Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul (ni-POHL), born in Chaguanas, Trinidad, on August 17, 1932, has the peculiar vision of a man who is a product of three cultures: those of India, Trinidad, and Great Britain. His grandfather had come from India to Trinidad as an indentured laborer; one may see from Naipaul’s earlier novels, and particularly in A House for Mr. Biswas, how pervasive and tenacious the Indian culture remained among the many Indian immigrants to the Caribbean.
Naipaul completed his early education in Port of Spain, Trinidad. After working briefly as a schoolmaster at his old school and as a clerk in the Port of Spain Registrar’s Department, he left Trinidad for England on August 2, 1950, to attend University College, Oxford. On a Trinidad government scholarship, he studied literature and planned to become a writer. When his father died in 1953, Naipaul did not return home, but stayed in England to finish his degree. After graduating from Oxford in 1954, he worked briefly in the cataloging department of the National Portrait Gallery, London. Except for a few weeks writing advertising copy in 1957, this would be his last nonliterary job.
Although Naipaul traveled widely, London remained his home of choice. From 1954 to 1955, he worked for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Caribbean Service, presenting the weekly literary program Caribbean Voices. In 1955, he married Patricia Ann Hale. In 1960, he toured the West Indies on a three-month scholarship from the Trinidad and Tobago government; in 1962, he took a year-long tour of India and in 1966 traveled to the Caribbean and the United States to begin an extensive study of Trinidad’s history. He returned to England in 1970.
Self-imposed exile became a major theme in Naipaul’s writing, yet his earliest novels deal primarily with the multiethnic character of Trinidad and the doings of its inhabitants. Miguel Street, published in 1959, touches on the themes that would be fully realized in his later novels. These themes are presented in a series of vignettes set in a slum street in Port of Spain. The narrator, a street boy, comments on the various characters. Generally, the Trinidadian society that Naipaul presents in his earlier novels is one marked by lassitude in conflict with ambition, corruption, and the inevitable failure of hope in such a milieu. The major characters of The Mystic Masseur and The Suffrage of Elvira rise in politics through the ignorance, superstition, and greed of the society; any integrity with which they begin is lost in this environment.
A more optimistic tone, relatively speaking, is evident in Naipaul’s first major novel, A House for Mr. Biswas. This epic novel, which covers the progress of three generations of West Indian Hindus, begins with a description of Biswas’s house, a badly built, inelegant structure, and then explains how Biswas acquired it. By the end of the novel, the reader sees the house the way Biswas sees it: as the symbol of a triumph over a society which encourages the deadliest sort of inertia.
In a radical departure from his usual concerns, Naipaul published the story of a middle-aged, middle-class Englishman whose ambition is to be inducted into a certain honorary club. Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion has nothing of Trinidad or India in it. Yet the theme of struggle against an uncaring society is recognizably Naipaul’s and perhaps the only factor that connects it to the rest of his work.
Naipaul’s next novel, written after he had traveled through the Americas and India, again uses a West Indian Hindu as a protagonist. The Mimic Men was written in the form of an autobiography that explores the rise and fall of Ralph Singh, an imperfect “mimic” of Western culture. It is perhaps significant that Singh, at the time of writing his memoirs, is living in a London hotel. In this novel Naipaul explores one of his major themes, the effect of colonization upon the colonized.
The search for order, safety, and freedom becomes the...
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