Naipaul, V(idiadhar) S(urajprasad) (Vol. 18)
Naipaul, V(idiadhar) S(urajprasad) 1932–
Naipaul is a highly regarded novelist, essayist, and short story writer. A self-styled stateless traveler born in Trinidad of Indian parents and educated in England, he writes fine nonfiction books on travel and deals in his fiction with themes of alienation, self-exile, and rootlessness. (See also CLC, Vols. 4, 7, 9, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Charles R. Larson
In V. S. Naipaul's recent novels, there has been an increasing sense of displacement, abandonment, and denial of hope, although to a certain extent these themes have been present since his earliest work.
Rootless, yet overpowered by the need to discover their own special niches in the universe, Naipaul's recent protagonists have wandered through alien geographies—foreign states on the verge of collapse, in no way capable of offering a sense of comfort or solace to these weary individuals….
In Naipaul's newest novel, A Bend in the River, the pattern is much the same, though, if anything, purified even further, reduced almost to the archetypal level….
The story gives the impression of déjà vu; we have read it all before in hundreds of other novels, yet there is a convincingness to Naipaul's version that has often been lacking in the works of lesser writers and in some of Naipaul's earlier works. The British expatriates who populated In a Free State were a particularly sorry lot—difficult to feel concerned about. Even in Guerrillas, which is certainly one of Naipaul's finest novels, violence always precluded (for me, at least) the possibility of any emotional identification with the main characters. However, in A Bend in the River, the narrative voice (Salim's) rings disturbingly true—and this is because, as he did in his early works, Naipaul has chosen as his...
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Africa has become remote again, a mystery to be explained—at which point enter V. S. Naipaul with a book of wonderful authority and wisdom [A Bend in the River]. (p. 791)
In the sense that the narrative is conceived essentially as a political pageant in which a parvenu attempts to impose order on chaos, or rather a new chaos on the old. Naipaul's book might be said to be deficient in the conventional tensions of fiction. The interrelationships of the characters are nebulous, their development speculative; most of them are archetypes rather than individuals….
But the most ambivalent characters of all are the narrator, Salim, an Indian merchant; his inherited servant, Metty, and his old friend, Indar. They are Africans and yet not Africans; circumstances have pushed them inland from the rim of the continent, and they cling to their distinctive identity…. All of them move along among the locals conscious of the fact that they are neither assimilated nor have any real wish to be…. When Africa explodes, these people tell themselves and one another, they will be safe; this is not their struggle, and they will be somewhere else.
But where is somewhere else? In the last reckoning A Bend in the River is about homelessness. (p. 792)
The colossal experiment of the British Empire has left vast migrant populations; entire cultures are on the move, physically displaced,...
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In Naipaul's novels we trace the fortunes of the imaginative dreamer, the 'trickster' or fantasist of bookish disposition whose dreams eventually find outlets and leave some small imprint on the world. Such a character is happiest in the rare moments of pure creativity, of the uncomplicated fulfilment of the literary urge. But these manifestations of the literary spirit are paradoxical since, though in the author's eyes they represent a fulfilment, his characters experience them as intense desire. The result of pursuing this desire is, as often as not, a travestying of the original impulse; and this is portrayed by Naipaul in tones which range from the lightest and gayest of ironies to the deepest sense of outrage and disgust. If he shows literacy as civilised man's most powerful instrument of self-assertion, it is at the price of revealing its subjection to all the defeats, distortions and violations imposed on the self by the modern world. (p. 6)
Naipaul's first published novel, The Mystic Masseur (1957), is a comedy of literary and cultural confusion which may be compared with the early Evelyn Waugh (as the author himself has suggested) or, alternatively, with H. G. Wells's The History of Mr Polly. Ganesh Ransumair, the first of a line of literary fantasists, is the traditional pundit or holy man transported to Trinidad, where he becomes masseur, witch-doctor and owner of four hundred volumes of Everyman's Library and...
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Exile as the major condition of life is a central theme in Naipaul's A Bend in the River. (p. 100)
Naipaul implies [in the novel] that there is a conflict between change and stasis which is always in equilibrium, so that nothing can progress and nothing can stay still. In the image of the water hyacinths which clog the river, so newly arrived from nowhere that they have no name, Naipaul suggests that state of restless fixation as peculiarly African, as totally beyond human control.
The novel is circular in its movement, almost musical in its arrangement. Not only themes, but phrases repeat and expand in the course of its development. The Latin motto recurs, growing in irony. "The world is what it is," which opens the book, reappears throughout it while the world which is, changes. And the repeated journey out of the jungle becomes, sooner or later, again and again, the journey back into the jungle, along the same path, as the man led out, into slavery and exile, returns, with slavery and exile already implicit in his spirit.
The novel suggests that the journey from place to place is part of a longer journey, through life, through history, into larger and larger spirals of exile and loss…. In A Bend in the River Antaeus's plight has become a universal one; a separation from the strength-giving motherland. Even the universe suffers from diffusion; the narrator amuses himself by reading...
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Reading V. S. Naipaul's new novel A Bend In The River, one is easily reminded of Heart Of Darkness. Resemblances quickly declare themselves…. Conrad's novel is of a time of European ascendancy. Naipaul's book succeeds Conrad's and like it may come to be seen in time as one of the very best things written about Africa. The difference is that A Bend In The River is the story of European, Arab and Asian eclipse…. [Nothing] is pre-ordained in A Bend In The River. True, men are at the mercy of events, the smart men of the town, the soldiers and politicians as much as the poor Africans who scrape a living, or as often do not, from forest and river…. The novel assesses three things: firstly the insecurity Salim feels about his identity as an 'African' Asian and his curious relationship with 'true' Africa, coming as he does from what he describes as 'an Arab-Indian-Persian-Portuguese place', and his growing realization that unlike the Arabs and Europeans who still have their power base, their money and technology, Asians 'had ceased to count in Africa'; secondly there is Salim's ironic understanding of the vanity of foreign settlements; thirdly there is the predicament of the Africans under their dictator, the 'Big Man', like a distant Caesar in his capital (the Roman references are numerous), his image everywhere, ruling by guile, division, diversion, his motto Discipline Avant Tout—'what a complicated lie those words...
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[V. S. Naipaul's essays in] "The Return of Eva Perón"] "meditate" on what he and Joseph Conrad would agree are "half-made societies," composed of those who are "prisoners of their cultures," trapped in "lunacy, despair."… [Naipaul] proves himself to be, incidentally, the best journalist of imperialism to have bothered to write in the English language. He is a kind of portable tree, who removed himself in order to invite lightning; by that brightness, he took notes on his own scars.
The "half-made" society, emotionally, is "parasitic"; it dreams of a "removed civilization," Europe. It apes the master even as it cuts the master's throat. A half-made society, historically, institutionalizes "a process of forgetting"; it substitutes legend and myth for fact and consequences. It consumes "the culture and technology of others." A half-made society sponsors "bad art" in "a country that hasn't really worked" because the redeemers who propose themselves are smuggled fakes; they believe their own publicity, as if they were Michael X or Eva Perón or Mobuto. According to Mr. Naipaul, there is no history in a half-made society, nor any archives: "there are only graffiti and polemics and school lessons."
Michael and Eva and Mobuto are graffiti. Their writing appears on the long walls. (p. 199)
Mr. Naipaul is telling us that our unseemly congress with dark continents, silent Indians, empty spaces and jungle rot...
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As enlightened people we are supposed to believe that all cultures are equidistant from eternity, that none is perfect, that each should be judged by standards that are immanent in the culture itself since no one, now, believes in universal standards. They are values, and values are culture-bound. Applied to an alien culture, they become forms of vanity. But this kind of moral inflation is hardly a danger for us. The danger for us is of a sort of inverse imperialism: the suppressing of our values out of cultural guilt and in the name of cultural relativity….
There is, I think, an element of self-deceit in this attitude. Painfully conscious of the despised roots of his own values in Christianity, capitalism, and industry, the liberal mutes his anger at the inequality, the despotism, and the climate of cruelty in many of the poor countries. He has a doctrine that they are the victims of Western imperialism, of Western finance, and he is afraid of blaming the victim. It is an understandable reaction, and if I have spoken of it too glibly, it was to mask how much I share it. And because I share it, V. S. Naipaul is for me an indispensable writer….
His great subject is the imperialism of Western moral styles and jargon in the poor countries. This mimicry of the West is both morally distasteful and historically inevitable to Naipaul. He writes about petty men with petty illusions, living in petty countries; and he...
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Naipaul is a writer of genius, but ["The Return of Eva Peron"], it seems to me, has had very little to do with his odd literary celebrity of the past few years. The writer who built, word by word, the dense and extraordinary Trinidad of Mr. Biswas (in the novel "A House for Mr. Biswas," 1961) was considered a genre taste. The writer who stripped that Trinidad down to the image of a bogus messiah of Black Revolution (in the novel "Guerrillas," 1975) had become our scourge for truth, a Solzhenitsyn of the third world. The persona "V. S. Naipaul" turned out to be a projection, complicated by our own guilt and condescension and cowardice.
By now, we embrace Naipaul as a kind of prophet without God, one of those doomsday misogynists who used to wander through Russian novels, raving and shaking their staffs at the gentry in their country houses—someone whose vision of moral fault has marked him with a crazed and arrogant and somehow blessed purity…. It is as if his foreignness, his status as "one of them," gives him a license to see, as if our hypocrisies translate into his ethnic privilege.
Naipaul's exile is not really a matter of displacement or dispossession. It has to do with a bitter, almost fanatic clarity, with great pain on the edge of fatal pride. There is not much point in reading the Naipaul of the past 10 years if we seize on an ex-colonial's weakness for the "idea" of English civilization and reduce...
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Edward W. Said
[In 1965, Naipaul] writes that "to be a colonial is to be a little ridiculous and unlikely" and this is directly reflected in the clearly etched but on the whole gentle comedy about being an English-speaking East Indian from the West Indies, as numerous characters (including Naipaul himself) in Naipaul's early prose are. Having the language but with it a different tradition—like reading Wordsworth without ever having seen a daffodil, like the young Hindu in Port of Spain, Trinidad, who "takes up his staff and beggar's bowl and says that he is off to Benares to study"—is part of the same general discordance, "the play of a people who have been cut off."
There are many aspects of this fate which Naipaul has explored in autobiographical as well as fictional terms. His novels, for example, have developed the meanings lying coiled up in his own past, meanings which, like the verbal ambiguities in the word "Indian," don't easily go back to some unquestioned origin or source….
Yet the possibility of anger, desperate bewilderment and bitter sarcasm has always lurked in Naipaul's work, because the possibility derived as much from his compromised colonial situation as it did from what, as a result, he wrote about. His subject was extraterritoriality—the state of being neither here nor there, but rather in-between things … that cannot come together for him; he wrote from the ironic point of view of the failure to which...
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It is hard not to note a certain turning in the air when V. S. Naipaul is mentioned, a hint of taint, a suggestion of favor about to go moot. He has become a question, as in "the question of Naipaul." One catches the construction "brilliant but": brilliant but obsessive, brilliant but reductive, brilliant but so dazzled by the glare off his particular circumstance—the Indian not an Indian, the Trinidadian not a Trinidadian, the Englishman never an Englishman—that he stays blind to the exigencies of history….
When writers are very celebrated they are of course more likely to elicit negative comment than when they are not, but the rush to categorize Naipaul is interesting, and seems to derive from more than just the predictable arc of a reputation….
[In The Return of Eva Perón] Naipaul dwells obdurately (obsessively, reductively) on a landscape that is presumed to comfort the forces of reaction. He renders societies in which the dynamic of change opens new frontiers only for opportunists, "half-made societies … doomed to remain half-made." He insists that "the corruption of causes" is intrinsic, built in, the logical extension of the rhetoric itself. He persists in translating underdeveloped into underequipped, undone by imported magic and borrowed images, metaphors, fantasies and applauded lies, fairy tales. He posits what has been the controlling historical trope of our time—the familiar image of...
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