Sir Vidia’s Shadow
V.S. Naipaul—known to his friends as Vidia—and Paul Theroux first met in 1966 in Kampala, Uganda, where Theroux was teaching English at Makerere University and Naipaul was serving out a term as a reluctant visiting lecturer. Naipaul was the older, more accomplished of the two. His reputation as a novelist was already well established, while Theroux had yet to publish anything. Theroux, not surprisingly, was eager to make Naipaul’s acquaintance, and he was flattered and excited when Naipaul began to give him advice and encouragement.
The portrait Theroux paints of Naipaul in those long ago days is hardly flattering. He is, however, the same Naipaul the world has come to know through his own writings: egocentric, snobbish, and frank to the point of rudeness. For his fans—and for three decades for Theroux—these are Naipaul’s virtues.
Theroux was inspired to write his book after his relationship with Naipaul ended abruptly—and on a sour note. He has claimed in his defense that the truest portrait of a writer cannot be a study in virtue. True enough, but in SIR VIDIA’S SHADOW: A FRIENDSHIP ACROSS FIVE CONTINENTS he seems to have provided less than a balanced account. Whereas the naipaul readers first meet is eccentric and frequently off-putting, he nevertheless has his charms. Thirty years later, as Theroux presents him, he is anything but attractive. Naipaul in later life is small and dark and ugly. He is racist, class-ridden, misogynistic. Spurned, Theroux has nothing good to say about what his former friend has become.
Theroux has protested that SIR VIDIA’S SHADOW is not only about the end of friendship, but about its progress through space and time. This may be, but what one is left with is a portrait of one distasteful individual rendered by another.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCV, September 1, 1998, p. 5.
The Christian Science Monitor. October 8, 1998, p. B7.
National Review. L, October 26, 1998, p. 54.
The New York Times Book Review. CIII, September 27, 1998, p. 7.
Newsweek. CXXXII, August 10, 1998, p. 64.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, August 31, 1998, p. 54.
The Times Literary Supplement. December 4, 1998, p. 3.
US News and World Report. CXXV, August 10, 1998, p. 39.
The Wall Street Journal. September 23, 1998, p. A20.
The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, October 4, 1998, p. 1.