EAST AFRICA was brought Shiva Naipaul its tired, its demented, its detribalized and maladjusted, its worn-out white settlers and its new black bureaucrats yearning for power and money. In return, the young indian novelist has spun them all into a well-crafted, bright but bitter montage of a book that is something new out of Africa.
Funny and unduly harsh at the same time, North of South is that rare quick good read for the Africa shelf, long dominated by ponderous academic studies at one end and frivolous, slanted atrocity books at the other. Naipaul has applied a novelist's eye to the parade of uprooted characters that tumbled by on his six-month intellectual safari through Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia, and the result is a series of rapidly moving sketches and mini-profiles that entertain and instruct.
The book is also an input to that part of independent Africa just north of South Africa. It is a relemtless and wounding tirade that offers no sympathy for Africa's youth, tnexperience and promise for the future. By ignoring these qualifies Naipaul produces an ultimately one-dimensional view of countries that he feels have made a terrible botch of independence. His pessimism is a shallow reflection of the grim but informed vision of his older brother, V.S. Naipaul.
"The settler's town, "Franz Fanon wrote, "is a strongly built town, all made of stone and steel. It is a brightly lit town, a wellfed town, an easy going town. . . . The look that the native turns on the settler's town is a look of lust, a look of envy; it expresses his dreams of possession, to sleep in the settler's bed, with his wife if possible."
Naipaul uses this quotation to set up his own description of the corrupting change that has come to Kenya's capital. Nairobi, with its travel agencies, boutiques, nightclubs, "its two casinos, is not even a settler's town -- not any more. It is a tourist town . . . a fantastical place, a kind of papier-mache confection" of international hotels that become a dream palaces for tourist and native alike.
"But the tourist has this advantage: he knows it is a dream; he knows that at the end of two or three weeks he will fly away and return to an everday world. The native cannot make the distinction. The abnormal becomes the stamping ground of his visions of 'progress' and 'development' because it is only the abnormal that he sees. . . . For as long as he can afford it, [the detribalized Kenyan] will sit in darkened, air-conditioned bars and dream of miraculous rescue."
Quotation as point, funny and quixotic encounter as counterpoint, mordant insight to wrap it together. This is Naipaul's principal structural device in moving his account along. He starts his leave-taking of Kenya for Tanzania with a description from the 18th-century European explorer Mungo Park telling how various chiefs reduced him to poverty by forcing him to pay tribute to move through thier territories. Then Naipaul enters:
"One tends to think of Africa, before the full-scale imposition of European administration, as an essentially borderless place. That is not altogether true. 1 Africans have known about borders and their possibilities for a long time. Park's account of his travels is, by large, a chronicle of frontier tribulations; a sad tale of a graudal frontier tribulation; a sad tale of a gradual but unremitting dispossession. . . .Something of that eighteenth-century atmosphere of rapacity persists at the border posts of the modern states."
There follows Naipaul's own tale of being flim-flammed out of a few shillings and a half-bottle of whisky by Kenyan and Tanzanian border guards and the capricious, insulting search the guards put their fellow citizens through.
Naipaul treats Jomo Kenyatta's Kenya as a regrettable but understandable failure of a human morality and spirit, done in by greed and indolence. He quickly understands the land hunger that has driven the dominant Kikuyu tribe to become "the new settlers" in their own country and to adopt the "frustrated aristocratic longings" colonial Kenya earlier stirred in whites.
"Independent Tanzania," on the other hand, "has stimulated the fantasies of a certain type of outmoded European socialist," of a pastoral and utopian turn of mind that fades into benevolent, condescending patronage. They, and Tanzania's commitment to socialism, are a sham, Naipaul asserts. For him, Tanzania is sinister, evil, only one step away from a police state. Much too harsh on Nyerere's overblown and simplistic efforts to repair the damage colonialism has done to the African self-image, he also mistakes bureaucratic rebuffs and inadequacy for a totalitarianism that Nyerere could never achieve even if he wanted to.
Naipaul who was born and raised in Trinidad, admits that much of his bitterness comes from the inevitable identification he makes with the "Asians" of East Africa who have been squeezed from their shops, artisan jobs and other positions by independent African governments seeking to advance their black citizens. As a brown traveler shuttling between the still separate black and white societies of East Africa, he feels trapped between "the Master and Slave alliance" of white and black against the Asians, who shut themselves off in their own culture. "That has been their great strength," Naipaul writes," and their fatal weakness."
African is a continent of extremes, of black and white. The intensity of its climate geography and temperaments washes out the greyness of Europe, the emerald and brown of Asia, the surface pinkness and spiritual blood-red of America. This is the Africa that has badly discomforted Naipaul, and left him seeing only hits dark side.