Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

V. S. Naipaul is known primarily as the author of a series of widely acclaimed novels set in the Caribbean or in other postcolonial societies: The Mystic Masseur (1957), The Suffrage of Elvira (1958), Miguel Street (1959), A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), Guerrillas (1975), A Bend in the River (1979), and numerous others. He has also published extensively in other genres—the short story, the essay, history, and travel literature. In the last category, he has written mainly of his experiences in and his reactions to the Third World—for the most part, with profound skepticism and distaste.

Naipaul was born in Trinidad, his Hindu family having migrated there from northern India as part of that far-flung Indian diaspora which was one of the side effects of nearly two centuries of British rule in the Indian subcontinent. Reared in a British West Indian colony, Naipaul was exposed to a thoroughly Anglicizing education, which was completed at University College, University of Oxford, after which he embarked upon one of the most distinguished literary careers of the second half of the twentieth century. With his Indian ancestry, with his Trinidadian boyhood (“the mystery—Conradian word—of my own background: that island in the mouth of a great South American river, the Orinoco, one of the Conradian dark places of the earth, where my father had conceived literary ambitions for himself and then for...

(The entire section is 594 words.)

Among the Believers

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

In an era when many writers prefer to be identified with their roots, at least for sentimental reasons, it is astonishing to come across a brilliant one who refuses to acknowledge his own people. V. S. (Vidiadhar Surajprasad) Naipaul is one such deracinated writer. Throughout his works, this brilliant, prolific, Oxford-trained writer incessantly points the accusing finger at his native land and areas of similar predicament in uncompromising, scathing, vituperative language. Naipaul is an escapist. Haunted by his Indian ancestry, his Trinidadian origins, his fear of “the bush” (his favorite metaphor for third world countries), and his social ignorance, he seeks shelter in his Wiltshire cottage in London, from where he vents his rage and resentment on what he calls the “half-made” societies of the world. He is unforgiving of West Indian vices in The Middle Passage (1963), and The Loss of El Dorado (1970), snobbish at the filth of India in An Area of Darkness (1965), and disdainful of unreliable African politics in A Bend in the River (1979).

Like that of many of his sixteen earlier works, the theme of Among the Believers is “failure.” The causes of the failure are many: conservatism, political demagoguery, poor administration, economic myopia, and, the worst of all, religious fanaticism. The book is an unsympathetic account of how some people’s ardent quest for spiritual nirvana results in abject social phantasmagoria. It is the story of the shattering influence of Islam on the politics, the economies, and the life-styles of Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia—the four countries Naipaul visited during a six-month period between August, 1979, and February, 1980.

The first part of the book discusses the two-headed Iranian revolution. In this section, the reader learns that the revolution is not only an uprising for democracy to replace the Shah’s secret police and his Fascism but also a religious or “holy” war between the Shia and Bahai Islamic sects, who dispute succession to the Prophet Muhammed, who died in A.D. 632. The Shia claim to have been waiting endlessly for the return of Ali, the Twelfth Imam, who is supposed to be the last of the Iranian succession to the Prophet. The Shia assert that Ali, who vanished in A.D. 873, survived elsewhere and that, after his death or disappearance, the succession had been passed to political usurpers. The Twelfth Imam and his sons are, therefore, men of sorrow whose deaths must be continually commemorated.

The Bahia, on the other hand, believe that a deputy or surrogate, or the Twelfth Imam himself, came and left again in the nineteenth century and that only the Bahias recognized him. To the Shia, the Bahai claim about the Imam is punishable blasphemy; hence their sporadic revolutionary executions when Khomeini finally came to power in 1979. Prior to this time, the Shia Muslims had remained suspicious of the authority of the state and had repudiated the Shah’s repression, his betrayal of his country to the West, his plundering of their money and, worst of all, his total neglect of the Islamic religion, particularly the Shia faith. Consequently, rampant corruption, prostitution, and sodomy have engulfed the nation.

The Iranian revolution is, therefore, both an offering to the Twelfth Imam and a rejection of the Shah’s nondivine rule. To the Shia Muslims, transfer of authority from the autocratic Shah (who represented the annihilation of Islam) to the divine Ayatollah Khomeini (his France-exiled opponent) is the best thing Allah has done for Islam in recent years. Politically speaking, therefore, the revolution is both Khomeini’s victory over the Shah, who had compelled him to free the country, and the Shias’ triumph over the Bahias.

In Pakistan, the Ahmadi Muslims are similarly being persecuted by the majority Bihari Muslims. Followers of Ahmad, a northern Indian (born in 1890) who, they claim, had many revelations that he was Mahdi, the Promised Messiah, the Ahmadis believe that the Messiah will appear when Islam has degenerated. To them, therefore, the present unhealthy state of their country’s economy and politics indicates a dwindling of the effectiveness of Islam and thus presages the coming of their Messiah. Ironically, they have been declared non-Muslim (in 1976) by the government of a country which was founded as a haven for refugee Muslims.

Despite unceasing efforts to combat social vice through the enactment of strict Koranic laws, the Pakistani government is still beset with political corruption, sectionalism, religious zealotry, and severe inflation. Perhaps its greatest problem is the lack of a proper infrastructure congruent with twentieth century development and the absence of a reliable leadership to build one. Unfortunately, strikes and police brutality conspire with malnutrition, disease, and unemployment to deal the death blow to the people’s faith, swelling the ranks of the nation’s aimless emigrants.

Like their Pakistani counterparts, the Malayan believers attempt to solve moral, racial, economic, and developmental problems through rigid...

(The entire section is 2109 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Sources for Further Study

Ajami, Fouad. “In Search of Islam,” in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI (October 25, 1981), pp. 7, 30, 32.

American Scholar. L, Summer, 1981, p. 362.

Cameron, James. “Trans-Arabia,” in The Spectator. CCXLVII (October 3, 1981), pp. 21-22.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXIII, October 13, 1981, p. B3.

Library Journal. CVI, October 1, 1981, p. 1911.

Marzan, Julio. “Romance of the Golden West,” in The Village Voice. XXVI (November 4-10, 1981), p. 43.

Mudrick, Marvin. “The Muslims Are Coming! The Muslims Are Coming!” in The Hudson Review. XXXV (Spring, 1982), pp. 130-138.

Nation. CCXXXIII, October 24, 1981, p. 415.

The New Republic. CLXXXV, November 4, 1981, p. 31.

The New York Review of Books. XXVIII, November 5, 1981, p. 8.

Said, Edward. “Expectations of Inferiority,” in New Statesman. CII (October 16, 1981), pp. 21-22.

Saturday Review. VIII, October, 1981, p. 70.

Time. CXVIII, October 26, 1981, p. 92.

The Wall Street Journal. CXCVIII, October 28, 1981, p. 28.