“The novel is my main delight,” V. S. Naipaul has asserted, although in a brief prefatory note to “The Return of Eva Perón” with “The Killings in Trinidad” (1980) he admits that when a novel fails to emerge, he travels and turns to nonfiction. In India: A Wounded Civilization, Naipaul calls the novel a form of social inquiry, and in An Area of Darkness he insists that it must respond to the here-and-now conditions of humanity. He equates the novel in its finest form to truth. Such comments shed light on his artistry.
Growing up in the multiracial, multireligious society of Trinidad, with migrants from four continents, Naipaul was a part of a joint Hindu family: rigid, clannish, suffocating. An alien amid aliens, he observed that the various migrant groups, including his own, failed to maintain their own identities because they were uncertain about what truly constituted those identities and either remained ignorant of their cultural backgrounds or conjured up romantic fantasies about the past. When their ethnic identities eluded them, they often rejected their pasts and aped their colonial masters, acquiring in the process a hodgepodge of pseudo-Westernization. Ganesh Ramsumair in The Mystic Masseur is a classic example; East Indian by tradition, Trinidadian by birth, he champions Hinduism, but when that fails, he swings to the other extreme, changing his name to G. Ramsay Muir, Esq., M.B.E., and completely rejecting his past, in particular by cruelly rejecting an admiring student from back home. Over the course of the novel, he transforms himself from masseur to mystic to pamphleteer to politician and statesman, trapping himself in roles whose expectations box him in.
Like the characters in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988), Naipaul’s characters pursue pseudo-Westernization, a pursuit itself symptomatic of their rootlessness. This theme of displacement and its consequences, comically absurd at first, later tragic, dominates Naipaul’s works. Having desperately sought to escape Trinidad as a youth, Naipaul felt stifled and alone in London, a stranger in search of tradition, feeling the burden of his double displacement from India and Trinidad. In order to find a resting place for his imagination, Naipaul undertook a voyage of self-discovery to India, journeying to the very village from which his ancestors had migrated to Trinidad, but instead of clarifying the past, the trip left him even more alienated from his heritage, his life broken. On his return to England, to confront his own empty sense of dark negation, Naipaul unflinchingly distilled these life experiences into his novels. Like Albert Camus, Naipaul is quintessentially the voice of exile and alienation.
Naipaul’s three early novels of his apprentice years, The Mystic Masseur, The Suffrage of Elvira, and Miguel Street, are comedies of Trinidadian manners, dependent on satire and irony to portray eccentric citizens of Trinidad: Ganesh Ramsumair, “the great belcher,” who rises “from laughing-stock to success” with his political poster “A vote for Ganesh is a vote for God,” in The Mystic Masseur; Surujpat “Pat” Harbans, in The Suffrage of Elvira, with its political theme (a contested election) and setting in Elvira, “the smallest, most isolated and most neglected of the nine counties of Trinidad”; and the colorful, loosely picaresque Caribbean characters in Miguel Street (such as Titus Hoyt, who teaches “Latin,” a language he invents). Such satire is Dickensian in detail and grotesquery.
A serious thinker, Naipaul began as a social satirist, examining the rootless, homeless, nomadic migrant world, but transformed his novels into social inquiries, probing the ethos of the half societies in which the members of his gallery of misfits and nomadic exiles (the debris of wounded civilizations) drift. His Trinidad, India, French Africa, and Latin America are not romantic lands of primitive innocence but rather harsh and inhospitable, barbaric and cruel, the very opposite of the fantasy images found in slick travel brochures. Naipaul uncompromisingly portrays life in the developing world.
A House for Mr. Biswas
A House for Mr. Biswas is Naipaul’s first serious work, the book in which he claims to have discovered “the trick of writing.” Dickensian in approach, it meticulously and leisurely chronicles one man’s lifetime obsession with establishing his identity: Mohun Biswas’s desire to own a house in order to give himself a physical and spiritual home. Herein, his comic tone muted, Naipaul moves from the regional character portraits of his early novels to a universal theme.
The reader follows Biswas’s point of view: his trials and tribulations within the Tulsi family and his attempts to be a writer. Despite Naipaul’s protest that the work is not autobiographical, he modeled Biswas on his father, Seepersad Naipaul, and the love between Biswas and his son at the heart of the novel echoes the affection Naipaul and his father shared. Biswas, however, for all his yearning, is doomed to an ordinary life, limited by family realities and colonial models. He dies owning his desired house, but that house is not a home.
Naipaul’snarrative style parallels the story line: lyrical when describing the environment, short and crisp when expressing Biswas’s frustrations and disappointments. Social and personal history, comedy, and tragedy all blend in the novel, making it “indistinguishable from truth.”
Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion
Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion, with its allegorical elements, has a completely English setting. Naipaul’s character Mr. Stone echoes the rootlessness, emptiness, and identity crisis the former colonial faces upon returning to England. His immediate environment seems hostile, and his colonial memories are secondhand. The novel explores the three years before Stone’s mandatory retirement at age sixty-five, as he faces insecurity and apprehension about the approaching “experience of nothingness, an experience of death.” The novel focuses on Stone’s attempt to avoid this emptiness by establishing a commune for old men (hence the idea of the Knights Companion). Seeking to give old men like himself something to do, he perfects the idea by writing about it, and the act of writing gives him deep satisfaction. Passages describing Stone wrestling with the challenge of writing with full concentration are some of the most forceful in the novel.
Bill Whymper, a colleague of Stone who has a knack for “licking things into shape,” takes away from Stone the project on which he has worked so devotedly. Insensitive to the human concern for old age that motivated Stone’s proposal, Whymper turns Stone’s idea into a slick public relations project, thereby leaving Stone heartbroken and enraged and yet, alienated, unable to share his frustration with anyone. Gradually, Stone calms down and stoically takes consolation from having survived.
The Mimic Men
The Mimic Men, a fictional autobiography and Naipaul’s darkest novel, tells the story of Ranjit “Ralph” Kirpal Singh, a forty-year-old West Indies Indian, who expresses an unrelieved sense of emptiness even more intensely than does Mr. Stone. One of Naipaul’s most complex novels, The Mimic Men follows no real chronological sequence. Closeted in an old hotel in London, Kirpal Singh writes the story of his life, attempting to order the four periods of his life as “student, householder, man of affairs [a London dandy, a maneuverer, an organizer], recluse.” His remembrance of events is episodic and constantly shifting, depending on the intensity of his feelings. He alternates between fantasy and reality as he moves from India to London and back to Isabella, the West Indian island where he grew up. Like Naipaul, Kirpal Singh is drawn to London. There, his marriage to Sandra, an English girl, fails, so he returns to Isabella, where he succeeds in real estate and runs for political office. He perceives these actions as “roles” that he plays, imitating others. He has become one of the mimic men. They are absurd; he is absurd and, he concludes, “shipwrecked.” He wants to escape “to a place unknown, among people whose lives and even language” he need never enter. The best he can do is escape to an old hotel.
Kirpal Singh is the Naipaul man: educated, sophisticated, complex, forever conscious of his physical and spiritual rootlessness. He echoes Naipaul’s own belief that one cannot return to an ordered harmony or hope for magical moments of tranquillity. One must accept what one has, since the pursuit of illusions is the absurd role of mimic men.
In a Free State
Purposefully nontraditional in form, In a Free State, which contains a short novel—a series of interconnected stories—and two fragments of a travel diary, marks an important stage in Naipaul’s career. After its publication, Naipaul described the novel as a “final statement” of themes he had already exhausted.
Set in postindependence Africa, In a Free State depicts five different kinds of wandering, represented by a group of international characters, all in middle passage—in a free state. They are not truly free, however, in that they do not belong in the countries they are in and are unable to belong in the countries from which they come. The title suggests the aimless drift of contemporary aliens. The varied characters include an Indian in the United States (“one out of many”), a displaced Indian from the West Indies (“tell me who to kill”), a West Indian in London, and an Englishman and Englishwoman in Africa (“in a free state”).
The work’s prologue (“The Tramp at Piraeus”) and the epilogue (“The Circus at Luxor”) make an important statement about Naipaul himself. In the prologue, Naipaul only watches a fat Egyptian student harass a tramp, but in the epilogue, when an Arab boy whips a group of Arab beggar boys for a group of Italians to photograph, Naipaul puts a stop to it. His action demonstrates the quality missing in his characters in In a Free State; they have surrendered without protest. The writer, however, must protest against injustice, violence, and anarchy and remind the world of its responsibility to humanity.
Like In a Free State and A Bend in the River, Naipaul’s 1975 Booker Prize-winning novel...
(The entire section is 4360 words.)