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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.
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The Suffrage of Elvira (novel) 1958
The Mystic Masseur (novel) 1959
Miguel Street (novel) 1959
A House for Mr. Biswas (novel) 1961
The Middle Passage: Impressions of Five Societies—British, French and Dutch—in the West Indies and South America (nonfiction) 1962
An Area of Darkness (nonfiction) 1964
In a Free State (novel) 1971
Guerillas (novel) 1975
A Bend in the River (novel) 1979
The Return of Eva Perón; with The Killings in Trinidad (essays) 1980
Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (nonfiction) 1981
Finding the Centre (nonfiction) 1984
The Enigma of Arrival (novel) 1987
A Turn in the South (nonfiction) 1989
India: A Million Mutinies (nonfiction) 1990
A Way in the World (novel) 1994
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SOURCE: "The Anglo-Indian Theme," in Commentary, Vol. 39, No. 6, June, 1965, pp. 94-7.
[In the following review, Mander praises Naipaul's descriptive powers, but notes that An Area of Darkness is similar to other novels that explore British influence in colonial India.]
From their duration, their intimacy, and intensity, an outsider might take Anglo-Indian relations to be one of the richest and most fascinating of historical themes. The British, after all, ruled India for some two centuries—sending out, not the riffraff of their cities, but many of their finest minds and wisest spirits. And India was not always unresponsive. The great Bengali reformers of the 19th century were equally determined to revive India's traditions and to bring India the best in modern European thinking—which tended to mean Bentham and the two Mills (the elder Mill, of course, was one of the greatest of all British servants of India). Yet, by the end of the century, the mood had gone sour. It was in Bengal that the first anti-British terrorist campaign was to break out. In Kipling's Kim there is an affection and respect for India and the ways of its natives—though not for the new, Western-educated "native"—that reflected the experience of many a British District Collector in the 1880's. How much of this was left by the 1920's may be judged from E.M. Forster's A Passage to India—an accurate book in this (though not in every) respect. Again, the powerful impress of British institutions on contemporary India can mislead, as the Englishness of a Nehru misled. Nehru's successor—and his possible successors—are distinctly less English, less Western, distinctly more traditional, more Hindu. The course of Anglo-Indian relations has its bursts of grandeur; but on the whole it is a wretched story. It never was a marriage of true minds; to many it seems in retrospect more like a squalid mésalliance.
That this is a sad, indeed a tragic, outcome for both Britain and India hardly needs to be stressed. And there are wider implications. After all, if India and Britain, with their long historical intimacy, understood one another so little, what of those other, briefer colonial relationships between the West and the Third World? Was each bedeviled by the same mutual misunderstanding? Will the outcome, mutual resentment and repudiation, prove to be the same? Perhaps it is still too early to say. It is perfectly arguable that each colonial relationship should be considered for itself. What Oscar Mannoni, in his Prospero and Caliban, says of French-Malagassy relations may, or may not, be true of French-Guinean relations, or of relations between Australians and aborigines, Dutchmen and Indonesians. India, in other words, may be a special case: the tragedy of the Anglo-Indian encounter may prove nothing. My own inclinations are toward the position taken up by Mannoni: that there are useful generalizations to be made about the colonial relationship. Prospero and Caliban can never be made equal partners by political decree—if only because, in Mannoni's psychological terms, Prospero has willed Caliban into being, and Caliban Prospero. What, even now, can be said with some assurance is that the act of independence does not put an end to the unequal relationship. Even the comparatively innocent American has to live with the psychological burden of colonialism bequeathed to him by his white brother-nations. Even for him, therefore, the question of whether or not India is a special case assumes some importance.
Yet this potentially rich and fascinating field has been surprisingly little explored. In Britain, the generation under forty knows almost nothing of India, and cares less. For those over forty who once lived and labored in India, the Raj is a fading dream: there are still strong sentimental ties, especially among military men, but they will hardly survive their generation. In India itself, Britain might appear to loom large: the image of the Raj is still powerful, perhaps more powerful in the glow of retrospective emulation than in the days of its actual glory. But the Britain the new Hindu Raj emulates is not the Britain of Harold Wilson, Kingsley Amis, and the Beatles. The living link has snapped. The Britain that is admired is an abstraction—a textbook model of jurisprudential wisdom, welfare-state economics, and parliamentary etiquette. Thus the Anglophilia of educated Indians is both embarrassingly flattering, and finally shallow—because it refers to an England that does not, and indeed never did, exist. A charming Indian lady once assured me over the lunch-table, after her guest had told a particularly scarifying tale of corruption in high places, "You will find this hard to understand, I believe, we know that such things cannot happen in your country." I did not like to disillusion her (this was about the time of the Profumo scandals). But in any case it would have done no good. What Indian editorials picked out was the fact that Mr. Profumo had actually got up in Parliament and confessed. How many Indian ministers, it was slyly suggested, would have been prepared to do a thing like that! And how much more, it was insinuated, would some of our ministers have to confess! How could one protest? Should one have insisted that these doings shed a rather murky light on the England of 1963? That would have been resented, and almost certainly not believed. These educated Indians were confident that they knew what the real England was: for them, whatever might happen, the real England would keep breaking through.
Since Independence there have been, I think, only three books which have done justice to the Anglo-Indian theme. The first, in point of time, was Nirad C. Chaudhuri's great Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, perhaps the best book in the English language ever written by an Indian. The second was The Men Who Ruled India, by Philip "Woodruff," an eloquent, erudite, romantic monument to the British administrators of imperial India—perhaps the most convincing apologia for imperialism (though its author, Philip Mason, is no "imperialist" in the contemporary, pejorative sense) that has ever been composed. V. S. Naipaul's new book, An Area of Darkness, deserves to take its place as the third in this pantheon. It differs from its predecessors, each written shortly after Independence, in that it records a contemporary India, the India of Nehru's last years, of the Sino-Indian border dispute. But it differs also in the quality of the author's involvement. Both Mr. Chaudhuri and Mr. Mason were children of the British Raj—indeed their books may prove, with Kipling's and Forster's, its most enduring monuments. Mr. Naipaul, too, is a child of British imperialism, but in rather more indirect fashion. He is the grandson of a Brahmin from the Benares region who went to Trinidad in the 19th century as an indentured laborer. But his education is British and he confesses that he lacks sympathy with much that is deeply Indian—he has no religious sense, no liking for metaphysics. Nevertheless, admirers of his earlier books must have hoped that he would one day write about India. They have been richly rewarded.
The strengths of Mr. Naipaul's book lie, then, where one would expect them to lie—in his novelist's ear for talk, in his shrewd, observant eye for detail. The descriptions of that lakeside hotel in Kashmir where he stayed, of that first agonized encounter with the sights and smells of the Orient in Bombay and Alexandria, are done with a sureness that is equal to anything in his fiction. But it is above all Mr. Naipaul's account of his return to the ancestral village ("the Village of the Dubes") that seems certain of a high place in any anthology of English writing about India. Until the very end of his journey, the author seems to cling to the illusion that somewhere, somehow, he will discover what it is that connects him, through his Brahmin forebears, with this sprawling, defecating, inchoate India of today. Arrived in the village, he finds the shrines erected by his grandfather, with money sent from Trinidad, still standing. But the village and its Brahmin community are not quite as he and his Trinidad family had been brought up to believe. A traditional welcome is laid on: but it is soon apparent that this prodigal's return is seen as a financial opportunity not to be missed. It is the final humiliation. The shameless beggary of India—as it must appear to a Westerner—could not be more cruelly brought home. Mr. Naipaul, who is nothing if not candid, admits that he panicked: from that moment he wanted only to get out of India as fast as he could.
In the best of his descriptive episodes Mr. Naipaul—and there is no higher praise—is not far inferior to Kipling. But the book has the defects of its virtues; it is interested largely in the immediacy, the accidents of life. Now that, in an Indian context, is very strange. For the Hindu sets little store by appearances—the world of maya. To the Hindu, essence is all. That is why most reportage, most descriptive writing in modern India, is so bad. In other words, the average Indian writer is weak precisely where Mr. Naipaul is strong. (Whether he is always strong where Mr. Naipaul is comparatively weak—in historical speculation, in philosophical contemplation—I would not care to say: though these gifts are certainly generously developed in Mr. Chaudhuri's books.) But it does seem that Mr. Naipaul is deaf to a good deal in the complex music of India—think, for instance, of the breathtaking aesthetic appeal of Satyajit Ray's films—because his own gifts lie in quite another direction. For all his Brahmin ancestry, Mr. Naipaul is very English in his sensibility (he is primarily a comic writer). In one sense, then, his book is intensely personal. It is the record of an attempt to clear that "area of darkness" which India, since childhood, had represented in the author's mind. The attempt succeeded, disastrously well: the darkness of ignorance yielded to the more painful darkness of knowledge. In that sense, Mr. Naipaul's journey was justified: he will hardly need to go back. But there is more to it than that. It is not chance that Mr. Naipaul's personal Odyssey conforms to the pattern of so many other attempted explorations, so many other passages to India, both in its high expectations, and in its final humiliation and rejection. Indeed, it appears to echo the tragedy of the British Raj itself. Mr. Naipaul's book is the latest, but not the last, nail in the coffin of that brave, but ill-favored endeavor.
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SOURCE: "The Novelist V. S. Naipaul Talks about His Work to Ronald Bryden," in The Listener, Vol. 89, March 22, 1973, pp. 367-70.
[In the following interview, Naipaul discusses various aspects of his work, including the development of his book, The Loss of El Dorado.]
I wrote in one of my early articles that London was for me a good place to work in. I suppose one was always aware of other minds. London was a place where one encountered a generous reaction—from publishers, critics, newspapers—and so one had constant stimulus, minds brushing against minds. But fairly early on I felt that I had to get out and look at the world, otherwise I was just going to shrivel up as a writer and have nothing more to say. One of the difficulties about coming from a background like my own, a fairly simple, barbarous and limited background, was that I found that I couldn't do the kind of novel which I'd set out to do. I wanted to be a writer because I had read a certain kind of writer. I assumed that I, too, had the kind of society that those writers had. You know, Balzac paints a picture of an entire society, Maupassaint a picture of a great peasant society, and of Paris as well. I quickly found that I didn't have that kind of society. This was one of my first halts. It occurred quite early on, the decision to look much more closely at the narrow world I had, to see what I could do with it and to abandon all previous patterns.
But one of the things that you seem to have decided, looking at the society of Trinidad, of the West Indies and of many of the other places that you have visited and described in The Overcrowded Barracoon, is that a society has got to have sufficient coherence and authenticity of its own. It doesn't derive from elsewhere. It has to be sufficiently settled and traditional to provide the people in it with some sense of purpose and value, it has to be a culture in order to produce a culture. But there you are, producing, as your publishers have said, a kind of autobiography—because a writer's autobiography is all he has written—with no settled place. You seem to be saying one can't write without roots, and yet you've uprooted yourself to find somewhere to write and you've chosen the whole world.
I don't know whether I've got the figures absolutely right, but they say that in a place like Mauritius, there are, shall we say, eighty types of job, and in a place like England or France you have perhaps about ten thousand kinds of job. I feel that the simple society cannot lend itself to extended imaginative treatment. The possibility of adventure is always limited, and this brings about a kind of limitation as well in one's imaginative handling of the material. Again and again, as a writer trying to devise a story which is a symbol for what one feels, one has to decide what to do with the main character. What kind of job will you give him? How will he go through this particular passage of time? What will he do? How will he occupy himself? And again and again, with simple societies, you're landed with the same thing. A man becomes a teacher or a professional man, or he becomes a lorry-driver. I had to face the barrenness of this, I also had to face—and this is why my career, which appears from the outside to have a kind of inevitability about it, has really been full of stops and starts—I had to face the fact that I was heir to a type of education which came from a much more developed world, that I was practising my career as a writer in a city like London, and I had to do something to reconcile these two worlds. I couldn't pretend the one world excluded the other. All my work is really one. I'm really writing one big book. I came to the conclusion that, considering the nature of the society I come from, considering the world I have stepped into and the world which I have to look at, I could not be a professional novelist in the old sense. I realised then that my response to the world could be expressed equally imaginatively in nonfiction, in journalism: and I take my journalism extremely seriously because I think it's a very fair response to my world. It's very personal and very particular. It's something that can't be converted into fiction. It is almost too private. I went to India for a year in 1962 just to have a look, and I was so full of this thing of being the novelist, the man who invented, the man who converted experience into something else, that when I came back from India I tried to convert my experience into a novel and actually spent about six or seven weeks pretending to write a novel. It failed because the experience was far too particular. Someone like myself, coming from Trinidad, living in England, being a writer, then going to India to have a look—that was too particular an experience, and the correct form for that was non-fiction.
Yes, I can see that your journalism has become more and more important to you, and it does all interlock with the novels. The curious thing to me is that although you've written one novel about England and English characters, Mr Stone and the Knights Companion, there's very little English journalism. Do you find England not a culture that you are a journalist in?
I've been living in England, but really I think it's truer to say that I've been attached to London, these few square miles which make an international city, a great metropolis. As soon as I move out of that little enchanted area, I'm in a foreign country in which I'm not terribly interested.
Is it that London is a synthetic society almost as much as any other now?
I suppose it draws people together from many parts of the world and many parts of the country, for all kinds of reasons: in a way, it's artificial, and one isn't violating anybody's society by being in London, whereas to try to impose myself on a smaller society—in the provinces, say—would be really quite ridiculous. I couldn't even do it in an Indian village or town.
I was astonished, reading The Overcrowded Barracoon, at the extent to which the whole world seemed to fit this analysis. The whole world is in a state of flux. Your characters are 'in a free state'; the old novel, the novel about the chambered organic society, just isn't possible any more. Your one great book is turning into the novel of the new synthetic world.
I don't think it is possible any longer for people to write those novels where you could say, 'They lived happily ever afterwards,' because we no longer have this assurance of the world going on. Societies everywhere have been fractured by all kinds of change: technological, social, political. We can no longer regard the action of a novel as covering a little crisis, a little curve on the graph which will then revert to the nice, flat, straight, ordered life: and I think this is one reason why, as you say, the traditional novel is just no longer possible. It is also one reason why people find it very hard nowadays to read fiction, and why people go back to what they call the old masters. I think there's an element of nostalgia in reading Hardy, and even in reading Dickens or George Eliot. There is narrative there, the slow development of character, and people are longing for this vanished, ordered world. Today, every man's experience of dislocation is so private that unless a writer absolutely matches that particular man's experience the writer seems very private and obscure. So I think the art of fiction is becoming a curious, shattered thing. It's one reason why there are so few young writers about. The complaint of publishers and literary agents is that the talent that should be going into the writing of fiction is going elsewhere. People say it's television that's taken it away. I think it may be that the whole world now requires another kind of imaginative interpretation.
When you think of it, there can't have been a generation of European writers that wasn't interrupted by war.
The war's always been such a blessing to older writers in this country: six years of rest in which they were able to recover and look at themselves again. Writers today, those who are in my position, are compelled to go on, and it's very daunting for young persons who say: 'I'm going to be a writer.' You know, I'm only 40, but I'm at another curious stage, one of those stop periods in my career. I have committed myself to the profession. There's nothing else I can do or want to do, and yet the years stretch ahead of me and I wonder how I'm going to fill them. The world abrades one, one comes to certain resolutions and then one devises by instinct and through dreams and all kinds of senses a story that is a symbol for all this. But one can't do it all the time.
But isn't it possible that because of this pattern of peace and war—with the writer having his subject given him on a plate in that way—that a kind of artificial division has grown up? I mean, the archetypal novel is War and Peace. Novels seem to divide themselves into the great peaceful 19th-century ones and 20th-century masterpieces like Evelyn Waugh's Men at Arms: you seem to have found the territory between the two because there hasn't been an overt war in quite the same sense. You seem to have been able to look more closely at societies and see that there never was, in many of them, this organic ordered peacefulness, that the violence was there, the disorder, the wrong patterning which produces contradiction, Perhaps this is the new career?
Well, I don't know. I think all my writing has issued from a kind of personal panic, panic to do with what I've just been talking about, the sense of having come to a stop—and then political panic, perhaps, at one's position in the world. One has always tried to reach some kind of personal balance, so you don't go quite unhinged.
It seemed to me that you reached the turning-point with The Loss of El Dorado, your book about the history of Trinidad, where you looked below the surface of that society we both came out of and dug up things that were certainly new to me. Were they as new to you when you found them?
Absolutely. I'll tell you about that book. That book was to be a simple bit of journalism which I was going to write for the Americans and make a lot of money. I was going to make 10,000 dollars. I thought the place had no history. I thought I would swiftly look at the records and produce something, and then I discovered this appalling history that hadn't been ignored but had just somehow dropped out because the place itself had ceased to be important, so that all the history books were wrong. The discovery, the colonisation, the extermination of the Indians, the emptiness then, the use of that island as a base for South American revolution—this recurring dream of Europe—then the revolution going wrong, the base of the revolution becoming a slave island, the further corruption, the slaves that were abandoned, desolation, the colonial past which we knew: I thought this was an immense story. It was especially alarming to me to see that if you were unimportant all that had happened to you could be ignored. I still feel so about some of the subjects I write on, that perhaps unimportant people are profoundly unimportant and what happens to them is, really, of no great moment in the world. When I went to Mauritius and wrote the article which is the title-piece of the new book, it was a terrible experience for me. I actually fell ill on the way back from Mauritius, and I think that the two things were linked. I wrote that piece in illness and the illness was partly made up of my distress at what I'd seen, that lost, abandoned people, and so I wrote this article out of great pain, and offered it to the magazine which had sent me out there as news which I thought would be very moving. But it was about ten months before the piece was printed in the paper, because the place is not an important place.
But, good heavens, it symbolises two-thirds of the earth, all the abandoned places, just as it seemed to me The Loss of El Dorado symbolised the whole imperial process: what had been done to places by having the imperial idea imposed on them from outside. It seems to me that there and in the pieces you've written since then you have discovered the great new subject.
I think one reason why the world is not interested in these places is that the world has got too many received ideas. I think that this whole thing about Right and Left gives such a distorted view of the world, and so many people now have rather settled ideas about the way it's all going, that investigation seems to have become unnecessary. I think that one reason why my journalism can last is because I never had any such ideas about Left and Right. One just looked at what had happened. There are no principles involved in one's vision. One doesn't try to fit what one sees into the kind of pattern which would suit some political dogma, but, with all these received ideas floating about, it seems to people that the world has really been settled, organised. There is nothing more to do, so they have ideas of racial apocalypse, which I think is nonsense, or Communist apocalypse which is equally nonsense—and the people who are the victims, and are deficient because of their past, themselves contribute to this simplification of their problems.
As you say in The Overcrowded Barracoon, politics are the opium of the people because the problems are not those that politics try to deal with.
They're the problems of people who are powerless. They're the politics of people who have no power, and it has become a kind of game. It is an opium for them.
You've become a kind of unstitcher of systems for yourself and for your readers. Do you find that this unstitches you as a novelist?
Put like that, it sounds as though I've decided to look after myself and to try to preserve my own calm and happiness—as though I'm shutting out the distress. To some extent, this may be so, but I also think I have an understanding of what is possible in our world: that the oppressed or depressed cultures of the world have really to look after themselves. I'm comforted by two people. There's Josephus, who was able to retire from Jerusalem to Rome to write his history of the Jewish war which the Romans conducted in AD 70, if I get the facts right. And there's that marvellous story which is told about the Inca, Garcilaso de la Vega. Garcilaso was the son of a Peruvian princess and a Spanish Conquistador. He decided when he was quite a young man that history was flowing in the direction of Europe and Spain, so he went to Spain. One day, when he was very old, Bartolomé de Las Casas, the apostle of the Indians, a great friend of the Indians, saw a man across a room who was clearly an Indian from the New World, and went across to him and said very friendlily: 'You're from Mexico, aren't you?' Garcilaso, recognising Las Casas, said, 'No, I'm from Peru,' and both men at once knew that in a most ridiculous and grotesque way they were on opposite sides. I'm comforted by that because I think that Garcilaso made the correct decision—understanding that, the way the current was flowing, it was very silly for one man to try to pretend it wasn't flowing in that direction.
Do you still think that there's a current flowing in the direction of the 'important' world?
I think so. Let us take a very highly industrialised country of the poor world. India, which has a very considerable industrial base now, and where there's an awful lot of talent. I think the gap between a country like India and, shall we say, Europe is not only a money gap or a technological gap now: I think it is also an intellectual gap. It's a gap of sensibility. I think that men, responding to all the terrible changes that technology brings about in the world, do, in some ways, become sharper and more acute. They're always responding to new challenges, and the mind is always at work: they're feeding the world, intellectually, in a way that I think that India will never feed the world. To try to be a writer in Argentina, for example, is extremely difficult. The only thing you can do is to be like Borges. You can delude yourself that you have a country that's already been created, a fatherland that has fought its battles and has built its great city and whose culture is flourishing: but that is delusion. The point about the future synthetic cultures, and people like ourselves who come from them, seems to be that we still need the support of the others.
I suppose South America is the oldest of the synthetic societies. No hope there either?
Well, Argentina, to me, was very interesting because it's a colonial society and it's entirely European, so that what one was talking about, what one had discovered about the world, could be seen not to be a purely racial matter. Here, the people who'd come over at the turn of the century to service the great estancias, on land that had been won from the pampas Indians, have become a rather lost people. They have not been able to create an organic society. Few things are more distressing when you're in a small pampas town than to see Italians living in this very desolate landscape, a lost people. One felt about them the way one feels about people in the other territories of the New World. They're people who've been cut of from the source of their culture. They've been cut off from all the things that bound their old culture together. These were individuals like the rest of us, and somehow their society—on a much bigger scale, there are 23 million of them—wasn't working. There were no internal reverences any longer. There were no shared ideals, and the country was just cracking up. One saw it very, very clearly there, and the big thing, as I say, was the discovery that the artificial society perhaps isn't always a product of empire or colonial oppression, but simply, perhaps, of migration. Societies that were doomed to remain half-made.
Do you still think Britain is the country where to be a writer means most?
Well, I come back to England because I have all my friends here now, in London. It's the place where I operate, and my publishers are here, the magazines for which I write are here. But again I must make the point that it's not a place where I can flourish completely. It doesn't feed me.
Which is the place which has fed you most? You said, in The Middle Passage, that nothing was made in the West Indies. You were made in the West Indies.
I wonder how much I was made in Trinidad? I've often thought that if I'd started in another country I would have started from a higher base. I remember how low my sights were when I began to write, how deliberately I restricted myself, and I wonder whether, if I had begun in a more developed place, with my inclinations and tenacity and aptitudes, I really wouldn't have been a much more, as it were, important writer than I am now. A good and rather tragic example is Jean Rhys. Jean Rhys is like us. She's really the pioneer. She came over here at the turn of the century. She was from the West Indies, and had very high principles as a writer. She wouldn't falsify her experiences. Her experiences were those of an uprooted person adrift in the world. Now she has been revived. She does enjoy a reputation, quite justifiably. But she will never become really popular. She'll never feed a culture or alter sensibility, and I think if you're a writer these are the things you want to do. You want to operate at the top. You don't just want to turn your books out and make a living, if you have a respect for your craft.
It seems to me that you yourself are moving toward a readership much wider than any you could hope for in this country, in the West Indies or in America. Because you are writing about the problems of the unimportant, of places like the West Indies, Mauritius, India, you've uncovered something which represents almost everybody. Is a universal audience impossible?
I certainly am aware of my books falling into a kind of void. That I find very heartbreaking. When I was younger it didn't seem to matter. I've often said that when I was younger and thought of being a writer, I thought I was serving a thing called art, and that art was somehow divinely judged, and what was good would be rewarded. I very quickly found that it wasn't so, that I was always being judged politically. It was said that I was looking down on the people I wrote about, on the land of my birth. That is something that would never have been said about Evelyn Waugh, or any other writer from a more developed culture. What a labour it has been to ignore this and break out of it.
But isn't this, perhaps, a writer's fantasy: that once upon a time in ancient Athens Euripides, Aeschylus and the rest of them were as popular as footballers, or the kings of the carnival bends in Trinidad, or their champion cricketers? Browning, I think wrote a couple of poems imagining this kind of life for a poet. In fact, has it ever happened? Shakespeare was always being put down by Ben Jonson.
Perhaps one is asking for the impossible. But one needs to have some kind of conversation with a society. One cannot write in a total vacuum.
That's suggesting a new kind of career, the writer as a culture hero. I suppose Mailer has gone further than anyone in that direction. You accompanied Mailer around New York when he stood for mayor. How did that work out?
I thought it worked out very well. I'm much more sympathetic towards Mailer than many people. I liked the way his mind worked. I liked his gift of language. I liked the way he was always ordering experience and fitting everything that occurred very, very swiftly into experience, making a whole of it, so that any moment he could present you with a very ordered, total philosophy. That was so impressive. I was overwhelmed by Mailer—and I found him a very shy man, oddly enough.
But is it possible for a writer to turn himself and his writing, as one unit, into a product unless he is in some way a source of scandal, like Byron? Mailer, to some extent, has made himself a scandal.
Yes, but probably this is what will happen to writers more and more. It seems to me quite a legitimate thing to happen to writers. I can't do it myself, but to be in conversation with your society seems to me very, very marvellous and desirable for a writer.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1251
SOURCE: "Lost Worlds, Lost Heroes," in Saturday Review, Vol. 3, No. 4, November 15, 1975, pp. 24-5.
[In the following review, DeMott calls Guerillas "continuously interesting," but argues that its protagonist lacks "substance," due more to changes in the socio-political climate of the day than Naipaul's skills as a writer.]
A political novel, Guerillas takes for its hero an Orwellian Englishman named Peter Roche, who endures imprisonment and torture while serving the anti-apartheid cause in South Africa, and then moves on to Trinidad, obsessed now as before by the suffering of black people. For a time his tropical service as an anti-racist seems tame, even suburban. Roche has a house on Rich Folks' Ridge, a maid, a slot in the corporate structure, an identity among local establishmentarians both black and white, who see him as some kind of buffoon. ("He was not a professional man or businessman; he had none of the skills that were considered important. He was a doer of good works, with results that never showed, someone who went among the poor on behalf of his firm and tried to organize boys' clubs and sporting events, gave this cup here and offered a gift of cricket equipment there.") Roche has, in addition, Jane, a London dollybird impressed with his courage and hungry for religious vision, who flies out from home to live with him.
At length, though, his life-texture roughens. The precipitant is a weirdo black-power leader named Jimmy Ahmed, homo-heterosexual, would-be novelist, and "organizer" of a pitifully unorganized guerilla youth force/commune. Personally corrupt and politically inept, Ahmed seems a mediocre revolutionary at best—until a boy recruited by Roche for the youth force/commune dies, triggering a local political explosion. Ahmed steps forth at this moment as a ferocious orator, a whipper-on of mass demonstrations, block-burnings, and the like. (The summit of violence is a sex slaying—a brilliant stretch of writing, terrifying yet absolutely without lubricity.) By the book's close the Establishment is back in command, having crushed the "revolution." Jimmy Ahmed is once again powerless, and Roche is once again on the road, in search (as it seems) of yet another front on which to struggle for his cause.
Black-power issues in the islands—St. Croix, St. Thomas, St. Lucia, elsewhere—haven't lacked for chroniclers in recent years, but few living writers appear better qualified to deal with them than V.S. Naipaul. Himself a Trinidadian, this writer has to his credit a superb analytical history of his homeland, The Loss of El Dorado (1969), a book that provides an extraordinarily rich context for understanding black-white encounters everywhere in the New World. His authority as an interpreter of present-day realities has been further confirmed by a half-dozen novels dense with feeling for Caribbean landscape, sensations, rhythms of speech. Part Chinese, part black, Naipaul has more than once shown conversancy with the surfacing of ethnic rivalries in Caribbean political conflict—see his early comic novel The Suffrage of Elvira (1958). And, as D.A.N. Jones helpfully noted in a London Times Literary Supplement notice of Guerillas, the novelist had at hand for this book an easily adaptable "real life" political situation and hero. The life of his Jimmy Ahmed directly parallels that of a young rogue-comic black-power leader called Michael Abdul Malik, who, in the late Sixties, was taken up by English literary liberals, was encouraged to write, was made a "plaything-playboy," and was then dropped and banished to his homeland, where he was subsequently hanged for murder.
Devotees of Naipaul will find in this newest book many reminders of golden pages in his earlier novels. An account of a Trinidad youngster's evening at the movies watching Sidney Poitier in For the Love of Ivy is an entirely original and touching invention—as fond and kind, and very nearly as relaxed, as the best chapters of A House for Mr. Biswas (1961). Comic turns issuing from an American evangelist's visit to the island, comic monologues spoken by a duped husband named Harry de Tunja, recall zany moments in several other Naipaul fables composed in more innocent, if not happier, political hours. And because this writer has a penetrating mind as well as an exceptionally pure and elegant style, he offers perspectives on the psychology of race tension, details of inner response, that have uncommon value. He's especially shrewd about black suspicion—the disposition to test the liberal, a skepticism of the liberal's "impersonal" concern:
[Blacks] could be tense and combative with Roche. They knew his South African history; they felt safe with him. But it was as if they wished to test him further, as if each man, meeting Roche for the first time, wished to get some personal statement from him, some personal declaration of love. Such a man might begin by attributing racialist views to Roche or by appearing to hold Roche responsible for all the humiliations he, the islander, had endured in other countries….
But while Guerillas is a continuously interesting book, it is something less than a successful novel. The problem lies with the point-of-view character, Roche himself, and seems susceptible at first glance to conventional explanation: the character "lacks substance," has no stable, knowable interior core. Roche's dollybird comes to this conclusion about him. So, too, more or less, does Jimmy Ahmed. So, too, do a number of relatively objective observers. Toward the end of the book, Roche is pressed by a radio interviewer for some account of his concern for the exploited, some description of what goes on inside him as he works at his political task. Frustrated by the Englishman's evasive responses, the interviewer charges that "there seems to be no framework of political belief" in him. He proposes that Roche's activism has nothing behind it but the desire to "make a gesture." Insultingly, he asserts that Roche is actually the servant of The Selfish—that he is a safety valve, a means by which the complacent and the uncaring can avoid confronting their own guilt. The prober is intelligent and persistent, determined to find the center of Roche's commitment—but, as it turns out, the center can't be reached. Peter Roche sidesteps, defends the oblivious folk around him, claims his only motive is securing personal ease, an escape from personal pain; his aim, he insists, is simply to do "a job of work."
The silence and the evasions suggest a hero unfleshed, an unfinished man. And the relative emptiness of the characterization leaves the book centerless, without adequate human focus. But the silence in question signifies more, in the end, than a mere novelistic failure at characterization; it signifies the death of a language. The reason why Peter Roche is shadow, not substance, the reason why neither he nor we can touch his commitment, is that the terms necessary for the dramatization of that commitment are no longer utterable. Like many another writer on political subjects nowadays, V.S. Naipaul has been victimized by the withering away of the language of altruism; convention dictates that the selflessly giving political man must present himself as an enigma, must declare himself inexplicable, must discover no expressible reason for his being. Incapable of naming his "virtue," he stands before his own decency in puzzlement and ultimately vanishes as a person, devoured by profound—and profoundly inexpressible—embarrassment. There are novels whose failure tells us more about where we are, what we've cut loose from, and what the cutting-loose costs, than do a hundred formally successfully works. Looked at as political fiction, Guerillas is one of them.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1575
SOURCE: "The Novelist as Dictator," in Encounter, Vol. XLV, No. 6, December, 1975, pp. 73-6.
[In the following excerpt, Spurling argues that Naipaul does not permit his readers to form their own impressions of his characters and their surroundings; instead, he imposes his outlook "dictatorially."]
Reviewing a book in The Times [London] early last year, Richard Holmes wrote of "that frontal advance of the biographic form … which now surely promises to make the biography, as a genre, the most fruitful in contemporary English writing." His own special interest in it being so was revealed a few months later when he published a weighty reappraisal of Shelley. All the same it is noticeable that biographies are generally given greater prominence than novels on review pages and that one's acquaintances, even if they haven't read them, are more aware of the latest biography than of the latest novel.
The phenomenon is not as new as all that. In the epilogue to The Characters of Love, published in 1960, John Bayley writes:
I think we are already beginning to see a great revulsion in the reading public against the whole idea of the writer's consciousness. Memoirs, biographies, accounts of war and travel in which other people have a real existence, are coming more and more to the fore.
Bayley is not of course arguing against fiction. The purpose and achievement of his book is precisely to examine how three masters of fiction "can liberate the inner life of their characters", can create characters that, beyond speaking to us, simply "are." But his epilogue is an attack, though a characteristically well-mannered one, on "most modern novels."
The attack centres on the pursuit of "meanings" at the expense of character: "we more and more assume that the novelist … need not start out by making his characters like 'real life', but will subordinate their individuality to the general atmosphere and purpose of the work." Bayley distinguishes those traditional writers who take Nature for granted from those more modern ones who hold an attitude towards the Human Condition. He suggests that our heightened awareness of ourselves and of the changes in the world beyond ourselves leads to novels which concentrate on the individual consciousness, which explore the "exceptional" rather than the habitual world, which attempt to pin down the peculiar significance of "our time." "The fatal drawback" is that "the writer, like some self-devouring pelican, is really feeding the audience on his own consciousness, not on that of his characters" and "the commonest and most dangerous assumption the modern novelist can make is that his world—just because it is his world—must fascinate other readers."
I paraphrase arguments from a very well-known book only because, 15 years later, the sort of novels Bayley is attacking are so much the general rule that we are perhaps in danger of forgetting there is any alternative. If we are all reading biographies, is it perhaps less the fault of the Novel than of the novelists?
V.S. Naipaul's Guerrillas begins with an evocation of a Caribbean island on the verge of revolution. The method is familiar enough, might indeed be borrowed from the title sequence of innumerable films: two of the central characters are put into a car and driven out of town. They pass slogans: Basic Black. Don't Vote. Birth Control is a Plot Against the Negro Race. The scenery is described with detailed care:
The sea smelled of swamp … after the rubbish dump burning in the remnant of mangrove swamp, with black carrion corbeaux squatting hunched on fence-posts … after the new housing estates, rows of unpainted boxes of concrete and corrugated iron already returning to the shanty towns that had been knocked down for this redevelopment … the land cleared a little.
Next factories, then "what remained of an industrial estate, one of the failed projects of the earliest days of independence." In this "waste land" of bush, secondary forest, paved areas of concrete and asphalt is a place, surrounded by forest, where the land has been cleared. But the land, though ploughed, is full of weeds and there is an abandoned tractor "half into the forest." The car stops beside a concrete and corrugated iron hut. This is the "People's Commune" run by the third central character of the book and called Thrushcross Grange.
The point about this opening is that, although the two people in the car—a white South African liberal called Roche (Rochester?) and his white mistress called Jane (Eyre?)—are given a few snatches of dialogue, the scenic description is presented directly by the writer to the reader and for all its apparent objectivity conveys a strong sense of distaste. Furthermore the characters are from the outset brushed into it. They are wholly subordinate to the author's consciousness, with its powerful implication of desolation and decay. Jane is given the line: "I used to think that England was in a state of decay." Her consciousness is not only not separate from the author's, it is being used by him to open a further line of meaning in the novel, the comparison between the state of England and the state of this Caribbean island, just as the name Thrushcross Grange for a people's commune must at least suggest the idea of comparing the black revolutionary Jimmy Ahmed with Heathcliff.
In fact, of course, he has more in common with Naipaul's fellow-Trinidadian, Michael X or Abdul Malik. Like Malik, Ahmed has been first raised up, then abruptly dropped by trendy revolutionary circles in England; like Malik, he is dropping still further in his native island; like Malik, he murders. But this comparison, though it must so soon after Malik's execution be present to most readers' minds, is not intrinsic to the novel. Ahmed, whatever his original basis in a real person, is fully integrated into Naipaul's scheme of things. He is, like the scenery, the atmosphere and the other characters, an element in the significance of the novel. Since Naipaul is an outstandingly skilful novelist, all these elements start off the page with seemingly independent life, but like the three-dimensional models which stand up from inside children's books, they are all ready to lie down again as soon as the writer's meaning demands it.
The book, in its own terms, is hardly open to criticism. Naipaul's materials—his characters, white and black, political or apolitical, his city, his island, his commune, his background story of an abortive revolution overcome by the local authorities with the help of American helicopters, his foreground story of the complex sexual and political relationships between Ahmed, Roche and Jane—obey his lightest whim. So in a sense does the reader, slipping along the greased rails of the writer's purpose.
To take a single example, there is this description of a secondary character at his first entrance:
Meredith was short and walked with a spring. He was slender but his body looked hard: he was heavier than he looked. He wore a white shirt with a button-down collar; it was unbuttoned at the neck but not too open, and it didn't suggest holiday dress. The shirt was too tight over his solid shoulders, the collar was too close to the neck: a tie seemed to be missing.
Meredith's background has already been placed before the reader. He is an ex-politician, has been one of the island's ministers, but is now a successful lawyer with another career as a radio personality. The two white people, Jane and Roche, resenting his apparent contentment as a "political drop-out" and his happy home life, have come to consider him somewhat "suburban." He is meeting them again on a Sunday at a house by the beach. The description above is direct authorial intervention, not filtered through the consciousness of any particular character. Why does it dwell so much on the shirt collar? The reader registers a slight disturbance and passes smoothly on.
Only much later do we learn that in the crisis of the approaching attempt at revolution Meredith has been called back into politics. Unknown to the other characters as well as to the reader he was already a minister again when he appeared in that holiday setting. His collar is a tiny signal, a typically deft touch on Naipaul's part, but one which operates independently of any of the characters involved and which, almost unnoticeably, reduces their independence.
If one is dissatisfied at the end of the novel it is certainly not with the machinery, nor even with Naipaul's reading of a contemporary malaise, which he makes clear enough by extracting a quotation from his own text and putting it at the front of the book: "When everybody wants to fight there's nothing to fight for. Everybody wants to fight his own little war, everybody is a guerrilla." This is Ahmed speaking. The white girl Jane is given the knowledge "that she had come to a place at the end of the world, to a place that had exhausted its possibilities." Her lover Roche says: "Oh my God, why is anyone of us allowed to live at all?" The pessimism of Naipaul's outlook, the unlikability of his characters would not in themselves make the novel seem unreal, if they were not imposed so dictatorially. The reader is at no point permitted to form his own impressions of this gloomy island or have private words with its inhabitants. The writer's consciousness is for ever at his elbow and it is his only human contact.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4079
SOURCE: "The Paradox of Freedom: V. S. Naipaul's In a Free State," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, pp. 81-91.
[In the following essay, Boxill discusses the paradoxical nature of freedom and the symbolic "prisons" in Naipaul's In a Free State.]
Prison is an important presence in V.S. Naipaul's first-written book, Miguel Street, and it is, if anything, more central in his recent In A Free State. Although the characters in Miguel Street live in the shadow of an actual jail, Naipaul suggests that Miguel Street and Trinidad itself are both so limiting as to deserve to be seen as wider prisons in which the characters find themselves trapped. In spite of its universal resonances, especially in the author's ability to create characters that live, Miguel Street implies that Trinidad is like a prison because of its remoteness and its past of colonialism and slavery. Its characters, many of whom are creative, are frustrated because they live in a community which lacks standards and does not value creativity. The book implies that freedom can be achieved by escaping to a country which has not been stunted by colonialism, for its narrator accomplishes such an escape.
No actual prison appears in In A Free State. Such a place is quite unnecessary in its world, because Naipaul manages to suggest that the whole world and, indeed, freedom itself function as the perfect prison from which escape is not possible, except possibly in death. The characters of the book are not artists—they are not frustrated creators. The book does not solicit sympathy for a select few; it concerns itself with all mankind, even the insane and the perverted; it does not try to pinpoint the oppressor of mankind. The enemy is not simply slavery or colonialism; it is life itself, mankind itself.
A sign of Naipaul's growing maturity is that he shies away more and more from categoric answers to human problems. In A Free State is an extremely provocative book because, while it draws attention to human problems and human suffering, it makes no pretense of identifying the enemy or of producing a simple scapegoat. Instead, it illustrates the innumerable facets of the human personality and the physical world with which humanity has to cope, and which contribute to the range of problems confronting mankind. Most of the serious problems of humanity have been created by man himself; since man is extraordinarily complex, one must expect his problems to reflect that complexity.
All of the important characters in In A Free State possess or achieve a greater degree of freedom than Naipaul has allowed any of his characters previously. His main characters up to now, from Ganesh to Mr. Stone, have been pinned down by historical, environmental, economic, and social stakes. Now these considerations take second place to the bonds imposed by freedom. In the Prologue, "The Tramp at Piraeus," the tramp on the steamer says, "What's nationality these days? I myself, I think of myself as a citizen of the world." The freedom of which the tramp boasts makes him the most vulnerable man on the boat. Being completely without attachment, he has no one to whom to turn when the rest of the world joins ranks against him. The wide cross section of nationalities represented on the ship makes it both a microcosm of the real world and a world of its own. Naipaul loses no time in introducing the tensions of the Middle-East—the ship is travelling to Egypt—into the community on the ship. On board is a group of Egyptian Greeks who have been expelled from Greece and are being sent back to Egypt, a country with which they have lost touch. The various nationalities on the ship quickly split into factions: the Arabs and the Germans gang up; the tramp remains an outsider. The pressures of living in a disrupted and tense world clearly affect the people on the ship. The hostility they feel toward each other is thinly disguised and accentuated by the ship's cramped passenger accommodations. A scapegoat must be found, someone to vent their hostility on. And who better than the tramp, the citizen of the world, the wandering Jew, everybody's victim and no one's responsibility? After sharing a cabin with the tramp for a night, the Lebanese businessman says, "I will kill him," identifying his enemy and resolving how to deal with him. The insane Trinidadian of the book's third section is more admirable than the Lebanese because, although he realizes that an act of violence against one's enemy might be purgating and liberating, he also realizes the impossibility of pinpointing a single enemy. His plea, "Tell me who to kill," is heartfelt and honest. No such honesty or scrupulousness marks the Lebanese and those who join him in baiting the tramp. They want a scapegoat and preferably a vulnerable one. To escape their national prejudices and hostilities, the tramp has to lock himself first in a toilet, then in his cabin. Actual prisons can prove more protective than freedom in a world which does not understand freedom.
After the passion of the Lebanese, the reader is left to ask himself of what possible use would have been the identifying and killing of such an "enemy." What liberation could result from the destroying of a man so weak, so tattered, so insecure, and so lonely that he "wanted only the camouflage and protection of company"? The answer is, of course, none; but man, wanting always simple answers and easy scapegoats, has ceased to wish to find the real enemy and has settled for sacrificing the handiest victim. The very notion of sacrifice has become meaningless.
Santosh, the narrator of "One out of Many," the second section of the book, after disentangling himself from the restrictions of his Indian nationalism, finds that America has not yet come to recognize citizens of the world. To be a free man in America he must become an American citizen: "Marry the hubshi. That will automatically make you a citizen. Then you will be a free man." When we first meet Santosh, he is a poor man who sleeps on the sidewalks of Bombay "although in our chambers a whole cupboard below the staircase was reserved for my personal use." He has friends, a regular job, a position in a rudimentary system. It does not seem to be much, but Santosh is proud of his achievements since he has started from very little in a remote Indian village. His sense of achievement in having liberated himself from the crippling destitution of his village, no doubt, urges him to pressure his employer to take him to America. He cannot go back to the limitations of his village, and the freedom of America beckons.
He is hardly on the plane which will take him from Bombay to Washington before he realizes that the freedom he has achieved is now threatened. He begins to feel claustrophobic: "From the aeroplane to the airport building to the motor car to the apartment block to the elevator to the corridor to the apartment itself, I was forever enclosed." In Bombay he had slept under the real sky, but "below that imitation sky" of his apartment in America he "felt like a prisoner." He also discovers that his new quarters are to be in another cupboard, this time more prison-like because he has no sidewalk to escape to.
The freedom Santosh achieves in America—being without friends or attachments, having no real point of contact with the life going on around him—is not what he had bargained for. "This isn't Bombay. Nobody looks at you when you walk down the street. Nobody cares what you do." With the isolation that Santosh's new freedom has brought, he is no better off than in prison. Having achieved it, having ceased to see himself as part of his employer's or anyone else's presence, having graduated from a cupboard to a real room, to a drab house, he cannot easily renounce his free state. By further advancing his freedom by increasing his isolation, he comes to the dismal conclusion that "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."
While Santosh is moving to the freedom of his isolation, the hubshi (his word for the American Blacks) are seeking their freedom by acts of violence against their enemy. After they have burned a considerable portion of Washington, Santosh comments: "Happiness was on the faces of the hubshi. They were like people amazed they could do so much, that so much lay in their power." As with all violence, the freedom that it brings must be short lived and ultimately futile because the whole enemy has not been destroyed—nor can it ever be, since much of the enemy is within. Santosh helps prove it: he marries a hubshi woman to help him gain American citizenship, and the hubshi scrawl "Soul Brother" outside his house to protect it from new burnings. Santosh says that, though he understands the words, he feels no sense of brotherhood to anyone—and identifies himself to the reader as part of the enemy which has not been identified by the hubshi. His freedom has led him to want to dissociate himself from the brotherhood of man. The hubshi, too, are guilty for stressing a racial rather than a human brotherhood.
The narrator of the third section, "Tell Me Who to Kill," is free from even the direction of his mind. His story consists of the distraught interior monologue of a madman who senses that he is like a ship without a rudder which must go in whatever direction the stream of life takes it. His thoughts go through his mind, apparently without direction, as he makes a trip to attend his brother's wedding: "But I don't know what bus we will take when we get to the station, or what other train, what street we will walk down, what gate we will go through, and what door we will open into what room." The loss of control over his life is emphasized by the fact that he seems to be on a day's release from a mental hospital in the charge of an attendant, Frank. Frank, we feel, is in control, knows where they are going, and has decided how they are to get there. Even though he is kind to his charge, his watchfulness makes him somehow sinister.
These relationships prove richly complex and ironic for him since he can present the reader with an individual who has been freed by his illness from making decisions and from taking responsibility for his actions. Ironically, such an individual needs a jailer to make decisions for him and to control his actions. Not even the freedom which mental breakdown imparts is absolute.
The monologue of the narrator also makes clear that the freedom of the madman is paradoxical: while his thoughts are free, their very obsessiveness controls him very effectively. Their obsessiveness gives the monologue coherence and direction, for the madness of the narrator becomes evident not because his thoughts occur to him helter-skelter, but because they come to seem more and more inevitable as we pursue them. One becomes aware that his words reveal pent-up hatred and frustration which have driven him to breakdown since he has been unable to find release for these emotions.
His story begins with his memory of deprivation in rural Trinidad. Naipaul's description of the dreary, ugly, hopeless environment is executed with a precision he has demonstrated in his earlier works. Here again the house is used as a reminder of the sordidness of the characters' lives and as a symbol of their dreams. Surrounded by so much that is ugly, the narrator resolves to dedicate his life to preserving and developing the only thing of beauty that is close to him, his younger brother: "He is so pretty. If he grow up he will be like a star-boy, like Errol Flim or Fairley Granger. The beauty in that room is like a wonder to me, and I can't bear the thought of losing it." Unfortunately, physical beauty is finite; Dayo, the younger brother, does not possess the inner beauty which might have justified the self-effacement which his brother undertakes on his behalf.
Naipaul makes clear that to deny oneself completely, to be content as a part of someone else's presence, is to accept slavery, to condemn oneself to prison. As he has indicated frequently, Naipaul considers such denial an especially West-Indian tendency, encouraged by history and environment. The narrator, too cowardly to discover his own personal beauty, continually seeks to identify with other people; with film stars, such as Flynn and Granger; with a rich man of whom he says, "I worship this man"; with his uncle, Stephen, whom he adored when small. Like his brother, these men prove unworthy of his slavery, but his disillusionment does not prevent him from accepting Frank as his jailer and new master. Again, the awareness that he has willingly surrendered the conduct of his life disturbs him sometimes: "You are just going where the ship is going, you will never be a free man again." Instead of trying to take control, however, he wishes that he will be relieved forever from responsibility for himself: "I don't want the ship to stop, I don't want to touch land again."
The narrator's attempt to liberate himself from himself by sacrificing himself to others, achieved in a way by his mental breakdown, is as extreme as Santosh's attempt to isolate himself completely. Self-effacement proves ultimately to be as imprisoning as its opposite, complete isolation. The narrator of the third section, however, is more perceptive than Santosh, since he senses that something is wrong with his position: "O God, show me 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?" That the section ends with these questions underlines its narrator's difference from Santosh who, having taken refuge in his isolation, ceases to question. Santosh never comes close to recognizing that he is his own worst enemy; the narrator of this section senses that he is himself most to blame, but he cannot understand why. Neither he nor Santosh understand that self-love prevents them from seeing the value of their own individuality and that of others.
The characters of "In a Free State," the fourth section, are never in any doubt about who the enemy is or that they must kill him. The story is set in a newly independent country in Africa. Political independence has its limitations, because the Africans, whose loyalties are tribal rather than national, have had little to do with creating the state they now possess. Inheritors of a way of life they have not developed for themselves, they are foreigners in their own country:
the capital, which, in spite of the white exodus to South Africa and in spite of deportations, remained an English-Indian creation in the African wilderness. It owed nothing to African skill; it required none…. It was still a colonial city, with a colonial glamour. Everyone in it was far from home.
Naipaul gives us glimpses of Africans whose lives have been unaffected by the West: two naked men covered with chalk who run along the road, and people seen tilling the soil with simple implements and living "the immemorial life of the forest." For such people political independence has no meaning; they are free of the burdens of independence that oppress the educated African, but they are the prisoners of their ignorance and poverty. The paths they have created and which they follow are "simple forest paths, leading to nothing else." Incongruous as they might seem in a modern independent state, these people have integrity and an identity of their own.
The Africans into whose hands the free state has been entrusted certainly lack these. Like the narrator in "Tell Me Who to Kill," they have attempted to efface their own identities to assume European ones, to cope with their new nation which they correctly recognize as European in design. They wear European suits which they have not paid for; their hair style is known among city Africans as "the English style"; they frequent the night clubs from which they had been barred before independence. Their incongruity is emphasized by the fact that Bobby, the Englishman in the story, wears a "native" shirt made of phony native fabric, designed and woven in Holland. Both of these dishonest styles of dress are contrasted with that of real Africans:
On a path on the wooden hillside just above the road about a dozen Africans in bright new cotton gowns were walking one behind the other in the rain, covering their heads with leaves. With the bright colours of their cottons, and the leaves over their heads, they were very nearly camouflaged.
Further on, two men run into the road:
They were naked, and chalked white from head to toe, white as the rocks, white as the knotted, scaly lower half of the tall cactus plants, white as the dead branches of trees whose roots were loose in the crumbling soil.
These two passages describe people who are so much a part of their environment that they are almost indistinguishable from it. The narrator seems to be saying, as Conrad did, that "they wanted no excuse for being there." These are the only free people in the book, though ironically they are probably unaware of and uninterested in the political status of their country. The political turmoil, the heritage of the political freedom that the novel describes, seems far away from them.
The city Africans, on the other hand, exchange their natural freedom for one they have not earned and which, being foreign, enslaves them. Like slaves, and like the narrator of the preceding section, they try to find fulfillment by assuming the identity of their masters who, ironically, have just liberated them politically. Of course, the Africans feel uneasy in their new positions. They sense that they can never feel free until they have the strength to assert their own identities and purge themselves of their European ones.
Violence is an important theme in the book, and it contributes considerably to the mounting tone of terror as the stories progress. Bobby and Linda, an English pair, are driving from the capital of the state to the compound in the collectorate in another part of the country. In the compound, the Europeans who have remained to help run the country preserve something of their old style of life. As Bobby and Linda progress in their long drive, one becomes aware that they are seriously threatened by the tribal hostility between the king and the President. As individuals, they are innocent of blame for the turmoil of the country, but they are obvious reminders of the colonial past. Since neither is especially intelligent, they are not sure how to handle the hostility and menace they sense in the attitude of the Africans they meet. Linda takes refuge in aggressiveness and in the prejudices of colonial Europeans towards Africa. Bobby, on the other hand, wears an "African" shirt, makes passes at African boys, wishes that his skin was black, and delights in announcing that his boss is an African. His attempts to free himself from himself fail miserably since his weakness and masochism are readily identified and violently dealt with by Africans seeking a stability which their freedom has denied them. The African continent quickly converts the little pockets of Europe which the whites had created into forest, a recurring image which Naipaul associates with Africa. The forest, relentless and foreboding, suggests the depth of the African past and emphasizes the superficiality of the changes which the Europeans have wrought on it. The image allows Naipaul to contrast those Africans who have remained close to the forest with those who have emerged freshly from it. Clothing, an important motif in the section, is used to illustrate the differences between these two groups. Those Africans who are just beginning to feel the influence of Europe are described as wearing "cast-off European clothes," "fighting the encumbrance of [their] dungarees," and, most incongruous of all, "in jodhpurs and riding boots, red caps and jackets." No doubt many readers will feel that these descriptions are unkind, snobbish, and used to ridicule. In the context of the novel, however, these pictures reveal the distress of the narrator who finds so much evidence of the enslaved mentality in a country which wants to think of itself as free. He seems to suggest that the African freshly emerged from the bush must have other alternatives than to turn himself into a pathetic mimic of the European. The African himself is not so much to blame for his mimicry as his former colonizers and his neo-colonizers, the liberal European and the citified African.
Such mimicry can ultimately bring only self-disgust and pathetic, futile attempts to purge through violence the revulsion at what the Africans have become. They choose Bobby as their sacrificial lamb, but Bobby, another version of the tramp in the first section, is quite incapable of bearing the burden of guilt they wish to impose on him. A homosexual, he is rejected and ridiculed in both England and Africa; he has severed relations with England but finds a relationship with Africa impossible to fuse. His homosexuality and his race make him truly free, but free in a way which renders him a casualty. He is not, like Santosh, one who takes pride in his complete detachment. He yearns for some lasting attachment but is repulsed and abused because he is vulnerable.
The acts of violence which he suffers, therefore, strike terror in the reader and bring no release for their perpetrators. In many ways the story seems to illustrate the shortcomings of Frantz Fanon's theory that the way for the colonized to rid themselves of their colonizers is by violence. The kind of violence implied to be effective is the violence of brutal self-appraisal. Without it, mimicry will continue to compound itself, and self-revulsion will continue to demand meaningless sacrifices, like the beating of Bobby. Free, unattached, and vulnerable people like Bobby will continue to be victimized by people seeking to liberate themselves from pressures—psychological, cultural, economic—that bind them.
The book concludes with "The Circus at Luxor," an Epilogue taken, like the Prologue, from a journal—but no journal in the ordinary sense. The careful selection of word and incident, the provocative and illuminating juxtaposition of superficially incongruous and unrelated scenes, suggests the same artistry and intensity as the fictional sections. In the Epilogue the narrator is more central to the action than he had been in the Prologue. A tourist in Egypt, he sees some children being treated in an inhuman way, and he takes steps to put an end to it. The narrator's action has been seen as an expression of "anger and a sense of injustice" with which callousness and inhumanity should be met. No doubt it is, but even the freedom to act in a humane way is compromised by the attention which the action calls to itself. "I felt exposed, futile," says the narrator after his gesture. Naipaul ends by suggesting that in this world no time has ever been pure and, consequently, absolute freedom can never exist. Purity and freedom are fabrications, illusions, causes for yearning, things for the tomb. Put this way the ending sounds trite, futile, and pessimistic in an adolescent way, but that is far from the truth. If man would recognize the impossibility and, indeed, the immorality of absolute freedom, then he would assume his responsibilities to vulnerable creatures, such as the tramp, Bobby, and the Egyptian children, whose freedoms he jeopardizes in his selfish search for his own. Yet the illusion of purity and freedom must be maintained as a safeguard against man's selfishness and ambition, which Naipaul symbolizes ominously with the image of the Chinese Empire announcing itself.
Man should neither reject completely or embrace fully the notion of freedom. In A Free State illustrates superbly that to be meaningful freedom must be understood to be paradoxical.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6715
SOURCE: "The Ironic Approach: The Novels of V. S. Naipaul," in Critical Perspectives on V. S. Naipaul, Heinemann Educational Books, 1977, pp. 178-93.
[In the following essay, Rohlehr discusses Naipaul's ironic approach toward and "sympathetic rejection" of Trinidadian culture.]
About Naipaul's first three novels George Lamming writes in The Pleasures of Exile:
His books can't move beyond a castrated satire; and although satire may be a useful element in fiction, no important work comparable to Selvon's can rest safely on satire alone. When such a writer is a colonial, ashamed of his cultural background and striving like mad to prove himself through promotion to the peaks of a 'superior' culture whose values are gravely in doubt, then satire, like the charge of philistinism, is for me nothing more than a refuge. And it is too small a refuge for a writer who wishes to be taken seriously.
This is an important and damaging criticism which merits examination. Lamming, Selvon and Naipaul are equally preoccupied with the West Indian social scene and with what it means to them, as individuals, to be West Indians. Yet Lamming criticizes Naipaul's presentation of the West Indian experience and the nature of his personal quest to discover where he stands. There is the assertion that mere irony is irrelevant to West Indian society at this stage. Thus satire is a means of running away from the sordid truth, by seeking refuge in laughter, whose basis is an assumption of one's own cultural superiority to the world one ridicules.
Yet Naipaul's 'Englishness' does not manifest itself, as Lamming suggests in a crude and overt striving to attain the dubious standards of the metropolis. In fact, his ironic awareness uncovers all that is drab, petty and humourless in English life, as we see in Mr Stone and the Knight's Companion. It manifests itself, rather, in his unconscious acceptance of a typical European view of Third World inferiority, a view which is now being attacked from several quarters. It shows itself in his contemptuous rejection of all things West Indian, which at times breaks through even the geniality of The Mystic Masseur (1957). The conviction of an anarchic society which the author must reject lies also behind Miguel Street. Here, however, the rejection is not done in contempt, but with considerable sympathy. This book, like A House for Mr Biswas (1961), forces one to reconsider Lamming's criticism to see what it misses of Naipaul's subtlety, and to see what it does not say about the complexity of his situation.
Naipaul is a Trinidad East Indian who has not come to terms with the Negro-Creole world in Trinidad, or with the East Indian world in Trinidad, or with the greyness of English life, or with life in India itself, where he went in search of his roots. After these two books Naipaul wrote The Middle Passage (1962), which manifests all the new depth and astringency which his irony has assumed, and at the same time demonstrates all the superficiality which one thought he had left far behind. This book makes one feel again the justice of Lamming's criticism, and realize how true a comment it is on one very real aspect of Naipaul's attitude, as it appears in some of his books.
The position of the ironist in colonial society is indeed a delicate one. Lamming can see little that is risible in a society whose history is one of underprivilege. One appreciates his point. The early Naipaul is at times the irresponsible ironist, subtle, but lacking in a sensitive participation in the life he anatomizes. If one says that the exercise of irony precludes sympathy, one is merely defining the limitations of irony, and the limitations of any of Naipaul's work which depends solely on irony. So far one agrees with Lamming.
Satire is the sensitive measure of a society's departure from a norm inherent in itself. Since Naipaul starts with the conviction that such a norm is absent from his society, his task as satirist becomes doubly difficult. Not only must he recreate experience, but also simultaneously create the standards against which this experience is to be judged. This explains the mixture of farce and social consciousness which occurs in the two early novels. In 1957 Naipaul's first novel, The Mystic Masseur, was published. It is about an Indian, Ganesh Ramsummair, who begins his career as a secondary school teacher and then becomes a masseur. He only achieves success, however, when he becomes a 'mystic', and attends to Trinidad's spiritual problems. His brilliance as a mystic helps him to become a successful author, politician, diplomat and eventually gains him an M.B.E. In 1958 followed Naipaul's second novel, The Suffrage of Elvira. It deals with the farce of elections in an unsophisticated part of Trinidad, beset by superstition and ignorance, where everyone is conscious only of the profit he can make out of this new game.
The tone of these two books is almost the same. A situation of superstition, ignorance, absurdity, knavery and self-interest, is presented as the reality in Trinidad social and political life. Naipaul consciously presents his real world as farcical. The reader is invited simultaneously to recognize the degree of distortion and to share in the author's grin as he insists that the situation is perfectly normal. 'I myself believe that the history of Ganesh is, in a way, the history of our times.' It is the Chaucerian pose; the genial elevation of the absurd and the constant pretence on the part of the satirist that he fully condones the behaviour of the rogues he satirizes. Chaucer's rascals are always the best fellows in the land. 'Ganesh elevated the profession by putting the charlatans out of business.' Naipaul's humour here awakens Chaucerian echoes.
It is only when one reads The Middle Passage that one realizes how completely Naipaul has accepted anarchy and absurdity as the norms of his society. If in the early farces an absurd world is presented as real, in The Middle Passage a real world is presented as tragically futile and absurd. The deeper implication of the first two books is that West Indian society, emerging from ignorance and superstition, is peculiarly susceptible to depredation by the fraud and the politician, and by all opportunists who are prepared to exploit the social unease for their personal ends. That Ganesh and Harbans are treated so genially conceals Naipaul's seriousness of purpose. Ganesh, who poses as the defender of Hinduism while it is politic and profitable to do so, completely rejects Indian dress and changes his name to G Ramsay Muir once he becomes a successful politician. This change of name and dress is always used by Naipaul to symbolize the acculturation of the East Indian to pseudo-western patterns of life, which is something he writes of with bitterness, despair and regret. One should not be misled by his genial tone to overestimate his admiration for Ganesh, the successful fraud.
Yet even in a book of the geniality of The Mystic Masseur Naipaul can lack sympathy. His hero approaches his nadir in such scenes as the dinner at Government House, where Naipaul depicts an imaginary confrontation between the most unsophisticated members of Creole and Indian society, and the hypercivilized governor's wife. All that Naipaul finds ridiculous in Creole society is paraded here: the bad grammar, lack of taste or social grace, complete unawareness and the struggle to be white. A black man, of whose blackness Naipaul makes a special point, is dressed in a blue suit, with yellow gloves and a monocle, which eventually falls into the soup. Several of the guests have some difficulty in manipulating their knives and forks. One can accept this as farce intended, in its distorted way, to show the Creole and Indian on the painful and ridiculous road to whiteness. But the suspicion persists that Naipaul himself regards these people with more contempt than compassion. These are the same people whom he describes in The Middle Passage as being 'like monkeys pleading for evolution'. The incongruity of his position here, as Lamming points out, is that while he laughs at his Creoles crudely aping standards of pseudo whiteness, he can only do so assuming these very norms himself.
In 1959 came Miguel Street, a series of short stories about an urban slum in Trinidad, told by a boy who speaks in the first person. The 'I' in this book is not merely an autobiographical 'I'. To discover Naipaul, one must get past the voice that tells the tale to the narrator behind the narrator. One must appreciate all the nuances and shifts of irony, of which the boy could not possibly be conscious. The boy-narrator is not Naipaul, but a device exploited by Naipaul the artist who operates in detachment. If these stories are autobiography, they are autobiography set at a distance through irony.
Early on a theme of futility is established.
Popo's workshop no longer sounded with hammering and sawing. The sawdust no longer smelled fresh, and became black, almost like dirt. Popo began drinking a lot, and I didn't like him when he was drunk. He smelled of rum, and he used to cry and then grow angry and want to beat up everybody. That made him an accepted member of the gang.
It is such a careful selection of detail that makes these stories less slight than appears on the surface. The whole pattern of the book is to depict the inevitable movement from freshness to dirt, and from laughter to tears. Moreover, at every point the boy judges and measures this degradation, until he finally rejects a society which reduces everyone to its own level of amorality. But while the boy hints at a norm by saying that he does not like Popo drunk, Miguel Street accepts him fully. So that when Popo goes to jail, the mecca of Miguel Street, the verdict of the street is, 'We was wrong about Popo. He is a man like any of we.'
The statement serves two functions. It links the world of Miguel Street to the world of The Mystic Masseur by suggesting the distortion of accepted moral values as the norm. At the same time the claim is being made that all the eccentrics of Miguel Street are men 'like any of we', that Yahoo-land is a real place. As I have suggested, in a society which is seen as having no true standards, irony is bound to operate in reverse, the ironist starting with an abnormal situation and hinting at a sanity which is absent from his world. However, if the impulse behind Miguel Street is similar to that behind The Mystic Masseur, the whole tone is more serious. The farce has become a nightmare. Here one finds it difficult to accept Lamming's description of Naipaul's satire as a refuge and escape from experience. If satire is a means of running away, it is equally a means of fighting; an act of bravery, not cowardice; the confrontation of a nightmare, not the seeking of a refuge.
This passage is an example of how Naipaul's larger ironic awareness controls the boy's naive account of the facts:
And once Hat said, 'Every day Big Foot father, the policeman, giving Big Foot blows. Like medicine. Three times a day after meals. And hear Big Foot talk afterwards. He used to say, "When I get big and have children, I go beat them, beat them."…'
I asked Hat, 'And Big Foot mother? She used to beat him too?'
Hat said, 'Oh God! That would kill him. Big Foot didn't have any mother. His father didn't married, thank God!'
What Naipaul is aware of here is a lack of family life and a heritage of brutality passed on from father to son. Miguel Street accepts this as normal and ideal.
One of the main themes of these stories is the nature and complexity of laughter in Miguel Street. Hat constantly points out how apparent laughter conceals tears. The laughter of Miguel Street is sometimes crude and cynical. But whenever this occurs, the boy points out the need for a greater sensitivity. 'And all of us from Miguel Street laughed at Big Foot. All except me. For I knew how he felt.' At most other times, however, there is propriety about the street's laughter. It is silent when Laura cries 'all the cry she had tried to cover up with her laughter.' Contemptuous laughter is always frowned upon, limits are placed on cynicism. This is why Nathaniel can never belong to the street, and Hat relegates him to a lower world. "'I don't know why he don't go back to the Dry River where he come from. They ain't have any culture there and he would be happier.'" There are the several occasions when Hat threatens to thrash Boysie if he dares laugh at the latest Miguel Street misfortune. Because of Naipaul's sympathy, Miguel Street comes across to the reader not merely as a jungle, but as a place where people in the face of insuperable frustration still preserve an intimacy and humour which is almost a new type of maturity.
In 1960 Naipaul revisited Trinidad after an absence of ten years. Born in Trinidad in 1932, he had left at the age of eighteen for England, where he went to Oxford and has lived ever since. In The Middle Passage, a travel-book written about his return to the West Indies, he attempts to assess his relation to the world which he has been treating in his fiction. Although this book was published in 1962, one year after A House for Mr Biswas, one feels justified in considering it first, since in the latter book Naipaul presents his experience with a completeness and conclusiveness which is absent from The Middle Passage. Naipaul shows in his direct examination of Trinidad a superficiality which he has outgrown in his novels.
It has been pointed out that The Middle Passage is not written from the standpoint of a professional historian or sociologist and that Naipaul's reactions are those of imaginative sensibility. This is true and this is where the difficulty lies. To this author's sensibility, Trinidad represents a nightmare, and one has constantly to differentiate between his sensitive examination of history and his honest expression of hysteria. He confesses a pathological dislike for Trinidad.
I had never wanted to stay in Trinidad. When I was in the fourth form I wrote a vow on the endpaper of my Kennedy's Revised Latin Primer to leave within five years. I left after six; and for many years afterwards in England, falling asleep in bed-sitters with the electric fire on, I had been awakened by the nightmare that I was back in tropical Trinidad.
It is a nightmare which, nurtured through a decade of absence, and reinforced by the literature which Naipaul has read about the West Indies, has now become an obsession. 'As soon as the Francisco Bobadilla had touched the quay … I began to feel all my old fear of Trinidad. I did not want to stay.'
The book, however, is written with a conscious nobility of purpose. It purports to be an assessment of Naipaul's West Indian experience and an apology for his self-chosen exile. The important first two chapters of the book are carefully written. One notes, for example, the appropriateness of all the quotations which Naipaul uses as epigrams to these chapters. First there is the general epigram to the book, a quotation from Anthony Froude's The English in the West Indies.
They were valued only for the wealth which they yielded, and society there has never assumed any particularly noble aspect … There are no people there in the true sense of the word, with a character and purpose of their own.
Or one may consider the two quotations from Thomas Mann and Tacitus, at the beginning of the chapter on Trinidad. The quotation from Mann is particularly apt. What one notices is that these three quotations are about three entirely different peoples: West Indians, Israelites and Britons. The impression conveyed is one of the timelessness of the process which Naipaul observes at work in the West Indies today. It is to his credit that he chooses his epigrams from three different sources, and thus places the West Indian experience against a backcloth of universal experience. It is regrettable that this impression of universality could not be maintained.
The name 'Middle Passage' is a symbol at many levels. It is symbolic of that original journey which was the beginning of a slavery and which Naipaul sees existing in spirit. At the same time it is a symbol of the West Indies today in that transitional middle stage between the cultures which her people lost and the new sense of cultural identity which they have not yet gained. Like Thomas Mann's Israelites, they are seen to be 'in a transitional land, pitching their tents between the houses of their fathers and the real Egypt … unanchored souls wavering in spirit and without a secure doctrine'. Like the Britons under Roman rule, they are seen to speak to 'such novelties as "civilization" when really they are only a feature of enslavement'.
The name 'Middle Passage' also refers to the new journey which the West Indian emigrant makes to England. The first chapter is a sensitive record of certain very real aspects of West Indian life. There is the emigrant who abandons a perfectly good job to go to a land of which he is completely ignorant, but which even as a child he has known to be the Mother Country. There are the tourist-class petty bourgeois West Indians with their values of colour and money, who demonstrate every feature of insularity, ignorance, vulgarity and self-contempt in their society. These people refer to the immigrants as the 'wild cows' and the 'orangoutangs'. But as is suggested by the sentence beginning, 'Like monkeys pleading for evolution', Naipaul is himself capable of the denigratory comparison. His contempt is the result of superior intellectual awareness; the tourists' contempt is self-contempt, the result of ignorance. It is difficult to say which is worse. There is also the Englishwoman, completely perplexed at it all, an apt representative of the society towards which the emigrants travel.
One of the questions which the book poses is, 'What explains the West Indian emigrant?' The answer which it suggests can be found in the themes on which it is written. Those themes are stated in the epigrams. West Indian history has bred 'no people in the true sense of the word, with a character and purpose of their own'. The West Indian experience, as Naipaul has expressed it, is not a fusion or coalition of cultures to enhance their separate excellences, but their degradation to a new norm of anarchy. Naipaul uses Trinidad as an example of all that is degrading in the West Indian experience and, because of this, is in a sense not writing about Trinidad at all. He is writing an essay on the horrors of acculturation, and an explanation of why he had to escape. He sees only what was destroyed in the West Indies.
How can the history of this West Indian futility be written?… The history of these islands can never be satisfactorily told … History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies.
Naipaul sees the West Indies as a rubbish-heap. It is a despairing image to choose. This explains the sublimated bitterness which lies behind his laughter whenever he observes the East Indian conforming to the pattern of West Indian history; joining the Negro-Creoles in their quest for 'whiteness'. Perhaps the most delicate and ruthless of his stories is the "Christmas Story," where an East Indian is made to describe the process of his acculturation and, supremely ignorant of the fact, becomes the mouthpiece of his own degradation. He is a teacher who adopts the Christian faith when he realizes that this is the only way to gain promotion in a school managed by the Church. He is not given the cynical awareness of a Ganesh as he outlines the stages of his acculturation, but naively declares that he has buried his East Indian past, and refers to other Indians as 'these people' or 'the others'. Behind the "Christmas Story" and The Middle Passage is a bitter despair of the whole colonial process and an implicit rejection of the colonial experience, which expresses itself in irony and in contempt for all things West Indian.
The city throbbed with steel-bands. A good opening line for a novelist or travel writer, but the steel-band had long been regarded as a high manifestation of West Indian culture, and it was a sound I detested.
The land of the Calypso is not a copy-writer's phrase. It is one side of the truth, and it was this gaiety, so inexplicable to the tourist who sees the shacks of Shanty Town and the corbeaux patrolling the modern highway, and inexplicable to me who had remembered it as the land of failures, which now, on my return, assaulted me.
It is apparently beyond Naipaul to be able to understand why there is music in spite of the rubbish-heap, and to recognize in such merry-making not merely cynical indifference to the dunghill, but evidence of an affirmation and vibrancy of life, however crude. Such recognition requires not brutality and subtlety, which he points out as the special gifts of the satirist, but the entirely different talents of delicacy, tenderness and a quality of intimacy. In Miguel Street, in spite of the fact that the boy eventually rejects the rubbish-heap, there is a sympathy for its inhabitants, and an implicit recognition of the positives of this world. This is why parts of The Middle Passage strike one as superficial, and a retrogression in sensibility.
Sometimes one wonders at Naipaul's hypersensitivity and asks oneself whether the neurosis is completely controlled by the irony. Is not this complete acquiescence with Froude that there are 'No people there in the true sense of the word', a formula for evading the complex sympathy which the West Indian experience seems to demand? I stated above that what appears to Lamming as a conscious struggle on Naipaul's part to adopt the standards of a 'superior' metropolitan culture, is explicable as a too easy acquiescence with European historians; they assumed that the 'native' was an inferior animal and consequently failed to look for positives in his society. Perhaps it is easier to see Trinidad as an historical rubbish-heap and a sociological abstraction; easier to see evidence in every observed and carefully chosen detail of some deep-seated social malaise which justifies one's neurosis; easier than to see the country as a vast Miguel Street of individuals, people in a truer sense of the word than Froude seems to have been aware of, each making demands on one's imaginative sympathy, because of the unique history which each has endured.
Naipaul's hatred of the steel band and all it indicates is no mere rejection of West Indian culture, but a rejection of the single common ground where Trinidadians of all races meet on a basis of equality. Carnival in Trinidad, dominated by steel-band, calypso and costume, is more than a time of general merry-making. One can, without naively propounding a West Indian version of the myth of the happy Negro, recognize Carnival as one of the few symbols, however tenuous, of a oneness in the Trinidadian people. Naipaul can show us how both Indians and Negroes despise each other in a monkey-like struggle to ape standards of pseudo-whiteness. But he rejects as crude, noisy and unsophisticated the sole symbol of their miscibility, the one sign that the people themselves are reconstructing something to take the place of the personality which history destroyed.
A similar shortcoming manifests itself in what Naipaul has to say about the Negro. He is able to recognize Negro self-contempt as a product of history, to see the historical inferiority complex as the central dilemma of Creole culture. But he does not understand the Negro's attempt at reconstructing something to take the place of his lost dignity.
The involvement of the Negro with the white world is one of the limitations of West Indian writing, as it is the destruction of American Negro writing. The American Negro's subject is his blackness. This cannot be the basis of any serious literature, and it has happened again and again that once the American Negro has made his statement, his profitable protest, he has nothing to say.
The obvious comment is that where one's blackness means something very definite, it can become the basis of the most serious literature. And much as one accepts Naipaul's point that protest literature can become a sterile and stereotyped posturing in the name of blackness, one also realizes that protest against the past is a vital transitional stage in the reconstruction of a sense of personality. Naipaul does not realize that in treating the theme of East Indian acculturation, and the reconstruction of the Indian personality in the New World, he is at one with Negro writers who are also trying to reconstruct personality, and is writing a most vital portion of the sensitive history of the West Indies. Naipaul's Mr Biswas rebels because his society denies him personality and forces him to live with an inferiority complex and a sense of nonentity. Negro writers, in the Caribbean or America, protest because their society annihilated identity. Both in the case of Mr Biswas and the negro of the New World, underprivilege is struggling to build its symbolic house against overwhelming odds.
A House for Mr Biswas is more profound than anything else Naipaul has written because, for the first time, he is able to feel his own history not merely as a squalid farce, but as an adventure in sensibility. Mr Biswas has nothing to recommend him except a talent for sign-painting, and the fact that he is a Brahmin and therefore an accessible target for Hindu snobbery. These qualities together land him in trouble. For it is while he is painting decorations at the Tulsi store, that he is detected passing a love note to one of the Tulsi daughters. When summoned before Mrs Tulsi and her right-hand man Seth, he allows himself to be brow-beaten into marriage and spends the rest of his life fighting to be independent of the Tulsis. His ambition is to build a house of his own.
The book can be interpreted on several levels. There is the obvious surface level where Biswas can be seen as a second-generation Indian who, although rebelling against his own decaying Hindu world, cannot come to a meaningful compromise with the Creole world of Trinidad. This Creole world comes in only by implication and allusion. The Tulsis refer to it with contempt, although Biswas is quick to point out to them just how degrading a concession they make to it by sending their sons to a Roman Catholic school. Naipaul himself is aware of acculturation in the bilingualism which is now imposed on the East Indian. Hindi remains the language of intimacy but, by the end of the book, Mr Biswas has for years been a journalist writing in English, and the readers and learners all speak Creole.
In An Area of Darkness Naipaul writes thus of the East Indian confrontation with the Creole world:
Into this alienness we daily ventured, and at length we were absorbed into it. But we knew that there had been change, gain, loss. We knew that something which was once whole had been washed away. What was whole was the idea of India.
The Hindu world soon becomes the world Naipaul describes in The Middle Passage:
an enclosing self-sufficient world absorbed with its quarrels and jealousies, as difficult for the outsider to penetrate as for one of its own members to escape. It protected and imprisoned, a static world, awaiting decay.
Since the society offers him two equally terrible nightmares, isolation and non-identification are the only alternatives left to Biswas. The two houses which he builds and has to abandon are built in inhospitable waste-lands far from society. 'He had built his own house in a place as wild and out of the way as he could have wished … not seeming to invite habitation so much as decay.' But rejection of his Hindu roots proves a formidable task, and the Biswas who, as a boy contemptuously spurns this dead ritualistic life, mutters 'Rama, Rama, Sita, Rama' during the storm. At the most acute moment of crisis, the old ritual is what reasserts itself. It is a sign of Naipaul's complete control that even in this little detail he is not found wanting. A House for Mr Biswas moves far beyond preoccupations with race or the Hindu world in Trinidad, and depicts a classic struggle for personality against a society that denies it. But the book is only able to do so because this narrow, enclosed Hindu world has been established with such fidelity and completeness.
Naipaul establishes this world with such consistency that it becomes symbolic of darkness, stagnation and decay. Hanuman House, the home of the Tulsis, is an
alien white fortress, bulky, impregnable and blank … windowless … slightly sinister…. The kitchen … was lower than the hall and completely without light. The doorway gaped black … blackness seemed to fill the kitchen like a solid substance.
Every other Tulsi home is like this. There is the shop at The Chase where 'the walls were black and fluffy with soot as though a new species of spider had been bred there', the barracks at Green Vale, 'The trees darkened the road, their rotting leaves choked the grass gutters. The trees surrounded the barracks'. The Tulsis soon reduce the house at Shorthills to a ramshackle decay; round the house in Port-of-Spain they build a symbolic wall.
The term 'barracks' suggests the regimentation of life which Biswas fights until he builds a house of his own. Biswas's rebellion can be read as the rebellion of an individual against a communal way of life. Hanuman House, symbolically presided over by the monkey-god, is described as a 'communal organization' whose maintenance depends on a recognition of authority by, and a denial of personality to the ruled. As soon as Tulsi autocracy becomes weak, the whole system disintegrates, and one has the anarchy of the Shorthills episode, where the naked self-interest behind Tulsi ritual manifests itself, and life returns to the law of the jungle as the beauty and luxuriance of the land are wantonly despoiled.
In this decaying paradise of totalitarianism, Biswas the individualist is described as 'serpent' and 'spy'. As he appears before 'the family tribunal' Seth describes the nature of the crime which he has committed. 'This house is like a republic already.' The argument which the Tulsis employ against him is the eternal argument of totalitarianism; namely, that the individual is meaningless if he tries to be independent of the system. The Tulsis try to make Biswas aware of the fact that he has come to them with no material possessions and argue that he is therefore a nonentity who can only gain significance if he surrenders to them. Tulsidom depends for its existence on the psychic emasculation of the men and on the maintenance of their sense of inferiority. At the most humiliating moments of his struggle, Biswas nearly surrenders to this sense of inferiority. It is seen by Naipaul as a surrender to darkness and chaos.
It is worth pointing out that the traditional Hindu custom requires the bride to join her husband's household and become almost a servant of her mother-in-law. The complete humiliation of Biswas's position is that he has to assume the ritualistic role of the newly married Hindu girl. Thus his is a rebellion against complete humiliation in the eyes of society, and against nonentity in an entire and comprehensive sense. It is interesting to note the honesty and care with which this rebellion is depicted. Initially Biswas enjoys it. It exhilarates him. But it soon becomes a vicious and bitter struggle, fought with invective, saliva and scorn. Indeed, Biswas is at times petty, cowardly and contemptible, and part of the book's triumph is that Naipaul has been able to present a hero in all his littleness, and still preserve a sense of the man's inner dignity.
As the rebellion progresses, Biswas finds that 'All his joy had turned into disgust at his condition'. This happens one morning as he realizes his irrelevance to the Tulsi scene. If he were to disappear, the ritual would still go on. He therefore realizes that rebellion for rebellion's sake is not enough, and must coincide with the positive act of constructing something new to take the place of the old life one repudiates.
For the present, however, he merely seeks to emancipate himself from Hanuman House, and is sent to The Chase, a Tulsi outpost in a remote area. But when, for the first time since marriage, he confronts life outside Hanuman House, Biswas finds himself afraid of the freedom which his rebellion has won him. Like so many protest politicians, he fails initially when required to be constructive—'How lonely the shop was! And how frightening!… afraid to disturb the silence, afraid to open the door of the shop, to step into the light….' A House for Mr Biswas can be read as a book which probes the relationship between rebellion and independence. True independence, it is revealed, does not immediately follow rebellion; true personality does not immediately follow emancipation, but must be constructed in a lifetime of painful struggle and retrogression. What does follow emancipation is a dark 'void' which Biswas must learn to face before he can 'step into the light'. It takes him all his life to fight the void and whatever graciousness life has to offer comes late, when he has almost lost the capacity to enjoy it. His victory lies in the fact that he has remained himself.
The house, which Mr Biswas determines to build as soon as he sees the Tulsi barracks at Green Vale, is more than a place where he can live. It is his personality symbolized, the private individuality which he must both build and maintain against the rest of the world. The development in Mr Biswas's house parallels at all points his development as a person. We are reminded of the destructive power of the Tulsis in the scene where Shama, acting as the agent of their malice, smashes the doll's house which Biswas buys for his daughter. It is described as if it were a body torn apart.
None of its parts was whole. Its delicate joints were exposed and useless. Below the torn skin of paint … the hacked and splintered wood was white and raw.
The scene is rendered with complete naturalness and sensitive force and its point is clear. Anything which manifests individuality and difference causes dread, envy and hostility in Hanuman House. The reaction of the Tulsis to the doll's house is a measure of the terrible revenge which this 'communal organization' can take on one who dares to be individual.
The book can be interpreted on a metaphysical level, since it questions the basis and meaning of personality. An interesting ambivalence emerges from the book. Firstly there is the dependence of the individual upon society for his sense of being; where by society one means not only other people, but a whole concrete world with which the consciousness establishes some deep intimacy, and claims as its own. As soon as Biswas 'stepped out of the yard, he returned to nonentity'. Outside Tulsi society he is lost. Secondly there is the necessary rebellion which the individual must make against society and the void which must be confronted. In the void are meaninglessness, nonentity, fear, lunacy and chaos, the storm within and the storm without. It is out of this confrontation that the new personality grows.
In many ways Biswas is an archetypal figure. He is described as stranger, visitor and wanderer. Weak, and frequently absurd, he is recognized in Hanuman House as a buffoon, and the role of fool is one which he at times accepts in humiliation and at others rejects with bitterness. But Biswas the clown is also Biswas the rebel. He is also man the artist, and his art is the only aspect of him that the Tulsis really admire, not realizing that it is an expression of the very personality they detest. Whenever Biswas is attacked by the sense of life as meaningless void, he immediately turns to his paint brushes and tries to create something against the emptiness. Perhaps he himself gives the best definition of his significance. To his bewildered son who asks him, 'Who are you?' he replies, 'I am just somebody. Nobody at all. I am just a man you know.' Biswas is Everyman, wavering between identity and nonentity, and claiming his acquaintance with the rest of men.
The book is powerfully symbolic, but it is never crudely or obtrusively so. If Biswas represents all the things I feel he does, it is because he is fully presented as a person whose every quirk and idiosyncracy we know, in a world whose every sight, sound and smell is recorded with fidelity and precision. Whatever is suggested of the numinous and universal, is conveyed through a fidelity to the concrete and particular. Landscape and life are not treated as isolated, but both conform to the artist's unity of purpose. Description is organically employed to reinforce theme. In the end, nature which, when associated with the Tulsis, took the form of jungle, nettle and weed surrounding The Chase, or decaying leaves on half-dead trees surrounding Green Vale, or the landslide at Shorthills, manifests itself in the coolness of the laburnum, and the scent of the lily in Mr Biswas's yard. His house may be dangerously cracked in places, but because it is his own, there is grace in its grotesqueness.
Ostensibly preoccupied with the present, Naipaul observes acculturation as a timeless feature of the West Indian experience which he never really accepts. Like the boy in Miguel Street, he rejects the rubbish-heap. Like Mr Biswas, he rejects Hanuman House. Rejecting Hanuman House and Miguel Street as two sides of the greater nightmare of being an Indian in Trinidad, he seeks the freedom of the independent personality, and makes the difficult choice of exile and dispossession. There are few pleasures in his exile. Yet out of it grow irony and a necessary detachment from the nightmare.
So later, and very slowly, in securer times of different stresses, when the memories had lost the power to hurt, with pain or joy, they would fall into place and give back the past.
How can the history of this West Indian futility be written?
This finally is the question which Naipaul, and which perhaps every serious West Indian writer, asks, as he wonders what qualities of mind and feeling are necessary in order to face the West Indian experience. The answer which Naipaul ventures in The Middle Passage relates to the problem of West Indian creative writing, as well as to the writing of West Indian history as an academic pursuit. West Indian history can never be satisfactorily told, he says, because nothing was created in the West Indies, where there is neither achievement, nor a tradition of accepted values. Yet in Miguel Street and A House for Mr Biswas he tells a vital part of West Indian history, for the books are a sensitive presentation of the history of underprivilege. The worth of his irony is that it enables him to examine his past without any sentimental self-indulgence. We see Biswas as a full human being who is as weak and contemptible as he is forceful and admirable. Irony enables Naipaul to get down to the bare humanity beneath his history. Because he is dealing with his own personal past, his irony does not preclude sympathy but reinforces it. He is able to answer in terms of creative sensibility a question to which he could find no satisfactory academic answer.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4649
SOURCE: "V. S. Naipaul: A Wager on the Triumph of Darkness," in World Literature Today, Vol. 57, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 223-27.
[In the following essay, Brown praises Naipaul's skill as a novelist, focusing on his "dark" vision of the world.]
V.S. Naipaul has traveled far since his Trinidad beginnings. He was born there in 1932, a third-generation West Indian of Hindu ancestry. His father, a reporter with literary ambitions, encouraged his son to study and write. Even as a very young man Naipaul was determined to get away from the narrow, neocolonial world of his birth. At eighteen he left for England, took an Oxford degree, worked for the BBC, began to write. With his early stories of West Indian life he received immediate recognition from British critics as the most talented of contemporary Caribbean writers. He was covered with prestigious English literary prizes, four of them in a little more than ten years. Lately he has begun to pick them up in the United States as well, winning in 1980 the Bennett Award, given to a "writer of literary achievement" who is considered to "have received insufficient attention"—which, to tell the truth, is not really Naipaul's case. In the opinion of some of his disgruntled West Indian colleagues he became a prize exhibit of the London intellectual establishment, living proof of the generous recognition of colonial talents in the capital. He has often been accused, in judgments motivated, it would seem, more by envy than by justice, of "looking down his long Oxonian nose" at the trivialities, the pretensions and the provincialism of the West Indies. One Trinidadian official indeed informed me that "Naipaul is certainly not our favorite native son"—something of an understatement. Naipaul seemed to have adapted swiftly to English life. He married a young English woman, acquired a prose style hailed as masterly. His eye was unerring in observing English scenes, as he demonstrated in The Mimic Men and in Mr Stone and the Knights Companion.
But it was clear that Britain wasn't "home" any more than Trinidad had been. Like every other place, it was a place to get out of. Naipaul early recognized in himself that sense of placelessness and of universal insecurity which afflicts the characters of his later novels. He began to travel, more perhaps to prove to himself that he didn't belong anywhere than to find a permanent haven. In 1960 he returned to the Caribbean, a sobering and bitter experience recounted in The Middle Passage (1962), which mingles history and sharp, personal observations. He visits Trinidad, British Guiana, Surinam, Martinique and Jamaica, all of them "borrowed cultures." He has few illusions about the future of the entire region, now largely freed from that colonialism which had been so often blamed for its misfortunes. Many of the issues discussed in this volume reappear in The Mimic Men. A close relation exists between Naipaul's travel books and his fiction, the travel books often serving as raw material for the novels.
He returns to the West Indies once again in The Loss of El Dorado (1969), a historical work in which he explores the origins of modern Trinidad. He highlights two key events: the founding of Port of Spain in 1592 by Antonio de Berrio, a belated conquistador obsessed by the legend of El Dorado and the capture of the island by the British in 1797. Berrio, quite out of his mind, spent the last years of his life in a mad search for the golden city. And the first British governor, a deranged sadist, reveled in hangings and floggings and was finally brought to trial for torturing a young mulatto girl. But by that time the West Indies were already rapidly becoming the backwaters of the empire. Naipaul handles these events with a novelist's skill and sense of drama, but he also exhibits that vital feeling for history which is apparent throughout his later work. Using unpublished archival material, he vividly evokes what Walter Allen has called "the contradictions and the tragic absurdities, the whole inheritance of cruelty and chaos" which marks the history of the Caribbean.
In 1962 Naipaul went to India for a year, traveling widely: south to Madras, east to Calcutta, north to Kashmir, where he spent several months. He accompanied a crowd of pilgrims to a holy cave high in the Himalayas and visited his grandfather's desolate native village in Uttar Pradesh. He records his impressions in An Area of Darkness (1964), which, on its appearance, provoked cries of protest from Indian intellectuals. H.B. Singh branded Naipaul as "a despicable lackey of neo-colonialism" who deserves "utter contempt." Another critic claimed that "the area of darkness" is within Naipaul himself. In 1977 came India: A Wounded Civilization. For Naipaul, India is "a difficult country." It isn't his home, but he cannot reject it because of his family background. On this second visit he wished to investigate the "Emergency" of 1976, when Indira Gandhi had in effect seized absolute power. He reaches the conclusion that with this suppression of democratic institutions and "with no foreign conqueror to impose a new order," India is now forced to face alone "the blankness of its decayed civilization."
The Return of Eva Perón (1980) contains four essays written between 1972 and 1975: "Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad," "The Return of Eva Perón," "A New King for the Congo: Mobutu and the Nihilism of Africa" and "Conrad's Darkness." These essays have close links with the novels. The "Author's Note" states: "These pieces … bridged a creative gap; from the end of 1970 to the end of 1973, no novel offered itself to me…. Out of these journeys and these writings, novels did in the end come to me." Many of Naipaul's articles and some of the more important of his numerous book reviews are included in The Overcrowded Barracoon (1972). They include "Cannery Row Revisited," a particularly interesting piece, since Steinbeck's book has sometimes been mentioned as a forerunner of Miguel Street.
Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey, the most recent (1981) and the least well-received of Naipaul's nonfiction books, contains observations on his seven-month trip to four countries—Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia—which are all undergoing Islamic revolutions. It has been pointed out that, curiously, the volume has nothing to say about any Arab state. Specialists have noted that Naipaul seems inadequately prepared to deal accurately with a complex phenomenon which varies from country to country. And his fondness for anecdote and personal narrative often leads him to pay relatively little attention to crucial events taking place in the Islamic world during his trip: the storming of the American Embassy in Teheran; the violent incidents in the Great Mosque in Mecca; the Russian invasion of Afghanistan; the reign of martial law in Pakistan. In the section on Pakistan there is a chapter titled "Killing History," deploring the violence with which Islam "tramples on the past." Islam's kind of "selective history" fuels the rage that Naipaul encountered wherever he went, the rage to kill and to destroy, a love of violence masquerading as faith ("Islam sanctified rage"). But sometimes he has the fleeting impression that Islam can give people a kind of serenity, a feeling of completeness—if only the world outside, the world of Western technology which the "Believers" hate but without which they cannot get along, could only be cast away.
But remarkable as Naipaul's travel books may be, he is essentially a novelist, and it is as a novelist that his achievement must be evaluated. In the field of fiction he is certainly no innovator. He has mastered the craft of traditional narrative and shows little interest in technical experiment. He is closer to Dickens or Balzac than he is to Joyce or le nouveau roman; his concern is to tell a story and also to discuss ideas. He would never subscribe to Flaubert's ideal to "write a book about nothing." Miguel Street—the first of his Trinidad stories to be written, although it was published in 1959, after The Mystic Masseur and The Suffrage of Elvira—consists of a series of sketches about a lower-class neighborhood in Port of Spain. There is the vivacious Laura, mother of eight children by as many fathers, "whose shouts and curses were the richest things I ever heard. She like Shakespeare when it comes to using words." There we also encounter B. Wordsworth, the poet who had never written poetry but who lived it; Man-man, who thought he was the Messiah and who sent out invitations for his crucifixion; Eddoes, "one of the aristocrats of the street" because he drove the garbage truck and only had to work mornings.
Miguel Street differs from most West Indian writing about the poor in that it expresses no overt social protest, but rather a humorous delight in these colorful characters, apparently happy in spite of their poverty. These vignettes, with their mix of sentimentality and irony (and perhaps with a dash of condescension as well), are always charming and occasionally even somewhat coy. The leading character of The Mystic Masseur (1957), Ganesh, already appears in Miguel Street no longer as a pundit in a dhoti but as a rising politician in "an expensive looking lounge suit." Pundit Ganesh Ramsurmmari, after having failed in a series of undertakings, finally gains a reputation as a learned man and a mystic. He then embarks on a political career, is elected to the Trinidad Legislative Council, becomes more and more British and finally assumes the name of G. Ramsay Muir, M.B.E.
The Suffrage of Elvira (1958) also treats of Trinidad politics. A rich Hindu, Harbans, is seeking election to the Legislative Council from the Elvira district. Democracy "had taken everybody by surprise" when it had come to Elvira after the war, and no one is very sure how it should work. So here, as elsewhere, Elvira apes the world outside. Harbans hires a truck with a loudspeaker and a brash young campaign manager to drive it and blat out the campaign slogans. He passes out free "rum vouchers" so that prospective supporters can get drunk free and democratically in the local rumshop. However, success finally depends on buying up the votes. Harbans wins the election, but it has cost him a lot of money. As he leaves Elvira, he shakes his first at the countryside he is now representing and shouts: "Elvira, you is a bitch." As usual in these Trinidad stories, Naipaul shows an enviable command of local language: "you talking arseness"; "you suckastic and insultive in my pussonal." These electoral antics in Elvira are marvelously entertaining. But Naipaul is also expressing concern about the degradation of democracy in many emerging countries. Only in the emerging countries? Harban's comment, as he is forced to bribe more and more, has an uncomfortably familiar ring: "'They should pass some sort of law to prevent candidates from spending so much money,…' But then he pulled out his wallet."
The last of the Trinidad novels, A House for Mr Biswas (1961), goes beyond local color to embrace a universal theme: the desire of a man to have a home of his own, to "be somebody" in his own right. Looking back on his early years, Naipaul has created a "remembrance of things past," a large-scale chronicle teeming with life and rich in feeling. It retraces the history of a tentacular Hindu family, the Tulsis, into which the poor orphan Mr Biswas marries nearly by accident, admitted only because he is a Brahmin and the Tulsis are of an inferior caste with many daughters to provide for. But they are prosperous. They own a store, a sugar plantation and a big house, where all the tribe live in stifling proximity. The sons-in-law are expected to work on the family properties. As a man who knows how to read, Biswas refuses to work in the fields; so he is assigned to manage a small grocery shop the family owns. But he has no business sense and is given another job as an assistant overseer on the sugar plantation, where he and his family are forced to live in one room in the barracks. Unable to stand it, he manages to build a cheap house on a nearby site. A house of his own! But a tropical storm wrecks it, and he is forced to return to tribal life with the Tulsis. He takes refuge in reading: "He discovered the solace of Dickens." He finds pleasure in transferring Dickens's characters and settings "to people and places that he knew," as perhaps Naipaul himself did in writing Mr Biswas. By a stroke of luck, Biswas gets a newspaper job, and although he is still under the roof (and the thumb!) of the Tulsis, his prestige as a journalist makes life more tolerable. He also derives comfort from his children, especially his only son, a bright boy who eventually wins a scholarship to study abroad.
Conventional, romantic love has little place in Naipaul's world. Biswas's relations with his wife seem without affection. Her deepest loyalties are to the tribe rather than to her husband. Only with his son does Biswas exhibit any real tenderness. Finally, he manages to borrow money to buy a rundown dwelling. After a heart attack he loses his job but is able to take refuge in "a home of his own," and soon afterward he dies there, under his own roof, content in spite of all the disappointments and frustrations of his life. Naipaul, so often lacking in emotional warmth, clearly has a special affection for Biswas. He succeeds admirably in communicating this affection to the reader. Of all his novels, this is perhaps the most appealingly human.
After Biswas the novelist's vision of the world grows darker. He will never be able to find his way back to the innocence of Miguel Street. The years in England had confirmed his feelings about the secondhand quality of his place of birth. Determined to avoid being categorized as a "West Indian writer," he set out in his next book, Mr Stone and the Knights Companion (1963), to write of British life and proved himself an expert craftsman who could do it extremely well. The protagonist, Mr Stone, has spent his obscure career as a clerk in a large London firm. On the eve of his retirement he dreams up a program by which the pensioned employees will get together to assist the less fortunate retirees. Management backs the scheme, and Stone hopes that it means he will acquire a prestige he never enjoyed before. But a brash public-relations man takes over, and Stone is once again relegated to obscurity.
The Mimic Men (1967) is set largely in Trinidad (here called "Isabella"), although the opening and closing sections take place in London, where the narrator Ralph Singh studied as a young man and to which he has now returned as an ex-minister in disgrace. He is only forty, but he knows that he is washed up: "The career of a colonial politician is short and ends brutally." Back home from England, he has embarked on a profitable real-estate operation and has become involved in politics. But the exercise of power cannot conceal from him the void of his "bastard world." He and others like him "in Isabella and in 20 other countries" are all "mimic men." Some readers branded the novel as reactionary, and many of Singh's opinions would seem to justify the accusation. He describes Isabella in the colonial period as "a benevolently administered dependency." He has a nostalgia for "the good old days" on the great cocoa plantations. But the old regime was not as benevolent as that and was marked, as The Loss of El Dorado makes clear, by horrifying brutality. Still, it would be an error to label Singh (or his creator) simplistically as neocolonialist. Both "write from both sides." Singh "hates oppression and fears the oppressed." He is aware, like many disillusioned liberals, that the oppressed, once delivered from oppression, are swift to become oppressors in their turn. Singh shares Naipaul's interest in history, deplores that "there is no such thing as history nowadays … only the pamphleteering of churls." In both of them there lurks more than a hint of snobbishness, of Brahmin superiority. (Naipaul has written an essay, "What's Wrong with Being a Snob?") And as the exiled Singh meditates on the history of Isabella, with "its hunters and hunted, rulers and ruled," he realizes that its message is cruelly clear: nothing is secure. So, alone in London, he settles down to accept "the final emptiness" which, it is implied, awaits us all.
The short stories in A Flag on the Island (1967) restate familiar themes: placelessness, alienation, meaninglessness, the illusion of "progress." The title novella deals with the return to a Caribbean island by an American soldier who had been there during the war and who is saddened at the devastation wrought by tourism and by the vulgarity of a gadget civilization.
In a Free State (1971) consists of the two journal entries "The Tramp at Piraeus" and "The Circus at Luxor," and two short stories—"One Out of Many," about an East Indian trying to adjust to life in Washington, D.C., and "Tell Me Who to Kill," an account of a West Indian and his brother adrift in London—as well as the novella "In a Free State," one of Naipaul's outstanding achievements. All the characters in this last-named work have in one fashion or another escaped the constraints of their own culture to live in a "free state," only to discover that they don't belong anywhere. Geographically, the "free state" is a recently independent African country, torn by civil war between the new president and the old tribal king, who is in flight before the government forces and who is finally murdered by them. The protagonist Bobby, a neurotic, homosexual Englishman, works for the government as a foreign expert. He longs to be a part of African society. He wears native-style shirts, attempts to speak the patois of the region, seeks friendship (and love) among the natives. During his stay in the capital for professional meetings he attempts to pick up a young Zulu, who disdainfully rejects him and spits in his face. The next morning he sets out to drive back to his work in "the Southern Collectorate," accompanied by Linda, the wife of one of his colleagues. During the long trip the two keep talking randomly away, but they have little to say to each other, since Linda does not share Bobby's enthusiasm for Africa.
Naipaul masterfully conveys the feel of the country they are driving through, in all its vastness, emptiness and menace. They stop for the night in a run-down inn, once a tourist attraction, now unfrequented because of civil disorder. The proprietor, a crusty old colonial, reveals in a confrontation with one of the black servants all the hatred that exists between the few whites remaining in the area and the natives bent on taking over. The next day Bobby and Linda press on through the empty land, occasionally surprised by bizarre sights: "Two men ran out into the road … they were naked and chalked white from head to toe, white as the rocks." When Bobby stops to inquire about a rumored curfew, he is seized and beaten (for no clear-cut reason) by a group of soldiers and is then permitted to go on his way. On their arrival in the compound, Luke, the houseboy, begins to laugh at the battered Bobby, and Bobby knows that he must "sack" him in order to preserve his own dignity. This unsettling narrative, for all its strangeness, gives an impression of a frightening authenticity, and as we read contemporary African history, we sense that Naipaul's view of things may be uncomfortably close to the unreal reality.
Before the appearance of Guerrillas (1975) Naipaul was relatively little known in the U.S. Of course his earlier fiction, even that dealing with revolutionary situations in newly independent countries, had avoided sensationalism, had appealed mostly to a literate minority. Guerrillas, on the other hand, struck a new note with its emphasis on brutality and on the explicit treatment of morbid sexuality. A deliberately bleak and nihilistic work, it made nevertheless a greater impact here than anything he had previously written, was extravagantly praised, even overpraised as "the masterpiece of the best novelist now writing." All the characters—from Jimmy Ahmed, the confused, self-dramatizing Black Power leader; to Jane, the Anglo-Canadian victim of his sadistic hate; to Roche, the South African dissident; to Bryant, Jimmy's slum-boy lover—are at once pitiful and repulsive, minimonsters smelling of "rotten meat" (one of Jimmy's frequently used expressions). The novel itself, however, is no more macabre than the events on which it is based, recounted in the essay "Michael X and the Black Power Killings."
Peter Roche, banned from South Africa after having suffered torture and imprisonment, arrives on a West Indian island as a public-relations man for a foreign company bent on improving its image and also on counteracting any incipient revolutionary disturbances. He is accompanied by his mistress Jane, who (like her real-life counterpart in "Michael X") is looking for thrills and for the excitement she identifies with Black Power. Roche becomes associated with Jimmy Ahmed, half black, half Chinese, who, after having been deported from England where he had achieved a certain notoriety in "radical chic" circles as "the black Pekinese" of salon revolutionaries, has founded an agricultural commune "for the land and for the Revolution." The enterprise is financed in part by Roche's company, who see in it a possible means of defusing certain potentially dangerous elements in the island's urban youth gangs. Jane, bored with Roche, no longer the heroic figure she imagined him to be, takes Jimmy to bed, although it is difficult to see what either one finds attractive in the other. Meanwhile, the slaying by the police of Stephens, a young black gang leader who had briefly belonged to Jimmy's commune, provokes an abortive popular uprising. Houses are burned, stores looted. But soon the government, with the support of "Americans" in helicopters, restores order of a sort. These events persuade Jane that it is time to get out, but, drawn by the odor of "rotten meat," she goes to pay a last visit to Jimmy. Their final sexual encounter, at once savage and absurd (in these matters Naipaul is at his least convincing), ends with Jimmy's offering Jane as a victim to his young lover ("Bryant, the rat, kill the rat"); the hysterical, hate-crazed boy hacks her gruesomely to death with his cutlass. Roche, probably aware that Jane has been done away with, destroys her papers so that there will be no evidence that she ever existed, and, fearful for his own life, prepares ingloriously to flee.
Africa evidently made a deep impression on Naipaul, as A Bend in the River (1979) testifies. One of his major achievements, much larger in scale than In a Free State and rich in Conradian resonances, it merits the comparison sometimes made to Heart of Darkness. Naipaul's characters, however, lack the tragic dimensions of Conrad's Kurtz, who had, at least in the beginning, nourished the hope that humane concern might bring light into the darkness. In Naipaul's work, on the contrary, the characters have long since renounced such an illusion—if indeed they ever had it at all. For its subject matter, A Bend in the River draws largely on the essay "A New King for the Congo: Mobutu and the Nihilism of Africa" but demonstrates once again how a novelist of Naipaul's gifts can convey a new density, a deeper significance to "facts," can absorb and transform the document.
Naipaul's preoccupation with history and with historical change is everywhere apparent. Early in the story the narrator Salim, the son of an Indian Moslem family installed for generations on the African coast, realizes that with the rise of revolutionary movements "another tide of history was coming to wash us away." He decides to strike out on his own and acquires a store in a small city in Zaire, on "a bend in the river." He finds the town in shambles after the disorders which followed the departure of the Belgians: "You were in a place where the future had come and gone." But soon the new president, backed up with tough white mercenaries, succeeds in imposing order of a sort, and the town comes to life again. The little foreign colony draws a breath of relief and settles down to make money. Naipaul hates the greed of the Europeans, but he is swift to point out that the Africans are just as greedy. The native officials, gathered in the newly opened Bigburger, "wore as much gold as possible—gold-rimmed glasses, gold rings, gold pen and pencil sets, gold watches."
On the outskirts of the town, the president ("the Big Man") creates a showy institute for the training of young officials and for international meetings to which Western experts on African affairs, picturesquely clad in native costumes, are invited. The director of the center, a middle-aged Belgian professor, had been "the Big Man's white man," but he is aware that he is on the skids, that his boss has no further need of him. Salim engages in a rather absentminded liaison with the director's young wife. Their couplings are marked by sadistic violence; on one occasion she falls to the floor under Salim's blows: "Then I used my feet on her." Soon conditions again grow worse for the foreign colony. The Big Man nationalizes all foreign property and distributes it to the "people." Salim becomes the manager of his own store, now the property of an illiterate native called Citoyen Théotime. Anxious to make money in order to get out, he engages in illegal traffic in ivory, is flung into jail and later gains release only through the intervention of Ferdinand, a young native whom he had befriended in the past and who had risen to be "a commissioner." But in spite of his official position, Ferdinand too is deathly afraid. He foresees mass killings when the Big Man arrives to conduct a purge: "They're going to kill and kill and kill." Salim manages to get on the steamer—perhaps the last one for some time—that is leaving the next morning. But we know as well as he does that there is nowhere for him to go.
These works of his maturity reveal that Naipaul is far more than "the most gifted West Indian novelist of his generation," more indeed than the most compelling and troubling of the writers who have confronted the tragic contradictions of the Third World. He implies that their problems—placelessness, disorder, violence, racial hatred, irrational frenzy, self-destroying greed—may be ours as well. We can certainly accept the validity of his grim premonitions. It is more difficult, however, to accept the bleak and intransigent hopelessness with which he views the human situation. Throughout his work he has always insisted that he refuses to take a position "for" or "against." But, on a deeper level, he is a partisan, indeed a fierce partisan of an apocalyptic conception of history whose dogmatic blackness betrays a romantic immaturity. His knowledge of the past should have shown him that every ending is also a beginning, that neither men or events are inexorably predestined, that the human adventure is an eternally disconcerting mixture of good and evil, of darkness and light—even though the light may often seem very faint and flickering indeed. But so far he has wagered consistently on the triumph of darkness, insufficiently aware that prophets announcing the end of the world have appeared in every generation in the past and that, in spite of their prophecies, new worlds have arisen to take the place of those which have passed away. But of course these past cultures were unprovided with nuclear playthings.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3253
SOURCE: "V. S. vs. The Rest," in Vanity Fair, Vol. 50, March, 1987, pp. 64-8.
[In the following interview, Atlas offers insight into Naipaul's methods and motivations]
"Whatever the labor of any piece of writing, whatever its creative challenges and satisfactions, time had always taken me away from it," recalls V.S. Naipaul in The Enigma of Arrival, out this month from Knopf. "And, with time passing, I felt mocked by what I had already done; it seemed to belong to a time of vigor, now past for good. Emptiness, restlessness built up again; and it was necessary once more, out of my internal resources alone, to start on another book, to commit myself to that consuming process again."
From this process has come Naipaul's most self-revealing book, the chronicle of an inward journey that proved more harrowing than his travels in darkest Africa. The Enigma of Arrival marks a culmination in Naipaul's career; an autobiography in the form of a novel, it explains with ardor and eloquence what drove him to produce a body of work that makes him the rival of anyone writing in English.
Naipaul's books are fiercely candid, but he detests publicity and rarely sits for interviews. He's known to be proud, imperious, even rude. "His contempt is severe," notes Paul Theroux. His widely quoted opinion of the publishing scene: "an extraordinarily shoddy, dirty, dingy world" dominated by men with "the morality and the culture of barrow boys—street sellers, people pushing rotten apples." The people of his native Trinidad were "Monkeys," he once said, for whom "drumbeating is a higher activity." Every culture was primitive in its own way, even Oxford—"a very second-rate provincial university." On the way to see Naipaul, I remembered David Hare's portrait of Victor Mehta, the haughty Indian writer (based on Naipaul) in A Map of the World, whose books include a novel about journalists entitled The Vermin Class.
Naipaul's flat was on a quiet residential street of tidy redbrick apartments that had a newly renovated look. He led me down the hall past several sparsely furnished rooms and ushered me into the dining room. I asked if he had just moved in. "Yes, but I'm leaving," he said tersely. "The walls are too thin."
I wasn't surprised. Naipaul's characters are forever pulling up stakes, establishing themselves in seedy boarding-houses, then departing without a trace. Over the years, he has lived in India, Africa, South America, the Middle East. The Wiltshire village described so lovingly in his new book is the only permanent home he's ever had. Naipaul has lived there—first in a modest rented cottage, then in a house he bought and restored—for seventeen years.
Small, fastidious, precise in his gestures, Naipaul wears a plain gray sport coat and a blue tie. His hair is ebony black. Now fifty-four, he looks weary but fit; he's vegetarian, drinks sparingly, does yogic exercises every morning. His features are delicate, austere; his expression is often pained.
In the dining room a woman, white-haired but with a handsome, youthful face—a character out of Iris Murdoch—brings us tea and slips away. It can only be Naipaul's wife, Patricia Hale, who for many years has closely edited his work. They met at Oxford and married in 1955. Yet no reader of Naipaul could presume him married; in twenty books, the only intimation of anyone else in the picture occurs in An Area of Darkness, where he refers—once—to his "companion." When he taught at Wesleyan, his wife remained in England. In the Wiltshire cottage, where he writes his books, he lives alone.
I ask him about The Enigma of Arrival. Why did he decide to write about England? "I've only been here thirty-six years," he says with a laugh. "It takes time to adjust." And why has he chosen to call the book a novel when it's so obviously autobiographical? "It has an autobiographical crust," he concedes, "but it's not an autobiography in the usual sense. It's impersonal. The man has no qualities of his own. He's anonymous, an observer. No detail of his own life ever intrudes."
Naipaul talks about himself with an eerie detachment: "One was lost in London." "One had no idea who one was." "One was alone." More than any other writer I know, he has invented himself, pieced together a coherent identity out of a multifarious past. Trinidad, where he was born in 1932, was "a dot on the map," he's often complained, "a ridiculous little island." A place—if you had ambition—to escape. "When I was in the fourth form," he recalled in The Middle Passage, "I wrote a vow on the endpaper of my Kennedy's Revised Latin Primer to leave within five years. I left after six; and for many years afterwards in England, falling asleep in bedsitters with the electric fire on, I had been awakened by the nightmare that I was back in tropical Trinidad." Why nightmare? I ask. "If you're from Trinidad, you want to get away," he says grimly. "You can't write if you're from the bush."
In 1950, Naipaul took up residence at Oxford on a government scholarship, but he's made no literary use of the experience (unlike just about every other writer who ever put in time there), and he's reluctant to discuss those years. "It was a difficult time," he says softly. "There was lack of money, uncertainty, great worry about my family. I was very isolated. My studies were of no importance. They didn't interest me." Hadn't there been some kind of emotional crisis at Oxford? "I had a mental disturbance owing to the strangeness of where I was, to loneliness. One was so far from home," he says. "So far from what one knew. It was an alien world, Oxford." He pauses. "It was clear one would remain a stranger."
It wasn't until he arrived in London at the age of twenty-one that his life as a writer began in earnest. "It was the most artificial thing for me to be a writer," he says now. "As a boy in Trinidad, I wanted to be a scientist, then a painter, but I couldn't buy a tube of paint." Installed at a desk in the typing room of the BBC, where he worked as a broadcaster for the Caribbean Service, he wrote a novel that was never published, began another, then a third. It was an arduous apprenticeship. "I was confined to a smaller world than I had ever known. I became my flat, my desk, my name." To have emerged out of Trinidad by way of India—his grandfather arrived from the province of Uttar Pradesh in the 1880s—was to have been doubly exiled from the start. To become a novelist in the stratified, class-conscious world of literary London was yet another form of exile. In a piece entitled "London" that appeared in the T.L.S. in 1958, Naipaul complained that he had written three books and made £300. "The Americans do not want me because I am too British. The public here do not want me because I am too foreign."
Still, three books—what strikes anyone is how precocious he was. Two of those books had appeared in print by the time he was twenty-six; they won prizes and got excellent reviews (from, among others, Kingsley Amis). By the time he published his masterpiece, A House for Mr. Biswas, he was an established writer in England, with a small but loyal following. He was a year shy of thirty. A triumph? Naipaul didn't see it that way. "I had dreamed of coming to England," he writes in The Enigma of Arrival. "But my life in England had been savorless, and much of it mean."
The main event of this novel-autobiography is a second nervous breakdown, suffered when Naipaul was in his late thirties, a "grief, too deep for tears or rage," brought on by the failure of a book. For two years he'd been working on a history of Trinidad (The Loss of El Dorado). In the midst of his research he resolved to leave England and go back to the New World. "The house I had bought and renovated in stages I sold; and my furniture and books and papers went to the warehouse." Four months later, a "calamity" occurred. The book was turned down; the publisher who'd commissioned it "wanted only a book for tourists." Naipaul was forced to return to England. Broke, exhausted, in need of a refuge, he retreated to a Wiltshire cottage on the grounds of a manor inhabited by a reclusive landlord, and it was there, "in that unlikely setting, in the ancient heart of England, a place where I was truly an alien, [that] I found I was given a second chance, a new life, richer and fuller than any I had had anywhere else."
These days Naipaul seems utterly at home in England. His clothes are tweedy, his shirts bespoke; his accent is unswervingly "U"; until a few years ago he ordered snuff from Fribourg & Treyer and dipped it with a silver spoon. He carries a British passport and thinks of himself as a British writer. (One publisher who made the mistake of advertising Naipaul as "a West Indian writer" was quickly dropped.) Yet he's often had bitter things to say about his adopted land. A decade ago he described England as "a country of second-rate people—bum politicians, scruffy writers and crooked aristocrats."
When I remind Naipaul of this observation, he questions me closely about my sources. "I wouldn't make big remarks about England now," he says mildly. "It's a very humane place." What about the racism he encountered? The wrong word, I discover. "That is an eighties word," he says, slapping the table. "Don't oversimplify. We must not use anachronistic words." His dark, hooded eyes are bright with anger. "People come from all over; they have all kinds of roots. There's nothing strange about it. If you're an Eskimo, you want to define yourself." The humiliations he recalled with such agonized fervor in his work—the sense of excludedness, of marginality, that afflicts so many of his early characters transplanted from the West Indies to London—have given way to a sense of "racial pride." The crisis is over. England has become that green and pleasant land.
In The Enigma of Arrival, Naipaul surveys the gardens and valleys and farms of rural Wiltshire, the manor and its decaying grounds, the cottage where he writes his books, with a naturalist's penetrating eye. Beneath the picturesque surface, the shady lanes and meandering streams so beloved of urban exiles, is an aura of ominous change. In the course of the book, barbed-wire fences appear; the roads are paved over; buildings vanish overnight, leveled and replaced by new ones. Naipaul's Wiltshire is about as idyllic as Hardy's. No, he says, it wasn't the landscape that attracted him; it was the community, his neighbors—the gardener, the servants in the manor house, the owner of the local car service. "One was dealing with people," he says with obvious feeling. "One was brought closer to others. They were available to one. It's the most benign place I've ever known."
A virtual recluse when he's working, Naipaul seldom answers letters from people he doesn't know, and insists that he hardly ever sees anyone. "I know fewer and fewer people," he says. Yet somehow when a name comes up—Theroux, Anthony Powell—it's someone Naipaul has talked to lately. "Very social people like Antonia Fraser—people who could lend him a cottage for the weekend—were onto him from the start," recalls the critic John Gross of Naipaul's early days in London. In New York, there are dinner parties given by his publisher at Lutèce; there's the New York literary-dinner-party circuit. When he does go out, he goes out in style.
In the same way, he shrugs off references to his reputation. Routinely acknowledged as one of the pre-eminent writers of our day, frequently mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize, he still maintains that he's largely ignored. "One never knows where one stands." He doesn't read the Sunday Times, not even when his own books are reviewed. Only once, in 1971, did he monitor the reception of a book he'd published. And what book was that? "I don't like to speak the names of my books," he says. Back in my room, I discover that it was In a Free State, for which he won England's prestigious Booker Prize, worth £12,000. Was he caught up in the speculation about its chances? For all his asceticism, Naipaul is keenly interested in money. "The capitalistic streak in him runs very deep," confirms one of his friends. He likes to know how much things cost. (He once asked a journalist if his wristwatch was a genuine Cartier.) He's reputed to be merciless in negotiating contracts. Last year, after he'd turned in The Enigma of Arrival, publishing circles in New York were full of talk about a proposal Naipaul's agent had circulated to several publishers for a new book, tentatively entitled Slave States: A Journey Through the American South. The asking price was said to be $300,000. Eventually, according to one source, there was a much lower offer. The project was shelved. "In the beginning, one was badly represented," he recalls. "I was a great believer in the adage that virtue would look after itself. Nowadays one is more clear-sighted." A few months ago, he stunned his London publisher, André Deutsch, by leaving for another house—Viking. Deutsch had handled Naipaul for twenty-nine years; he had published every one of Naipaul's books. "He never even thought it appropriate to send a postcard," says a bewildered Deutsch.
That is Naipaul: abrupt, easily slighted, wary of allegiances. "My vocation made me a free man," he declares. "I never had to stay in a job, never had to work for anybody. The peasant doesn't work for anyone else." He likes to say that he has no enemies, no rivals, no masters. "I fear no one." Perhaps not. But his books simmer with scarcely suppressed rage—the refugees gunned down on a barge in A Bend in the River, the rape-murder that ends Guerrillas. "Hate oppression; fear the oppressed," writes Naipaul's exiled Caribbean minister Ralph Singh in The Mimic Men. Once, on a visit to New York, he became so antagonistic about the people he saw on the street that a publisher cautioned him, "I wouldn't go around talking like that. You can get killed."
Yet he's capable of incredible tenderness and empathy. Think of the "Traveller's Prelude" to An Area of Darkness—to me the most powerful scene in all of Naipaul's work. It describes, in charged, hallucinatory prose, the night of a cruise ship's arrival at the dock in Alexandria, the passengers besieged by horse-drawn cabs jostling for a fare.
Not far away, below a lamp standard stood a lone cab. It had been there since the late afternoon; it had withdrawn early from the turmoil around the terminal. It had had no fares, and there could be no fares for it now. The cab-lamp burned low; the horse was eating grass from a shallow pile on the road. The driver, wrapped against the wind, was polishing the dully gleaming hood of his cab with a large rag. The polishing over, he dusted; then he gave the horse a brief, brisk rub down. Less than a minute later he was out of his cab again, polishing, dusting, brushing. He went in; he came out. His actions were compulsive. The animal chewed; his coat shone; the cab gleamed. And there were no fares.
The obscure, the expendable, the unmourned: these are the ones who haunt Naipaul. His books on India especially are chronicles of a nation he's likened to hell. What he saw there—men reduced to objects, men starving in the dust—appalled him. His critics have claimed that Naipaul is an enemy of the Third World, that he condescends to it. "The condescension is in those who don't notice," he responds. "You've got to be awfully liberal not to be moved by distress. When you see human degradation on that scale, you can never be the same again."
Reading Naipaul, you feel the powerful urgency that impels his talent. His genius is a genius lashed on by the sheer will to write. "One was so driven by ambition for so long," he says, "endlessly able to pick oneself up. There was always something over the hill." He writes his books in tremendous bursts of concentration. "I can't be with a book for more than thirteen or fourteen months," he says. "It's in one's head. You're absorbed with it all the living day. I've written each book as if it was the last book I was going to write." Writing for Naipaul is a desperate act; he once described the process as "a sickening." No, he replies sharply when I mention having read this: it's more a feeling of uncertainty. Does he still find writing difficult? "Not difficult," he snaps. "Uncertain is the word I used: full of stops and starts." But again and again he persists to the end, "fighting the Monkey side of my nature," as he once put it.
In the closing pages of The Enigma of Arrival, Naipaul recounts the sudden death of his younger sister and his journey back to Trinidad for her funeral. The book is dedicated to his brother, Shiva, who died eighteen months ago of a heart attack in London at the age of forty. If the new book is in some ways more benign, less despairing than his others, it's still a book about death. Jack the gardener dies, Mr. Phillips the caretaker dies, the handyman murders his wife. The landscape itself begins to die, changed beyond recognition. What is the lesson of this book? "I know that we all die, that books date very, very quickly now," Naipaul says wearily, shielding his eyes. "The book culture is fading. Books are no longer important."
Naipaul's talk on this darkening afternoon is dominated by death. "I'm close to the end of creativity." "Death is very, very final." "I've put all my affairs in order." But isn't this simply the exhaustion of finishing a project? "Writing isn't a young man's game," he acknowledges. "It's for the mature, the suffering, the wounded—for people who need elucidation." He used to say he was old at thirty-four; at fifty-four, he has written more, seen more, lived more than most of his contemporaries. But he's still only middle-aged, I point out. He fixes me with his black, penetrating eyes. "I'm telling you how I feel." He hesitates. "There are no children … Perhaps that would have made it easier."
Our interview done, Naipaul is suddenly relaxed, affable, even gay. To my utter astonishment, I hear us talking about a subject so incongruous that I actually begin to blush. How much money do you need to live in New York? Naipaul interrogates me intently: $100,000? $150,000? $200,000? And how much does a journalist make? I laugh in disbelief and shrug. Do I own my apartment? he presses me. Does one hear people overhead? How much are co-ops going for these days? Under prompting, I offer a figure. He shakes his head: "Unbelievable."
Out on the street, walking among the twilight crowd, I glance back at Naipaul's window, a square of light in the dark, and think of the cabman alone on the dock.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8494
SOURCE: "A Novel for Our Time: V. S. Naipaul's Guerrillas," in The Failure of Theory: Essays on Criticism and Contemporary Fiction, The Harvester Press, 1987, pp. 185-206.
[In the following essay, Parrinder addresses a number of themes in Guerrillas, including the notion of the "Noble Robber" and sexual violation.]
I think there's an element of nostalgia in reading Hardy, and even in reading Dickens or George Eliot. There is narrative there, the slow development of character, and people are longing for this vanished, ordered world. Today, every man's experience of dislocation is so private that unless a writer absolutely matches that particular man's experience the writer seems very private and obscure. So I think the art of fiction is becoming a curious, shattered thing…. I think it may be that the world now requires another kind of imaginative interpretation.
An autobiography can distort; facts can be realigned. But fiction never lies: it reveals the writer totally.
Of the five contemporary novelists considered in Part II of this book, Anthony Burgess, Muriel Spark and Doris Lessing were born in 1917, 1918, and 1919 respectively. V. S. Naipaul and B. S. Johnson belong to a younger generation, having been born in 1932 and 1933. These novelists are 'English' in the sense that their life and work has been centred in Britain and the Commonwealth rather than the United States. For all that, two are resident in Mediterranean countries, one (Muriel Spark) is of Scottish-Jewish descent, and both Muriel Spark and Doris Lessing spent much of their childhood in Southern Africa. V. S. Naipaul is a Trinidad East Indian. Several of the five (like most successful English writers of the century) probably derive a large proportion of their income from the United States. Only Johnson, a Londoner and a London novelist, satisfies all the standard criteria of 'Englishness'—or did so, that is, at the time of his suicide in 1973.
V. S. Naipaul's characters are, as often as not, homeless expatriates. Like them, their creator has no fixed audience or close-knit community to which he belongs. He is not even a 'novelist's novelist' in the Jamesian or Conradian sense, having shown himself to be as uneasy about the inherited traditions of the novel as any of his contemporaries. His novels do not seem to have been written according to predetermined patterns or preconceived theories, and they have appeared at irregular and increasingly lengthy intervals. He has spoken of writing as an instinctive, unconscious process: 'The world abrades one, one comes to certain resolutions and then one devises by instinct and through dreams and all kinds of senses a story that is a symbol for all this'. Novels and stories are offered to him (as he once put it) from time to time, though in the last dozen years he has published only two of them, Guerrillas (1975) and A Bend in the River (1979). Meanwhile, his writing and his occasional interviews have emphasised the contemporary novelist's idiosyncrasy, his determined isolation and cherished independence of his fellow-writers, groups and movements.
The belief that a writer's identity lies in his or her unpredictability and independence is a defining characteristic of the culture in which Lessing, Spark and Burgess, as well as Naipaul, are significant names. B. S. Johnson was another dedicated individualist, the leader, as it were, of a literary movement that was never permitted to attract more than one member. Almost any other contemporary English novelist of repute could be chosen to illustrate the same qualities of pluralism and idiosyncrasy. Literary theory would argue, however, that the individualism of these writers is simply one of the delusions of bourgeois liberalism.
It is curious that two of the opposing literary dogmas of the age—the creed of authorial independence and the structuralist theory of the 'death of the author'—should particularly attach themselves to the writing of novels. (Roland Barthes' seminal essay 'The Death of the Author', for instance, begins and ends with the question of whether Balzac was an 'Author'). Naipaul has described the novel as a literary form 'born at the same time as the spirit of rebellion', which 'expresses, on the aesthetic plane, the same ambition'. The concept of 'rebellion', which Naipaul derives from Albert Camus' The Rebel, refers in the first instance not to collective upheaval but to the action of an individual, which is 'representative' to the extent that it comes to be seen as focal and symbolic. The novel also is an act of individual, not of collective, creation. Unlike works for the cinema, the theatre and the concert hall, it is not dependent on the dynamics of group performance for its realisation. At the same time, novels are composed of time-honoured structures and devices whose function it is to disguise and dissipate their origins in the work of named individual producers. These devices, such as the fictitious narrator, the multiplication of internal discourses and the artificiality of the narrative situation have understandably been emphasised by formalist and poststructuralist criticism.
In the past, many novels not only had a fictitious narrator but remained anonymous or pseudonymous on their first appearance. Yet the novel as Naipaul has defined it—as an expression of the spirit of rebellion—cannot forever remain anonymous. The fact that anonymous or pseudonymous novels have often been presented as 'authentic' and 'nonfictional' documents before their authorship was revealed suggests that a novel, like an act of rebellion, may be constituted as such at the moment when somebody claims the responsibility for it. A hold-up or a bomb explosion requires the signature of an individual or an organisation in order to be construed as an act of rebellion or sabotage; and much the same may be said of the way that we recognise a novel. But the author remains invisible, 'underground', even though he has put his name to the text; all we know for certain is that the visible fictive structure is his handiwork. To recognise the author behind the fiction requires an inductive leap comparable to the leap we make when we come to see a crime or a display of intransigence as an intelligible act of rebellion.
This argument suggests that, if the 'death of the author' proclaimed by literary theory had indeed taken place, the novel could survive only as a 'curious, shattered thing', a feeble anachronism. On the other hand, if the novel remains healthy it is surely because the inductive leap which converts literary structures into forms of individual expression is still everywhere capable of being made. The two epigraphs to this chapter (which both date from the early 1970s) show how Naipaul, for one, has oscillated between the paralysis of doubt and the energy of faith. Both the moment of doubt and the moment of renewed energy are implicit in the dialectics of the novel as an act of self-assertive rebellion. As for Naipaul's expressed belief that fiction 'never lies', that it 'reveals the writer totally'—these statements are no less true for being, on the face of it, outrageous paradoxes. It is as if he were calmly declaring that the ideal of a morally transparent art of fiction—the ideal towards which B. S. Johnson had so valiantly and yet so laboriously striven—was attainable, as it were, by default: that fiction always reveals the author (just as the deed reveals its perpetrator) whether he likes it or not. This belief bespeaks a confidence in liberal humanism which Johnson, for one, could not feel. But Naipaul's liberalism is not of a traditional sort, any more than his fiction belongs to such crude theoretical categories as 'classic realism' or the 'conventional novel'. To make this case we must turn to Guerrillas, a major novel which I shall interpret as Naipaul's answer, given in the mid-1970s, to the question of the 'kind of imaginative interpretation' which the world now requires.
Does fiction 'never lie'? Does it 'reveal the writer totally'? The cliché of 'imaginative interpretation' is a reminder that the novel occupies a middle ground between journalism (which almost inevitably lies as it attempts to tell the truth) and fantasy (which reveals the writer even in the act of concealing him). The plot of Guerrillas shows marked similarities with a series of actual events in Naipaul's native Trinidad in 1971–2—events which he has outlined in a penetrating journalistic essay, 'Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad' (1980). When Guerrillas first appeared some reviewers, aware of these events, mistook it for a documentary novel rather than a work of imaginative invention. It is not a documentary, as comparison with Naipaul's essay makes clear. Yet the essay also argues that the 'actual events' in Trinidad represented a horrifying and revealing acting-out of the fantasies of those responsible for them; and Naipaul in turn has fantasised about the events and has used his fantasy to explore the revelatory relations of the real and the fantastic. If the result is to be classed as fictional 'realism' then it is the realistic fiction of a fantasy age.
Even the title is a fantasy, for in Guerrillas no one is a guerrilla (though there is one disillusioned ex-guerrilla) and yet everyone fantasises about guerrillas. On the unnamed Caribbean island in which the novel is set 'the newspaper, the radio and the television spoke of guerrillas', but nobody really knows why they do so. The crimes and acts of violence that occur could be the manifestations of an organised revolutionary group, but it seems far more likely that they are the work of isolated bandits, fanatical sects, and criminal gangs. The government, however, has an interest in proving that the 'guerrillas' exist, and can be defeated, once it is confident of putting an end to the disturbances. The world-wide cult of the guerrilla which has inflamed the imaginations of many people on the island is responsible both for the spread of this collective fantasy and for the possibility of exploiting it.
A guerrilla is an irregular soldier. However, there are many other activities which overlap with guerrilla warfare to some extent, so that bandits, outlaws, terrorists, assassins, rebellious peasants, and agrarian revolutionaries all came to be associated with the cult of the guerrilla (which reached its height at the time of the killing of Che Guevara in Bolivia in 1967). Guerrillas is constructed around the figure of Jimmy Ahmed, a would-be revolutionary leader whose 'agricultural commune' on a disused colonial plantation is looked upon by the authorities as a 'cover for the guerrillas'. Although some parallels could be drawn with events in Jamaica and Grenada as well as Trinidad, the model for Jimmy Ahmed is Michael Abdul Malik, the former Black Power leader known as 'Michael X' who was hanged in Trinidad in 1975. Four years earlier, Michael X had returned to his and Naipaul's native island, where he started a commune on a suburban plot near Port of Spain. The produce of the 1 1/2-acre strip of land was to be sold at a 'People's Store'. Far from becoming a base for agrarian reform, the commune was soon torn apart by the murder of two of its own members.
It is a reflection of the well-publicised spread of guerrilla and terrorist activities in the last twenty years that there has grown up a genre of 'terrorist novels', comparable perhaps to the industrial novels of the 1840s and to the anarchist novels of the 1880s and '90s. In addition to Guerrillas, Doris Lessing's The Good Terrorist, Muriel Spark's The Only Problem, Brian Moore's The Revolution Script, Angus Wilson's Setting the World on Fire, and Raymond Williams's The Volunteers may be mentioned as examples of the form. Closely related to it are novels of violent social revolution, such as Nadine Gordimer's July's People, and novels of state terrorism and social upheaval such as Margaret Atwood's Bodily Harm and Naipaul's own In a Free State. Many of these novels portray political violence from a 'middle-class' standpoint, but its handling in Guerrillas is unusually indirect: we do not even get an eye-witness account of the riots in which Jimmy Ahmed briefly emerges as a popular leader. Naipaul's most distinctive contribution to the 'terrorist novel', however, is his exploration of the symbiotic relations between revolutionary violence and literary fantasy. He has quoted a witness of the urban guerrillas in Argentina in the early 1970s as saying that 'They see themselves as a kind of comic-book hero. Clark Kent in the office by day, Superman at night, with a gun'. Of the murder of the Englishwoman Gale Benson, planned by Michael Abdul Malik and Hakim Jamal (an American Black Power campaigner) in Trinidad in 1971, Naipaul has written as follows:
This was a literary murder, if ever there was one. Writing led both men there: for both of them, uneducated, but clever, hustlers with the black cause always to hand, operating always among the converted or half-converted, writing had for too long been a public relations exercise, a form of applauded lie, fantasy. And in Arima it was a fantasy of power that led both men to contemplate, from their different standpoints, the act of murder…. Benson, English and middle class, was just the victim Malik needed: his novel began to come to life.
Naipaul is probably unique among commentators on the Malik case in focussing on Michael X's unfinished novel, a primitive narrative which nevertheless serves as a 'pattern book, a guide to later events'. In it he was 'settling scores with the English middle class'. Guerrillas, like 'Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad', tells the story of a literary murder, and in a certain sense both works are extended pieces of literary criticism.
Jimmy Ahmed's public statements, such as his 'Communique No 1' and his noticeboard advertising the 'PEOPLE'S COMMUNE/ FOR THE LAND AND THE REVOLUTION', are themselves a species of fiction. In addition, Guerrillas offers lengthy extracts from Ahmed's correspondence and from the novel he is trying to write. Both Naipaul's novel and his essay on Michael X can be read as the work of a genuine novelist relentlessly exposing a bad and bogus one. In the essay, Michael X is portrayed as the creator of an elaborate murder plot: 'When he transferred his fantasy to real life', Naipaul observes, 'he went to work like the kind of novelist he would have liked to be'. Whether or not Jimmy Ahmed's involvement in murder is premeditated to this extent is hard to determine; on the whole it seems unlikely. The murder in Guerrillas is felt as inevitable and is the outcome of a powerful literary logic—but the 'author' of this particular plot is V. S. Naipaul, not one of his characters.
Jimmy Ahmed has named his commune 'Thrushcross Grange'. In the opening paragraphs Jane, an Englishwoman, and Roche, a politically exiled white South African, are on their way to visit the Grange. Jimmy, Roche explains, 'took a writing course', and Wuthering Heights was one of the books he had to read. 'I think he just likes the name', Roche adds. But Jimmy, a half-breed who claims to have been born in a Chinese grocery, identifies with Heathcliff, to whom Catherine Earnshaw once said that 'Your mother was an Indian princess and your father was the Emperor of China'. Jimmy's self-projection as Heathcliff makes him one of the line of literary fantasists—including Ganesh Ransumair, the mystic masseur, B. (for Black) Wordsworth, the poet of Miguel Street, and Mr Biswas, sign-painter and journalist—who had been the central figures of Naipaul's early fictions. The comic innocence of those earlier books is summed up in the figure of Elias, the slum boy in Miguel Street (1959) who pronounces 'literature' as 'litricher' ('it sounded like something to eat, something rich like chocolate'). But Jimmy's mispronunciations, such as 'T' rush-cross Grange' and 'Wur-thering Heights', have a more sinister sound.
Guerrillas makes other references to the Victorian novel. Naipaul has mentioned Jean Rhys as the pioneer of West Indian fiction, and Guerrillas, like Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, has some crucial echoes of Jane Eyre. The heroine is called Jane, she is English, and she is associated with air travel, flying in near the beginning of the novel and being on the verge of using her return air ticket to the end; finally the fiction of her departure by air is used to cover up the fact of her murder. Jane, whose mind is a morass of borrowed notions and half-baked radical opinions, might be called Jane Air (she has no other surname). She is torn between two lovers—Roche, who has come to the island to work in public relations for one of the old colonial trading companies, and Jimmy—a choice faintly reminiscent of Jane Eyre's choice between St John Rivers and Mr Rochester, especially as Jimmy has a prior commitment in the form of his homosexual relationship with the psychopathic slum-boy Bryant. Socially the situations of Jane and her Mr Rochester have been reversed: he is the orphan, she is the 'blanche' or white lady. Yet her status cannot protect her from the series of violations foreshadowed when Bryant, aware that she is beginning her liaison with Jimmy, calls her the 'white rat'. (Jane Eyre, it will be remembered, was called a 'rat' by her arch-enemy John Reed.)
The tragedy of Guerrillas takes the form it does because Jimmy's affair with Jane arouses Bryant's latent fury. Jimmy has been described as a 'succubus', a word that Jane is forced to look up; this may mean that he has a demonic nature like Heathcliff, or it may be a codeword for homosexuality. Jimmy's ambitions are not confined to being the leader of an agricultural commune, 'buggering a couple of slum boys' in the bush. But despite the bravado of his public statements, in private he is a lost and disillusioned man in whose eyes the 'revolution' has become devalued to endless, anarchic and pointless struggle. As he writes to an English friend,
Things are desperate Roy, when the leader himself begins to yield to despair, things are bad. The whole place is going to blow up, I cannot see how I can control the revolution now. When everybody wants to fight there's nothing to fight for. Everybody wants to fight his own little war, everybody is a guerrilla.
(The last two sentences here supply Naipaul with his title and epigraph.) Many strands in Jimmy's make-up, including fear and something one can only describe as generosity, go into the promise he makes, immediately after writing these words, to pacify Bryant (who has just seen the 'white rat'):
He went and put his hands on Bryant's shoulders. His fingers pressed against the gritty jersey and the damp skin below. He took his face close to Bryant's and said, 'I'll give her to you'.
The 'gift' of Jane to Bryant cannot be paralleled in Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights; on the contrary, love is fiercely possessive in the Brontë novels. We are in the presence of an older literary stereotype, to which a slender clue may be given by Jane's reading-matter shortly before she is murdered. For why should Jane, a representative of a section of the middle class which Naipaul has described as 'the people who keep up with "revolution" as with the theatre, the revolutionaries who visit centres of revolution, but with return air tickets, the people for whom Malik's kind of Black Power was an exotic but safe brothel'—why should Jane with her fate hanging over her be found indulging in such 'safe' reading as a copy of Hardy's The Woodlanders? Is it coincidence that the idea of the greenwood—the forest in which men struggle to maintain their independence and comradeship in defiance of the state apparatus—is subtly connected with Jimmy's 'agricultural commune'?
The Thrushcross Grange communiqué, a 'fairy story, a school composition, ungrammatical and confused, about life in the forest', begins as follows:
All revolutions begin with the land, Men are born on the earth, every man has his one spot, it is his birth right, and men must claim their portion of the earth in brotherhood and harmony. In this spirit we came an intrepid band to virgin forest, it is the life style and philosophy of Thrushcross Grange.
Thrushcross Grange is not 'virgin forest' but an abandoned plantation originally developed in the days of slavery. Jimmy, whose personal slogan is 'I'm Nobody's Slave or Stallion, I'm a Warrior and Torch Bearer', ironically refers to Roche, the agent of the trading company which helps him with supplies, as 'Massa'. Fear of Jimmy and the power he might exert over the dispossessed has caused the leading capitalists of the island to subsidise the commune, which is ostensibly serving a useful purpose by rescuing slum-boys from a life of unemployment and gang warfare. Jimmy's description of his commune as an 'intrepid band' makes him a Robin Hood figure, and, since his threats have produced a small amount of charitable redistribution, he might actually claim to be robbing the rich and giving to the poor. The historian E. J. Hobsbawm has described Robin Hood as 'the quintessence of bandit legend', and Jimmy Ahmed's self-image corresponds, at most points, with Hobsbawm's analysis of the image of the Noble Robber which forms part of the world-wide mythology of peasant societies. Jimmy, that is, sees himself as a victim of injustice and persecution whose mission it is to right wrongs, to take from the rich and give to the poor, and to kill only in self-defence or just revenge ('I have no gun, I'm no guerrilla', he says). Jimmy relies on getting popular support, and for a brief moment when the poor quarters of the city erupt into rioting he becomes their leader. In all this he seems to be a twentieth-century radical intellectual playing at the role of Noble Robber or primitive rebel. At the end he is waiting to be hunted down by the authorities. Naipaul certainly does not glamorise the Noble Robber, but he takes this figure seriously, in a way that (for example) Muriel Spark in her recent novel The Only Problem singularly refuses to do. (To the extent that The Only Problem contains a subsidiary Robin Hood theme, Spark's sympathies lie unambiguously with the Sheriff of Nottingham.) Spark's international terrorist and bank robber, Effie, embarks on her career as a result of stealing two bars of chocolate from a petrol station. Her rich travelling companions are merely embarrassed by this woman who 'ate her chocolate inveighing, meanwhile against the capitalist system'. It is the companions, not Effie, who arouse Spark's curiosity and interest. The Only Problem is the work of a novelist who can only caricature and trivialise the issue which is fundamental to any prospect of real social justice and equality: the issue of forcible redistribution.
In Naipaul, redistribution and the circulation of commodities become the subject of a profoundly disturbing series of actions. Jane, the revolutionary tourist, is theoretically committed to political, economic and sexual redistribution. Politically, she has come to the Caribbean because she had subscribed, in London, to the theory that 'the future of the world was being shaped in places like this, by people like these'. But she has learned instead that 'she had come to a place at the end of the world, to a place that had exhausted its possibilities'—and she hangs on to her return air ticket. Sexually, Jane has a history of mild promiscuity and she measures up every new man as a 'candidate' or competitor for her sexual favours. In a novel in which sexual relations can be construed as commodity relations she is herself a prime example of the fetishism of commodities. When she arrives at the all-male commune of Thrushcross Grange she fails to respond when Bryant first addresses her, calling her 'sister'. The name to which she does respond, however, is 'white lady'—and she responds by giving Bryant a dollar. At the Grange, partly through her own choice, she becomes a priced and labelled commodity—first the 'white lady', later the 'white rat'. On two occasions Jimmy will lure her back to the Grange with the claim that Bryant wants to give her back her dollar. Bryant, however, actually spends the dollar on going to see a Sidney Poitier movie, which merely intensifies his sense of deprivation. Money in the novel circulates within a closed system: the advanced countries exploiting the Third World by holding out the lure of consumer gratifications. With sex, however, it is different. By telling the story of Jane, Naipaul means to bring home to his readers that redistribution can only be accomplished with violence, and that redistribution involves violation.
The central image of violation in the novel is sexual: rape and sexual degradation leading to murder. The sexual politics of Guerrillas will probably not meet with universal approval: both men and women are shown as being complicit in the sexual violence and commodification. Men are the consumers of pornography, the sexual aggressors, and the projectors of an agrarian communism in which (apparently) there is no place for women. Jimmy treats Jane as if she were a commodity, although his fantasies—revealed in the Mills-and-Boon style romance he is writing—convert her image into a fetish. Jane's sex life, however, has always been a process of violation, with which she has more or less willingly complied. It is she who reaches out for her neighbour's pornographic book in order to while away the time during her flight from London. When Jimmy goes to bed with her he perceives that 'without knowing it, she had developed the bad temper, and the manners of a prostitute'. And with Jimmy she realises that she is 'playing with fire', and yet she goes on playing with it, just as Jimmy himself goes on playing with the idea of revolution. Both seem destined to die in the knowledge that they have been fooling themselves.
Guerrillas is the most sexually explicit of Naipaul's novels, with an explicitness which only the social currency of pornography in today's world has made possible for the writer. The meaning of the sexual acts Naipaul describes is that, through them, his protagonists find themselves working out the symbolic conflicts inscribed in the history of the Caribbean—a history of slavery. The men reading pornography on the plane are executives of the American bauxite company which, as Roche puts it, 'owns the island'; in earlier days they would have got their kicks from exploiting the 'niggers'. Both Jimmy and Bryant, as Jane's murderers, are acting out fantasies based on the role of the rebellious slave—the slave who cannot get at his real aggressors, such as the bauxite company's shareholders or the American soldiers whose arrival at the airfield is sufficient to quell the city riots. The circuit of sexual redistribution is thus not only violent but wholly ineffectual, symbolic; but this is the case with almost all the actions of primitive rebels.
Of Jane we are told that 'she was indifferent, perhaps blind, to the contradiction between what she said and what she was so secure of being'; and this faculty of saying one thing and being another is, according to Naipaul, a characteristic of European duplicity. Nevertheless, every figure in Guerrillas has a split personality, and each of them is guilty to a greater or lesser extent of Orwellian 'doublethink'. On several occasions we see one person inflicting humiliation by exposing the contradictions of another; yet Jane, having been humiliated by Jimmy, is eventually killed by the one character who is more helpless and vulnerable than she is. The split in Bryant is represented by the irreconcilable dualism of his taste in films: on the one hand, Sidney Poitier movies, and, on the other, 'interracial-sex films with Negro men as star-boys', which he comes to believe are wicked. Bryant's split personality gives rise to an intense self-hatred, which can only find an outlet in spasms of uncontrollable symbolic hatred of others. Together with Jimmy he kills Jane, and (if the authorities do not get there first) he will probably end up by killing Jimmy as well.
Jane's sexual value as a 'white lady' and Bryant's murderousness are, in a sense, the givens of the novel, the barbarous and unexamined results of a history of colonialism and slavery. Jimmy's behaviour and emotions are more elaborately fantastic, more of a deliberate narcissistic creation. He writes a novel in which Jane is the narrator, and in which Jane sees him as the incarnation of the Noble Robber:
He lives in his own rare world, his head is full of big things, he is carrying the burden of all the suffering people in the world, all the people who live in shacks and grow up in dirty little back rooms…. He is an enemy to all privilege and I am middle class born and bred and I know that in spite of his great civility and urbane charm be must hate people like me. I only have to look in his eyes to understand the meaning of hate.
The extent to which Jimmy's self-consciousness is a fictional artifice is revealed when we learn that, in England, a female journalist had written of him that to look into his eyes was to understand the meaning of hate. In Jimmy's novel, in Mills-and-Boon style, 'Jane' reflects that 'he's the man who controls this hate I see around me and he's the only man who can turn this hate into love'. In place of self-reflection Jimmy has substituted the fetishisation of a fetishisation.
The presence of Jimmy's debased romantic narrative within Naipaul's novel is an exemplification of Harry Levin's view of the realist novel as a dialectic of 'fabulation and debunking', a synthesis of the 'imposition of reality upon romance' and the 'transposition of reality into romance'. Unusually, we see the progress of Jimmy's fictionalisation of Jane and of his actual attempt to start an affair with her side by side. The fictionalisation feeds his behaviour; at one moment early in the seduction he even tells Jane that 'I thought my imagination might have been playing tricks'. Jane is aware of what this might mean, but she is trapped because she 'yet allowed herself to play with the images he had set floating in her mind'.
We say that Jane is trapped because …—and in that judgment, and in judgments of a similar kind that we might make about many other characters and incidents, lies the whole force of Guerrillas. In other words, Naipaul's novel stands or falls by its mimetic evocation of the Aristotelian processes of probability and necessity. The novel for Naipaul is a supremely rational imaginative medium, an inquiry into human action and the reciprocal relationships of fantasy and action. Like a juridical process, the inquiry itself is open to inquiry, and that is why Naipaul could later claim that 'fiction never lies': to the extent that it did lie, it would be found out. Perhaps it is inevitable that fiction of this sort would come down harshly on the spectacle of the imagination playing tricks on itself. Finally—as in a law-court—'truth' and 'fantasy' have to be distinguished from one another. If my reading of Guerrillas is found to be persuasive, then Naipaul's fundamental opposition to the sort of nihilism which is endemic in deconstructionist thinking will be evident; indeed, I would say that Guerrillas poses a challenge to contemporary literary theory of a kind that theory, as at present constituted, could only meet by misreading or belittling Naipaul's work. After all, to a rigorous conventionalist the idea that there is some external moral standard against which hallucination, or the imagination 'playing tricks', could be weighed and found wanting is meaningless. All that matters to the conventionalist is, so to speak, winning tricks in the game that the imagination plays. And this is why poststructuralist 'textuality' tends to exalt comic fiction, with its self-delighting virtuosity and witty reflexivity, and (by the same token) to call in question the gravity of tragic fictions which, so often, turn on what we must call the 'fact' of murder. Tragic novels cannot force our acceptance of the deaths or murders, with which they conclude, as 'facts'—for they are after all fictions—but unless we accept these deaths as truths in the Aristotelian sense (that is, as probable and necessary outcomes) tragic gravity will seem to be no more than a device and the impact of the fiction will be much diminished.
Jane views her sex life as a form of compulsive play; but play that is a 'continuing violation'. 'She spoke as though she had never exercised choice. Events, society, the nature of men, her own needs as a woman, had sent her out into the sexual jungle, to play perilously with the unknown'. Her 'needs as a woman', as she sees them, are principally a need for the 'little delirium', the adventure of sexual excitement. Naipaul views this need without compassion, revealing it rather as one of the phenomena of cultural decadence: his characters are conscious of decay and corruption all around them, of a sense of desolation learnt in England but enhanced by the squalor of the Third World and the tropics. This shared vision of a 'world running down' and coming to an end stands in the novel for a version of truth; a truth against which the characters' addiction to various forms of play is to be judged. But there seem to be other forms of truth in Guerrillas, manifestations more specific and local, and perhaps more absolute. These are truths that appear in the form of momentary insights or pronouncements, 'sentences' which are unforeseen, involuntary, and apprehended privately. In Guerrillas, then, we find a contrast between the discourse of imaginative play and literary invention—a poetic mode of perception, moulded by fantasy, whether in the narrative voice or attributed to a particular character—and a discourse of revelation or annunciation: a perception, later to be authenticated by the unravelling of probability and necessity, which is said to be visited on the individual from an unknown source.
Jimmy Ahmed, for example, finds his equivalent to Jane's 'little delirium' in the act of writing sub-pornographic fiction; but once he has lost the 'writing excitement' he sees that 'The words on the page were again just like words, false'. The words are a screen intended to blot out his 'vision of darkness, of the world lost forever, and his own life ending on that bit of waste land'—a prophetic vision which by the end of Guerrillas seems very likely to be fulfilled. Jane's momentary intimation of danger after she lets Jimmy seduce her is more explicitly invested with prophetic authority:
She looked at the driver's mirror: his red eyes were considering her, and they held her return stare. She looked out at the fields; the junked motor-cars beside the road; the men far away, small and busy, stuffing grass into the boots of motor-cars to take home to their animals; the smoking hills, yellow in the mid-afternoon light. But she was aware of the driver's intermittent stare; and whenever she looked at the mirror she saw his red, assessing eyes. A whole sentence ran through her head, at first meaningless, and then, as she examined it, alarming. She thought: I've been playing with fire. Strange words, to have come so suddenly and so completely to her: something given, unasked for, like an intimation of the truth, breaking into the sense of safety, of distance being put between her and the desolation of that house.
We can, of course, discount this if we wish: the taxi-driver's eyes are a familiar figure for the Protestant conscience—Big Brother is watching—and, the 'little delirium' over, Jane feels as if she has been naughty and has been found out. But the narrative will confirm that this was indeed an intimation of the truth. Roche, arriving at Thrushcross just after the murder and also aware of someone else's gaze, has a comparable moment of insight:
He thought: This place has become a slaughter-ground. The words seemed to have been given to him, and he thought: I've just done the bravest thing in my life. He concentrated on Jimmy and addressed him mentally: You wouldn't do anything to me. You wouldn't dare.
The moment is not without its irony: Roche's 'courage' does not consist in denouncing the crime that has been brought home to him, but in saving his skin by turning his back on it and walking away. The words which are 'given to him' and which convey an intuitive knowledge do not in any way guarantee a proper or heroic response. If language in Naipaul sometimes acquires a mysterious authority—as if it were the very voice of reality—his characters are destined to be judged by the reader not to have listened to it. But the novel itself does not enact such a judgment—it is left entirely to the reader. Where the modern tragic novel such as Guerrillas differs from its nineteenth-century predecessors is chiefly in the narrative restraint that it shows, presenting a delicate and arduous case and inviting the reader to serve as juror.
The central difficulty of moral judgment in Guerrillas is provided by the figure of Roche. At first sight he seems something of a cliché, an embodiment of the pathos of the defeated liberal. He seems to attract more narrative sympathy than either Jane or Jimmy, and his perceptions are made to seem more authoritative than theirs. Roche is a former guerrilla fighter who was involved in amateurish acts of sabotage in South Africa, and was subsequently imprisoned and tortured. He was exiled to England, wrote a book, and acquired something of a martyr's halo. But, like Jimmy's, his English reputation was bogus: he had lost his political vision, and left England for the Caribbean not under the sway of idealism but because he had been frightened away by the South African secret police. Torture and humiliation have entered his soul; to what extent, we do not fully realise until after the riots when official disapproval has descended on Thrushcross Grange, and Meredith Herbert, a politician and media personality, subjects Roche to a devastating radio interview. Roche has a propensity for walking into traps: in South Africa, in his Caribbean job of organising support for a commune which could not conceivably have fulfilled its promises, and in the interview—given when the government is in need of a scapegoat—which effectively undermines his position on the island. He does not fight back against the people who trap him, preferring to escape from their clutches and move somewhere else. There is something abject and sterile about his passivity, which Meredith (who would have made a passable torturer) cunningly exposes on the radio. Roche's intelligence and rationality are made to seem futile. Like Winston Smith, though much less sensationally, he bears an unacknowledged responsibility for his own victimisation. None of this, however, prepares us for the ending which robs him of the last vestige of moral heroism.
It is Jane's intuitions about Roche which add up to a different story. In the opening chapter, we read that 'Roche laughed, and Jane saw his molars: widely spaced, black at the roots, the gums high: like a glimpse of the skull'. No explanation is offered for this detail, but we later become accustomed to Jane's perception of Roche as a split personality, divided between his 'saint's manner' and the 'satyr's smile' which appears when he reveals the roots of his molars. What is Jane, and what are we, to make of these glimpses of a 'grotesque stranger'? 'In these relationships some warning, some little hint, always was given, some little sign that foreshadowed the future', the narrator tells us (we are not quite sure whether or not to attribute this superstitious awareness to Jane). If we follow the logic of intimations such as these, we shall come to see all three of Naipaul's main characters as based on primitive archetypes: Jimmy the succubus, Jane the prostitute, and Roche the satyr. But Jane cannot deal with the 'little sign', and neither for the time being can the reader. The narrative foreshadowing is not obtrusive, and the ending, which shows Roche to be a personality as crippled as Jimmy or Jane, comes to us like a new and shocking revaluation.
Guerrillas is formally open-ended: Jimmy, Bryant and Roche are still apparently free agents, even if Jane is dead. There is not even the likelihood of the discovery of the murdered body and of a trial and a hanging such as closed the case of Michael Abdul Malik. Nevertheless, a burden of judgment is, as we have seen, laid upon the reader (though a poststructuralist interpreter would doubtless emphasise, not the nature of this judgment, but its deferral). The imagined evidence that Naipaul puts before us—though a good deal more complex than a necessarily simplifying and foreshortened account such as the present one can indicate—is not 'undecidable': it admits of a verdict. The narrative is one of circulation, a redistributive cycle in which a human being is violated by being turned into a commodity, but finally the circulation comes to a stop: Jane's violation is terminal. At this point we can pass moral judgments on those who took part in it. But the judgments are of a different sort from those implied or stated by more traditional 'liberal-humanist' fictions.
In an essay on 'Character Change and the Drama', Harold Rosenberg draws a distinction between the 'biological/historical' and the 'legal' views of character. According to the biological or historical view, character is the expression of a psychological condition, a developing organic identity. Action or behaviour, in this view, is 'a mere attribute of, and clue to, a being who can be known only through an intuition'. The organic view of personality as based on 'continuity of being' is expressed in biography and, for the most part, in the modern novel; and this is the view which is normally associated with liberal humanism. The legal view, by contrast, defines the human individual as an actor, whose identity arises from the 'coherence of his acts with a fact in which they have terminated (the crime or the contract) and by nothing else'. Individuals are 'conceived as identities in systems whose subject matter is action and the judgement of actions. In this realm the multiple incidents in the life of an individual may be synthesised, by the choice of the individual himself or by the decision of others, into a scheme that pivots on a single fact central to the individual's existence and which, controlling his behaviour and deciding his fate, becomes his visible definition'. This mode of identity is represented in tragic drama, even though, from a traditional liberal-humanist perspective, the identification of a person with a single, terminal act (say, as a murderer or an accomplice after the fact of murder) may be no more than a 'legal fiction'. The legal identity of the individual is determined not solely by his own actions but by the judgment that is passed upon them.
The contrast between 'organic personality' and 'legal identity' is likely to be present in all major novels and plays: Rosenberg himself applies it to the analysis of Hamlet. My claim is that in Guerrillas Naipaul exploits it in a way that is quite different from nineteenth-century fiction, where a delayed revelation of legal identity is normally used to endorse organic identity. In his interview with Meredith Herbert, Roche is trying desperately to preserve and justify his own sense of organic identity in the face of Meredith's indictment of his actions. Roche is, in effect, arguing for forgiveness, for the right to make mistakes, the right to be judged on the purity of his intentions. He would like to plead that he is someone apart from his actions. Meredith, a harsh prosecuting counsel, denies this, mocking what he takes as Roche's self-indulgence: 'what a nice world you inhabit, Peter. You have so much room for error'. Inhabiting such a 'nice world' is, Meredith implies, one of the privileges reserved for 'white people'. The interview, however, is not fought to a finish, and the question of its moral outcome is something Naipaul is careful to leave suspended.
In nineteenth-century novels the commonest way of uncovering a character's organic identity is to look into his or her face: the face serving as a window allowing us to read off what is written in the soul, or the heart. Jane, we have noted, has moments of recognition in which, looking at Roche's sinister smile, she intuits the 'inner man'. But the value of these moments is left uncertain, and what is revealed is so shockingly different from Roche's own sense of his 'inner man' that the intuition can only be taken as a parody of comparable moments in nineteenth-century novels. Jane does not see anything that liberal individualism would recognise as an organic identity. Instead, she sees a satyr, a being that is irreducible and inhuman: an alien. (In this, Guerrillas perhaps resembles Wuthering Heights, where the protagonists also invest one another with non-human characteristics. Both novels break with liberal individualism by invoking archaic and demonic notions of identity.) The significance of Jane's vision is that, arguably, it foreshadows the true 'legal identity' of Roche, as it appears from his terminal actions at the end of the novel. But we can scarcely maintain that Roche 'is' the satyr—we see him in all his complexity as a represented character—a character, however, who eludes our attempts to reduce him to organic coherence.
We can ask: who or what are Roche, Jimmy, Jane?—but finally our questions will turn to the novelist who animates these fictions with such originality and truth of observation. In Guerrillas Naipaul has furthered a technique of impartiality which is, more or less, constitutive of serious modern fiction. It is the technique of 'perpetual shifting of the standpoint' and of the 'artifice of seeing through the eyes of characters' which, as long ago as 1895, H. G. Wells observed in the novels of George Meredith. What Wells added on that occasion is also relevant: 'It may be that Mr Meredith sometimes carries his indirect method to excess, and puzzles a decent public, nourished on good healthy straightforward marionettes'. There is no 'revolutionary' break between the fiction of writers such as Meredith and Conrad and that of Naipaul, but the degree of indirection achieved by the latter would, surely, have puzzled Meredith's most ardent readers. Naipaul's ostentatious, even fastidious, detachment is the most difficult element in the novel that we must unravel: a detachment which implies disinterestedness, but scarcely impartiality, for it 'reveals the writer totally'. Our sense of Naipaul's detachment comprehends a number of factors. There is, for example, a tension between the novelist's almost vindictive exposure of his characters' inadequacies and self-contradictions, and his shafts of surprising sympathy and generosity towards the least lovable of them. There is Naipaul's palpable irritation with the more rootless of his characters (those uncommitted to life on the island), and his, or the narrator's, rather unquestioning respect for the 'authorities' who have the task of making a continuing orderly life possible there. There is the curious and disturbing feature that, in such a mordant study of contemporary racial and sexual confusions, Naipaul has eliminated characters of his own race and has tied his characters' 'revolutionary' hopes to the success of a homosexual commune, a foundation on which (by definition) the future cannot be built.
The quality of detachment in Guerrillas is linked to the fact that, alone among Naipaul's novels, it does not contain a single character of Indian descent. (In real life Michael X's entourage included two Trinidad Indians, one of whom gave himself up to the police and was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment.) Naipaul's early novels, The Mystic Masseur and A House for Mr Biswas, portrayed the Trinidad Hindu as comic epic hero. His two other major novels, The Mimic Men and A Bend in the River, are first-person narratives told by Indian settlers (the former in London and the Caribbean, the latter in East and Central Africa). Even 'In a Free State', his novella-length study of Europeans in a politically turbulent African state, includes the image of an ordinary, 'decent' Hindu trader. In these books detachment coexists with an open warmth and partisanship; the characters' success in engaging our attention is also the author's, even when he mocks them. Guerrillas, however, is set not in Trinidad but on a fictional Caribbean island inhabited by Negroes, creoles, Europeans, and Chinese, but not apparently by East Indians. Is that why the island is so unremittingly condemned as a lost and fallen world, in which—though good order and restraint are still felt as virtues—'When everybody wants to fight there's nothing to fight for'? Can it be that in Guerrillas Naipaul has constructed for himself a way of playing with fire without getting burnt?
If so, that is his privilege. The weaknesses so fully exposed in Roche, Jane, and Jimmy, are human weaknesses, which in some way must reflect the weaknesses of their creator. If the figure of Jane, the murdered and violated woman, is offered as the embodiment of circulation as violation, the novelist is a circulator who can share the viewpoints of all his characters and yet remain inviolable. For example, in an unforgettable passage, Naipaul allows us to enter into Bryant's consciousness. Bryant, stunted, poverty-stricken and starved of affection, symbolises the moral injustice of the distribution of the world's resources which leads to the perennial, and misleading, legend of the Noble Robber. Bryant is doomed: whatever charitable gifts are made to him—his place in the commune, his dollar, his 'rat'—are only aids to his destruction. Bryant is rooted on the island, while the novelist, like his principal characters, is free of such roots: the slum-boy is, so to speak, the human material which Naipaul, as traveller and journalist, goes to investigate. And from this we may conclude that Naipaul, like Roche (his 'satyr') is an escape-artist, and that his art is the art of the survivor who pieces together a tale which could only be 'authentically' voiced by people who have been silenced, who have suffered violent deaths or who languish imprisoned by their own inarticulacy, if not by the law. Naipaul's art is, inevitably, fabricated, speaking not through revealed truths but through the constructions of fantasy and the 'legal fictions' of probability and necessity. Its significance lies not only in its intricate construction and imaginative play but in its wisdom. Writers, whom Naipaul has rather wistfully compared to tribal wise men, must, he has said, 'know more, have felt more and thought more than others, offering us some point of rest'. They must also address the tribe on matters on which the rest of the tribe is silent.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3491
SOURCE: "Signs of Life," in New York Review of Books, February 14, 1991, pp. 3-5.
[In the following review, Buruma praises Naipaul for his depiction of India and its people as they struggle to achieve what Naipaul calls "universal civilization."]
Near the end of V.S. Naipaul's first book about India, An Area of Darkness, there is an unforgettable piece of writing. It is a description of his visit to the village of the Dubes. It was from there that Naipaul's grandfather left for Trinidad around the turn of the century as an indentured laborer. Naipaul, "content to be a colonial, without a past, without ancestors," visits his ancestral village with a feeling of dread.
In fact, the village is not as bad as he had expected. An old woman who had known Naipaul's grandfather is produced. She tells him a family story. Naipaul gives her some money. Then the wife of a man named Ramachandra wishes to see him. She bows before him, seizes his feet, "in all their Veldtschoen" (a wonderful Naipaulian detail, this), and weeps. She refuses to relax her grip on his Veldtschoen. Naipaul, horrified, asks his guide what he should do.
The next day, in a nearby town where Naipaul is staying, Ramachandra himself turns up. Ramachandra is the present head of Naipaul's grandfather's branch of the Dubes. He is a physical and mental wreck: "His effort at a smile did not make his expression warmer. Spittle, white and viscous, gathered at the corners of his mouth." He too, clings to Naipaul, wanting to talk, to invite him to his hut, offer him food. Again, Naipaul is horrified, asks for help, tells him to go away, draws the curtains in his hotel room. He can hear Ramachandra scratching at the window.
When they meet again, in the village, Ramachandra still refuses to let go. He speaks of his plan to start some litigation over a piece of land. Naipaul was sent by God. Naipaul must help him. Another man slips Naipaul a letter. Naipaul is followed around by a crowd of men and boys. It is all too much. Naipaul wants to escape. He gets in his jeep. A young boy, freshly bathed, asks for a lift to town. "No," says Naipaul, "let the idler walk." And: "So it ended, in futility and impatience, a gratuitous act of cruelty, self-reproach and flight."
I wish to recall this passage at some length because it says a great deal about the writer; above all about his pride, and his horror at the lack of it in others. The clutch of the Veldtschoen, the inertia of poverty, the abjectness of Ramachandra, these are what make Naipaul take flight. He is an expert on humiliation, sensitive to every nuance of indignity—see his novel Guerrillas, see his analysis of Argentine machismo in The Return of Eva Perón, see pretty much everything he has written on India.
But when Naipaul behaves badly, as he undoubtedly does in the village of the Dubes, it is without the blinkered contempt that Blimpish colonials display. Nor is he like Kipling, whose fear of the tarbrush was perhaps one reason for his desire to keep the people at the Club amused with cutting descriptions of the natives. This is however precisely the way many so-called third world intellectuals see Naipaul, as a dark man mimicking the prejudices of the white imperialists. This view is not only superficial, it is wrong. Naipaul's rage is not the result of being unable to feel the native's plight; on the contrary, he is angry because he feels it so keenly.
Pride and rage: they go together, and they are at the heart of Naipaul's work, of his latest book on India, no less than of his earlier, younger, more ill-tempered books. Pride is what enables him to empathize with people whose politics or religious views, or social customs, may be alien to him, even abhorrent. Naipaul, the fastidious aesthete and connoisseur of good wines and Elizabethan sonnets, is rather far removed from the average southern redneck, yet he senses in him a pride, an aesthetic, a feeling of independence. Rednecks may also be racists, but that, in this instance, is rather beside the point.
Nor is there reason to believe that Naipaul has any sympathy with militant Sikhs, Hindu nationalists, or Bengali Maoists; yet he describes them with a kind of tenderness, and a rare understanding, which is neither patronizing nor sentimental. This is because, as he wrote in the introduction to his masterly little book Finding the Center, "The people I found, the people I was attracted to, were not unlike myself. They too were trying to find order in their world, looking for the center; and my discovery of these people is as much part of the story as the unfolding of the West African background." In this case he was writing about people on the Ivory Coast.
This empathy with people struggling with their fate, trying to find their center, people who, as Naipaul puts it somewhere, reject rejection, who try to escape, however naively, clumsily, or even violently, from the darkness and poverty of their past, the empathy with such people is what explains Naipaul's relative optimism about India.
Optimism might strike people who read about India in the newspapers as perverse. Just after I received Naipaul's book I read a description in a London paper of Hindu holy men storming a mosque at a time of day deemed auspicious by astrologers for destroying the Muslim shrine. They believed that the Hindu god Rama was born on the site and were prepared to die for the sake of reinstating their idol there. The ensuing riots caused hundreds of deaths. The holy men were supported by the party, the BJP, that might one day form the government of India. One of its leaders had been touring through northern India in a Rama chariot, fanning Hindu hatred. One of his colleagues threatened to destroy three thousand other mosques occupying Hindu sites. The present government is headed by a thuggish opportunist, not averse to having an irksome opponent beaten up by his boys.
It is all a far cry from the civilized secularism and Old Harrovian rectitude of Jawaharlal Nehru. And yet Naipaul's optimism is not ill-considered. For it is based on a deep truth about India: even thuggish opportunists, however much they might end up undermining it, are still part of a remarkably resilient political process, which is Indian democracy. In describing a Sikh militant whose head is in some ways still buried in the darkness of myths and holy wars, Naipaul is struck by how much he takes for granted—the constitution, the law, the centers of education, the civil service, etc. Naipaul is right to say that in India "power came from the people. The people were poor; but the power they gave was intoxicating. As high as a man could be taken up, so low, when he lost power, he could be cast down." The rascals, in India, can still be voted out, which is more than you can say of almost any other country in Asia—even, in practice, of Japan.
Naipaul likes to say that he has no views. As he put it to Andrew Robinson in the Literary Review (London): "My ideas are just responses to human situations." Here, I think, he is being a little coy. Of course he has views. He presented them beautifully in his recent talk to the Manhattan Institute, published in this journal. It is a liberal view in the classical sense of the world. Naipaul's view of what he calls universal civilization is one where people have escaped from the world of myths and ritual and instinct and worship of ancestors and gods. Universal civilization "implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit. I don't imagine my father's parents would have been able to understand the idea. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement."
Many of the people Naipaul describes in his books are awakening to this idea, which does not mean that their responses are not often muddled, to say the least. Again and again Naipaul applies his view to India:
To awaken to history was to cease to live instinctively. It was to begin to see oneself and one's group the way the outside world saw one; and it was to know a kind of rage. India was now full of this rage. There had been a general awakening. But everyone awakened first to his own group or community; every group thought itself unique in its awakening; and every group sought to separate its rage from the rage of other groups.
The million mutinies of Naipaul's title are to be seen as signs of life, of India kicking itself out of its old inertia, the inertia of poverty, which was perpetuated in a vicious circle of karma, gods, and holiness. Here, then, is the pride of the low caste Dravidian politician dedicating his life to the struggle against Brahmin supremacy:
In this small dark man were locked up generations of grief and rage. He was the first in his line to have felt the affront; and, from what he had said, he was still the only one in his family to have taken up the cause. His passion was very great; it had to be respected.
And here, in one of the best passages in the book, is Gurtej Singh, the young Sikh militant, mentioned above, who resigned from the Indian civil service to fight for the cause of "my people." Gurtej was highly educated, had awakened, as Naipaul would say, and yet he had turned back to the gods, the myths, and the holy men. Just as pride comes with rage, confusion comes with awakening:
Like Papu the Jain stockbroker in Bombay, who lived on the edge of the great slum of Dharavi and was tormented by the idea of social upheaval, Gurtej had a vision of chaos about to come. Papu had turned to good works, in the penitential Jain fashion. Gurtej had turned to millenarian politics. It had happened with other religions when they turned fundamentalist; it threatened to bring the chaos Gurtej feared.
Democracy is always a messy process. In India it is bound to be messier than anywhere else. And as the thuggish politicians, pushed up by the poor and the no longer quite so poor, do their best to remove the Old Harrovian legacy of Nehru, many people in India fear this mess. Naipaul fears it, too. He is an orderly man. But he does not make a fetish of order. Disorder is an inescapable consequence of India's awakening. It is why he can respect the passion of men whom most Western liberals would regard with, shall I say, Blimpish disdain: the religious radicals, the Indian rednecks, so to speak. This may be another reason why so many "progressive" third world intellectuals see Naipaul as a reactionary figure; for it is they, the admirers of Mao and Kim Il Sung, who make a fetish of order, and it is Naipaul who has the deeper understanding of the social forces which progressives claim to despise—perhaps because they are themselves still in the grip of those forces.
The fetish of order is something many progressives, in East and West (or if you prefer, North and South), have in common with many conservatives. Mao was much admired by European leaders, such as Edward Heath and Georges Pompidou. Like so many intellectual Sinophiles—Henry Kissinger is another—they were impressed by the discipline Mao imposed, and were ready to defend the order reimposed on Tiananmen Square (even if they didn't like the methods). Many saw a unified society of busy bees, all expressing great confidence in their leaders, all working in serried ranks toward a glorious collective future. Some even saw the regimentation of China as a mark of superior civilization, so unlike our own disorderly world. Left-wing Indian intellectuals admired China so much that they developed an inferiority complex about messy, chaotic India. Nehru himself was deeply exercised about the question why the Chinese achieved such wonderful unity, whereas India was forever on the brink of collapse and disunity. It was always India that had to take a leaf from China's book.
What all these admirers chose (and, alas, often still choose) to overlook was that China's order was the order of a slave state. It is said that Mao, however much blood still sticks to his waxy hands, restored pride to the Chinese people. If so, it was only to the People, and not to people that he gave this pride. The price for Mao's proud banners was the virtually complete destruction of Naipaul's universal civilization, which did exist in China: the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, and so on. In this respect, despite all the subcontinent's problems, China should take a leaf from India's book.
What makes Naipaul one of the world's most civilized writers is his refusal to be engaged by the People, and his insistence on listening to people, individuals, with their own language and their own stories. To this extent he is right when he claims to have no view; he is impatient with all abstractions. He is interested in how individual people see themselves and the world in which they live. He has recorded their histories, their dreams, their stories, their words. As we know, the first thing that leaders or worshippers of the People do is to rob people of their words, by enforcing a language of wood.
Naipaul's characters, most of whom talk at considerable length, never speak a language of wood. In his interviews, Naipaul insists on details; he wants to know how things smelled, felt, sounded, looked, especially looked. And where it concerns ideas, he wants to be told how they were arrived at; not just what people think, but how they think. This is also the method of his own writing. Naipaul, in Finding the Center:
Narrative was my aim. Within that, my traveling method was intended to be transparent. The reader will see how the material was gathered; he will also see how the material could have served fiction or political journalism or a travelogue. But the material here serves itself alone…. All that was added later was understanding. Out of that understanding the narrative came. However creatively one travels, however deep an experience in childhood or middle age, it takes thought (a sifting of impulses, ideas, and references that become more multifarious as one grows older) to understand what one has lived through or where one has been.
The extraordinary achievement of Naipaul's latest book is that we can see his characters; more than that, we can see how they see, and how they, in turn, are seen by the author: Amir, the melancholy son of a raja in Lucknow, Cambridge-educated, a Marxist, a devout Muslim; Namdeo, the outcast poet, whose "ideas of untouchability and brothel-area sex, childbirth and rags, all coming together, were like an assault"; and many, many more. This is what makes the book a work of art. At this level it ceases to matter whether the writer is engaged in fiction or nonfiction, or whether you call a book such as The Enigma of Arrival a novel. Whatever his literary form, Naipaul is a master. The people in India: A Million Mutinies Now are so alive they could have sprung from a great writer's imagination.
There is, however, one thing that sets such a book apart from fiction, and that is the language itself. Whereas the writer controls every word in a work of invention, this cannot be the case in a factual account. Here there is a slight problem: the language of Naipaul's characters inevitably tends to sound flat, compared to the author's own literary prose. This is particularly true when Naipaul has to go through an interpreter to hear the person's story. Because the stories are so interesting, it is not a major problem, but I must admit nonetheless that here and there I felt a certain relief when a long quotation ended and Naipaul's words began.
And what words! The few paragraphs describing the decrepitude of Calcutta are among the best things ever written in English about that sad, wonderful, dying place. Naipaul writes like a painter. Small, visual details tell you all: the buzzards hovering over the grubby little street market behind the Grand Hotel, where people go about their minute tasks, one man walking by "carrying a single, limber, dancing sheet of plywood on his head." Or the "pink-walled room" of the Hindu activist in Bombay, who worships at the shrine of Ganpati in Pali: "On the wall at the back of the Sony television there was a colour photograph or picture of this image at Pali: the broad, spreading belly of the deity a violent, arresting red, not altogether benign."
Referring to himself, Nirad Chaudhuri, the cosmopolitan Bengali writer, now living in Britain, once wrote: "To be deraciné, is to be on the road forever." This could serve nicely as V. S. Naipaul's motto, too. Naipaul, the grandson of uprooted Indians, uprooted himself to come to England. He is a man continuously on the road, and continuously fretting about roots, his own and those of the people he meets. One sometimes has the impression of a man traveling through the dark and rainy night, stopping at houses on the way, pressing his nose against the windows. Peering at the people inside, cosily sitting around the family hearth, he is reminded of his own rootlessness. The assumption is that those others, seen through the window, are at home, rooted, and whatever the opposite is of deraciné.
This must account for Naipaul's nostalgia for what he has called "whole and single societies." He has often used such words as "damaged" or "wounded" for societies that are fragmented and apparently rootless. Gandhi, the Mahatma, he told Andrew Robinson, "is a man, whose life, when I contemplate it, makes me cry. I am moved to tears…." This is, as always, largely a matter of pride, of dignity: Gandhi's own sense of dignity, which he imparted to the Indian masses. But it is also a question of Naipaul's admiration for Gandhi's vision of one single India, a racial vision, a vision of wholeness. Nehru had the same vision, albeit in a more secular way. So did Naipaul on his first visit to India. It was an idea of India, which, as Naipaul writes, incorporated the independence movement, the great civilization, the great names, the classical past. "It was," Naipaul writes in his latest book,
an aspect of our identity, the community identity we had developed, which in multi-racial Trinidad, had become more like a racial identity.
This was the identity I took to India on my first visit in 1962. And when I got there I found it had no meaning in India. The idea of an Indian community—in effect, a continental idea of our Indian identity—made sense only when the community was very small, a minority, and isolated.
And now, on his last trip, Naipaul believes he has found the makings of this all-Indian community. He calls it "a central will, a central intellect, a national idea." The Indian Union, he writes, "was greater than the sum of its parts; and many of these movements of excess strengthened the Indian state, defining it as the source of law and civility and reasonableness." This may be right, even though the present bunch in power seems excessive rather than civil, and the latest wave of Hindu chauvinism poses a serious threat to the secular state of India. But this focus on the whole, the single, the central also reflects Naipaul's own state of mind, his nostalgia for an orderly identity. He has remarked elsewhere, quite convincingly, that Gandhi's all-Indian vision was shaped in South Africa, just as Nehru's was formed at Harrow. It is the old dream of the deracinated, a regret about things past.
But a dream is all it is. One senses the same nostalgia in most of the people Naipaul meets on his Indian trip. As Naipaul himself has pointed out so many times, a common desire of those who have escaped the dark embrace of the tribe is to find the way back; nostalgia is the concomitant of change; the educated Sikh who dreams of restoring Ranjit Singh's nineteenth-century kingdom; the urban intellectual in Calcutta dreaming of pastoral purity; Dravidian politicians in Madras dreaming of medieval emperors who preceded the rule of the Brahmins. Whether or not they know it, the millions of mutineers, wrestling with their fates, are all on the road forever. That is the truth of Naipaul's excellent book.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1401
SOURCE: "The Root of Rootlessness," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 22, 1994, pp. 3, 11.
[In the following review, Eder argues that by "refusing to conceal or temper his own crabby vision," Naipaul achieves a "unique authenticity" in his A Way in the World.]
The word Caribbean may conjure up all kinds of vivid colors, but to V. S. Naipaul it suggests gray: a land and seascape bleached out by unmediated sun and a counterfeit history. It is the gray in the face of a professional entertainer the morning after a late night.
The displacing and alienating effects of a colonial past on today's post-colonial peoples has been Naipaul's leading theme ever since, once past his early Trinidad novels, he broke through the colors to the gray underneath. He has pursued it in his fiction and nonfiction, set in Britain, Africa, South America and India, the home of his forebears.
He is one of literature's great travelers and also one of its oddest. He seeks not roots but rootlessness. He travels not for acquaintance but for alienation. Paul Theroux does that, to an extent, but the difference is very large. For one thing, Naipaul, who can be petty, vain and cruel, both uses and transcends his defects. His theme is the terrible inauthenticity that history has imposed on the heirs of colonialism's subjects. But by refusing to conceal or temper his own crabby vision—a walleyed sensibility that tends to swivel inward—he achieves at his best moments a unique authenticity.
His nightmare Argentina, for example, can be unrecognizable but there is no question about the nightmares that it produces in Naipaul. When he is not displaying a certain haste and roughness (on purpose, perhaps, like a musician asserting his freedom to play sour), he is a great writer. In a magical and redeeming phrase he will suddenly link up the particular estrangements he acquires, wherever he goes, to the estranged wanderer in all of us.
A Way in the World is a series of partly autobiographical and partly fictional variations on his theme. Each centers on a different personage, and Naipaul himself appears in many of them. The principal characters differ widely. There is a Trinidadian who uses his color sense as both a funeral parlor cosmetician and a cake decorator; and a conservative Port of Spain lawyer who unexpectedly reveals his flaming commitment to black power. There is a supercilious English writer who helps and patronizes the narrator; an itinerant Caribbean radical—"an impresario of revolution"—who is lionized by the radically chic in London and New York, and an enterprising Venezuelan who has submerged his identity as a Trinidadian Hindu.
Some of the figures are historical. Naipaul writes a vivid fictionalized account of Sir Walter Raleigh, aged and desperate, seeking to discover El Dorado as a way out of his political troubles at home. He paints a poignantly imagined portrait of the early Venezuelan revolutionary, Francisco de Miranda, lifted up and let down by his British patrons and finally, betrayed by the supporters of Bolivar, dying in a Spanish prison.
At first glance there seems to be little connection among the real, part-real and fictional characters he writes of. The styles differ considerably too: from factual documentary to a first-person combination of memoir and commentary to poetic evocation. In fact all of the protagonists are linked by their passage through the world of the Caribbean. It is a world that, instead of evolving gradually through slow migrations and evolution, was created in a kind of cataclysm.
In the space of a few years, the Spanish, the French and the British landed, fought each other, and shoved aside the Native Americans as unfit for their purpose. Their purpose was sugar plantations; and to accomplish it they brought over slaves from Africa and indentured laborers from India. And then, after a couple of centuries, they were gone; leaving behind a fragmented culture resting on a jumbled, conflicting, half-dreamed past. Naipaul doesn't draw the comparison, but one thinks of Prince Sigismund in Calderon's "Life Is a Dream." Arbitrarily immured in a tower from infancy, he suddenly finds himself—arbitrarily released and royal once more—in a wide and terrifying universe.
Sigismund went temporarily mad. Naipaul's characters are put together out of pieces that don't fit. Though not usually mad, they maneuver hybrid and uncertain identities through a world constructed of misapprehensions and are visited by undissolved bits of a heritage they are unconscious of.
In his gentle corpse-and-cake decorator, Naipaul sees an ancestral ghost of "the dancing groups of Lucknow, lewd men who painted their faces and tried to live like women." He adds: "He frightened me because I felt his feeling for beauty was like an illness; as though some unfamiliar deforming virus had passed through his simple mother to him and was even then … something neither of them had begun to understand." The lawyer, Evander, a properly British-mannered black professional in a still-colonial Trinidad, receives a courtesy visit from young Naipaul, about to depart for London on a prized scholarship. There is a starchy moment or two; then, startlingly, Evander raises his fist, smiles, and says: "The race! The race, man!"
It was meant as a secret, confraternal sign to a youth who was off to learn from the enemy and come back to fight. Except that Naipaul wasn't. He was off to gather the rewards that the British colonial authorities had implied would be his when he reached London with his prize. Instead there were years of misery, condescension and the grinding struggle to find himself as a writer. In his portrait of Foster Morris, an established author who helps him generously and then mortally offends him, Naipaul vents with gleeful malice his feelings toward the grip of British attitudes, not only on his country but also on his own divided nature.
But Evander mistook young Naipaul in another respect, as well. As a member of Trinidad's Indian minority, he felt no kinship with the black nationalist current that was to accompany independence in Trinidad and other parts of the Caribbean. On the contrary, he felt his own identity threatened; as he would years later in Africa, where the Indian middle class was a particular target of black politics.
Doubly rootless, doubly colonized, Naipaul draws his most blistering portrait when he writes of Lebrun. A cultivated, brilliant black Communist, Lebrun was adviser to a number of nationalist leaders in the independence days. Once in power, they had no use for him; his ideology was good for building up their strength but they had no intention of actually setting up a Marxist regime.
Still, he remained much in demand among left-wing circles in Britain and the United States. A penetrating review of Naipaul's early work—Lebrun saw a political and social significance that the author himself was unaware of—led to a short-lived friendship. Soon, Naipaul felt he was being colonized once more and broke away. The fashionable '60s formula for the Caribbean—socialism—was just as much an imperial imposition as anything the British had devised. In any case, like black nationalism, it took no account of Naipaul. His pursuit of Lebrun through a later career advising African dictators is perceptive, cruel and, like one or two other pieces, far too long.
Naipaul's angers can be useful as well as shrill, and usually directed at those—British and black—who exercise power. The finest portraits are of figures torn and fluttering through their lives and identities. His Miranda is one of the best things he has done, and he writes of the deluded Raleigh with unusual compassion. And there is the Indian whom Raleigh, assuming he comes from El Dorado, takes back to London to make up for the gold he couldn't find. In fact, Don Jose comes from the well-settled province of Nueva Granada (Colombia). His reflections on Raleigh and on European dreams have a haunting simplicity. Asked years later what difference he finds between the Europeans and the Indians, he answers with an irony that points up what Naipaul is after:
"I've thought a lot about that. And I think, Father, that the difference between us, who are Indians, or half Indians, and people like the Spaniards and the English and the Dutch and the French, people who know how to go where they are going, I think that for them the world is a safer place."
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1943
SOURCE: "Con Men and Conquerors," in The New York Times Book Review, May 22, 1994, pp. 1, 42-3.
[In the following review, Staples praises A Way in the World, calling it a "probing meditation on the relationships among personal, national and world histories."]
Few writers of V. S. Naipaul's stature have been so consistently and aggressively misread on account of ethnic and racial literary politics. Much of the criticism stems not from what Mr. Naipaul writes but from expectations about what he ought to write given that he is a brown man (of Indian descent) born into the brown and black society that is Trinidad. Alas, after a 40-year voyage as a writer, Mr. Naipaul has arrived at a time when his work is too often viewed through the filter of race. This would be an impoverished way of seeing in any case. In V. S. Naipaul's case, a strictly racial reading amounts to no reading at all.
Mr. Naipaul typically takes his readers into the farthest reaches of the third world—Africa, the Caribbean, Asia, the Middle East—to pursue one or both of his twin obsessions: what it means to become and finally to be a writer; what happens in postcolonial societies when foreign power recedes, leaving cruelty and chaos to fill the breach. The second obsession has provoked far more drama than the first. The news from newly free societies—as conveyed through novels like Guerrillas, A Bend in the River and In a Free State, or in nonfiction books like Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey, India: A Wounded Civilization and The Return of Eva Perón—has been deeply and unremittingly grim. Corruption, brutality and tribal hostilities, like those driving the slaughters in Rwanda and Bosnia, flower bloodily and unchecked. Time and again, Mr. Naipaul's readers encounter "half-made societies that seemed doomed to remain half-made."
V. S. Naipaul has 22 books to his credit, many of them displaying the coolest literary eye and the most lucid prose we have. His 11th novel, A Way in the World, is a distinguished book even by Naipaulian standards, a bewitching piece of work by a mind at the peak of its abilities. The book can only loosely be termed a "novel" and is well outside the limits of what one expects from a traditional work of fiction. The narrative is made from nine linked and complementary narratives—some personal, some historical, some traditionally novelistic. Though fewer than 400 pages long, A Way in the World is epic in scope: Columbus, Sir Walter Raleigh, Simon Bolivar and his fellow Venezuelan revolutionary Francisco Miranda all appear in the book, though in ways one could hardly have predicted. At its heart, this novel is a probing meditation on the relationships among personal, national and world histories. The themes—inheritance, immortality—are timeless ones.
The V. S. Naipaul one encounters in the press is a snappish little man whose contempt for interviews and interviewers is frequently evident. At times, the harshness seems a performance, a way of cutting short his encounters with pesky reporters. Performance or no, Mr. Naipaul has ample reason to be snappish. Knighthood notwithstanding, the response to both the public Naipaul and to his work has often been caustic and personal, especially in the third world. The Palestinian scholar Edward W. Said has characterized Mr. Naipaul's posture as that of "a white man's nigger," always "looking down." The poet and Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, born in St. Lucia, not far from Mr. Naipaul's native Trinidad, has derided his fellow West Indian for an alleged "abhorrence of Negroes" and for revering England, once Trinidad's colonial mistress, over the Afro-Caribbean heritage that Mr. Walcott mythologizes in his epic poem, "Omeros."
It has become a matter of reflex for Mr. Naipaul's reviewers to say: "What marvelous writing. But why doesn't he write about the shortcomings of white folks in the West?" That's as absurd as asking why Proust didn't set Remembrance of Things Past in, say, the American Midwest. It's the writer's story; he can set it where he wants.
Mr. Naipaul's first-world defenders have been just as fixed on race, and just as colonialist and condescending, as his third-world critics. Often these defenders characterize him as "brave" for telling "the truth," despite all those colored folks who want him to paint a sunnier portrait. (The writer Jane Kramer has called him "the Solzhenitsyn of the third world.") Two years ago, The Guardian in Britain suggested that V. S. Naipaul had been passed over for the Nobel Prize because of "reservations" about his "suitability to represent the Caribbean." In place of "represent," read "celebrate." But since when is a celebratory view of one's home ground a mark of great literature? If history teaches us anything, it's that the darker view (Dostoyevsky, Saul Bellow, fill in the others yourself) is by far the most penetrating and literary. Keep in mind as well that the Caribbean, despite its swaying palm trees and glistening beaches, is historically a place of slaughter, slavery and indentured servitude as nasty as any in the world.
A Way in the World opens upon the Caribbean of modern times—late-colonial Trinidad in the 1940's, specifically Port of Spain, the city of Mr. Naipaul's youth and the one to which he often returns in fiction. Here we encounter again the questions about himself that Mr. Naipaul has often tried to answer: how he became a writer; how he grew from a cloistered island person into the wanderer and voice of exile he finally became. We join the narrator at 17, filling the summer between high school and college with work as a clerk in a stuffy government office. About him are the human remnants of colonialism: angry, distrustful men constantly aware of the doors that were barred to them because they entered civil service at a time when the best jobs were reserved for whites from England.
One of those angry men is Blair, a black senior clerk who has done well, but less well than he might have, had the best schools not been closed to him. A narrator who seems to be Mr. Naipaul goes off to England to study and write. The years pass. Back at home, proselytizers preach racial politics and revolution in the town square as Trinidad hurtles headlong toward independence. Some of these proselytizers are confidence men who will spend the rest of their lives in orbit from nation to nation, living on their wits. Blair is a different sort. He gives himself, body and soul, to the new politics and develops an international career as a financial adviser for newly independent third world governments. In the end, his commitment kills him. A corrupt east African regime retains him to straighten out its affairs. Government officials have him murdered when he threatens their gold and ivory smuggling.
The story of people flung to the far corners of the globe by the collapse of colonial empires would make an absorbing novel on its own. But Mr. Naipaul intends something far deeper. Musing over Trinidad's landscape, he writes:
"I can tell you … the Amerindian name for that land…. I can look at the vegetation and tell you what was there when Columbus came and what was imported later. I can reconstruct the plantations that were laid out…. While the documents last we can hunt up the story of every strip of occupied land.
"I can give you that historical bird's eye view. But I cannot really explain the mystery of … inheritance. Most of us know the parents or grandparents we come from. But we go back and back, forever, we go back all of us to the very beginning: in our blood and bone and brain we carry the memories of thousands of beings…. We cannot understand all the traits we have inherited. Sometimes we can be strangers to ourselves."
With this passage Mr. Naipaul announces what he's about here: an archeology of the colonial impulse, the thing that spun Columbus, Raleigh and countless others out of their easy chairs into the great dark unknown, on missions of discovery to the New World. Partly it was the myth of El Dorado, the city of gold that Raleigh and Columbus never found and the quest for which was partly responsible for ruining both of them. Partly it was a certain "madness and self-deception" that permitted these men to cause and endure horrendous suffering, even when it was apparent that they'd mischarted the course. But beneath these forces, Mr. Naipaul writes, lay the simple urge of these men to create themselves anew. Often the exercise had universally dramatic consequences.
Toward the end of the novel, we find ourselves in the Gulf of Desolation, between Trinidad and Venezuela, witnessing the final journeys of three agents of empire: Columbus (1451–1506), Raleigh (1554–1618) and the failed Venezuelan revolutionist Miranda (1750–1816). Columbus's final voyage—one racked by mutinies, illness and bad luck—is his most catastrophic, and Columbus returns to the Spanish court in chains. Raleigh, in 1618, is a sick old man waiting in the gulf for scouts who have gone to find El Dorado. The news of El Dorado never arrives. Raleigh returns to England and is beheaded.
Least known and most central to the plot—and most similar to Mr. Naipaul himself—is Francisco Miranda, a Venezuelan aristocrat who leaves his home at the age of 21 to seek his fortune in Europe. Of Miranda Mr. Naipaul writes:
"I saw him as a very early colonial, someone with a feeling of incompleteness, with very little at home to fall back on, with an idea of a great world out there, someone who, when he was out in this world, had to reinvent himself. I saw in him some of my own early promptings (and the promptings of other people I knew)."
To help cover his expenses in Europe, Miranda takes to Spain 450 pounds of cocoa beans (no doubt grown, at the cost of great suffering, on the family's slave estates). The cocoa fetches 115 pesos. Miranda spends the entire sum on a silk handkerchief and a silk umbrella, artifacts that symbolize his wish to move as soon as possible among Europe's rich and famous. Miranda becomes a swindler and world-class confidence man. Still, he is welcomed all over Europe. As the only South American of culture most Europeans have ever seen, he is free to present himself as whoever he wishes to be. Introductions continue, onward and upward; in Russia, Catherine the Great makes him an officer and showers him with favors.
Miranda keeps a journal of his adventures. It is through this journal that he makes himself anew. Wandering and writing, wandering and writing. Miranda the mountebank, Miranda the dilettante, convinces himself that he is Miranda the sovereign, "a government in waiting," entitled to assume leadership of the South America from which he has been absent for 35 years. He invades Venezuela, fails to rout the Spaniards and spends the rest of his life in dungeons.
The principal brilliance of this book is the way it situates its present-day characters—Blair, the revolutionaries and Naipaul himself—squarely in the historical currents of the colonial age. Writers scribbling themselves into being are not unlike the so-called "great men" of history who re-created themselves from spit and myth, in hopes of playing larger and longer on the world stage. In the hands of a lesser writer these comparisons of writers and the "great men" of history would seem forced, even pretentious. Mr. Naipaul embraces Miranda's days and nights, and his inner demons, in a way that is both plausible and moving. We are all of us confidence men (and women), making ourselves up as we go along.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3793
SOURCE: "Naipaul's Written World," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLVII, No. 4, Winter, 1995, pp. 587-96.
[In the following essay, Pritchard argues that Naipaul's "decline as a novelist" can be attributed to his "banishment" of irony and humor in his later works.]
V. S. Naipaul's twenty-second book is an occasion for looking over his extraordinary career and considering how much it weighs and what parts of it weigh most. That he hasn't yet won the Nobel Prize is continuing matter for speculation and doubtless has to do with his outspoken airings of prejudices that are insufficiently liberal. Reviewing the new book's predecessor, The Enigma of Arrival (1987), Derek Walcott—a Nobel winner—both praised it as writing and deplored Naipaul's disdainful attitudes toward black people and the West Indian world. Even so, said Walcott, Trinidadians had large enough hearts to forgive him for choosing England as the place of authority and tradition from which other places were judged and found wanting. One has the sense, then, of Naipaul as a politically incorrect figure whose views on things political count more than does his art as a writer (though everybody says he "writes well"), to the extent that the art has not been properly examined and evaluated.
In particular one wants to ask about the sort of novelist we have on our hands. A Way in the World, like The Enigma of Arrival, insists on its title page that it is a novel. Yet by no stretch of my imagination can either book be called a novel in any but the loosest and most unhelpful sense. Randall Jarrell's witty definition of the genre as a prose work of some length that has something wrong with it, will hardly do to characterize A Way in the World. Unlike Enigma, which concentrated obsessively and minutely on the narrator's life in a Wiltshire cottage over a period of years, the new book has no unifying thread of time or place; nor is its nine-part scheme of biographical reminiscence, historical fable, and portraiture of imaginary-real figures, consistently "voiced" in such a way as to assure us we can trust the narrator. Sink or swim, is more like it, and a number of times I sank.
You could say that Naipaul began as a writer of novels and late in his career has become a writer of "novels." (The English edition of A Way in the World calls it a "sequence," which is safe enough.) In what to my taste was the most engaging section of this sequence, "Passenger: A Figure from the Thirties," Naipaul recounts his relationship with an English writer he calls Foster Morris, who encouraged Naipaul at the beginning of his career as a novelist. In 1937 Morris had written a book about Trinidad centering on a strike in the oilfields and on the leader of the strike, a preacher named Tubal Uriah Buzz Butler. In "Passenger," Naipaul (we scarcely need to call him "the narrator") praises Morris' book for the way it depicted Trinidad people "with the utmost seriousness," treating them without irony, as if they were English. But, adds Naipaul, well-intentioned as The Shadowed Livery was it was also wrong, since it suppressed "the sense of the absurd, the idea of comedy"—the "preserver," Naipaul calls it. His own earliest efforts at fiction, in which he attempted to use English settings and people encountered after he settled in London in 1956 were, he soon decided, misconceived, since they suppressed his comic inheritance. The comedy inherited was a double one, from his story-telling Hindu family and from the street life in Port of Spain. More than once he has described how his true direction became apparent to him one afternoon when, sitting in the offices of the BBC for whom he was an occasional worker, he wrote the opening paragraphs of the opening story in what would be Miguel Street (his third published book, though the first to be written):
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?"
In Naipaul's "Prologue to an Autobiography" (in Finding the Center, 1984) he writes about this opening that
The first sentence was true, the second was invention. But together—to me, the writer—they had done something extraordinary. Though they had left out everything—the setting, the historical time, the racial and social complexities of the people of the street—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.
Of note in this portrait of the artist by himself, is Naipaul's confident assumption that the difference between truth and invention is perfectly clear, and that the account given here of his beginnings as a writer is obviously true, not invented.
Naipaul's emphasis on the pace and idiom of comedy, with its roots in local observation and its dependence on artfully combined sentences and words, surely characterizes with accuracy the feel of the stories in Miguel Street and—even more satisfying—his first two novels, The Mystic Masseur (1957) and The Suffrage of Elvira (1958). In The Mystic Masseur, Ganesh—the struggling masseur who turns himself into a famous writer and healer—observes a shop notice written by Leela, his bride-to-be, who is being recommended to Ganesh by her father, Ramlogan:
"Is Leela self who write that," Ramlogan said. "I didn't ask she to write it, mind you. She just sit down quiet quiet one morning after tea and write it off."
Notice, is. Hereby; provided: That, Seats!
Are, Provided. For; Female: Shop, Assistants!
Ganesh said, "Leela know a lot of punctuation marks."
"That is it, sahib. All day the girl just sitting down and talking about these punctuation marks. She is like that, sahib."
Later, to the surprise of those around him, Ganesh writes his first book, titled A Hundred and One Questions and Answers on the Hindu Religion, which contains sticklers such as number 46, "Who is the greatest modern Hindu?" (Ans. Mahatma Gandhi) and 47, "Who is the second greatest modern Hindu?" (Ans. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru) and 48, "Who is the third greatest modern Hindu?" (Ans. not revealed to us). Ramlogan is delighted: "Is the sort of book, sahib, they should give to children in school and make them learn it by heart."
The idiom is as memorable as the inventive comedy it conveys: Ganesh's aunt is known by him as "The Great Belcher" for reasons of her expressive dyspepsia; Ramlogan says that having to look after himself since he was five years old has given him "cha'acter and sensa values, sahib. That's what it gives me. Cha'acter and sensa values." In The Suffrage of Elvira, about a political campaign in one of Trinidad's first free elections, the tone is even broader and more farcical, with many fine scenes, one of which involves a dead chicken that someone lays squarely in the middle of Ramlogan's doorway, just after he has luxuriously rubbed himself with Canadian Healing Oil (the "Canadian" touch is especially good in this Caribbean venue). When one of the characters is told by his son that the son will no longer support his father's candidate in the election, the older man doesn't attempt to argue with him since "You is a big man. Your pee making froth." Many further examples of a living idiom could be adduced as proof of the way, in Naipaul's retrospective phrase about it, "the world of the street" has been created.
The "Passenger" section from Naipaul's new work throws interesting light on how he sees the relation between his first three "street" books and what is generally acknowledged to be his masterwork, A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), by any standards among the major novels of our century. Naipaul tells us that though his early way of writing had given him confidence and gotten him started, by 1960 or thereabouts he had begun to be bothered by its "jokeyness," a humor that seemed to lie "on the other side of hysteria," just as did the colonial society he had written about. He says—it must be in reference to Mr. Biswas, though he doesn't name it directly—that he was "absolutely secure in this new book" which was taking him much longer to finish than the previous ones. And although the six hundred pages of Biswas contain much comedy—especially in the verbal inventiveness of the protagonist's name-calling of his Tulsi in-laws—and much fiercely sardonic humor in Mr. Biswas' struggle with the world's stupidities and follies, the novel frequently takes on a deeper note. Mr. Biswas could be said to exist, like the comedy Naipaul had become adept at creating, on the other side of hysteria or anxiety, that "deeper root of comedy" that had become this novelist's subject. Biswas suffers a major nervous collapse during the book as well as countless smaller defeats and depressions; so when Naipaul provides him with a momentary vision of self-possession, of peace, the effect on a reader is strong and satisfying, as in this memory of morning in Port of Spain:
The newspaper, delivered free, still warm, the ink still wet, sprawled on the concrete steps down which the sun was moving. Dew lay on trees and roofs; the empty street, freshly swept and washed, was in cool shadow, and water ran clear in the gutters whose green bases had been scratched and striped by the sweepers' harsh brooms.
Or this moment, in his final dwelling place two weeks before he dies:
He thought of the house as his own, though for years it had been irretrievably mortgaged. And during these months of illness and despair, he was struck again and again by the wonder of being in his own house, the audacity of it; to walk in through his own front gate, to bar entry to whoever he wished, to close his doors and windows every night, to hear no noises except those of his family, to wander freely from room to room, and about his yard …
A House for Mr. Biswas is invariably called "Dickensian" by critics, as I suppose any big book teeming with characters (many of them caricatures), disdaining economy of effort and moving always toward expansion, determined to leave nothing out, could be so called. But except for the reflective gravity of some of the narrative in Great Expectations, Dickens, whose "jokeyness" is always cropping up, contains little of the sustained depths and glooms that lie not very far beneath Mohun Biswas' story.
Having published, at age twenty-nine, a novel containing as much life as did Mr. Biswas, what was Naipaul to do next? A possibility, frequently made use of by English novelists of this century, was to travel, then write up your travels: accordingly Naipaul went back to the Caribbean, then to India, and produced absorbing accounts of these places in The Middle Passage (1962) and An Area of Darkness (1964). But while in India he also wrote, one presumes fairly rapidly, the oddest and in some ways most delightful book of his career, Mr. Stone and the Knights' Companion, the one novel of his set wholly in England and with English characters. To those familiar with Naipaul's other fiction, both early and late, Mr. Stone reads like a ventriloquist's performance, as if Muriel Spark or Elizabeth Taylor were at the controls. The tone and irony of the novel is delicate and mischievous, with yearning and melancholy in it as well. It was if Naipaul were saying, if you think I'm merely a regionalist entertainer, let me show you what I can do as well or better than any contemporary English novelist. By the same token, it was something only to be done once.
Naipaul's decline as a novelist—or at least his metamorphosis into a very different, and to my eyes less appealing, one—began with the award-winning The Mimic Men (1967). His first novel in the first person, it is an example of what Henry James, speaking of that mode, called "the terrible fluidity of self-revelation." Whether we are meant to identify the narrator, one Ralph Singh, with Naipaul, or whether Singh is the object of authorial irony, is impossible to determine. What is damagingly evident is that comedy has been thoroughly laid aside in favor of Singh's largely toneless recitation of his career in London, his childhood in the Caribbean, his marriage and its dissolution, his decision to write a memoir. Instead of comedy, we have endless assertion and declaration (the book is only 250 pages long but feels much longer). Nothing is dramatized; the mode of presentation is as flat and uninflected as Singh's life seems to have been. Here for the first time we see Naipaul—as he characterized himself in a recent New Yorker profile—as a hater of "style" in prose: "I want the writer not to be there … In my writing there's no self-consciousness, there's no beauty." He says in the profile he is against "smoothness," against rhythm, against Santayana and Gibbon and the King James Bible ("Unbearable—unbearable"); he is against plot (Trollope would be all right if he weren't always plotting); he is in favor of Richard Jeffries and William Cobbett as admirable nineteenth-century writers, rather than Jane Austen and Henry James. Although these prejudices don't express themselves fully in his writing until the last two "novels," they begin to be felt in The Mimic Men and in the three political novels of the 1970s which followed.
In 1974, the year before the second of these books, Guerillas, was published (In a Free State appeared in 1971, A Bend in the River in 1979), Naipaul wrote an essay about Joseph Conrad in which, rather tortuously, he delineated his relation to that writer. As criticism, it is a curious performance: "An Outpost of Progress," an early Conrad story, is designated "the finest thing Conrad wrote," while "The Lagoon" (also an early story) provided Naipaul with something "strong and direct" that he was never again to find in Conrad. By contrast, Lord Jim, The Secret Agent, Under Western Eyes, and Victory are in their different ways unsatisfactory, and he couldn't finish Nostromo. Yet, and this is the burden of the essay, Naipaul eventually discovers that Conrad has been there before him: that Naipaul's desire to make a romantic career for himself as a writer was doomed to fail, since the world had changed:
The new politics, the curious reliance of men on institutions they were yet working to undermine, the simplicity of belief and the hideous simplicity of actions, the corruption of causes, half-made societies that seemed doomed to remain half-made: these were the things that began to preoccupy me.
This had been Conrad's experience, and Naipaul attempted to match it, he says, by losing "one's preconceptions of what the novel should do and, above all, to rid oneself of the subtle corruptions of the novel or comedy of manners." These words are extremely revealing: the corruption of causes, of half-made societies, of "politics," necessitates something different from the subtle corruptions of fiction. If "novel" equals "comedy of manners," then it can't relevantly deal with politics. Perhaps Naipaul believes that Conrad's austerity and lack of comedy were also to be emulated; yet The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes are full of a sardonic humor directed at institutions and at "the hideous simplicity of actions." Indeed you might even say that in them Conrad came closest to writing the comedy of manners, and they are perhaps the novels of his that wear best.
What I find disturbing in Naipaul's political novels from the 1970s is a tonelessness at their center; an absence of narrative performance—of "style" if you will—that novels have not often tried to do without. Bent on displaying the corruption of causes in African and Caribbean "half-made societies," these books do so at the price of readerly pleasure. Even admirers of them might admit that they're not much fun to read; for Naipaul has deliberately moved beyond the "fun" that was so importantly a part of his pre-Mimic Men fiction. Taking the long view, we see that this was the way he had to go—to "develop": yet such development exacts its price. Mr. Biswas will be read when Guerillas is barely remembered, because the earlier book is art, the later one closer to a cautionary tale told in icy, noncommittal prose that doesn't admit any mixed feelings.
With The Enigma of Arrival and A Way in the World, Naipaul has ceased to write novels in favor of densely meditative prose excursions, linked together through something other than story ("Yes, oh, dear, yes, the novel tells a story," squeaked E. M. Forster). Or put it that the story has been internalized and historicized into something presumably deeper and more profound than a mere piece of fiction. In the New Yorker interview, Naipaul spoke of himself as a man who weighs his words, doesn't just say what comes into his head, and that therefore his books demand special treatment: "My paragraphs are very rich—they have to be read. Many things are happening in the paragraph. If you miss a paragraph—if you miss a page—it's hard to get back into it." He thinks that "twenty good pages" at a stretch is about as much as a careful reader of him can manage. The Enigma of Arrival contains a hundred or so rich pages ("The Journey") describing Naipaul's leaving Trinidad and early sojourn in England. But the rest of the book, centered on the manor-cottage life he lived in Wiltshire, is not so rich as it is labored. The assumption behind his remark about weighing words carefully is that a writer who does so will be neither vain nor prolix. Yet the minutiae of observation and speculation, the teasing out of the people and places that surround him—done without humor, largely without irony in Enigma—constitute an obstacle course that can be traversed only with much effort and frequent stops along the way. Naipaul's power and authority as a writer is such that to admit to failure on a reader's part, to lapse into inattention or boredom, makes for a guilty sense of inadequacy. Isn't there something really deep here that, if I were a better reader, I could discover?
On the basis of A Way in the World, I'd have to say—not necessarily. As with Enigma, the best parts of it are distinctly autobiographical: early memories ("A Smell of Fishglue") of administrative work in the Red House in Port of Spain; the aforementioned sequence with Foster Morris; and at least part of the section about the revolutionary Lebrun (a C. L. R. James-like figure). But much of the book is devoted to what Naipaul calls "unwritten stories," three of them, one of which is about Sir Walter Raleigh in his old age coming back to Trinidad, still occupied with the fading possibility of an El Dorado to be discovered up the Orinoco; another, even longer, story is about the career of the Venezuelan revolutionary, Francisco Miranda, a late eighteenth-century precursor of Simon Bolivar. By calling them unwritten stories, Naipaul, it seems to me, bids to disarm us by deconstructing the business of writing fiction (these are not "stories," you understand, not "written" in the usual sense), then taking the liberty to spin out at some length combinations of imaginative-historical embroidery. But their power to make us ask the crucial narrative question—what happened next?—is too often absent, with the effect that they feel, in the main, contrived and willed—interesting ideas that end up being overwritten rather than unwritten.
A Way in the World is a strange book, and though it has been called (along with Enigma) Proustian, there seems to me a huge difference between the densely psychological, often playful-painful exploration Proust gives his narrator, and what Naipaul does to the "I" in the presumably more autobiographical sections of the new work. A single instance will have to do to show what I mean and why it's a problem. In the section dealing with the revolutionary Lebrun ("On the Road"), Naipaul is invited to a dinner in London for the man at which West Indian food is served—a dish called "coo-coo" or "foo-foo" consisting of "a heavy glistening mound" of yams and green bananas and peppers. Repelled by it, Naipaul leaves it on his plate (no one noticed, he tells us). Eight pages later he is in New York City, again at dinner with friends of Lebrun with whom he has been put in touch. The host has promised him that gefilte fish will be served, a "special dish," which Naipaul says he's never had. When it appears this is what happens:
I didn't like the way it looked, and have no memory of it. The idea of something pounded to paste, then spiced or oiled, worked on by fingers, brought to mind something of hand lotions and other things. I became fearful of smelling it. I couldn't eat it. With the coo-coo or foo-foo in the Maida Vale flat I had been able to hide what I did to the things on my plate. That couldn't be done here; everyone knew that the gefilte fish had been specially prepared for Lebrun's friend from London.
Manners never frayed. Conversation revived. But the embarrassment that began in the dining room lasted until I was taken back to the Manhattan hotel.
This is as much as we are told. What is the meaning of it and why should it be presented as imaginatively significant? We know that Naipaul is an extremely fastidious man, a strict vegetarian, prey to disgust at certain kinds of culinary treats. And that he is as fastidious about what he writes (he weighs the words) as about what he eats. But for the life of me I can't see anything more to this passage than that gefilte fish didn't pass his scrutiny and embarrassment ensued. What does this have to do with Lebrun, or with the world about which Naipaul moves with such deliberate complication? By banishing irony and humor, the staple of comedy of manners and of a certain kind of novel, Naipaul has put himself out there on a limb with little besides his righteous, proud sense of himself as a man of integrity. Too often, in A Way in the World, that's all we're left with, and it feels flat, merely asserted. This is by way of saying that the new book (a strong bid for the Nobel?) is not the crown, but a curious outgrowth rather, of his distinguished writing life.
Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 344
Chauhan, P. S. "V. S. Naipaul: History as Cosmic Irony." In Reworlding: The Literature of the Indian Diaspora, edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson, pp. 13-23. New York: Greenwood Press, 1992.
Examines Naipaul's development as a writer, focusing on his ironic perspective.
Derrick, A. C. "Naipaul's Technique as a Novelist." In Critical Perspectives on V. S. Naipaul, edited by Robert D. Hamner, pp. 194-207. London: Heinemann, 1977.
Studies major thematic strands in Naipaul's work.
Miller, Karl. "Elephant Head." London Review of Books 12, No. 18 (27 September 1990): 11-13.
In-depth review of India: A Million Mutinies Now.
Murdoch, David. "The Riches of Empire: Postcolonialism in Literature and Criticism." Choice 32, No. 7 (March 1995): 1059–69.
Examines the lasting effects of colonization as it appears in literature and criticism.
Ramraj, Victor J. "V. S. Naipaul: The Irrelevance of Nationalism." World Literature Written in English 23, No. 1 (1984): 187-96.
Studies Naipaul's literary approach to politics and the manner in which he de-emphasizes political conflict as a primary motivating force for fiction.
Roy, Ashish. "Race and Figures of History in Naipaul's An Area of Darkness." Critique—Studies in Contemporary Fiction XXXII, No. 4 (Summer 1991): 235-57.
Argues that An Area of Darkness reflects a global strategy to present subjective observation in the guise of realistic documentary.
Ware, Tracy. "V. S. Naipaul's The Return of Eva Perón and the Loss of 'True Wonder'." ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 24, No. 2 (April 1993): 101-12.
Discusses the influence of Joseph Conrad present in Naipaul's The Return of Eva Perón.
Gussow, Mel. "V. S. Naipaul: 'It Is Out of This Violence I've Always Written'." The New York Times Book Review (16 September 1984): 45-6.
Naipaul discusses a number of issues, including the role of the editor and his attitude toward emerging nations.
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