Beyond the Dragon's Mouth
Throughout his career, Shiva Naipaul, who died of a heart attack at the age of forty shortly after the appearance of this book, was overshadowed by his older brother, the novelist V. S. Naipaul. Born and reared in Port of Spain, Trinidad, Shiva Naipaul was admitted to prestigious Queen’s Royal College, from which, at the age of eighteen, he won a scholarship to read philosophy at Oxford University. He traveled extensively in Europe and the Third World countries on his many journalistic assignments and wrote both fiction and nonfiction based on his impressions. As a writer, his mission was to expose the “shabbiness and emptiness of the colonial past” and its resultant cultural rootlessness. He is best known for his novels Fireflies (1970) and The Chip-Chip Gatherers (1973), set in Trinidad, and Love and Death in a Hot Country (1984), set in South America, and his two nonfiction books, North and South: An African Journey (1979) and Journey to Nowhere: A New World Tragedy (1981), on the Jonestown mass suicide.
His last book, Beyond the Dragon’s Mouth: Stories and Pieces, is a collection of short fiction and nonfiction ranging from 1969 to 1984; all of the pieces collected here have been previously published in journals and anthologies. The ironic juxtaposition of his life, the fiction he created out of it, and his essays on political corruption and social decay is reminiscent of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962). The organization of this anthology into three parts traces the formulation of Naipaul’s prophetic vision of doom and puts into perspective his stark pessimism, his caustic wit, and his scathing condemnation of postcolonial nations.
The opening section, “Beyond the Dragon’s Mouth,” though written from the perspective of 1984, is set in 1966, during Naipaul’s second year at Oxford. This memoir introduces the volume’s central themes: the search for self-definition among colonial peoples, and the cultural rootlessness that is colonialism’s legacy. The tone of the memoir is refreshingly touching and sensitive coming from a writer whose humor is habitually sardonic. Naipaul himself traces his overpowering pessimism to the haunting memory of his best friend Steve’s death, in London, which severed his link with Trinidad and plunged him in “a maelstrom of annihilating vacuity.” He sadly concludes that he has inherited no “specific state of collective being,” is heir to no culture, tastes, loyalties or prejudices with which to anchor himself. Reviewing the first eighteen years of his life in Trinidad, he writes, “I was haphazardly cobbled together from bits and pieces taken from everywhere and anywhere.” By the time he was born, his Hindu ancestry had disintegrated to “nostalgic ruin,” to detached and formal rituals reserved mainly for public display. His only sense of identity came from living on Nepaul Street, which was, to him, a microcosm of the cultural cosmopolitanism of Trinidad; he sees his racially mixed neighbors as suffering from cultural shipwreck, just as he was. Trinidad became a prison from which he had to escape; he presents his childhood and youth as a painful time dominated by his desire to win a scholarship to study in England. When, having succeeded, he crossed the Dragon’s Mouth, the strait beyond which lay his escape, he felt equally displaced. Finally, he was able to realize that his quest for self-definition had its roots in “personal exigency,” and he redefined himself, not by nationality or religious heritage but as a writer: That became his identity.
With the first section serving as a point of reference, the next section is “Stories, 1969-1974,” a collection of eight short stories, in which the characters and situations from Naipaul’s life, transformed and reevaluated, find a fictional voice. A mood of hopelessness and despair overpowers the stories. Naipaul’s characters are trapped: Try as they might to better their lives (“The Tenant,” “The Dolly House”), achieve refinement (“The Political Education of Clarissa Forbes”), or gain material prosperity (“The Beauty Contest,” “Mr. Sookhoo and the Carol Singers”), they are doomed to failure. The style of these stories is more expository than narrative, and plot and character development are subservient to the demands of theme and an ironic treatment of the subject. The reader may sympathize with Naipaul’s characters, but they do not come to life; they are intellectualized embodiments of a theme. “Lack of Sleep,” for example, universalizes the suffering of the elderly and expresses a plea that they be allowed to live and die in dignity. The monologue of the geriatric hero creates a surrealistic atmosphere as he squanders the rent money on a prostitute and weaves in and out of nightmares. In “The Political Education of Clarissa Forbes,” Naipaul treats his favorite theme: social oppression. Reared on cheap English magazines and...
(The entire section is 2035 words.)