Shiva Naipaul

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Shiva Naipaul 1945–

Trinidadian novelist and nonfiction writer.

Naipaul once described his life as "defined by three poles that don't meet." A Hindu of Indian descent, he was born and raised in the West Indies island nation of Trinidad and settled in England at the age of nineteen. The central concerns of his works are the social and political conditions in Third World countries. Naipaul portrays "a world where feeling has gone dead from despair and helplessness," according to Peter Levi. Problems of individual and cultural identity are recurrent themes in Naipaul's novels. Critics note many similarities between Shiva Naipaul's thematic concerns and attitudes and those of his brother, the novelist V. S. Naipaul.

Naipaul's first two novels, Fireflies (1970) and The Chip-Chip Gatherers (1973), are family sagas set in Trinidad, and each explores a society in transition. The old order is represented in Fireflies by the declining Khoja dynasty, while the new is represented in The Chip-Chip Gatherers by the Ramsarans, a poor family trying to break into the middle class. Naipaul ironically presents the failings of both elements of society, especially in the latter novel.

After the publication of The Chip-Chip Gatherers, Naipaul took a ten-year break from writing fiction, during which he traveled and wrote two nonfiction books. North of South (1978) is a combination travelogue and political essay focusing on race relations in Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia. Black and White (1980), an interpretive study of the mass suicide of members of the Reverend Jim Jones's People's Temple in Guyana in 1978, explores the social and political conditions which promoted the tragic event.

Naipaul said in an interview that he regards his fiction and nonfiction as one body of work because his nonfiction research has yielded experiences and information that he has developed in his novels. His recent novel, A Hot Country (1983), is evidence of this, for it is set in the fictional, politically volatile country of Cuyama, a thinly disguised version of Guyana.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 110, 112.)

Auberon Waugh

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[Fireflies] is a masterpiece. It's a long book … and a reviewer's first inclination, when confronted with a long book, is to see what he can safely skip. It must say something for Mr Naipaul's power that despite a firm determination to skip whole pages and even whole chapters at a time, I was unable to miss a page of his absorbing, inconsequential narrative.

The story … centres around the disintegration of one family in Trinidad's upper-class Indian community. As subjects go, this might not seem to be one which automatically commands a wide readership. Those who approach novel-reading as a vehicle for self-improvement might be prepared to accept some (passionately) involved, committed, compassionate, etc. treatise on the problems of Trinidad's Indians, or even a biting satire on Trinidad's upper class, but a poignant, uncommitted account of what it is to be a conservative, upper-class Trini-dadian Hindu in our present deplorable age is more than most people are prepared to take even in World Conservation Year. I can only report that the book is a delight and a miracle of enjoyment….

Mr Naipaul's own attitude to the society he describes is ambivalent. He satirises its absurdities with conventional rigour but he is also keenly alive to the tragedy of its destruction, and it is this quality which makes his book so exceptional. For an English reader, and most especially, perhaps, for an English conservative, the poignancy is doubly acute because of the extreme unfamiliarity of the society he describes. Various attempts have been made to demonstrate the tragedy of the old order changing in England, and these have met with varied degrees...

(This entire section contains 303 words.)

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of success….

Suffice to say that anyone who misses reading Shiva Naipaul's Fireflies will miss an entirely delightful experience….

Auberon Waugh, "The Old Order Changeth Not," in The Spectator, Vol. 225, No. 7427, October 31, 1970, p. 526.

Linda Hess

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[Shiva Naipaul] writes with the ironist's detachment, expertly and unobtrusively observing those details that mark his characters' idiosyncrasies, tracing through them the warp and woof of a social fabric that becomes increasingly frayed….

The world Naipaul paints [in Fireflies is] … drab, ugly, sad. But throughout the work he allows, almost absentmindedly and despite himself, gleams of humor, beauty, and spirit to shine through. We remember these, along with the vivid realizations of the violent and grotesque.

There are occasional clichés of language and implausibilities of character in Fireflies. These, however, are minor flaws. What bothers me more is a quality of style that—in common with Mrs. Lutchman's personality—is stable, thorough, emotionally limited. Not that it's boring: the details of dialogue and description are consistently sharp and well selected. But for a panoramic human comedy it seems to me to lack lightness. The pall of doom and decay hangs over nearly everything. Although Mr. and Mrs. Khoja are comic figures, behind his muddling and pomposity, behind her fussiness, the heavily stupid and grimly neurotic lurk so close that we seldom can laugh freely. Mrs. Lutchman is the only character who demonstrates a sense of humor, and she very rarely. The closest the others come is a sort of bitter sarcasm.

Readers who are primarily concerned with current experiments and theories in fiction will find Naipaul obviously out of date. There is no self-consciousness about the novelist's role, no playing back and forth between art and life, no surreal divagations or electronic adumbrations. Fireflies is a social novel, part of a solid tradition extending from Balzac to Buddenbrooks. The genre has by no means lost its appeal, although it is now more peripheral than it was a century ago.

Shiva Naipaul has written an ambitious, skillful, memorable first novel. My taste leads me to hope that he will move toward a lighter touch, a more personal and exploratory style, in his next.

Linda Hess, in a review of "Fireflies," in Saturday Review, Vol. LIV, No. 12, March 20, 1971, p. 37.

Michael Thorpe

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The reader of Fireflies, a novel as alive with a keen (and more compassionate) awareness of the pathos and absurdity of Trinidad Indian life as V. S. Naipaul's early works, may doubt the sincerity of Shiva Naipaul's disillusion with his subject matter. Yet it is an amorphous society he depicts, fundamentally materialistic, bogus on its spiritual side, as unpromising to the sensitive artist as the English society of Dickens' time; but it falls short of that society, in Mr Naipaul's presentation, in lacking centres of moral growth. No such centre is provided by the Hindu Khoja family which, weakly propped by tradition, is shown crumbling in an insecure atmosphere of selfishness and opportunism. The jungle laws of competition regulate everyone's actions. Everyone's, that is, except Mr Naipaul's triumphant creation, the simple and simple-minded Mrs Lutchman…. [She] endures in the midst of decay, salvaging what she can in the name of a stability which is its own justification…. To have concentrated for over 400 pages upon so barren a life without forfeiting interest and sympathy is, especially when seen against the love agonies of our customary novelistic diet, a uniquely admirable achievement. It is sustained in a Wellsian manner in Part I by scenes of bitter-sweet comedy centring upon Ram's confrontations with photography, gardening and his Morris Minor, and throughout by dramatic set pieces involving the "clan", such as the Khoja "cattha" …, the elder Mrs Khoja's dying (the death of the past) and an anachronistic Hindu "Christmas." These parts of the narrative convey, without authorial comment, a strong impression of the sterility and aimlessness of the society both Naipauls have despaired of. Yet it is to be hoped that Shiva Naipaul will not desert the Mrs Lutchmans; after her lumpish son Bhaskar has sailed for England and educational enlightenment, this moving, commonplace heroine is left in a memorable last paragraph longing "for nothing", soothed only by a breeze from the sickly canefields. She will go on needing Mr Naipaul's compassionate plea. (pp. 71-2)

Michael Thorpe, "Laws of Life," in Encounter, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 6, June, 1972, pp. 71-2.

Ronald Bryden

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It would be polite but ridiculous to talk about Shiva Naipaul as if he had leapt, full-armed and sui generis, into a literary world miraculously swept of all footprints of his famous brother V. S…. The relationship between the two is fraternal in much the same sense as that between Chekhov and Gorky. Like Chekhov, the elder Naipaul works from a fastidious, ironic private sensibility to humane public conclusions: because people behave badly, the world needs changing. The younger, more sweeping and less fastidious, starts where his brother ends: because the world needs changing, people behave badly. Bred within the old imperial culture, V. S. Naipaul sees its failure as one of individual wills, brains, imaginations. For his brother, born in 1945, it is the culture that blights the brains and wills. Like Gorky, he's fascinated by the perverse energies of primitive capitalism, the ferocious battling for a better life which, re-channelled, could transform society. In its raw appetite, depressing to his brother, he finds back-handed hope. For its casualties, pitiful and exasperating to the elder Naipaul in their self-delusion, he has only pity.

An image for their striving gives [The Chip-Chip Gatherers] its title. Chip-Chip are tiny shellfish which bed themselves just below the tide-line of Trinidad's Atlantic beaches…. Only in an utterly impoverished society, Naipaul implies, could they be a delicacy.

That is how the people of the novel survive. Egbert Ramsaran, founder of the Ramsaran Transport Company, maintains his ramshackle lorries by lending money at high interest to his former neighbours in the Settlement, a straggling village lost in mud and sugar-cane. They console themselves with the idea that one of themselves has escaped to the great, affluent world, and the hope that his heir, Wilbert, may marry one of their daughters. But Wilbert knows he is as much a prisoner as they. His educated cousin Julian is ruthless enough to shed family and sweetheart for a scholarship to England. But Wilbert stays trapped in the cannibal web of kinship, feeding on the tiny, marooned lives which also feed on him.

Shiva Naipaul's broader certainties make his style less fastidious than his brother's—he's fond of Dickensian rotundities and character-labelling tags—but his construction is if anything more magisterial. He marshals disclosures like a chess master; perhaps his finest is the chapter in which Julian's sweetheart, who has never allowed herself to hope while hope remained, surrenders finally to fantasy as she goes off to spinsterhood and a clerical job in Port-of-Spain. Oddly, it's this moment, closer to Chekhov than to Gorky, which proclaims most clearly a talent comparable with his brother's, but wholly distinct from it.

Ronald Bryden, "Kinship," in The Listener, Vol. 89, No. 2298, April 12, 1973, p. 489.∗

Martin Amis

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In The Pleasures of Exile George Lamming scolded V. S. Naipaul, as he no doubt would his younger brother Shiva, for taking too soft a line on Trinidadian social conditions, for being smug when he ought to be angry, for writing 'castrated satire'…. What the Naipauls write is irony, not satire, and irony is by definition non-militant…. Caribbean social conditions have for them, qua novelists, an imaginative significance only.

It is true that a primitive society offers a Hobson's choice of styles to its authors: tantrumese, noble-savagery, or a combination of irony and pathos. But like all limitations this brings special liberties. Irony and pathos are essentially downward-looking viewpoints, so a society of grotesques, fools, snobs, show-offs, martinets and ingenues who think and talk in illiterate clichés has obvious perks for a writer with as delicate a touch as Shiva Naipaul…. Although Mr Naipaul must, so to speak, keep his distance, this doesn't cut off sympathy but creates an undertow of restrained emotion…. The compassion is there in the sheer quality of the writing and never has to become explicit….

[The Chip-Chip Gatherers, like Fireflies], is predominantly concerned with one question about Trinidadian life: what happens when a backward people starts to educate itself? The most imaginatively appealing answer is that the old 'atavistic' instincts are not transcended, merely adulterated: what used to express itself in abuse and beatings turns into inarticulate malice; worry becomes anxiety, nostalgia becomes regret, apathy becomes morbidity, vague aspiration becomes obsessive ambition. This, like so much else, can best be observed through child-parent relationships, and Mr Naipaul again requires a broad canvas and a 40-year period in which to examine it….

If the book isn't quite as successful as the startlingly mature Fireflies, it is because Mr Naipaul has started to deal with the problem of focus. He is concentrating on nuance rather than ambiance, shaving down his sentences, and holding his vast—perhaps Dickensian—comic talents carefully in check. But for a writer in his twenties these are further precocities, not constraints, and there can be little doubt that his next novels will establish him as one of the most accomplished, and most accessible, writers of his generation.

Martin Amis, "Educated Monsters," in New Statesman, Vol. 85, No. 2196, April 20, 1973, p. 586.

Roland Oliver

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In 1976 Shiva Naipaul spent 20 weeks in Kenya and Tanzania, concluding with a brief dash down the Great North Road to Zambia in the company of a party of trekking hippies. He does not seem to have been well prepared for his journey nor to have met anyone of much consequence while he was there. The story [told in North of South] is mostly one of chance conversations in aeroplanes, buses, taxis, customs posts and, above all, hotel bars. All this is told with a great deal of novelist's sparkle, a power of vivid description and of characterisation through reported dialogue, which will not endear Mr Naipaul to his many acquaintances when his book comes into their hands….

On the whole, Mr Naipaul's book is more informative about touts and tourists, pimps and prostitutes, than about the national and international politics of the East African countries. He makes it quite clear that he has no admiration for Uhuru, whether capitalist-style in Kenya or socialist-style in Tanzania, but the evidence for both is disappointingly thin. So far as Tanzania is concerned, one must be a little sympathetic about the real difficulties placed in the way of would-be observers and the extreme reluctance of ordinary people to hold any converse with strangers….

Kenya, however, is another matter. There is freedom of travel. There is, as Mr. Naipaul's stories show, considerable freedom of speech. He could, and should, have looked beneath the surface and examined the basis of the capitalist economy, the inter-tribal situation and the prospects for the future. Instead of this, all we get is a blisteringly callow analysis of the black-white alliance against the brown….

It would be only natural to expect that Mr Naipaul, himself a Trinidadian of Indian descent, should have a sharp and compassionate eye for the predicament of the Asian communities in East Africa. In fact it proves not particularly compassionate…. [North of South is] a witty but not very wise book.

Roland Oliver, "Ujamaa," in New Statesman, Vol. 96, No. 2471, July 28, 1978, p. 124.

John Darnton

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"The African soul is a blank slate on which anything can be written, onto which any fantasy can be transposed," writes Shiva Naipaul halfway through his narrative of travels in East Africa. The quotation is out of context…. But the dictum—of Africa as a repository for the foreigner's fantasies—goes a long way toward explaining the peculiar deficiencies of his own book.

"North of South," which recounts Mr. Naipaul's peregrinations through Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia, is in the genre of travelogue cum essay. When the form succeeds, as it does, say, with a writer such as Paul Theroux, it is an effective device for larger statement. The voyager's day-to-day experiences are transformed into insights, theories, and finally, complete systems for generalization. When it fails or only partially succeeds, it degenerates into a string of observations, some interesting, some not so interesting, but on the whole leading nowhere.

The book is a collection of hapless encounters—with rapacious immigration officials, reckless taxi drivers, street hustlers, ideological robots and racist expatriates—strung together by the author's sardonic, often bilious observations. It is built on vignettes and cameo portraits….

These people undoubtedly do exist—we have to take Mr. Naipaul's word on that—but as representative types they are hardly the defining personalities in Africa today. One wonders how he failed to meet, or at least record, a single non-racist white or a single articulate, intelligent black. At times, he seems to go overboard, the novelist overpowering the journalist. (p. 14)

Elsewhere Mr. Naipaul's theories collapse from sheer intellectual weightiness…. He finds that the "obsessive concern with wildlife" in East Africa leads to the degradation of the more backward tribes, who become "mere adjuncts to the animals"—a point supported by the fact that bookstores carry glossy albums of the two side by side.

Nevertheless, "North of South" is superbly written, even in the evocation of the scenery that Mr. Naipaul finds uninspiring. Many of the points are well taken, if not altogether new—that independence has primarily benefited a black elite, that the continent craves the material goods of the West, that its ideologies and sometimes even its wars are rhetorical. But it is marred by a snideness of tone. One moment the author records with obvious scorn the pejorative asides of a colonial housewife, the next he incorporates and elaborates on them in his own private observations. The shift between defender and detractor is disconcerting: It blurs the author's own standing. Who is it, in the final analysis, that is relating all these tales of "native ineptitude" and why? It's a bit like pornography masquerading as a sex manual. (pp. 14, 24)

Mr. Naipaul's central thesis is that black-white relations in independent Africa today are rotten to the core….

There is, of course, some truth to the construct. From the point of view of social integration, Kenya's multiracial society is a myth. Whites do enjoy inordinate privilege, many blacks aspire to European possessions if not life styles, and the Indians remain a group apart…. But to see in these remnants of the past the whole future, and in these individual truths the single overriding truth, is to ignore some contradictory evidence….

The grotesque caricatures Mr. Naipaul reveals do exist—it would be remarkable if they did not—but there are many more subtle and perhaps more important trends at work. To see nothing in black Africa today but a continuation of the master-slave relationship betrays a myopic vision. Africa's ambiguities are good for fiction, not for journalism. The continent seems contradictory: Its scenery can be uplifting or oppressive, its land nurturing or unyielding, its people kind or brutal. What one sees depends to a certain extent on who one is. This is the "blank slate" that Mr. Naipaul found and that he filled with his own projections. (p. 24)

John Darnton, "Black and White and Middleman," in The New York Times Book Review, May 6, 1979, pp. 14, 24.

Jack Beatty

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An account of a journey through Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia, North of South is a remarkably bad-tempered book. Africa annoyed Shiva Naipaul…. Shiva Naipaul is a West Indian novelist now living in London; he has no warrant in Africa. He is on a moral holiday there. Testy as it is, North of South is a first-rate book—spirited, funny, written with economy and care—but it is not a great book like India: A Wounded Civilization, because Shiva Naipaul is not implicated in what he indicts. He went to Africa seeking precisely what he found: he includes a letter to his publisher which sketches out his ideological itinerary. So there is little in Africa that can shock him; and, though much angers him, nothing there can hurt him.

Nothing, that is, except the way black Africans feel toward people like himself, toward "Asians." (p. 38)

It is a paradox, a mystery, this popularity of the whites, this hatred of the inoffensive Asians, and, underneath his urbane bafflement, it makes Shiva Naipaul furious with the Africans. "Transitional states," he writes, "are full of pain, riddled with illusion." There is much pain in what he describes, but he shows very little sympathy for it; his forte is exposing the illusion. Here is his farewell to Africa: "… Nothing but lies." "Nothing but"—it is the language of obsession, not that of observation. Africa is unproblematic to Naipaul. He needn't have gone there at all; he could have written his book straight from his prejudices. Those prejudices light up the plight of the marginal men, the Asian population in the new black nations, but they stand between the reader and Africa. This would not be a problem in a novel but in a work which claims to be transparent on reality it causes a loss of belief, it induces an indiscriminate skepticism, finally it makes the reader as churlish and ungenerous as Mr. Naipaul.

North of South presents a satirical view of a parody civilization, and this is ironic, because it reads like a parody of the travel books of Shiva Naipaul's more illustrious brother. So one must take Shiva's fulminations against the inauthenticity of the Africans with a dose of irony. Who is he, writing in a form borrowed from his brother, to talk about authenticity? I found myself asking. For here are the themes of V. S. Naipaul's books: authenticity, fantasy as an immobilizing force, the squalid racket of third-world politics…. Is it ungenerous of me to wonder aloud if some of the anger in Shiva Naipaul's narrative has its sources in his feelings not about Africa but about borrowing his brother's form, striking his brother's rhetorical stances, and using his brother's tropes and tones and even his brother's diction? Mrs. Naipaul may of course have produced two sons with very similar obsessions; in that very likely case there would be no question of parody, of unconscious imitation. And perhaps that is the least churlish way to leave the matter, as the problematic, conjectural thing that it is. (pp. 38-9)

Jack Beatty, in a review of "North of South: An African Journey," in The New Republic, Vol. 180, No. 23, June 9, 1979, pp. 38-9.

Peter L. Berger

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Not only have there been many accounts of the macabre events [of the Jonestown Massacre] but the question of interpretation has continued to intrigue many commentators…. [With] so much data already on hand, it seems unlikely that any startling new facts will be uncovered and the question of interpretation becomes more pressing. ["Journey to Nowhere: A New World Tragedy"] stands out by its resolute attack on this question and its refusal to accept easy answers. Mr. Naipaul … is a sharp, sometimes pitiless observer. He is a masterful writer. And he was determined to gain an independent understanding of the Jonestown phenomenon. These qualities make for a book that no one interested in the matter can afford to ignore.

Mr. Naipaul's quest for an explanation took him both to California and to Guyana, to the beginning and end points of the movement, and "Journey to Nowhere" is an account of these travels as much as an interpretation of Jonestown. Travelogue and commentary keep on intersecting, but given the evidence of a fine mind working to understand a complex and shocking subject, one tends to get as interested in Mr. Naipaul as in what he is writing about so well. Whether one finds the constant intrusion of the author into so terrible a story a flaw or a benefit is a matter of taste; be this as it may, in Mr. Naipaul's case, the continual presence of the inquiring author makes the book lively and readable.

Other authors have interpreted Jonestown as an expression of America as a "sick society," or as yet another product of the anti-American madness that previously spawned Charles Manson and the Symbionese Liberation Army. The ecumenicity of Mr. Naipaul's antipathies protects him from the simplicities of either cliché. Mr. Naipaul's Guyana is a country beyond redemption—hopelessly stagnant, corrupt and violent. He did not like California either, and, one gathers, this dislike extends to America as a whole. California is for him the perfect symbol of all the ills of Western civilization, a place without meaning or identity, and therefore vulnerable to any doctrine, however lunatic or murderous, which promises a semblance of either. The present reviewer has very little knowledge of Guyana (though, even thus ignorant, one finds it hard to believe that any country could be so bereft of hopeful features); he is in a position to dissent vigorously from Mr. Naipaul's vision of California, not to mention America. Curiously, though, such disagreement does not detract from Mr. Naipaul's essential interpretation of what took place at Jonestown and, before that, in Jones's American movement. (p. 8)

Mr. Naipaul's is a harsh perspective; it is also a very persuasive one. To be sure, a less idiosyncratic writer would have softened his interpretation, introduced more nuances, perhaps shown more compassion. One strength of the book is that Mr. Naipaul does none of these things, letting the reader make his own modifications if he is so inclined….

There is one omission in "Journey to Nowhere," though, that must be mentioned as a serious weakness: Except for some passages about the rather pathetic remnants of the Black Panthers in Oakland, Calif., Mr. Naipaul's account barely touches on the motives and the fate of Jones's black followers…. By no stretch of the imagination can they be seen as products of the "California syndrome." They were fascinated by Jones's putative gift of healing, seduced by his cynical use of traditional Protestant rhetoric and touched by his concern (which, for all one knows, may have been genuine at the beginning). It would have been important to enter into their story too, along with the stories of all those assorted gangsters, revolutionaries and deranged intellectuals. What is more, an examination of their story might have introduced the note of compassion that one misses in this book. (p. 20)

Peter L. Berger, "Revolutionary Suicide," in The New York Times Book Review, July 5, 1981, pp. 8, 20.

Peter Levi

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[Shiva Naipaul's] novels have dealt with a world where feeling has gone dead from despair and helplessness. He draws with the utmost precision a picture of the backwoods of Trinidad, and a people obsessed with the earnest, lifelong struggle to climb into the lower middle class. (p. 25)

Fireflies was a heavily documentary family saga, rather flatly constructed, but at the same time it was an utterly original book; the impression its abundant detail made was unforgettable. If Shiva Naipaul seemed never quite to get inside his characters, that is because he thought there was straw inside them. They were without some indefinable essential part of man. He wrote like a sociologist, unstylishly, at great length and with academic coldness. Still, for whatever reasons, Fireflies was a runaway success. It was certainly a most promising first book although it reads now as if it were written with suppressed passion by a writer who was a quarter poet, forcing himself into social science, hardly by a novelist at all.

By the end of The Chip-Chip Gatherers, that reservation dissolves. He still specialises in characters whose feelings have gone dead. Liberation, if it ever arrives, comes too late to matter…. But the novelist's ear for dialogue, and the fluent, truthful movement of one scene into another, which differs from family saga as history does from chronicle, and the brilliant spare delineation of certain scenes and characters, make this a novel in a new sense. Fireflies was more than promising in more than one direction. But The Chip-Chip Gatherers reveals glimpses of a rapid and wonderful novelist.

Since then we have been starved. In 1973, Shiva Naipaul was 28; we have had no more novels from him…. But Shiva Naipaul's two documentary books, North of South (1978), a sharply sardonic travel book about Africa, and Black and White (1980), about Guyana and the mass suicide under Jim Jones, are so extremely good that if we have lost a novelist we have still gained a writer who is now much more than promising. (pp. 25-6)

And yet one has the sense with Shiva Naipaul, in Black and White particularly, that he is still feeling his way…. [He] deals swiftly and powerfully with many themes a novelist might use. His eye for detail, his wry observation of character and his ear for dialogue are as remarkable as ever. He is still able to plunge himself into the lower depths of a society as thoroughly now as in the days of Fireflies. What he is doing is not quite reportage; as Pater said of the other arts striving towards the condition of music, all Shiva Naipaul's books tend towards a novel.

In Black and White he casts a beady eye on a number of extremist groups on the West Coast that lurk in the background of the Jim Jones movement. This is investigative journalism, the last infirmity of men of letters, who are often better at it than regular journalists. It is the closest they can come to action. Shiva Naipaul's eye is admirably bleak. He is still fascinated by those whose lives are a nonsense. 'They are redundant. They are good for nothing. They do not even evoke fellow feeling'. And yet he writes from the very strong position of a thoroughly prejudiced and scornful humanist with unlimited curiosity. What rules his writing now is a sense of determining structure, the curve of a story, the hammer-blow of an explanation. He has always produced significant details, like a man picking winkles out of shells, but he has become a more controlled writer as time has gone by….

Shiva Naipaul's close relation with Trinidad has meant a burden of love-hate which he might be glad to forget. Yet the only oracles that Apollo offers to writers are Dig deeper, and Know thyself. (p. 26)

Peter Levi, "Shiva Naipaul," in The Spectator, Vol. 250, No. 8068, February 26, 1983, pp. 25-6.

Francis King

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In its implacable depiction of one of those anterooms to hell that liberated Third World countries seem doomed to become, [A Hot Country] is impressive; but it has an odd air of being no more than the first draft of another novel, far fuller of incidents and characters. Just as the flood of the colonisers' dreams of untold wealth soon dwindled to a trickle and was then lost in sand, so the flood of the narrative, so confident at first, also thins away. The last two pages are superb in their evocation of a world of void, darkness and unspecified hunger, in which people, robbed of their souls by their former conquerors and exploiters, now have only one genuine desire left to them: 'To wreak vengeance. To tear down. To burn. To loot. To insult. To kill.' But it is impossible not to feel disappointment with a writer capable of such passionate eloquence and yet lacking the stamina to create the epic that his book seems constantly to adumbrate.

Francis King, "Potent," in The Spectator, Vol. 251, No. 8099, October 1, 1983, p. 22.

David D'Arcy

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[Love and Death in a Hot Country], Naipaul's subtly crafted account of abandonment and degeneration in a thinly-veiled version of Guyana, focuses on two casualties of the new redemptive order, Dina and Aubrey St. Pierre, whose marriage is suffering its own parallel decline. Disgusted by the lavish promises of the electoral masquerade, the St. Pierres inhabit a political and psychological void between the vanishing past and the balloting's foregone conclusion. In divergent ways, their lives assume a frustration and incompleteness that obliquely but unmistakably reflects Cuyama's apparently hopeless course. (p. 20)

Naipaul's portrait of a nation coming apart before having a chance to take political or cultural shape is neither explosive or overtly dramatic. His is a vision of gradual decomposition, tautly revealed in personal histories, the rhythms of daily life and details of the landscape….

Love and Death in a Hot Country draws much of its inspiration from the author's nightmarish trip to Guyana several years ago, recorded in Journey to Nowhere (1980), an extended report on the Jonestown massacre. Some revolutionary terminology and bits of conversation reappear exactly as they did in the earlier volume. Perhaps because Naipaul is dealing here with characters he created, though, the novel exhibits a tone of genuine sympathy for those condemned, through no fault of their own, to endure the whims of a brutal dictatorship modeled after the autocratic rule of black President Forbes Burnham. Journey to Nowhere all too often drifted into facile contempt for the Guyanese, portrayed as fatuous or irremediably ignorant. Nor did it have any patience for the credulous, manipulable Americans, whom the writer held responsible for the phenomenon of Jim Jones.

Naipaul observes in his documentary account that politics in Guyana had a racial basis: Lines were drawn according to deep and often violent hostilities dividing the black and Indian populations. Similar hatred underlies the novel's action, taking the form of an official ideology that infuses the black characters. Indeed, their venom approaches hysteria. The author, a native of Trinidad where blacks and Indians are roughly equal in number, would likely take issue with any notion of racially determined behavior. Nevertheless, he seems to be suggesting that racism in the developing world does not necessarily have its source in dealings between "imperialists" and newly independent peoples.

But most impressive is this book's success as fiction. Emerging from Naipaul's despairing view of "liberation" is his wondrous, near-poetic description, his acute sensitivity to the complicated interplay of public and private, and his uncanny skill at fashioning realistic people out of circumstances that lead many novelists into wild exaggerations. Moving closer to his distinguished brother's skepticism about human nature, Shiva Naipaul has given us starkness amid lushness, politics stillborn in an atmosphere of gloom. (p. 21)

David D'Arcy, "Lost in a Landscape of Neglect," in The New Leader, Vol. LXVII, No. 9, May 28, 1984, pp. 20-1.


Naipaul, Shiva (Shivadhar Srinivasa)