How do you reconcile Robert Harris the clever, sensitive, erudite and sensible author of “Fatherland” and two excellent novels based on the life of Cicero, with the politically correct prig who reviewed VS Naipaul’s latest travel book in this weekend’s Sunday Times.
Because Naipaul’s reportage from Ivory Coast, Uganda and elsewhere in Africa doesn’t jibe with Harris’s notions of the continent — notions that seem to be based on armchair fantasy and liberal conventional wisdom rather than on-the-ground experience — the novelist likens Naipaul to Oswald Mosley and basically calls him a racist.
Unfortunately, as a friend reminds me, Robert Harris is a man whose otherwise capable mind is shot through with Hampstead prejudices, as was made all too clear by the book and film entitled The Ghost (The Ghost Writer in the US). A thinly veiled attack on Tony and Cherie Blair (Harris was apparently infuriated by Blair’s supposed “betrayal” of his close friend Lord Mandelson), the Ghost is steeped in paranoid, Guardian-leader-page anti-Americanism and the usual ignorant prejudice about the liberation of Iraq.
Harris’ review of Naipaul’s “The Masque of Africa” reveals him as someone who would rather label someone a “racist” than see his own complacency disturbed by unpleasant facts. If Harris were inhabiting the fictional world he invented in Fatherland, he would be one of those people who chooses not to believe even the strongest evidence of the Third Reich’s great crimes. This is disappointing, but perhaps Harris creates brave heroes like Fatherland’s Xavier March to compensate for his lack of such courage.