V. S. Naipaul Naipaul, V(idiadhar) S(urajprasad) (Vol. 7) - Essay

Naipaul, V(idiadhar) S(urajprasad) (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Naipaul, V(idiadhar) S(urajprasad) 1932–

Naipaul is a highly regarded novelist, essayist, and short story writer. A self-styled stateless traveller born in Trinidad of Indian parents and educated in England, he writes fine nonfiction books on travel and deals in his fiction with themes of alienation, of self-exile, of rootlessness. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Mr Naipaul's new novel [Guerillas] opens with the view of a city, the centre of an 'emerging' Caribbean island; it straddles over a great plain, already falling into decay, its redeveloped areas of glass and concrete already turning into slums, the rubbish burning on the dumps, and the naked children playing in the streets. Roche, a man with a 'past' is driving through the heat and the dust of it with Jane, an English girl of no fixed opinions…. Fire becomes the prevailing image of the book, expressed not so much as a natural force but as an agent for waste and destruction: the brown, dead lands that surround the city, the thick smoke ascending from the streets and from the ramshackle estates. It establishes the tone of the book, which is one of impermanence, violence and change…. [These] two expatriates [are] travelling to visit Jimmy Ahmed, a 'revolutionary', once a jewel of the English counter-culture, and now back on his home ground ruling a commune close to the city….

[Mr Naipaul] is … very serious about his characters, and he presses a stylish but exact vocabulary into the business of describing them. Jimmy has fantasies about himself, Jane and Roche about each other (their physical appearances are described, by the way, in a tone of moderate disgust). Jane is disturbed by visions of time, change and decay which seem peculiarly apt under the circumstances but, when they allied to her stubborn self-certainty, make her unpredictable and occasionally vicious. Jimmy lives in an imaginary world in which he is constantly impressing people with his authority and power; but he is not what he appears, and when he acts it is in mean and restless ways. Roche is a man of sorrows, imprisoned and tortured in another country, but a man whose motives and insights are not particularly noble or profound on that account; he was, and is, simply playing the game. But the game is up, and the fire is not far from any of them….

When a "guerilla" is killed by the police, the city goes mad…. All of those people dreaming their little dreams wake up, and recognise each other. Just as the city breaks apart, at least for a while, the relations between Jane, Roche and Jimmy take on another face and the novel ends in murder and brutal cowardice. But Naipaul has prepared the ground so thoroughly that this becomes part of a more general statement. Scenes of anger, violence and love are followed by what is practically a filmic perspective, as Naipaul 'pans' to reveal a larger natural or human world. There are very few novelists who can place private lies within a social context, or turn general conflict into a matter of personal passion; Mr Naipaul does it….

Peter Ackroyd, "On Heat," in The Spectator (© 1975 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), September 13, 1975, p. 350.

Caribbean-born, Oxford-educated, lapsed Hindu, long-time-expatriate, V. S. Naipaul has produced over the past 20 years a succession of finely-crafted, disturbing and pessimistic novels that have won him a small but devoted international following…. [A recurring theme is] Naipaul's enduring concern with the individual's attempt to order the world after his own view of it, and finally to discover how innocence is inevitably lost, "how one's peculiar sense of order breaks down, and how the self may be falsified in the process." (p. 466)

Book Forum (copyright © 1975 by The Hudson River Press), Vol. 1, No. 4, 1975.

It is hard for the reviewer of a wonderful author to keep the obituarist's assured hyperbole in check, but let me say that if the silting-up of the Thames coincided with a freak monsoon, causing massive flooding in all parts of South London, the first book I would rescue from my library would be "A House for Mr. Biswas," by V. S. Naipaul….

His history, "The Loss of El Dorado," is the envy of most historians who specialize in the origins of New World imperialism and slavery; his essays in "The Overcrowded Barracoon" are masterpieces of vivid compression, good sense and wide reference…. In all of Naipaul's work it is possible to see how a preoccupation with truth, an exactitude of vision, cannot but be prophetic.

"A House for Mr. Biswas" is a vast Dickensian novel, "The Mystic Masseur" is slighter and sunnier; but whether Naipaul is writing fiction or non-fiction his perceptions are precise, and in both his concerns have remained constant: creation, fantasy, marriage, statelessness and travel, our use of the past and the casualties of freedom. He has spoken of himself as being without a past, without ancestors, a country or a tradition. He is a Brahmin who has used his sacred thread to tie his luggage; and how well he understands other people's countries! Read "An Area of Darkness" and you understand both the complexity of India in its present political extreme and the strange fate of Indians in Trinidad; "Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion" is a sad comedy of middle-class English life and the creative impulse; and reading his new novel, "Guerrillas," I was reminded of something the narrator of "The Mimic Men" says: "Hate oppression; fear the oppressed."…

"Guerrillas" is a violent book in which little violence is explicit; and it is the opposite of anonymous. It may surprise the casual readers of Naipaul's work, those who regret the absence of calypso in his West Indian books. And yet in a metaphorical sense it takes place on the same island he has described in many of his novels…. It is a novel, not of revolt, but of the play-acting that is frequently called revolt, that queer situation of scabrous glamour which Naipaul sees as a throw-back to the days of slavery, half-remembered even now in the angry grizzling of people like Jimmy Ahmed, the lost soul of the present novel.

"Guerrillas" is one of Naipaul's most complex books; it is certainly his most suspenseful, a series of shocks, like a shroud slowly unwound from a bloody corpse, showing the damaged—and familiar—face last. The island now is infertile, crowded, reeking with gas fumes and the dust from the bauxite plant. The particularities of irritation are everywhere, for this is the Third World with her disordered armies and supine population, and—with a vengeance—her camp followers. (p. 1)

This is a novel without a villain, and there is not a character for whom the reader does not at some point feel deep sympathy and keen understanding, no matter how villainous or futile he may seem. "Guerrillas" is a brilliant novel in every way, and it shimmers with artistic certainty. It is scarifying in the opposite way from a nightmare. One can shrug at fantasy, but "Guerrillas"—in a phrase Naipaul himself once used—is, like the finest novels, "indistinguishable from truth." (p. 2)

Paul Theroux, "An Intelligence from the Third World," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 16, 1975, pp. 1-2.

[In Guerrillas] V. S. Naipaul … again proves himself the laureate of the West Indies…. Naipaul once called this locale the "end of the world," and he should know…. [He] is a native expatriate with a fine distaste for patriotic rhetoric. In The Loss of El Dorado he outlined the history of his birthplace as a danse macabre of oppressors and oppressed.

Guerrillas is thus conspicuously short of heroes…. The native politicians are corrupt, the foreign businessmen avaricious, and the people either lethargic or criminal. When an uprising does flare, it is nasty and inept.

Perhaps no one but Naipaul has the inside and outside knowledge to have turned such a dispirited tale into so gripping a book. His island is built entirely of vivid descriptions and offhand dialogue. At the end, it has assumed a political and economic history, a geography and a population of doomed, selfish souls. Partisans of all stripes will argue that Naipaul has maligned their ideologies: not all revolutionary leaders are pathological perverts, not all benevolent whites are deluded do-gooders. These cavils are as irrelevant as they are true. Guerrillas is not a polemic (polemicists will be annoyed) but a Conradian vision of fallibility and frailty. With economy and compassion, Naipaul draws the heart of darkness from a sun-struck land. (pp. 84, 86)

Paul Gray, "Burnt-Out Cases," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), December 1, 1975, pp. 84, 86.

V. S. Naipaul's novels lay bare lives at odds with the past and the future…. Naipaul writes of exiles and refugees whose manners and habits don't fit into their new situations but cannot be relinquished. His communities are ruptured ones, in which conflicting codes of behavior jostle for dominance—a struggle that ends up choking the life from its participants. (p. 102)

Naipaul is a master of effects. His evocations of the decaying island landscape are like ominous hallucinations; his characters are drawn with sharply realistic dialogue and telling details of manner. The book has important flaws. Jane comes close to being a caricature of the self-destructive man hunter, and Jimmy's bisexuality may tempt readers to a simplistic understanding of his divided loyalties and sexual cruelties. At times, Naipaul overloads a small observation with too much Meaning. But "Guerrillas" is a challenging novel—absorbing, complex and disturbing. (p. 104)

Margo Jefferson, "Misfits," in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), December 1, 1975, pp. 102, 104.

Although he has been publishing fiction for eighteen years, V. S. Naipaul remains a most difficult writer to classify. His novels alone have settings as disparate as the Caribbean (A House for Mr. Biswas), England (Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion), Africa and the United States (the novellas of In a Free State). His nonfiction reveals a similar cosmopolitan panorama: The Loss of El Dorado, an extraordinary history of Trinidad, Naipaul's birthplace; The Overcrowded Barracoon, an enlightening account of life in that isolated island country, Mauritius; An Area of Darkness, a personal record of Naipaul's travels to his ancestors' homeland, India. When they are looked at as a whole, these and his numerous other works disclose an overall pattern or theme, that of the exile, wanderer, or refugee—at home, perhaps, in the world as a whole but never comfortable in any specific locale. Rarely has a Third World writer shown as much variety as Naipaul has in his books; few contemporary writers, moreover, have earned such critical acclaim or won so many distinguished literary awards.

Naipaul's most recent novel, Guerrillas, follows some of the patterns I have mentioned. For the setting he has, once again, returned to the West Indies—to an island which is probably Trinidad, though that is never entirely clear. The characters belong, again, to that homeless breed of persons who have spent long periods of their lives away from the countries of their birth. To these preoccupations, Naipaul adds another, though again one that has characterized much of his earlier writing: political strife. Specifically, Guerrillas is about incipient Black Power, a topic that is supposedly passé. Naipaul's achievement is to take a now hackneyed theme and produce a more significant treatment of it than most of his contemporaries with similar concerns. (p. 627)

V. S. Naipaul's story is constructed like a Fourth of July fireworks demonstration: the biggest burst comes at the end. Perhaps the explosion is inevitable, given the participants, yet the story builds so slowly and so skillfully that until the final scene bursts upon us, we are hardly aware of the necessary outcome of the events; it is only in retrospect that we see that the desultory action has in fact been charged with fate….

No one writes better about politics in the West Indies than V. S. Naipaul. Nor is there anyone who writes more profoundly about exiles, would-be revolutionaries and their assorted camp followers. Written in a deliberately flat style, Guerrillas is a deeply pessimistic novel, telling us that we have seen about as much political change in the West Indian island republics as we are likely to see. International economic forces guarantee the status quo; black revolutionaries are expendable. (p. 628)

Charles R. Larson, "Watching the Revolution Go By," in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), December 13, 1975, pp. 627-28.

V. S. Naipaul … has drawn the central theme of his novels—displacement and exile—from his own deracinated heritage and upbringing. He is not precisely a foreigner, yet in his finest books—A House for Mr. Biswas, An Area of Darkness and In a Free State—he has concerned himself most deeply with the poignant and unsettled psychology of the outsider, the person who simultaneously belongs everywhere and nowhere. (p. 10)

Apparently [Guerrillas] is based on an actual murder, yet Naipaul's tidy finale seems arbitrary rather than inevitable….

Although Naipaul can render the island landscape of the dispossessed with impressive power—the shabby mixture of putrescence and fertility, violence and torpor—he fails to convey any clearly defined point of view about his characters, settling instead for a lazy, inconsistent vagueness that deprives them of particularity and coherence. In the end Guerrillas simply does not hold together. (p. 11)

Pearl K. Bell, in The New Leader (© 1975 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), December 22, 1975.

"Guerrillas" … is a novel about the politics of the Third World…. This nasty, spare, intelligent novel seems as much written against the white, middle-class reader as for him—a story of Graham Greene's or Joseph Conrad's told from the other side. Probably the best novel of 1975. (p. 2)

The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 28, 1975.

[Naipaul's] exploration of macabre themes, most successfully in In a Free State, succeeds intellectually because here [in Guerrillas] theme is, or only grows from, story; his long Dickensian novel, A House for Mr. Biswas, because it first of all is the story of Mr. Biswas's magnificently well-conceived life. But after years of living in London, Naipaul has written a novel of ideas. Guerrillas bristles with senses of impending doom (does it ever come?), meaningful words and gestures (can a glance convey so much?), and lives of barely comprehensible scruple. Here too are superadded homosexuality, rape, and murder; but the novel succeeds most in infrequent passages of description and bits of dialogue, where bougainvillaea and convincing characters still lurk. Americans who do not know Naipaul should read his earlier work and hope that ideology soon gives way again to the craft of writing. (p. 56)

Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1976, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 52, No. 2 (Spring, 1976).