V. S. Naipaul Naipaul, V(idiadhar) S(urajprasad) (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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, 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 entire section is 5348 words.)

John Ayre

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.