Among the Believers Essay - Critical Context

V. S. Naipaul

Critical Context

Naipaul’s alienation from the subject matter of his novels—his purposefully distanced, detached, skeptical vision of the world, which does indeed recall Conrad—adds to his strength and to his distinctiveness as a novelist. Once he leaves the world of the pure imagination, however, once he takes on the persona of traveler, observer, and literary journalist, that same state of mind can prove highly destructive, narrowing his perceptions to a kind of tunnel vision of disapproval which all too easily becomes ungenerous and malicious. It is surely for this reason that Third World readers and reviewers, thinking of him as one of themselves, have felt deeply wounded by what they perceive to be a barbed and acerbic tongue which seems to speak of non-European societies with all the dismissive contempt of their former colonial masters. This is particularly true of his two books on India, the product of two separate visits to his ancestral homeland, which are full of distaste and hostility: An Area of Darkness (with its title resonant of Conrad), and India: A Wounded Civilization (1977). No dyed-in-the-wool imperialist at the height of the Raj can have written more savagely and dismissively of the Hindu tradition.

In India, Naipaul finds an ancient civilization which, in its contemporary manifestations, he judges to be in a condition of near putrefaction; in Africa, he sees primitive savagery. In Among the Believers, he is confronted by an aggressive cultural tradition, Islam, to which his temperament is antipathetic, and a religiously inspired sociopolitical phenomenon—so-called Islamic fundamentalism—which he finds utterly repugnant. The result is not entirely happy, and Among the Believers must be reckoned among the less successful of Naipaul’s several reflections on the Third World.