Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1252
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 common thread among the parts that make up In a Free State. The longest of these, and the one from which the title of the book is taken, follows a British colonial couple as they travel through the upheaval of a fictional African country in transition. The couple is less than admirable, holding colonial opinions and naïvely expecting to find freedom in the heart of Africa, but the Africans are no better: The disorder that has followed the evils of colonialism has brutalized the inhabitants. Instead of freedom, the British couple finds only chaos and danger.
This theme is carried over to Guerrillas, an account of a revolution on a fictional Caribbean island. It is further expanded in A Bend in the River, set in an African country similar to Zaire geographically and politically. The cycle that Naipaul sees—colonialism leading to revolution, revolution leading to chaos and then back to revolution—is observed through the eyes of a rather naïve East African of Indian origin who has come to the disintegrating country to make his fortune. In the disorder, he finds spiritual, cultural, and eventually political imprisonment instead of the wealth and freedom he has been seeking.
Naipaul’s pessimistic vision is corroborated by history, and he does not flinch from presenting this vision in his travel essays and books. His varied cultural background seems to have given him an objective, detached outlook, untainted by cant or loyalty to any particular culture (though he does admire Great Britain). Even while he condemns the colonialism in which that country engaged, he seems to admire the order which it brought to countries that he believes were already chaotic, such as India. This predilection for Western culture has roused the ire of some postcolonial writers, but it is difficult to fault a man who has sprung from a colonialized, deracinated culture and who can still see the human condition so clearly.
Naipaul taught at Wesleyan University in Connecticut in 1978. Then from late 1979 to early 1980, he traveled to Iran and other Muslim countries gathering materials for Among the Believers. He had published novels at regular four-year intervals between 1963 and 1979, but he was kept from writing during the early 1980’s by his own serious illness and the deaths of his younger sister and brother Shiva (the latter had become an important writer during the 1970’s). The Enigma of Arrival, his first novel since A Bend in the River, was his most autobiographical piece of fiction and is filled with a sense of personal loss. His next two works were travel books: A Turn in the South visits the former slave states in the southern United States, and India: A Million Mutinies Now explores the diversity of ethnic groups in India.
In 1994, Naipaul published A Way in the World. It is a difficult book to categorize: The publisher listed it as a novel, but critics considered it a mixture of short stories, history, and autobiography. It contains nine narratives—some clearly fictional and involving historical figures, some ostensibly factual and involving historical figures or people supposedly known by Naipaul. Together, the narratives examine various types of cultural displacement. The 2001 novel Half a Life tells the story of a young high-caste Hindu who leaves India, is educated in England, and settles in a Portuguese African colony, all the while finding himself culturally adrift.
Naipaul received the T. S. Eliot Award in 1986 and was knighted by the British government in 1990. In 2001, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his works that “compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories.”