Saturday, June 11, 2011


In The Masque of Africa V.S. Naipaul sets out to describe present-day forms of animism and magic as he encountered them while traveling through Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Gabon and South Africa. The journey often sounds like a burden borne with reluctance by this elderly author. His physical discomfort tends to dominate the page. There are also quite a few clumsy and clearly unintended repetitions and redundancies in the text. (Literary editors at publishing houses don't stoop to line-editing anymore, it is said, and very likely Naipaul is too eminent to accept such editing anyway.)

"We talked after this of the wildlife of Ghana. There wasn't much of it left. The people of Ghana had eaten much of it out. From this talk of wildlife we turned to the cats and dogs that people were now eating with a will. In the north they ate and loved dog: they called it "red goat." In the south they ate cats and had almost eaten them out. Richmond knew someone who bred cats in order to eat them.

The trouble with cats was that they were tricky to kill. Cats knew when they were going to be killed and eaten; they fought for their lives and they could be dangerous for a few minutes. The best way of killing a cat, assuming you had invited someone to dinner and didn't want to create a scene, was to stretch the animal's neck, the way people in England kill a rabbit. But when you did that you could be badly scratched. The surest way  if you or your guests didn't mind the racket  was to put a cat in a sack and beat it with a stick until it was dead. Another good way was to drown it. You used a sardine as bait to attract the cat to a container of water, and then you poured and poured water. The cat swallowed a lot of water and the virtue of this method was that it was much easier afterwards to tear the bloated cat's skin off.

With this talk of local food  breaking off from time to time to look at unfinished concrete pieces in the bush  we beguiled many miles. And then, as if this talk of food had called them up, there appeared at the roadside local men holding up smoked animals, offering them for sale, the surrounding bush combed and combed for these survivors  the agouti, together with a big rat known here as the grass-cutter, baby armadillos, long-snouted baby ant-eaters, and a few other creatures that just weren't fast enough to get away from these idle fellows."