No. 6: ‘North of South’ by Shiva Naipaul

Travel Blog  •  Frank Bures  •  05.26.06 | 9:18 PM ET

imageTo mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
Published: 1978
Territory covered: Kenya and Tanzania

As Africa was liberated from imperialism, Shiva Naipaul—the novelist and younger brother of V.S. Naipaul—traveled through East Africa looking for answers to one question: “How wide is the gap between the rhetoric of liberation and its day-to-day manifestations?” The question may sound wonkish, but Naipaul’s answers, and his quest for them, recounted in this book, were anything but. North of South is a vivid, caustic, biting, prescient and insightful journey through a region deep in transition.

While the famous Naipaulian arrogance is evident here, Shiva also had a gift for the absurd details that make his harshest observations funny and compassionate and even moving. Today we can see that much of what he encountered is still relevant, and that his question back then was the right one: The gap was, and still is, wide indeed. But in the end, it is the dialogue he captured, the descriptions he rendered and the people he met that make this one of the best travel books of all time.

Outtake from North of South:

“Is that polish?”

“Special ingredient,” he said, switching his attention from one shoe to the other. “Secret formula.  Highly secret formula.”

I started to feel uneasy.  It occurred to me that I had behaved extremely foolishly. I should have insisted on settling what the price would be before allowing him to start.

“I don’t want any special ingredient or secret formula,” I said, “Just ordinary polish.”

“Too late now,” he said cheerfully.

I half-withdrew my foot.

“Why worry? This is extra-special ingredient.” He explained that the treatment he was giving me would make any further polishing unnecessary for one whole year.  “You just take a soft cloth and wipe it over. It will shine just like mirror. I give you full guarantee.”

“Nonsense.”

“Not Nonsense,” he replied equably. “True. This is Deluxe Special I give you. Not nonsense.”

I withdrew my foot completely.

“Look…” He took a crumpled sheet of paper from his shirt pocket and handed it to me.  “Read what it says there.”

It was a typewritten testimonial. “This is to certify that I did not need to have my shoes polished for one year after receiving the Deluxe Special. During all that time my shoes shone like a mirror.”  The scrawled signature was impossible to decipher.

For more on Shiva Naipaul, visit his author page at Penguin.co.uk.


Frank Bures is a contributing editor at World Hum, where his stories have won several awards. More of his work can be found at frankbures.com.


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