Shiva Naipaul 1945–
Trinidadian novelist and nonfiction writer.
Naipaul once described his life as "defined by three poles that don't meet." A Hindu of Indian descent, he was born and raised in the West Indies island nation of Trinidad and settled in England at the age of nineteen. The central concerns of his works are the social and political conditions in Third World countries. Naipaul portrays "a world where feeling has gone dead from despair and helplessness," according to Peter Levi. Problems of individual and cultural identity are recurrent themes in Naipaul's novels. Critics note many similarities between Shiva Naipaul's thematic concerns and attitudes and those of his brother, the novelist V. S. Naipaul.
Naipaul's first two novels, Fireflies (1970) and The Chip-Chip Gatherers (1973), are family sagas set in Trinidad, and each explores a society in transition. The old order is represented in Fireflies by the declining Khoja dynasty, while the new is represented in The Chip-Chip Gatherers by the Ramsarans, a poor family trying to break into the middle class. Naipaul ironically presents the failings of both elements of society, especially in the latter novel.
After the publication of The Chip-Chip Gatherers, Naipaul took a ten-year break from writing fiction, during which he traveled and wrote two nonfiction books. North of South (1978) is a combination travelogue and political essay focusing on race relations in Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia. Black and White (1980), an interpretive study of the mass suicide of members of the Reverend Jim Jones's People's Temple in Guyana in 1978, explores the social and political conditions which promoted the tragic event.
Naipaul said in an interview that he regards his fiction and nonfiction as one body of work because his nonfiction research has yielded experiences and information that he has developed in his novels. His recent novel, A Hot Country (1983), is evidence of this, for it is set in the fictional, politically volatile country of Cuyama, a thinly disguised version of Guyana.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 110, 112.)
[Fireflies] is a masterpiece. It's a long book … and a reviewer's first inclination, when confronted with a long book, is to see what he can safely skip. It must say something for Mr Naipaul's power that despite a firm determination to skip whole pages and even whole chapters at a time, I was unable to miss a page of his absorbing, inconsequential narrative.The story … centres around the disintegration of one family in Trinidad's upper-class Indian community. As subjects go, this might not seem to be one which automatically commands a wide readership. Those who approach novel-reading as a vehicle for self-improvement might be prepared to accept some (passionately) involved, committed, compassionate, etc. treatise on the problems of Trinidad's Indians, or even a biting satire on Trinidad's upper class, but a poignant, uncommitted account of what it is to be a conservative, upper-class Trini-dadian Hindu in our present deplorable age is more than most people are prepared to take even in World Conservation Year. I can only report that the book is a delight and a miracle of enjoyment….
Mr Naipaul's own attitude to the society he describes is ambivalent. He satirises its absurdities with conventional rigour but he is also keenly alive to the tragedy of its destruction, and it is this quality which makes his book so exceptional. For an English reader, and most especially, perhaps, for an English conservative, the poignancy is...
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[Shiva Naipaul] writes with the ironist's detachment, expertly and unobtrusively observing those details that mark his characters' idiosyncrasies, tracing through them the warp and woof of a social fabric that becomes increasingly frayed….
The world Naipaul paints [in Fireflies is] … drab, ugly, sad. But throughout the work he allows, almost absentmindedly and despite himself, gleams of humor, beauty, and spirit to shine through. We remember these, along with the vivid realizations of the violent and grotesque.
There are occasional clichés of language and implausibilities of character in Fireflies. These, however, are minor flaws. What bothers me more is a quality of style that—in common with Mrs. Lutchman's personality—is stable, thorough, emotionally limited. Not that it's boring: the details of dialogue and description are consistently sharp and well selected. But for a panoramic human comedy it seems to me to lack lightness. The pall of doom and decay hangs over nearly everything. Although Mr. and Mrs. Khoja are comic figures, behind his muddling and pomposity, behind her fussiness, the heavily stupid and grimly neurotic lurk so close that we seldom can laugh freely. Mrs. Lutchman is the only character who demonstrates a sense of humor, and she very rarely. The closest the others come is a sort of bitter sarcasm.
Readers who are primarily concerned with current experiments...
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The reader of Fireflies, a novel as alive with a keen (and more compassionate) awareness of the pathos and absurdity of Trinidad Indian life as V. S. Naipaul's early works, may doubt the sincerity of Shiva Naipaul's disillusion with his subject matter. Yet it is an amorphous society he depicts, fundamentally materialistic, bogus on its spiritual side, as unpromising to the sensitive artist as the English society of Dickens' time; but it falls short of that society, in Mr Naipaul's presentation, in lacking centres of moral growth. No such centre is provided by the Hindu Khoja family which, weakly propped by tradition, is shown crumbling in an insecure atmosphere of selfishness and opportunism. The jungle laws of competition regulate everyone's actions. Everyone's, that is, except Mr Naipaul's triumphant creation, the simple and simple-minded Mrs Lutchman…. [She] endures in the midst of decay, salvaging what she can in the name of a stability which is its own justification…. To have concentrated for over 400 pages upon so barren a life without forfeiting interest and sympathy is, especially when seen against the love agonies of our customary novelistic diet, a uniquely admirable achievement. It is sustained in a Wellsian manner in Part I by scenes of bitter-sweet comedy centring upon Ram's confrontations with photography, gardening and his Morris Minor, and throughout by dramatic set pieces involving the "clan", such as the Khoja...
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It would be polite but ridiculous to talk about Shiva Naipaul as if he had leapt, full-armed and sui generis, into a literary world miraculously swept of all footprints of his famous brother V. S…. The relationship between the two is fraternal in much the same sense as that between Chekhov and Gorky. Like Chekhov, the elder Naipaul works from a fastidious, ironic private sensibility to humane public conclusions: because people behave badly, the world needs changing. The younger, more sweeping and less fastidious, starts where his brother ends: because the world needs changing, people behave badly. Bred within the old imperial culture, V. S. Naipaul sees its failure as one of individual wills, brains, imaginations. For his brother, born in 1945, it is the culture that blights the brains and wills. Like Gorky, he's fascinated by the perverse energies of primitive capitalism, the ferocious battling for a better life which, re-channelled, could transform society. In its raw appetite, depressing to his brother, he finds back-handed hope. For its casualties, pitiful and exasperating to the elder Naipaul in their self-delusion, he has only pity.
An image for their striving gives [The Chip-Chip Gatherers] its title. Chip-Chip are tiny shellfish which bed themselves just below the tide-line of Trinidad's Atlantic beaches…. Only in an utterly impoverished society, Naipaul implies, could they be a delicacy.
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In The Pleasures of Exile George Lamming scolded V. S. Naipaul, as he no doubt would his younger brother Shiva, for taking too soft a line on Trinidadian social conditions, for being smug when he ought to be angry, for writing 'castrated satire'…. What the Naipauls write is irony, not satire, and irony is by definition non-militant…. Caribbean social conditions have for them, qua novelists, an imaginative significance only.
It is true that a primitive society offers a Hobson's choice of styles to its authors: tantrumese, noble-savagery, or a combination of irony and pathos. But like all limitations this brings special liberties. Irony and pathos are essentially downward-looking viewpoints, so a society of grotesques, fools, snobs, show-offs, martinets and ingenues who think and talk in illiterate clichés has obvious perks for a writer with as delicate a touch as Shiva Naipaul…. Although Mr Naipaul must, so to speak, keep his distance, this doesn't cut off sympathy but creates an undertow of restrained emotion…. The compassion is there in the sheer quality of the writing and never has to become explicit….
[The Chip-Chip Gatherers, like Fireflies], is predominantly concerned with one question about Trinidadian life: what happens when a backward people starts to educate itself? The most imaginatively appealing answer is that the old 'atavistic' instincts are not transcended, merely...
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In 1976 Shiva Naipaul spent 20 weeks in Kenya and Tanzania, concluding with a brief dash down the Great North Road to Zambia in the company of a party of trekking hippies. He does not seem to have been well prepared for his journey nor to have met anyone of much consequence while he was there. The story [told in North of South] is mostly one of chance conversations in aeroplanes, buses, taxis, customs posts and, above all, hotel bars. All this is told with a great deal of novelist's sparkle, a power of vivid description and of characterisation through reported dialogue, which will not endear Mr Naipaul to his many acquaintances when his book comes into their hands….
On the whole, Mr Naipaul's book is more informative about touts and tourists, pimps and prostitutes, than about the national and international politics of the East African countries. He makes it quite clear that he has no admiration for Uhuru, whether capitalist-style in Kenya or socialist-style in Tanzania, but the evidence for both is disappointingly thin. So far as Tanzania is concerned, one must be a little sympathetic about the real difficulties placed in the way of would-be observers and the extreme reluctance of ordinary people to hold any converse with strangers….
Kenya, however, is another matter. There is freedom of travel. There is, as Mr. Naipaul's stories show, considerable freedom of speech. He could, and should, have looked...
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"The African soul is a blank slate on which anything can be written, onto which any fantasy can be transposed," writes Shiva Naipaul halfway through his narrative of travels in East Africa. The quotation is out of context…. But the dictum—of Africa as a repository for the foreigner's fantasies—goes a long way toward explaining the peculiar deficiencies of his own book.
"North of South," which recounts Mr. Naipaul's peregrinations through Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia, is in the genre of travelogue cum essay. When the form succeeds, as it does, say, with a writer such as Paul Theroux, it is an effective device for larger statement. The voyager's day-to-day experiences are transformed into insights, theories, and finally, complete systems for generalization. When it fails or only partially succeeds, it degenerates into a string of observations, some interesting, some not so interesting, but on the whole leading nowhere.
The book is a collection of hapless encounters—with rapacious immigration officials, reckless taxi drivers, street hustlers, ideological robots and racist expatriates—strung together by the author's sardonic, often bilious observations. It is built on vignettes and cameo portraits….
These people undoubtedly do exist—we have to take Mr. Naipaul's word on that—but as representative types they are hardly the defining personalities in Africa today. One wonders how he...
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An account of a journey through Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia, North of South is a remarkably bad-tempered book. Africa annoyed Shiva Naipaul…. Shiva Naipaul is a West Indian novelist now living in London; he has no warrant in Africa. He is on a moral holiday there. Testy as it is, North of South is a first-rate book—spirited, funny, written with economy and care—but it is not a great book like India: A Wounded Civilization, because Shiva Naipaul is not implicated in what he indicts. He went to Africa seeking precisely what he found: he includes a letter to his publisher which sketches out his ideological itinerary. So there is little in Africa that can shock him; and, though much angers him, nothing there can hurt him.
Nothing, that is, except the way black Africans feel toward people like himself, toward "Asians." (p. 38)
It is a paradox, a mystery, this popularity of the whites, this hatred of the inoffensive Asians, and, underneath his urbane bafflement, it makes Shiva Naipaul furious with the Africans. "Transitional states," he writes, "are full of pain, riddled with illusion." There is much pain in what he describes, but he shows very little sympathy for it; his forte is exposing the illusion. Here is his farewell to Africa: "… Nothing but lies." "Nothing but"—it is the language of obsession, not that of observation. Africa is unproblematic to Naipaul. He needn't have gone there at...
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Peter L. Berger
Not only have there been many accounts of the macabre events [of the Jonestown Massacre] but the question of interpretation has continued to intrigue many commentators…. [With] so much data already on hand, it seems unlikely that any startling new facts will be uncovered and the question of interpretation becomes more pressing. ["Journey to Nowhere: A New World Tragedy"] stands out by its resolute attack on this question and its refusal to accept easy answers. Mr. Naipaul … is a sharp, sometimes pitiless observer. He is a masterful writer. And he was determined to gain an independent understanding of the Jonestown phenomenon. These qualities make for a book that no one interested in the matter can afford to ignore.
Mr. Naipaul's quest for an explanation took him both to California and to Guyana, to the beginning and end points of the movement, and "Journey to Nowhere" is an account of these travels as much as an interpretation of Jonestown. Travelogue and commentary keep on intersecting, but given the evidence of a fine mind working to understand a complex and shocking subject, one tends to get as interested in Mr. Naipaul as in what he is writing about so well. Whether one finds the constant intrusion of the author into so terrible a story a flaw or a benefit is a matter of taste; be this as it may, in Mr. Naipaul's case, the continual presence of the inquiring author makes the book lively and readable.
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[Shiva Naipaul's] novels have dealt with a world where feeling has gone dead from despair and helplessness. He draws with the utmost precision a picture of the backwoods of Trinidad, and a people obsessed with the earnest, lifelong struggle to climb into the lower middle class. (p. 25)
Fireflies was a heavily documentary family saga, rather flatly constructed, but at the same time it was an utterly original book; the impression its abundant detail made was unforgettable. If Shiva Naipaul seemed never quite to get inside his characters, that is because he thought there was straw inside them. They were without some indefinable essential part of man. He wrote like a sociologist, unstylishly, at great length and with academic coldness. Still, for whatever reasons, Fireflies was a runaway success. It was certainly a most promising first book although it reads now as if it were written with suppressed passion by a writer who was a quarter poet, forcing himself into social science, hardly by a novelist at all.
By the end of The Chip-Chip Gatherers, that reservation dissolves. He still specialises in characters whose feelings have gone dead. Liberation, if it ever arrives, comes too late to matter…. But the novelist's ear for dialogue, and the fluent, truthful movement of one scene into another, which differs from family saga as history does from chronicle, and the brilliant spare delineation of certain...
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In its implacable depiction of one of those anterooms to hell that liberated Third World countries seem doomed to become, [A Hot Country] is impressive; but it has an odd air of being no more than the first draft of another novel, far fuller of incidents and characters. Just as the flood of the colonisers' dreams of untold wealth soon dwindled to a trickle and was then lost in sand, so the flood of the narrative, so confident at first, also thins away. The last two pages are superb in their evocation of a world of void, darkness and unspecified hunger, in which people, robbed of their souls by their former conquerors and exploiters, now have only one genuine desire left to them: 'To wreak vengeance. To tear down. To burn. To loot. To insult. To kill.' But it is impossible not to feel disappointment with a writer capable of such passionate eloquence and yet lacking the stamina to create the epic that his book seems constantly to adumbrate.
Francis King, "Potent," in The Spectator, Vol. 251, No. 8099, October 1, 1983, p. 22.
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[Love and Death in a Hot Country], Naipaul's subtly crafted account of abandonment and degeneration in a thinly-veiled version of Guyana, focuses on two casualties of the new redemptive order, Dina and Aubrey St. Pierre, whose marriage is suffering its own parallel decline. Disgusted by the lavish promises of the electoral masquerade, the St. Pierres inhabit a political and psychological void between the vanishing past and the balloting's foregone conclusion. In divergent ways, their lives assume a frustration and incompleteness that obliquely but unmistakably reflects Cuyama's apparently hopeless course. (p. 20)
Naipaul's portrait of a nation coming apart before having a chance to take political or cultural shape is neither explosive or overtly dramatic. His is a vision of gradual decomposition, tautly revealed in personal histories, the rhythms of daily life and details of the landscape….
Love and Death in a Hot Country draws much of its inspiration from the author's nightmarish trip to Guyana several years ago, recorded in Journey to Nowhere (1980), an extended report on the Jonestown massacre. Some revolutionary terminology and bits of conversation reappear exactly as they did in the earlier volume. Perhaps because Naipaul is dealing here with characters he created, though, the novel exhibits a tone of genuine sympathy for those condemned, through no fault of their own, to endure the whims...
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