Shiva Naipaul Naipaul, Shiva (Shivadhar Srinivasa) - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Shiva (Shivadhar Srinivasa) Naipaul 1945-1985

Trinidadian-born English novelist and nonfiction writer.

Reflecting his own multinational roots, Naipaul focuses on problems of cultural identity and social unrest in Third World countries. His works often concern the sense of individual helplessness in the face of political instability and economic distress.

Biographical Information

Naipaul, a Hindu of Indian descent, was born February 25, 1945, in Woodbrook, Trinidad. His father, Seepersad, a journalist whose literary gifts were never fully developed, died when Shiva was only seven. V. S. Naipaul, his older brother and later a famous novelist, was already a student at Oxford University at that time. Naipaul grew up with his mother and five sisters. Naipaul was an indifferent and at times difficult student at Queen's Royal College, the Protestant alma mater of his brother and several distinguished West Indian writers, but blossomed into a brilliant student at St. Mary's College, Queen's Royal College's Catholic rival, where he won one of Trinidad's prestigious Island Scholarships for study abroad. At the age of nineteen he followed in his brother's footsteps when he left Trinidad for Oxford, where he first read politics and psychology and then Chinese language and literature. In 1967 he married Jenny Stuart, with whom he had one son in 1974. After leaving Oxford in 1968, the family resided for many years in England, where Naipaul published fiction, winning the John Llewellyn Rhys prize and several other awards for his first novel. Naipaul traveled extensively in East Africa, witnessing many scenes of brutality, which he would describe in his works. Although he was well respected in the literary world, Naipaul did not reach the level of recognition his more famous brother had achieved. On August 13, 1985, Naipaul died suddenly of a heart attack in London.

Major Works

Naipaul's first novel, Fireflies (1970), parodies the Trinidad colonial society on the threshold of universal suffrage. The novel details the downfall of leaders of a Trinidadian Hindu community as a result of their own family troubles and social deprivations. The Chip-Chip Gatherers (1973), his second novel, also is set in Trinidad; it examines the life of the small and increasingly closed Hindu community, and depicts the external colonial society. Naipaul tells the story of two disparate families who can never bridge their differences. Naipaul took a ten-year break from writing novels to travel and write two nonfiction books, North of South: An African Journey (1978) and Black and White (1980). The former is not just a travel book but is also a commentary on the pervasive influence of European mores and customs on the culture of East Africa. The latter is considered one of the best studies of the 1978 Jonestown massacre in the wilderness of Guyana. In 1983 Naipaul returned to writing fiction and produced a work much darker in tone than his previous novels, A Hot Country, set in the morally bankrupt fictional country of “Cuyama.” Beyond the Dragon's Mouth (1985) is a collection of short stories and articles in which Naipaul explores the intricacies of the effects of colonialism and cultural clash. A book of essays, An Unfinished Journey, was published posthumously in 1986

Critical Reception

Criticism on Naipaul has been somewhat lacking, in part because his untimely death cut short a promising literary career. A number of critics have commented on his ambivalent relationship with his well-known older brother, and his complicated responses to his own multicultural experiences. North of South was roundly condemned by Africanists such as Michael Thelwell who accused Naipaul of prejudice against Third World nations and peoples. Others, such as Geoffrey Wheatcroft and Irving Howe, defended Naipaul as uncompromisingly honest about the corruption and violence he found rampant in East Africa and unwilling to oversimplify definitions of civilization and culture.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Fireflies (novel) 1970

The Chip-Chip Gatherers (novel) 1973

North of South: An African Journey (nonfiction) 1978

Black and White (nonfiction) 1980; also published as Journey to Nowhere: A New World Tragedy, 1981

A Hot Country (novel) 1983; also published as Love and Death in a Hot Country, 1984

Beyond the Dragon's Mouth (short stories and articles) 1985

An Unfinished Journey (nonfiction) 1986

Michael M. Thelwell and Irving Howe (essay date 1979)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Thelwell, Michael M., and Irving Howe. “Contra Naipaul.” In Duties, Pleasures, and Conflicts, pp. 200-07. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.

[In the following exchange of letters first published in the New York Times Book Review, Thelwell criticizes and Howe defends Naipaul's literary treatment of African culture.]

To the Editor:

Had the brothers Naipaul not existed, would you have had to invent them? One suspects so. For how else would it have been possible for little brother Shiva to pontificate in your columns [Shiva Naipaul's North of South: An African Journey reviewed by John Darnton] that “the African soul is a blank slate on which anything can be written, onto which any fantasy can be transposed.” That was May 6. In your May 13 issue, senior brother Vidiadhar compounds the nonsense by intoning dramatically, to the quite evident titillation of interviewer Elizabeth Hardwick, that “Africa has no future.”

Enough already! What Elizabeth Hardwick understands about the real world has always been questionable. “Crippled cultures,” indeed. But Irving Howe? [Mr. Howe reviewed V. S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River May 13.] Should we not expect from him at least some understanding of the ironies of history and its devious little sister, literature? Why then does he have such difficulty in recognizing and discussing the emotional need that the Western literati has for the Naipauls of the world?

Times and fashions change, but needs are constant. This is why the role of the Conrads and Kiplings of the imperial age—that of caricaturing and disparaging the societies and cultures of Africa and Asia—has had to devolve to native replacements. That these assimilados display an even greater zest and inventiveness at this task is a minor irony, tribute not only to the slumbering intelligence of the native, newly awakened, but to the inspirational example of their colonial mentors.

Today, Gunga Din no longer serves up cold beers and comforting toddies in the officers' mess. In his contemporary incarnation he distills cultural reassurance. Shiva and Vidiadhar, with their white alter ego Paul Theroux by their side, range like restless, deracinated, malevolent spirits through the Third World, their insatiable scavengers' eyes seeking signs of sickness, rot, or anything that they may mock, parody, and patronize. They have made careers of wallowing in the travail and pain of the black world. And to what end? Nothing more honorable or valuable than feeding the cultural smugness and reassuring the historical insecurity of the Western literati, that historically irrelevant class which is their only constituency.

But then, Gunga Din in whatever incarnation, is always a pathetic creature to his own people, his virtues being apparent only to the other side. As a writer he is without historical memory, outside of community, without kinsmen, ancestors, or gods. He lacks roots, culture, responsibility, obligation, or commitment to anything more substantial than his own alienated ego. To Irving Howe this in a writer is a strength? Since when … the time he left his father's house? No wonder the vision is so bleak, corrosive, lifeless, and ultimately self-hating. Gunga Din, in a clown mask, dhoti flapping round his spindly shanks, dances on his ancestors' graves, while the cold smiles of the Pukka Sahibs applaud his antic agility.

Les Arbres musiciens, a novel of political and religious conflict by the distinguished Haitian author Jacques Stephen Alexis, engages precisely this issue.

A poor but ambitious peasant woman—herself a traditionalist—struggles to educate her three sons. The reward of her sacrifice is that one son becomes a military officer, the second, a lawyer, and the third, a Catholic priest. The priest in a fit of assimilationist zeal and pious intolerance leads a crusade against the shrines and priests of his mother's religion. Finally, he leads his zealots against the great holy shrine La Remembrance only to find it already set aflame by Bois D'Orme the old keeper of the shrine who is dying. The High Priest of Voudou—ignorant old peasant to be sure—greets the Catholic priest with these words.

“The Loas [Gods] have not allowed your sacrilegious hands to defile the ancient shrine of Remembrance. Though it is now flames and ashes, the Loas live. … The ancient shrine will rise again, greater, higher, more beautiful, eternal like the Loas of eternal Africa. I go to my death. You—to your misfortune—will survive, but there will be more dead than you. … Go, son of no father. Go, man of no race, man of no land, man of no nation, the hands of the Gods are upon you” [italics added].

That Africa and the Third World face formidable and intimidating problems, not all of them of Western devising, is true and distressing, but the sneers and insults of the Naipaul collective notwithstanding, it is not Africa and its people that have no future. It is the literary Gunga Dins and the class whose cultural insecurities they so meretriciously and cynically serve.

With every good wish,

I beg to remain, your obedient servant,

Michael M. Thelwell

Associate Professor

W. E. B. DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies

University of Massachusetts, Amherst


Michael Thelwell's eloquent letter—which shows he may have learned some skills from that “historically irrelevant class,” the Western literati—drops a number of writers into roomy ideological bins, pastes on those bins the label of “deracinated,” and then declares them enemies of the Third World. But please, not so fast.

I didn't review “the brothers Naipaul,” or discuss the politics of V. S. Naipaul, with which I might well disagree. I reviewed his novel A Bend in the River, a gifted, reflective, and by no means totally unsympathetic portrait of the ordeals of an imagined African country. I quoted passages indicating that Naipaul, though hostile to military demagogues and their intellectual apologists, writes with some warmth about ordinary Africans. About such mere details Professor Thelwell can't, apparently, be bothered.

Suppose, however, Naipaul were to seek “signs of sickness and rot,” not in Third...

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Geoffrey Wheatcroft (essay date 11 May 1987)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wheatcroft, Geoffrey. “The Enigma of Departure.” New Republic 196 (11 May 1987): 26-30.

[In the following essay, Wheatcroft provides an overview of Naipaul's life and work as well as an evaluation of his posthumous work An Unfinished Journey.]

In the summer of 1964 a young man of 19 sailed from his native Port-of-Spain for England. The scene is set in Shiva Naipaul's first novel, Fireflies:

Mr. and Mrs. Khoja were at the docks to see him off. Mrs. Lutchman wept profusely when the ship slipped its moorings.

“What you crying for?” Mr. Khoja said. “Just...

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Geoffrey Wheatcroft (essay date September 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wheatcroft, Geoffrey. “Writers and Comparisons: Salman Rushdie and Shiva Naipaul.” Encounter 75 (September 1990): 38-40.

[In the following essay, Wheatcroft draws comparisons and contrasts between Rushdie and Naipaul, positing a favorable assessment of Naipaul's work.]

In the 1960s, two young men settled in England. They were of much the same age; they came from comparable backgrounds; they both had the ambition to write. Become writers they both did, acclaimed and prize-winning novelists. Salman Rushdie has discovered not only acclaim but fame, to a degree and for reasons he could never have wished. He is now, I dare say, the best-known rather than the...

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David Racker (essay date 1994-95)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Racker, David. “Shiva Naipaul: Fragmented Traces as Material for Fictive Stereotypes.” West Virginia University Philological Papers 40 (1994-95): 50-5.

[In the following essay, Racker discusses the reasons for Naipaul's ambivalent sense of racial identity, comparing him to other cosmopolitan writers and applying Homi Bhabha's theories on racism to Naipaul's situation.]

As a citizen of a formerly colonized and culturally mixed Caribbean nation and as a writer who lived in London and wrote about the Third World for a Western audience, Shiva Naipaul has been the object of criticism by critics from both the Third World and from America and Britain. As the...

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Kevin Michael Grace (review date 6 January 2003)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Grace, Kevin Michael. “A Cold Eye.” Newsmagazine (National Edition) 30, no. 1 (6 January 2003): 46.

[In the following review of Journey to Nowhere, Grace refers to Naipaul as an acerbic social critic.]

[… The] late Shiva Naipaul … like his more famous brother, V. S. Naipaul, was a Hindu born in black Trinidad, then translated into an Englishman. He was the most savage social critic of his day, with a particular loathing of identity politics and the other fatuities that so confound us. He introduces Journey to Nowhere: A New World Tragedy, his account of the Jonestown Massacre, with this withering assessment: “The impression emerged of a culture...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Jacobs, J. U. “Writing in the Margin: Shiva Naipaul's A Hot Country.Theoria 70 (October 1987):.

Lengthy review of A Hot Country.

———. “The Colonial Mind in a State of Fear: The Psychosis of Terror in the Contemporary South African Novel.” North Dakota Quarterly 57, no. 3 (summer 1989): 24-43.

Article with a section on Trinidadian and Tobago literature, and a discussion of A Hot Country as compared to novels by Elsa Joubert, Andre Philippus Brink, and Nadine Gordimer.

King, Bruce. The New Internationalism: Shiva Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Buchi Emecheta,...

(The entire section is 311 words.)