ridiculous encounters begin immediately. Smirking, shamelessly corrupt immigration officials size up arriving passengers for potential bribes and offer cryptic answers to questions regarding visas and other regulations. Naipaul talks to expats who revel in mocking ignorant Africans, and has surreal run-ins with locals who try to cheat him. A running theme emerges: any relationship or interaction will necessarily provide one or both of the participants with the opportunity to lie, cheat or somehow take advantage, and the opportunity will rarely be passed up. Naipaul also offers some potted history of Kenya with references from books written by early colonialists as well as native writers. But the most entertaining parts of the book are the characters Naipaul describes. Here, he meets an African student:
So often when one is talking to Africans who seem thoroughly modern, something is said that suddenly jars; that brings one up short and makes one realize that not all is what it seems to be. I think, for instance, of the modishly dressed student who told me that he was "studying literature." I asked who his favourite writer was. He said he did not have one. 
"But," I said, "there must be some books, some kind of writing you particularly enjoy."
He shook his head. "I don't care much for reading," he said--not without pride.
Even in this day and age, 40 years after the book was written, the above passage rings true. Bizarro-world interactions like this are still part of life in third-world countries.

As with all non-fiction books, a reader will undoubtedly question the authenticity of the conversations Naipaul includes and the characters he meets. Are they mainly composite characters, or characters made up of whole cloth with the aim of constructing a certain kind of narrative? Almost without fail, the people are of a certain stock type, their absurdities seen clearly only by Naipaul. And yet, if real-life conversations were included in novels, they would be undreadable. So too, non-fiction dialogue is inevitably condensed and made more readable. It's impossible to know how many liberties Naipaul took, but at least he is consistent in ripping everyone he comes across. White settlers, black politicians, Asian shop keepers and white tourists all come in for a hardcore verbal kicking.

In this passage, he visits the British owners of a tea plantation in Kenya. After observing the way they exploit the locals for labour, Naipaul has this to say about their son:
Ralph did not have much to say for himself. He sat hunched over his food, head bent over his plate, masticating with noisy devotion. I watched him shovel meat and potatoes into his mouth. There was something degenerate, something savage about Ralph. In Africa, European civilization did not penetrate the second generation. 
Naipaul, an Indian from Trinidad and Tobago, returns repeatedly to the special loathing that many Africans seem to have for Asians. He meets an Indian family, the Mukerjees, during a trip to the Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania. The husband shares his views of himself with Naipaul and everyone else in the mini-bus:
"These people had never seen anything like it. They had no idea what to do with me--and I was wearing a dhoti, which confused them even more. Their trouble was that they didn't know the kind of man they were dealing with. They thought I was another spineless Asian who they could kick around like a football." He waved contemptuously at our Goan companions. "They must have thought I was like one of those. But I'm no Asian. Not by a long chalk. I'm an Indian national, and I showed them what a nasty customer I could be." He giggled. "I can be a very nasty man when I want to. I can turn very nasty indeed." 
For anyone who has travelled extensively, a certain strident, imperious, repellent type of individual comes to mind, and the belief that Naipual is being straight in his descriptions of characters and dialogue is strengthened.

But Naipaul reserves his greatest contempt for white tourists. If they happen to be female, his loathing reaches pathological and twisted levels. Here he describes a pair of young American women who share paid transport with him in the back of a pick-up truck:
I suspect, not without a certain amount of trepidation, that they regard me as a potential ally in their cold war with the others. They are hedged about with an aura of failure, of futility. I could see them being flung into jail on trumped-up charges, being swindled, being raped, even being murdered...nothing will ever go quite right for them.
From Tanzania, Naipaul makes his way down into Zambia before finally returning to Kenya. The characters he meets make this book well worth reading. But he also includes the requisite passages describing the awesome beauty of Africa. He also comments extensively on socialist government initiatives and the confused citizens who mouth the associated platitudes but never quite know where their countries are headed. He finishes the journey completely jaded and without hope for Africa:
Black and white deserved each other. Neither was worth the shedding of a single tear: both were rotten to the core. Each had been destroyed by contact with the other--though each had been destroyed in his own way.
As much as I enjoyed the book, I realize a certain type of commentary can grow wearing at times (a good lesson for many...), and perhaps would be more trying for other readers. And yet, the lack of niceties and the commitment to a book-length verbal assault on so many people and places is refreshing. I've never had the chance to read any of Shiva Naipaul's other books. He was the brother of the more famous writer, V.S. Naipaul, and yet, Shiva also produced a number of novels and non-fiction works in his relatively short life. In 1985, perhaps while gleefully hammering out more bilious descriptions of people and places on his typewriter, he slumped forward onto his desk and died of a heart attack. He was 40 years old.