Finding the Center, V. S. Naipaul’s eighteenth book and eighth nonfiction work, was first published in article form by The New Yorker and in book form by André Deutsch, Ltd., in Great Britain in 1984. As the subtitle, Two Narratives, indicates, Finding the Center is composed of two separate pieces, “Prologue to an Autobiography” and “The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro.” In his foreword, Naipaul states that the two pieces were published together because they were written consecutively and they are both “about the process of writing.” “Prologue to an Autobiography” is “an account of my literary beginnings and the imaginative promptings of my many-sided background,” while “The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro” “shows this writer, in his latest development, going about one side of his business: traveling, adding to his knowledge of the world, exposing himself to new people and new relationships.” Naipaul’s summaries are accurate but somewhat modest: The two narratives are significant not only for their insights into being a writer, as valuable as they are for this reason. Drawing on the techniques of his fiction, for which he is best known—notably, for A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), In a Free State (1971), Guerrillas (1975), and A Bend in the River (1979)—Naipaul, like one of Joseph Conrad’s narrators, tells imaginative and climactic stories which circle and search out their own centers, with enough exotic settings, characters, and experiences along the way to please any reader.
If becoming a writer were as simple as it seems, surely more people would be writers, out of the millions who imagine they could. In “Prologue to an Autobiography,” Naipaul suggests why so few aspirants actually succeed. If his experience of becoming a writer is typical—and in rough outline it is—the tortuous process works something as follows.
The painful impulse begins somewhere down in the guts, which must be a little twisted. This is the long gestation period. For births to occur, there must be dedication, discipline, and a lot of luck. The luck consists of such things as having plenty of time and rich subjects, but even these might not help unless one also has the moral support of encouraging examples, encouraging associates, and encouraging publishers. With such moral support, writing still remains an essentially lonely task—repeated journeys into oneself. The act of creation has its moments, both of frustration and ecstasy, and completion brings relief and satisfaction, but there is no guarantee that one will not be disappointed or even horrified by what one has brought forth. Does one know one’s own children? Will other people like them?
V. S. Naipaul had his guts twisted on the island of Trinidad, where he was born and grew up. Here, like so many writers in other places and times, he experienced various marginal states of existence, of the kind that sensitizes writers by means of painful ambiguities and alternating periods of security and insecurity, like occasional applications of a cattle prod. Naipaul was a third-generation member of the large Hindu contingent in Trinidad, mostly descendants of indentured workers who came out from India around the turn of the century, during the heyday of the British Empire. (No doubt to this day Naipaul has to explain what he was doing in Trinidad.) Naipaul’s ancestors on both sides of his family were from high-ranking castes in India: Hence they could not lower themselves to hobnob with certain people or do certain tasks, and many of the men aspired to be pundits. Their pride and persistence won through, at least for his mother’s family, which by Naipaul’s time owned farming estates and other property and played a powerful and sometimes violent role in island politics.
It was different for Naipaul’s father, who, poor himself and attached to rich in-laws, “dangled all his life in a half-dependence and half-esteem.” Until Naipaul was fourteen, when his father could finally afford a separate home, Naipaul’s immediate family—his father, his mother, and the five children—lived with the mother’s extended family in a large, chaotic household racked by petty jealousies within and party politics without. As a child, Naipaul hardly ever saw his father. An exception was two years (1938-1940), during which the immediate family lived by itself in Port of Spain, where Naipaul’s father worked as a city reporter for the Trinidad Guardian. During these two years, Naipaul came to know and admire his father and his father’s writings, particularly an album of writings from earlier years (1929-1934) when his father reported from the countryside on village feuds, murders, politics, and superstitions. Eventually,...
(The entire section is 1959 words.)