Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1739
A pervading sense of despair over mankind’s inability to rise above self-interest and its penchant for stupidly destructive acts links the four essays which make up V. S. (Vidiadhar Surajprasad) Naipaul’s The Return of Eva Perón. Three of the essays focus on particular situations in widely separated countries of the third world—Trinidad, Argentina, and Zaire—which stand as historical exempla of the heart of darkness taking in all; and the fourth is an analysis of Joseph Conrad’s somber understanding that most men go mad when denied a clear vision of the world. Naipaul searches for some sign of human excellence struggling to assert itself in these countries, but finds none. It is a depressing book, but so well argued and researched that its melancholy message cannot be dismissed, however unpalatable it may be.
“Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad” chronicles the aberrant rise and ignominious fall of Michael de Freitas, or Michael X, as he called himself. In brief, Michael X had left Trinidad in 1957, spent fourteen years in England where he was a pimp and drug dealer, had been caught in the spirit of Black Power, achieved newspaper notoriety as a black spokesman, established a commune called Black House in Islington which existed more in words than reality, got in trouble with the law, and, in 1971, returned to Trinidad. There, his megalomania nourished by a very few followers, he began another commune, advertised himself as the best-known black man in the world, and within a year, participated in the murder of three of his followers.
Michael X was a man of limited intellectual ability, but street wise and cunning. If he lacked any moral vision, he did not lack the language of political and social revolution characteristic of the time. He tried to exploit the situation, as exploitation was the only means of growth he understood. He is of interest to Naipaul because he illustrates not simply lack of virtue and common sense, but the near hysteric attempt of a person oppressed in an oppressive system to use for his own the very means which have been used on him. He, however, is unequal to the task. The energies he would take from the system and turn back on it have already worked their distorting power on him, and he is caught in the illusion they present.
Displaying considerable investigative skill, Naipaul reveals a man tormented since childhood by the shame of thwarted expectations, deluded by his own rhetoric and the happy pandering of English newspapers to it, and deceived by the support of secure, self-indulgent, middle-class whites playing at revolution. Michael de Freitas was a fool and a villain, but a victim as well, caught in a historical trap beyond his comprehension. Black Power for him turned out to be a sentimental hoax, a deep corruption. Instead of freedom and power, all it brought him was illusion, madness, and the gallows.
If the story of Michael X provides Naipaul with the text for a meditation on the foolishness of a man, his inquiry into the soul of Argentina illuminates the malaise of a whole society. His operative image is that Argentinian history is best likened to a story by Jorge Luis Borges—unbelievable, yet horribly real. How did a country as big as India, but with a population of only twenty-three million, rich in land, cattle, grain, and oil fall into such social, economic, and moral chaos? What lack of insight precipitated so calamitous a decline from the rich days of the early twentieth century? Argentina has become known for its absurd inflation, its institutionalized torture, terrorism of the right and the left, and a mindless stagnation. Naipaul compares the life of Argentina, full of events, full of crises and deaths, with the mindless life of an ant community. Everything happens, nothing is accomplished. Each year ends as it began.
One Argentinian answer to the perplexities besetting the country has been Perónism. More a political cult than a political party, it gathers and keeps its adherents by enthusiasm and slogans and not by rational civic vision, or plain practicality. Perónism is a species of debased religion with its own unholy family of Juan and Eva Perón. Perón was a sterile god unable to rouse his country to growth, and Eva was a conniving tart. Tart and thief, yet a saint to the shirtless masses, her descamisados. She levied tribute from everyone, and dispensed money to the poor who came to her and told her their needs, their miseries. Garish portraits of her in the oil-slick pastels of popular hagiography are everywhere, and when she died she was embalmed by Dr. Ara, the renowed Spanish master, in a process that lasted six months and cost a quarter million dollars.
Whichever aspect of Argentinian culture Naipaul turns to, he finds ruin, illusion, and despair. Argentinian history keeps being erased, peoples’ memories fluctuate with the inflation rate, and the Ford Falcons without license plates charge through Buenos Aires carrying the official killers on their rounds. People watch them fearfully and then ignore them. Anyone can be picked up, by accident or design. All who are picked up, however, are beaten, often tortured, sometimes killed, sometimes released. Many simply disappear. The patterns of Argentinian life are mean, repetitive, and meaningless. In eighty pages, Naipaul delineates the curse afflicting the land: Perónism, a debased intellectual life, inflation, a degenerate machismo which seeks to sodomize its women, or place them in a brothel, and the never-ending terror.
It is difficult to ascertain the causes of such disorder in a society, but Naipaul looks back into Argentinian history to find a pervasive thrust of exploitation. The Indian problem was solved in the nineteenth century by the simple expedient of slaughtering all the Indians. It took thirty years, and then the pampas were free. Argentina was a colony whose great wealth was to be plundered, and the loot taken to Europe. It was a place to come to turn a profit, and nothing more, even to those who became Argentinians. In the early part of this century, Paris supported a population of more than one hundred thousand Argentinians living well on the strength of the peso and the endless supply of beef from the pampas. Time and again Naipaul reports Argentinian sentiments decrying Buenos Aires as a “small town” in spite of its eight million inhabitants, or cynically asserting that there are no professionals in the country, no one who really knows his job. It is a country which has never demanded excellence of its citizens, and as a consequence has never developed character, or this discipline of mind which makes for civilization. It is a land which does not offer a country to its citizens.
Argentina’s society is materialistic; it is a simple colonial society created in the most rapacious and decadent phase of imperialism. For men in a society so diminished, machismo, or the humiliation of women, is an easy expression of dominance over a weaker group that compensates in some way for the inescapable inadequacies of a bastard culture. Naipual writes brilliantly and savagely of machismo and the toll it takes. If much of this book is tinged with despair at the sight of so many societies failing their members, the pages describing the debasement of women by machismo are fierce with contempt.
In January of 1975, Naipaul went to Zaire, formerly the Congo, and spent three months investigating the realm of Joseph Mobutu, formerly sergeant in the Force Publique, later General, and now Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga, chief of chiefs, absolute ruler. Zaire is ruled according to his vision, his dreams, his whims. The vision, however, is not working, and Zaire is drifting slowly toward the nihilism of the bush. It is a huge country precariously held together by the great river which runs slowly through it. Yet, just beyond the scattered river-bank settlements, just outside the decaying, artifical cities devised long ago by Belgian colonists, there is the jungle, the forest, the bush. The legacy of hateful semi-order left by the Belgians is rapidly disappearing, but no new African order is taking its place. There is reaction against colonial ways and symbols, against the west and the white man, but nothing vital and sustaining is taking their place except the old rhythms of the bush. Every attempt at change has been short-sighted, wrong. Naipaul sums it up in four words: “It is lunacy, despair.”
Had a white citizen of one of the developed nations written as melancholy an account as this of the ineffectiveness of the efforts these nations of the third world are making in their attempt to enter the community of nations, he would likely be accused of racism and imperialism. Naipaul, however, born in Trinidad to an Indian family, cannot be so dismissed. His sympathies are clearly with the citizens of these societies who are being so cruelly misled and deceived, even while he remains a severe, austere critic contemptuous of those who, given the opportunity to learn, are not able to develop either the clarity or discipline of mind to rise above the stagnation which surrounds them. It has become too easy to blame the colonial past for ills which are of present making and reflect slovenly habits, egoism, and prejudice.
Naipaul’s concluding essay on Conrad reveals a long personal struggle to come to terms with this writer who wrote so acutely of the Colonial experience and of the encounter of the Western mind with the dark gods of the forest, and with the easy illusions the West made itself comfortable with during the Colonial era. Conrad pursued an understanding of the effect living in dark and remote places and dealing with the workings of alien psychologies had on ordinarily clear-headed representatives of Western culture. He found the experience usually brought them low; but as it did so, as in the final turning of a tragedy, a rich, if bleak, insight about the human soul came clear.
Naipaul has written an honest, beautiful, and desperate book. He sees much of the world settling toward chaos and degradation, and life steadily becoming more hopeless for millions. There is no brave old wisdom in the bush, no primitive harmony with nature, no instinctive sense of ecological and social balance. Life is a struggle, and ignorance the great burden carried everywhere.