V. S. Naipaul

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

A novelist, essayist, short story writer, and author of travel books, Naipaul was born in Trinidad of Indian parents and has resided in England since 1950. His early works drew praise for their clear prose style and delicate sense of humor. Critics have lauded his ability to capture with wit and compassion the West Indian dialect and life style. (See also CLC, Vols. 4, 7, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Robert D. Hamner

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Between The Mystic Masseur and publication of In a Free State, the structural organization of Naipaul's several novels has undergone a series of discernible changes. There is a marked difference between the early and late fiction, but the alterations in technique reveal a consistent development. Employing rather traditional plots and standard narrative exposition, he offers little that is innovative in the way of structure. In each book, whether the action is presented in simple, straight-forward narration or through a complex juxtaposition of episodes which assume significance accumulatively, Naipaul very carefully interrelates the various threads of his chosen plot.

Reduced to chronological outline, Naipaul's novels appear disarmingly simple. The basic framework does not rely for its effect on intricate complexity or on any "high seriousness" of action. Naipaul's primary focus is in his characters; all else depends upon them, and in recounting their experiences he is concerned that he tell their story well. Significantly, four of the published novels are presented through the eyes of a participating narrator. This contributes to the immediacy of these books, making the speaker's personality and the pattern of his emotional development an integral factor in the form of the works. At the same time, viewed from another perspective the narrator functions more as a device for continuity than as a fictional person; his point of view, his tone of voice, and his esthetic distance (not to be confused with that of the author) then assume importance as avenues through which the critic can view the work's basic structural arrangement. (p. 35)

First to be published, The Mystic Masseur sets the tone for the early novels. (p. 36)

Even though the anonymous narrator is hardly ever present in the body of the story, his occasional direct commentary is still in keeping with the overall fictional scheme of the book. From the outset the plot unfolds within a neatly constructed framework which is held together by the narrator. Chapter One, "The Struggling Masseur," not only gets the story off to a running start by opening in medias res, but in conjunction with the appended "Epilogue," it conveniently encloses Ganesh's entire rise and fall. (p. 37)

The surprise ending and some of the other devices used in The Mystic Masseur are standard tricks usually eschewed by sophisticated writers. Naipaul skillfully avoids sensationalism in this his first novel, but he is not above the use of mechanical ploys to create suspense, or, more properly, anticipation. (p. 38)

Had Naipaul been more skillful in conceptualizing the role of the narrator or otherwise less obviously dependent on plotting devices, the structure of the first novel would have been greatly strengthened. (p. 39)

Again [in The Suffrage of Elvira ] Naipaul's straightforward narrative flows easily within the carefully restrictive limits he has set. A formal prologue and epilogue enclose the thirteen humorously engaging chapters. Internally, an episodic quality persists; transitional passages, a few marred perhaps by the author's overly explicit guiding hand, maintain progression at a quick rate. Naipaul has abandoned the first-person narrator and has assumed an outside position from which to supply necessary exposition. Unfortunately, his artistry is still slightly uneven; there are points,...

(This entire section contains 5348 words.)

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as there are in the first novel, where his technical machinery draws undue attention to itself. (p. 40)

Naipaul's propensity to stir expectation and cultivate suspense is intensified in his second novel. But here he has not the excuse of the narrator's fictional role; The Suffrage of Elvira is constructed on different terms. The action, rather than being presented as the reflections of a biographer, is more immediate; it continually develops from internal cause and effect. Through the emphasis on dramatic presentation, the reader is led to involve himself primarily with character and scene. The illusion is disrupted when extraneous incursions are made. (p. 41)

In The Suffrage of Elvira Naipaul is still experimenting with form. With the addition of minor subplots he has slightly increased the depth and complexity of his expression. Detrimental to his work up to this point, however, is his failure to maintain a consistent quality of internal control. Separate episodes are fairly well integrated into the structure, and the characters with which he succeeds—in most cases the more colorful the better—are well done. What problem exists with prolonged consistency is overshadowed by the effects of his felicitous handling, within carefully restricted limits, of such a variety of characters and actions.

Appearing next in order of publication is the book which is actually the first one written by Naipaul. Treatment of Miguel Street has been reserved until now because even though it was conceived first, it was withheld by the author until he was apparently satisfied as to its completeness. Even more than the second and third novels, this work reflects the color and texture of Caribbean life. (pp. 43-4)

Episodes in this novel are not bound together as self-consciously as they were in the earlier published works, but the underlying structure may be Naipaul's most consistent yet. He again resorts to an ingenuous speaker to shape the reader's response. In Miguel Street, unlike The Mystic Masseur, he goes one step farther and provides a second character to serve as a foil to the naïveté of the primary commentator. The result is a more evenly balanced perspective, and it effectively conceals the author's controlling hand….

The importance of the narrator's expanding awareness is what makes Miguel Street fit the pattern of the Bildungsroman. Since the story is presented as past action, however, the process of thought development is not emphasized. Instead, the narrator provides an edited survey of his childhood. The youngster's growth is shown, but it is accomplished more by revealing his accumulated experiences than by tracing out a systematic development. (p. 46)

An intriguing study remains to be made of the original and the final manuscripts of this novel. If major changes are discovered—and if the first two published works are any indication of his early style—Naipaul's experimentation and practice in narrative techniques have been profitable. Either that, or all along Naipaul was creating in Miguel Street better than he knew. Advantageous to this novel is the consistent immediacy of the point of view from which the narrative is presented, and the substitution of less obtrusive double spacing for the editorial stars. At least for the present, he has foregone anticipatory devices, and his abrupt turns are made more palatable by his working them more integrally into the scenes in which they occur. His work is still episodic, and Miguel Street is more a collection of overlapping and interconnected sketches than a standard novel, but other considerations aside, with the noticeable refinements in his structural machinery, he has laid a solid foundation for his mature fiction.

With the appearance in 1961 of A House for Mr Biswas, Naipaul may have published his best fiction. It is even possible that this book is the best novel yet to emerge from the Caribbean. It is a vital embodiment of authentic West Indian life, but more than that, it transcends national boundaries and evokes universal human experiences. Mr. Biswas' desire to own his own house is essentially a struggle to assert personal identity and to attain security—thoroughly human needs. (p. 48)

As in The Mystic Masseur Naipaul reveals the end of the story before it begins, denying himself whatever superficial value might have resided in the temptation to keep the reader in suspense as to what would happen to his hero.

The first chapter and the epilogue … serve as "frames" for the plot, enclosing the shifting scenery of Mr. Biswas' world. From the early novels Naipaul retains anticipatory and summary passages, to a lesser degree minor unmarked breaks and mild shifts in narrative direction, and a few brief looks into the future; but these are now made so integral to the action of the story that they are unobtrusive, no longer drawing attention to themselves as plotting devices. As a matter of fact, on each level of the novel the structure is consistently molded more and more deeply into the texture of meaning…. [On] one level the framework is almost an outline, on a second it is a developing portrait, on a third it is an informing backdrop, and on another it is a fusion of motifs and themes.

Episodic as usual, the forthright plot of this finely wound novel does not separate easily into its several aspects, nor can the plot be divided from other aspects of the book. Even to its interspersed patterns of symbols and motifs, the narrative is connected with everything else…. As should be the case with the best fiction, to unfold the pattern of emotional development is essentially to analyze characterization, and to explore narrative technique is to investigate the texture of language throughout the work. Naipaul abandons narrative persona and simply concentrates on the presentation of an intriguing story. Technically, he employs the omniscient narrator, but the relation progresses with such unobtrusive ease that the reader's attention is seldom, if ever, distracted from the evolving action. (pp. 49-50)

Thus far, A House for Mr Biswas has been Naipaul's last exclusively West Indian novel. Those coming after it have shifted in locality and/or in the nationality of characters. Mr Stone and the Knights Companion is a complete break with the Caribbean…. This major change in setting is the most obvious, but not the only difference, between this and the last book: the "framing" technique disappears entirely; chapter titles are omitted; the field of action is severely restricted; and the tightly-knit story is told in less than 160 pages. (p. 52)

It is characteristic of Naipaul's later fiction that expectation and scope and intensity of action become more and more reduced. In Mr Stone and the Knights Companion, for example, even though an omniscient author presides over development, the central character is already mature and settled in his personality, and all that takes place is his painful adjustment to the inevitable problems (primarily emotional and mental) of old age. Naipaul has continually avoided sensationalism and melodramatic outbursts, but after A House for Mr Biswas the events he portrays are increasingly subdued in tone. In fact, a majority of the activity portrayed is internalized, given the form of mental reflection rather than of physical participation; and the shift in emphasis results in significant structural changes.

The Mimic Men is Naipaul's third novel on colonial politics, and it is by far his most complex and bitter treatment of the subject. The basic framework is, in fact, an improved replica of that employed in The Mystic Masseur. This time Naipaul's now familiar chronicle technique takes the form of a deposed officeholder's autobiography. Complicating the plot is the fact that events are not revealed in chronological order. Instead, it is up to the reader to arrange and fill in time slots as antecedent material is supplied during the course of the shifting narrative. (p. 55)

Unless the narrator is accepted along with his personal idiosyncrasies, the carefully sustained fabric of The Mimic Men will be misunderstood. He is egotistical, selfishly introverted and detached, and he seldom allows alternative concepts to enter into his narrative. Admittedly, this severely limits the scope of the book and sets it one remove from the type of dramatic tension which might normally be preferred, but the chosen method is exonerated by one overriding virtue—it consistently answers to the design of the novel. (pp. 58-9)

Naipaul is better able to sustain his own detachment and the point of view of his protagonist in The Mimic Men than he is in The Mystic Masseur. His advantage in the later novel is that the "framing" is less obtrusive, and the narrator's participation in the story proper is more conveniently explicable…. With hindsight, this development in Naipaul's technique might almost appear to be predictable. Each of his novels (with the qualified exception, perhaps, of Mr Stone and the Knights Companion) has been carefully placed within a frame which effectively separates it from outside reality. The frame is not necessarily artificial, but it reminds the reader more or less subconsciously of the presence of the artist-creator, until now in The Mimic Men the very presence of the narrator himself has developed into one of the primary focal points of the novel.

With these preliminary observations about the narrative voice in mind, the approach to the intricate structure of this novel is facilitated…. Not only episodes, but huge sections of The Mimic Men are taken out of chronological order and related according to the sequence imposed by the narrator's wandering memories. The manipulations of time are handled with such ease—what with moods and images carried back and forth—that continuity never falters; and the fluctuating dreaminess of the narrator's mental state only adds to the blending and mixing of realism and fantasy. (pp. 59-60)

A Flag on the Island is the title novelette in a collection of short stories and sketches. Though written as early as 1965 (two years before The Mimic Men), it was withheld from publication until 1967…. It is only eighty-seven pages in length, but its brevity belies the wealth of material that is concisely packed into those few pages. Naipaul returns in setting and in most of his characters to the islands of the Caribbean, but as is typical of his later novels, he continues to generate a more cosmopolitan atmosphere; this time he adopts a protagonist from the outside world, an American. The plot is not as involved as that in The Mimic Men, but the thin line between reality and unreality is maintained to such an extent that there is surprising complexity and depth in the simple narrative. (p. 61)

[Like other of Naipaul's novels, A Flag on the Island] runs full circle, beginning with an established mood, going back to the informing sources of the mood, carrying them through to the height of intensity, and then returning in the end to confirm the existing status. (p. 63)

The narrator's voice is so consistently in control that in this story the author's hand never appears. Unless an attempt is made to read Naipaul's direct statements from other works into the narrator's perspective, the fictional veil is not disturbed; there is certainly nothing in the text to disrupt the "suspension of disbelief."… The stream of consciousness freely intermingles inner and outer realities to produce a variable perspective which one critic has described as jagged and hallucinatory in style. This fanciful element perhaps more than anything else accounts for the story's subtitle—A Fantasy for a Small Screen. Whether or not the script was really ever intended for a movie, as Naipaul contends in his preface, the fantasy is in a sense projected on the pages of his shortest novel. The screen is small, but the picture is in clear, vivid color.

The scenario of the title novella in In a Free State is similarly limited in scope. Narrative tone of voice and perspective never falter, and with a minimum of structural machinery the simple plot unfolds naturally. (pp. 63-4)

Both in emotional development and in structural arrangement,… the plot of In a Free State reflects the same kind of simple, straightforward method that Naipaul employs in his first five novels. In keeping with his typical manner, the emphasis is still on his characters—now, however, not so much showing any process of development, as disclosing personalities that have already been formed. He continues to delve into the intricacies of human relationships, bringing to the surface the frailty, the foolishness, and the cruelties of mankind. The conciseness of his expression is tighter in this novella than in any other of his books. This is both its strength and its weakness. It is unified and consistent, but so regular in shape that it lacks the passion and color of Naipaul's best work. (pp. 65-6)

There is considerable realism and constant attention to minute detail throughout Naipaul's fiction. Even in the humorously light-toned early novels with their surface appearance of farcical improbability, there are serious insights into the basic terms of existence for various levels of island society. (p. 70)

In A House for Mr Biswas, setting definitely becomes an integral aspect of the mental state of his leading character. Scenery has not existed simply for its own sake in earlier works, but with this book the impressions of environment become indispensable to the total literary experience—structure, character, and mood. (p. 73)

[A House for Mr. Biswas] signals a turning point, culminating one phase in Naipaul's artistic growth and commencing another. Faithfulness to the depth as well as to the surface color of his creation sets him well on the road to the intensive character studies typical of his later novels. Mr. Biswas is indentifiable with the background out of which he attempts desperately, despairingly to escape…. Mr. Biswas, more than the characters before him, utilizes his imagination to come to terms with reality; this is carried to such an extent that it is largely his personal conceptualization rather than perceived objects that occupies the central focus of the novel. (p. 75)

An immediate result of [the] developing process of introversion is the noticeable shift away from the prominence of local color and by degrees a discernible movement toward abstraction and less particularly identifiable localities. Dialect, for instance, diminishes in importance as the West Indianness of the fiction is deemphasized. In this respect, however, Naipaul's treatment of language has not undergone as much of a change as might be expected. There has been little reason for alteration because in the scenes in early books where carefully selective dialect occurs it has been standardized so that much of the strangeness is eliminated at the outset. The main features of the native language he preserves are the simplified grammar, limited vocabulary (very few completely foreign words of African and Indian origin), and slightly unique but plain syntactical structures, with normal spelling. (p. 77)

Naipaul's skill remains remarkably high as he smoothly alternates between levels of the language used by characters and the standard English of the ostensible author, whether the setting is West Indian, strictly the purest British, or, as with portions of the last three novels, a landscape predominantly of the mind. The steady restriction and normalization of dialect, then, help the smooth transition after A House for Mr Biswas into a more abstract atmosphere where the mental and emotional perception of the character takes precedence over outward manifestation of regional differences.

The change is one of emphasis. What happens is that episodes which might at first have been categorized as simply local color because of their superficial regional limitations or farcical because of their extravagance are toned down and handled more seriously. The trend is slightly noticeable in A House for Mr Biswas and marked in subsequent works in keeping with a maturing, increasingly complex style of writing. Following the pattern I have described above, elements of background and setting not only become significant because of the part they play in character revelation; they evolve into images and motifs which unify and integrate all phases of textual development. (p. 78)

Whatever the setting—the English middle-class drawing room, a metropolitan hotel, or the emerging Caribbean or African nation—Naipaul continually employs his sharp eye for telling detail and expressive gesture. The difference from earlier accuracy is in his not relying upon localized details. He selects those that are recognizable for their human rather than for their regional association. With the abatement of his earlier comic spirit he has turned more and more to the common elements in humanity for serious analysis and exposition. (p. 81)

Before the achievement of the classical Mohun Biswas and the meticulously executed psychological studies of the mature novels, Naipaul's characters are often delightfully lively and vividly dramatized, but they lend themselves too readily to the sort of typecasting that obscures individuality. (p. 82)

Naipaul employs a rather simple device to eliminate the possibility of his lightly sketched figures losing their personal individualities. For each of the minor and even most of the major characters he designates a peculiarity and by reiterating this "tag" in connection with the person at intervals throughout the story he effectively avoids confusion. (p. 84)

It is a mark of the brilliance in the creation of Mr. Biswas that he defies simple classification. Quite understandably, too, this character has drawn easily more critical attention than any other of Naipaul's protagonists. The designation "hero" is avoided at this point because in the minds of some critics there are reservations about his heroic proportions. (p. 88)

Mr. Biswas may be an archetypal "Everyman" but if so he is a modernized version, for in his confrontation with the vicissitudes of life he expresses an acute awareness of the absurd. (p. 89)

[In both The Mimic Men and A Flag on the Island] as in Mr Stone and the Knights Companion, an outstanding feature of Naipaul's characterization and style involves the subordination of all minor figures to the controlling influence of the heroes' personalities. (p. 100)

If the narrative tone [of The Mimic Men] is rather static, the protagonist cool and detached, the action described as often as it is portrayed, and the point of view restrictive, before these items may be leveled justly as criticism against the novel, the fictional situation created for its presentation must be carefully examined. More dramatic action and a broader, more varied perspective might be preferred by some, but the terms upon which the book is structured conform to a different pattern. In order to reveal the character of a man who is suspended without a meaningful existence between worlds to which he is unable to relate, Naipaul has chosen to allow the speaker to express himself in conformity with the type of person that he is. Ralph Singh is detached and philosophical, and he has arrived at this serene state only after exasperating years of fruitless involvement in pointless activity. (p. 102)

Turning from The Mimic Men to A Flag on the Island, it appears that character and style undergo little change. Local color is prominent here, but the controlling atmosphere of the story derives from the narrator's frame of mind. Frank is motivated by the same frenzied desire for order that drives Ralph. In Frank's case, however, his problem is not so much a lack of order as a rejection of the one that exists. (p. 103)

In In a Free State, as in the last two novels, the landscape tends to lose its distinctness at times. Place descriptions occur, but a sense of unreality enters Bobby's perception just as it has Ralph's and Frank's. Only slightly less self-consciously than Ralph, Bobby also experiences the feeling that he is performing a part, that he is involved in a drama. It becomes increasingly obvious that Naipaul's main concern is not with reality just as it might appear in a photograph but as it is perceived by his heroes. In depicting their introverted conceptualizations, he has certainly individualized each one, but he also concentrated on certain basic aspects that make them identical with mankind elsewhere.

It has been argued that in thus universalizing his presentation, Naipaul has damaged his sense of realism and has, in effect, gone the route of other self-exiled West Indian writers who critics say have lost essential contact with the most familiar source of their material. But in answer to this criticism I submit that there are valid grounds within the novels themselves to account at least partially for the "vagueness" and "distance" that critics have heretofore attributed to a fault in Naipaul's art. The protagonist's disengagement from the narrative strand can under certain circumstances be an asset rather than a liability. Ironic humor in the early novels and the detached, analytical tone of the later ones prevent the reader from becoming deeply involved in the stories, but at the same time they yield valuable insights into the personalities of the different protagonists. These devices may be viewed as defensive mechanisms which are just as much a part of character as any other trait. If it were a matter of the absence of concreteness and dramatic tension, then certainly the novels would be severely damaged; but this is not the case. Realism and verisimilitude are maintained at a high level of accuracy even when the view is of a mental landscape. There is truth in Frank's assertion, "all landscapes are in the end only in the imagination." (p. 104)

Naipaul's most prevalent attitude is satirical. Certain parts of his works fall into the category of satire under both of the usual definitions of the genre. His first four novels, especially with their colorful mixture and variety, make a "full plate, a medley"; and time after time throughout all his books, in action, character, setting and theme he employs his incisive wit to hold up to ridicule the foibles and follies of man and society. (p. 105)

In a sense, what Naipaul is asking for is the same kind of mature detachment [previously mentioned]…. Naipaul is usually successful in maintaining distance from his material, but … this does not necessarily mean that he is coldly detached or disdainful of that which he is depicting. Rather, his concerted effort to remove himself and his failure at times to keep his personal feelings hidden are evidence of his deeply rooted attachment to the people he criticizes. (p. 106)

There appear to be approximately three levels on which the humor functions. First are the jokes, pranks, and laughter-provoking incidents which occur among the characters. Second come eccentricities, language, and actions the humor of which is not always consciously felt by narrators and participants within the stories. On this level dramatic irony comes into prominence since the reader's position allows him fuller appreciation of meanings unavailable to the characters. Third is the sophisticated level on which the objects of satire come into sharper focus. Between these there are no gaps or boundaries; they are complementary, only gradations of emphasis marking them as closer to one end of the scale or the other.

The most literal phase, wherein the quality of humor is accommodated to the people who are joking and playing tricks on one another, has rather limited possibilities for use. It is a mark of Naipaul's comic style that his amusing comedy emerges through his character's individual dispositions and the thoughts they utter rather than through situation. (p. 107)

Naipaul holds up to ridicule several of the distasteful and irrational aspects of man and his institutions. More specifically (according to his own statements), he is concerned variously with "fantasy," "corruption," and "sickness." He begins with a recognition of the gross difference between the situation as he finds it and his conception of an ideal, and in order to draw attention to the discrepancy he selectively elaborates upon those things which he finds to be trivial, repellent, or otherwise contemptible. (p. 116)

Almost every topic Naipaul treats at any length, when reduced to its basic terms, ultimately resolves itself into the fundamental aspects of alienation. Though this necessarily entails a certain amount of repetition, there is no redundancy, due to the variety of forms in which the presentations are cast…. Naipaul's method of development might be called "incremental repetition," in the sense that the overall impression of his extant works appears to build cumulatively, each new expression of a previous concept modifying and illuminating what has gone before.

This is not to suggest that individual novels do not stand on their own merits, for they do. What it indicates is the pervasive unity of the fiction; and over a period of time it underscores the consistency of Naipaul's progress as an author from the youthful comedies to his more seriously executed later works. (pp. 124-25)

Disorder and human frailty are underscored by the incompatibility between men and their surroundings. The difficulties these characters experience with the physical environment are only multiplied in societal relationships. (p. 127)

[It] is the transitoriness of accomplishment that stands out in Naipaul's fiction. The characters that he portrays—alienated, without exception—are motivated primarily by negative forces and they lack purposeful direction…. The transience, the dereliction they seek to escape lies within: they are wise to seek order and meaning and their authentic identities, but as Naipaul shows repeatedly they stand little chance of finding lasting answers to their needs in material gains. (p. 142)

The social comedies I write can be fully appreciated only by someone who knows the region I write about. Without that knowledge it is easy for my books to be dismissed as farces and my characters as eccentrics. (Naipaul, 1958)

All literatures are local…. The problems of Commonwealth writing are really no more than the problems of writing; and the problems of reading and comprehension are no more than the problems of reading literature of any strange society.     (Naipaul, 1965)

Just over seven years stand between these seemingly contradictory remarks, and in them may be observed evidence of the direction of Naipaul's development as a writer. At the time of his early complaint, The Mystic Masseur, The Suffrage of Elvira, and Miguel Street had been written. Added to these three books by the time of the second statement are A House for Mr Biswas, The Middle Passage, Mr Stone and the Knights Companion, and An Area of Darkness. His horizons have expanded, and his increased experience has provided a confidence allowing him to view what he had conceived to be a limited problem as one of much broader scope. (p. 147)

From the evidence gathered out of his scattered criticism it appears that Naipaul's most common concern is with the "socially redeeming" aspects of literature. The pattern of his thinking is noticeably consistent in this respect. In spite of his rather strong feelings about the need for an "informing spirit" in art, however, he seems to be careful in avoiding specific pronouncements. He is certainly a reformer, but when it comes to his fiction he always utilizes the method of indirection that is indispensable to artistic expression. (p. 156)

The mere fact of Naipaul's having expressed certain tenets, of course, does not guarantee their actual application in his own works. As it turns out, however, what he holds in theory does have a recognizable shaping influence on his fiction. Realizing the limitations of regionalism, after Miguel Street (1959) he deemphasizes local-color elements and brings out—as in A House for Mr Biswas (1961)—features of his characters and setting in such a way that they would have broader appeal. This is in keeping with his overt admission in The Middle Passage (1962) that the special situation of the West Indian writer deprives his work of universal appeal. (p. 157)

There is little real optimism in Naipaul's works, and he constantly adheres to the factual harshness of reality, but he also avoids overstressing the kind of fear "which only says 'This is life! Be afraid!'" That would be false, and he shows no inclination to elevate his characters beyond the level of ordinary experience. Indeed, the beauty and power of his accomplishment lie in his ability to capture and illuminate the deeper significance in even the least of man's actions. Herein he ultimately hits upon the most basic themes of the human spirit, transcending geographical and chronological barriers. Thus, ironically, in moving progressively away from nationalism, regionalism and in the strictest sense all but the most universal of "causes," he offers at last what the widest-ranging among his readers might well consider a greater contribution to his homeland than is possible from even the most devoted patriot. "In the end it is the writer and the writing that matter. The attempt to perfect Indian English or achieve Canadian-ness is the private endeavour of an irrelevant nationalism … a country is ennobled by its writers only if these writers are good." The larger consideration, then—that of art, that which is durable and most apt to be valuable to mankind in general—takes precedence over shortsighted aims. This makes of Naipaul's works, in turn, one of the strongest cultural links between Western Europe and the Americas. (pp. 158-59)

Robert D. Hamner, in his V. S. Naipaul (copyright 1973 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, A Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1973.

John Ayre

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[Naipaul] has become a kind of inspired commando parachuting into the underdeveloped world and writing about the color and people and distress that United Nations statistical reports can never convey. His collected essays, The Overcrowded Barracoon, represent probably the most direct image of the Third World we're ever going to receive. These essays are superior, I think, because Naipaul never loses his novelist's command of experience and detail.

This is precisely what disappoints me about his … India: A Wounded Civilization, a book more about ideas than people…. Instead of uncovering new material … [Naipaul] has largely gutted [another earlier book, An Area of Darkness,] of its central ideas and tightened them into a grand despairing condemnation of his Hindu ancestry….

The Indian's idea of India, Naipaul believes, is a romantic retread of a glorious past which never really existed and has no magical power to solve the subcontinent's festering contemporary problems….

Yet for the West as much as the country itself, India still often suggests benign Oriental Wisdom, Eternal Patience and the timeless pretty scenes of Roloff Beny photography. In India there is a rude but healthy destruction of that dangerous myth. More than images of backlit misty villages and meditation-zonked holy men, Naipual gives us the ultimate image of human uselessness…. (p. 33)

John Ayre, in The Globe and Mail, Toronto, July 16, 1977.

John Updike

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The so-called Third World has produced no more brilliant literary artist [than V. S. Naipaul]; but the propagandists and official spokesmen for the underdeveloped nations will find little to encourage them in Naipaul's cold-eyed fictional descriptions and journalistic reports. Where they would proclaim a decent hope and a revolutionary indignation, he sees stagnation, futility, and a sinister darkness as opaque as that which confounds Conrad's Mr. Kurtz and Greene's burnt-out case. His view of native possibilities in lands unregulated by white men seems no less dim than Evelyn Waugh's, though Naipaul's farce awakens fear sooner than laughter, and is informed not by a visitor's quizzical amusement but by a pained, partial identification….

"A Bend in the River" struck me as an advance—broader, warmer, less jaded and kinky—over the much-praised "Guerrillas," though not quite as vivid and revelatory as the fiction of "In a Free State." There, in the two short stories "One Out of Many" and "Tell Me Who to Kill," the cataclysmic inner adjustments forced upon those of the world's poor who immigrate to Western metropolises are sketched with a fond accent and a gaiety of invention rare in Naipaul's rather stern later fiction…. Naipaul has written little that is better [than his "In a Free State"], and little better has been written about modern Africa. "A Bend in the River" is carved from the same territory—an Africa of withering colonial vestiges, terrifyingly murky politics, defeated pretensions, omnivorous rot, and the implacable undermining of all that would sustain reason and safety. (p. 141)

[The] author's embrace of his tangled and tragic African scene seems relatively hearty as well as immensely knowledgeable. Always a master of fictional landscape, Naipaul here shows, in his variety of human examples and in his search for underlying social causes, a Tolstoyan spirit, generous if not genial. "A Bend in the River" is the most genuinely exploratory novel about tropical Africa written by a non-African since Joyce Cary's "The African Witch." (p. 144)

John Updike, "Un Pé Pourrie," in The New Yorker (© 1979 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), May 21, 1979, pp. 141-44.


V. S. Naipaul World Literature Analysis


Naipaul, V(idiadhar) S(urajprasad) (Vol. 18)