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V. S. Naipaul 1932-

Full name Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul. Trinidadian-born English novelist, short story writer, journalist, travel writer, essayist, and nonfiction writer. See also V. S. Naipaul Literary Criticism (Volume 4), and Volumes 7, 9, 105, 199.

Naipaul has earned a reputation as one of the...

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V. S. Naipaul 1932-

Full name Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul. Trinidadian-born English novelist, short story writer, journalist, travel writer, essayist, and nonfiction writer. See also V. S. Naipaul Literary Criticism (Volume 4), and Volumes 7, 9, 105, 199.

Naipaul has earned a reputation as one of the most gifted prose stylists of the twentieth century as well as one of the most controversial critics of the effects of imperialism in the Third World. Employing a variety of literary idioms, from short stories to essays to mixed-genre pieces that blend autobiography, fiction, and journalistic reporting, Naipaul describes the bitter legacy of colonialism on personal and societal levels. The early novels and short stories, based loosely on his own experiences growing up in Trinidad, have been acclaimed for their narrative skill, colorful use of West Indian dialect, and wry humor as they express themes of individual rootlessness and cultural deprivation that are the effects of colonial history. The characters in his early short fiction are often depicted as alienated from the societies in which they are born, as they spend their lives trying to escape or to build a sanctuary they can call their own. Naipaul's later novels, historical essays, and social commentaries based on his extensive travels throughout Africa, Asia, South America, and the Carribean, continue to explore the relation of colonialism to the loss of cultural identity, but without the humor that was a hallmark of his earlier fiction writing. The later works, while being admired for their keen observation and clear descriptive style, have garnered intense criticism for their often bleakly negative appraisal of cultures ravaged by centuries of oppression, particularly by the people of the regions he describes. Naipaul has won numerous literary awards in Britain—including the Somerset Maugham Award, the Hawthornden Prize, and the Booker Prize—and his name repeatedly appears on lists of candidates for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Biographical Information

Naipaul was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 1932, the second generation descendant of an East Indian grandfather who came to the West Indies in the early 1900s as an indentured laborer in the British colonial administration. Naipaul's love for and facility in the English language has been credited to his father, Seepersad Naipaul, a journalist and author of a collection of short stories exhibiting many of the themes of entrapment and alienation that also were themes in his son's fiction. Naipaul excelled in the colonial British school system in Trinidad, winning a scholarship in 1950 to study English at Oxford. After graduating in 1954, Naipaul became a writer and editor for the British Broadcasting Corporation program “Caribbean Voices,” where his earliest short stories about loneliness, the fear of existence, and the strains of changing cultural sensibilities were first broadcast. In 1955 he married Patricia Ann Hale, an Englishwoman. Around this time he began to write a series of short stories and character sketches based on his childhood in Trinidad, most of which were published in Miguel Street (1959), which won the 1961 Somerset Maugham Award, and A Flag on the Island (1967). In 1957 Naipaul published his first novel, The Mystic Masseur, a farce about a religious crank who attends to Trinidad's spiritual problems. This was followed in 1958 by the publication of The Suffrage of Elvira, which won the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize for its comic portrayal of vote rigging in Trinidad. Although it won no literary awards, his third novel, A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), about a Trinidadian Hindu whose greatest desire is to own his own home, became the novel which would win Naipaul his greatest literary acclaim. The novel, which has elements of high comedy and tragic pathos, has become closely associated with Naipaul's own personal search for meaning and community despite the alienating effects of colonialism.

In the early 1960s Naipaul reviewed hundreds of books for The New Statesman and other publications, where he became known as an uncompromisingly harsh critic of most of his literary contemporaries. It was also during this period that Naipaul wrote his first two works of nonfiction. The Middle Passage (1962) and An Area of Darkness (1964) are both based on his travel to and observations of postcolonial conditions in the Caribbean, Africa, and India. His fiction writing continued to win critical acclaim for its forceful prose style: Naipaul received the Hawthornden Prize for Mr. Stone and the Knight's Companion (1964), the story of a Caribbean man living in England, and the Booker Prize for In a Free State (1971), a mixed-genre work that contains short fiction pieces dealing with the themes of alienation and exile as well as factual eyewitness accounts of postcolonial oppression and discrimination.

From the 1970s until the present Naipaul has continued to use travel as an inspiration for his nonfiction, producing works on, among other things, the character of Indian people in India: A Wounded Civilization (1977); the dangers of charismatic political leadership in The Return of Eva Perón (1980); Islamic fanaticism in the Middle East in Among the Believers (1981); the legacy of slavery in the United States in A Turn in the South (1989); and Islam in Southeast Asia in Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples (1998). In all these works he positions himself as a stateless wanderer who uses a keen sense of observation to come to sometimes devastating conclusions about the possibility for Third World individuals and societies to rebuild themselves from the ruins of colonial administration. His fiction, notably in Guerillas (1975), A Bend in the River (1979), and A Way in the World (1994), combines autobiographical themes of his own search for identity and community with his more overarching themes of historical anarchy and chaos caused by colonialism. Naipaul was given a knighthood in 1990 for his literary achievements, and he continues to write fiction and nonfiction dealing with themes of rootlessness and exile from his home in London.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Naipaul has produced three volumes of short stories. In 1959 he published Miguel Street, a collection of character sketches he had finished writing several years earlier while working as a writer for “Caribbean Voices.” All the Miguel Street stories take place in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and are told from the perspective of a West Indian child who, like Naipaul, finally leaves the island to study abroad. Each short story (or chapter of what some commentators take to be a novella) tells the comic tale of an assortment of Trinidadian oddballs and misfits who desperately struggle to make their lives meaningful, but whose efforts are ultimately crushed by their own narrow connection to their environment and because of the chaos and squalor that surround them. The humorous dimensions of the stories, which reveal Naipaul's early sympathy with those struggling to fit into a world made miserable by ignorance and cultural depravity, are intensified with dramatic use of Caribbean dialect that masterfully brings the characters to life.

A Flag on the Island (1967), Naipaul's second volume of short stories, was collected from pieces written between 1950 and 1962; some had been published previously in English and American periodicals. Like the Miguel Street tales, most of the stories of A Flag on the Island take place in Trinidad and typically deal with a clash of values as local Trinidadians of Indian descent try in vain to structure their lives around a culture that is now far away and only dimly remembered. Other stories deal with the latent terror underlying seemingly ordinary lives of immigrants in London. While this collection again uses comic effect to intensify themes of alienation, failure, and racial discrimination, the general tone of the collection is much more bitter and pessimistic than that in Miguel Street.

In 1971 Naipaul attracted worldwide attention as well as heavy censure for his book In a Free State, which combined two autobiographical travel narratives based on experiences in Africa and the Caribbean with two short stories and a novella. The work treats the lives of immigrants as they try to assimilate to new environments, exploring the problems that arise because of their own limitations as well as larger societal trends of racial discrimination and cruelty. One short story, “One out of Many” tells of a domestic servant from Bombay who moves with his master to the United States but whose hopes of freedom and opportunity in the new land are dashed as he finds himself even more alone and imprisoned than he had been in India. The second short story, “Tell Me Who to Kill,” is about a Trinidadian man who lives in London and whose goal in life is to see that his younger brother does not have to endure the indignities that he himself has suffered. This objective is thwarted when the younger brother squanders the money the elder brother has saved for his education, leaves school, and marries a white woman. The title novella in the volume, “In a Free State,” tells of a white couple touring Africa who discover that behind the veneer of civilization is a culture ripped apart by despotic brutality and tribal savagery. Naipaul won the Booker Prize for this unusual treatise about cultural detachment and alienation, but many commentators denounced the work because of its portrayal of Third World cultures as essentially hopeless.

Critical Reception

Naipaul's three collections of short stories are seen by critics as some of the finest expressions of the dilemmas and struggles of colonized people striving to make both their individual and social lives meaningful in a postcolonial context. Miguel Street drew almost universal praise for its comic irony and colorful dialect used to illustrate the author's own need to flee his home and family to establish himself in a culture of perceived high traditions and customs. While some of the short stories in A Flag on the Island received critical attention, the book was generally dismissed as a collection of minor works by an author who had much better to offer. In a Free State was quickly recognized as an important new collection of short stories, and Naipaul's fellow travel writer and friend, Paul Theroux, called the work a “masterpiece in the fiction of rootlessness.” While nearly all critics have praised the charming prose style and delicate humor of the stories, many commentators, most often from the developing world, have charged that even in the early works Naipaul paints pictures of Third World people as culturally inferior. The criticism that Naipaul is only able to find fault with the individuals and societies he describes persists as he continues to record, without apology, his impressions of the alienation and inhumanity he considers to be the enduring legacies of colonialism.

Richard Plant (review date 1968)

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SOURCE: “Potpourri of the Antilles,” in Saturday Review, Vol. 51, No. 23, June 8, 1968, p. 52.

[In the following review, Plant dismisses the title story of A Flag on the Island as another example of Naipaul's defeatist and predictably pessimistic attitude about the effects of colonialism, but also offers warm praise for the dialogue and humor in the other short stories included.]

There must be two V. S. Naipauls: One, in full control of his materials, sets up a world populated by beautifully rendered West Indian, Hindu, or British people, and keeps his plot line so tense he never lets go. The second appears a prey to certain appetites and obsessions and tends to dissipate both story and characters. Here the nonhero watches himself carry out self-destructive deeds, then watches himself watching, and analyzes the analysis. In these happenings the leading men like to drift into dimly lit, dimly described barrooms, devour, let us say, one hundred oysters for no reason, drink too much, and then complain about not feeling well when they end up with a woman they didn't want in the first place. Alas, the curtain is not drawn. Instead, we are offered an annex of lamentations about youngish men ill-fitted for the hard labor of escalating love campaigns.

This ceaseless self-pitying, this frenzied defeatism—after awhile as predictable as the sunny heroism of Rudyard Kipling's colonials—nearly wrecked the author's novel The Mimic Men, and it also wrecks, now unconditionally, the title story of A Flag on the Island. Our examples of oyster gluttony and drinking brawls were drawn from this attempt at creating a “Ulysses in Nighttown” sequence with a Caribbean setting. Not only does Naipaul constantly switch viewpoints, he hasn't made up his mind whether to carry out his assignment or write a blackish farce against it. His assignment, as stated in a bitter preface, was to create a “musical” story for a film company, which also demanded much dialogue, much sex, and a leading American character. The author has smudged his blueprint at every corner, and the outline wavers as giddily through the landscape as its alcoholic chronicler, an American black-marketeer, Second Class.

However, the other ten pieces of fiction are definitely the work of the other Naipaul. While all of them offer much pleasure, some are remarkable, and three, in my opinion—“A Christmas Story,” “Greenie and Yellow,” “The Heart”—should be reprinted in anthologies of “The Best …” In “A Christmas Story” a Hindu named Choonilal, disgusted with his “meek, cowdung faith,” has converted to hygienic Presbyterianism and acquired a golden possession; the name Randolph. (These changes of name, signifying attempted changes of self, occur frequently among the West Indian protagonists.) Randolph gains headmastership of a school, ultimately marries a lady of “attainments”—she turns out to be a scold—but never earns enough money. His rationalizations of his bungling, rendered in pious Presbyterianese, are delicious; and the microcosm of village characters and their intrigues is rendered with a crystallinity that is a little reminiscent of Gogol's pictures of Russian bureaucracy.

“My Aunt Gold Teeth,” “The Raffle,” “The Enemy,” and “The Mourners” are composed and orchestrated in a similar manner. If a couple appear to be anecdotes rather than finished stories, they are all spicy and lean, the language never trying too hard. The only tale narrated in a sort of lingo—and a joy to read although a veritable obstacle course in Calypso—is “The Baker's Story,” in which a black baker from Grenada has to hide behind some local “Chinee” to finish his H. Alger-crawl to wealth.

“The Heart” and “Greenie and Yellow” show the author at his very best. The first is set in a drab Hindu dwelling somewhere in Trinidad, the second in Mrs. Cooksey's inimitable London parlor. Both are centered around pets. Both could be called psychological horror stories; both succeed on every level. With “Greenie and Yellow,” however, I think the author has entered new territory, and I hope he'll come back to it often. With a clinical bravura that would have pleased Guy de Maupassant he relates how a shrewish landlady, whose own marriage is a painful void, tries to force a Perfect Marriage in the world of caged birds, and in the process causes nearly all of them to die. Of course, Mrs. Cooksey, a model of sublime insensitivity, never recognizes herself as an instrument of destruction. This tale will outrage animal lovers and the many old ladies who like to feed those rats with feathers known as pigeons. Actually, the stories have enough in them to insult everybody, with special machine-gun bursts reserved for preachers of the Black Power gospel.

As for the unhappy film company that commissioned the title story, their officers could concoct a nice movie dish by 1) taking the plot of “A Christmas Story,” 2) mixing in elements of “The Baker's” madcap Calypso, and 3) simmering the mixture in a generous broth of Antillian lore, obtained from all the other narratives dealing with Hindus, Chinese, West Indian Negroes, half-Negroes, half-Chinese, British, half-British, etc. In the meantime, for people enamored of the Caribbean, this collection should do nicely as required (but infinitely pleasurable) reading.

Angus Calder (review date 1971)

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SOURCE: “Darkest Naipaulia,” in New Statesman, Vol. 82, No. 2116, October 8, 1971, pp. 282-83.

[In the following review, Calder praises the two short stories of In a Free State for their ability to convey the fears and isolation of emigrants living in cultures destroyed by imperialism, but criticizes the book as a whole for being too pessimistic to recognize any positive signs for hope in the African continent.]

For all his marvellous narrative skill, Naipaul's vision has often seemed at odds with the novel form. In his early genre stories, where Trinidad is perceived as a place where nothing grand or serious could possibly happen, the unwary reader is puzzled by a persistent thrust towards anti-climax. Lately he has seen the whole world as godless and disordered, the thin crust of a dying planet smeared with the trails of defeated empires. The Mimic Men imposed on it an order, that of the cycle, which conveyed an apt sense of futility but seemed arbitrary.

Now we have In a Free State; an appropriate anarchy. Documentary extracts from notebooks begin and round it off. Two long short stories and a novel intervene, spanning four continents. Each piece is a tour de force exploring the private anguish of a man ‘freed’ by emigration from the homely stupor of life in his own place, but forced to pay the cost—detachment, fear and impotence. The last victim is Naipaul himself.

The first is a smelly English tramp bullied by Lebanese and an Austrian on a ship bound for Egypt. Then the voice is that of a cook from Bombay brought to Washington by his employer. He discovers himself, as an individual man, a handsome man, in the caste-free USA, but loses his cultural integrity:

All that my freedom has brought me is the knowledge that I have a face and have a body, that I must feed this body and clothe this body for a certain number of years. Then it will be over.

The prim Indo-Anglian prose echoes Narayan's, but is made to seem exactly right.

The voice in the third section, “Tell Me Who To Kill”, is an equally brilliant device. The Trinidadian idiom is raw enough to characterise its semi-literate owner, but supply cadenced to convey the intricacies of his misery. He has sacrificed himself for a younger brother (and Naipaul makes that love shine and cut). He follows him to Britain and sees his hopes betrayed, losing his own way in the nightmare of the European city. Beaten up by young louts in his curry shop, which fails, he still cannot simply hate whites as the enemy:

Once you find out who the enemy is, you can kill him. But these people here they confuse me. Who hurt me? Who spoil my life? Tell me who to beat back.

“In a Free State” itself, the longest story, introduces Bobby, an English homosexual who has found ‘freedom’ as a civil servant in ‘free’ Africa. In a bar, a Zulu pick-up spits in his face; then we follow him on a long cross country drive with the sex-chasing wife of a colleague, which brings him through further interracial sparring to where soldiers beat him up. Grimly defending Africans against her clichéd criticisms with his own liberal clichés, assuring her ‘My life is here’, he feuds with his companion and warms to her by turns. But Naipaulwise the relationship suspends itself at anti-climax. Safely home in the Government compound, she goes to brag of her ordeal, he to come to terms with his humiliation alone.

The movement of the story is provided by the drive. Naipaul lingers devotedly over bush Africans dressed in grubby cast-offs, decaying Europeans in decaying settler hotels, educated Africans offering a sinister imitation of Englishness. The intervening descriptions of hills and forests are so disturbingly exact and beautiful that they maintain intensity rather than giving relief. There is ample scope here for Naipaul's favourite themes—the destruction by imperialism of cultural authenticity; the violation of nature by man's futile attempts to live well in it; the ache which a sense of history must give us; the constant imminence of terror.

But I've lived for three years in East Africa, and this braces me to resist the sirens, I can see how Naipaul, by squashing Kenya and Uganda together and involving the Kabaka's crisis with that of the white settlers, has squeezed more intensity out of this arena than can actually be found there. ‘The immemorial life of the forest’ provides an uncharacteristic descent into the commonplaces of pulp fiction; Naipaul should know that African tribes remember perfectly well, Genesis fashion, how they came to arrive where they are, not so many centuries ago.

I still admire the story enormously. I don't know any writer since Conrad who's exposed the otherness of Africa so starkly, and Naipaul leaves his readers freer by his massacre of obstinate illusions. But his vision excludes elements of growth and hope which are, palpably, there. While the adjacent territory of Greeneland is one where heroism may just be possible and revolt might just be successful, Naipaulia remains a kingdom of cryptic anti-climax.

I wonder, though, if the ‘cryptic’ final section is nudging away from pessimism. Here Naipaul acts. A rest-house attendant at Luxor whips children who scrabble for food thrown by tourists; an Italian throws them food and photographs the whipping. Naipaul seizes the whip and halts a process which figures the role of many modern artists, conniving in the creation of foulness which they then exploit. Of course, Naipaul's impeccable compassion differentiates him; but measuring actual lives against impossible ideals has often brought him perilously close to a kind of Fatboyism.

Now, however, he broods over an ancient tomb-painting which might seem to express the integrity which man once had in Egypt, ‘knowing no other land’; an image hinting at that lost purity without which, Naipaul has often seemed to suggest, we ourselves are lost in illusion:

Perhaps that vision of the land, in which the Nile was only water, a blue-green chevron, had always been a fabrication, a cause for yearning, something for the tomb.

If purity itself—‘perhaps’—is an illusion, then impure action might, perhaps, do some solid good in the impure world. Meanwhile the book itself is splendid, so far as it goes; a solid good.

Charles R. Larson (review date 1971)

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SOURCE: “In a Free State by V. S. Naipaul,” in Saturday Review, Vol. 54, October 23, 1971, pp. 91-2.

[In the following review of In a Free State, Larson criticizes the short stories and novella for their pessimistic themes of emigrants suffering from prejudice as they lead lives in foreign lands.]

Trinidadian writer V. S. Naipaul's latest work is composed of a prologue and an epilogue from his own travel journals, two short stories, and a novella. These five sections are loosely connected by the themes of exile, freedom, and prejudice. All of the situations are multiracial, and in each one we see people who are trapped—prisoners of the alien cultures around them. In the opening journal section Naipaul is crossing from Piraeus to Alexandria aboard a Greek steamer, on which he sees a tramp being roughed up by his cabin mates. In the epilogue Naipaul himself is the ostracized victim, attempting to prevent a group of beggar children from being flayed by an Egyptian with a camel-whip. The other tourists—Italians and Germans—cannot understand why he runs to their protection. They are more concerned with taking pictures of the children who are scrambling for bits of leftover food.

The highlight of the volume is a short story called “One Out of Many,” a first-person narrative of an Indian named Santosh who works in Washington, D.C., as a domestic for a rich Indian businessman. Santosh is hardly more than a slave, but he manages to run away. Rather than freedom, however, his flight brings further imprisonment. The story's first-person point of view is superb throughout—biting and satirical. Santosh's description of the 1968 Washington race riot is unlike anything we have ever read before, as are many of his statements on American life in general. In time he comes to view all Americans as extensions of their TV sets: “So to some extent Americans have remained to me, as people not quite real, as people temporarily absent from television.”

The second short story, “Tell Me Who to Kill,” concerns two West Indian brothers living in London. It is a humorless tale seen through the elder brother's eyes. He works hard for several years in order to finance his brother's schooling, but the latter wastes his education and eventually goes over to the other side by marrying a white girl. Towards the end of the story the elder brother reflects on his London experience: “I come with nothing, I have nothing, I will leave with nothing.”

The title novella, In a Free State, is an overdrawn account of two British expatriates driving across an independent African nation called the Southern Collectorate (probably Uganda) during a State of Emergency. One is a civil service administrator, a homosexual called Bobby; the other, a woman named Linda, is the wife of one of Bobby's colleagues. Linda hates Africans, Bobby doesn't. By the end of their trip, after he has been beaten up by an African soldier, Bobby, too, recognizes his latent animosity toward all Africans.

What is so upsetting about Naipaul's novella is not the re-telling of an old story but the fact that his version of the discovery of prejudice is laced with as many stereotypes as, say, Robert Ruark's, or a number of other Western writers' who catered to white bigotry several years ago. Upsetting, too, because Naipaul, a Trinidadian of Indian parentage, has been aware of racial prejudice all of his life. Naipaul's African characters don't smell—they stink. Every one of them. And they are all depicted as children, either laughing with perpetual smiles implanted on their faces, or totally devoid of expression. This is not simply a matter of seeing Naipaul's story through his character's eyes but rather through the author's own comments. Without being an African, I am still repelled by much of what he has written here.

Looked at as a whole, In a Free State simply doesn't work. The component parts (the attempt to fuse fiction and fact; the writer's journal and his stories) are not equal to the over-all intent. The result is a mixed bag, a disappointment for readers who are familiar with Mr. Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas or The Mimic Men. In a Free State is a minor work by a major Caribbean novelist.

Paul Theroux (review date 1971).

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SOURCE: “To Be Without Roots,” in The Washington Post Book World, Vol. 5, No. 49, December 5, 1971, p. 22.

[In the following review of In a Free State, Theroux calls the work a “masterpiece in the fiction of rootlessness” and compares the transplanted characters of the short stories to those in Naipaul's other works.]

There are two sorts of intrepid travelers. The first are the travelers from a great and famous city or a prosperous country; they are made confident by the wealth of their home, they are emboldened by their history, their literature; they are calm, they travel to compare. Travel is part of their education, and an adventure. Once these travelers were Greeks and Italians, later Spanish and English; now they are mostly Americans.

The second sort, of which V. S. Naipaul (an Indian born in Trinidad and living now in England) is one, are the homeless. Many are former colonials, transplanted people who can claim no country as their own; they travel because they belong nowhere. They are constantly moving—in a sense they never arrive—and much of their travel is flight. Rootlessness is their condition.

There is a great deal of travel literature and fiction written by metropolitans (like Graham Greene, they may travel “in search of a character”); from those who are homeless there is very little. They are not calm; their homelessness is a source of particular pain, for when they are asked, “Where are you from?” no simple answer is possible: All landscapes are alien and a challenge.

In a Free State, a book about rootlessness, is Naipaul's seventh novel. He has also published a collection of stories, two travel books and, last year, his superb history of Trinidad, The Loss of El Dorado. In England there is a uniform edition of his works, and over the past fifteen years he has been the recipient of five coveted literary awards.

His heroes have been various. There is a world of difference between the sixty-two-year-old Richard Stone of Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion and the excitable Trinidad journalist, Mohun Biswas, of A House for Mr. Biswas. Naipaul writes of politicians: One is Ganesh Ramsumair (later “G. Ramsay Muir”), the hero of The Mystic Masseur; another is “Pat” Harbans of The Suffrage of Elvira; and there is Ralph Singh of The Mimic Men. Ganesh is very much of the Trinidad Forties, Harbans of the Fifties, and Singh is a correct Sixties dandy, tycoon and, briefly, man of the people. Mr. Stone is a bowler-hatted South Londoner; Frankie in A Flag on the Island is a wisecracking American.

Many critics have commented on Naipaul's unique gifts, but they have said little about his unique condition. He is, in his own words, “without a past, without ancestors,” “without a tradition,” “a little ridiculous and unlikely.” His homelessness has produced in him a capacity to create characters of tremendous diversity. This is an age of the national writer; it is very unusual to come across a writer who has no national identity, a stateless artist.

Naipaul's concerns remain constant. He writes of fantasy, slavery, power, empire, exile. The condition of rootlessness, a motif in his Area of Darkness, is a frequent theme in his fiction; and it is the subject of In a Free State, Some of the territory here is new. For the first time, he is writing of an Indian in America; of West Indians in London; British people in Africa. Framed by two personal anecdotes, which serve as prologue and epilogue, the three stories—incidents in three countries—form a sequence and make a large statement about freedom and homelessness, dependency and belonging. The book is Naipaul's most ambitious work, a story-sequence brilliant in conception, masterly in execution, and terrifying in effect—the chronicles of a half-a-dozen self-exiled people who have become lost souls.

Having abandoned their own countries (countries they were scarcely aware of belonging to), they have found themselves in strange places, without friends, with few loyalties, and with the feeling that they are trespassing. Worse, their lives have been totally altered; for them there is no going back; they have fled, each to his separate limbo, and their existence is like that of souls in a classical underworld.

Santosh, in “One Out of Many,” spent thirty-five years of his life happily sleeping on the Bombay sidewalk adjacent to his employer's “chambers.” Then the employer is posted to Washington; Santosh, as servant, goes as well and he spends his first night in Washington bedded down in the corridor of the apartment house. Later he is installed in a closet; but Washington, he is reminded by the Sahib, is not Bombay. Santosh's life undergoes a radical change. He discovers the hubshi (Negroes, literally “Abyssinians”), makes love to one, and discovering his own humanity, he ceases to see himself as part of the Sahib's presence. He escapes to become a chef in the Indian restaurant. Marrying a hubshi woman he gets citizenship; he is free, but empty (“To be empty is to be calm”), The story is comical as he relates it, sad only on reflection.

All that my freedom has brought me is the knowledge that I have a face and a body, that I must feed this body and clothe this body for a certain number of years. Then it will be over.

“Tell Me Who to Kill,” is narrated by a nameless West Indian man who, born to squalor and disorder, follows his younger brother to London. He feels warmly protective towards the brother, and it is not until a long time after arriving that he discovers the brother to be an idler. It infuriates him; a panic he has been suppressing, causing him a recurring nightman of a bizarre murder, finally surfaces to torment him. Partly it is the emigrant's fear and hatred of dependency upon the people his brother joins. This is a study of a mind becoming murderous; the fellow paces like a rat in a maze, sniffing at obstacles and raging. Naipaul shows the quality of this confused rage, the displaced person growing homicidal, without depicting the inevitable act of violence. It is a paralyzing tale.

The last, the title story, is slacker. Set in East Africa at the time of a coup, it gives a political dimension to exile. It portrays two people, Bobby and Linda, a male homosexual and an errant wife, making a car journey from the capital (“still a colonial city … everyone in it was far from home”) to their compound 400 miles away. There are many stops along the way, each delay hinting at something yet more sinister. There are squabbles; they are hounded by bad weather and menaced by Africans. Naipaul describes Africa as a place that was once a pleasant garden, now grown wild. The journey is like the journey to Oz, without a wizard at the end but only a deeper darkness. Linda's solution is to go to South Africa; Bobby, who repeats “My life is here,” has no life. In order to stay on in the foreign place he must submit to violence, and his show of fear inspires violence in Africans.

The subject of displacement is one few writers have touched upon. Camus has written of it. But Naipaul is much superior to Camus, and his achievement—a steady advance through eleven volumes—is as disturbing as it is original. In a Free State is a masterpiece in the fiction of rootlessness. France claimed the Algerian Camus. No country can claim Naipaul. It is a demonstration of the odds against him, but certain evidence of the uniqueness of his vision.

Alfred Kazin (review date 1971)

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SOURCE: “Displaced Person,” in The New York Review of Books, Vol. 17, No. 11, December 30, 1971, pp. 3-4.

[In the following review of In a Free State, Kazin calls the book one of Naipaul's best and illustrates how the short stories within the work give voice to Naipaul's major themes of displacement, exile, and homelessness.]

This is an extraordinarily penetrating book and a disturbing one. One could well praise the original and powerful novelist behind it by describing the reason for the disturbance—nor would this minimize the disturbance in the least.

V. S. Naipaul was born in Trinidad, to which his grandfather had come from India; he completed his very English education at Oxford. After seven books of fiction and three works of nonfiction, most of them dealing by one stratagem or another with the interrelationships between the West Indies, England, and Africa first made clear to him by the imperialist history of Trinidad, Naipaul has become one of the few living writers of fiction in English wholly incommensurable with anybody else. He is, however, a writer as astonishing as the Orwell who came out of Burma, the Conrad who came out of the British Merchant Navy, the Malcolm Lowry of Under the Volcano who was able, once, to fuse his England and his deadly Mexico under the intense pressure of his Canadian exile.

Naipaul is a colonial brought up in English schools, on English ways, and the pretended reasonableness of the English mind. He lives in the no longer overbearing mother country without much hope in or attachment to anything but English prose. He is an exile who in England is an Indian, in America unknown, in Trinidad a prenationalist Anglophile intellectual, and since he had been everywhere, so to speak, from the moment he was born, he has had no reason to stop traveling. In a world where the number of displaced persons is finally identifiable with the storminess of our planet, Naipaul is an exile who writes about nothing else—in the most clipped, elegant, subtle English prose. Naipaul writes about the many psychic realities of exile in our contemporary world with far more bite and dramatic havoc than Joyce brought to that stage Jew Leopold Bloom.

In this new book, one of his very best, he has sharpened and tuned, on five different examples of contemporary wandering, his already prodigious sense of fiction. No one else around today, not even Nabokov, seems able to employ prose fiction so deeply as the very voice of exile. If “our” fiction began with the raw merchants settling into their overstuffed interiors, the brilliance of fiction today would seem to depend on a sense of displacement which so many smart American novelists who have never been put to the actual test have already played with in their more theoretical novels.

What makes Naipaul hurt so much more than other novelists of contemporary exodus is his major image—the tenuousness of man's hold on the earth. The doubly unsettling effect he creates—for the prose is British-chatty, proper yet bitter—also comes from the many characters in a book like this who don't “belong” in the countries they are touring or working in, who wouldn't “belong” any longer in the countries they come from, and from the endless moving about of contemporary life have acquired a feeling of their own unreality in the “free state” of endlessly moving about. All travel is an adoptive consciousness—only Ulysses was transported in his sleep. And it is so much consciousness, “raised” yet unavailing, that makes one's motion and freedom clash with so many other too conscious egos forever crazily on the move. There is a peculiarly contemporary despair in seeing so much exertion of the will mocked by the lack of tradition, assurance, and moral comfort in which we travel.

In the “Prologue, From a Journal,” the author is on a dingy Greek steamer crossing from Piraeus to Alexandria. He travels on the upper deck, where there are cabins, in the company of German businessmen, Lebanese, “fat Egyptian students” returning from Germany, Spanish night-club dancers, American students, Yugoslavs. On the lower deck, night and day their only place, are Egyptian Greeks.

They were travelling to Egypt, but Egypt was no longer their home. They had been expelled; they were refugees. The invaders had left Egypt; after many humiliations Egypt was free; and these Greeks, the poor ones, who by simple skills had made themselves only just less poor than Egyptians, were the casualties of that freedom.

An Englishman in a tweed jacket with a rucksack, who looks as if “he might have been the romantic wanderer of another generation,” turns out to be an utterly destitute old man, a penniless tramp, who so maddens people on the upper deck that they hound him, keep him hidden in the lavatory, until the ship reaches port—where they promptly forget him. In the “Epilogue, From a Journal,” the author, touring Egypt and meeting up with members of a Red Chinese circus, finally steps in and protests the absent-minded cruelty to some local children who are being made to run around and are being whipped by an Egyptian for the amusement of Italians, Germans, Belgians, etc., with cameras.

Prologue and Epilogue, Naipaul speaks in his own person, tells his own story of ultimate defenselessness without pretending to be detached. But in two of the three stories that make up the body of the book, the Indian and West Indian characters in foreign parts are the narrators. One can see that Naipaul steps in at the end of the book only to emphasize his anguished belief that it is active history, a contemporary “situation,” that he has been living all his life—not some generalized “human condition.” Imperialism, even in decay, is the unforgettable background still mingling with everything he writes. The Indian from Trinidad who went to Oxford is always part of the story he is always telling, like the mad English-Spanish search for gold that settled for African slaves. Naipaul has lived imperialism, and for such writers, apparently, only the imperialist language is left to console themselves with. But there is also the plight of the brilliant boy who left his home and now recognizes that he has changed too much to be able to return to that “innocence” that existed only among those who never traveled.

In one funny and thoroughly satiric story, “One Out of Many,” a minor Indian diplomat brings his beggarly Indian servant to Washington with him. There he is paid $3.75 a week, willingly sleeps in a closet, but despairingly telling the story of his life in the “capital of the world,” relates with astonishment that he has seen head-shaved Americans in orange tunics swaying and chanting Hindu hymns, while the blacks, the hubshi, are exultantly destroying their own neighborhoods by fire. A marvelous touch is that only in Washington does he discover that his sahib is young, exactly his own age, and that he himself is attractive to the frighteningly large black woman who eventually takes him in, marries him, and so makes him an American citizen. This does not make him feel at home.

In “Tell Me Who to Kill,” an Indian from the West Indies goes to London with his adored younger brother to promote the boy's studies, works himself almost dead, and then finds that the shop he has bought with his accumulated savings is being destroyed by the local hippies. The boy, quick to marry a white girl and to escape, doesn't want what his brother wants for him. Only lovingly retained images from his favorite movies have explained London to the Indian; now he would like to find someone to kill.

The long title story, the major piece in the book, describes a journey by car in an African republic undertaken by a young British civil servant, a homosexual, and the wife of a colleague. The pair are traveling from the capital to the foreigners' compound where they will be safe; the country is disturbed. It once had a king and a president; the king is now being hunted by the president's troops, and he will be killed as contemptuously as are the people of his own tribe, who are being rounded up and tied together as. Negroes used to be in the days when rival tribes picked them up for delivery to the slave traders. The highway is for great stretches unpaved, the rain comes down just when they hit straight earth, the windshield is ignorantly scratched instead of washed at a filling station. But in the car, Bobby, who once had a “breakdown” at Oxford and is defensive, vulnerable, is chatting gamely with the wife, Linda, though she has a reputation as a “man-eater” and her womanliness often enrages and frightens him.

Naipaul has never encompassed so much, and with such brilliant economy, with such a patent though light-handed ominousness of manner, as in this story. The volume of detail is extraordinary, and so is the sequence of action parodying the fretful trip by car as Bobby confesses his dream of returning, somewhere, out of the rain, to a warm lighted house. Meanwhile there is the helicopter above searching the roads for a sight of the fleeing king; the Zulu boy whom Bobby in a bar halfheartedly tries to make, over a lesson in math; the sudden non-farcical sight of the too fat, indolent native troops running under the shouting orders of their Israeli military instructors; the old, still imperialist-minded, wog-hating retired British colonel who keeps a sort of hotel along the road, and though he gamely continues to serve five-course dinners, expects to be murdered by his native staff, one of whom is a local agitator and tries to steal Bobby's car.

The sinuous conjunction of the talk between the unloving couple in the car with the sudden sharp treacheries of the road and the weather, and above all the dramatic movement, line by line of landscape and action duplicating the mingled ease, boredom, and anxiety of a long trip by car—all this gives “In a Free State” an amazing tense fullness in all it takes in and suggests of the African landscape, the old “settler mentality,” the educated African politicians whom Bobby and Linda discuss and whom we never see, the sheer sweating fear of the English and blacks toward each other.

I suppose one criticism of Naipaul might well be that he covers too much ground, has too many representative types, and that he has an obvious desolation about homelessness, migration, the final placelessness of those who have seen too much, which he tends to turn into a mysterious accusation. Though he is a marvelous technician, there is something finally modest, personal, openly committed about his fiction, a frankness of personal reference, that removes him from the godlike impersonality of the novelist so often praised by Joyce—and so much cherished by novelists like Nabokov who angrily deny that they use themselves. Naipaul belongs to a different generation, to a more openly tragic outlook for humanity itself. He does not want to play God, even in a novel. He has associated himself with “History,” and does not expect better treatment.

John Thieme (essay date 1975)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5400

SOURCE: “Naipaul's Third World: A Not so Free State,” in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. 10, No. 1, August, 1975, pp. 10-22.

[In the following essay, Thieme compares In a Free State to Naipaul's earlier work and concludes that this later effort shows the author moving beyond themes of the wretchedness of Third World colonial life to reflect his personal ability to free himself from the shackles of a colonial mentality.]

For many West Indian intellectuals the work of V. S. Naipaul has always represented a denial of the third-world spirit. For writers like Lamming,1 Naipaul's ironic eclecticism and brahminical aloofness have made him a stereotype of the colonial Anglophile. East Indian by descent, Trinidadian by birth, English by virtue of his Oxford education,2 Naipaul has given credence to the view of him as the paradigm colonial by his many scathing comments on the West Indies: he dismisses Trinidad as ‘unimportant, uncreative, cynical’,3 the Caribbean islands as the ‘Third World's third world’,4 and comments ironically that ‘the intellectual equivocations of Black Power are part of its strength’.5 Yet simply to label him a colonial writer is at best a half-truth. As far as ‘commitment’ goes he has little in common with the followers of Fanon, though of late the god-like neutrality of style of his early works has given way to a vision which admits compassion and even social conscience; but all his work, fiction and non-fiction, with the single exception of his one ‘English’ novel, Mr Stone and the Knights Companion (1963), has been concerned with the human consequences of imperialism in colonial and postcolonial societies.

In his early fiction the colonial situation is for the most part implicit. His first novel, The Mystic Masseur (1957), charts the rise of the picaroon hero, Ganesh Ramsumair from masseur to mystic masseur, to radical politician, to colonial ‘yes man’. Naipaul's ironic presentation leaves the central issue of the novel, whether or not Ganesh is a charlatan, open almost until the end. An accumulation of circumstantial evidence suggests he must be, but it is only his final political volte-face which confirms that he is an opportunist. Even here Naipaul withholds condemnation. Ganesh emerges as a champion con-man in a world of small-time tricksters, and, with Naipaul seeming to share the view of Thomas Mann in Felix Krull and Saul Bellow in Seize the Day, that in a society largely given over to materialism the mantle of the artist passes to the confidence-trickster, the double-edged ironic approach compels one to see him as both hero and villain. Naipaul depicts a society in which the individual is forced to use subterfuge, if he is to survive. For Ganesh and his fellow-Trinidadians there is no real freedom of moral choice.

Naipaul's second novel, The Suffrage of Elvira (1958) and the stories in Miguel Street (1959) (written before The Mystic Masseur), are in much the same vein. The Suffrage of Elvira is a wry fictional exposé of the 1950 general election in Trinidad. The tone is set by Naipaul's sardonic comment:

Democracy had come to Elvira four years before, in 1946; but it had taken nearly everybody by surprise and it wasn't until 1950, a few months before the second general election under universal adult franchise, that people began to see the possibilities.6

Most of the ‘possibilities’ centre around the locals' financial exploitation of Mr Harbans, the candidate from Port of Spain who comes to the rottener-than-rotten borough of Elvira in South Trinidad to buy himself a seat. Frustrated at every turn, he finds the price of the seat going up and up as he is forced to bribe and bribe again. The formula of The Mystic Masseur has been reversed: Ganesh is trickster; Harbans, though no more exemplary in character than Ganesh, is tricked. As polling-day approaches, Harbans begins to fear defeat, but there is no such peripeteia. He has paid through the nose for the seat and he wins it. This, Naipaul's deadpan irony insists, is the way things work in Trinidad. Everyone and everything has a price and to be a success one must pay it. The ground rules are clear enough. The humorous irony of this, Naipaul's most richly comic novel, emerges not from exposure of the characters' moral aberrations, but from the omission of concepts of justice and morality.

Trickery dominates these first two novels and trickery, as personified by Anancy, the wily spider of West African folklore brought to the Caribbean by the slaves of the Middle Passage, is an essential part of the folk heritage familiar to West Indian children. But the Anancy syndrome involves more than just trickery. Anancy epitomizes the slaves' descent to subterfuge to ensure their physical and spiritual survival and the legacy of slavery makes him an equally relevant hero for the contemporary West Indian. Naipaul's portrayal of Trinidad as a society of predators and victims is to be seen in this context. His Trinidadians are amoral rather than immoral and emerge as the inevitable products of their society.

Two stories in Miguel Street, where there is definite sympathy for many of the inhabitants of this fictional slum street in Port of Spain, follow the same pattern. Bolo, in ‘Caution’, learns the hard way to take nothing on trust. After squandering three hundred dollars on a ‘missing ball’ competition and assaulting a sub-editor of the paper which has been running the competition, with a resultant fine of a further twenty-five dollars, he is subsequently duped by a bogus property dealer and a motor-launch owner who promises to take him to Venezuela and puts him ashore down the Trinidad coast. When his luck finally turns and he is told that he has won a three-hundred-dollar lottery prize, he tears his ticket up in disbelief. For the Bolos of Trinidad life has become a lottery without prizes. His anti-type in the society is the street's ‘madman’, Man-man. The ingenuous boy narrator of Miguel Street opens his account of Man-man:

Everybody in Miguel Street said that Man-man was mad, and so they left him alone. But I am not so sure now that he was mad, and I can think of many people much madder than Man-man ever was.7

What follows leaves the reader in no doubt that there is method in Man-man's madness. After his well-trained dog ‘sullies’ clothes left out on lines overnight, their owners have no further use for the sheets and shirts; they give them to Man-man and he sells them. Later, after the death of the dog, Man-man ‘renounces’ his evil ways and becomes a hell-fire preacher whose collections increase in a ratio proportionate to the element of terror in his sermons. Finally he oversteps himself when he stages his own crucifixion and invites onlookers to stone him. Bits of sand and gravel quickly give way to larger stones and he protests loudly before being taken off and, eventually, committed to an asylum.8

So both Bolo's credulousness and Man-man's crafty madness lead to failure. The ironic social documentary of these and other stories in Miguel Street dramatizes the view of Trinidad Naipaul was later to express in The Middle Passage:

Every person of eminence was held to be crooked and contemptible. We lived in a society which denied itself heroes.

It was a place where the stories were never stories of success but of failure: brilliant men, scholarship winners, who had died young, gone mad, or taken to drink; cricketers of promise whose careers had been ruined by disagreements with the authorities …

For talent, a futility, the Trinidadian substituted intrigue; and in the exercise of this, in small things as well as large, he became a master.9

Both Bolo and Man-man are the victims of this environment. Like Ganesh and Harbans they are denied the luxury of free moral choice.

In these early works Naipaul himself partly shares their uncritical reaction to the world, though not to the extent suggested by his comment:

In writing my first four or five books (including books which perhaps people think of as my big books) I was simply recording my reactions to the world; I hadn't come to any conclusions about it. (It was the reviewers who came to a conclusion!) But since then, through my writing, through the effort honestly to respond, I have begun to have ideas about the world. I have begun to analyse.10

Though this disclaimer that the early books lack ideas is an overstatement, it is significant that Naipaul sees himself as little more than a clockwork orange at this stage of his career, for his whole œuvre is bound up with the familiar twentieth-century theme of the conflict between determinism and existentialism.

Naipaul gives the theme an original twist by considering it within the framework of the colonial experience and its aftermath. For him colonialism and determinism go hand-in-glove; the essence of the colonial mentality is the abnegation of freedom of choice:

… to be a colonial is, in a way, to know a total kind of security. It is to have all decisions about major issues taken out of one's hands. It is to feel that one's political status has been settled so finally that there is very little one can do in the world.11

Though both the first two novels and The Mimic Men (1967) treat political themes, Naipaul is ultimately much more interested in the psychological effects of colonialism on the individual than in its broad political consequences.

His fullest treatment of colonial/determinist man comes in his biggest book, A House for Mr Biswas (1961), in which there is no overt political interest. Mr Biswas's forty-six-year life-history does, however, serve as a microcosm of both Trinidadian East Indian life in the first half of the century and of the colonial predicament in general. His tragi-comic struggle to attain dignity, as reflected in his desire to own his own house, becomes an allegory of the attempt to emancipate oneself from colonial/determinist dependence. Though he is only dimly aware of the implications of his odyssey within the small society, he intuitively apprehends the futility of his situation in his fascination for a memorable image of ignorance and placelessness glimpsed from a passing bus:

And, in the gloom, a boy was leaning against the hut, his hands behind him, staring at the road. He wore a vest and nothing more. The vest glowed white. In an instant the bus went by, noisy in the dark, through bush and level sugar-cane fields. Mr Biswas could not remember where the hut stood, but the picture remained: a boy leaning against an earth house that had no reason for being there, under the dark falling sky, a boy who didn't know where the road, and that bus, went.12

Mr Biswas knows the image, to which he later returns,13 is significant, but he does not know why. He remains the determinist prisoner of the society, as symbolized by the houses in which he lives. Gordon Rohlehr comments:

The description of Hindu life in Trinidad exactly parallels all the descriptions of Hanuman House, The Chase, The Barracks, Green Vale, and finally the house in Port-of-Spain around which the Tulsis build a wall. The whole story has shown the difficulty of escape and the uselessness of rebellion.14

Though Naipaul never moves beyond strict literality, the succession of houses forms a structural pattern which makes an allegorical reading inescapable. As a small boy in his parents' home, Mr Biswas is regarded as an ill-fated child. Everything he touches has unfortunate consequences and his many ‘crimes’ culminate in his indirectly causing his father's death. Though he is for the most part passive, he is unable to escape his assigned role as generator of tragedy. It is a fitting beginning to a life-history of dependence and of dignity denied.

As an adult he is trapped into marriage with Shama, daughter of the wealthy Tulsi family, and his subsequent life alternates between periods of dependence on the Tulsis and attempts to escape their clutches. First he lives among them in Hanuman House. Naipaul's bringing so many Tulsis together under one roof not only intensifies his satire of the Hindu extended family, but also shows how difficult it is for Mr Biswas to be more than a pawn in the Tulsi hierarchy, a man with ‘all decisions about major issues taken out of [his] hands'.

He does, however, rebel against Tulsi orthodoxy and is twice allowed a longer leash, though he remains dependent on their bounty. First they install him in their more or less defunct shop in the Chase. Next they appoint him a sub-overseer on a sugar estate at Green Vale, where the constrictions of barrack-room life make him decide to have his own house built. From the outset it appears an impossible venture. Eventually the half-completed house, in which Mr Biswas and his son Anand are living, suffers severe damage in a storm. The building of this house plunges Mr Biswas into the most serious existential crisis of his life. Though at first the decision to free himself from the limitations of the past gives him a new-found awareness of life's possibilities, a series of setbacks soon tempers this exhilaration and it is not long before moments of anguished freedom are but interludes in an overriding depression, which brings on a bout of psychosomatic malaria. When the house is damaged by the storm, Mr Biswas breaks down completely. He is only restored to good health, when, once again a dependent in the Tulsi ménage, he hears that his Green Vale house has been burnt down by jealous neighbours. His first attempt at liberating himself ends, then, in total failure and he is forced to regress into the ‘total kind of security’ of the colonial mentality.

Subsequently Mr Biswas endures two more variations of dependence on the Tulsis: in a Port of Spain house, where the old Hindu values fight a losing battle against creolization, and at Shorthills, an old French estate house, to which the Tulsis move with dreams of a life of colonial grandeur which are quickly compromised. Near Shorthills Mr Biswas builds his second house, and, shortly after its completion, unintentionally burns it down!

Finally he is duped into paying far too much for an ill-made modern house in St James. This ending is ambiguous. Though he has been cheated and though the expense and worry eventually kill him, he has succeeded in his desire to ‘lay claim to one's portion of the earth’.15 True freedom is as elusive as ever, but with his former fantasies of metropolitan or romantic escape now firmly behind him, Mr Biswas dies a man made happy by his limited achievement.

A complete portrait of Hindu life in colonial Trinidad has been realized through the description of Mr Biswas's experiences in each of the novel's many houses which represent: the passive dependent life of the child (his mother's house); the Hindu's dependent status as a member of the extended family (Hanuman House); an abortive attempt at escape through small-time capitalism (the Chase); the constrictions of the plantation system (the Barracks); the impossibility of complete emancipation (the houses he builds at Green Vale and near Shorthills); unsuccessful parody of the plantocracy (Shorthills); and, finally, the partial freedom possible once one has realized one's limitations (the St James house). The picture of colonial/determinist man is not totally pessimistic.

A House for Mr Biswas was followed by Naipaul's two weakest books, his notoriously anti-West Indian travel journal, The Middle Passage, and Mr Stone and the Knights Companion, a novel of English manners, which is again obsessed with the twin themes of the influence of place on personality and the limitations of man's freedom. Mr Stone is as much a displaced person within his native English milieu as any of Naipaul's earlier colonials.

Though he first came to England in 1950, Naipaul has never (despite his alleged Anglophilia) felt a sense of belonging in the metropolitan society. London, he says, has never been more than a ‘commercial centre’16 for him. He has remained a writer of exile and like many of the great novelists of our century (Joyce, Lowry, Hemingway spring quickly to mind) has found it necessary to be physically absent from the place about which he is writing: his Trinidadian novels were written in England, Mr Stone and the Knights Companion in India, the London parts of The Mimic Men in Kenya and Uganda and the West Indian parts in London.17 Never having felt at home in England, he went in 1962 to India in search of an alternative metropolitan culture. He records his experiences in India in his penetrative journal An Area of Darkness, but his most interesting comment on his reaction to India comes in an article:

A colonial, in the double sense of one who had grown up in a Crown colony and one who had been cut off from the metropolis, be it either England or India, I came to India expecting to find metropolitan attitudes. I had imagined that in some ways the largeness of the land would be reflected in the attitudes of the people. I have found, as I have said, the psychology of the cell and the hive. And I have been surprised by similarities. In India, as in tiny Trinidad, I have found the feeling that the metropolis is elsewhere, in Europe or America. Where I had expected largeness, rootedness and confidence, I have found all the colonial attitudes of self-distrust.18

The themes of Mr Biswas and An Area of Darkness, the dependence of the colonial and the rootlessness of the exile, continue to dominate Naipaul's work, but recently the latter theme bulks larger. The Mimic Men, the fictional autobiography of Ralph Singh, a Caribbean political has-been, is concerned with the narrator's unsuccessful quest for order. The action of the novel is divided between his home island of Isabella and London. Significantly Isabella is not a real place and when Singh first escapes from its anarchy, he looks forward to finding the ordered society of his dream in the reality of London. Once in London, however, he soon discovers that the apparent order is purely formal and has no relationship to the underlying complexity of human society. It is not long before he wants to escape back to Isabella. As in Mr Biswas, escape has become a way of life and displacement a perennial condition. For the dispossessed colonial, political independence solves no problems. A kind of cyclic determinism makes it impossible for him to find a home. Neither colony nor ‘mother country’ provides a matrix. Dependence and displacement are his ultimates.

The same view of the colonial predicament is seen in The Loss of El Dorado (1970), Naipaul's history of Trinidad; he fixes on two events as the occasions when Trinidad most nearly escaped from provincialism (the search for El Dorado and the late eighteenth-century British-sponsored attempt to foment revolution within the Spanish Empire using Trinidad as a base) but, of course, the attempts at escape failed.

During a dozen years and the writing of ten books Naipaul had seen little to make him wish to revise his estimate of the third world or to alter his manner of writing. In 1958 he had written that he felt he had ‘achieved the Buddhist ideal of non-attachment’19 and in his style he still maintained the same dispassionate detachment, the same posture of cosmic ironist—he has always insisted that he is not a satirist:

I am not a satirist. Satire comes out of a tremendous optimism. One simply does not indulge in satire while one is awaiting death. Satire is a type of anger. Irony and comedy, I think come out of a sense of acceptance.20

This ‘sense of acceptance’ is, he suggests elsewhere, the hallmark of the colonial mentality:

Things like Mau Mau in Kenya in 1952 passed over me completely. Suez: these things always came to me a few years late. Vietnam: at the beginning, people asked me to sign a petition in 1965. I didn't know what they were talking about, I really didn't know. This is, I think, the complete colonial attitude.21

But in the same 1971 interview Naipaul stresses that he no longer regards himself as a colonial. On the contrary, he now finds that the complacent acceptance of the colonial has become a typically English attitude. It is the kind of irony he delights in: with the dismemberment of Empire the colonial masters have become colonials, while the former colonial like himself has achieved a tenuous personal freedom through a newly-acquired social conscience, or, to put it another way, through the birth within him of third-world consciousness.

Increasingly in Naipaul's more recent writing the apparently sardonic manner conceals a very real sympathy for the wretched of the earth. Thus what at first appears to be a waspish jibe at the ‘mysteriousness’ of India (‘The beatniks of America, Australia and other countries have now recognized India as their territory. Their instinct is true.’22) goes on to reveal a fundamental sympathy:

The maimed to the maimed, the West returning mysteriousness and negation to the East, while the humiliating deals are made in New Delhi and Washington for arms and food: it is like a cruel revenge joke played by the rich, many-featured West on the poor East that possesses only mystery.23

Few Indians (Nirad Chaudhuri is a notable exception) have been able to see that Naipaul's diagnosis of the country's spiritual barrenness stems from compassion. His new-found commitment has tended to be obscured by the neutrality of his presentation of ideas and by his devotion to meticulously observed surface detail. It is so with his fullest treatment of the theme of personal freedom, In a Free State (1971), in which all the constituent parts treat the theme of displacement in the neo-colonial world—the short novel which gives the work its title has for a framework two shorter fictional pieces and two excerpts from an otherwise unpublished Egyptian travel journal. In the first story, “One Out of Many”, Santosh, a Bombay domestic, goes to Washington with his employer and finds himself lost in the ‘capital of the world’;24 in “Tell Me Who to Kill” two Trinidadian brothers are equally adrift in different ways in the greyness of England; in the title-story two English expatriates journey through an independent East African country. The excerpts from the travel journal centre around an elderly English tramp, a self-styled ‘citizen of the world’,25 who, during a crossing from the Piraeus to Alexandria succeeds in stirring up his cabin-mates' enmity by an unspecified offence, and, in the Epilogue, ‘The Circus at Luxor’ around Naipaul himself. Naipaul has confessed to being ‘totally involved’26 in all the characters of In a Free State, and here in the final section the pretence of objectivity is dropped, as he explicitly intrudes himself as the central persona.

The minor characters of In a Free State are as much involved in the drama of neo-colonial displacement as the protagonists. The Greek steamer of the Prologue is mainly peopled by Egyptian Greeks who are ‘casualties’ of Egypt's freedom. In the Epilogue a travelling Red Chinese circus in Egypt completes the cyclic design by suggesting the beginning of a new chapter in the history of imperialism. As always, however, personal freedom is paramount and political freedom seems largely irrelevant in the struggle for it. Elsewhere Naipaul has expressed the view that the ‘iniquities’ of post-colonial societies are possibly even greater than those of colonial life.27

In each section of In a Free State freedom proves to be an uneasy, anguished state. The geographical freedom of the tramp of the Prologue leaves him a social outcast, and his persecution for the unrevealed crime suggests that his real offence is his failure to belong. Santosh never questions his dependent status while in Bombay, but the move to Washington brings him a new freedom of thought and he becomes aware that he is being exploited. He leaves his employer and goes to work in an Indian restaurant, but, although, he is better treated, finds he has exchanged one kind of bondage for another, because his status is now that of an illegal immigrant. Afraid of being recognized and deported, he becomes the epitome of trapped, determinist man. The story ends with his finding ‘freedom’ by marrying a ‘hubshi’ (Hindi for ‘black’) woman and not only becoming a legal immigrant, but also, to his bafflement, being labelled a ‘Soul Brother’ during a period of race riots. He concludes:

I was once part of the flow, never thinking of myself as a presence. Then I looked in the mirror and decided to be free. All that my freedom has brought me is the knowledge that I have a face and have a body, that I must feed this body and clothe this body for a certain number of years. Then it will be over.28

Escape from the ex-colonial society and from his dependent situation bring Santosh freedom of a kind, but it seems less desirable than his former bondage.

In “Tell Me Who to Kill” the Trinidadian Indian narrator, nourished on Hollywood myths, devotes himself to furthering the education of his good-looking younger brother, Dayo, in England, only to discover that metropolitan achievement is as far beyond Dayo as himself. He loses his carefully accumulated savings in the ill-conceived enterprise of running a roti-shop in England, and later salt is rubbed in the wound when he returns and finds the shop has been converted into a joke-shop. For him the human condition has become horror comedy. The immediate occasion of the story is Dayo's ‘escape’ through marriage to an English girl. The narrator is left with only a vision of his own ‘deadness’ and a desire to kill the ‘enemy’ who is the author of his sufferings. But no enemy is to be found. The English among whom he now moves are as guiltless as his brother and himself. The only enemy (but it is something he does not realize) is the human condition which loads the dice against the colonial in his quest for self-liberation.

The title-story corroborates the view that displacement is a universal condition. Naipaul's English expatriates are as much in limbo-land as his third-world immigrants. During a political crisis Bobby, a government servant, and Linda, the wife of a colleague, journey by road from the capital of an East African ‘free state’ to the exclusive compound in the south of the country where they live. Deadpan as ever, Naipaul never allows himself the luxury of obtruding any comment on his narrative's significance, but the journey is as surely an allegorial structure as those in Heart of Darkness and Wilson Harris's Palace of the Peacock. As formal political allegory the story may be said to stand for the colonial retreat, but as always Naipaul is more interested in the human implications of his fable. Neither Bobby nor Linda belongs in England any longer. The homosexual Bobby, after a breakdown at Oxford, has found a modicum of personal salvation in Africa. The mildly racist Linda, only at home in the élitist situation of the compound, is estranged from both English and East African life. When she and her husband leave they will probably ‘go south’.

Naipaul enlists our sympathy for Bobby. Despite the seediness of his two abortive attempts at pick-ups, he is genuinely committed to the society through an ideal of modest, unmeddlesome service. But he is as far from personal fulfilment as Santosh and Dayo's brother. Life presents more obstacles for him than for the essentially selfish Linda. He is subjected to two kinds of assaults: a number of isolated, but cumulative acts of aggression against him by Africans and, more insidious, Linda's oblique verbal attacks on his liberalism. He is rejected by a Zulu male-prostitute, who first teasingly encouraged him, in the capital's inter-racial pick-up spot; his windscreen is ruined by an African who ‘washes’ it at a petrol station; two Africans to whom he gives a lift try to threaten him into taking them in the opposite direction; he is beaten up by soldiers; finally, on arrival back in the compound, he is insulted by his houseboy. Throughout the journey with Linda her attitude towards him has been an implicit criticism of his life-style and when they reach the compound the distance between them is accentuated, as she goes off to gossip to her friends about what to her has been an interesting adventure, while Bobby goes off to lick his wounds in private, only to be insulted by the houseboy. So Bobby's freedom brings only isolation and humiliation; the break with the past has led to an equally barren present.

If In a Free State ended here, it would be reasonable to argue that, despite hints at a more committed approach, particularly in his treatment of Bobby's liberalism, Naipaul has stopped short of any substantial addition to the negative vision of the earlier novels. But in the Epilogue, where the masks of irony and anonymity are dropped, there emerges a very definite statement of involvement. As Naipaul watches desert children being lured to approach an oasis rest-house for scraps of tourists' food and then horse-whipped by the coffee-waiter for coming too near, he suddenly becomes incensed, rushes into the middle of the scene in protest and abruptly stops the flagellation. Afterwards he feels exposed, but the act of human commitment has been performed. It provides a perfect ending to In a Free State. Though the act is futile (the children jostling for crumbs at the tables of the rich are willing whipping-boys) the gesture of protest illustrates the extent of Naipaul's movement away from the colonial/determinist mentality. All his familiar urbanity of style is present in his understated account of this act of Camus-like rebellion, but the act itself is a fresh departure, a sure step towards a third-world consciousness. Such gestures, Naipaul implies, decolonize the personality.

For himself there has always been another road of decolonization. His writing has always been an existential act against passive dependence:

… I've decolonized myself through the practice of writing, through what I've learned from writing, looking at the world.

But let me also add to this that I feel an enormous pain about the situation.29

His new-found freedom is then an anguished burden fraught with ironies and limited by his sense of homelessness. Nevertheless, it represents a very real movement towards a third-world consciousness, which is all the more convincing because he has so rigorously abstained from jumping on third-world bandwagons in the past.


  1. George Lamming, The Pleasures of Exile, London, 1960, pp. 30, 224-5.

  2. For a useful biographical résumé of Naipaul's career, see ‘An Area of Brilliance’, The Observer, 28 Nov. 1971, p. 8.

  3. The Middle Passage, London, 1962, p. 41; all references to Naipaul's works are to the André Deutsch edn.

  4. ‘Power?’, The Overcrowded Barracoon and Other Articles, 1972, p. 250; originally pbld. in The New York Review of Books, 3 Sept. 1970.

  5. ibid., p. 248.

  6. The Suffrage of Elvira, 1958, p. 12.

  7. Miguel Street, 1959, p. 45.

  8. Trinidadians claim that Man-man's crucifixion is based on an actual event which took place in the country. Guyanese agree as to its factuality, but situate the event in Guyana's eastern county of Berbice.

  9. The Middle Passage, pp. 41-2.

  10. ‘The Writer as Colonial’, V. S. Naipaul interviewed by Adrian Rowe-Evans, Transition, 40 (1971), pp. 56-7.

  11. V. S. Naipaul in conversation with Ian Hamilton, ‘Without a Place’, Times Literary Supplement, 30 July 1971, p. 897.

  12. A House for Mr Biswas, 1961, p. 171.

  13. ibid., p. 213.

  14. Gordon Rohlehr, ‘Predestination, Frustration and Symbolic Darkness in Naipaul's A House for Mr Biswas', Caribbean Quarterly, X, 1 (March 1964), p. 11.

  15. A House for Mr Biswas, p. 13.

  16. V. S. Naipaul interviewed by Alex Hamilton, ‘Life on Approval’, Guardian, 4 Oct. 1971, p. 8; also: ‘Without a Place’, TLS, op. cit., p. 897.

  17. Paul Theroux, V. S. Naipaul: An Introduction to His Work, London, 1972, pp. 91, 100.

  18. ‘In the Middle of the Journey’, The Overcrowded Barracoon, p. 44; originally pbld. in The Illustrated Weekly of India, 28 Oct. 1962.

  19. ‘London’, The Overcrowded Barracoon, p. 16; originally pbld. in Times Literary Supplement, 15 Aug. 1958.

  20. V. S. Naipaul interviewed by Derek Walcott, Trinidad Sunday Guardian, 7 March 1965, p. 5; quoted by Victor Ramraj, ‘The All-Embracing Christlike Vision: Tone and Attitude in The Mimic Men’, Common Wealth, ed. A. Rutherford, Aarhus, 1972, p. 126.

  21. ‘Without a Place’, op. cit., p. 897.

  22. ‘A Second Visit’, The Overcrowded Barracoon, p. 80; originally pbld. in Daily Telegraph Magazine, 11-18 Aug. 1967.

  23. ibid.

  24. In a Free State, 1971, p. 25.

  25. ibid., p. 11.

  26. ‘Life on Approval’, op. cit., p. 8.

  27. ibid.

  28. In a Free State, p. 61.

  29. ‘Portrait of an Artist: What Makes Naipaul Run’, Caribbean Contact, I, 6 (May 1973), p. 18.

Leigh Winser (essay date 1976)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5074

SOURCE: “Naipaul's Painters and Their Pictures,” in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. 18, No. 1, 1976, pp. 67-80.

[In the following essay, Winser traces Naipaul's use of painters and visual art in his first seven novels and two collections of short stories.]

A reading of V. S. Naipaul's manifold prize-winning fiction reveals his continuing interest in the art of painting. Each of Naipaul's seven novels and two short-story collections either presents an important character who paints or alludes to at least one imagined artist. Naipaul likes to depict his characters in the creative act of painting, affording him the chance to describe their work in style and content. Some of the painting episodes in Naipaul's fiction and the pictures painted by his characters are put to very sophisticated use by their real creator. Like the dream performed by one of Dostoevsky's underground insomniacs or the song sung by a Shakespearean heroine, the painting created by a Naipaul character can indicate depths of personality, suggest an essential theme, satirical or serious, and even advance the action of a story. At other times, a painting or related form of visual art will appear in a scene of Naipaul's fiction solely for the pleasure of its own details.

Even better than some of his imagined artists, Naipaul understands traditional problems involved in the making of a painting. As we shall see, descriptive passages in his fiction bear more than a passing rhetorical resemblance to the composition of good painting. First, however, let us examine Naipaul's fictional painters, a richly humorous group. More than a dozen characters try their hand at painting in Naipaul's fiction. Some paint merely for the marketplace; others paint for diversion or self-amusement; and a few, such as Mr. Biswas (Naipaul's famous protagonist of A House for Mr. Biswas), paint in order to remake themselves, reaching to the canvas—or any handy surface—to gain perspective on their lives. All of Naipaul's painters work on impulse. Not many are exceptionally talented, but some take pleasure in their work winning, at times, the admiration of a fictional audience and always delighting Naipaul's readers.

Those who paint purely for financial profit, the most commercial of Naipaul's artists, are not the least interesting, though their approach to paints is suspect, their intention too obvious, and their talent suffering from unimaginative repetition. Such a painter is the African, John Mubende Mbarara, whom we hear about briefly in In a Free State:

When Johnny M. began, he was a good primitive painter and we all loved his paintings of his family's lovely ribby cattle. But he churned out so many of those he got to be a little better than primitive. Now he's only bad. … He's got awfully fat.1

Apparently, Mubende Mbarara has sold out an original talent, and success has gone to his waistline.

Another character whose paintings are conceived for the marketplace is Edward of Miguel Street, Naipaul's early collection of short stories about Trinidadians. Edward paints one-dimensional landscapes and shallow, sentimental subjects, “mount[s] his pictures himself and frame[s] them in red passe-partout. The big department stores … distribute Edward's work on commission.”2 If the judgment of Edward's neighbors on Miguel Street is any indication of the general taste in Trinidad, then Edward's paintings must not sell very well, for we learn of communal relief on Miguel Street when Edward “no longer offer[s] to paint things” (186).

Unlike Mubende Mbarara, Edward has no real gift for painting. He is not the talented artist gone bad; rather, his bland painting is only one of many equally vapid expressions of impotence—a grand Naipaulian theme, artistic, moral, and sexual. Like his weight-lifting, his singing, his practical joking, and his fruitless marriage, Edward's unhappy painting merely ends in his frustration: “He entered some poster competition, and when his design didn't win even a consolation prize, he grew really angry with Trinidad” (186).

Other of Naipaul's characters, not at all tainted by commercial interests, seek more personal rewards in drawing and painting. Ralph Singh, the narrator of The Mimic Men, recalls his student years in England when, half-heartedly, he had worked towards a degree: it was a time of “total tedium.” Singh sought relief in sketching, yet one must wonder how far he escapes his humdrum life when he draws “the backs of all the houses [he can] see from [his] windows.”3 The motif of painting for relief, indeed, self-restoration, is much stronger in A House for Mr. Biswas, whose harried protagonist comes to take painting very seriously.

With each move to an inadequate house, each birth of a child whose love he is denied, and each squabble among his in-laws, Mr. Biswas is assailed by the terrifying sense of life's futility. Through painting he adjusts, if only temporarily, and survives. Unlike Ralph Singh's rough sketches of familiar surroundings, Mr. Biswas's paintings are of the faraway landscape, the exotic, transformed by imagination:

He brought out his brushes and covered the inside of the shopdoors and the front of the counter with landscapes. Not of the abandoned field next to the shop, the intricate bush at the back, the huts and trees across the road, or the low blue mountains of the Central Range in the distance. He painted cool, ordered forest scenes, with gracefully curving grass, cultivated trees ringed with friendly serpents, and floors bright with perfect flowers; not the rotting, mosquito-infested jungle he could find within an hour's walk.4

For Mr. Biswas, who starts by drawing simple signs, painting becomes compulsive. Working a strange therapy, it allows Mr. Biswas to overcome the oppressive heat of Trinidad, the sudden rains, and the bad weather in his own household.

Exercises in saving fantasy, Mr. Biswas's paintings are intensely private; but, in a rare, touching moment, painting becomes a shared act of communication that unites Mr. Biswas and his estranged son:

At night they drew imaginary scenes; snow-covered mountains and fir trees, red-hulled yachts in a blue sea below a clear sky, roads winding between well-kept forests to green mountains in the distance. They also talked. … He showed Anaud how to mix colours. (279)

Painting heals in this scene; it appears a most natural activity for father and son to carry out together. On the other hand, when painting plays a role in the lives of Ralph Singh and his mistress, Sandra, it appears an unnatural act, even sadistic. Sandra likes to paint up Ralph when they make love. On such occasions Ralph suppresses a desire to cry out and “assumes naturalness” (48). The paint, which serves to divide an intimate moment, seems to mark the artificiality of the match (later Ralph and Sandra separate). Painting, then, will sometimes define the relationships between characters in Naipaul's fiction. It may draw characters closely together or divide them in their closest moments.

No limit seems to be set to the objects which may be painted by Naipaul's characters. Neckties, for instance, suffer the artwork of Edward in Miguel Street:

Listen to this. I see this man not wearing tie. I take a bus and I go to town. I walk to Johnson's and I look for the gents' department. I meet a girl and I buy a tie. I take a bus back home. I go inside my room and unscrew my paint. I dip my brush in paint and I put the brush on the tie. I spend two three hours doing that, and after all this, the man ain't wearing my tie. (180)

Common household items are doused with paint in fits of energy. A “tasselled lampshape,” notes Mr. Stone on his wedding night, “had been painted green by Miss Millington at his orders, not to cover grime but simply for the sake of the green; the lighted bulb now revealed the erratic distribution of all her labouring, overcharged brushstrokes.”5 A kitchen table is the special object of Mr. Biswas's artistry as he paints among the furniture that he lugs from house to house:

The table … the wood, a local cedar, was absorbent and never sated, drinking in coat after coat of stain and varnish until, in exasperation, he painted it one of his forest greens, and had to be dissuaded … from doing a landscape on it. (187)

Later we learn

that Mr. Biswas, painting the kitchen safe and the green table with a tin of yellow paint, yielded to an impulse and painted the typewriter-case and parts of the typewriter as well. (346)

The objects have changed color in a new moment of spontaneous activity.

Such delightful sallies of unpremeditated painting may occur at any moment in Naipaul's fiction. In The Suffrage of Elvira the character named Foam, a political campaign manager, takes up his “pot of paint and a large brush and [goes] about Elvira, painting new slogans and refurbishing old ones. … Foam [does] his job with love. He paint[s] even on houses whose owners [have] gone to bed.”6 Surely the most startling instance of impulsive painting is related in the same novel by Mahadeo, an estate driver, whose curiosity had once earned him a coat of paint. In his boyhood Mahadeo had stood gazing inquisitively at Mr. Cuffy, Elvira's black leader, who was busily whitewashing his house. Soon Mr. Cuffy “frowned and muttered, but Mahadeo paid no attention”; then, “on a sudden Mr. Cuffy turned and vigorously worked the whitewash brush over Mahadeo's face” (124). The paint-brush, an instrument of self-assertion in Naipaul's fiction, even at times of aggression, here serves for slapstick humor.

Although Naipaul's characters freely paint on canvases, sides of houses, and, sometimes, on each other, only a few of them really possess the inner ability to imagine things in picture form. Their internal picture-making can be used by Naipaul to further the narration of a fiction. In The Mimic Men, for example, narrator Singh, having reached by sea his native Isabella, describes the island as viewed from the boat:

Then one morning, waking to stillness, we looked out and saw the island. Each porthole framed a picture: a pale blue sky, green hills, brightly-coloured houses, coconut trees, and green sea. (31)

Later Singh imagines more pictures superimposed upon pictures in an international montage that reflects his travel:

In my imagination I saw my mother's mother leading her cow through a scene of pure pastoral: calendar pictures of English gardens superimposed on our Isabellan village of mud and grass. (89)

Ralph Singh is among Naipaul's characters most endowed with the image-making faculty.

Whether calendar paintings, allegories, or cartoons, the pictures imagined by Naipaul's leading characters surely indicate Naipaul's own interest in all varieties of visual art, and they represent only a few of the many kinds of pictures, both conventional and experimental, to appear in his fiction. We have already noted the landscapes painted by Mr. Biswas and the poster made by Edward of Miguel Street. In The Mystic Masseur, Naipaul's first novel, an important watercolor is periodically reconstructed by its maker, the eccentric, determined Mr. Stewart.7 It depicts “a number of brown hands reaching out for a yellow light in the top left-hand corner … a blue shrunk hand curling backwards from the yellow light.” To convey the message that “some see Illumination … but they do sometimes get burnt and withdraw,” the symbolic watercolor may not seem worth the effort that Stewart puts into it. Yet “once or twice a year,” he says, he gets “a new idea for it and it has to be drawn all over again” (39). The painting seems a genuine extension of Stewart's inner vision.

Every Naipaul novel dwells in detail on at least one form of visual art. In In a Free State it is Egyptian tomb painting:

The ancient artist, recording the life of a lesser personage [than a king], sometimes recorded with a freer hand the pleasures of the river, full of fish and birds, the pleasures of food and drink. The land had been studied, everything in it categorized, exalted into design. It was the special vision of men who knew no other land and saw what they had as rich and complete. The muddy Nile was only water: in the paintings, a blue-green chevron: recognizable, but remote, a river in fairyland. (251)

In The Suffrage of Elvira Naipaul takes equal pleasure in describing a colored diptych that hangs in a rum shop:

In one panel … the wise man who had never given credit, plump … and laughing and counting what looked like a fortune. In the other panel the incorrigible creditor, wizened, haggard, was biting his nails in front of an empty money chest. (99-100)

Countless references are made to artistic activity. In A House for Mr. Biswas cartography is practiced by Savi, a character who likes to draw “maps with minutely indented coastlines” (412); in The Mimic Men Naipaul mentions the technique of painting from photographs and alludes to the lost art of dish painting. Even an example of body painting is provided by Sandra, who “paint[s] the nipples of her breasts. So absurd, so pathetic, so winning” (44).

Naipaul's wide-ranging acquaintance with painting styles has taught him an alertness to the sham painter and the gullible audience. These become the objects of Naipaul's satire in “A Flag on the Island,” a short story designed for film. First, Naipaul encourages laughter and scorn for Bippy, Tippy, and Chippy, the men from Foundationland who will subsidize anything; next, Pablo, Sandro, and Pandro, three painters, seek a subsidy for their unusual performance:

Pablo and his boys are a painting group. They work together at the same time on one canvas … an experiment in recovering the tribal subconscious and the racial memory … A sort of artistic stream of consciousness relay … in paint. A sort of continuous mutual interference. (196)

Without doubt one of Naipaul's best jokes! In The Mimic Men gullibility among art audiences is satirized when Deschampsneuf, a talented artist, “creates a stir in [the] Art Association by painting either a red donkey in a green sky or a green donkey in a red sky” (168). Narrator Singh's inability to remember details in the donkey picture suggests its transient quality, yet “letters to the newspaper, for and against,” quote “all sorts of famous names; and at the end Champ [becomes] a figure” (168).

In quite another mood in “The Mourners”8 Naipaul subtly suggests the counter themes of his story by means of two unobtrusive pictures, an engraving and a print, observed by his central characters. One of Naipaul's best and shortest stories, “The Mourners” introduces us to young Romesh, a lad who is paying a call upon Sheila, his distant relation whose child has recently died. In an awkward moment for Romesh, Sheila, apparently overcome by grief, breaks down before him, “jerking with sobs” (48) and indulging her sorrow. In the hot darkness of the room Romesh looks away to the wall where he makes out the two pictures—“an engraving of the Princes in the Tower” and “a print of a stream lazing bluely beautiful through banks cushioned with flowers” (49). Expressing the counter themes of imprisonment and freedom, each picture comments upon the immediate situation in Naipaul's story. Romesh, like the Princes locked away by their infamous protector, seems trapped by Sheila, the adult whose motives and feelings he cannot entirely comprehend. Indeed, Romesh even shares the discomfort of the Princes' “dog” (also represented in the engraving) that does “not understand … a thing” and “just want[s] to get out” (49). Though courtesy requires Romesh to endure his visit to Sheila, his natural instinct to be free from her grief is expressed in the print of the wandering stream. Eventually, Sheila herself comes “to the rescue” (50).

Even further, by association Sheila links her own child with the Princes in the Tower and comes to an increased morbid appreciation of one picture: “Look at them. They're going to be killed, you know. It's only in the past two days I've really got to understand that picture, you know. The boys. So sad.” (49). The tale of the Princes in the Tower, of course, is not merely popular and sentimental—it is a tear-jerker. Does it comment upon the quality of Sheila's grief? Many such questions arise as we examine Naipaul's picture of two characters examining two pictures. As readily as it may tell us something about its maker, a painting in Naipaul's fiction may also reveal the personality of its audience.

Sometimes Naipaul will make painting serve quite specific literary purposes other than the establishment of character or theme. In Miguel Street, for instance, Naipaul literally marks with paint a significant turn of plot. Mysteriously grown wealthy overnight, Popo the carpenter celebrates his change of fortune by “painting his house … a bright green and … the roof a bright red” (23). Shortly afterwards, when Popo is arrested, Naipaul reveals that even “the paint and the brushes with which he had redecorated the house had been stolen” (24). In The Mimic Men Naipaul uses a set of drawings to advance the action of his fiction. When the seven-year-old daughter of Ralph Singh's landlady develops an attachment to Singh, she entrusts him with her “rude drawings … a child's view of unclothed dolls” (30). After the harmless drawings are discovered, Singh is blamed, and he is forced to find lodgings elsewhere. Indeed, the drawings help explain why Ralph Singh is on the move in The Mimic Men.

To dramatize a turn of plot, to modulate a theme, to express the personality of its maker or its observer—such are the ends that a painting can serve in Naipaul's fiction. His sophisticated employment of specific paintings and his invention of so many painter-characters, impulsive, frustrated, and comic, are the best indication of Naipaul's long-standing interest in the visual arts, which have interacted so fruitfully with his own art of fiction. Further inquiry, however, suggests that Naipaul's own talents as a writer are like those of a painter, for he possesses an eye for color, for details of light, shade, perspective, and line.

Even a cursory glance at the titles of Naipaul's works indicates his fondness for color: “George and the Pink House” and “The Blue Cart” from Miguel Street; [“Greenie and Yellow”] from A Flag on the Island; perhaps “My Aunt Gold Teeth” and An Area of Darkness, too. But Naipaul perceives much finer distinctions than these few titles suggest. In The Middle Passage, a nonfictional journal,9 he notes with objectivity the graduation of West Indian skin colors: “white, fusty, musty, dusty, tea, coffee, cocoa, light dark, dark black” (73). Often Naipaul responds to and vividly recreates the colors of a tropical landscape:

And cocoa: it is my favorite crop. It grows in the Valleys … There are freshwater springs that make miniature waterfalls over mossy rocks and then run clear and cold and shallow in their own channels of white sand. The floor of the cocoa woods is covered with broad brown-and-gold cocoa leaves; and between the cocoa trees, stunted, black-barked, as nervously branched as the oak, there are bright green coffee bushes with red berries; the whole sheltered by giant immortelle trees which at their due season lose all their leaves and set every hillside ablaze with bird-shaped flowers of yellow and orange … and from this level … the tormented black trunks of the cocoa trees rise, their shining cocoa pods, in all the colours from the lime green through scarlet to imperial purple.10

Naipaul's artful description of the cocoa woods is a verbal picture that is more beautiful than the landscape it represents, for, like the painter, the writer selects details and eliminates space. Indeed, the common idea that Art surpasses Nature in beauty—especially in the matter of color—is exactly touched on by Naipaul in Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion: “Colour come[s] truly to Nature only in a coloured snapshot or a painting, which annihilate[s] colourless, distorting space” (19). In In a Free State Naipaul briefly introduces the color sense itself: “Their clothes were patched with large oblongs of red, blue, yellow, green; it was a local style. Bobby was on the point of saying something about the African colour-sense” (122).

Accurately depicting light and shadow in his fiction can be no less important to Naipaul than getting the colors right, an issue raised in Miguel Street: Edward's “favorite subject was a brown hand clasping a black one. And when Edward painted a brown hand, it was a brown hand. No nonsense about light and shade. And the sea was a blue sea, and mountains were green” (179). More conscientious than his fictional painter, Naipaul achieves many lighting effects by means of narrative detail. In The Middle Passage “the curving razor shaped banana frond [is] rendered almost transparent” by sunlight (66). A rainbow effect is captured in In a Free State: “The exposed part [of the asphalted yard], still wet after the rain, was iridescent” (153). At another moment, with the discerning eye of a painter, Naipaul turns the light into a figure of speech: “the escarpment was blurred; color there was insubstantial, like an illusion of light and distance” (129).

At a revealing moment in The Mimic Men, the novel in which Naipaul's concern with visual art is most apparent, the narrator, Ralph Singh, comes across a fading photograph of his father and notes that its “light and shadow [are] ill-defined” (87). Singh's remark is a small indication of the deep refinement of vision that is both his and Naipaul's. Singh, traveler from Torrid to Temperate Zone, offers Naipaul's paean to light:

That marvel of light, soft, shadowless, always protective. They talk of the light of the tropics and Southern Spain. But there is no light like that of the temperate zone. It was a light which gave solidity to everything and drew colour out from the heart of objects. To me, from the tropics, where night succeeded day abruptly, dusk was new and enchanting. I would sit … and study the light, not willing to risk losing any gradation in that change. Light was slowly withdrawn; a blueness remained, which deepened, so that before the electric lights began to make their effect the world seemed wholly aqueous, and we might have been at the bottom of the ocean. Then at night the sky was low; you walked as though under a canopy; and all the city's artificial lights, their glow seemingly trapped, burned intensely; and sometimes the wet streets threw up their own glitter. (18)

This study of light is recounted by Singh on his way to the recovery of an inner light.

In his best descriptive prose, again like the attentive painter, Naipaul renders natural forms very carefully. He sees afresh the familiar forms of a Trinidadian landscape in The Middle Passage:

Now I was taken by the common coconut tree, the cliche of the Caribbean. I discovered, what every child in Trinidad knows, that if you stand under the tree and look up, the tapering chrome ribs of the branches are like the spokes of a perfectly circular wheel. I had forgotten the largeness of the leaves and the variety of their shapes: the digitated breadfruit leaf, the heart-shaped wild tannia … To ride past a coconut plantation was to see a rapidly changing criss-cross of slender curved trunks. (66)

At another moment, his eye discerns the rich contrasts of line in a beach scene. See the vanishing point:

The beach … stretched for more than twenty miles, broken at intervals by the neat channels of streams, fresh but brackish, that flowed into the ocean … Coconut trees and beach and the white of breakers seemed to meet at a point in the distance … Here and there, interrupting the straight line of the beach, were the trunks of trees washed up by the sea.11

Such passages suggest the painter's act of purposeful composition before his canvas. Naipaul's innate sense of the relationship between forms seems mysteriously satisfied in the concluding image of A House for Mr. Biswas when a “laburnum tree” that grows rapidly gives “the house a romantic aspect” and softens “the tall graceless lines” (584).

Naipaul seems to see with the trained eye of the painter and invites us to share his vision; indeed, his invitation to “see” becomes explicit, almost self-conscious, in The Mimic Men as Ralph Singh extends a self portrait into a family group:

See how disquieting we must have appeared on a Sunday morning … Rum punch time. I am in my dark sunglasses; the cuffs of my shirt, of Indian raw cotton, are buttoned at the wrist; I am leaning forward, the frosted rum-punch glass held in both hands. Sandra is sitting on a high black-draped settee … Her legs are apart and her hands, between her legs, are pressed on the edge of the settee. (61-2)

Even the conventional background drapery for portrait or still life is found in Singh's description. Whether or not he always does it consciously, Naipaul often achieves the effects of paintings in his prose:

Then the haze thickened, clouds turned from white to silver to grey to black and billowed heavily across the sky; a watercolour in black and grey. (287)

No view of the hills and the sea from here, only the tops of a few royal palms against the sunset sky: charcoal streaks, dark-red rainless clouds.12

Naipaul's admiration for the creative painter even extends to the artist's materials in A House for Mr. Biswas; with both tenderness and respect, he describes the paintbrushes used by Biswas, almost as resilient as their owner: “He packed his paint brushes. Through every move they had survived; the soft candle on the bristle of one or two had hardened, cracked and turned to powder” (304). Though avowedly the novelist, Naipaul again seems to be the painter who has turned to his own paintbox as the subject for a study.

Whatever the quality of a picture painted by Naipaul or by one of his characters—often Naipaul lets the reader judge which pictures are trite or disappoint in their form—one senses in his fiction an essential fondness for pictures and the people who create them. Is it Naipaul's own unaffected response to the idea of “picture” that we overhear in the humorous speech of Chittaranjan:

A breadfruit from Ramlogan's tree dropped so hard on Chittaranjan's roof that the framed picture of King George V and Mahatma Ghandi in the drawing room fell … Chittaranjan was at a loss … “A good good picture. You can't just walk in a shop and get a picture like that every day, you know.”13

Amidst the pictures, the pots of paint, the worn brushes, and the cardboard is framed the true figure of Naipaul's admiration—the serious painter at work, the maker of the picture totally absorbed in his creation:14

The placards in Mr. Biswas's room increased. He worked more slowly on them now, using black and red estate ink and pencils of many colors. He filled the blank space with difficult decorations and his letters became intricate and ornamental. (246)

To Biswas, whose work fills his spirit as well as his room, painting is a sacred act. Naipaul must tell us: “Religion was one thing. Painting was the other” (183).

That Naipaul himself may occasionally try his hand at painting is not unlikely, but as Paul Theroux has noted, Naipaul is an “intensely private individual,15 and he is not to be confused with his own fictional painters. That Naipaul had some sort of early exposure to paints, perhaps in school or in his own household, is suggested by his fictionalized account of boyhood in Miguel Street where we learn that the narrator's father was an amateur painter who like to create landscapes. When Eddoes, a character named after a vegetable, offers to sell to the narrator's mother two framed “engravings of ships in stormy seas,” Naipaul records her reaction:

I could see my mother almost ready to cry from joy. She repeated “I always always want to have some nice sceneries.” Then, pointing to me, she said to Eddoes, “This boy father was always painting sceneries you know.” (124)

That Naipaul's own family is indicated is mere conjecture; the author has warned us that “autobiographical detail is deliberately misleading.”16

Whatever its origins, the image of the father who paints is a favorite with Naipaul and appears three times. In an especially touching moment in A Flag on the Island another of Naipaul's young narrators speaks of a special family legacy:

The third thing my father taught me was the blending of colours. This was just a few days before he died …

He said, “You want to see some magic?” …

He laughed and showed me how blue and yellow make green. (66)

Almost exactly the same incident is recreated in A House for Mr. Biswas when the harried protagonist, permitted by his wife to borrow their son for a short time, seeks to entertain the child: Biswas “showed Anaud how to mix colours. He taught him that red and yellow make orange, blue and yellow green” (297). Rarely does Naipaul work material from one fiction into another. The image of the father who paints, the creator, seems especially close to Naipaul's heart.


  1. V. S. Naipaul, In a Free State (London, Andre Deutsch, 1971), p. 121. Subsequent references are to this edition.

  2. V. S. Naipaul, Miguel Street (New York: Vanguard Press, 1959), p. 179. Subsequent references are to this edition.

  3. V. S. Naipaul, The Mimic Men (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969), p. 30. Subsequent references are to this edition.

  4. V. S. Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969), p. 138. Subsequent references are to this edition.

  5. V. S. Naipaul, Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion (London: Andre Deutsch, 1963), p. 38. Subsequent references are to this edition.

  6. V. S. Naipaul, The Suffrage of Elvira (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969), p. 54. Subsequent references are to this edition.

  7. V. S. Naipaul, The Mystic Masseur (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1957). Interestingly, Mr. Stewart, a painter-mystic, encourages Ganesh, the protagonist, to become a writer.

  8. V. S. Naipaul, A Flag on the Island (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969). Subsequent references are to this edition.

  9. V. S. Naipaul, The Middle Passage (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969). Subsequent references are to this edition.

  10. The Mimic Men, p. 33.

  11. The Mimic Men, p. 111.

  12. V. S. Naipaul, Guerrillas (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975), p. 210. Subsequent references are to this edition.

  13. The Suffrage of Elvira, p. 95.

  14. Awareness of Naipaul's deep admiration for the creative artist enables us to appreciate the irony in Guerrillas when, having suggested as a party game that the idle Jane, Harry, and Roche describe how each would “spend a full day” if each had “every thing he want[ed],” Meredith illustrates the game: “If you're the world's greatest painter, you will be spending a lot of time painting” (142).

  15. Paul Theroux, V. S. Naipaul (London: Andre Deutsch, 1972), p. 7.

  16. A Flag on the Island, p. 4.

K. I. Madhusudana Rao (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4726

SOURCE: “The Short Fiction,” in Contrary Awareness: A Critical Study of the Novels of V. S. Naipaul, Centre for Research on New International Economic Order, 1982, pp. 28-44.

[In the following excerpt from his full-length book on Naipaul's fiction, Rao analyzes the plots and themes of several of the short stories in A Flag on the Island and argues that the stories are held together by the “unifying metaphor of island life.”]

The stories collected in A Flag on the Island (1967) employ the island-world as a unifying metaphor in the same manner as Miguel Street does the street-world. However, three of the eleven stories have no connection with the West Indian scene, while the title of the story dramatizes the Island life from an extra-insular perspective. The rest of the stories reflect a minute observation of the island life offering glimpses into the complex social process in the mixed milieu of the West Indian life. They are keyed to moods rather than personalities, capturing the flavour of character through the element of surprise with which the island life is continually coloured. The island people are constantly preoccupied with their station in society and view their landscape as a starting point for building up their individual fantasies. Each story feels, as it were, the fluttering of the flag on the island. The flag is used as metaphor for historical change which imposes its own models on social reality and so creates the need to modify human behaviour. The society and the self are related to each other by a crisis of mutual expectations and demands. Naipaul's characteristic sensibility, which seeks to distance an experience left behind through narrative irony as reflected in Miguel Street continues to be at work here too. Some of the stories like “My Aunt Gold Teeth”, “The Raffle”, “The Enemy”, and “The Heart” are episodically related to A House for Mr Biswas, although they lack its existential depth and comic richness. A Flag on the Island is varied in content, capturing slices of life and holding them up in the light of the quick-silver moods of the island inhabitants.

“My Aunt Gold Teeth” is the story of an orthodox Hindu lady who shifts from one faith to another, and whose private religious virtuosity brings her a comforting illusion with which to assuage the anxieties of her barrenness. Religious practices drawn both from Hinduism and Christianity make for a delectable medley of comic manners which Naipaul exploits with engaging humour and wit. But at a deeper level he reveals an important sociological insight by dramatizing how individual psychology meets the social situation by making the routines of reality assume the predictability of ritual. The Aunt's room on whose walls hang the images of Krishna and Shiva, and Mary and Christ, typify the eclectic social situation. Ritual resolves the cultural contradictions and enables them to collaborate with one another in the reflexes of the individual human personality. The orthodox and puritanical Aunt acquires the ability to improvise and achieve a pragmatic stability in an unstable society. She provides an example of the process of decolonialization which implies an accommodation of the inherited with the acquired identity. Thus beneath the surface of the merry and grotesque comedy “My Aunt Gold Teeth”, affords a glimpse of social transformation.

“The Raffle” is the story of Mr Hind, the petulant pedagogue, who proceeds from one comic calamity to another, and in doing so, defines his own social ambition. His perversion of the educational system suggests how the best values may turn sour in the colonial context with its ineffectual but annoying madnesses. The story is narrated by the victim of Mr Hind's eccentricities and the point of view richly embellishes the comic of the tale. The ubiquitous return of the goat and its final disposal contribute to the story the flavour of a folk tale.

“A Christmas Story” is the story of a teacher whose lonely idealism is threatened and subverted by the ways of the family and the world. What happens to Randolph is again typical rather than individual in the sense that, in spite of his loneliness, much of what happens to him is representative of the life around. When the school building goes up in flames, the machinery of irony is set into action, reversing all the earlier reversals of fortune experienced by Randolph in the pursuit of self-fulfilment. There is a strong under-current of pathos and futility in the story which is finally elucidated in the end when the headmaster learns that the reason why he destroys his dream is after all unreal. Though the story takes place on Christmas Eve one's mind is not on Christmas as it is benighted and overtaken by the insidious tension caused by the uncertainty of events and individual drives in the island life. The expected illumination of the holy event is lost in the area of darkness within the human consciousness. “A Christmas Story” inverts the Pathetic Fallacy and thereby underscores how many things in life are simply unconnected and how even the connections that are invented by human necessity turn out to be meaningless fictions. As a matter of fact, “A Christmas Story” is anything but a Christmas story.

“The Mourners” is the poignant story of a mother's loss of her son and how she compensates it by living with his memory. Her husband, a doctor, tries to bring her back to a sense of reality but fails in assuaging her sorrow which is so deeply implanted in her consciousness. The photograph of her son in the album stands out as a symbol of her need to return to her sorrow, to forget which is, for her, a gross violation of her personal integrity. The mute tension between wife and husband is understood with profound sympathy by the visitor who narrates the story. The narrator presents with utter objectivity the Hindu husband's ingrained view of life as a passing interlude in a wider cosmic process, and of man's place on earth as but a temporary bivouac. The husband's philosophical detachment towards the grave personal loss is not possible for the wife. She cannot escape the fragile portals of personality. As a woman and mother she can make no compromise with reality and can only relapse into her secret sorrow. The narrator for once uses irony not to abolish either side of the antithesis but to evoke sympathy and understanding for both points of view. When the servant girl brings the album, the story reaches a point, to go beyond which is venality and offence. The story illustrates how well Naipaul uses the technique of withholding judgment on events, as a way of letting them dramatize their own meaning. William Walsh seems to oversimplify the real meaning of the story when he traces it to “the superficiality of self-regarding suffering”1.

“The Night Watchman's Occurrence Book” is cast as a diary of events in the hotel universe, which is characterized by human dereliction. The tourists and the transients who come to the place are rootless. They try to forget their predicament in a frenzy of self-indulgence and pointless passion. Theirs is essentially a Prufrockian world where men and women come and go measuring out their life with drink and soda water, trying to ward off their responsibilities in the temporary ecstasies of group orgy. This world of hollow, mimic men is presented through a double, contrapuntal perspective offered by the record of the night watchman, Hillyard, and the sardonic footnotes made by the manager, Inskip. As the story progresses, an adverse awareness of human relationships emerges, which continually modifies the point of view. The dismissal of the previous watchman, with which the story begins, hints at the only conclusion that is possible for the new watchman in his impossible task of rendering factually the fictitious happenings in the hotel every night. The manager insists upon strict and unabashed objectivity on the part of the watchman-narrator who, in his turn, clings to a certain personal slant in everything he records in the occurrence book. For Hillyard ‘nothing unusual means everything usual’, whereas for the manager it is the reverse. The collision of the quotidian and exceptional views of the happenings in the hotel traces out a pattern of narration in which the real significance of events lies imbedded. Where the nightwatchman conforms meticulously to his superior's instructions, he produces a record of facts which is devoid of any connection or meaning. A shadow comes between the event recorded and its communicated image. The event is not embodied in the word, and the word distorts the event. The occurrences as they happen indicate no relationship to one another and provide an experience without syntax. All is chaotic, unformed, pointless and meaningless. As for instance, in the terrifying hollowness of the last entry in the “Night Watchman's Occurrence Book”, Naipaul seems to imply that the narrative art is a search for connection and relevancy through form and, where the latter is eliminated, the actual holds out little sense of reality. The Night Watchman's occasional garrulity, which is promptly shouted down by the manager, is what would have made his record a truer representation of the occurrences. Once the manager preempts this pattern and the rhythm of the narrative breaks down, what remains is only a collection of narrative bones without the marrow of form. The manager himself seems to experience a great tension in sorting out the truth of the happenings in his hotel, and finally becomes a victim of his demands for precocity. The Nightwatchman's frustration becomes his own, and he has to beat a temporary retreat from his own Frankenstein monster of actuality without perspective. The story is thus developed on three levels—in the hotel rooms with the strange and weird activities of its guests; in the consciousness of the watchman on one hand and the manager on the other; and in their evolving hostile relationship. The interaction of these planes of narrative action results in the creation of a sense of Kafkaesque nightmare which is characteristic of Naipaul's description of landscapes and places, especially of the crowded landings and labyrinthine stairways of the Tulsi House in A House for Mr Biswas. The nightmarish world of the hotel is distanced by the two points of view, which, despite their contradictory postures, finally merge to produce a single impression. “The Night Watchman's Occurrence Book” has both technical virtuosity and an authenticity of atmosphere both directed towards the image of a people menaced by reality or foiled by fantasy.

“The Enemy” was originally written for inclusion in the Miguel Street, and it also strongly reinforces our understanding of one of the intense scenes in A House for Mr Biswas. Landeg White discovers in it the author's reason for excluding it from Miguel Street: “He would scarcely have wished to anticipate some of his best scene”2. The story is about the contest between the father and the mother for domination over their son and the son's shifting loyalties towards his parents, finally resolved in favour of the father. Although the mother seems to be identified as the ‘Enemy’ the real enemy in the story is the paranoic terror of dispossession which affects both the parents and the child. The narrative is framed by the son's point of view and reflects essentially the problem of a young man's need to shake himself free of the apron-strings of his mother. In the quest for his own identity, he achieves self-differentiation from his imposed role by shifting his affiliation towards his father. But he also learns that the world of the father is a bare, lonesome and terrifying world of loss and liability, and not a world of comfort, kindliness and reassurance. The storm that breaks out symbolises the world of freedom and entrapment alike, which he must enter into, once he abandons the quietly reassuring world of the mother. The story seems to draw attention to the fact ultimately in the adult world of reality, one must rely on one's own resources to encounter and overcome one's feeling of dereliction. “The Enemy” emphatically reinforces Naipaul's themes of human dereliction and loneliness. It also suggests a solution in upholding the individual's need to take his own stand, free from all tyrannies including the gravest of them all, the tyranny of love.

“Greenie and Yellow” is more a parable than a short story and is strongly reminiscent of Naipaul's lost inheritance, the Indian inheritance of which the allegorical animal fable as embodied in Pancha Tantra is an important component. Mrs Cooksey, the landlady, out of her twisted tenderness, attempts an experiment in eugenics, an act of ironic overcompensation for her own barrenness. In her anxiety to mate the birds, she only succeeds in interfering with their own natural rhythm of life leading to destruction. Naipaul's meticulous description of the cage-world is finely grained with microscopic details which in fact adds to the fearful sympathy in which the birds are trapped. The security and civilized refinement that Mrs Cooksey confers on the cage birds is only an ersatz reality, too much of which neither birds nor men can ever bear. Her fussy efficiency is a civilized barbarism reflecting how, entrapped in artificiality, the free spirit of man and nature wither away. Naipaul offers a birdstory for grown-up people with stern realistic detail pointing the delicate fancy of the narrative framework. Without explicitly stating it, Naipaul portrays the human predicament through the story of the birds. The displacement may result from over-concern as much as total unconcern for man's individual and institutionalized worlds.

“The Perfect Tenants” is the human version of the caged birds, which makes explicit the hollow paganism of Mrs Cooksey, the landlady. The perfect tenants are changed from birds into humans, but are treated no differently. The Dakins are exemplary tenants who are in the end changed into petulant and troublesome inhabitants of the seedy establishment. Mrs Cooksey tends to treat her tenants as one of her innumerable minor possessions with which her house should be furnished. The calamities, accidents, and illnesses that befall the tenants are but convenient pegs on which the landlady could hang her rituals of possessive leadership. Part of her satisfaction comes from her power of withholding the rights of other human beings except to live on her terms. Her territorial imperative is extended to the private lives of her tenants who must be her total slaves, or quit. This is brought out by what happens to the Dakins as well as the visitors. They are under Mrs Cooksey's roof, cut off from society and reduced to captive tenancy rather than living on the premises. Each attempt on their part to acquire comfort, status, or success fills Mrs Cooksey with intolerable jealousy and rage. Once the Dakins demonstrate their ability to protest by an act of domestic civil disobedience, by finally vacating the house, Mrs Cooksey feels defeated and forlorn. She can no longer score triumphs over her tenants. Although William Walsh values the story for its brilliant rendering of British suburban life and middle-class manners and morals,3 the narrative mainly underlines Naipaul's acute perception of the individual's part in the social process as a precarious balance between the demands of privacy and the obligations of public human relationships. An individual like Mrs Cooksey may subvert social reality by undermining all basic relationships. On the other side, unquestioning passivity, as in the case of the Dakins, may also destroy the fabric of society by giving a leverage to the maddening drives of despotic individuals. The tyranny of the landlady and timidity of the tenants conspire to attenuate the very basis of social relationships. And hence the explosive irony of the title “The Perfect Tenants”. Only in a regimented and impersonal society can there be the perfect tenants. Although the story is on the surface confined to a narrow segment of British life, it directs its meaning towards a human drama of much wider scope.

“The Heart” is about a rich boy's treatment of his pet dog and the manner in which the instinctive cruelty in the boy is aroused until he destroys the animal which he loves. One day the dog accidentally hurts him when being cuddled, and the boy thinks that it is an act of calculated malice. He becomes vindictive and seeks revenge. Here again Naipaul's story acquires a disturbingly uneasy tension, revealing the awakening of the potential evil at the heart of things. There is in this story a lurking horror of the power of darkness that conditions life. Naipaul presents the human heart as a darkling isthmus enchanted by the eddies and tides of primal evil, reflected, as in some of the tales of Mark Twain, by man's capacity to destroy the very things he loves. There is much violence in the natural kingdom of instinct but there is also more needless violence in the human heart. Whatever be the psychological processes by which evil manifests itself, it has a corrosive impact on human feelings and emotions. Here again Naipaul reinforces the lineaments of the Indian animal tale with a more than comic insight into the operations of metaphysical evil.

“The Baker's Story” draws attention to the subtly graduated negations of ethnicity in the West Indian society showing how resourcefulness, intelligence and manipulation pay off pragmatic dividends for an individual possessing these qualities of survival. To be a black Granadian is worse than being a black Trinidadian. The baker of the story realises this and turns this practical insight to his own advantage. As a baker in the Chinese bread-shop, never revealing his presence, he prospers well. But once a kind of economic hybris prompts him to set up his ownership and claim proprietary rights and equality of status, he runs into losses. He pulls himself back and employs a half-black half-Chinese boy at the counter, confining himself to the kitchen. His business piles up and his establishment is given a new name, ‘Yung Man, Baker”, which sounded like Chinese. In contrast to Santosh in “One Out of Many” in In a Free State, the Granadian succeeds by his horse-sense and mother-wit. Naipaul offers a scintillating satire on the duplicity of the social process in “The Baker's Story”, demonstrating how societies tend to hanker after the forms, images and rituals of social life without caring much for the real essence. It is the outward form rather than the inner substance that governs human attitudes, particularly in a situation dominated by racial prejudice. The story also reiterates Naipaul's consistent view that in the picaroon society, if one is to avoid being the victim, one must learn to be a trickster. The baker is a black-face Ganesh, who has certainly mastered the ambiguities of his social situation by retreating into the shadows and living as an underground individual.

“A Flag on the Island”, which was a commissioned scenario written for a film company, is set on a Caribbean Island, which is not specified, but is a synoptic setting of the West Indian scene. The transitions of island life already hinted at, towards the end of A House for Mr Biswas, are taken up once again by the narrator who wears the fictional disguise of an American soldier-tourist. Naipaul comes back to Miguel Street to salute the world of his childhood from the vantage point of an established career with a maturer understanding of the world he had left behind. “A Flag on the Island” is the study of the island community in its historical transition from a colonial past to an independent existence. The coming of independence entails abolition not only of its characteristic past but also of the fantasies and the images which had been built around such a past. The flag on the island still waves towards the past in the winds of change, even as the bugle summons one towards a future which is bound to be different. A spill-over of the colonial attitudes informs the tendency towards fantasy which still exercises its pressure on the reality of the present. As history abolishes the past, fantasy seeks to revive it, and the tension between the two shapes the reality that lies ahead. The transformation and change brought about by history is glossed over by a nostalgia striving to assuage the fear of permanence which independence brings in its wake to the society. Independence is a hard master demanding responsibility, industriousness, and commitment to the future. It demands the surrender of the exotic luxuries conferred on individuals by their erstwhile dependence. The colonial past tends to inform a code of life identifying it with total freedom, whereas independence invokes a style of life implying the concept of diligent citizenship. By wilful deviation from prescribed norms, the human psyche conjures up the imagined pleasures of an idyllic past in order to avoid pain of responsible existence under the flag. Consequently, the shabby world of the past is romanticized and set up as a surrogate world of utopian permissiveness and instant rewards. As the narrator himself realises, people everywhere seem to be running away from the flag in search of a usable past which is essentially a historical and individualistic. Accordingly, the narrator begins his story by observing that

… all landscapes are in the end only in the imagination; to be faced with reality is to start again …4

There are actually two islands, one with the flag and the other without any. The flag is the symbol of destruction, of a process which sweeps away something more than the name, subverting the very image of one's reality. Frank, the American Soldier, who returns to the old island transformed by political change, goes in search of Henry's Place, a symbol of his residual past, trying to discover through it a part of his own self lost in the shallows of time. He finds a place, an island within the island, which brings back to life all the easygoing pleasures that he had once enjoyed. The story moves on to its second phase, where Frank not only establishes recognition scenes of the past but also discovers the emergence of new fears and neuroses affecting people with whom his old friend Henry is surrounded. Moving elf-like among these characters, among the procession of steel-band-men, singers and women calling for his money, Frank senses the complications of the picaroon society after the advent of independence. The people who haunt the night-club are found developing from persons into characters, the new freedom forcing the human personality into strange and unexpected disguises and subterfuges. As more and more Americans come to his establishment, Henry, in his attempt to catch up with the new reality, is changed from a spontaneous, forthgoing individual into a wizened and impotent plastic flower, longing for the impermanence of the old days. Priest, the preacher (‘Pritcher’), is sponsored by the T.V. people and, with an Americanized efficiency, he turns to insurance, capitalizing on the fears and anxieties of the people trapped by the changed conditions of society. Still purveying immortality, Priest double-talks himself into selling remedies for mortality. Selma becomes a nymphomaniac, resisting a permanent home as a threat to her dependency, and flirting from lover to lover, and seeking an uncontingent present not imperilled by the terrible responsibilities of freedom.

Selma belonged to the type of island girl who moved from relationship to relationship, from man to man. She feared marriage because marriage, for a girl of the people, was full of perils and quick degradation. She felt that once she surrendered completely to any one man, she lost her hold on him, and her beauty was useless, a wasted gift.5

Mr Black White, who had once accepted his displacement as a starting point for genuine self-discovery, is forced into mimicry not allowing his vision to rest on his own perception of the unreality of island life. He panders his artistic taste to the manufactured images of the same unreality in which the tourists wish to fix up the island life. The American visitors have their own compulsive need for a tropical island paradise, a heaven away from hell. Since American money and influence can go far enough, the islanders must themselves conform to the American image of themselves. As an artist, Mr Black White experiences a regression of personality. When he tries to escape form the falsity of his American dream, he is simply given the cold shoulder. The unreal island which erupts edgewise into the actual island becomes a source of pain. The truth of the genuine artist with the tormented face, with its deep furrows of sad contemplation emerges to the fore:

The back of each book had a picture of the author, a tormented writer's—photograph face.6

The crisis comes when Frank finds traces of ‘human inhumanity’ even in his island paradise demonstrated by the ill-treatment meted out to Selma by the islanders. The time comes when he recognizes, with panic and agony, that irony rules life everywhere. This is poignantly demonstrated when an abandoned community abandons one of its members to her own fate. Frank's inner awareness is externalized by the hurricane which threatens the apparent serenity and composure of the island community. Even as Priest's ‘world-without-end’ benediction is awaited, Frank and his shipmates make bid to escape from the island. Although the storm never materialises in fact, the night club at Henry's place is smashed up; and along with it, all the pretensions of insular existence are dispelled. The storm does not appear but the island is taken by storm. Once more the islanders will be left to themselves making a new home, and tracing themselves to the task of achieving in the course of time something more than an imported view of themselves. It is an arduous task of self-education and self-transformation. It is a moot point whether people in this supposed utopia would really achieve the simple dignity of the new self-perception, so emphatically stressed. But, like the narrator in Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher”. Frank achieves his own escape, leaving the island and its tempting Circean hallucinations.

“A Flag on the Island” is something more than a long short story; it ends to be a novella with a tensely regulated movement of action, culminating in a symbolic finish. The theme of escape controls the various movements of the story which in some ways anticipates the journey in In a Free State and the dystopian atmosphere of Guerrillas. As William Walsh observes the story is built around a precise notation of group habits and manners supporting and exemplifying Naipaul's sense of the movement of the social process:

Change in “A Flag on the Island” is a silent, invisible but chronic condition.7

The story also reveals Naipaul's increasing concern with the ironic foreclosure of man's opportunities in an open society brought about by the imperatives of socio-political change. Reminding us of the climactic dissolution of the utopian society in Aldous Huxley's Island, Naipaul's island fantasy has the same implications of a future shock. For in the modern world no island can enjoy the self-sufficiency of the insular security. As Landeg White observes:

… There can be no escape from this island with a flag, for the flag was a proclamation that an escape was no longer necessary. To that fantasy, only the hurricane can offer a solution. With the prospect that the island will soon be destroyed, people are returned from the pretence that this is their landscape. They can be real again because a denial of the island, an acceptance of its smallness and unimportance, has always been a condition of their reality.8

The narrator's farewell to the night-club, like Prospero's farewell to his enchanted island, is a gesture towards the redemptive, if impossible, grace of reality. The Calibans may be left to their own “still-vexed Bermoothes”, but the visitor is released from his own fantasy towards a perception of order that lies beyond the world of diminishing cultural frontiers. The Ariel is released.


  1. William Walsh, V. S. Naipaul (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1973), p. 46.

  2. Landeg White, V. S. Naipaul: A Critical Introduction,(London: Macmillan, 1975) p. 156.

  3. William Walsh, V. S. Naipaul, p. 47.

  4. V. S. Naipaul, A Flag on the Island (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969), p. 124.

  5. V. S. Naipaul, A Flag on the Island, p. 166.

  6. Ibid., p. 129.

  7. William Walsh, V. S. Naipaul, pp. 52-53.

  8. Landeg White, V. S. Naipaul: A Critical Introduction, p. 146.

Peggy Nightingale (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4305

SOURCE: “Humour and Sympathy: Miguel Street and other stories,” in Journey Through Darkness: The Writings of V. S. Naipaul, University of Queensland Press, 1987, pp. 13-24.

[In the following excerpt from her full-length study of Naipaul's work, Nightingale shows how themes of postcolonial futility and wasted lives in Miguel Street become more explicit and pessimistic in the short stories that make up A Flag on the Island.]

The first book Naipaul wrote (but the third published), Miguel Street (1959), is a collection of short stories which are unified by the presence of a single narrator, a single setting, and a group of characters who individually become the focus of separate stories. The stories are further unified by themes of postcolonial futility, brutality, and lack of creativity which are lightened by humour and irony. The lightly ironic tone is reinforced by lines from calypsos quoted as comments on events in the stories and by subjecting the narrator himself to irony. The narrator unselfconsciously includes himself among admirers of Big Foot, the coward who achieved fame by throwing a stone through a Radio Trinidad window “to wake them up”, and Man-man who “had seen God after having a bath”. Nor is he surprised at this sighting: “Seeing God was quite common in Port of Spain, and indeed, in Trinidad at that time … I suppose it was natural that since God was in the area Man-man should see Him.” (Miguel Street 50-1) There is development in the narrator's appreciation of the eccentricity of his surroundings as the book progresses, so that such statements become more tongue-in-cheek in later chapters than in early ones. The comic effect of these stories is also enhanced by Naipaul's use of a slightly modified form of Trinidad's racy and amusing dialect. An example is in the account of Man-man's crucifixion: when the people begin to take seriously his request to be stoned, “Man-man looked hurt and surprised. He shouted, ‘What the hell is this? What the hell you people think you doing? Look, get me down from this thing quick, let me down quick, and I go settle with that son of a bitch who pelt a stone at me’” (Miguel Street 54). Naipaul's timing is that of a skilled comic as well: “The police took away Man-man. [New paragraph] The authorities kept him for observation. Then for good” (Miguel Street 55). The cadence set up by the arrangement of these short sentences is perfect for the understated effect of the conclusion of this episode.

However, the humour of these stories is deceptive. On reflection, one realizes that the residents of Miguel Street fail to achieve their dreams, and that even the dreams are limited. The Miguel Street stories are typical of the sort of story Naipaul claims in The Middle Passage is always told in Trinidad. “It was a place where the stories were never stories of success but of failure: brilliant men, scholarship winners, who had died young, gone mad, or taken to drink; cricketers of promise whose careers had been ruined by disagreements with the authorities” (MP 41). While his first two novels, The Mystic Masseur and The Suffrage of Elvira, satirize West Indian society, emphasizing elements of farce, the Miguel Street stories establish Naipaul's deep concern for the individual in a limited and limiting milieu, regardless of his treating them with humour. Miguel Street is a microcosm of Trinidad society—“… we, who lived there, saw our street as a world …” (Miguel Street 79)—and for Naipaul, Trinidad in turn becomes representative of postcolonial societies everywhere. Here at the beginning of his career, Naipaul adopts the perspective of the child outside his hut at the end of day. The circle of light defines his world. The young narrator of the short stories demonstrates the growing awareness of one approaching maturity. At first he knows the people around him only as they wish to be known; later he begins to see their fragility. Knowledge of the society that shapes them comes later still. The narrator of Miguel Street seems to stand between these last two stages of awareness. At the end of the book after Hat's imprisonment, the young man writes, “… it was just three years, three years in which I had grown up and looked critically at the people around me. I no longer wanted to be like Eddoes. He was so weak and thin, and I hadn't realized that he was so small. Titus Hoyt was stupid and boring, and not funny at all. Everything had changed” (Miguel Street 213-14). But he is still drawing no conclusions about why the driver of a scavenging cart is the best hero-figure the street can find and why Titus Hoyt cannot be more than a figure of fun, ultimately only stupid and boring. Even in the account of bribing Ganesh to obtain a scholarship, the young narrator seems unaware of the social implications of the corruption of public figures or the results for a whole society of buying qualifications rather than earning them. Throughout the book, characters make highly critical remarks about Trinidad that seem to be habitual rather than reasoned judgments about what is missing from the society. It is Naipaul, the author, creator of narrator and stories alike, who questions the values of the society and uses the limited understanding of the narrator to imply the effects of such values on individual lives.

The dwellers on Miguel Street lack a sense of personal identity. Their concepts of self are formed by imitation of American film stars or by playing stereotyped roles approved by their peers. “I don't know if you remember the year the film Casablanca was made. That was the year when Bogart's fame spread like fire through Port of Spain and hundreds of young men began adopting the hardboiled Bogartian attitude” (Miguel Street 9). The narrator's neighbour “Bogart” has no name of his own and no profession despite the sign declaring him to be a tailor. He becomes a bigamist when his need to prove his masculinity causes him to desert his barren first wife, but it seems that without the external reinforcement of the men on Miguel Street, he still lacks a sustaining self-concept. He must return to the street “‘to be a man, among we men’” (Miguel Street 16). Similarly Big Foot has no name of his own and plays a role—the bully—to hide his underlying fear of physical pain. Even Hat who leads the street society and stands as interpreter of it for the narrator, in his youth copies the style of Rex Harrison and finally proves not to be as self-sufficient as he seems. Linked to these images demonstrating failure to establish identities are those concerning language. When Edward goes to work at the American base at Chaguaramas, he adopts American styles of dress and behaviour and alternates between a Trinidadian and an American accent. While the contrast of Titus Hoyt's florid, over-written literary efforts with his day-to-day dialect is in itself amusing, it also reveals his failure to find the level of usage which would indicate success in his efforts to educate himself and become upwardly mobile in social status.

In these stories Naipaul dramatizes another of his observations of Trinidad: although some men may attempt to be creative, to make something with either their hands or their minds, most of their efforts are futile. No number of Edward's paintings of brown hand clasping black will solve Trinidad's racial rivalries; Bogart and Popo seem to be instinctively aware of this futility when they refuse to make the items their signs advertise. Popo has found a safe way to satisfy his own creative urge when he makes “the thing without a name”: it cannot be disparaged if it is never finished and no one ever knows for what it is intended. When Popo is forced to conform and make the things his society demands, he is no longer the cheerful, easy-going man with time for talk of “serious things” with a boy. Ironically, Bhakcu whose efforts result only in the destruction or mutilation of the vehicles he loves is “also an artist” (Miguel Street 157); the outcome of his tinkering, though not productive or creative, makes him happy. Morgan is less satisfied with the realization of his ambitions: although finally the whole street both laughs at him and recognizes his artistry as a “pyrotechnicist”, he must flee. Hat serves as commentator and interpreter of these events for the youthful narrator, expressing the cynicism of these people about the likelihood of actually enjoying the fulfilment of their aims: “But as Hat said, when a man gets something he wants badly, he doesn't like it” (Miguel Street 91). Only a few lines later, the narrator reveals his own more mature perspective at the time of writing: “They said Morgan went to Venezuela. They said he went mad. They said he became a jockey in Colombia. They said all sorts of things, but the people of Miguel Street were always romancers” (Miguel Street 92). One begins to appreciate that the people of Miguel Street need to be romancers.

Another romancer and the true artist of Miguel Street is B—for Black—Wordsworth who identifies himself as the spiritual brother of White Wordsworth. Because of Naipaul's compassion, this story of a man who might have appeared as a ridiculous, lying fraud becomes one of the most moving of the collection. B. Wordsworth awakens in the narrator the sense of wonder which is essential to poetry, and he transports the narrator from Miguel Street into a lush and fruitful paradise in the middle of the city. While staring at the starry sky with the poet, the boy discovers both his own insignificance and his greatness. Although he never writes his poem, B. Wordsworth attains the perspective of a true poet, but the fate of his little garden of Eden symbolizes the likely fate of all poetic insight in this sterile society. B. Wordsworth seems to recognize something special about the boy's capacity to judge the people around him, a talent the narrator displays in a comment like the following which reveals a perception he had as a boy, not one developed later as the writer of the story. “You felt that George was never really in touch with what was going on around him all the time, and I found it strange that no one should have said that George was mad, while everybody said that Man-man, whom I liked, was mad” (Miguel Street 26).

George is one of the characters who represent the brutal and violent side of life on Miguel Street. People there accept many kinds of violence as a natural response to certain situations; children are severely beaten for misdemeanors, wives are made aware of their subservience by regular beatings, and revenge is usually sought at a physical level. It is only when George and Toni carry their beatings of women and children to extremes, or when Morgan ridicules his family by staging a trial and public flogging, that the Street condemns them. But George is also disliked because he cannot carry his liquor, and Toni Hereira cannot fit in because he is white and demeans himself in the eyes of other residents by living on Miguel Street. In The Loss of El Dorado, Naipaul traces the source of their brutality not only to the slave era but to the earlier period of exploration and European settlement. Incidentally, there is a hint of his interest in Trinidad's history in this book when Titus Hoyt teaches the children the history of Fort George: “‘This fort was built at a time when the French and them was planning to invade Trinidad.’ … ‘That was in 1803, when we was fighting Napoleon.’” The boys are impressed because “We had never realized anyone considered us so important” (Miguel Street 103), foreshadowing Naipaul's claim that the history of Trinidad is unknown on the island. The use of the third person plural illustrates the colonial need to be identified with important metropolitan events past or present.

Women on Miguel Street can also become tragic figures—not because they are the objects of violence but because there is so little outlet for their human needs. Toni's woman, Angela, has fled from the suffocation of the good life as a doctor's wife in Mucurapo; she returns to the clean antiseptic smell which chokes her and to a life of inactivity and boredom with a big, new black car (that resembles a hearse) for solace. “The Maternal Instinct” is the most tragic of the stories which seem, despite the comedy of Miguel Street, to foreshadow the tragedy of A House for Mr Biswas. Laura's dreams of a better life for her eight children (of seven fathers) are shattered when her eldest daughter Lorna comes home pregnant. “And for the first time I heard Laura crying. It wasn't ordinary crying. She seemed to be crying all the cry she had saved up since she was born; all the cry she had tried to cover up with her laughter. I have heard people cry at funerals but there is a lot of showing-off in their crying. Laura's crying that night was the most terrible thing I had heard. It made me feel that the world was a stupid, sad place, and I almost began crying with Laura” (Miguel Street 115-15). When Lorna drowns, a suicide according to Hat, “Laura said, ‘It good. It good. It better that way’” (Miguel Street 117). A world where casual sex and too many children are the only outlets for the joy and loving warmth of a woman like Laura, a world where there is no other relief from poverty and no other type of creativity is, indeed, a stupid, sad place.

So, in many ways in Miguel Street Naipaul studies the responses that West Indian society forces upon its members. Bolo is ultimately driven into total withdrawal. Bolo's constant refrain through the story, “Caution”, is that black people or Trinidad people are worthless, liars and cheats who are in turn duped by the rest of the world, a refrain that is picked up by Eddoes in this story and by other characters elsewhere. This is the self-denigration Naipaul sees as a natural legacy of slavery and colonial domination. Elias is also forced to abandon ambition and hope and to accept “His Chosen Calling”; his failures are primarily the result of the brutality of his home and the deficiencies of Titus Hoyt's schooling, but he has also set himself unrealistic goals in his efforts to refute the world's judgment that all who live in an unimportant place are themselves unimportant and worthless. Naipaul discovers in Trinidad a constant need for the reassurance of superlatives to ward off the pressing fear of nonentity. It lies behind B. Wordsworth's claim to be writing the greatest poem in the world and Morgan's desire to make the most beautiful fireworks. In A House for Mr Biswas, Mohun Biswas is constantly given journalistic assignments to find those who are neediest or most evil, richest or tallest, thinnest or fastest. It is also symptomatic of the constriction of island existence that people believe it is possible to find or be the most anything.

Man-man is the first of Naipaul's characters to take refuge in the written word. Like Ganesh in The Mystic Masseur who takes pleasure in the feel of paper and the look of certain typefaces, Man-man is obsessed by the shape of letters and will spend a day writing one word, repeating a letter until the stimulus which suggested the word is withdrawn. Shaping a word is for him an attempt to order experience, to give a form and with it meaning to institutions like school and cricket which are essential parts of experience in Trinidad. With limited success, B. Wordsworth also seeks the solace of writing to ease the painful awareness of disorder and disharmony in his society. The young narrator of Miguel Street becomes the first of Naipaul's writer narrators, using writing as a way of exploring the sensibility of his society. Like Mr Biswas he starts as a sign-painter concerned with the physical shape of words rather than the concepts they express, but he becomes increasingly aware of changes in his evaluation of Miguel Street's characters and its culture; while the perspective is most often that of a boy, uncritical and easily impressed, the narrator frequently offers a more mature judgment as a comment on his own youthful simplicity which he is recreating. As Michael Gilkes says in the 1974 Mittelholzer Lecture: “Certainly it is in the work of V. S. Naipaul that the West Indian's sense of inner division, of self-alienation, achieves its most precise and disturbing expression. The young hero and narrator in Miguel Street (1959), like Lamming's ‘G’, learns as he grows up that people's personae—their apparent self-confidence and stability—are only facades behind which their fragile, inner selves crouch in fear”

It is evident that in this narrator Naipaul has portrayed a young man very much like himself. He has told Adrian Rowe-Evans (1971, 57) that his writing has helped him establish an “intellectual stance”. “In writing my first four or five books (including books which perhaps people think of as my big books) I was simply recording my reactions to the world; I hadn't come to any conclusion about it. (It was the reviewers who came to a conclusion!) But since then, through my writing, through the effort honestly to respond, I have begun to analyse. First of all, the deficiencies of the society from which I came; and then, through that, what goes to make this much more complex society in which I have worked so long.” The progression from sign-painter to writer (or in The Mystic Masseur, from Ganesh's obsession with the appearance of words to the understanding of how to use them for his own purposes) is an image which expresses Naipaul's concept of the development of a writer. “As you get older you begin to write more profoundly; you think less of the way words lie on paper, and more of meaning.” Perhaps this statement helps to explain why Salim, the narrator of Naipaul's latest novel A Bend in the River, is the least self-conscious (as a writer) of all Naipaul's narrators. Like Ralph Singh in The Mimic Men, Salim reviews his life in a postcolonial society, but while Singh emphasizes society's impact on himself as an individual and regards the act of writing as a means of defining himself to himself, Salim is more outward-looking. He tries to formulate a view of the world and to communicate it as he analyses his own experience; writing seems to be less therapy and more communication for him, as perhaps writing is now for Naipaul himself.

Although discussion of Miguel Street must take account of the negative aspects of the society Naipaul portrays, the limitations it imposes on individuals, and their generally futile efforts to break free of those restrictions, it should be noted at the same time that the Miguel Street community frequently rallies to support its members in times of trouble and that there is an element of chivalry in the behaviour of these rough people despite the narrator's disclaimer: “We were none of us chivalrous, but Nathaniel had a contempt for women which we couldn't like … And when Miss Ricaud, the welfare woman, passed, Nathaniel would say, ‘Look at that big cow.’ Which wasn't in good taste, for we all thought that Miss Ricaud was too fat to be laughed at, and ought instead to be pitied” (Miguel Street 110-11). Compassion plays a part in keeping the narrator from revealing Big Foot's cowardice to the others, and ensures that there are no jokes on the street when Laura's grandchild and Eddoes's daughter arrive. Landeg White, in V. S. Naipaul: A Critical Introduction (1975, 49), concludes from these episodes that “no one actually helps anyone else, and sympathy is limited to this occasional suspension of laughter.” However, I think this unduly underrates the importance of the community, which often replaces family. Although Popo had been judged “too conceited” by the men of the street, they try to cheer him by offering friendship when his wife deserts him. The boy narrator turns to other Street residents for comfort and “wisdom” rather than to his mother, with whom he seems to have little contact except when she chastises him. Significantly, Naipaul omitted the story “The Enemy” from Miguel Street. Written in 1955 and later included in the collection A Flag on the Island (1967), it tells of the boy's constant battles with his mother after his father's death during a storm (which is the precursor of the storm scene in A House for Mr Biswas). He discovers her love and concern for him when he sees her tears after he is injured. The sentimentality of the conclusion—“I wished I were a Hindu god at that moment, with two hundred arms, so that all two hundred could be broken, just to enjoy that moment, and to see again my mother's tears.” (A Flag on the Island87)—would have been out of keeping with the tone of Miguel Street. Thematically the story's suggestion of stronger family ties would have weakened the narrator's identification with the street and with Hat.

“The Mourners” (1950), “My Aunt Gold Teeth” (1954) and “The Raffle” (1957) also date from the period when Miguel Street was written, and are told by a boy who seems to be the Miguel Street narrator, referring to Ganesh and to the street. They, too, would weaken the unity and coherence of the earlier collection, which is so tight as to make the book more a novel than a collection of short stories. In this respect, this early work anticipates some of Naipaul's most sophisticated technical achievements, such as the structure of The Mimic Men and In a Free State. Adding to his observations of life in urban Trinidad, “My Aunt Gold Teeth” and “The Mourners” portray in fairly simple terms the erosion of Hindu life in rural Trinidad as it meets Christian and European styles, a theme fully developed in A House for Mr Biswas. Except for “Greenie and Yellow” and “The Perfect Tenants”, the other stories in A Flag on the Island are set in Trinidad and were written after Naipaul's return to the West Indies to gather material for The Middle Passage. In general the themes are similar to those of the Miguel Street stories; it seems that the return reinforced Naipaul's earlier observations.

The consciousness of race as a handicap for Negro and Indian alike is one of these themes. “The Baker's Story” in which the Negro narrator needs a Chinese to sell the bread he bakes because black people “don't like to see black people meddling with their food” (A Flag on the Island 144) is a highly amusing presentation of the way in which race restricts the individual's choices in Trinidad society. Even in the purely comic “The Night Watchman's Occurrence Book”, the diary entries of Charles Ethelbert Hillyard show the self-deprecation of a black man of little education whose job depends on a somewhat overbearing white boss.

In “A Christmas Story” the theme of self-denigration is treated in a much more serious fashion: whatever their motives, colonial missionaries foster a profound sense of worthlessness in their converts which leads to the loss of identity represented by the narrator's change of name from Choonilal to Randolph. For this Randolph is to be pitied, but he is also a victim of Naipaulian irony. The indictment of the narrator is all the more devastating because Naipaul achieves it through the character's own words. Far from a confession, the story becomes a series of rationalizations and justifications for a career of petty graft and bribery. Naipaul has managed the difficult task of suggesting that this unattractive character is himself the victim of social forces in a colonial society, forces that have created moral and ethical confusion and the loss of a consistent self-concept. However, by the time Randolph regrets being denied the chance to expiate his sin, one believes him to be simply too weak and self-seeking to confess when it is no longer necessary. Perhaps this is why the story, though technically accomplished, is not entirely successful: it is hard to care that anyone so unsympathetically portrayed is the victim of colonial domination.

“A Christmas Story” and “The Heart” both lack the humour and compassion of the other stories. In tone, they are more like The Middle Passage: exasperated, angry, fearful but aggressive. In its economical delineation of character, “The Heart” seems to achieve its purposes, but it remains a rather distasteful portrait of human weakness and viciousness. This story is one of the weak points of A Flag on the Island, which is itself a failure as a book because of its lack of unity. Perhaps it is unfair to expect fifteen years' oddments to be unified, but Naipaul has achieved coherence in most of his collections. Even The Overcrowded Barracoon arranges its articles chronologically within thematically defined sections, and The Return of Eva Peron, for all the variety of its parts, achieves strong thematic unity.

In the Miguel Street stories Naipaul takes a fairly sympathetic look at individuals in urban Trinidad. His writing records a familiar milieu and allows readers to form judgments for themselves about the conditions which produce the characters and their responses to the conditions. Naipaul does not enter into the social analysis characteristic of his later fiction, perhaps because he has not yet begun the nonfiction writing which often defines objectively the difficulties faced by characters in his fiction. It is as if he has only just begun to investigate the illuminated circle around the hut, and has not yet discovered enough weakness and corruption to be jolted out of compassion and humour into the bitterness of “A Christmas Story” and “The Heart”. …

Selwyn R. Cudjoe (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10603

SOURCE: “Tradition, Miguel Street, and Other Stories: The First Period of Naipaul's Development,” in V. S. Naipaul: A Materialist Reading, University of Massachussetts Press, 1988, pp. 16-36.

[In the following excerpt, Cudjoe positions Naipaul in tradition of the Caribbean short story and traces the development of themes in his short fiction.]

The only independence which they [the Africans and East Indians] would desire is idleness, according to their different tastes in the enjoyment of it; and the higher motives which actuate the European labourers … that to be industrious is a duty and a virtue; that to be independent in circumstances, whatever his station, raises a man in the moral scale amongst his race; and that his ability to perform his duties as a citizen, and, we may add, as a Christian, is increased by it. These, and such motives as these, are unknown to the fatalist worshippers of Mahomet and Brahma, and to the savages who go by the names of Liberated Africans.

—Lord Harris, quoted in Eric Williams, History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago

I suppose … there is barely a society without its major narratives, told, retold and varied; formulae, texts, ritualized texts to be spoken in well-defined circumstances, things said once, and conserved because people suspect some hidden secret or wealth lies buried within.

—Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge


The movement toward literary and cultural autonomy in Trinidad and Tobago roughly parallels the social and political development of the society.1 The only discernible cultural activity during the period from 1833 to 1870 was the struggle to continue the annual carnival celebrations. From 1870 to 1890, however, interest in cultural pursuits arose among the more progressive black and colored citizens. As Bridget Brereton has argued, “The coloured and black intelligentsia prided itself on its literary and intellectual attainments and boasted of being more ‘cultured’ than the whites, who were accused of crass materialism. Often movements of a literary character were initiated by non-whites; for instance, the Athenaeum Club or, the Trinidad Monthly Magazine.2

Publications such as the Trinidad Monthly Magazine (1870), the San Fernando Gazette (1874-95), and the Indian Kohinoor Gazette (1898) served as avenues for the rudimentary literary productions of some of the island's inhabitants and defended the interests of the oppressed black and East Indian masses. Public Opinion, first published in 1884, edited by Philip Rostant and designed to reach the lower classes, “speedily obtained a large circulation among all classes, both on account of its cheapness, the soundness of its views on matters of importance and the excellence of its literary matter.”3 In his autobiography, Trinidad and Trinidadians (1919), L. O. Lewis noted that dramatic plays were being performed as early as 1870; Brereton's history alludes to two satirical sketches by J. J. Thomas written around 1890; Grenidge produced his Bohemian Sketches in 1890; and Ignacio Bodu produced his Trinidadiana in 1890. Thus the literary activity during this period in addressing the need for national autonomy paralleled the impulse of the masses to regain their cultural autonomy.

In the period from 1900 to 1940, the movement toward nationalism and self-determination among the working people had its counterpart in the literary and cultural arena in the struggle to create an authentic literary tradition, as evidenced by the influence of radical literature on the public. The Sedition Ordinance, which was passed in Trinidad in 1920, to stymie industrial and political unrest, prescribed severe penalties for the circulation of newspapers and publications deemed subversive, and publications such as Negro World, Crusader, and the Messenger were banned.4 Alfred Mendes, a leading figure in the literary movement of this period, argued that the individuals who spearheaded the literary movement were veterans returned from World War I who were influenced by the achievements of the Russian Revolution.5 The content and form of the literature, however, were a part of and were fashioned by the larger movement toward nationalism and self-determination.

This twentieth-century literary movement began as an attack against what were thought to be the recalcitrant elements of the dominant culture and the members of the oppressed class who believed all things foreign and European were inherently superior. As a result, most of the writers used as their subject matter the residents of the barrack yards of Port of Spain. The termination of the indenture system and the fragmentation of the traditional Indian way of life also became sources of much East Indian writing. Thus emerged an urban proletarian literature that dealt primarily with the Africans and a peasant literature that dealt primarily with the East Indian.

A debate in two periodicals, Trinidad and the Beacon, published in Trinidad between 1929 and 1933, “formulated basic postulates for an indigenous West Indian literature.”6 The short story, which remained the dominant form of West Indian literature until 1949,7 was the vehicle through which this tradition and the incipient nationalism best expressed themselves, whereas the periodicals provided a forum in which writers could discuss the parameters of West Indian literature.8

Writers such as C. A. Thomasos argued that when the West Indies produced a literature of its own, it would “use a tradition, culture, and temperament of its own to pass judgment on its literature.” Ernest A. Carr argued for the universality of tradition in general and commented that “the artist who attempts a new formula will deserve success only if the content of this formula draws its sustenance from the well of the past, in other words, if the artist pays due respect to tradition.”9

More spirited critics condemned the imitativeness of West Indian writers, and the editors of the Beacon criticized the attempt by some critics to force Trinidadian writers to conform to English and American practices. In one of its early editorials, “Local Fiction” (1932), the editors accused young writers who had submitted short stories to its local fiction-writing competition of copying these models and warned:

We fail utterly to understand, however, why anyone should want to see Trinidad as a miniature Paradiso, where grave-diggers speak like English M.P.'s and vice-versa. The answer is obviously that the average Trinidadian writer regards his fellow-countrymen as his inferiors, and uninteresting people who are not worth his while. He genuinely feels (and by this, of course, asserts his own feeling of inferiority) that with his people as characters his stories would be worth nothing. It is for this reason that he peoples them with creatures from other planets, American gangsters and English M.P.'s and revives familiar plots and characters from True Story and other nth rate periodicals.10

They were just as acerbic in their editorial on poetry, complaining that “intellectual dropsy is a popular form of ailment.”11 The periodical also castigated the literary pretensions of some Trinidadians who imitated the English “classics” and waged war on any intellectual production from the island. In encouraging the production of a literature that reflected the local landscape and used local themes, the editors of the Beacon argued that they were “able to squeeze more beauty out of watching Ramirez glide rhythmically over the fresh, green grass of the [Queen's Park] Savannah than in witnessing the pathetic spectacle of a group of pretentious and artificially-spirited young men and women dissecting Keats.”12

The editors of the Beacon realized, as perhaps V. S. Naipaul never did, that a national literature would grow out of the confluence of social forces peculiar to the island and, in fact, shape its growth. Thus they attacked Dr. Laurence for comparing C. L. R. James's short story, a local piece, to the works of Charles Dickens and Sir Walter Scott on the grounds that “the sociological forces” at work in the islands were so different from those of Dickens's or Scott's England that no comparison was valid.

Inherent in the struggle to articulate the indigenous tradition in literature was the attempt by the more progressive elements of the emerging nationalist movement to anticipate, through literature, a sense of national consciousness. As a result of the agitation in the society and the insistence on a national tradition in the literature, a large body of local short stories, a few novels, and other literary works emerged in the period from 1929 to 1949. Of particular importance were the short stories of C. L. R. James, Alfred Mendes, W. Therold Barnes, Daniel Samaroo Joseph, Frank Collymore, Edgar Mittelholzer, Claude Thompson, Roger Mais, H. D. Carberry, Seepersad Naipaul, Samuel Selvon, and Cecil Gray, who concentrated primarily on local themes. Of special importance to V. S. Naipaul's development were his father's Gurudeva and Other Indian Tales (1946), Joseph's “Taxi Mister” (1947), Selvon's “The Baby” (1949) and “Cane Is Bitter” (1950), and Gray's “Merely for the Record” (1951), in which one encounters many of the topics V. S. Naipaul later examined in his early short stories and the local style he emulated.13

When V. S. Naipaul began to write, he thus drew upon a collective tradition for both his style and his content. And although his father's work must have had some influence on him simply because of its proximity and familiarity, he drew heavily from the island's folk life and stories. As Landeg White has suggested, “Much of the material in Miguel Street is based on anecdotes which are still widely current in Trinidad. I myself … had heard the adventures ascribed to Bolo many times before I read Miguel Street, and ‘Man-Man’ exists in other versions.”14 Many of the themes in Miguel Street are found in short stories written from 1929 to 1951 by other writers, and Miguel Street itself is a composite of streets in Port of Spain.

To be sure, the immediacy, urgency, urban focus, and rhythm of Naipaul's early stories and the definite break with the East Indian tradition which he suggested and Selvon undertook were not found in the fiction of other writers of this period or in the work of Seepersad Naipaul. Even The Mystic Masseur and The Suffrage of Elvira, in which Naipaul returns to the themes of his father, bear the unmistakable imprint of the short stories of the period from 1929 to 1949. A House for Mr. Biswas is a more complex exercise than Seepersad Naipaul's “They Named Him Mohun,” despite the “cannibalization” of the latter, of which V. S. Naipaul speaks in his introduction to his father's stories.15 V. S. Naipaul preferred to use the artistic unity and vision of the short story to give his world a sense of order. In Miguel Street and his early short stories, we first see Naipaul's tendency to consolidate and reshape his early experiences.


When Naipaul went to Oxford in 1950 he became a privileged colonial subject thrust into the colonizer's world of “learning” and “culture.” In that year he wrote a poem entitled “Two Thirty A.M.,” which was read by John Figueroa on “Caribbean Voices” on September 24, 1950.16 Because the poem is little known and has been reproduced in a dissertation that is not easily available (see n. 18), I planned to reproduce it here, but unfortunately, V. S. Naipaul, through his literary agent, denied permission to reproduce the full poem (Gillion Aitken to the author, Feb. 12, 1988). I therefore must limit myself to a few lines. Yet one cannot read those lines without recognizing the darkness that possessed Naipaul's soul when he arrived in England. In her very courteous response to a letter I wrote requesting permission to quote this poem, Patricia Naipaul noted that her husband “says that this poem, written by him at school before he left Trinidad, was a joke poem, ‘a prank,’ not to be taken seriously, about modern poetry—showing how things could be written, words strung together without feeling” (Patricia Naipaul to the author, Jan. 11, 1988). Aitken, in his “official” response to my letter, claims that Naipaul “views” this poem as his “juvenilia” that ought not “to be published just yet.” Both these claims, it seems, reflect retrospective readings of what may be Naipaul's later embarrassed response to his first encounter with London. Certainly when the poem was read over the BBC no indication was given that it was a prank about modern poetry. Indeed, it was aired because it so truly represented colonials' fears as they encountered the “reality” of the [m]other country. The fact that similar sentiments, the sense of being lost, alone, and afraid, are repeated in many of his early works, tends to support the conclusion that “Two Thirty A.M.” represents Naipaul's authentic feelings when he arrived in London.

The poem itself is very revealing. It is sparse, cryptic, and economical in its sentiments. Viewing that dreadful world and the frenzied activity of that ghost-laden time of morning/mourning, the poet recoils at the immensity of the city and his seeming helplessness in coming to terms with the endless sense of “futility” that it engenders. He asks: “does it [the futility] begin today / tomorrow or last night” or is it ever present, “an overpowering now,” re-presenting “eternity transfixed”? This inability to control his time or to locate himself in that “overpowering now [world],” generates a sense of fear that leaves him feeling trapped, as though it is “forever,” as though it were “death / and nothing / and mourning.”

The poem reflects the powerful fear and dread that pervaded Naipaul's soul when he arrived in that at once most sought after and indifferent country of the master. Years later he still felt the same fear of London. In An Area of Darkness, he lamented: “I came to London. It had become the centre of my world and I had worked hard to come to it. And I was lost. London was not the centre of my world. I had been misled; but there was nowhere else to go.”17 Helen Tiffin has argued that, on one level, “Two Thirty A.M.” is about “time, darkness, and futility—concerns (and even images) which become more pervasive in Naipaul's later work.”18 This powerful poem conveys the ambivalence and dread Naipaul felt in those early years, which would set the tone for everything he wrote afterward.

“This is Home” (1951), the first of Naipaul's short stories to be broadcast on “Caribbean Voices,” tells of man's solitary condition and his terrible desire, despite his doubts and fears, to cling to extraneous emotions (in this case, love) to hold him together. The story reflects Naipaul's continuing desire to examine the fear expressed in “Two Thirty A.M.” It is about a man and a woman who go to the top of a hill to begin their lives together and is told from the point of view of a man who is trying to reconcile the twin emotions of fear and joy. Beset by a growing panic, he looks at the woman and is overcome by “a weight of immense solitude.”19 As the narrator reflects on the man's condition, he expresses the fear and aloneness the man feels: “We are always so much alone; the crowd gave us solace for the moment, yet the crowd was stronger than the individuals who made it up. And always within us was a whole private life, that was stark and solitary. The responsibility was too great. Whatever we did, we could never free ourselves from that solitude—the solitude of one's mind.” The same sense of dread of tomorrow is also encountered in “Two Thirty A.M.” Here it anticipates an emotion that would come full circle when Naipaul tried to find his center.20

In the end, the major character of “This is Home” tries to overcome his fear of the future—the solitude he expects to darken his days—by assuring his woman that “this [the top of the hill] is home.” But even as he tries to comfort her, the man feels that “he was lying.” The questions of the proper relationship between the East Indian man and woman which is raised here occurs in other early short stories. Although Naipaul does not deal as explicitly with Hindu culture in “This is Home” as he does in some of his later stories, he alludes to it when the major protagonist says:

He saw the tasks of the world split in two. Man the author, man the worker. Woman the anvil of man's passion: the feeder and lover of her master. Good God! The responsibility was too much for him. It wasn't the mere physical satisfaction that disturbed him. It was the idea of fitting into a primaeval pattern of living to mate, and mating to create that filled him with dread. Sex was the whole works and he knew it; and it hurt him. He was ashamed. Why must flesh be so weak and so powerful at the same time? Why couldn't people be made out of rubber, insensitive to touch and passion? He sought to control his own passions, but he had failed. It cropped up, triumphant, again and again. … We never can live alone. We need protection. We created a mutual protection society and called it love: called it marriage and home.

Naipaul's second story, “The Mourners,” confronts his concerns more concretely. The story is about an East Indian couple who have begun to acquire many of the traits of the creolized or Western world. The story is told from the point of view of Ann, a young East Indian girl just beyond her tenth year, who seems to be confused by the behavior of adults. It hints at the caste/class conflicts within the East Indian community, the relations between the poorer and richer sides of the extended family, and the changing social attitudes. These incidents reflect the changing world of the East Indian in Trinidad and Tobago and the resulting conflicts. Ravi participates in carnival, a predominantly Negro festival, Sheila shortens a servant's name from Soomintra to Soomin (“a thing that was ordinarily forbidden, even to the children”), and the doctor wishes to have his son enter the “Cow and Gate Baby Contest.”21

The conflict between the Western and Eastern worlds, the creolized and the Hindu, which would become central to Naipaul's work, is examined in greater detail in his next short story, “Potatoes” (1952). Most of Naipaul's early concerns are included in this eight-page story, thus making it central to an understanding of the stories of this period. Here can be seen the seeds of A House for Mr. Biswas. The story centers upon Mrs. Gobin, who comes from a leading Hindu family on the island and is trying to free herself from her mother's dominance by entering the potato business. Her father “had been recognized as the leader of the new Hindu aristocracy in the island; the family was venerated for its caste, its piety, and its wealth. Mrs. Gobin, nevertheless, was poor.”22 Her poverty had disgraced her family, and she also had become somewhat ashamed of herself. She was determined, however, once her husband was dead, to remove herself from poverty and to become “independent” of her family. As she tells her mother: “I say it now, I say it before, and I will always say it, it never does pay to be dependent on anybody. But mark my words, Ma. I am going to make myself independent.”23

In her effort to become independent, Mrs. Gobin experiences the same isolation the man in “This is Home” felt:

The cart jogged away; Mrs. Gobin felt that she was alone, felt it poignantly—alone in a big, bad world. The people she met walked with firm feet, always knowing where they were going, and, most importantly of all, how they were going about it. But always she was lost. If she could have formulated her thoughts, Mrs. Gobin would have cursed the life she had been brought up to live. Perhaps her method of thinking, her way of life, was all right in an all-Hindu society, but in this cosmopolitan hotch-potch where nothing was sacred and everything was somehow flat and unsatisfying, in this hotch-potch, it is totally inadequate.

The conflict between the sacred and the profane and Mrs. Gobin's painful awareness that she is neither trained nor prepared to act in the creole world creates the powerful sense of aloneness and loss first encountered in “Two Thirty A.M.” This conflict between East and West, the feudal and the colonial-capitalist, runs through all of Naipaul's work.

This social conflict is evident even in the descriptions of landscape, a technique Naipaul would use frequently. Mrs. Gobin's home, for example, became familiar to many of Naipaul's readers. The house, it can be assumed, is in the country district.

She came from a family that prided itself on its business skill. Her father, starting from almost nothing, had established himself as a prosperous landowner and businessman. Before he died he had erected, as a monument to his enterprise, and unquestionable proof of his wealth, a magnificent white palace, built in a mongrel Hindu style by architects who had come all the way from India. The walls were four feet thick; the balustrades were lavishly ornamented with religious carvings; and figures of elephant gods and monkey gods appeared in the most unlikely places. On the top of the grand facade two stone lions stared forever in different directions.

A new phase of her life begins when Mrs. Gobin goes to the city to begin her potato business. The shop to which she goes to transact her business contrasts sharply with “the magnificent white palace built in a mongrel Hindu style”:

On Thursday morning she went to the city, and entered the shop of an Indian merchant, a man she knew. The shop was a small, square room that smelled of curry and onions. An obsolete cash register was opened by a venerable-looking man with a beard, who could pass for a religious prophet, but who was, in fact, merely a Hindu of mediocre caste. The two girl assistants who glided skillfully among the crates of onions, the sacks of flour, and the barrels of potatoes were conveniently tiny, underfed creatures.

The city is inhabited by that feared other, “the nigger world.” The fear this world evokes is first made known to the reader when Mrs. Gobin informs her mother that she intends to be independent of her. Her mother mutters some quotations from the Gita and then responds: “I know what you will do. I know what your type always does. Well, go ahead, go to hell, and walk the streets. I wash my hands of you since I married you off. … Your father used to warn me all the time about you; and ever since you have been living in the town, you have been playing white woman. Well, go ahead, and turn nigger. I am not going to stop you.”

In the story the “nigger world” is represented by a nameless “old negro man,” whom Mrs. Gobin engages to carry her potatoes home, and his family, to whom Mrs. Gobin goes when the Negro man is late in delivering the potatoes. On one occasion when he is two days late, she goes to his home and is terrified by his alien world. She is greeted by the familiar taunts the Negro directs against Indians. The old Negro's wife, who is also nameless, tells Mrs. Gobin: “All you Indians smart as hell. Making money like hell, and not spending a cent. Just saving up to be rich. I don't know an Indian who ain't rich. All you people does always help one another.” The irony of this statement is that it expresses a stereotype of the East Indian. Mrs. Gobin is indeed poor, has no help from anyone, and is trying to survive on her own. The author's concern, however, is the misconceptions about the “other” and the fear that ensues when the East Indian encounters that other world of the profane. The Negro world is painted as threatening and intrusive. Mrs. Gobin fails in her business venture, but she does attempt to break out of the rigid hold that “the magnificent white palace” and its major occupant have on her.

In the end, the vehemence Mrs. Gobin's mother feels toward the “nigger world” reflects the changes that seem to threaten the somewhat closed East Indian community. The fear in “Potatoes” is not so much of the “nigger” or the “nigger world” as what they represent: the encroachment of the colonial-capitalist way of life on the ordered feudal world Mrs. Gobin's mother had known. In Mrs. Gobin we see the first sign of rebellion that is so celebrated by Mr. Biswas, the first attempt to break out of a way of life that seemed “fated.”

Naipaul's next short story, “The Old Man” (1953), opens up another theme that became important to his work: the isolation of individuals in Trinidad, especially those who emigrated around the middle of the nineteenth century, and their difficulty in calling the island “home.” In this story, the major characters are Chinese, and like the East Indians, they seem to feel an isolation and lack of attachment to the island.

In “The Old Man,” the Chengs, a family of ten, save money to return to China. They are forced to abandon that ambition when Mr. Cheng dies. (The theme of a man dying and leaving women to face the world alone is typical of Naipaul's early stories.) The children soon forget their parents' plan and begin to reconcile themselves to the remoteness and isolation of Trinidad. The items on the society page of the Trinidad Guardian assume more interest to them than the important events of the outside world. The narrator observes:

In Trinidad, the grand affairs that rock the hemispheres are remote, and do not have any immediate interests for us. Besides, we are worried by our own political problems. Should we kill off tubercular cows? One member of the Legislative Council thinks it is a wicked plan to impoverish a large part of the community. Another thinks it is a grand step forward.

We find life in Trinidad full and trying. We are not greatly disturbed by the world's great week-end crisis. We are amused and detached. It is only when we leave Trinidad for some time that we see how truly [in the original manuscript the words “unimportant we are” and “how” are deleted] amusing we have been. Tubercular cows dwindle into their proper importance. But we realize, too, that our approach to world affairs was correct. For when we are abroad, you see, we realize that Trinidad, with its blending of peoples, and with its burning political problems of no significance, is really the world in small.24

To Naipaul, even at this stage in his career, Trinidad is remote and unimportant. No group other than the Africans can call the island home. When Mary Cheng is asked, “Why don't you stay here [in Trinidad], as so many other Chinese have done?”, she responds disdainfully: “Stay in Trinidad? What for? I want to go home. Nobody can call Trinidad home, even if he is born here. The place is like one big camp. That is all. I want to go home.” The narrator comments: “Yes, Mary wanted to go home. Home meant very much. In Trinidad she was an exile, not belonging to any group, and feeling separated by ages from the smart Chinese set, who belonged to exclusive clubs, who owned race horses, and who had completely adopted what they considered the Western way of life.”

In this story, as in “Potatoes,” the separation of the parents from the younger generation is very evident. The children, for example, speak Chinese only when they are at home, and Mr. Cheng seems utterly “indifferent to the world” around him. Mrs. Cheng owes all her allegiance to Mao Tse-Tung, who to her was the only true leader. She, it seems, keeps up with important world affairs. According to the narrator, Mr. Cheng “kept Mary and her family thoroughly Chinese in an atmosphere that would otherwise have swamped them with the frustrating emptiness of a [here “Trinidad” is crossed out in the manuscript] isolated existence.” Both Mary and Mr. Cheng wished to return to mainland China, where life was more secure and ordered and where, presumably, the civilization was older and more ordered. The problem remains the same as in the other stories: isolation in a remote and unimportant island. And even though the privileged Chinese seek to lose themselves in the emptiness of Western culture, the older, more traditional members feel sadly misplaced. The younger Chinese, with much difficulty, attempt to adapt “themselves to their new social environment.”

The breakdown of the Hindu family is spelled out in “A Family Reunion” (1954), which tells the story of a dispersed family coming back to their modest house for Christmas and the problems they confront. Although Naipaul addresses some of his central concerns in this story—the breakdown of the Hindu family, East versus West, the conflict between the sacred and the profane—the story is more about the injustices within the East Indian family than those it meets in the outside world. The text hints at the traditional injustices against women, particularly daughters who are dominated by their mothers and mothers-in-law.

The tension in the story involves the injustices experienced by daughters who have served their mothers faithfully, while sons, who have done little for their mothers and have discarded their traditional Hindu ways, receive the best their mothers can offer. This treatment of daughters is exemplified by the concern accorded the boys' education and the neglect of the well-being of the daughters:

The old woman had given her sons a good education. Suraj was a doctor, and he had a flourishing practice. Krishna occupied a good position in the Civil Service. They, the women, were barely literate, and they had been married not because they wanted to, but because of their mother's will. Hindu sense had been scandalized that girls of eighteen should wander around unmarried.25

When the mother's property is divided, the bulk of it goes to her sons and very little to the daughters, even though they know they have served her well. Although the daughters do not rebel outwardly, they recognize that their mother has wronged them gravely, for, as the narrator observes, “In their hearts they considered their mother malevolent and intriguing.” Yet they are accepting and placid. They know their mother has wronged them and that their brothers are indifferent and cruel to them, yet they are constrained from expressing their feelings. Unlike Mrs. Gobin, they tend to accept their lives, which have been “fated to them.” This fate, the author suggests, is the terrible injustice to which the Hindu woman is a victim. As the narrator observes: “In a way the women accepted, as natural, that their brothers should be treated with great respect, and should get most of any legacy. It seemed so right, so proper.”

The problem of stasis and decay and the persistence of obsolete social practices that deny and negate the personhood of these women is at the root of this story. One must break out of that “destined position” to be free. It is within this context that we must understand the decaying nature of the landscape, of the very house to which the family returns for the reunion. Indeed, on their return, they recognize that decay, symbolized by the house. In the end the mother lives alone in the same wooden house, which had “faded like herself … [where] everything smelled of dampness and decay.” In the broken-down house, blind and close to death, the old woman dispenses her not-too-kind justice and bemoans that education turns girls into prostitutes. “The boys,” she says, “never let you down.”

The old order is dying. Something is fundamentally wrong with the social arrangement. There is the feeling that a historical wrong has been committed against the daughters, yet their acceptance of their fate seems to suggest compliance, which adds an unsatisfactory dimension to the text. Naipaul does not explore the feelings of the daughters, and he depicts the mother only as a malevolent figure. The women's fate seems to be unalterable. Clearly, the author is struggling with some of the problems of his society, particularly the role of women and the decay of the world order.

“My Aunt Gold Teeth” (1954) is a much more comprehensive examination of the conflict between Eastern and Western ways of life. Like “The Mourners,” this story is told through the eyes of a young person who is bewildered by the conflict of cultures. His aunt Gold Teeth, knowing “little apart from the ceremonies and the taboos” of Hinduism and childless at the age of forty, is willing “to trap and channel the supernatural Power”26 of both Hinduism and Christianity to give birth to a child. In the alien wilderness of Trinidad she is forced to compromise between these two cultures. Fearing that her praying to “Christian things” may have led to the illness of her husband, a Hindu pundit, she asks Pundit Ganesh (who is reintroduced in The Mystic Masseur) whether she has committed an error of judgment. He replies:

“And do you think God minds, daughter? There is only one God and different people pray to Him in different ways. It doesn't matter how you pray, but God is pleased if you pray at all.”

“So it is not because of me that my husband has fallen ill?”

“No, to be sure, daughter.”

Although Gold Teeth calls upon both Hinduism and Christianity, her husband dies, leaving her believing that her infidelity (nay, idolatry) caused his death. In a fit of self-abnegation she destroys “every reminder of Christianity in the house.” Her mother forgives her for turning to Christianity, yet its intrusion into the highest level of the Hindu world—“for Gold Teeth's husband was a Brahmin among Brahmins, a Panday, a man who knew all five Vedas”—left an indelible mark. Like his counterpart in “The Mourners,” the young narrator is left confused by the behavior of his elders.

Naipaul's early stories clearly present a more creolized version of East Indian life than does Seepersad Naipaul's work. The society of “The Mourners” is opening itself up to the influence of the larger community and thus presents the changing behavior of the Trinidadians of East Indian descent. In “This is Home,” “Potatoes,” “The Old Man,” “A Family Reunion,” and “My Aunt Gold Teeth” the author expresses an ambivalent position toward his society. Although his ideas are still tentative, they are nonetheless being articulated.


Naipaul confessed in 1964 that he wrote The Suffrage of Elvira to prove to himself that he could construct a sustained text around one central incident.27 The short stories, however, preceded that effort by about seven years. He may have been motivated to write the novel by the comments he made about Samuel Selvon's inability to construct a much longer and sustained narrative.28 Speaking about Selvon's work in “The Literary Output of West Indian Writing in 1955,” Naipaul argued, “It is curious that the West Indian whose inventiveness and humour and gift of repartee is shown up so advantageously in the calypso … should be so uninventive in his novels.”29 Writing much later, in 1968, about the difficulty West Indian writers had in using the novel form, Naipaul said: “The trouble about novel writing is that it is such an artificial form. It is something that people in my culture have borrowed from other people and the danger is that we tend, when we are beginning, however honestly we may work—we tend to recreate an alien form, an alien novel, the whole form and concept of life is totally alien to the society. We impose one on the other. My attempt has been, in a way, to dredge down a little deeper to the truth about one's own situation.” And even though he found “the confirmation of simple societies … inadequate to a serious writer immersed, as he [was], in the English literary tradition,”30 this conscious struggle to find the appropriate form in which to express his experiences characterized Naipaul's early (and, perhaps, his entire) art.

In speaking about his place in West Indian literature in 1960, Naipaul declared unequivocally that he was a Trinidadian writer—“a writer from Trinidad”—and in discussing the nature of the society about which he wrote, he announced that he was writing about “an Indian society in Trinidad, which is still, to a certain degree, a coherent society, with its own flavour and without, yet, an American flavour … [a] people set in a certain society within a certain framework. That framework is now breaking up, but that is giving me materials for fresh work.”31 Clearly, when Naipaul began his career as a writer he was well aware of his own position in a particular tradition, which he perceived to be in transition. Naipaul's perception of his relationship to his society changed as he became a more sophisticated craftsman. Indeed, even in this early period a certain ambivalence in his relationship to his society is evident. When Naipaul began his career, however, he was particularly aware of his Trinidadianness, and this fact cannot be dismissed simply in light of his later realizations or rationalizations.

Certain themes that related directly to his early experiences prevailed throughout his early stories: a sense of being lost and alone, a sense of isolation and exile, a recognition that his society was decaying and that it committed injustices against its members, and the conflicting pull of the Eastern (Hindu) and Western (Christian) worlds, a subset of which was the rising conflict between the feudal world of the Hindus and the colonial-capitalist world. As an inescapable result of these concerns, the subtheme of home (what or where is home?) and displacement (trying to find a center) arose with enormous force, persistence, and urgency in these early texts. Adaptation and change carried a price; the resulting psychic pain subtends his work.

In a way, these stories represent Naipaul's attempt to make coherent and intelligible his early experiences and to form some meaningful link with his parents' generation. As he explained to Nigel Bingham in a radio discussion in New Zealand:

I grew up with about fifty cousins and that was like a crash course in the world. You learn then about cruelty, about propaganda, about the destruction of reputations. You learn about forming allies. It was that kind of background to which my father was reacting. This world—I have written about this—to a large extent, and certainly for most of my childhood—appeared to me in my own mind to exclude what was outside, although one was living in a multiracial society. I don't think the child formulated it like that. I think the child simply understood that what was outside that large clan was somehow not it. It was outside. It was something else. No judgment was to be made on it and I perhaps didn't make any judgments on it as a child. … It was different. The food would be different, the manners would be different, that was all, a sense of difference, great difference.32

Naipaul's childhood was very unhappy, “largely,” he says, “because of feeling a kind of helpless unit in this large family organization.” Naipaul therefore passionately wanted to become an adult, “to be responsible for myself, to be able to look after myself and to look after my father as well.”33 His early texts attempted to capture the urgency, helplessness, and unhappiness of those early years.

In May 1954, just two months after he had finished writing “A Family Reunion,” Naipaul wrote to Grenfell Williams of the BBC for a job. Naipaul had stayed on at Oxford for a few months to complete a B. Litt., but, as he phrased it in his letter, “with one thing and another, I no longer have the desire to go through with the work.” It was time to face the world, to be responsible for himself. Perhaps the most important decision he made was not to return to the West Indies, as he explained to Williams:

One thing I certainly do not want to do: go back to Trinidad or any other island in the West Indies if I can help it. I very much want to go to India. But there are many difficulties. I cannot be employed on the Indian side because I am British, and on the British side, I cannot be employed because I am not English. I think it is almost impossible for me to do anything worthwhile in this country, for reasons which you doubtless know. … I am applying for jobs in places as far apart as Turkey and Indonesia, but with little hope of success.34

There is a myth, perpetuated by Naipaul particularly in his writings of the 1980s, that he never wanted to or gave very little thought to any other career but writing. His letter to Williams and his attempt to do a B. Litt. certainly contradict that position. Writing came very hard to Naipaul. As he said to Jim Douglas Henry, “I don't think of myself as a born writer. I've learnt the very hard way.”35 In 1954, however, Naipaul's life and his direction as a writer were at a crossroad. His not getting a job was the best thing that happened to him. At any rate, the themes of his stories began to resonate with the choices that he had to make. As he developed and matured as a writer, the interplay of these two dimensions became the base of his work.


By the time Naipaul wrote Miguel Street (the text was completed in 1955 but was not published until 1959), he was a much more conscious artist than he was when he wrote his first short story some four years earlier.36 He could speak much more authoritatively than he could in his earlier efforts. Some years later he wrote about the stories in Miguel Street:

It was through them that I began to appreciate the distorting, distilling power of the writer's art. Where I had seen a drab haphazardness they found order; where I would have attempted to romanticize, to render my subject equal with what I had read, they accepted. They provided a starting point for further observation; they did not trigger off fantasy. Every writer is, in the long run, on his own; but it helps, in the most practical way, to have a tradition. The English language was mine; the tradition was not.37

In 1983, Naipaul said that he wrote Miguel Street to “ease” himself into knowledge. He asserted that the book “seemed to have been written by an innocent, a man at the beginning of knowledge both about himself and about the writing career that had been his ambition from childhood.”38 Yet these stories represented a West Indian tradition of which he was a part.

The stories in Miguel Street are set in Port of Spain. The characters are modified products of the barrack yard whose social existence has been twisted severely because of the social pressures of the city's slum. But because the book lacks sustained dramatic tension and a coherent plot and unified theme of a novel, it is more in the tradition of the early short stories of Trinidad and the West Indies.39

Miguel Street examines a colonial society in which the characters' traditional values have no organic connection with the social environment and their quest for a meaningful existence seems to be denied because of the apparent chaos that surrounds them—hence the major theme that one cannot achieve anything in Trinidad because of the futility and the sterility of the society. This position is exemplified best in the story “How I Left Miguel Street,” when, in response to his mother's complaint that he was “getting too wild” and by his own recognition that he was drinking too much, the character asserts: “Is not my fault, really. Is just Trinidad. What else can anybody do here except drink?”40 This sentiment also appeared in the earlier story “The Old Man.” It is expressive of an ideological position that informs much of Naipaul's later work.

At the beginning of the book, Bogart, one of the major characters, is described as “the most bored man I ever knew” (Miguel Street, 10). Almost inevitably, Bogart, as well as all the other characters, have to do something insane to relieve the tedium of their existence. More important, this boredom, taken to an extreme, makes all the characters absurd reflections of the social totality.

Such is the case of Man-man, who tries to reenact the crucifixion of Christ, which for him is the only way to escape the meaninglessness of his existence. When this crucifixion act is taken seriously by other inhabitants of Miguel Street, he reverts to his normal existence and finally goes insane because he is unable to withstand the pressures of the changing social order. The tensions between the real and the unreal and the attempt to separate the meaningful from the meaningless exact too high a price in a colonial society.

Two major concerns emerge from this text that further structure Naipaul's work. First, he presents absurdity as the normal mode of behavior for the inhabitants of Miguel Street and, in so doing, commences to construct an elaborate philosophical and ideological superstructure on which to ground his work. Second, he presents the alienating aspects of a colonial society and how it marginalizes its subjects. As Geoffrey Broughton observed: “Here is the first statement of the theme of cultural deprivation; a first sketch of individuals struggling for a new way of life, both within the ambit of colonial society, and within the strangling grip of an isolated community within that society.”41

Miguel Street is Naipaul's first sustained piece of work. As he argued in 1964, it was through Miguel Street that he discovered “the trick of writing after a lot of fumbling and the book was written out of the joy of that discovery.”42 Elaborating on this theme in 1983, he said that in writing Miguel Street he achieved “self-awareness” and “self-knowledge.” The language of the text takes shape because of his enlightened and surer perception of the society. Somewhat in the tradition of Cecil Gray's “Merely for the Record,” his sentences are terse and crisp, and repetitions abound, which make his assertions believable. There is a lightness and frivolity of tone that tends to obscure the central concerns of the text and accentuate the natural patterns that characterize Trinidadian speech.

“The Perfect Tenants” at first seems to be outside the pattern of Naipaul's development, but it in fact fits into his overall work. In many ways it is simply an examination of the social concerns Naipaul addressed in his first collection of stories—social status, behavior, and attitudes—which he felt he had left behind when he left Trinidad and Tobago. Indeed, the story can be seen as Naipaul's attempt to understand his home situation through an imaginative projection into another society, a device he would use again in Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion. Written at a time when a great deal of discussion about social status, behavior, and attitudes was taking place in England, it helped Naipaul work out some of his specific, local concerns against the larger background of the English landscape.43 The articulation of such problems within an English background was particularly important for Naipaul because previously he had identified them only within his local Trinidadian landscape.

The early stories, Miguel Street, and “The Perfect Tenants” constitute the first stage of Naipaul's writing career when the short story predominated. These stories served to establish Naipaul's perception of the colonial society, which he would expand as his writing career developed. In particular, the incident of Man-man in Miguel Street is expanded and refined in The Mystic Masseur. Whereas Man-man goes from politics to the priesthood, Ganesh goes from the priesthood to politics. Whereas Man-man is fascinated by the world and spends entire days poring over and shaping one word, Ganesh attempts to appropriate his world through writing and by studying books. Whereas Man-man is taken away and considered insane (the logical progression of his development, as it were), Ganesh becomes a statesman and a respected member of the community because he is able to manipulate words and his social environment. Many of the thematic concerns of The Mystic Masseur are already evident in Miguel Street. So, too, is the manner in which Naipaul perceived his society.


Writing in the Times Literary Supplement in August 1958, Naipaul articulated his views about the society that would shape his work:

Superficially, because of the multitude of races, Trinidad may seem complex, but to anyone who knows it, it is a simple colonial philistine society. Education is desirable because it may lead to security, but any unnecessary acquaintance with books is frowned upon. The writer or the painter, unless he wins recognition overseas, preferably in England, is mercilessly ridiculed. This is only slowly changing. Respectability and class still mean very little. Money means a good deal more, and the only nonfinancial achievements which are recognized are those connected with sport and music. For these reasons Trinidadians are more recognizably “characters” than people in England. Only a man's eccentricities can get him attention. It might also be that in a society without traditions, without patterns, every man finds it easier “to be himself.” Whatever the reason, this determination of people to be themselves, to cherish their eccentricities, to reveal themselves at once, makes them easy material for the writer.44

Naipaul was not alone in condemning what he regarded as the philistine nature of West Indian society. Bridget Brereton refers to its presence in very early Trinidad society, and two eminent West Indian scholars, C. L. R. James and the martyred Walter Rodney, shared many of Naipaul's concerns in this regard. But whereas James and Rodney identified this condition as residing at the top of the society, Naipaul saw it as plaguing the entire society, with the inhabitants at the bottom of the social ladder being both the worst offenders and the victims.

To demonstrate his position, James used the example of the Mighty Sparrow, the calypsonian. James makes three important observations about his artistry. First, “He is in every way a genuine West Indian artist, the first and only one I know.” Second, “He is the living proof that there is a West Indian nation.” Third, his artistic achievement compares favorably with the highest literary achievements of the colonizer's culture, and even though the calypso would not be “ranked very high in the hierarchy of the arts. … I believe that Shakespeare would have listened very carefully to him, and Aristophanes would have given him a job in his company.” Sparrow's work was important within the overall context of the culture, James argued, because it extended the calypso medium. He concluded: “When our local dramatists and artists can evoke the popular response of a Sparrow, the artists in the Caribbean will have arrived.”45

Rodney contended that all the creativity of the society came from what had been considered its “dregs.” In his book The Groundings with My Brothers, Rodney paid tribute to the creativity of the masses of the Caribbean and argued that the black masses (Africans and East Indians) had produced all its culture. He argued that “some of the best painters and writers are coming out of the Rastafari environment. The black people in the West Indies have produced all the culture that we have, whether it be steelband or folk music. Black bourgeoisie and white people in the West Indies have produced nothing!”46 Further, whereas Naipaul sees the society as being static, depicts the inhabitants as generally philistine, and perceives existence in the Caribbean (and, by extension, in all colonial countries) as futile, both James and Rodney take the opposite view. In structuring his arguments against colonial peoples, Naipaul uses the social and cultural values of the colonizers' culture as the norm by which to measure the behavior of the colonial person. Anything that does not conform to those standards becomes futile, meaningless, and worthless. This position is demonstrated by Hat, one of the more eccentric characters of Miguel Street, who reflected the rather ambivalent relations that many of the characters felt toward their social environment when, in appreciation of the 150 runs Gerry Gomez and Len Harbin (both Trinidadians of European descent) scored to save Trinidad from defeat against Jamaica in an intercolonial cricket match, Hat dances gleefully and shouts, “White people is God, you hear!” (Miguel Street, 155).

Rodney, however, makes the most telling case against this perception of the society when he insists that it is perpetuated by the dominant culture through an elaborate ideological system of manipulation and control. Thus he argues in his article on black power that “white people have produced black people who administer the system and perpetuate the white values. … This is as true of the Indians as it is true of the Africans in our West Indian society.” He concludes that “the road to Black Power here in the West Indies and everywhere else must begin with a revaluation of ourselves as blacks and with a redefinition of the world from our own standpoint.”47

For Rodney, part of the tragedy of West Indian society was that certain elements had appropriated and become entrapped by the ideological apparatuses of the dominant class. Part of the process of social reconstruction lay in revaluating those judgments through ideologies such as black power and the imperative that West Indian society be viewed through West Indian eyes.

Naipaul, however, was prepared to see West Indian society through the eyes of the English. This is the dominant perspective from which he analyzed and judged it, and it may be one reason why he attacked the concept of black power so savagely. His three years at Oxford tended to magnify the ills of West Indian society and to structure his method of analysis and his manner of depicting it. The additional years he spent in London did not change his view significantly. Where Rodney was prepared to conduct his analysis of West Indian society (and colonial reality) at the level of what Edward Schillebeeckx calls the plane of “conjectural” history, Naipaul was content to leave his arguments at the “ephemeral” level of history and culture. He remained secure in the judgment that English culture was the standard against which social, historical, and cultural development should be measured.48

Yet a paradox stands at the center of Naipaul's work and that of many other colonial writers who left their societies to practice their craft in the home of the colonizer. They left, in Naipaul's words, because the society was “unimportant,” “uncreative,” and “cynical”; one could not practice one's craft. Yet as Nancy Fitch pointed out in referring to James Joyce, Edna O’Brien, and Naipaul, “The force which propelled them outwards remained in their consciousness and formed their art, providing a theme in their work.”49

The first phase of Naipaul's work belongs to a specific historical tradition in literature. That Naipaul, from the inception of his writing, gave a privileged status to the culture of the colonizer and chose that site in which to anchor his work should not detract from his central dependence on the experiences of the colonial world to fashion the content of his work and the historical tradition of West Indian literature to shape his specific “mode of writing.” The central tension between his Eastern sensibility (subjective) and the material condition of his Western experiences (objective) had not yet begun to articulate itself with any insistence, even though it can be perceived in its nascent form. As his career unfolds, this central tension generates the major problematic of his work.


  1. The social development of Trinidad and Tobago can be divided into four periods: 1833-1870, when new villages were established by the former slaves and when large numbers of East Indians, Portuguese, and Chinese arrived; 1870-1900, when the society evolved into a more cohesive pattern, though still demarcated along class lines; 1900-1940, when the development of social consciousness among the black masses (both the East Indians and the Africans) took center stage; and 1940-1962, when national independence was achieved. See Bridget Brereton, Race Relations in Colonial Trinidad, 1870-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), for a discussion of the first two periods.

    Raphael Sebastien argues for a Marxist division of the society along the lines of political economy. He lists three periods: 1797-1833, when slave labor became generalized and systematic colonization of the society took place; 1833-1921, when agrarian capitalism was organized and an urban-industrialized proletariat formed; and 1921-1956, when the national bourgeoisie consolidated its dominance over the economy. See “The Political Economy of Capitalism of Trinidad and Tobago,” Tribune 1 (1981): 5-52.

  2. Brereton, Race Relations, p. 58.

  3. Jose Bodu, quoted in Anthony de Verteuil, The Years of Revolt: Trinidad, 1881-1888 (Port of Spain: Paria, 1984), p. 233.

  4. In subsequent years, the list of banned publications included the Negro Worker, all publications of the National Campaign Committee of the Communist party of the U.S.A., the Daily Worker, the Young Worker, Russia Today, pamphlets by the Trinidadian George Padmore, the father of pan-Africanism, Negro Anthology by Nancy Cunard, and many others.

  5. See the excerpt from Sander's interview with Alfred Mendes in Reinhard Sander, From Trinidad: An Anthology of Early West Indian Writing (New York: Africana, 1978), p. 4. See also Ralph de Bossiere's account of that period in “On Writing a Novel,” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 17 (1982): 1-12. De Bossiere's first novel, Crown Jewel, is set in the turbulent 1930s.

  6. Sander, From Trinidad, p. 1.

  7. W. I. Carr (“Reflections on the Novel in the British Caribbean,” Queens Quarterly 70 [Winter 1964]: 585) and Gerald Moore (The Chosen Tongue [London: Longmans, Green, 1969], p. 6) argue that West Indian literature merited serious attention in 1949.

  8. I will argue that the essential aspect of the culture resides at the unofficial level, in the “culture of carnival,” as I call it. Needless to say, I do not endorse the argument for a “life without fiction” prior to a written culture, except in its most narrow sense (see Kenneth Ramchand, The West Indian Novel and Its Background [London: Faber, 1970]). Neither do I privilege the written discourse over the nonwritten. Calypsos, for example, still remain an extremely effective means of communicating with the populace of Trinidad and Tobago. See Selwyn R. Cudjoe, “Revolutionary Struggle and the Novel,” Caribbean Quarterly 25 (December 1979), for some notion of how the novel functioned before and after the achievement of independence.

  9. Sander, From Trinidad, pp. 36, 39.

  10. Ibid., p. 27.

  11. Ibid., p. 28.

  12. Ibid., p. 31.

  13. See Selwyn R. Cudjoe, “Tradition, Miguel Street, and Other Stories,” Trinidad and Tobago Review 5 (1982), and 6 (1983) for an examination of the short stories of the period.

  14. Landeg White, V. S. Naipaul: A Critical Introduction (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1975), p. 50.

  15. Seepersad Naipaul, The Adventures of Gurudeva and Other Stories (Port of Spain: Guardian Commercial Printery, 1946), p. 19.

  16. BBC Written Archives Centre, “Caribbean Voices Scripts,” September 24, 1950. All quotations are taken from this source.

  17. V. S. Naipaul, An Area of Darkness (London: André Deutsch, 1964), p. 45.

  18. Helen Tiffin, “The Lost Ones: A Study of the Works of V. S. Naipaul” (Ph.D. diss., Queens University, 1972), p. 14.

  19. “This is Home,” BBC Written Archives Centre, “Caribbean Voices Scripts,” June 24, 1951.

  20. See V. S. Naipaul, Finding the Center (New York: Knopf, 1984).

  21. This story appears in A Flag on the Island (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969) but is changed somewhat from the original version. I quote from the original text as it appeared in 1951: “The Mourners,” BBC Written Archives Centre, “Caribbean Voices Scripts,” September 16, 1951.

  22. BBC Written Archives Centre, “Caribbean Voices Scripts,” April 27, 1952.

  23. In 1972 Naipaul spoke about his sense of shame at being among the poor relatives in his family and his lifelong ambition to be wealthy: “I think that perhaps one was ashamed of the poverty because one was so close to what was a great deal of wealth. I think that my father's uncle who was killed the other day—he died a millionaire—and I think that my mother's family, after all, were quite well off. But our little group within the clan was impoverished and I think that one sensed the disgrace of this poverty because one was fairly close to people who had a certain amount of money. … For a long, long time, I used to worship people who had made their own money. I would look at them as nearly divine beings” (“Myself When Young,” August 24, 1972, BBC Radio Broadcast).

  24. “The Old Man,” BBC Written Archives Centre, “Caribbean Voices Scripts,” April 26, 1953.

  25. “A Family Reunion,” BBC Written Archives Centre, “Caribbean Voices Scripts.”

  26. A Flag on the Island, p. 9.

  27. Times (London), January 2, 1964.

  28. In reviewing Selvon's Turn Again Tiger, his sequel to A Brighter Sun, Naipaul wrote: “Mr. Selvon is without the stamina for the full-length novel, and he has here found the undemanding form which suits his talents best: the flimsiest of frames which can, without apparent disorder, contain unrelated episodes and characters. … Mr. Selvon's gifts may not be important but they are precious” (New Statesman, December 6, 1958, pp. 826-27).

  29. BBC Written Archives Centre, “Caribbean Voices Scripts,” January 22, 1956.

  30. “Pooter,” Times Saturday Review, November 9, 1968, p. 23.

  31. Quoted in Victor Ramraj, “A Study of the Novels of V. S. Naipaul” (Ph.D. diss., University of New Brunswick, 1968), pp. 117, 11.

  32. “Myself When Young,” BBC Radio Broadcast, August 24, 1972.

  33. Ibid.

  34. Letter to Grenfell Williams, BBC Written Archives Centre.

  35. “Unfurnished Entrails—the Novelist V. S. Naipaul in Conversation with Jim Douglas Henry,” The Listener, November 25, 1971, p. 721.

  36. V. S. Naipaul, “Prologue to an Autobiography,” Vanity Fair 46 (April 1983), tells how Miguel Street was born. One ought not, however, be carried away by Naipaul's romantic and somewhat idealist recounting of that process some thirty years later.

  37. The Overcrowded Barracoon (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967), p. 27.

  38. V. S. Naipaul, Finding the Center: Two Narratives (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1984), p. 20.

  39. That “The Enemy,” written as a part of Miguel Street (it later appeared in A Flag on the Island), could be extracted from the text without damaging its unity demonstrates that Miguel Street ought not to be considered a novel. Writing in the Times Literary Supplement on April 24, 1959, a reviewer concluded: “Miguel Street is not properly a novel at all but a series of character sketches, concerned with the most singular or significant of the street's inhabitants, most of whom turn up in one another's sketches” (p. 237). Naipaul confirms this view in “Prologue to an Autobiography.”

  40. V. S. Naipaul, Miguel Street (London: Heineman, 1959), p. 216; hereafter MS.

  41. Geoffrey Broughton, “A Critical Study of the Development of V. S. Naipaul as Reflected in His Four Major West Indian Novels” (Master's thesis, University of London, 1968), p. 18.

  42. Times (London), February 1, 1964.

  43. See the introduction to the abbreviated version of The Perfect Tenants and the Mourners, ed. Francis Curtis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).

  44. The Overcrowded Barracoon, pp. 9-10.

  45. C. L. R. James, The Future in the Present (London: Allison & Busby, 1977), pp. 191, 188.

  46. Walter Rodney, The Groundings with My Brothers (London: Bogle L’Ouverture, 1969), p. 68.

  47. Ibid., pp. 33-4.

  48. In his work Jesus: An Experiment in Christology, trans. Hurbert Hoskins (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), Schillebeeckx identified three different planes of history which he says “enfold and interpenetrate one another”: (a) “ephemeral” history, which consists of everyday events; (b) “conjectural” history, which is more expansive and comprehensive but possesses a slower rate of change than the first: (c) “structural” history, which lasts for centuries and borders “on the central point of what moves and what does not, although not standing outside history” (p. 577). There is a suggestion in Schillebeeckx's understanding of history that certain historical judgments which are made and solidified by intellectuals (usually of the dominant class) become so impermeated in the minds of men that it takes a broad epochal movement (perhaps revolutionary struggle) to break its hold. The difference between Rodney's and Naipaul's judgments can be thought of as lying at the “conjectural” and “ephemeral” planes of historical judgments.

  49. Nancy Fitch, “History Is a Nightmare” (Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 1981), p. 28.

Richard Kelly (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10464

SOURCE: “The Comic Island,” and “Shipwrecked” in V. S. Naipaul, The Continuum Publishing Company, 1989, pp. 15-53; 73–102.

[In the following excerpts from his full-length treatment of Naipaul's work, Kelly penetrates the humor of the short stories in Miguel Street and A Flag on the Island to discover the author's emerging disparagement of life and human possibility in places like Trinidad.]


Although Miguel Street was published in 1959, after The Mystic Masseur (1957) and The Suffrage of Elvira (1958), it was the first book Naipaul wrote. These three books represent Naipaul's comic vision of life in Trinidad, a wistful chronicle of the provincial rituals and absurdities of island life. Despite the narrators' satirical tone and the implicit poverty, ignorance, and suffering that lay in the background of the stories, these three works embody a powerful sense of lost innocence and youth. When the narrator of Miguel Street, for instance, reaches his eighteenth birthday, he suddenly discovers that the fascinating people around him, who he assumed would remain always the same, have lost their sparkle. In three years, he says, “I had grown up and looked critically at the people around me. I no longer wanted to be like Eddoes. He was so weak and thin, and I hadn't realized he was so small. Titus Hoyt was stupid and boring, and not funny at all. Everything had changed.” After his street hero, Hat, is sent to jail for beating up his woman, the narrator confesses that “part of me had died.”

The part that died, of course, is the childlike wonder and innocence of the narrator that dominate the tone and atmosphere of all three early works. Like his narrator, Naipaul himself comes to see the people around him with a more critical eye. He becomes progressively more serious, introspective, and detached in his subsequent novels and in his accounts of life in the Third World nations.

Miguel Street is a collection of character sketches of the inhabitants of Port of Spain's Miguel Street during the 1930s and 1940s. This bizarre and comic world of dreamers, bigamists, poets, pyrotechnicians, and pundits is affectionately recorded by the young unnamed narrator. Like Naipaul, the narrator comes to find Trinidad too confining, too stifling, and in the last chapter he escapes from the island by obtaining a scholarship to study in England. His chronicles of life on Miguel Street are written some years later and reflect his impeccable English, which contrasts with the colorful local speech of the islanders.

Naipaul's re-creation of the Trinidad idiom is central to the success of these early books. If the characters in Miguel Street spoke in the educated English of the narrator, the book would lose its wit, comedy, and uniqueness. The street idiom is direct, physical, metaphorical, energetic, and sometimes brutal. Adjectives frequently appear as verbs, verbs often fail to agree in number with their subjects, and sometimes their subjects are very abstract. When Mrs. Bhakcu asks her husband if he is all right after his car slips off the jack and falls on him, he replies, “How the hell I all right? You mean you so blind you ain't see the whole motor-car break up my arse?” When Hat comes and criticizes Mr. Bhakcu for tinkering with a new car, Mr. Bhakcu threatens, “The moment you get this car from off me, I going to break up you tail.” Hearing this, Mrs. Bhakcu reprimands her husband: “Man, how you so advantageous? The man come round with his good good mind to help you and now you want to beat him up?”

The characters seem to take delight in their colorful language. Hat, for example, admires Laura not only because she had eight children by seven fathers but because “she like Shakespeare when it come to using words.” Laura used to shout at her children: “Alwyn, you broad-mouth brute, come here,” and “Gavin, if you don't come here this minute, I make you fart fire, you hear.” These characters also seem to enjoy quoting passages from Calypso songs, which appear to comprise the island's national poetry. When Boyee sees that Eddoes's baby does not resemble him, he begins to whistle the calypso, “Chinese children calling me Daddy! / Oh God, somebody putting milk in my coffee.” And one of Laura's husbands, Nathaniel, boasts that he keeps her under control by a “a good dose of blows” and proceeds to quote from a calypso song: “Every now and then just knock them down. / Every now and then just throw them down. / Black up their eye and bruise up their knee / And then they love you eternally.”

The language of Miguel Street is so fundamental to its atmosphere, rhythm, and characters, that Naipaul later declared that the simple opening dialogue of this book created the world of the street and established the framework for the rest of the book. This dialogue marked the opening not only of the story but of Naipaul's writing career: “Every morning when he got up Hat would sit on the banister of his back verandah and shout across, ‘What happening there, Bogart?’ Bogart would turn in his bed and mumble softly, so that no one heard, ‘What happening there, Hat?’” Naipaul was twenty-two years old, recently graduated from Oxford University and working for the BBC, when he wrote those opening sentences for his first publishable book. “That was a Port of Spain memory,” he writes. “It seemed to come from far back, but it was only eleven or twelve years old.”

Hat was a Port of Spain Indian who lived on the same street as the Naipaul family. Connected with Naipaul's mother's family, Bogart was a young man who lived in a separate one-room building at the back of the Naipauls' yard. The first sentence of the book, Naipaul says, was “true.” “The second,” he goes on, “was invention.” The two sentences together, however, had done something extraordinary to Naipaul: “Though they had left out everything—the setting, the historical time, the racial and social complexities of the people concerned—they had suggested it all; they had created the world of the street. And together, as sentences, words, they had set up a rhythm, a speed, which dictated all that was to follow.”

Although there are many autobiographical elements in Miguel Street—the characters themselves being based upon people Naipaul knew as a boy growing up in Trinidad—Naipaul distances himself from the narrator in several respects. His narrator has no father or relatives and lives alone with his mother in a house on Miguel Street. Naipaul explains that in order to simplify his life he had to abolish the numerous members of his mother's extended family and make the narrator “more in tune with the life of the street than I had been.”

The microcosm of Trinidad is Miguel Street. As Naipaul puts it, he tried “to establish the idea of the street as a kind of club,” which had its own “city sense of drama.” In the story Bogart seeks freedom. In real life, Naipaul explains, Bogart was trying to escape from his Hindu family conventions. Although he advertises himself as a tailor, he possesses no skill. Given the name Bogart by his street friends (after Humphrey Bogart, who was one of the most popular film heroes of the time) and invested with an aura of mystery by these same people, Bogart wins the admiration of the narrator for being “sensual, lazy, cool.” He is finally done in by women. In Naipaul's analysis, Bogart had taken the easy way out: “He was that flabby, emasculated thing, a bigamist. So, looking only for freedom, the Bogart of my story ended up as a man on the run. It was only in the solitude of his servant room that he could be himself, at peace. It was only with the men and boys of the street that he could be a man.”

Each of the seventeen sections of Miguel Street focuses upon a single character. The sections are linked together by the narrator's voice as well as by the reappearance of various characters from earlier chapters. One of the most prominent recurring characters is Hat, the streetwise commentator whose insights and seeming self-sufficiency make him a big brother, almost a father, to the nameless young narrator. It is only at the end of the book that the narrator discovers Hat's failings. The young man's disillusionment thereby coincides with the reader's sense of compassion for the fallen street hero.

Naipaul develops almost all of his characters by focusing upon one or two dominant traits. Bogart “was the most bored man I ever knew”; Popo the carpenter was always “making the thing without a name”; Big Foot, a bully, was “the biggest and the strongest man in the street”; Man-man was mad; B. Wordsworth was a poet working on “the greatest poem in the world”; Eddoes “was crazy about cleanliness”; Uncle Bhakcu “was very nearly a mechanical genius” who spent most of his time disassembling his car's engine; Bolo's whole philosophy was never to believe anything you read in the newspapers; Edward (Hat's brother) modeled his life after the Americans; and Hat enjoyed life better than anyone the narrator had ever known.

The first character in Miguel Street is Bogart. The narrator first sees him as bigger than life: “He did everything with a captivating languor. Even when he licked his thumb to deal out the cards there was a grace in it.” Besides being one of the most popular men in the street, Bogart is also a man of mystery. Without saying a word to anyone he disappears for several months. When he returns he reveals that he has gone to British Guiana and become a cowboy and a smuggler. Then he began running “the best brothel” in Georgetown when the police arrested him. Not only do these experiences change Bogart but the people on Miguel Street begin to see him as someone to fear now. Then he disappears twice again, each time returning a bit fatter, more aggressive, and sounding more American. Finally Bogart is arrested and it is revealed that he is a bigamist. Hat comes up with the details of his two wives. His first wife being childless, Bogart deserted her to marry a girl he got pregnant in another town. When Eddoes asks Hat why Bogart left the second wife, Hat explains, “To be a man, among we men.”

One of the recurrent themes in Miguel Street is the ideal of manliness. With the exception of Laura in “The Maternal Instinct,” all of the character sketches in the book focus upon men. The women remain in the background, in their houses, while the men rule the street and seem to run the small world of Miguel Street. The male voice is the dominant one and throughout the stories there are several references to the importance of a man beating a woman in order to win her love and respect. This macho ritual is even enshrined in the lyrics of the calypso songs, such as the one previously quoted. In the sketch entitled “Love, Love, Love, Alone” (taken from a calypso song that explains why King Edward left the throne), the well-to-do Mrs. Christiani leaves her physician husband in order to live with a penniless sadistic drunkard who regularly beats her. Even Hat acknowledges that it “is a good thing for a man to beat his woman every now and then, but this man does do it like exercise, man.”

Naipaul sets in motion an ironic countercurrent to this antifeminist theme. As John Thieme observes, “the dominant pattern of the stories is centered on an ironic exposure of the pretense of manliness.”1 Naipaul exposes Bogart's macho facade and reveals him as a “flabby, emasculated thing, a bigamist.” Nathaniel, who quotes the calypso “Knock Them Down,” turns out to be on the receiving end of the beatings. Big Foot, the most feared man on Miguel Street, becomes terrified that he is dying after he cuts his foot on a broken bottle. Only the narrator witnesses this private humiliation. Later, however, when Big Foot takes up boxing and loses his first fight, everybody laughs at him and he begins sobbing like a child.

The ritual of male posturing and aggressiveness is fundamental to life in Miguel Street (and reappears in various guises in several of Naipaul's later works). Popo, the carpenter who is building “the thing without a name,” has no children and therefore allows his wife to go out and work. Because of this Hat says that “Popo is a man-woman. Not a proper man.” Later, however, after Popo's wife runs off with another man and Popo begins drinking and fighting everyone around him, Hat reassesses him: “We was wrong about Popo. He is a man, like any of we.”

The narrator has difficulty coping with the reality that continues to intrude upon the image of the macho hero. When Big Foot loses his fight, for example, the narrator reports that “all of us from Miguel Street laughed at Big Foot. All except me. For I knew how he felt although he was a big man and I was a boy.” More devastating still, however, is the narrator's discovery that Hat has been imprisoned for beating his woman, that Hat even needed a woman like other men. About twice the narrator's age, Hat is described as resembling Rex Harrison. “He didn't appear to need anything else. He was self-sufficient, and I didn't believe he even needed women. … And then this thing happened. It broke up the Miguel Street Club, and Hat himself was never the same afterwards.” Hat discovers that Dolly has run away, goes after her, finds her with another man, and nearly beats her to death. Thus Eve and the serpent enter the narrator's Garden of Eden revealing Hat to be a mere corruptible mortal, dependent upon women, and not the manly, handsome, and cool British Hollywood hero after all.

Thieme's contention that “The Maternal Instinct” illustrates what is latent throughout Miguel Street, namely, that the society is fundamentally matriarchal,2 is more inferential than demonstrable. Nevertheless, this chapter on Laura, the legendary woman of Miguel Street who had eight children by seven different men, is an excellent example of Naipaul's distressing portrait of the devastated hopes of the island woman. Laura is a strong, domineering person who, in order to support herself and her numerous children, sells her sexual favors. Despite all of her hardships she manages to raise her children with a certain degree of authority and responsibility. All of the selfish men in her life have not managed to make her cynical or diminish her sense of humor. She is finally broken, however, by the powerful influence she unwittingly has upon one of her daughters. When her eldest daughter announces “I going to make a baby,” Laura is devastated. The narrator describes the painful scene:

She seemed to be crying all the cry she had saved up since she was born; all the cry she had tried to cover up with her laughter. I had heard people cry at funerals, but there is a lot of showing-off in their crying. Laura's crying that night was the most terrible thing I had heard. It made me feel that the world was a stupid, sad place, and I almost began crying with Laura.3

Naipaul seems to see Laura as the representative of all the island women, doomed to broken dreams, frustration, and hopelessness. Their poverty and dependency have the appalling quality of deadly genes passed down through the generations. Given woman's place in this oppressive society, the strength of her character, her maternal instinct, cruelly enslaves her and predestines her children to repeat her hapless life. After Laura's daughter brings home the new baby Laura's house becomes “a dead, silent house.” Hat's final comment demonstrates the stoical wisdom necessary to survive in this society: “Life is helluva thing. You can see trouble coming and you can't do a damn thing to prevent it coming. You just got to sit and watch and wait.” Laura's daughter commits suicide and Laura, when informed of this by the police, simply says, “It good. It good. It better that way.”

Most of the characters in Miguel Street are eccentrics and one of them, Man-man, comes closest to being designated mad. The narrator, however, has the wisdom to observe that “I am not so sure now that he was mad.” Man-man, first of all, does not look mad. He is fairly good-looking, does not stare at people, and makes reasonable replies to questions. One of the ways he makes money is to train his dog to defecate upon the clothes that people have put out to bleach. Everyone is willing to give him these clothes and he turns around and sells them. His dog then gets run over by a car and Man-man spends the next few days wandering about aimlessly.

One day he suddenly claims that after having a bath he has seen God. (The narrator mentions at this point that Ganesh Ramsumair, the pundit the reader has already met in The Mystic Masseur, has also seen God). Man-man proceeds to announce that he is the new messiah. Some men put up a cross, tie him to it, and he cries out for the onlookers to stone him. When the people begin hurling the stones in earnest, Man-man cries out (in contrast to his earlier prayer, “Father, forgive them. They ain't know what they doing”): “What the hell is this? What the hell you people think you doing? Look, get me down from this thing quick, let me down quick, and I go settle with that son of a bitch who pelt a stone at me.” Not really that mad at all, Man-man nevertheless is taken away by the police and the authorities lock him away.

The people in Miguel Street, it turns out, are almost all actors. Man-man is too convincing for his own good. B. Wordsworth, on the other hand, is a fascinating character who has adopted the role of poet as his persona. He resembles Lewis Carroll's White Knight in his gentle madness, and the narrator admires him and his talent. B. Wordsworth one day knocks on the narrator's door and asks if he can watch the bees in his backyard. He explains that the “B” stands for “Black,” and that “White Wordsworth was my brother.” He and the narrator become good friends. Wordsworth tells him wonderful stories about young love and nature. “He did everything as though he were doing it for the first time in his life,” the narrator observes. His energy and imagination make the dull island come alive. He even makes a simple visit to a restaurant seem exciting: “I think I will go and negotiate the purchase with that shop,” he says. In short, “The world became a most exciting place.”

Wordsworth also makes the future bright with his great plans. His chief goal is to write “the greatest poem in the world,” a task that would take about twenty-two years to achieve, since he writes only one line a month. The world that Wordsworth makes sparkle for the young narrator then suddenly turns dark. The boy visits him and finds the poet lying in bed looking old and weak. Wordsworth tells the boy that the romantic stories he told him were all false and that all the talk about his writing the greatest poem in the world is not true either. The boy “left the house, and ran home crying, like a poet, for everything he saw.” The following year he returns to the poet's neighborhood and finds his house gone: “It was just as if B. Wordsworth had never existed.”

Throughout Miguel Street the narrator undergoes several such disillusionments. Reality continues to break in upon the intimate fantasy constructed among the members of the Miguel Street community. B. Wordsworth is an important person in the narrator's development, for he teaches him the value of language and fantasy. A seer and a writer can, in fact, make the world an exciting place. B. Wordsworth may have been a charlatan, but he invested the ordinary with a colorful vision. When the narrator, for example, asks him why he keeps his yard filled with bush, the poet tells him a tale about a young girl, a poet, who loved grass and flowers and trees. She tells her poet husband that she is expecting a baby poet. The girl, however, dies, along with her baby poet, and the husband, out of respect for his wife's love of the garden, never touches it again. Thus the high, wild growth. And so the narrator, unaware that his friend is simply too lazy to mow his grass, has Wordsworth's untidy plot transformed into a garden of romance and mystery. With the narrator's final disillusionment at the end of the book, however, he sees all too clearly that the Arcadian world of his youth has vanished as definitively as did B. Wordsworth's house and person.

Despite the disillusionments there are the continuous efforts of the community to enhance their dull lives with fantasy. Fantasy becomes the lifeblood of the island's underdogs. When Morgan, the pyrotechnician, has his house go up in flames along with his fireworks (“It was the most beautiful fire in Port of Spain since 1933,” the narrator observes), he is charged with arson but is not prosecuted. The inhabitants of Miguel Street then speculate about his whereabouts: “They said Morgan went to Venezuela. They said he went mad. They said he became a jockey in Colombia. They said all sorts of things, but the people of Miguel Street were always romancers.”

Even Miguel Street's half-baked intellectuals are romancers. His head filled with big words, snippets of self-taught Latin, and fragments of Trinidad history, Titus Hoyt, I. A. (Inter Arts), “was a natural guide, philosopher and friend to anyone who stopped to listen.” Although lacking the rich imagination of B. Wordsworth, Titus Hoyt is similarly obsessed with the written word. He persuades the narrator to write a letter to the Trinidad Guardian because “only big big man does write to the Guardian.” The substance of the letter explains how the narrator, lost in Port of Spain, was rescued by Titus Hoyt. Hoyt feeds the boy words like “peregrination” and “metropolis” in an effort to demonstrate an educated style of writing, but the letter is never published. Hoyt then attempts to further his own education by studying Latin and also dedicates himself to training the minds of several young men in Miguel Street.

It is at this point in the story that Naipaul obviously uses Hoyt as a spokesman for his attack upon the ignorance of his people about their own country. “Titus Hoyt said, ‘You see, you people don't care about your country. How many of you know about Fort George? Not one of you here know about the place. But is history, man, your history, and you must learn about things like that.’” He explains to his unwilling charges that the fort was built during the time the French were planning to invade Trinidad. The narrator's response to this revelation captures the essence of Naipaul's keen awareness of the insularity, ignorance, and demeaning self-image of his people: “We had never realized that anyone considered us so important.”

The final chapter, entitled “How I Left Miguel Street,” reintroduces Ganesh Pundit. The narrator's mother decides that her son has become too wild and needs to leave the island. She takes him to Ganesh (who at this time is a minister in the government and running for the MBE) to see if he can arrange a scholarship for him in London. Ganesh explains that there is only one scholarship left, for pharmacy. Although the young man has absolutely no interest in this subject, Ganesh reminds him that in London he will be able to see snow, the Thames, and Parliament. So, the narrator agrees and his mother pays Ganesh the appropriate bribe.

On the day of his departure, the narrator, having said his good-byes to his family, discovers that his plane will be delayed for several hours and so returns to Miguel Street. The first person he sees is Hat. “I was disappointed,” he says, “Not only by Hat's cool reception. Disappointed because although I had been away, destined to be gone for good, everything was going on just as before, with nothing to indicate my absence.” The realization that he is not a vital presence, that his absence whether through travel or death, really alters nothing, that life grinds on with no regard for his ego or his place in the grand club called Miguel Street comes as a shock to the narrator. Furthermore there is a sense of déjà vu in this episode because earlier he had the same realization about B. Wordsworth when he returned to his street years later and discovered that his house was gone and that “it was just as though B. Wordsworth had never existed.”

As the years slip past, the narrator gradually sees the fiction that creates and sustains all of his romanticized characters and situations in his narrative. Hat is no more than a woman beater, Titus Hoyt a stupid bore, Bogart a shallow bigamist, and the narrator himself, perhaps a fool for not having seen this earlier. “I left them all,” he says, “and walked briskly towards the aeroplane, not looking back, looking only at my shadow before me, a dancing dwarf on the tarmac.” The narrator more than Miguel Street has changed and what he is leaving behind is a stunning city pastoral, the breeding ground for the great romancers who inhabit and shape the fiction. Miguel Street, then, contains both a young boy's version of street heroes drawn bigger than life and his subsequent awareness that he must not look back to his fictionalized childhood, that he must accept the new reality and follow his dancing shadow to the airplane, to London, to new reflections.

In a 1979 interview Naipaul expresses a dissatisfaction with his early work, claiming that it creates a fraudulent world: “Of course, when you're starting, you really have got to try to establish a world and it's much easier if you can even pretend that the tribal culture is a world, that the life of the street puts you in touch with the wider world. The early comedies make this pretense.”4 After writing Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion, however, Naipaul says: “Only after that did I really get going.”

Naipaul's concern that the tribal culture of Trinidad that he depicts in Miguel Street is not really a world at all tells more about Naipaul than it does about the book. Having abandoned the simple human comedy of his native land depicted in his early works for the complex tragedies of his later novels set in England, Africa, and the revolution-torn Caribbean, Naipaul has become mistrustful of the comforting simplicity, vitality, and camaraderie of his city pastoral. True, life on Miguel Street may only seem to put one in touch with the wider world, but that never appears to be a central issue in the book. The very fact that in the last chapter the narrator manages to move away from Trinidad to the cultural mecca of London makes the point that despite the delightful play among the rich array of eccentric characters, and despite the reassuring rituals of tribal life in Miguel Street, there comes a time when a sensitive, imaginative, and intellectual young man must break away from his tight little island, its colorful dialect and cultural limitations or else remain forever a child.

Once Naipaul does acquire a taste of the wide world he can never again return home. In his history of Trinidad entitled The Loss of El Dorado, Naipaul makes this point quite clear: “The Garden of Eden [Trinidad] was dispeopled, abandoned, repeopled, neglected. The place where I was born had been made by more than four centuries of misuse.” Not only has his pastoral world been despoiled by Europeans during previous centuries, but his own childhood sense of its innocence has been undermined by his later experiences in Europe.

In The Middle Passage (1962), Naipaul portrays Trinidad as a down-at-the-heels, cultureless, noisy, exploited, and imitative society. He characterizes his homeland as “unimportant, uncreative, cynical,” and as a place where power is recognized but dignity is allowed no one. “Every person of eminence was held to be crooked and contemptible. We lived in a society which denied itself heroes.” There are no scientists, engineers, explorers, soldiers, or poets, Naipaul observes. There is no community; rather, only a mixture of various races, religions, and cliques that haphazardly find themselves on the same island. “It was only our Britishness,” he explains, “our belonging to the British Empire, which gave us any identity.” The chief degrading fact, Naipaul argues, is that as a colonial society Trinidad never required efficiency or quality and because these things were not required they became undesirable.

In light of this critical attitude toward Trinidad it becomes easier to understand why Naipaul feels that there is something fraudulent about his early fiction since it does not assume the broad critical perspective he came to express in his later works. Still, one can understand Naipaul's rejection of his Garden of Eden without accepting his subsequent personal prejudice against the simple energy and design of a work like Miguel Street.


Between 1950 and 1962 Naipaul wrote several short stories (most of which appeared in periodicals in England and America) that he later collected in the 1967 volume entitled A Flag on the Island. Given their early composition and their affinity in form and content with the sketches in Miguel Street and with his two subsequent novels set in Trinidad, I shall briefly discuss some of them here. The long title story, however, belongs to a later period and will be examined in chapter four.

Written from the first-person point of view, “The Mourners” (1950) is a slight piece that focuses upon the self-indulgent grief of a couple for their dead child, Ravi. The narrator, a boy named Romesh, visits his wealthy relatives and becomes an unwitting audience for their recollections of Ravi. Even though Romesh does not know the dead boy, when the boy's mother breaks down and cries he politely listens to her grieved account of her son. Occasionally she regains her composure and asks Romesh a perfunctory question about his forthcoming examinations at school. She proceeds to show Romesh a photograph album crammed full of pictures of Ravi and he turns the pages “with due lassitude.” Romesh becomes restless and is ready to leave when Ravi's father arrives home to regale him with more memories of the deceased. Naipaul depicts the father's superficial grief through his cliches: “It makes you think, doesn't it? Makes you think about life. Here today. Gone tomorrow.” The father does not have any real concern for Romesh, either. Abruptly shifting the topic from his son's death, he asks Romesh why he does not start giving lessons to children. “You could make money that way,” he says. When Romesh replies that he has to study for his examinations, the father simply ignores his answer and asks if he has seen the pictures they took of Ravi. Unwilling to hurt the man's feelings, Romesh says no and is faced again with the prodigious photograph album.

This sketch captures the rather familiar gulf that separates youth and age, the living and the dead, and suggests the self-indulgent and superficial nature of the mourners. The parents of the dead boy are so absorbed with their memories that Romesh becomes a mere sounding board for their sorrow. They have no real concern for him, no place for him in their grief. Similarly, Romesh has little reason to care about Ravi or the parents' loss. Uppermost in his mind are his examinations, his passport to the future. Although the mutual isolation of the characters in this story is simple and matter-of-fact, Naipaul later develops the theme of isolation and alienation on a much grander scale in such works as A House for Mr. Biswas and The Mimic Men.

“My Aunt Gold Teeth” is a more vibrant story, resembling the tales in Miguel Street and recalling the characters in The Mystic Masseur. The narrator's aunt is called Gold Teeth because after she married, this lyrical eccentric had all of her perfectly good teeth replaced by gold ones. Although she and her family are orthodox Hindus, she persists in shopping around among other religions that seem to accommodate her desires. A simple woman, Gold Teeth knows only the rituals and taboos of her Hindu family and sees the rituals as a means of obtaining her wishes. She feels she has been cursed to have no children and seeks to overcome this curse through any ritual or prayer available to her. And so, she begins secretly to visit a Catholic church in another country. Before long, she acquires a crucifix and holy pictures. “The prayers she offered to these Christian things filled her with new hope and buoyancy. She became an addict of Christianity,” the narrator observes.

When Gold Teeth's husband, Ramprasad, suddenly falls ill, she believes that her unorthodox religious behavior is to blame and not, as the doctor insists, diabetes. Although she uses the insulin that he prescribes, she also consults Ganesh Pundit, the faith healer. The same Ganesh from The Mystic Masseur, he tells her that seven spirits possess her husband and proceeds to go through a comforting ritual that promises to seal off the house from the tormenting spirits.

When Gold Teeth confides her secret practices to Ganesh, he cleverly assuages her anxiety. Naipaul gently satirizes the Trinidadian homegrown variety of Hinduism here when the narrator observes: “In his professional capacity Ganesh was consulted by people of many faiths, and with the license of the mystic he had exploited the commodiousness of Hinduism, and made room for all beliefs. In this way he had many clients, as he called them, many satisfied clients.”

When Ramprasad's condition continues to worsen, Gold Teeth, a typical Indian daughter, brings him to her mother's home. He begins to improve but Gold Teeth suddenly realizes that this house has not been spirit-sealed. Too embarrassed to ask Ganesh to protect the house again, she decides to pray to Jesus in the Catholic church. The rest of the family tolerate her burning incense at home before the pictures of Krishna and Shiva and Jesus and Mary.

One day the family enters her room and finds her prostrate on the floor, chanting prayers to Mary and Rama and crying out that seven snakes are after her. Ramprasad dies the next morning and the narrator's grandmother tells Gold Teeth that her husband would still be alive if she had “not gone running after these Christian things.” The narrator and his family “listened in astonishment and shame. We didn't know that a good Hindu, and a member of our family, could sink so low.” That evening Gold Teeth destroys every remnant of Christianity in the house. The story ends with a delightful irony that brings the plot full circle. Gold Teeth's mother says to her, “You have only yourself to blame if you have no children now to look after you.”

As he did with his eccentrics in The Mystic Masseur Naipaul quickly sketches his main character with a physical detail or two—her gold teeth and her fat body—and endows her with a ruling passion, in this case a blind faith in the powers of religious ritual. Although this is a light comic story that presents Gold Teeth as a lively and resourceful woman trying in her mad way to make the best of her limited world, it also reveals Naipaul's critical perception of orthodox Hinduism in the Third World. Later, in A House for Mr. Biswas, he develops his satire of Trinidadian Hinduism through his account of the Tulsi family. Despite their orthodox Hindu roots, the Tulsis keep pigs and send their children to Catholic schools. The breakdown of this orthodoxy provides a continuing source of sarcasm for Mr. Biswas to use against his wife's family.

“The Enemy” (1955) is an especially interesting story for it has ties both to Miguel Street and A House for Mr. Biswas. Both Hat and Mrs. Bhakcu put in brief appearances here, and the major portion of the story Naipaul later incorporates into the chapter entitled “Greenvale” in A House for Mr. Biswas.

The nameless narrator tells of his youthful conflict with his mother, who decides to leave her husband and take the boy with her to her mother's house. Lured by the prospect of having a whole box of crayons, the boy decides to stay with his father, a driver on a sugar estate in Cunupia. As in A House for Mr. Biswas, the father realizes that the laborers whom he oversees are prepared to kill him in retaliation for his authority over them. He and his boy move from the barracks into a small wooden house where they spend a night of terror. The potential for violence is evidenced in the death of their dog, Tarzan, who is found hacked to death on their doorstep. The dog bears the same name and fate in the novel. To while away the evening the father tutors his son in such subjects as religion and art, even as he does in the novel. Then a powerful storm comes up and the boy begins chanting prayers to Rama to secure their safety. Terrified both by the storm and the prospect of the laborers killing him, the father dies of fright.

Now subject to his mother's control, the narrator decides that she is his enemy, that if his father were alive she would be kinder to him. “She was someone from whom I was going to escape as soon as I grew big enough.” In the meantime, he becomes caught up in the progress that invades Port of Spain, where he is now living. The Americans and the British begin programs of social development, one of the signs being the disappearance of the latrines. “I hated the latrines,” the narrator says, “and I used to wonder about the sort of men who came with their lorries at night and carted away the filth; and there was always the horrible fear of falling into a pit.” Naipaul's revulsion at fecal waste later surfaces in A Wounded Civilization, where he dutifully describes the Indians defecating along the roadsides, and again in Guerrillas, where the Englishwoman, Jane, is sodomized, hacked to death, and buried in a latrine pit. “The Enemy” ends with the narrator breaking his hand as he and Hat attempt to knock down the walls of a latrine. He passes out from the pain and his mother, filled with anxiety, begins weeping over him. The boy concludes by wishing he were a Hindu god who could have all two hundred of his arms broken just so that he could see his mother's tears again.

The image of a frightened, creative, and sensitive father is obviously of great importance to Naipaul, reflecting, as it does, the character of his own father. This story captures a scene of powerful intimacy between father and son that Naipaul re-created nearly verbatim in A House for Mr. Biswas. By shifting the point of view from first person to omniscient narrator in the novel, however, Naipaul was able to present a more analytical and less subjective analysis of that relationship. Furthermore, Mr. Biswas does not die of fright, but recovers and is a changed man after his night of terror. In “The Enemy” the focus is clearly upon the boy; in the novel Naipaul is concerned with the development of his hero. The short story being an early work, Naipaul more readily allows himself to identify with the youthful narrator, who is both intrigued and confused by his father's dynamic and neurotic character. In A House for Mr. Biswas, however, Naipaul rather self consciously underdevelops the character of Mr. Biswas's son, Anand, in order to distance himself from the dominant figure of his hero, thereby avoiding an overtly autobiographical and subjective portrait.

“The Raffle,” “Greenie and Yellow,” and “Perfect Tenants,” all written in 1957, extend the range of Naipaul's scope. “The Raffle” is a trifling story about a Trinidad schoolboy who wins a problem goat. The next two stories, however, are both set in England, anticipating Naipaul's first novel set in that country, Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion. “Greenie and Yellow” tells the story of a lonely and childless Englishwoman, Mrs. Cooksey, who entertains herself by arranging love matches with her caged bird. Her interference, however, leads two birds to die and her original, lonely bird, to become sick and morose. “Perfect Tenants” depicts a slice of lower middle class suburban life and continues to feature Mrs. Cooksey, the landlady of a London tenement. The narrator records the rather mundane lives of some of the tenants and the growing concern of Mr. and Mrs. Cooksey that the Dakins are not the perfect tenants they appeared to be when they first moved in, being rather careless with the premises and threatening to disturb the Cookseys' cherished image of respectability. The Cookseys finally evict the Dakins, whose flat is taken over by a middle-aged woman with a dachshund named Nicky. The narrator ends his tale by noting that the new tenant's letters “were posted on from a ladies' club whose terrifying interiors I had often glimpsed from the top of a number sixteen bus.”

In all three of these stories Naipaul manages to make the ordinary somewhat interesting, a technique that he would come to master in his subsequent novels. Rejecting the melodramatic and the sentimental aspects of life, he focuses deliberately and rather remotely upon ordinary people in order to reveal their quiet battles, fears, and aspirations. The danger in such an approach, however, is that such stories can become tedious and their characters unmemorable. Naipaul makes more effective use of his ordinary characters in the later novels where he allows powerful feelings and overwhelming terror gradually to unfold from their mundane lives and to devastate them.

The remaining four tales, originally published in the early 1960s, are all set in Trinidad: “The Heart” (1960), “A Christmas Story” (1962), “The Night Watchman's Occurrence Book” (1962), and “The Baker's Story” (1962). Although none of these tales is exceptional in its own right, together they reveal Naipaul's developing concern with such subjects as sadism, failure, hypocrisy, and racism.

“The Heart” is the simple story of a ten-year-old boy named Hari. An only child, Hari is pampered by his wealthy parents because of his weak heart. He does not participate in school athletics, is fat and out of shape, and unpopular among the other boys, who delight in bullying him. To make matters worse, as he goes to and from school he must pass a house with a yard containing fierce Alsatians that try to attack him through the fence. His fears are later brought to a climax when several Alsatians pursue him while he is riding along on his bicycle. This trauma causes him to spend a month in a nursing home and to drop out of school for the term. On his birthday his parents attempt to cheer him up by buying him a puppy.

The remainder of the story focuses upon Hari's attempt to resolve his cowardice and frustrations by punishing the puppy whenever it disobeys him. The small animal becomes the scapegoat for all of the bullying and fear that Hari has undergone in previous years. At last he has power and control over his blighted little world and he asserts it with calculated precision. When his father accidentally runs over the dog and kills it, Hari's eyes fill with tears. His mother seeing the boy's reaction says to her husband, “Go after him. His heart. His heart.”

Robert Hamner concludes that “it is apparent that though the tears may stem from a species of love, the source is not altogether healthy or pure.”5 While it is true that Hari would on occasion withhold his affection from the dog in order to control its behavior, there is little in this story that suggests Naipaul's interest in any species of love whatsoever. Hari's tears come in consequence of his loss of a victim, a creature that he can manipulate with the same vicious disregard as the boys at school exhibit toward him. The story is about the ruthless and sadistic quest for power and it traces the need for that power to its psychological roots: fear, cowardice, and vengeance. The force that drives Hari to beat his puppy is the same that drives the hand that whips the children in “The Circus at Luxor” or compels Jimmy Ahmed to sodomize Jane in Guerrillas.

In “A Christmas Story” Naipaul turns his interest to the subject of a converted Hindu schoolmaster's dreadful sense of failure and paranoia. Having freed himself from the limitations placed upon him by his Hindu upbringing, the narrator feels that his lately acquired Presbyterianism opens the door for his success as a teacher in the Presbyterian schools. “Backwardness has always roused me to anger,” he declares. For the sake of progress, however, he has deliberately cut himself off from his family and their outmoded traditions. The narrator thus reflects one of the many faces of Naipaul's recurrent figure of the alien or outcast. Suffering, however, seems to lie in the path of Naipaul's heroes whether they stick to their cultural lasts or rebel against them.

Fifty years old, the narrator carefully selects for his bride a woman some fifteen years younger than himself, a person well connected within the educational system of the island. They have a child with the solid British name of Winston, and the major difficulty that the narrator must face is his imminent retirement. Restless and despondent in his retirement, he suddenly is enlivened by the news that he has been appointed school manager, a post that promises to crown his otherwise successful life. Although he enjoys his new position of power and financial responsibility, he gradually becomes aware that he is incapable of managing the details of his grand project of constructing a new school building. Error after error, he continues blundering his way into debt and fears that his “entire career could be forgotten in the crowning failure.”

Rather than face the possibility of being disgraced in the twilight years of his career as a capable Christian educator, the narrator plans to burn the new school down during Christmas. He even discloses his plan to his wife and child. Later, however, he has a change of heart and decides that he will not disgrace himself with an act of cowardice, that he will proclaim his failure to the whole world. His wife begs him to follow his initial plan and when he refuses, she leaves with Winston vowing never to see him again in hopes of disengaging themselves from his disgrace. Sitting alone, meditating on his fate, the narrator suddenly is visited by a boy who announces that the school is ablaze. “Even final expiation, final triumph, it seemed, was denied me,” he reflects. His wife and child return and the family is happily reconciled: “So it was Christmas after all for us.”

The fastidious, meticulous narrator, who breaks with his traditions and sets himself above his people, enjoys a paradoxical reward in this story. He maintains his dignity and carefully wrought reputation as an educator and administrator, but he knows he is a failure and has been denied the opportunity to be punished for his dishonest intentions. Instead of enjoying his retirement he finds his later years racked with paranoia, awaiting the Audit Department to prove him a fraud. The fact that the inspectors do not come after the fire means only that the world will not discover his family secret. The overriding sense of failure that dominates this story later resurfaces in such works as A House for Mr. Biswas and The Mimic Men. Naipaul's own insecurity as a young writer is reflected in his various personae as they struggle to find their place among shifting cultures.

“The Night Watchman's Occurrence Book” is notable chiefly for its unusual style. It is written as a diary of a night watchman who dutifully and naively records the comings and goings of various people at the hotel where he is employed. What he never understands is that the hotel is being used for prostitution and that the manager, to whom he is reporting, is involved in the proceedings. The night watchman's dialect adds to the humor of the piece. As he explains, “All I want is a little quiet night work and all I getting is abuse.”

“The Baker's Story” is also a comic tale but one that focuses upon the racism in Trinidad. The narrator, a Grenadian, “Black as the Ace of Spades, and ugly to match,” announces at the beginning of his story that he has become one of the richest men in Port of Spain. His account of his rise to wealth is a simple one. After spending years working for a Chinese baker, he decides to go into the business for himself. He quickly discovers that he cannot make a profit and cannot understand why. One day it suddenly dawns on him that “when black people in Trinidad go to a restaurant they don't like to see black people meddling with their food. And then I see that though Trinidad have every race and every colour, every race have to do special things.” With that realization, he hires a boy who is half-black and half-Chinese to deal with his customers while he remains in the kitchen baking the bread. He concludes his tale with this striking observation about island capitalism and racism: “As I say, I only going in the shops from the back. But every Monday morning I walking brave brave to Marine Square and going in the bank, from the front.”

All of these short stories, as well as the sketches in Miguel Street, exhibit Naipaul's ambiguous feelings about his native land. It is at times rich, colorful, comic, and innocent, and at other times it is stark, sad, oppressive, and degrading. Out of this swirl of Indians, blacks, Chinese, Hindus, and Moslems, out of the vertigo caused by poverty, ignorance, ambition, steel bands, and rumors of high culture in other lands, comes the developing world of a new writer who was to shape his fragmented creative insights into his first novel, The Mystic Masseur.



The title novelette in a collection of short stories, A Flag on the Island was written in 1965 but published in 1967. Most of Naipaul's critics do not have very much to say about this work, except to note its unusual style. As with Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion, Naipaul chooses a foreign narrator, in this instance, an American named Frank. He also employs a form of stream of consciousness in order to convey Frank's swirling thoughts as he revisits a Caribbean island where he was stationed years ago during World War II.

A passenger aboard a tourist liner, Frank and his fellow travelers are forced by hurricane Irene to dock at an unnamed West Indian island until the storm passes. Although Frank has given much thought to his former life on the island, he has deliberately steered away from ever returning to it, fearing that his memories of old friends and associates would be violated by a revisitation. One need only to recall Naipaul's own fear of returning to Trinidad in 1960 to find the source of his fictional hero here. Writing in The Middle Passage he says, “I never examined this fear of Trinidad. I had never wished to. In my novels I had only expressed this fear; and it is only now, at the moment of writing, that I am able to attempt to examine it.” What he says here is not entirely true, for A Flag on the Island certainly is an attempt to understand this fear. The fact that Naipaul has chosen an American for his narrator attests to his attempt to arrive at an outsider's point of view, an attempt, however impossible, to stand outside of himself and superimpose the past upon the present of a failing culture.

Frank begins his story with an expression of fear that the inviolate sense of the past may be contaminated by the sordidness of the present, a fear that the tale bears out: “It was an island around which I had been circling for some years. My duties often took me that way and I could have called there any time. But in my imagination the island had ceased to be accessible; and I wanted it to remain so.”6 Nevertheless, the unscheduled arrival of the tropical storm forces Frank to come to grips with a past purified by memory and imagination. Mr. Blackwhite, a local writer, used to say, “This place doesn't exist,” and Frank, recognizing the wisdom of that remark, observes that the island is actually a place each person constructs out of his own imagination. The union jack no longer flies here, having been replaced by the island's own flag, but Frank discerns no significant national character here: “The island was a floating suspended place to which you brought your own flag if you wanted to.”

All that Frank sees and hears declares the corruption of the past. His old stomping ground, Henry's place, has vanished, with the slick nightclub called the Coconut Grove now serving the locals and tourists; Priest, the tall bearded itinerant prophet, has become a popular television personality named Gary Priestland; and Selma, Frank's gentle and sensitive mistress, now lives with Priestland in the suburbs. Frank tours the island stunned by the caricatures of the past, and then, in the second section of his tale, he retreats to his comfortable and inviolable memories of the past.

After Frank returns to the section of town in which his old house used to stand, he begins to reflect on the annihilated past. His focus is upon Henry's place, a gathering spot for local characters, reminiscent of those depicted in Miguel Street, a group of simple people with no past who rely upon style and eccentricity to make their mark. “I don't belong here,” Henry says to Frank. “I am like you.” It is on the street outside of Henry's place that Frank first meets Priest: “He was a man in love with his own fluency. His accent was very English.” Naipaul has already observed in his early stories that a facility with the language wins the respect of and a certain amount of power over others. Followed by a small troupe of young girls singing hymns, Priest moves through the streets collecting money, a scene that foreshadows his later commercial success on television that brings a wider audience. But even at this point his preaching is related to financial matters, for he sells insurance when he is not frightening people about death.

Frank's meeting with the unattached and cool Selma leads to a discussion of Priest. Selma is impressed with Priest's manner of speaking: “I always like hearing a man use language well.” It is a sign that he is an educated man, a rarity among the people at Henry's place. Selma herself has been educated and over the years drifted from one relationship to another. “She feared marriage,” Frank concludes, “because marriage, for a girl of the people, was full of perils and quick degradation.” She and Frank settle into a relationship with the understanding that each one is free to do what he or she wants.

Through Frank's discussions with the writer, Blackwhite, Naipaul examines a fundamental concern in his own writing, namely, how to transform his mundane island life into fiction when the creative center of gravity for the novel lies in England. Frank tells Blackwhite that he is not black at all, that he is terribly white: “You are English. All those lords and ladies, Blackwhite. All that Jane Austen.” Frank urges him to abandon writing second-rate romantic novels and to write about the island, about Selma and Henry and the others. Blackwhite's response echoes Naipaul's own fear about his Trinidadian stories: “But you think they will want to read about these people? These people don't exist, you know. … This place, I tell you, is nowhere. It doesn't exist. People are just born here. They all want to go away.” If Churchill were born here, Blackwhite continues, he would have wound up importing sewing machines and exporting cocoa.

Living up to the other half of his name, Blackwhite gradually comes around to Frank's way of thinking and announces that what he needs is his own language and that he intends to write in patios: “Not English, not French, but something we have made up. This is our own. You were right. Damn those lords and ladies. Damn Jane Austen. This is ours, this is what we have to work with.” And thus the fluctuating Blackwhite puts out a notice on his house that reads “Patois taught here.” Beneath the comedy of these scenes again lies Naipaul's dilemma as a novelist. Faced with a poverty-stricken culture made up of local characters shaped by the political and economic winds of Europe and America on the one hand, and the rich and domineering tradition of the English novel on the other, how does the writer proceed? The move from the eccentric characters and patois of Miguel Street and The Suffrage of Elvira to the universal theme of the quest for identity and a sense of place in A House for Mr. Biswas to the English persona and his quiet struggle against his mortality in Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion represents Naipaul's own progressive struggle to work his way out of this dilemma.

Frank's pleasant memories of the island's local characters and his involvement with them are quickly displaced in a few pages as he chronicles the departure of the American troops and the arrival of the white tourist boats that begin the final destruction of the island's identity. “No place for us now. Change, change. It was fast and furious,” Frank reflects. In the third section of the story Frank confronts the degradations that time has wrought upon the island.

Blackwhite's decision to write about the blacks in their own language has ironically led to his corruption. Various foundations have sought him out to support his studies, having brought him to Cambridge and various lecture halls. Naipaul's satire here is rather heavy-handed, as he depicts three foundation representatives named Bippy, Chippy, and Tippy fawning on Blackwhite, eager to support his every foolish novel. When Blackwhite tells them that he is thinking of writing an experimental novel in which a black man falls in love with a black woman, the obsequious trio exclaim, “You'll have the liberals down your throat.” They, and the mindless public, want more novels like I Hate You, in which he excoriates the white world. Naipaul here channels his disgust with the formulaic and exploitative native fiction, sponsored by American and European foundations, into blunt satire. Money, success, and fame have degraded and undermined the ambiguous Blackwhite, the author without a center of creative consciousness, without roots, and without any cultural identity.

Henry's place has become the Coconut Grove, run by a board of governors, and Henry himself has been awarded the Order of the British Empire. When Frank asks Henry about Selma, Henry says,

Forget Selma. Sometimes you want the world to end. You can't go back and do things again. They begin just like that, they get good. The only thing is you never know they good until they finish. I wish the hurricane would come and blow away all this. I feel the world need this sort of thing every now and then. A clean break, a fresh start. (A Flag on the Island, p. 213).

Like Frank, Henry enjoys “moving backwards” instead of moving with the times. He is the spokesman of Naipaul's own view that one does not fully understand or appreciate a quiet, supportive, friendly landscape—a paradise of sorts—until it has vanished. True paradise, then, resides only in the memories of evanescent worlds. Naipaul develops and explores this observation in great detail in a much later work, The Enigma of Arrival. Here, however, the focus turns upon annihilation of the present as the final pages chronicle a danse macabre.

Frank visits Selma in her modern suburban home equipped with swimming pool and contemporary furnishings. Frank characterizes it as a “lovely, ghastly, sickening, terrible home.” He goes to bed with her but too much drink makes him impotent. In the background of this section of the story is Gary Priestland on the television announcing death and destruction from the hurricane. The city becomes convulsed with dancing: “The world was ending and the cries that greeted this end were cries of joy. We all began to dance.” In the danse macabre all of the figures from the past and present gather together in anticipation of the apocalyptic climax, but the hurricane does not arrive. The exhausted people readjust themselves to their ordinary fates, and Frank returns to his hotel to await the sailing of his ship back home.

Clearly not one of Naipaul's major works, A Flag on the Island nevertheless contains a perceptive analysis of the writer's anguish over his lost world. Naipaul's confrontation with his fear of returning to Trinidad has created an interesting piece of fiction that accommodates even though it does not dismiss that fear. The failure of the hurricane to destroy the corrupted island parallels the inadequacy of the author's infantile wish fulfillment that would obliterate his own degraded Trinidad. The anticlimax of the story leaves the harsh residue of reality to be dealt with in later fiction. The childhood innocence of Frank's first arrival is corrupted by his second arrival. Like the naive child, Frank has made the island sacred by filling it with wonder years ago, and now, having come out of the nightmare of the present, has, like the novelist, secured his unrecognized paradise in memories, in words.


  1. John Thieme, “Calypso Allusions in Naipaul's Miguel Street,Kunapipi 3, no. 2 (1981): 25.

  2. Ibid., p. 27.

  3. V. S. Naipaul, Miguel Street (New York: Vintage Books, 1984), p. 90.

  4. Mukherjee and Boyers, “A Conversation with V. S. Naipaul,” Salmagundi 54 (Fall 1981): 7.

  5. Robert D. Hammer, V. S. Naipaul (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1973), p. 32.

  6. V. S. Naipaul, A Flag on the Island (London: Andre Deutsch, 1967), p. 149. Hereafter cited as FI.

Timothy F. Weiss (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3605

SOURCE: “Carnival” in On the Margins: The Art of Exile in V. S. Naipaul, University of Massachussetts Press, 1992, pp. 21-46.

[In the following excerpt, Weiss argues that Miguel Street is told in two voices—that of a child who loves the spirit and people of Trinidad and that of an adult who needs to explain why he had to escape the futility and imprisonment of life in Port of Spain.]


The narrative strategy of Miguel Street responds to a split between the author's Trinidad and English cultural selves and attempts to resolve that split through double perspectives. First, by viewing Miguel Street from the perspective of a narrator who tells the story as if he were again a boy growing up in Port of Spain, the author can write from the base of his colonial Trinidad experiences, reentering, reconstructing, and revising that world. Second, by standing outside as well as within the narrator's viewpoint, the author can evaluate that world from the distanced perspective that he has acquired through his life in England. In short, he can write from the double perspective of exile, viewing one culture through the lens of another.

The narrator of Miguel Street is both a teller of the story and a character in it. I sometimes refer to him as the boy-adult narrator because he looks from a split perspective, that of a boy and that of an adult selecting and arranging his recollections. In the chapter entitled “The Pyrotechnicist,” the narrator alludes to his age and experiences, remarking: “I have travelled in many countries since, but I have seen nothing to beat the fireworks show in Morgan's house that night.”1 The narrator as adult is worldly-wise; he can contrast Miguel Street with other places he has traveled to. However, most of the story is not told from this larger, worldly-wise perspective, but from the narrow perspective of a boy discovering his world, awakening to its dangers and patterns. In this respect the narrator resembles those of “Araby” or “An Encounter” in Dubliners. He has been formed by his world to see what he sees, and he sees it as if from the inside only, as if he had never left the “slum” and colony. The deterministic sameness of Miguel Street as an imprisoning milieu is before his eyes all along, but he can only dimly perceive it as such. This is presented symbolically in an incident in which the boy, losing his way while on a walk, discovers something of the extended sameness of his neighborhood, where all streets look alike; “I found about six Miguel Streets, but none seemed to have my house,” he remarks (73). Here, as throughout his story, he often says more than he knows—or says one thing by saying another or nothing at all. His neighborhood is full of Miguel Streets, and the plight of the people who live on these streets is no different from those of people who live on the boy's street. Only at the end of his account does he give words to what is there in his environment—and in him—and through this awakening, he resolves to leave the colony. The narrow perspective of the boy shifts to the larger perspective of the adult, who is already in exile at the time of the writing of this story.

Through the counterpoint between the split perspective of the boy-adult narrator and the comprehensive, evaluative attitude of the author, Miguel Street sets up a double discourse in which what is said may have two opposed meanings, and what is left unsaid may be as important or more important than what is said. Comprising seventeen chapters or sketches of inhabitants of a multicultural neighborhood, the narrative's form would seem to emphasize the variety of life and richness of human difference in this one street of Port of Spain. The boy wants to impress this variety and difference on the reader: “A stranger could drive through Miguel Street and just say ‘Slum!’ because he could see no more. But we, who lived there, saw our street as a world, where everybody was quite different from everybody else” (63). The boy is right. He can see what the outsider cannot; he sees details of human difference that the outsider might overlook or dismiss and he feels the neighborhood's special pulse or esprit. But what the boy does not see, though his story shows it, is the essential similarity of the lives of Miguel Street. The narrative's form suggests variety and difference, but its content is a collection of variations on the same story of entrapment, failure, and erasure. Thus, its multistory form contrasts with the depressing sameness of each story's unhappy ending; the play of Miguel Street contrasts with its underlying harsh realities. This is the world that the author in exile constructs—one not without affection, but chiefly a world to justify his and the boy's escape.

Although the boy intends to describe his world's uniqueness and to show its value to outsiders who might think of it as just another slum, the adult-narrator's and author's evaluative attitude impart an ironic accent to his descriptions and thus intimate that Miguel Street may be quite different from what the boy initially perceives. The irony suggests the other side of Miguel Street, its deterministic patterns. Trouble with the law, sadness, and failure abound. The boy's friend, Bogart, admired for his imitation of Humphrey Bogart's “cool” style, is jailed for bigamy. Popo the carpenter, always leisurely making “the thing without a name,” is jailed for furniture theft. Hat, the boy's best friend, is imprisoned for murder. George, the father of the boy's friend Elias, batters his wife, who dies prematurely—she “had the shabbiest and saddest and the loneliest funeral Miguel Street had ever seen”—and flogs his son and daughter with a rope soaked in the gutter of a cow pen (24). Thus prepared for failure, Elias has his ambitions for a profession slip away until he ends up a driver of “scavenging carts” (37). The title of Elias's story, “His Chosen Calling,” counterpoints the adult-narrator's and author's ironic perspectives with the boy's nonjudgmental account of Elias's failures and sad fate (30). There is little choice involved in Elias's “calling”; he repeatedly fails because his father and his milieu have programmed him to fail.

The boy's interpretation of Miguel Street often relates inversely to the adult-narrator's, author's, and reader's interpretation of it. Thus, for example, what the boy finds humorous, the author and reader often consider pathetic—or humorous and pathetic—and what the narrator says and describes often turns out to be less important than what he does not. Double-voicedness and double perspectives create a dissonance in the boy's and other characters' humor, a dissonance that we hear in funny or unfunny stories about the failure of human relationships in the slum. For example, the stories of Laura, Mrs. Hereira, and Toni show the damaging effects of the slum on sexual-marital relationships, yet the boy recounts these stories with an unsettling humor. He begins Laura's story with a joke that falls badly flat:

I suppose Laura holds a world record.
          Laura had eight children.
          There is nothing surprising in that.
          These eight children had seven fathers.
          Beat that! (84)

The boy's remark shows a certain playfulness and esprit, but it also shows a contamination by the macho street attitudes of the slum. Laura is victimized by her ignorance and by a cultural reduction of women to objects, and here in the boy's joke she is turned into an object of sorts, reduced to a “world record.” She is the perfect ghetto-female victim; her vivaciousness—the narrator says that she was “quite gay about what was happening to her”—is as unsettling as the boy's bad joke (84). Her ignorance is treated as both laughable and disturbing: “She used to point to [her expanding stomach],” the boy recalls, “and say, ‘This thing happening again, but you get use to it after the first three four times. Is a damn nuisance, though’” (84). The humor is counterpointed by a barely audible anger and by the evaluations of the adult-narrator and author: as if slowly succumbing to waves, Laura is suffocating under the burden of pregnancies and children fathered by feckless men. To emphasize the determinism of her predicament, the novel extends it to her child; her daughter Lorna, like her mother, becomes pregnant in her teens. But rather than repeat the cycles of the mother's pregnancies, Lorna drowns herself by swimming out into the ocean that encloses the colony; for her, unlike the boy-narrator, there can be no escape, which is also to say that Lorna is a kind of specter in the narrator's imagination, an emblem of his latent fear of being swallowed by the ghetto and by the colony. “According to the newspapers,” Lorna's was “just another week-end tragedy,” the boy-narrator explains; like Laura's pregnancies, Lorna's suicide is pushed aside, as if, in this harsh milieu, there is only time for each individual's attention to his or her own survival (91). The adult-narrator and author introduce a dissonance into Laura's (and Lorna's) story; entitled “The Maternal Instinct,” the story suggests through its ironic accents that her plight has much to do with something other than instinct as well, that is, with imprisonment in one's milieu.

Toni and Mrs. Hereira's story creates a similar dissonance between the boy as “experiencing self” (“knower”) and the adult as “narrating self” (“sayer”), between the evaluations of the narrator and those of the author (“authorial narrator”).2 Toni is a hopeless alcoholic; Mrs. Christiani, alias Mrs. Hereira, is a woman who has temporarily left her husband and middle-class life in a well-to-do Port of Spain suburb. Toni and Mrs. Hereira have a relationship seemingly based on battering and degradation; in drunken fits he batters her, and she accepts it, or accepts it to the point that she continues to live with him. No one on Miguel Street can understand this couple and their living arrangement, which the neighbors interpret according to what their culture has taught them. Hat, for example, expressing the male, streetwise attitude, tells the boy that men need to beat their women occasionally to keep them in line: “Is a good thing for a man to beat his woman every now and then.” But even Hat is surprised by the vigor with which Toni batters Mrs. Hereira: “this man does do it like exercise” (106). Hat's “wit and wisdom” create uneasiness, a dissonance caused by the counterpoint of the adult-narrator's and author's attitude and perspectives.3 Reciting the lines of a calypso, the boy's mother offers another explanation of Mrs. Hereira's submission to Toni's batterings: “Is love, love, love alone / That cause King Edward to leave the throne” (105). But like Laura's “maternal instinct” as an explanation of her repeated pregnancies, “love” as an explanation of Toni's and Mrs. Hereira's relationship explains nothing. Latent in the boy's story of Toni and Mrs. Hereira lies a class-related, milieu-oriented explanation for their violent relationship. As a response to the failure and dehumanization of his lower-class, slum existence, Toni strikes out at Mrs. Christiani, the middle-class woman who can change her identity, so to speak, and return to her secure, suburban world. Unlike her, he cannot escape from the slum and his self-degradation, and therefore he punishes her for this. But such an explanation lies in the text like a dimly perceived puzzle to be pieced together. The boy begins to understand the milieu-related source of violence in male-female relationships in Miguel Street only later, after his best friend, Hat, kills his wife, and after he himself has left the colony and his perspective has changed.

The people of Miguel Street are “romancers,” the adult-narrator says, by which he means that they live a “double life” of actuality and fantasy (72). Through some “eccentricity” or “violation of the usual and the generally accepted,” they seek to draw life “out of its usual rut.”4 Bogart, Popo the carpenter, Man-man the savior,5 Morgan the pyrotechnicist, Titus Hoyt the Latinist, Big Foot the pugilist, Hat as Mr. Cool, Edward the would-be American—each character has an eccentricity that raises him out of the rut of ghetto life and imparts to him a stylized, special identity. Shaped by their culture and by imperial forces such as Anglo-American films and advertising, they live out a fantasy as a way of defending against or escaping from a milieu that does not satisfy their desires for meaningful work and identity. B. Wordsworth, for example, who imagines himself the soul-brother of William, has ambitions of writing the “greatest poem” in the English language—at the breathless rate of one line per month. Does Wordsworth mimic the English poetic tradition, or rather, does he try to appropriate and transform it? Is he shaped by his milieu or is he also its shaper? On Miguel Street, hierarchy can be challenged and life raised out of its rut only momentarily. Wordsworth's life ends in erasure, not immortality, with poem unwritten, his death, the demolition of his house, and the cutting down of the mango, plum, and coconut trees around it. “It was just as though B. Wordsworth had never existed,” the boy observes with sadness (52).6

Even more eccentric than Wordsworth, Morgan has fantastic, impossible ambitions: to make fireworks for the “King of America.” Whether by plan or accident, ironically he burns down his own house—setting off a spectacular fireworks display—and is charged with arson. What finally becomes of Morgan no one really knows, the adult-narrator writes: “They said Morgan went to Venezuela. They said he went mad. They said he became a jockey” (72). Morgan, like Wordsworth, disappears, is erased—as if the “romancers” of Miguel Street are finally no more substantial than the stuff of their fantasies. Edward the “American,” Eddoes the saga-boy, Bhakcu the mechanical genius, Big Foot the pugilist, Man-man the savior: everyone in Miguel Street seems, at least part of the time, to be dressed in masquerade. And the narrator, viewing the world as if from the perspective of a boy, is fascinated by the play and fantasies of its personages. To him, Bogart is like Bogie, Hat is like Rex Harrison, and Popo—the furniture thief who is always making “the thing without a name”—is a kind of magician. But as the boy's perspective shifts to an adult's-exile's, as it does forcefully at the end of the narrative, the personages of Miguel Street lose their fantastic identities. The masks drop. An implied critique of the double reality in which the people of Miguel Street live is thus built into the novel's narrative strategy; it is situated in the narrator's split, boy-adult perspectives and the author's evaluative attitude expressed, for example, in ironic juxtapositions between the fantastic and the mundane, between romance and actuality. The boy-narrator celebrates a people's unique spirit and voices, but he also shows indirectly the futility of their lives. Gaiety and pathos mix together.

Through the events that overwhelm his best friend, Hat, the boy feels the traps of the slum closing around and within him and determines to escape any way he can. Hat seemed to have succeeded in living life in his own way; “I never knew a man who enjoyed life as much as Hat,” the boy says. “He did nothing new or spectacular … but he always enjoyed what he did. And every now and then he managed to give a fantastic twist to some very ordinary thing” (157). Hat seems to have the world by the tail, leisurely dividing his time between reading the newspapers and watching cricket, football, or horse races, taking life in a style much admired by the people of Miguel Street. He succeeds in transforming life into play and eluding the slum's stultification; he seems free, “self-sufficient,” the boy says admiringly (160). But Hat's luck comes to an end. He marries unhappily, lives a brief, unhappy married life, and eventually kills his unhappy wife. In the end he goes to prison, the pattern of his life repeating the pattern of the lives of other inhabitants of Miguel Street who either go to jail or run from the law. Hat's failure confronts the boy with contradictions: everyone in Miguel Street is different and interesting, yet everyone's life there is shaped similarly by stultification and the threat of imprisonment. Miguel Street has play and gaiety, but it also has a basic, ineluctable harshness against which “romancing” is a feeble mask and no lasting protection. Faced with these conflicting aspects of his world, the boy looks at Miguel Street in a new way: “it was three years … in which I had grown up and looked critically at the people around me. I no longer wanted to be like Eddoes. He was so weak and thin, and I hadn't realized he was so small. Titus Hoyt was stupid and boring, and not funny at all” (165). The boy sees the “other side” of Miguel Street, and if he now unfairly diminishes its inhabitants, he does so as a stripping away of his earlier, naive perception of them.

As if by magic, the boy obtains a scholarship to study abroad, and at the end of his collection of portraits of Miguel Street describes himself striding across the runway to the plane that will carry him away to a distant land: “I left them all … not looking back, looking only at my shadow before me, a dancing dwarf on the tarmac” (172).7 He leaves them behind, but he does not walk alone; he is accompanied by his shadow, the past extending into his future. He carries Miguel Street within him in that he has been formed by it and must, through the writing of this story, try to understand his reasons for leaving it. He celebrates it—and exorcises himself of it.

When we read Miguel Street, we need to read its double story. The first portrays an inner-city neighborhood alive with a unique spirit and a folk symphony of voices; there is something in it of the street theatricality of the Trinidad carnival. The second, conversely, portrays a pattern of frustration and imprisonment through cultural and social forces turning lives toward fantasy and away from accomplishment; this second story emphasizes the futility beneath the gaiety, the uneasiness within the humor, the entrapment at the end of the imagined escape. The first story shows the author's affection for the personages and voices of his childhood in Port of Spain, while the second manifests an exile's fears and his need to justify leaving the West Indian colony.


  1. V. S. Naipaul, Miguel Street (New York: Penguin, 1971), p. 72. All further quotations are taken from this edition, which henceforth will be abbreviated as MS in parenthetical citations.

  2. For a discussion of these concepts, see F. K. Stanzel, A Theory of Narrative, trans. Charlotte Goedsche, preface Paul Hernadi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 112-14, 146-47. Stanzel also makes a distinction between “teller-characters” (e.g., the adult of Miguel Street as narrating self) and “reflector characters” (e.g., the boy of Miguel Street as experiencing self): “A teller-character always functions as a ‘transmitter,’ that is, he narrates as if he were transmitting a piece of news or a message to a ‘receiver,’ the reader. Communication proceeds differently with a reflector-character. Since he does not narrate, he cannot function as a transmitter in the above sense. In this case the mediacy of presentation is characteristically obscured by the reader's illusion that he is witnessing the action directly—he feels he is perceiving it through the eyes and mind of the reflector-character. These differences between the two processes of communication have consequences for the interpretation of a narrative text, in that the narrative assumes varying degrees of credibility or validity depending on whether it is conveyed by a teller-character or by a reflector-character.”

  3. The casual acceptance of violence, particularly violence against women, children, and the powerless, is a disturbing aspect of the ghetto and what Naipaul calls the “picaroon” world of the colony; directly and indirectly, both he and his father (in The Adventures of Gurudeva) critique this acceptance of violence as part of husband-wife and parent-child relationships. In the latter Seepersad Naipaul describes the brutal beating of Ratni by her husband Gurudeva: “And he pounced on her … and bundled her out into the yard. Artfully he entwined her long hair around his fists and dragged her in a circle over the rough ground as though she were a sack of potatoes. And when she neither wailed nor wept, he disengaged his hands from her hair and cuffed her and kicked her frantically” (31). For his part, V. S. Naipaul writes that nowhere are children beaten as harshly as they are in the West Indies. See The Middle Passage: Impression of Five Societies—British, French and Dutch—in the West Indies and South America (London: Andre Deutsch, 1962; New York: Vintage Books, 1981), pp. 183, 190. Henceforth abbreviated as MP in parenthetical citations.

  4. Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics,ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 126.

  5. Of the sources of the characters and stories of Miguel Street, Landeg White notes: “It is significant that much of the material is based on anecdotes which are still widely current in Trinidad. See V. S. Naipaul, A Critical Introduction (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1975), p. 50.

  6. See V. S. Naipaul, “The Mourners,” A Flag on the Island (London: Andre Deutsch, 1967), pp. 55-62.

  7. In 1949 Naipaul won a government scholarship to study in England; in 1950, at the age of eighteen, he left Trinidad. For a lively account of the scholarship process in Trinidad, see C. L. R. James, Beyond a Boundary (London, 1963; New York: Pantheon Books, 1983).

Fawzia Mustafa (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2640

SOURCE: “Abroad,” in V. S. Naipaul, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 88–120.

[In the following excerpt, Mustafa analyzes Naipaul's mingling of short fiction and nonfiction in In a Free State and concludes that with the work Naipaul reaches “an existentialist disassociation from the testimony he writes.”]


This volume appears to be another innovation in Naipaul's corpus of works, not only because it simultaneously incorporates fiction and non-fiction, but also because the title novella is his first work of fiction with an African setting. The chronological contingency of the publications of The Loss of El Dorado and In a Free State also crudely suggests that there is a linkage between Naipaul's inability, or choice not, to write the history of Trinidad as other than a European one, and his African story's concentration on the besieged and outgoing European expatriate protagonists in a newly independent African nation. Furthermore, it would appear to be a logical progression for Naipaul to now explore the continent of Africa, for it represents the last major world player in colonialism's history, the topic that by this stage in his career seems to overwhelm the local and situated investigations that his personal history had hitherto supplied him. Not surprisingly, therefore, Naipaul's first foray beyond the boundaries of the places that constitute his personal history also carry an historical rather than personal connection since the continent qualifies as a vital referent in the history of the Caribbean.

In a Free State presents itself as a confident but elusive series of narratives that demonstrate the lambent spread of their collective global span. The “Prologue” and “Epilogue” are the non-fictional bookends, and each is set within a “safe” corner of the continent, Egypt. The first story, “One Out of Many,” traces the migration of an Indian foreign-service official's servant, Santosh, from Bombay to Washington D.C., and the second, “Tell Me Who to Kill,” is an internal monologue of an immigrant from the Caribbean who becomes insane in his quest to protect his brother's passage to and settlement in Britain. Taken together with some of the short stories of A Flag on the Island, they begin to form their own independent corpus of “immigrant” stories which, more than twenty years later, in The Enigma of Arrival (1987), Naipaul claims to have missed as a proper subject for his attention (The Enigma of Arrival, p. 141). At the time of its publication, however, In a Free State's geographical sweep signaled more a sense of the author's expanded purview than a thematic consolidation of post-Second World War migratory patterns from the Third World to the First.

The most frequently discussed aspect of the book is its treatment of the themes of “freedom” and “alienation” which Naipaul treats with a many-layered irony.1 On a simple level, the stories all allow Naipaul to expose the absence of freedom by demystifying the myths surrounding misperceptions that one must be elsewhere to be “free.” By establishing situations which involve what used to be called “culture-clashes,” Naipaul is able to pinpoint the moments of transference that occur from one form of entrapment to another when his characters make their choices. To compound his new thesis about postcolonial upheaval and rootlessness, Naipaul also charts the role that deracination plays in making the fate of each of the social actors or characters appear so irrevocable: Santosh, Dayo's brother, Bobby, Linda, the Tramp, even the narrator of the “Prologue” and “Epilogue” are each circumscribed by their own choices or actions. Their subsequent despair only surfaces when a self-knowledge reveals itself after they find themselves still entrapped, or entrapped again. This layering of despair and entrapment has been read as an example of a postcolonial generation's existentialist crisis and indeed it is; but while Naipaul is careful to show that part of its origin is the result of misplaced and sometimes misled desire, his acuity in explaining the metropolitan-centered development of colonial identity-formations still cannot wrest itself from an historical determinism.

In the first story, “One Out of Many,” Santosh's first-person account, for example, opens with a statement cast in the future perfect tense, and then immediately undermines its potential mythic proportions: “I am now an American citizen and live in Washington, capital of the world. Many people, both here and in India, will feel that I have done well. But” (In a Free State, p. 21). His subsequent reconstruction of his passage from the streets of Bombay to his employer's closet, and finally to his marriage to an African-American cleaning woman and his life as a cook typically insists upon a class equivalence for the immigrant experience. Santosh's recollections necessarily follow a course of self-awareness as Naipaul allows him a progressive series of recognitions, first of the conditions of his existence, and then of himself. When, in the middle of the story, Santosh tries to make sense of the cleaning woman's interest in him, he peers into a mirror and, “Slowly I made a discovery. My face was handsome. I had never thought of myself in this way. I had thought of myself as unnoticeable, with features that served as identification alone” (In a Free State, p. 35). This delayed “mirror phase” that Santosh suddenly has to negotiate at first appears ironic, cutting as it does into the narcissistic moment that supposedly heralds an individualism necessary for “westernization.” From the point of view of the narrator's self-consciousness, however, this graduation from subservience to “freedom” is less a Naipaulian moment of “self-knowledge” than an attempt to chart the blindness that Naipaul feels characterizes a subcontinental state of mind.2

Similarly, in “Tell Me Who to Kill,” the narrator's dementia is designed to illustrate the pathological side of the migratory process, one where a sense of self is lost rather than gained. We soon learn that the narrator is a madman, and that he is Dayo's brother, all direct references to himself being repressed into a third-person address. The actual events that punctuate the protagonist's life are hazy indicators of the obsessive paternalistic concern with his brother's life that develops into the insanity we watch unfold. We learn that the narrator's feelings of having been betrayed, and his subsequent need to find something or somebody to kill, stem from his brother's successful assimilation which has necessitated the narrator's massive disjunction from a sense of his responsibility. By supplying Dayo with a sense of continuity, he has lost his own. The story's dark irony is that Dayo's tale corresponds to the norm of the theme of migration, and that the narrator's casualty is the sacrifice migration often entails. Both “One Out of Many” and “Tell Me Who to Kill” explore loss and alienation as the impoverished consequence of having subscribed incorrectly, or carelessly, to an ultimately skewed sense of historical opportunity.

“In a Free State” is a more concentrated study of yet another related postcolonial migratory trajectory. Rather than centralized protagonists representing alternative options in a world no longer bound by a tightly controlling metropole, Bobby, the mildly idealistic British expatriate expert, and Linda, a disaffected British expatriate wife, represent instead the attitudinal chaos unleashed within the colonialist mentality as it tries to deal with the first stages of decolonization. The other, differently ominous, player in the story is the newly emerging African nation which Naipaul casts in a menacing and heavily symbolic landscape. Finally, in one of his first and most studied explorations of homosexuality as the sexual trope most suited to exemplify a “liberal” colonial paternalism, Naipaul is able to block the action of Bobby's frustrated sexual pursuits of African men as a corollary of the earnest but equally ill-targeted professions of intimacy of a “common wealth.”

By choosing to explore an expatriate mentality, Naipaul focuses on a source material most available to a literary endeavor which has schooled itself in the already articulated utterances of developing colonialist perceptions. From the observations of a Froude to the more studied examinations of a Kipling or a Conrad, the habits of an imperial gaze are filtered through the narrower visors of a post-settler perspective that still carries the traces of paranoia about Africa's “evolution.” The closed and clichéd conversation between Bobby and Linda as they drive from the capital to their compound in the Southern Collectorate, and which makes up the bulk of the novella, is Naipaul's first sustained protracted fictional dialogue, the course of which allows his characters to voice almost every received assumption ever developed within the lexicon of British colonial Africa. The anchor that the idea of South Africa provides Linda, for example, is an acutely replicated moment of an internal colonial register which, in the African context, has always allowed the oddest apologia to white settlers looking for a legislated haven and escape. Naipaul fully compromises Bobby's more idealistic and apparently humanistic stand by casting him as a homosexual first and an administrator second, and then by rewarding his individual commitment with the arbitrary and ineluctable violence of a military checkpoint, where soldiers brutally beat him for no apparent reason.

Despite the novella's emphasis upon Bobby and Linda, the story's sharpest impact remains the menace written into the “tribal” politics being played out within the newly independent African state. Never named, the country is obviously a composite of Uganda and Kenya, which is to become, with Rwanda, Burundi, and Zaire, the even more seamless starting point and setting of Naipaul's more sophisticated “African” work, A Bend in the River (1979). But where Naipaul creates distinct nations through which his protagonist travels in A Bend in the River, his unnamed nation in “In a Free State,” is deliberately charted as an amorphous political space. Naipaul's attempt is to create a political atmosphere charged with all the turmoil and volatility associated with the transfer of power at the advent of decolonization. In doing so, however, he condenses the events of several different histories with the result that his new African nation is unnecessarily overdetermined. For example, even though “In a Free State” was written after the overthrow of the Kabaka, and then Milton Obote in Uganda, but before Idi Amin's massive expulsion of Asians in 1972, Naipaul also grafts the ripe memories of Kenya's history of its Land and Freedom Army's campaigns, the so-called Mau Mau emergency of the 1950s, as well as the 1964 revolution in Zanzibar, and the first stages of “Africanization” in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania in the late 1960s. While this tactic may draw upon a rich harvest of post-independence conflicts, its conflation within a single nation is a dubious basis for Naipaul's thesis about Africa's and Africans' preparedness for “independence.” The exercise of state power, therefore, is presented as raw and arbitrary, even while aided by American and British strategic interests. Thus, Bobby and Linda's drive through the Great Rift Valley, periodically dotted with blackface advertisements, runs parallel with the president's helicopter searching for the hiding king; their stops, at checkpoints and for refreshments at formerly white-only safari lodges and an isolated home of an Asian family, are episodes that conspire to present a picture of a fragmented and torn social order. The tenor of impending apocalypse, which will be more fully realized in A Bend in the River, is finally articulated when Bobby is brutally beaten at the last checkpoint. Nowhere does the story suggest a deeper awareness of the political complexities and economic handicaps created by Africa's colonization. Instead, the portraits of Africans, filtered through the blinkered and distorting colonialist gazes of the non-African characters, are like Natural History Museum displays of evolving “Man.”3

The “Epilogue” and “Prologue” of the volume constitute the documentary brackets that allow Naipaul to present his stories' fictional rendering of postcolonial “chaos” within the frame of his travelogue persona. The narrator's self-appointed status as strict observer rather than participant of events during his sea approach to the continent foreshadows the study of aggression that is undertaken in varying degrees within each of the volume's stories. In the “Prologue,” one of the passengers on board, the Tramp, is ridiculed cruelly by the others, a circumstance the narrator watches, but does not attempt to interfere with. The Tramp eventually retaliates so that the episode narrated manages to reconcile itself without the narrator, as fellow passenger, having to step in. By the time of the “Epilogue,” however, when witness to a more diffuse but no less virulent scene of naked attitudinal posturing of tourists in Egypt, where they bait local lads by throwing food at them, the narrator's intervention as he tries to stop the hotel staff from whipping the boys is a sudden and dramatic gesture:

I felt exposed, futile, and wanted only to be back at my table. When I got back I took up my sandwich. It had happened quickly; there had been no disturbance. The Germans stared at me. But I was indifferent to them now as I was indifferent to the Italian in the cerise jersey … he was ostentatiously shaking out lunch boxes and sandwich wrappers onto the sand.

The children remained where they were. The man from whom I had taken the whip came to give me coffee and to plead again in Arabic and English. The coffee was free; it was his gift to me. But even while he was talking the children had begun to come closer. Soon they would be back, raking the sand for what they had seen the Italian throw out. (In a Free State, p. 244)

The almost immediate erasure of the narrator's intervention becomes a parable of despair and can be read, coming as it does at the end of the volume, as the event that solidifies Naipaul's pact of an existentialist disassociation from the testimony he writes. This disassociation remains a feature of all his subsequent narratives, be they fiction or non-fiction, despite the recent tempering of his singular gaze upon a now older postcolonial world.

The ideological basis for this disassociation, a modulation of his agenda of writing as separation, seems to be the belief that in order to chronicle events that in their sum accumulate into historical movements, the story-teller cannot participate or intervene for to do so is to lose the ignorance of a “stranger's eye.” Only with it, Naipaul suggests as part of his conclusion, can the writer approach “the only pure time, at the beginning, when the ancient artist, knowing no other land, had learned to look at his own and had seen it as complete … Perhaps that vision of the land, in which the Nile was only water, a blue-green chevron, had always been a fabrication, a cause for yearning, something for the tomb” (In a Free State, p. 246). Thus the volume ends with a horrified contemplation of what the narrator feels the fabrication of postcolonial history entails, and further suggests that any attempt to represent this process can only take place after a massive repression of context, that which allowed the “ancient artist” to observe his world and to see it as “complete.”


  1. See Angus Calder, “Darkest Naipaulia,” New Statesman 82 (October 8, 1971): 482-83; and Francis Wyndham, “V. S. Naipaul,” The Listener 86 (October 7, 1971): 461-62, for early reviews. Also see Nan Doerksen, “‘In a Free State’ and ‘Nausea,’” World Literature Written in English 20 (Spring 1981): 105-13, and Andrew Gurr, “The Freedom of Exile in Naipaul and Doris Lessing,” Ariel 13 (October 1982): 7-18.

  2. It is also worth noting that Santosh's “self-awareness” arises out of his acknowledgment of an Indian form of racial discrimination where to be “black,” a hubshi, is tantamount to being subhuman. The grafting that Naipaul practices between different kinds of racism and prejudicial attitudes obscures rather than reveals their disparate origins.

  3. For a chilling exercise in exploring the relationship between the views about Africans projected through the narrative voice, the principal characters, and those of Naipaul in the era of “In a Free State,” Paul Theroux's tribute to Naipaul, “V.S. Naipaul,” Modern Fiction Studies, 30 (Autumn 1984): 445-55 should be consulted.

Further Reading

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Jarvis, Kelvin. V. S. Naipaul: A Selective Bibliography with Annotations, 1957-1987. Metuchen, New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1989, 205 p.

Comprehensive listing of articles and books written about Naipaul.


Belcher, William F. “Jonathan Swift on Miguel Street.” World Literature Written in English 24, No. 2 (Autumn 1984): 347-49.

Explores how Naipaul borrows the satirical style of Jonathan Swift to condemn colonialism in the short stories which make up Miguel Street.

Boxill, Anthony. “V. S. Naipaul's Starting Point.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 10, No. 1 (August 1975): 1-9.

Uncovers seven short stories by Naipaul's father and remarks on the similarities in language and themes of entrapment used by father and son.

———. “The Little Bastard Worlds of V. S. Naipaul's The Mimic Men and a ‘Flag on the Island.’” The International Fiction Review 3, No. 1 (January 1976): 12-19.

Discusses the similarities in “A Flag on the Island” and the novel The Mimic Men, and argues that Naipaul has come to an awareness that the ravages of colonialism can be overcome by use of the imagination.

Cheuse, Alan. “This Was the Famous View.” The Nation 214, No. 3 (January 17, 1972): 87-8.

Analyzes the themes of “physical and psychic disinheritance” in “In a Free State.”

Garebian, Keith. “V. S. Naipaul's Negative Sense of Place.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 10, No. 1 (August 1975): 23-35.

Connects Naipaul's early works with the leitmotif of the middle passage, which Naipaul repeatedly uses to express the uprootedness and empty lives of East Indians living in alien cultures.

Lebdai, Benaouda. “The Short Story Teller V. S. Naipaul, the Character Bobby and the State of Africa in ‘In a Free State.’” Journal of the Short Story in English 26 (Spring 1996): 105-17.

Compares Naipaul's In a Free State to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, arguing that each novella tries to comprehend the effects of colonialism in Africa.

Louvel, Liliane. “‘The Night Watchman's Occurrence Book’: V. S. Naipaul or the Narrator ‘in Spite’ of Himself.” Journal of the Short Story in English 26, (Spring 1996): 118-35.

Analyzes “The Night Watchman's Occurrence Book,” maintaining that Naipaul's story strives to reduce the world to words.

Price, R. G. G. “New Novels.” Punch 253, No. 6629 (September 27, 1967): 484.

Calls A Flag on the Island “a collection of lightweight but extremely enjoyable short stories.”

Sandall, Roger. “Two Naipauls: Father and Son.” Quadrant 31, No. 6 (June 1987): 62-5.

Compares Miguel Street and Finding the Centre: Two Narratives, examining Naipaul's need to leave father and country and the theme of the brutality behind colonialism.

Updike, John. “Un Pé Pourrie.” The New Yorker 55, No. 14 (May 21, 1979): 141-44.

Explores common themes of how colonialism has led to terror and despotism in Africa in Naipaul's A Bend in the River and the short stories in In a Free State.

Additional coverage of Naipaul's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1960 to Present; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 1-4R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 1, 33, 51; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 4, 7, 9, 13, 18, 37, 105; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 125, 204, 206; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, Vol. 85; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-Studied Authors, Novelists; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2.

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