V. S. Naipaul 1932–
Trinidadian-born English novelist, short story writer, essayist, journalist, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents criticism of Naipaul's work through 1995. For further information on his life and career, see CLC, Volumes 4, 7, 9, 13, 18, and 37.
Often referred to as "the world's writer," Naipaul is both one of the most highly regarded and one of the most controversial of contemporary writers. His ironic accounts of colonial and postcolonial Third World societies have drawn acclaim from North America and Europe, but they generally have not met with the same favor in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean for their negative portrayal of the peoples of those regions. Much of Naipaul's work deals with individuals who feel estranged from the societies they are supposedly a part of and who are desperately seeking a way "to belong."
Naipaul was born in Trinidad in 1932 to Seepersad and Dropatie Capildeo Naipaul, the descendants of Hindu immigrants from northern India. After attending Queens Royal College, Trinidad's leading secondary school, he was awarded a government scholarship to study abroad, which led him to University College, Oxford, in 1950. After leaving Oxford in 1954, Naipaul worked briefly in the cataloguing department of the National Portrait Gallery in London before taking a position with the British Broadcasting Corporation, writing and editing for the program Caribbean Voices. It was during this period that he began to write stories for what was eventually to become Miguel Street (1959). By 1961, Naipaul's reputation in Britain was already considerable; he was the author of three successful books, two of which had won prizes (the 1958 John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize for The Mystic Masseur  and the 1961 Somerset Maugham Award for Miguel Street). Naipaul spent much of the 1960's traveling abroad, visiting India, a number of African nations, and his native Trinidad. These travels provided Naipaul with a wealth of material and served as the motivation for works such as The Middle Passage (1962) and An Area of Darkness (1964). By 1971, Naipaul had won all of Britain's leading literary awards, including the 1971 Booker Prize for In a Free State (1971). During the 1970s, Naipaul continued to travel for his literary inspiration. His book of essays, The Return of Eva Perón; with The Killings in Trinidad (1980), is drawn from his visits to Trinidad, Zaire, and Argentina and focuses on the dangers of charismatic political leadership. Among the Believers (1981) is based on Naipaul's journeys in the Middle and Far East, in which he recounts his personal attempt to explain the "Islamic revival." Most of Naipaul's work during the late 1980s and 1990s has consisted of similar material garnered from his travels; A Turn in the South (1989) describes his travels in "the old slave states of the American southeast," and India (1991) explores the character of the people of India. Naipaul's most recent work, A Way in the World (1994), is a collection of partly autobiographical, partly fictional character sketches that are linked in some way to the Caribbean region. Naipaul and his wife, Patricia Hale, live in London, England.
Critics generally agree that Naipaul's finest work is A House for Mr. Biswas (1961). Set in Trinidad, the novel is both a minutely circumstantial account of an individual's life and an allegory of the East Indian's situation in Trinidad, or of the colonial predicament more generally. Mr. Biswas, the main character, is Naipaul's Third World "Everyman," in search of his role in the world—more specifically, a home he can call his own. This sense of "rootlessness" is a recurrent theme in Naipaul's work and stems from his unique background: he was born in Trinidad to the descendants of Hindu immigrants from northern India and educated at England's Oxford University. Another convention of Naipaul's work, one for which he has drawn the ire of many Third World nations, including his native Trinidad, is his depiction of the peoples of these nations as culturally inferior. In The Middle Passage, for instance, Naipaul refers to the people of Port of Spain, Trinidad's capital, as "monkeys pleading for evolution, each claiming to be better than the other, Indians and Negroes appeal to the unacknowledged white audience to see how much they despise each other."
Naipaul is widely considered one of the world's finest authors. His prose exhibits narrative skill and command of language, especially dialect. Many critics consider his early fiction (The Mystic Masseur, Miguel Street, A House for Mr. Biswas) superior to his later work, but it is generally agreed upon that the social awareness displayed early in his career has become more prominent in his more recent books. His negative appraisal of life in the Third World has met with a great deal of controversy, especially in novels such as In a Free State, Guerrillas (1975), and A Bend in the River (1979). Each of these works contain elements of sexual and political violence within an atmosphere of impending chaos, prompting reviewers to conclude that Naipaul finds Third World societies essentially hopeless. Among the Believers intensified the controversy surrounding Naipaul's work; his scathing portrait of civil and social disorder attributed to Islamic fanaticism in Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia prompted some critics to accuse Naipaul of merely confirming preconceived notions about his subject rather than attempting a deeper analysis of Islam. Naipaul's work continues to draw mixed reviews, due mainly to his subjective approach rather than his prose.