Loved it Because: This is one of those novels that immerses you into the life of a person and place--in this case an Indian Muslim transplant named Salim who wanders from his 'home' on the east coast (of Africa) to the DRC river town of Kisangani during the colonial independence era. As the week passed and I waded deeper into this tale, I found myself thinking about the characters during idle moments--worried about the fate of Salim and Metty as they rode the ups and downs of Mobuto's rule in the growing town. It's one of those rare books that spreads its tentacles around you, the reader, and refuses to release you. I came across this novel through a recommendation from a Foreign Area Officer colleague. I am on a two-year quest to read a work of English fiction on every country in Africa (preferably by an author native to that country--although the 'native' requirement wasn't met in this case). Naipaul never identifies the town, country, or 'Big Man' ruler by their names but his detailed narrative makes it blatantly apparent as to their identities. I am sure that critics like Africa is a Country were not happy to have another foreigner writing about Africa with such a detailed eye but with an author as gifted as Naipaul you'd hope they'd cut him some slack. Positing that only authors native to a country can write about it effectively comes across as not only arrogant but also as selfish. Case in point, Adichie's recent short story on the Trump family was one of the best pieces of satire on the American political system that I've read in a long time. My favorite part of this book, is when Salim discovers how shallow the writing is of Raymond's, the much revered white africanist-turned-presidential confidant-turned visiting lecturer-turned pariah. As Salim's pores through the academic's articles he sees that his analysis rests almost entirely on reporting from local newspaper articles. He's a bit flabbergasted as he observes: Raymond seemed to have taken them very seriously. I couldn’t get over that, because from my experience on the coast I knew that newspapers in small colonial places told a special kind of truth. They didn’t lie, but they were formal. They handled big people—businessmen, high officials, members of our legislative and executive councils—with respect. They left out a lot of important things—often essential things—that local people would know and gossip about. The merit and accuracy of local newspapers is a notion that rings incredibly true for anyone who has lived overseas. Really, what Naipaul is getting at is the difference between perceived and actual/true knowledge.
He knew so much, had researched so much. He must have spent weeks on each article. But he had less true knowledge of Africa, less feel for it, than Indar or Nazruddin or even Mahesh; he had nothing like Father Huismans’s instinct for the strangeness and wonder of the place. Yet he had made Africa his subject. He had devoted years to those boxes of documents in his study that I had heard about from Indar. Perhaps he had made Africa his subject because he had come to Africa and because he was a scholar, used to working with papers, and had found this place full of new papers. For any former graduate student this is an especially sweet section as one finds oneself deluged with a shower of reports and studies on tiny segments of people, tribes or times during grad school. For the reader, this section should be read perhaps as a jab by Naipaul at the academic establishment with which his 'travel writing' no doubt at odds. Ultimately, the most satisfying part of finishing this story was that it left me with so many questions about the DRC, Mobutu and the ideas of insiders/outsiders within the context of colonization, independence and freedom.
*One of my Reading Around the Continent books--the full list is here.
A New King for the Congo For further research: - DRC and the Big Man (Mobutu) - Slavery inside Africa - The Europeanization of African worth/Colonialization influence on African self-worth (stamp of dhow example) - Differing notions of the past/history and its importance - Miscerique probat populos et foedera jungi: He approves of the mingling of the people and their bonds of union (motto of Trinidad and Tobago) - Comparisons with Heart of Darkness - Treatment of women in Naipaul novels - Naipaul's other African novels: A Bend in the River, The Masques of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief; In A Free State; Half a Life; Magic Seeds; - Disturbing beating and violence towards Yvette--what's the purpose of this action in the novel? To make Salim less likable? Is it emblematic of the author's own attitude toward the fairer sex?
I had treated Zabeth so far as a marchande and a good customer. Now that I knew that in our region she was a person of power, a prophetess, I could never forget it. So the charm worked on me as well.
east coast, and that made the difference. The coast was not truly African. It was an Arab-Indian-Persian-Portuguese place, and we who lived there were really people of the Indian Ocean. True
All that I know of our history and the history of the Indian Ocean I have got from books written by Europeans.
Without Europeans, I feel, all our past would have been washed away, like the scuff marks of fishermen on the beach outside our town.
The slavery of the east coast was not like the slavery of the west coast. No one was shipped off to plantations. Most of the people who left our coast went to Arabian homes as domestic servants. Some became members of the family they had joined; a few became powerful in their own right. To
This was one reason why the trade went on long after it had been outlawed by the European powers; and why, at the time when the Europeans were dealing in one kind of rubber, my grandfather could still occasionally deal in another. This was also the reason why a secret slavery continued on the coast until the other day. The slaves, or the people who might be considered slaves, wanted to remain as they were.
Soon, therefore, the Arabs, or the people who called themselves Arabs, had become indistinguishable from Africans. They barely had an idea of their original civilization. They had the Koran and its laws; they stuck to certain fashions in dress, wore a certain kind of cap, had a special cut of beard; and that was all.
Without that stamp of the dhow I might have taken the dhows for granted. As it was, I learned to look at them.
But the Europeans could do one thing and say something quite different; and they could act in this way because they had an idea of what they owed to their civilization. It was their great advantage over us.
To be in Africa you have to be strong. We’re not strong. We don’t even have a flag.”
the Arabian energy that had pushed them into Africa had died down at its source, and their power was like the light of a star that travels on after the star itself has become dead.
“Do you know Uganda? A lovely country. Cool, three to four thousand feet up, and people say it’s like Scotland, with the hills.
Rough boards carried the new, roughly lettered names. No one used the new names, because no one particularly cared about them. The wish had only been to get rid of the old, to wipe out the memory of the intruder. It was unnerving, the depth of that African rage, the wish to destroy, regardless of the consequences.
What I had feared would happen on the coast came to pass. There was an uprising; and the Arabs—men almost as African as their servants—had been finally laid low.
father could always claim his child; there were any number of folk sayings that expressed this almost universal African law.
Yet there was the idea of his importance. It unsettled me—there wasn’t going to be security for anyone in the country—and it unsettled Metty. When you get away from the chiefs and the politicians there is a simple democracy about Africa: everyone is a villager.
But Africa was big. The bush muffled the sound of murder, and the muddy rivers and lakes washed the blood away.
that they are malins” He had used the French word, because the English words he might have used—“wicked,” “mischievous,” “bad-minded”—were not right. The people here were malins the way a dog chasing a lizard was malin, or a cat chasing a bird. The people were malins because they lived with the knowledge of men as prey.
He had the “unfinished” face which I have noticed that certain Europeans—but never Arabs or Persians or Indians—have. In these faces there is a baby-like quality about the cut of the lips and the jut of the forehead. It might be that these people were born prematurely; they seem to have passed through some very early disturbance, way back.
An ancient Roman writer had written that out of Africa there was “always something new”—semper aliquid novi. And when it came to masks and carvings, the words were still literally true.
He explained the second motto of the town for me—the Latin words carved on the ruined monument near the dock gates: Miscerique probat populos et foedera jungi. “He approves of the mingling of the peoples and their bonds of union”:
At independence the people of our region had gone mad with anger and fear—all the accumulated anger of the colonial period, and every kind of reawakened tribal fear. The people of our region had been much abused, not only by Europeans and Arabs, but also by other Africans; and at independence they had refused to be ruled by the new government in the capital.
Officials and governments right across the continent were engaged in this ivory trade which they themselves had declared illegal. It made smuggling easy; but I was nervous of getting involved, because a government that breaks its own laws can also easily break you.
The farm didn’t materialize. The Chinese or the Taiwanese didn’t turn up to till the land of the new model African farm; the six tractors that some foreign government had given remained in a neat line in the open and rusted, and the grass grew high about them.
He liked being reminded of this, being remembered from so far back. He said, almost smiling, “I cried a lot? I made a lot of noise?”
was homesick, had been homesick for months. But home was hardly a place I could return to. Home was something in my head. It was something I had lost.
“It will last as long as your President wants it to last. And no one can tell how long that will be. He’s a strange man. He seems to be doing nothing at all, and then he can act like a surgeon. Cutting away some part he doesn’t like.”
And something strange happens if you go back often enough. You stop grieving for the past. You see that the past is something in your mind alone, that it doesn’t exist in real life. You trample on the past, you crush it. In the beginning it is like trampling on a garden. In the end you are just walking on ground. That is the way we have to learn to live now. The past is here.” He touched his heart. “It isn’t there.” And he pointed at the dusty road.
The Domain had been created by the President; for reasons of his own he had called certain foreigners to live there. For us that was enough; it wasn’t for us to question or look too closely.
But now, being with them in the Domain, which in every way was their resort, and being admitted so easily to their life, their world of bungalows and air conditioners and holiday ease, catching in their educated talk the names of famous cities, I swung the other way and began to see how shut in and shabby and stagnant we in the town would have seemed to them. I began to get some sense of the social excitements of life on the Domain, of people associating in a new way, being more open, less concerned with enemies and danger, more ready to be interested and entertained, looking for the human worth of the other man. On the Domain they had their own way of talking about people and events; they were in touch with the world. To be with them was to have a sense of adventure. I thought of my own life and Metty’s;
foreigners and Africans acted and reacted on one another, and everyone became locked in an idea of glory and newness. Everywhere the President’s photograph looked down at us. In the town, in our shops and in government buildings, it was just the photograph of the President, the ruler, something that had to be there. In the Domain the glory of the President brushed off onto all his new Africans.
There was a ritual I went through whenever I had to clear a difficult consignment through the customs. I filled in the declaration form, folded it over five hundred francs, and handed it to the official in charge. He would—as soon as he had got his subordinates out of the room (and they of course knew why they had been asked to leave the room)—check the notes with his eyes alone. The notes would then be taken; the entries on the form would be studied with exaggerated care; and soon he would say, “C’est bien, Mis’ Salim. Vous êtes en ordre.” Neither he nor I would refer to the bank notes. We would talk only about the details on the declaration form, which, correctly filled, correctly approved, would remain as proof of both our correctness. Yet what had lain at the heart of the transaction would be passed over in silence, and would leave no trace in the records.
So, in my talks with Indar about Africa—the purpose of his outfit, the Domain, his anxieties about imported doctrines, the danger to Africa of its very newness, first ideas being caught most securely by new minds as sticky as adhesive tape—I felt
that between us lay some dishonesty, or just an omission, some blank, around which we both had to walk carefully. That omission was our own past, the smashed life of our community. Indar had referred to that at our first meeting that morning in the shop. He said that he had learned to trample on the past. In the beginning it had been like trampling on a garden; later it had become like walking on ground.
Raymond, keeps a low profile, but he runs the whole show here. The President, or the Big Man, as you call him, sent him down here to keep an eye on things. He’s the Big Man’s white man. In all these places there’s someone like that. Raymond’s a historian. They say the President reads everything he writes. That’s the story anyway. Raymond knows more about the country than anyone on earth.”
What made him unusual—I would even say extraordinary—was the quality of his despair. It wasn’t just a matter of poverty and the lack of opportunity. It went much deeper. And, indeed, to try to look at the world from his point of view was to begin to get a headache yourself.
‘I’ve listened to you, and I know that one day the mood of despair will go and you will want to act. What you mustn’t do then is to become involved in politics as they exist. Those clubs and associations are talking shops, debating societies, where Africans posture for Europeans and hope to pass as evolved. They will eat up your passion and destroy your gifts. What I am going to tell you now will sound strange, coming from me. You must join the Defence Force. You won’t rise high, but you will learn a real skill. You will learn about weapons and transport, and you will also learn about men. Once you understand what holds the Defence Force together, you will understand what holds the country together.
That’s the amazing thing about this man of Africa—this flair, this knowledge of what the people need, and when.
takes an African to rule Africa—the colonial powers never truly understood that. However much the rest of us study Africa, however deep our sympathy, we will remain outsiders.” The young man, sitting now on a mat with his girl, asked,
said to Indar, “What do you think of what Raymond said?” “Raymond tells a story well. But a lot of what he says is true. What he says about the President and ideas is certainly true. The President uses them all and somehow makes them work together. He is the great African chief, and he is also the man of the people. He is the modernizer and he is also the African who has rediscovered his African soul. He’s conservative, revolutionary,
everything. He’s going back to the old ways, and he’s also the man who’s going ahead, the man who’s going to make the country a world power by the year 2000. I don’t know whether he’s done it accidentally or because someone’s been telling him what to do. But the mish-mash works because he keeps on changing, unlike the other guys. He is the soldier who decided to become an old-fashioned chief, and he’s the chief whose mother was a hotel maid. That makes him everything, and he plays up everything. There isn’t anyone in the country who hasn’t heard of that hotel maid mother.”
They did what they could to make room for me, and that is more than any outsider can say for us. It’s a difference in civilization.
There are times when I feel that Africa will simply have its own way—hungry men are hungry men. And that is when I can get very low.
Miscerique probat populos et foedera jungi. I had long since ceased to reflect on the vainglory of the words. The monument had only become part of the market scene on steamer days. Through that crowd we now began to make our way, accompanied by an old man, feebler than either of us, who had taken possession of Ferdinand’s suitcases.
In the name of his dead mother, the hotel maid, “the woman of Africa,” as he called her in his speeches, the President had decided to honour as many women as possible; and he had done so by making them government servants, not always with clear duties.
they don’t reply to your letters, it’s because they don’t want to reply. They’re not going to say yes or no. They’re going to say nothing. But
Women make up half the world; and I thought I had reached the stage where there was nothing in a woman’s nakedness to surprise me. But I felt now as if I was experiencing anew, and seeing a woman for the first time. I was amazed that, obsessed with Yvette as I had been, I had taken so much for granted.
The earlier articles, in the foreign magazines, seemed easier. “Riot at a Football Match,” in an American magazine, was about a race riot in the capital in the 1930s that had led to the formation of the first African political club. “Lost Liberties,” in a Belgian magazine, was about the failure of a missionary scheme, in the late nineteenth century, to buy picked slaves from the Arab slave caravans and resettle them in “liberty villages.”
Raymond seemed to have taken them very seriously. I couldn’t get over that, because from my experience on the coast I knew that newspapers in small colonial places told a special kind of truth. They didn’t lie, but they were formal. They handled big people—businessmen, high officials, members of our legislative and executive councils—with respect. They left out a lot of important things—often essential things—that local people would know and gossip about.
History was something dead and gone, part of the world of our grandfathers, and we didn’t pay too much attention to it; even though, among trading families like ours, there were still vague stories—so vague that they didn’t feel real—of European priests buying slaves cheap from the caravans before they got to the depots on the coast. The Africans (and this was the point of the stories) had been scared out of their skins: they thought the missionaries were buying them in order to eat them.
He knew so much, had researched so much. He must have spent weeks on each article. But he had less true knowledge of Africa, less feel for it, than Indar or Nazruddin or even Mahesh; he had nothing like Father Huismans’s instinct for the strangeness and wonder of the place. Yet he had made Africa his subject. He had devoted years to those boxes of documents in his study that I had heard about from Indar. Perhaps he had made Africa his subject because he had come to Africa and because he was a scholar, used to working with papers, and had found this place full of new papers.
But if women weren’t stupid the world wouldn’t go round.
Our visitors were becoming increasingly critical. They had a lot to say about the cult of the African madonna. Shrines had been set up—and were being set up—in various places connected with the President’s mother, and pilgrimages to these places had been decreed for certain days. We knew about the cult, but in our region we hadn’t seen too much of
So Maximes failed with us. And it must have been so in other parts of the country as well, because shortly after reporting the great demand for the book, the newspapers dropped the subject.
In events around me—like the publication of the President’s book, and the book march—I looked only to see whether the life I had with Yvette was threatened or was going to go on. And the narrower my world became, the more obsessively I lived in it.
Was I possessed by Yvette? Or was I—like Mahesh with his new idea of what he was—possessed by myself, the man I thought I was with Yvette?
In time it would all go; we would both return to our interrupted lives. That was no tragedy. That certainty of the end—even while the boom slackened and my fifteen dropped to fourteen, and Nazruddin and his uprooted family tried to establish themselves in Canada—was my security.
The African language the President had chosen for his speeches was a mixed and simple language, and he simplified it further, making it the language of the drinking booth and the street brawl, converting himself, while he spoke, this man who kept everybody dangling and imitated the etiquette of royalty and the graces of de Gaulle, into the lowest of the low. And that was the attraction of the African language in the President’s mouth. That regal and musical use of the lowest language and the coarsest expressions was what was holding Metty.
them.” It was one of his sayings; it meant that stable relationships were not possible here, that there could only be day-to-day contracts between men, that in a crisis peace was something you had to buy afresh every day. His
She said, “You make me look so good. What will I do without you?” That was a standard courtesy.
Opposites: again this communication by opposites. That woman in the cupboard: that other person outside. That journey out from the Domain: that other journey back. Affection, just before betrayal. And I had been in tears.
said, “Oh, Ali, Ali. Terrible things happened tonight. I spat on her. She made me spit on her.” “People quarrel. After three years a thing doesn’t just end like this.” “Ali, it isn’t that. I couldn’t do anything with her. I didn’t want her, I didn’t want her. That is what I can’t bear. It’s all gone.”
But it was Europe that gave us the descriptive postage stamps that gave us our ideas of what was picturesque about ourselves. It also gave us a new language. Europe no longer
You would say that he felt that money had made him holy. All rich people are like that, I suppose.
understood now why so many of our later visitors at the Domain found our country, and our awe of the President, comic. What I saw on the road from the airport didn’t seem comic, though. I felt it more as a shriek. I had just come from Europe; I had seen the real competition.
They take away your shop. They give it to Citizen Théotime. The President made a speech a fortnight back. He said he was radicalizing and taking away everything from everybody. All foreigners.
Radicalization: two days before, in the capital, I had seen the word in a newspaper headline, but I hadn’t paid attention. I had thought of it as just another word; we had so many. Now I understood that radicalization was the big new event.
The revolution had become”—he fumbled for the word—“un pé pourrie. A little rotten.
This piece of earth—how many changes had come to it! Forest at a bend in the river, a meeting place, an Arab settlement, a European outpost, a European suburb, a ruin like the ruin of a dead civilization, the glittering Domain of new Africa, and now this.
It’s bad for everybody. That’s the terrible thing. It’s bad for Prosper, bad for the man they gave your shop to, bad for everybody. Nobody’s going anywhere. We’re all going to hell, and every man knows this in his bones. We’re being killed. Nothing has any meaning. That is why everyone is so frantic. Everyone wants to make his money and run away. But where? That is what is driving people mad. They feel they’re losing the place they can run back to. I began to feel the same thing when I was a cadet in the capital. I felt I had been used. I felt I had given myself an education for nothing. I felt I had been fooled. Everything that was given to me was given to me to destroy me. I began to think I wanted to be a child again, to forget books and everything connected with books. The bush runs itself. But there is no place to go to. I’ve been on tour in the villages. It’s a nightmare. All these airfields the man has built, the foreign companies have built—nowhere is safe now.”