V. S. Naipaul Essay - Naipaul, V(idiadhar) S(urajprasad) (Vol. 9)

Naipaul, V(idiadhar) S(urajprasad) (Vol. 9)

Naipaul, V(idiadhar) S(urajprasad) 1932–

A novelist, essayist, short story writer, and author of travel books, Naipaul was born in Trinidad of Indian parents and has resided in England since 1950. His early works drew praise for their clear prose style and delicate sense of humor. Critics have lauded his ability to capture with wit and compassion the West Indian dialect and life style. (See also CLC, Vols. 4, 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

[The] most arresting quality of Naipaul's sensibility [is] his acute sensitivity to sights, sounds and smells. When the object of his attention is the physical world, the result has been some superbly evocative descriptive writing. But when the object is the human body and its functions, the sensitivity tends to become a fastidiousness which at times, especially in connection with female sexuality, borders on revulsion and which contributes to the distinctive atmospheric tincture with which much of Naipaul's writing is suffused. This fastidiousness is responsible for some of his finest effects, for example the atmosphere of pervasive horror that is gradually built up in In a Free State. But it is also responsible for some of the most gratuitous, like the page-long description of a stranger's eating habits at the end of The Mimic Men. On balance, it is hard not to regard Naipaul's congenital fastidiousness, the Brahmin cast of his sensibility, as a mixed blessing for his fiction and as a more important creative determinant than he once thought his colonial background was.

Both Naipaul's sensibility and his experimentation with schemata are evident in Guerrillas…. The setting is an unnamed Caribbean island, for all practical purposes Trinidad, and the plot is obviously based on the career of Michael de Freitas, the Trinidadian black-power leader. One of the novel's most striking features is the willed exteriorization of the picture of Trinidad, the one place on earth Naipaul knows intimately from the inside. The island is seen almost entirely from the point of view of transient whites; representatives of its East Indian community, the macro-subject of Naipaul's first three novels, appear en passant in only one scene; and the novel's three principal foci—sex, race and a white, outside point of view—are the very elements which in 1958 Naipaul said that, for reasons of artistic integrity, he was not able to use in making his Trinidadian subject matter more appealing to the non-West-Indian reader. (Concerning the first of them Naipaul said that he lacked sufficiently wide experience, disarmingly adding that his friends would laugh and his mother be shocked.) (p. 75)

Naipaul is as pitiless concerning [the three central characters in Guerrillas] and their interrelationships as he is tireless in his notation of the sweat, dirt, heat, and ugliness that surround them. All are pathetically limited and inauthentic; each misunderstands and misinterprets the others and wrongly thinks he or she figures largely in the others' thoughts and fantasies. All mime the gestures of either revolution, humanitarian concern or romance with an awkwardness that ill conceals their inadequacies and essential hollowness. All are emotionally, spiritually and intellectually impoverished, burnt-out cases like the drought-stricken, sun-scorched landscapes and like the island itself, which seems to Jane (nothing in the novel gainsays her view) 'a place at the end of the world, a place that had exhausted its possibilities'. A fourth character, who at least aspires to authenticity and self-fulfillment, and whose views may to a degree be taken to have authorial sanction (though Naipaul is too scrupulous a writer to have a spokesman for himself within his novel), tells Jane and Roche that they will never change, that the life they have lived in the past is the life they will live in the future; the remark is as true of Jimmy as it is of the two other dead souls. (p. 76)

Resemblances between In a Free State and Guerrillas could be multiplied, for the central situations as well as the central characters are similar: heat, sweat, colonial relics, abandoned industrial estates, and ugly corrugated buildings are the background to the explosion of a volatile political situation which is obliquely glimpsed by the white couples who exist 'in a free state' of non-alignment but are nevertheless tested by events. In each work, the political upheaval follows the same pattern: racial strife among the principal non-white factions; demagogy, incidental persecution and exploitation of non-white minority groups; and evidence of American intervention. But while the subject matter is similar, the schemata are different. In a Free State has the resonant spareness, the single emotional key (the sustained sense of mounting fear and horror) and the parabolic dimension (too overtly hinted at in its opening sentence—the work's one false step) which are characteristic of the novella form and make not inapposite comparison with Conrad's Heart of Darkness…. Guerrillas, on the other hand, has affinities with those novels of Graham Greene in which deraciné white characters are placed in violent third-world settings. There are telling similarities in sensibility between Greene and Naipaul which have been insufficiently remarked by the latter's commentators: the exact understated prose with its dispassionate registration of the distasteful, sordid and ugly; self-exile and its attendant peregrinations; the preoccupation with failure—both individual failure and the failed cultures of the decaying parts of the world both writers seek out. In Guerrillas, generic similarities to novels like The Quiet American, The Comedians and The Honorary Consul underscore temperamental affinities.

Recognition of differences in schemata facilitates an understanding of why Guerrillas, for all the fine things in it, is a less successful fiction than In a Free State. In the first place, Naipaul has unsuccessfully attempted to get into his novel the parabolic drift and the cumulative force of his novella. The novel's title and its epigraph—Jimmy's statement that 'When everybody wants to fight there's nothing to fight for. Everybody wants to fight his own little war, everybody is a guerrilla'—indicate the intended parabolic dimension. But this is never more than notionally realised because while guerrilla activity is often talked about by non-participants it is insufficiently concretised. 'Guerrilla' remains a symbolic conception unrooted in the realistic surface of the novel. Similarly, while Naipaul tries very hard to have the landscapes of Guerrillas convey the heightened intensity of the landscapes of In a Free State, he is unable to do so successfully because the greater length of the novel form dissipates effects that can be concentrated in a shorter form.

While failing to adapt features characteristic of the novella, Naipaul has at the same time failed to utilise effectively the elbow-room that the larger form of Guerrillas affords. Extended inside views of all three central characters are offered, but only Jimmy's characterisation is thereby enhanced. Despite interior detail and background information Roche is no more complexly realised than Bobby [of In a Free State], and rather less well focused. And the characterisation of Jane, the most compelling and original figure in the novel, is actually weakened by the inside views and the background information. It is Jane's externals, her speech, gestures and actions, and what they are made to convey about her inner being, that make her so memorable and disturbing. And while a great many of the novel's pages are given over to talk about politics, violence and revolutionary activities, little is done to dramatise them. Even Jimmy, a political force and a committed revolutionary, is characterised almost entirely in sexual terms, and his bold attempt to bend a mob to his political will—a key turning point in the novel—takes place off stage and is summarised in a few sentences.

What might account for the imperfect success of Guerrillas? Part of the reason may lie in the novel's dependence on a single documentary source, the story of de Freitas. Another part may have to do with the choice of a genre requiring a strong story line, a certain amount of action and a sense of political and cultural place to explore an essentially static situation—the relations between Jimmy, Roche and Jane. One reviewer of Guerrillas suggested that Naipaul was too interested in the historical mood and not enough in the human motive; but the opposite is surely the case. A great deal of time is spent in the creation of a mood appropriate to the psychological exploration of the central characters, but only in a few places … is much attention paid to the creation of an historical mood. A third part of the reason may have to do with the pressure of Naipaul's growing obsession with sexuality…. (pp. 77-8)

It is hard to imagine a more unpleasant or a more negative ending [than this novel's]; yet when one looks back over the novel it is seen to be neither unprepared for nor inappropriate. For the dominant subjects of Guerrillas are the repellent unwholesomeness of Jane and Jimmy, and the weakness of Roche, to which the political and public dimensions of the novel are not made as quantitatively ancillary as they are qualitatively so. The three longer fictions Naipaul has published since 1967—The Mimic Men, In a Free State and Guerrillas—have all mixed sexual and political concerns. In The Mimic Men the sexual theme was recessive, the political and colonial themes dominant. In In a Free State the two concerns were given equal weight and held in a mutually vivifying tension; in Guerrillas, perhaps in spite of Naipaul's intention, revulsion with sexuality has become dominant. It remains to be seen what the next fictional product of this remarkable writer's increasingly exacerbated sensibilities will be, but one certainly does not expect a return to the 'comprehensive humanity' and piety of A House for Mr Biswas. (pp. 78-9)

Kerry McSweeney, "V.S. Naipaul: Sensibility and Schemata," in Critical Quarterly (© Manchester University Press), Autumn, 1976, pp. 73-9.

Written in a style reminiscent of early Graham Greene, littered with repetitive symbols of futility and despairing, discontinuous dialogue, Guerrillas is another of Naipaul's novels exploring the deeper significances of culture and order. Brought up in the expatriate high Hindi culture of Trinidad and fascinated by the island's chaotic Creole society, he has always had an acute sense of the relationship between cultural achievements and the power of history. If Hindi culture could not survive its uprooting to the Caribbean, the freedom of Creole society is illusory, consisting of fantasies and extravagant gestures, but producing nothing of lasting value. The ironies of the early novels result from compassionate awareness that those on the fringes of the empire can only struggle for momentary local recognition.

Naipaul's own expatriation to England taught him that the center no longer held. His subsequent novels and travel writings have been studies in the ambiguities of freedom that occur when there is no clearly defined system of power and of moral authority. If in London the newly independent nations appear to be at the center of action, in the Caribbean Jane [protagonist of Guerrillas] learns "that she had come to a place at the end of the world, to a place that had exhausted its possibilities." The withdrawal of the empire, rather than initiating a new era, is the start of chaos. The only clear values are the old imperial ones that remain under attack, as they were under colonialism, because history has left no other options. Without a culture there can be no order.

Naipaul has long been treated with suspicion in the third world, where his meditations on culture, order, and history are felt as subversive. It is possible that when Naipaul's work is better understood in metropolitan centers, it will also be treated with circumspection, since it radically questions our modern assumptions about the dignity of freedom and the autonomy of the self. To understand Naipaul's vision as essentially conservative would, however, be as incorrect as claiming Conrad was a reactionary. The often noted similarity between the two writers is that they have understood the nugatory achievements and moral anarchy that are common to those on the fringe of a stable civilization. (pp. 129-30)

Bruce King, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor, © 1977 by The University of the South), Winter, 1977.

[Naipaul uses the English language] with singular purity and some disdain, as if the words on the page are more cryptic in their plainness than the reader knows. Reading him, I feel that the words are reduced from some intensely anxious communion with himself. But they get into his books as the subtly disturbing tattoo that a good plain style can work on the reader. He hates "showy, complex" words.

No other novelist in English of Naipaul's range, virtuosity, flair—there are not many—could say, as he does in "A Wounded Civilization": "The novel … is a form of social inquiry." His novels are about the struggle for existence in a world still colonial in feeling despite the breakup of the old Western empires. His style will hardly remind you of Dickens's prose operatics or Balzac's impasto. But the indignation just under the surface takes you back to so many great 19th-century "novelists of society" that I was not surprised to hear him say that reading Balzac was as delicious as eating chocolates. By contrast, the "hippies" he has seen travestying Indian religious practices are suffering "intellectual anorexia."

Naipaul's own fiction is as unmistakably on the side of the victims as it is contemptuous of Western pilgrims seeking to "complete themselves." As a documentary reporter he reminds me more of Dickens on American manners and Chekhov on Sakhalin Island's prison colony than of Norman Mailer on the steps of the Pentagon. He is totally without ideology. He is not sentimental, as anyone can see from "Guerrillas," about the new "rebel" movements in the Caribbean. But the old-fashioned passion against exploitation can be felt in "The Loss of El Dorado," Naipaul's history of the Spanish and English imperialist "adventure" around his birthplace in the Caribbean. And since he is just as confident a loner as Nabokov, is as historically pent-up as Solzhenitsyn, as funny/sad as Beckett, I mind as much as he does the fact that he is not better known, that he is always asked to tell his own story over again as some lesser writers are not.

It must be admitted that no other novelist is quite so embedded in old history—British imperialism—and at the same time is so sharp an observer of what in "A Wounded Civilization" he calls "the shattering world." History as irony without solution, history without obvious redemption, history as a mass "shattering" of traditions all help to explain Naipaul's powerful quietness as a writer. He is the novelist as thinker. The tragic sense that permeates his books can be felt in him even when he is most casual and "English."

Camus said that "we are all special cases." But I cannot think of another novelist in English today whose "specialness" brings home the old political world that broke up after 1945. There is a quality of historical compression to Naipaul's style, his books give off a suggestion of his being cornered, that I ascribe to political fate. He and his characters are still living the old storybook of British imperialism.

The sense of displacement has given Naipaul an ominous sense of place…. History is more real to him than political "attitudes." History judges victims as cruelly as oppressors. "A Wounded Civilization" is an often mordant criticism (as is Naipaul's best novel about Trinidad, "A House for Mr. Biswas") of Indian moral smugness, which for some reason permits tremendous violence and even social contempt to the point of genocide. (p. 7)

What we have in Naipaul's writing is something essentially different from the self-conscious "psychological man" who dominates current American fiction and, so far as I can see, occupies much of its wisdom. Naipaul has little interest in North America because it does not figure in his historical experience. The novel as "a form of social inquiry" is something he has lived as well as written. So my deepest sense of him is that he recognizes himself as a historical effect and that he has used this in his writing with something like the British power that once awed poor Indians in Trinidad. (p. 20)

Naipaul's great subject is the old imperialism, the leftovers that make up his world. The past is never dead, said Faulkner; it is not even past. History has many cunning passages. V. S. Naipaul is one of those passages….

He is the most compelling master of social truth that I know of in the contemporary novel. But it is clear today, as it was not to Dickens, Balzac, all those lost realists, that you shall know the truth and it shall not make you free. (p. 22)

Alfred Kazin, "V. S. Naipaul, Novelist as Thinker," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 1, 1977, pp. 7, 20, 22.