Sir Vidia’s Shadow

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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 and more accomplished of the two. His reputation as a novelist was already well established, while Theroux had yet to publish anything. Aspiring writer Theroux, not surprisingly, was eager to make Naipaul’s acquaintance. 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. Naipaul dismisses Theroux’s academic colleagues—as well as most of the expatriate population of Africa—as “infies,” inferior persons, complains about how dirty Kampala is, and is extravagantly insulting to his students, telling one of them, “Your essay is hopeless. But you have lovely handwriting.” He refuses to meet his classes and agrees to judge a university literary competition on condition that only one prize be awarded, third prize. He is, in brief, 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.

Now an accomplished writer himself, Theroux—who made his name as the author of numerous works of travel literature—has developed a gift for re-creating scenes from distant times and places. Conversations he had with Naipaul decades ago are reported as if verbatim, despite the fact that he apparently followed Naipaul’s advice not to keep a diary and did not keep copies of his own correspondence with Naipaul (a request to consult the originals now in the Naipaul archive at the University of Tulsa was rejected). Early in the book, Theroux states that what he had originally envisioned as a short memoir will be a more elaborated work because, he claims, “I remember everything.”

This declaration is reminiscent of Lillian Hellman’s statement at the outset of Pentimento (1973), the second installment of her memoirs, that she may not remember everything clearly but that she trusts “absolutely” her memory of her friend Julia. Since Hellman’s death in 1984, the accuracy of her memoirs has come into question, and the “Julia” story has been conclusively shown to be a fabrication. Theroux’s recollections of Naipaul appear to accord with fact, but there would seem to be good reasons not to trust them “absolutely.” Theroux was inspired to write his book after his relationship with Naipaul ended abruptly—and on a sour note. Its publication kicked up quite a bit of dust, and mutual friends were forced to choose sides. Naipaul for his part has remained silent, but Theroux answered his critics in the November 1, 1998, issue of The New York Times, asserting that after he handed his manuscript in to his publisher, he discovered a long-forgotten diary that validates what he wrote about his relationship with Naipaul. Even in defending the truth of what he has written, however, Theroux undermines his blanket declaration of its validity: “Meditating upon the world and what is most familiar is the preoccupation of writers. Sometimes that includes re-creating our nearest and dearest, and our secrets, as imaginative subjects.”

Then there is this: Sir Vidia’s Shadow opens with a chapter written in the third person that shares the perspective of a young aspiring novelist named Jules, who has just met an older established writer named U. V. Pradesh. Theroux’s second chapter then immediately rips off the veil:

Wait, wait, wait. You know I am lying, don’t you? This is not a novel, it is a memory.

The man is not “U.V. Pradesh.” It is V.S. Naipaul. . . . the young man is not Julian Lavalle. It’s me, Paul Theroux, and I am shining my light upon the past. I cannot improve on this story.

Readers, though, might wonder: How does this memoir differ from some of Theroux’s earlier work—in particular, his 1996 novel My Other Life, which features a narrator named Paul Theroux?

Theroux undoubtedly has improved upon the story of his relationship with Naipaul, both for good and for ill. Most of the good, naturally enough, accrues to the shadow’s benefit. Theroux may have been the junior partner, the gofer, the spear carrier, but he comes across as the more humane, enlightened, and worthy individual. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his and Naipaul’s relationships with women. When readers first meet him, Theroux is wrapped up in a sexual maelstrom with a young Nigerian woman named Yomo. Later, when that relationship falls apart, he engages in a series of one-night stands with African prostitutes, experiences he exalts for their straightforwardness: “‘Come home with me. I want to make love to you,’ I would say, but the statement was even blunter and without euphemism in Chichewa or...

(The entire section is 2052 words.)