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.
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.
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.