It’s instructive to watch mainstream opinion-makers dealing with matters of which they disapprove — they don’t examine the parties’ opinions but select personal details that make the author out to be a most unpleasant individual, if possible with implications that he is an imperialist, racist, fascist, etc., and he and his work are therefore beyond the pale. A splendid example of such smearing is the review by Robert Harris in the Sunday Times, Britain’s leading Sunday newspaper, of V. S. Naipaul’s new book, The Masque of Africa. And before I go any further, I should like to declare that I have known Naipaul since the days when he was beginning his career, and have always appreciated the open mind and intellectual curiosity that won him the Nobel Prize.
Harris has reached only the second sentence of his review when he is telling us that Naipaul has been knighted (very bad) and has “increasingly reactionary views” (deplorable) and though in the past he may have written great books set in Africa, he has moved on from the continent socially, meaning he knows people like Conrad Black and the Rothschilds (shocking beyond belief, eh?). Next up comes the comment that this book may well be the most “mordantly unsympathetic account of Africa” since Evelyn Waugh’s Black Mischief — the linkage implying that Naipaul is poking fun at serious things (disgraceful, inexcusable). Failing to prove what a bad book this is by supplying evidence from the contents, Harris simply comes out with the word, “repulsive.” (Cue for applause from the gallery.) By then, I was anticipating that Harris would go for the grand slam, and sure enough, he ends the review by saying that Naipaul reminds him of Oswald Mosley, the pre-war British fascist leader. (Bravo, ovation, all stand.)
This book is about to be published in New York. For many years, Naipaul was one of the star writers of the New York Review of Books, doing it the favor of publishing some of his most original work there. In keeping with its impeccably correct political correctness, the NYRB might do a Harris now. The sole alternative tactic available to liberals is to pretend not to notice, passing over the dreadful book in silence. From personal experience, however, let me reassure one and all that Naipaul lets his work speak for itself, and has almost certainly never heard of Harris or given a thought to the NYRB.