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,...
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