V. S. Naipaul Essay - Naipaul, V. S.

Naipaul, V. S.

Introduction

V. S. Naipaul 1932-

Full name Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul. Trinidadian-born English novelist, short story writer, journalist, travel writer, essayist, and nonfiction writer. See also V. S. Naipaul Literary Criticism (Volume 4), and Volumes 7, 9, 105, 199.

Naipaul has earned a reputation as one of the most gifted prose stylists of the twentieth century as well as one of the most controversial critics of the effects of imperialism in the Third World. Employing a variety of literary idioms, from short stories to essays to mixed-genre pieces that blend autobiography, fiction, and journalistic reporting, Naipaul describes the bitter legacy of colonialism on personal and societal levels. The early novels and short stories, based loosely on his own experiences growing up in Trinidad, have been acclaimed for their narrative skill, colorful use of West Indian dialect, and wry humor as they express themes of individual rootlessness and cultural deprivation that are the effects of colonial history. The characters in his early short fiction are often depicted as alienated from the societies in which they are born, as they spend their lives trying to escape or to build a sanctuary they can call their own. Naipaul's later novels, historical essays, and social commentaries based on his extensive travels throughout Africa, Asia, South America, and the Carribean, continue to explore the relation of colonialism to the loss of cultural identity, but without the humor that was a hallmark of his earlier fiction writing. The later works, while being admired for their keen observation and clear descriptive style, have garnered intense criticism for their often bleakly negative appraisal of cultures ravaged by centuries of oppression, particularly by the people of the regions he describes. Naipaul has won numerous literary awards in Britain—including the Somerset Maugham Award, the Hawthornden Prize, and the Booker Prize—and his name repeatedly appears on lists of candidates for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Biographical Information

Naipaul was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 1932, the second generation descendant of an East Indian grandfather who came to the West Indies in the early 1900s as an indentured laborer in the British colonial administration. Naipaul's love for and facility in the English language has been credited to his father, Seepersad Naipaul, a journalist and author of a collection of short stories exhibiting many of the themes of entrapment and alienation that also were themes in his son's fiction. Naipaul excelled in the colonial British school system in Trinidad, winning a scholarship in 1950 to study English at Oxford. After graduating in 1954, Naipaul became a writer and editor for the British Broadcasting Corporation program “Caribbean Voices,” where his earliest short stories about loneliness, the fear of existence, and the strains of changing cultural sensibilities were first broadcast. In 1955 he married Patricia Ann Hale, an Englishwoman. Around this time he began to write a series of short stories and character sketches based on his childhood in Trinidad, most of which were published in Miguel Street (1959), which won the 1961 Somerset Maugham Award, and A Flag on the Island (1967). In 1957 Naipaul published his first novel, The Mystic Masseur, a farce about a religious crank who attends to Trinidad's spiritual problems. This was followed in 1958 by the publication of The Suffrage of Elvira, which won the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize for its comic portrayal of vote rigging in Trinidad. Although it won no literary awards, his third novel, A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), about a Trinidadian Hindu whose greatest desire is to own his own home, became the novel which would win Naipaul his greatest literary acclaim. The novel, which has elements of high comedy and tragic pathos, has become closely associated with Naipaul's own personal search for meaning and community despite the alienating effects of colonialism.

In the early 1960s Naipaul reviewed hundreds of books for The New Statesman and other publications, where he became known as an uncompromisingly harsh critic of most of his literary contemporaries. It was also during this period that Naipaul wrote his first two works of nonfiction. The Middle Passage (1962) and An Area of Darkness (1964) are both based on his travel to and observations of postcolonial conditions in the Caribbean, Africa, and India. His fiction writing continued to win critical acclaim for its forceful prose style: Naipaul received the Hawthornden Prize for Mr. Stone and the Knight's Companion (1964), the story of a Caribbean man living in England, and the Booker Prize for In a Free State (1971), a mixed-genre work that contains short fiction pieces dealing with the themes of alienation and exile as well as factual eyewitness accounts of postcolonial oppression and discrimination.

From the 1970s until the present Naipaul has continued to use travel as an inspiration for his nonfiction, producing works on, among other things, the character of Indian people in India: A Wounded Civilization (1977); the dangers of charismatic political leadership in The Return of Eva Perón (1980); Islamic fanaticism in the Middle East in Among the Believers (1981); the legacy of slavery in the United States in A Turn in the South (1989); and Islam in Southeast Asia in Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples (1998). In all these works he positions himself as a stateless wanderer who uses a keen sense of observation to come to sometimes devastating conclusions about the possibility for Third World individuals and societies to rebuild themselves from the ruins of colonial administration. His fiction, notably in Guerillas (1975), A Bend in the River (1979), and A Way in the World (1994), combines autobiographical themes of his own search for identity and community with his more overarching themes of historical anarchy and chaos caused by colonialism. Naipaul was given a knighthood in 1990 for his literary achievements, and he continues to write fiction and nonfiction dealing with themes of rootlessness and exile from his home in London.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Naipaul has produced three volumes of short stories. In 1959 he published Miguel Street, a collection of character sketches he had finished writing several years earlier while working as a writer for “Caribbean Voices.” All the Miguel Street stories take place in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and are told from the perspective of a West Indian child who, like Naipaul, finally leaves the island to study abroad. Each short story (or chapter of what some commentators take to be a novella) tells the comic tale of an assortment of Trinidadian oddballs and misfits who desperately struggle to make their lives meaningful, but whose efforts are ultimately crushed by their own narrow connection to their environment and because of the chaos and squalor that surround them. The humorous dimensions of the stories, which reveal Naipaul's early sympathy with those struggling to fit into a world made miserable by ignorance and cultural depravity, are intensified with dramatic use of Caribbean dialect that masterfully brings the characters to life.

A Flag on the Island (1967), Naipaul's second volume of short stories, was collected from pieces written between 1950 and 1962; some had been published previously in English and American periodicals. Like the Miguel Street tales, most of the stories of A Flag on the Island take place in Trinidad and typically deal with a clash of values as local Trinidadians of Indian descent try in vain to structure their lives around a culture that is now far away and only dimly remembered. Other stories deal with the latent terror underlying seemingly ordinary lives of immigrants in London. While this collection again uses comic effect to intensify themes of alienation, failure, and racial discrimination, the general tone of the collection is much more bitter and pessimistic than that in Miguel Street.

In 1971 Naipaul attracted worldwide attention as well as heavy censure for his book In a Free State, which combined two autobiographical travel narratives based on experiences in Africa and the Caribbean with two short stories and a novella. The work treats the lives of immigrants as they try to assimilate to new environments, exploring the problems that arise because of their own limitations as well as larger societal trends of racial discrimination and cruelty. One short story, “One out of Many” tells of a domestic servant from Bombay who moves with his master to the United States but whose hopes of freedom and opportunity in the new land are dashed as he finds himself even more alone and imprisoned than he had been in India. The second short story, “Tell Me Who to Kill,” is about a Trinidadian man who lives in London and whose goal in life is to see that his younger brother does not have to endure the indignities that he himself has suffered. This objective is thwarted when the younger brother squanders the money the elder brother has saved for his education, leaves school, and marries a white woman. The title novella in the volume, “In a Free State,” tells of a white couple touring Africa who discover that behind the veneer of civilization is a culture ripped apart by despotic brutality and tribal savagery. Naipaul won the Booker Prize for this unusual treatise about cultural detachment and alienation, but many commentators denounced the work because of its portrayal of Third World cultures as essentially hopeless.

Critical Reception

Naipaul's three collections of short stories are seen by critics as some of the finest expressions of the dilemmas and struggles of colonized people striving to make both their individual and social lives meaningful in a postcolonial context. Miguel Street drew almost universal praise for its comic irony and colorful dialect used to illustrate the author's own need to flee his home and family to establish himself in a culture of perceived high traditions and customs. While some of the short stories in A Flag on the Island received critical attention, the book was generally dismissed as a collection of minor works by an author who had much better to offer. In a Free State was quickly recognized as an important new collection of short stories, and Naipaul's fellow travel writer and friend, Paul Theroux, called the work a “masterpiece in the fiction of rootlessness.” While nearly all critics have praised the charming prose style and delicate humor of the stories, many commentators, most often from the developing world, have charged that even in the early works Naipaul paints pictures of Third World people as culturally inferior. The criticism that Naipaul is only able to find fault with the individuals and societies he describes persists as he continues to record, without apology, his impressions of the alienation and inhumanity he considers to be the enduring legacies of colonialism.

Criticism

Richard Plant (review date 1968)

SOURCE: “Potpourri of the Antilles,” in Saturday Review, Vol. 51, No. 23, June 8, 1968, p. 52.

[In the following review, Plant dismisses the title story of A Flag on the Island as another example of Naipaul's defeatist and predictably pessimistic attitude about the effects of colonialism, but also offers warm praise for the dialogue and humor in the other short stories included.]

There must be two V. S. Naipauls: One, in full control of his materials, sets up a world populated by beautifully rendered West Indian, Hindu, or British people, and keeps his plot line so tense he never lets go. The second appears a prey to certain appetites and obsessions and...

(The entire section is 856 words.)

Angus Calder (review date 1971)

SOURCE: “Darkest Naipaulia,” in New Statesman, Vol. 82, No. 2116, October 8, 1971, pp. 282-83.

[In the following review, Calder praises the two short stories of In a Free State for their ability to convey the fears and isolation of emigrants living in cultures destroyed by imperialism, but criticizes the book as a whole for being too pessimistic to recognize any positive signs for hope in the African continent.]

For all his marvellous narrative skill, Naipaul's vision has often seemed at odds with the novel form. In his early genre stories, where Trinidad is perceived as a place where nothing grand or serious could possibly happen, the unwary reader is...

(The entire section is 1055 words.)

Charles R. Larson (review date 1971)

SOURCE: “In a Free State by V. S. Naipaul,” in Saturday Review, Vol. 54, October 23, 1971, pp. 91-2.

[In the following review of In a Free State, Larson criticizes the short stories and novella for their pessimistic themes of emigrants suffering from prejudice as they lead lives in foreign lands.]

Trinidadian writer V. S. Naipaul's latest work is composed of a prologue and an epilogue from his own travel journals, two short stories, and a novella. These five sections are loosely connected by the themes of exile, freedom, and prejudice. All of the situations are multiracial, and in each one we see people who are trapped—prisoners of the alien cultures...

(The entire section is 712 words.)

Paul Theroux (review date 1971).

SOURCE: “To Be Without Roots,” in The Washington Post Book World, Vol. 5, No. 49, December 5, 1971, p. 22.

[In the following review of In a Free State, Theroux calls the work a “masterpiece in the fiction of rootlessness” and compares the transplanted characters of the short stories to those in Naipaul's other works.]

There are two sorts of intrepid travelers. The first are the travelers from a great and famous city or a prosperous country; they are made confident by the wealth of their home, they are emboldened by their history, their literature; they are calm, they travel to compare. Travel is part of their education, and an adventure. Once these...

(The entire section is 1269 words.)

Alfred Kazin (review date 1971)

SOURCE: “Displaced Person,” in The New York Review of Books, Vol. 17, No. 11, December 30, 1971, pp. 3-4.

[In the following review of In a Free State, Kazin calls the book one of Naipaul's best and illustrates how the short stories within the work give voice to Naipaul's major themes of displacement, exile, and homelessness.]

This is an extraordinarily penetrating book and a disturbing one. One could well praise the original and powerful novelist behind it by describing the reason for the disturbance—nor would this minimize the disturbance in the least.

V. S. Naipaul was born in Trinidad, to which his grandfather had come from India; he...

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John Thieme (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: “Naipaul's Third World: A Not so Free State,” in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. 10, No. 1, August, 1975, pp. 10-22.

[In the following essay, Thieme compares In a Free State to Naipaul's earlier work and concludes that this later effort shows the author moving beyond themes of the wretchedness of Third World colonial life to reflect his personal ability to free himself from the shackles of a colonial mentality.]

For many West Indian intellectuals the work of V. S. Naipaul has always represented a denial of the third-world spirit. For writers like Lamming,1 Naipaul's ironic eclecticism and brahminical aloofness have made him a...

(The entire section is 5400 words.)

Leigh Winser (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “Naipaul's Painters and Their Pictures,” in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. 18, No. 1, 1976, pp. 67-80.

[In the following essay, Winser traces Naipaul's use of painters and visual art in his first seven novels and two collections of short stories.]

A reading of V. S. Naipaul's manifold prize-winning fiction reveals his continuing interest in the art of painting. Each of Naipaul's seven novels and two short-story collections either presents an important character who paints or alludes to at least one imagined artist. Naipaul likes to depict his characters in the creative act of painting, affording him the chance to describe their work in style and...

(The entire section is 5074 words.)

K. I. Madhusudana Rao (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “The Short Fiction,” in Contrary Awareness: A Critical Study of the Novels of V. S. Naipaul, Centre for Research on New International Economic Order, 1982, pp. 28-44.

[In the following excerpt from his full-length book on Naipaul's fiction, Rao analyzes the plots and themes of several of the short stories in A Flag on the Island and argues that the stories are held together by the “unifying metaphor of island life.”]

The stories collected in A Flag on the Island (1967) employ the island-world as a unifying metaphor in the same manner as Miguel Street does the street-world. However, three of the eleven stories have no connection with...

(The entire section is 4726 words.)

Peggy Nightingale (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “Humour and Sympathy: Miguel Street and other stories,” in Journey Through Darkness: The Writings of V. S. Naipaul, University of Queensland Press, 1987, pp. 13-24.

[In the following excerpt from her full-length study of Naipaul's work, Nightingale shows how themes of postcolonial futility and wasted lives in Miguel Street become more explicit and pessimistic in the short stories that make up A Flag on the Island.]

The first book Naipaul wrote (but the third published), Miguel Street (1959), is a collection of short stories which are unified by the presence of a single narrator, a single setting, and a group of characters who...

(The entire section is 4305 words.)

Selwyn R. Cudjoe (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “Tradition, Miguel Street, and Other Stories: The First Period of Naipaul's Development,” in V. S. Naipaul: A Materialist Reading, University of Massachussetts Press, 1988, pp. 16-36.

[In the following excerpt, Cudjoe positions Naipaul in tradition of the Caribbean short story and traces the development of themes in his short fiction.]

The only independence which they [the Africans and East Indians] would desire is idleness, according to their different tastes in the enjoyment of it; and the higher motives which actuate the European labourers … that to be industrious is a duty and a virtue; that to be independent in circumstances,...

(The entire section is 10603 words.)

Richard Kelly (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “The Comic Island,” and “Shipwrecked” in V. S. Naipaul, The Continuum Publishing Company, 1989, pp. 15-53; 73–102.

[In the following excerpts from his full-length treatment of Naipaul's work, Kelly penetrates the humor of the short stories in Miguel Street and A Flag on the Island to discover the author's emerging disparagement of life and human possibility in places like Trinidad.]

MIGUEL STREET

Although Miguel Street was published in 1959, after The Mystic Masseur (1957) and The Suffrage of Elvira (1958), it was the first book Naipaul wrote. These three books represent Naipaul's...

(The entire section is 10464 words.)

Timothy F. Weiss (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Carnival” in On the Margins: The Art of Exile in V. S. Naipaul, University of Massachussetts Press, 1992, pp. 21-46.

[In the following excerpt, Weiss argues that Miguel Street is told in two voices—that of a child who loves the spirit and people of Trinidad and that of an adult who needs to explain why he had to escape the futility and imprisonment of life in Port of Spain.]

MIGUEL STREET (1959)

The narrative strategy of Miguel Street responds to a split between the author's Trinidad and English cultural selves and attempts to resolve that split through double perspectives. First, by viewing Miguel Street...

(The entire section is 3605 words.)

Fawzia Mustafa (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Abroad,” in V. S. Naipaul, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 88–120.

[In the following excerpt, Mustafa analyzes Naipaul's mingling of short fiction and nonfiction in In a Free State and concludes that with the work Naipaul reaches “an existentialist disassociation from the testimony he writes.”]

IN A FREE STATE (1971)

This volume appears to be another innovation in Naipaul's corpus of works, not only because it simultaneously incorporates fiction and non-fiction, but also because the title novella is his first work of fiction with an African setting. The chronological contingency of the publications of...

(The entire section is 2640 words.)