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V. S. Naipaul 1932-

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(Full name Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul) Trinidadian-born English novelist, short story writer, essayist, journalist, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Naipaul's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 7, 9, 13, 18, 37, and 105.

Regarded as one of the most talented writers in contemporary literature, Naipaul is also one of the most controversial. His ironic accounts of colonial and postcolonial Third World societies have drawn mixed responses for their negative portrayal of the peoples of those regions. In particular, his harsh indictment of Islamic fundamentalism has inspired debate in light of recent world events. In 2001 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, an honor that has resulted in several reappraisals of Naipaul's career and contributions to world literature.

Biographical Information

Naipaul was born in Chaguanas, Trinidad, on August 17, 1932. His parents were descendants of Hindu immigrants from northern India, and as a youth he felt alienated from his surroundings and what he felt was the cultural poverty of Trinidad. These feelings of displacement became a recurring theme in his later fiction and essays. While attending secondary school at Queens Royal College in Port of Spain, he was awarded a government scholarship to study abroad, which led him to University College, Oxford, in 1950. Since then, England has remained his principal home. After graduating with a B.A. from Oxford in 1953, 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). Naipaul spent much of the 1960s 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 next few decades, Naipaul continued to travel for his literary inspiration and published several books that explored political, cultural, and social issues. In 2001 Naipaul received the Nobel Prize for Literature. He resides in London.

Major Works

Naipaul's essays and nonfiction have been influenced heavily by his travels and his interest in colonial and postcolonial societies. The Middle Passage is written in the form of a travelogue or a record of impressions by an outsider and is the first of Naipaul's nonfiction books to examine the societies of developing countries. An Area of Darkness chronicles Naipaul's travels to India. His harsh portrayal of his ancestral homeland resulted in much controversy; critics accused him of possessing a rigid bias in favor of Western traditions and ideology—a charge that would follow him throughout his career. Naipaul's first collection of essays, The Return of Eva Perón; with The Killings in Trinidad (1980), drawn from his visits to Trinidad, Zaire, and Argentina, focuses on the dangers of charismatic political leadership. His book Among the Believers (1981) is based upon journeys in the Middle and Far East, in which he recounts his personal attempt to explain the “Islamic revival.” Its 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. His 1998 book Beyond Belief is considered a sequel to Among the Believers and reveals a deeper pessimism and disappointment in the state of religious and individual freedoms in Islamic societies. Naipaul's collection of letters, Between Father and Son (2000), reveals insights into his family life, particularly his relationship with his influential father. Naipaul's most recent essay collection, Literary Occasions (2003), includes his renowned Nobel Prize acceptance speech as well as essays about his life and work, writing, and other authors.

Naipaul's fictional works explore such themes as alienation, cultural displacement, the effects of poverty, sexual and political violence, and the insidious nature of religious fanaticism. Critics generally agree that his finest work is the autobiographical novel A House for Mr. Biswas (1961). Like Mr. Biswas, Naipaul's father was a Trinidadian journalist of Hindu extraction who frequently clashed with his wife's large, powerful Brahmin family and with the Indian community in Trinidad, yet managed to instill his abilities and journalistic aptitude in his son. The novel was praised for its humorous tone, vivid characterizations, and underlying pathos. The short novel and stories of the Booker Prize-winning In a Free State involve characters whose alienation stems from a loss of cultural identity. In A Bend in the River (1979), an Indian merchant unsuccessfully tries to establish himself in a newly independent African country. A Way in the World (1994) is a semiautobiographical collection of character sketches that are linked in some way to the Caribbean region. Half a Life (2001), a tale of an Indian immigrant living in Africa, explores issues of cultural and racial identity.

Critical Reception

Naipaul is widely considered one of the finest authors of contemporary literature. Reviewers commend his narrative skill and command of language, especially dialect, and view his works as perspicacious, original, and highly readable. However, his negative appraisal of life in such countries as Iran, India, Trinidad, Indonesia, and Malaysia has met with a great deal of controversy. Critics charge Naipaul with favoring Western traditions and ideology and deem him reactionary, insensitive, snobbish, and even racist. It has been argued that this controversy often obscured his artistic achievements. Following Naipaul's receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, some critics contended that Naipaul's work has finally been recognized for his bold investigation of cultural, political, and religious issues. Others expressed reservations because they found his work too polemical, dismissive, and politically incorrect for such a prestigious award. Some critics have discussed the timing of the honor—just weeks after the September 11th terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.—and place his views on Islam and the West within the context of these recent events. In this light, he is discussed as a political figure and commentator. Several critics have traced his maturation as a writer and have provided reassessments of Naipaul's work and contributions to world literature. Despite the controversy Naipaul has inspired, he is regarded as one of the world's most important and gifted writers.

Principal Works

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The Mystic Masseur (novel) 1957

The Suffrage of Elvira (novel) 1958

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

Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion (novel) 1963

An Area of Darkness: An Experience of India (nonfiction) 1964

The Mimic Men (novel) 1967

The Loss of El Dorado: A History (nonfiction) 1969

In a Free State (novel) 1971

The Overcrowded Barracoon and Other Articles (essays) 1972

Guerillas (novel) 1975

India: A Wounded Civilization (nonfiction) 1977

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: Two Narratives (essays) 1984

The Enigma of Arrival (novel) 1987

A Turn in the South (nonfiction) 1989

India: A Million Mutinies Now (nonfiction) 1990

A Way in the World (novel) 1994

Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (nonfiction) 1998

Between Father and Son: Selected Correspondence of V. S. Naipaul and His Family, 1949-1953 (letters) 2000

Reading and Writing: A Personal Account (nonfiction) 2000

Half a Life (novel) 2001

The Writer and the World (essays) 2002

Literary Occasions: Essays (essays) 2003

Christopher Wise (essay date October 1996)

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SOURCE: Wise, Christopher. “The Garden Trampled: or, the Liquidation of African Culture in V. S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River.College Literature 23, no. 3 (October 1996): 58-72.

[In the following essay, Wise contrasts the views of Chinua Achebe and Naipaul on the subject of modern African history and culture as evinced in Achebe's Things Fall Apart and Naipaul's A Bend in the River.]

Works of art can fully embody the promesse du bonheur only when they have been uprooted from their native soil and have set out along the path to their own destruction. Proust recognized this. This procedure which today relegates every work of art to the museum, even Picasso's most recent sculpture, is irreversible. It is not solely reprehensible, however, for it presages a situation in which art, having completed its estrangement from human ends, returns to life.

—Adorno, Prisms

In the beginning it is like trampling on a garden. In the end you are just walking on ground. That is the way we have to learn to live now.

—Indar in Naipaul's A Bend in the River


The extent of Joseph Conrad's impact on both Chinua Achebe and V. S. Naipaul has been copiously documented by both literary critics and scholars, and even by the authors themselves in numerous occasional writings, interviews, and literary essays.1 But if Achebe's Things Fall Apart contests and negates Conrad's previous negation and distortion of Africa and Africans in Heart of Darkness, Naipaul's more recent A Bend in the River not only reaffirms Conrad's more pessimistic—if not overtly racialist—perspective on Africans and their history, it also serves as the historical and determinate negation of Achebe's now widely influential (but not conclusive) negation of Conrad's novel. Like the history of the novel in Europe then (or anywhere, for that matter), the history of the novel in Africa involves a basic process of determinate negation in which one literary work often criticizes and complicates another. In other words, as competing ideologemes or discursive formations that seek (however unsuccessfully) to resolve the contradictions and crises of material necessity within their very formal or generic structures, novels such as Achebe's Things Fall Apart and Naipaul's A Bend in the River tend to demonstrate not the appropriateness or finality of any one structural variant or “cultural dominant” over another (Achebe's politically engaged realism versus, say, Naipaul's cynical or epic modernism),2 rather they tend to demonstrate the bewildering complexity of recent history itself within the postcolonial African context.

For this reason among others, the contemporary caricature of Naipaul as postcolonial “mandarin” (i.e., pariah) does not really do justice to his complexity and importance as a writer of the Third World, especially in Rob Nixon's London Calling: V. S. Naipaul, Post-colonial Mandarin. Many of the remarks that follow are therefore intended as a dialogical response to critics like Nixon (but also Peter Nazareth, Edward Said, and others), who see only bad faith, cynicism, and “hatchet-jobbing” in the writings of Naipaul. To contest the by-now familiar stigmatization of Naipaul as postcolonial mandarin, I will seek instead to excavate the historical truth-content within Naipaul's controversial novel A Bend in the River, thereby dialectically preserving it as a crippled monad of historical truth.3 More specifically, I will argue that in diametrical opposition to Achebe's appropriation of traditional Igbo folk-culture in Things Fall Apart, Naipaul's A Bend in the River proposes a wholly different but no less significant situational response to the predicament of modern African history and culture: whereas Achebe advocates the reinvestment of semantic richness into the traditional cultures of Africa's past, adopting a hermeneutic position that avoids European and essentializing forms of ethnocentrism,4 Naipaul paradoxically seeks the regeneration of African society through the systematic destruction or liquidation of its traditional cultures, a strategy that is a hallmark of European modernist aesthetics.5 Though problematic at best, Naipaul's suggestion that Africans today must deliberately “trample” upon the gardens of their past, eschewing all that is not absolutely modern, is not merely reactionary; it also belies Naipaul's utopian hope for the future redemption of African culture and history.


In the published results of a round table discussion between Edward Said, Conor Cruise O'Brien, and John Lukacs, Said fueled recent debates on Naipaul by attacking Naipaul as a racist and self-hating flatterer of Western white liberals. “[Naipaul] is a third worlder denouncing his own people,” Said stated, “not because they are victims of imperialism, but because they seem to have an innate flaw, which is that they are not whites” (Lukács 79). Much of the disagreement between Said and other discussion participants centered on John Lukács's attempts to defend Naipaul as a disinterested “truth-seeker” who impartially criticizes nearly everyone he writes about (68). In countering Lukacs's argument, Said argued that Naipaul does not impartially “tell the truth;” rather he flatters the prejudices of “ignorant” Western audiences that have of late grown weary of the problems of the Third World and of the decolonization process itself (79-80).

Taking his cue from Said, Rob Nixon has argued in London Calling that “Lukács's style of reasoning [in describing Naipaul as a “truth-seeker”] is characteristic of the way attention is diverted from any admission of Naipaul's strong, well-established position in England and the effect that might have on his ‘neutrality’” (181 ft 37). In fact, Nixon even catalogues contemporary critical response to Naipaul into two separate camps: those neo-colonial critics (like Lukács) who tend to legitimate Naipaul's claims to objectivity and those more responsible critics (like Said) who “resist the recurrent style of reasoning about Naipaul's disinterestedness” (33). Nixon further argues that, while the former camp is made up of British and American critics, the latter camp tends to consist of South Asians, Indians, West Indians, Latin Americans, Arabs, and Africans—those Third World intellectuals who are fully aware of the “naked bias” in Naipaul's writings.6

Though both Said and Nixon raise many important issues in their respective discussions of Naipaul, neither critic adequately addresses the historical and political complexities which make novels like The Mimic Men, Guerrillas, and A Bend in the River seem both satisfying and “truthful” to many writers, critics, and readers of Third World literature. In his Aesthetic Theory, for example, Theodor W. Adorno has taught us that modernist art works, among which we may include Naipaul's A Bend in the River, may be historically meaningful as “damaged vehicles of historical truth.”7 Regardless of the professed politics or class affiliation of the author, modernist novels may therefore contain within them an artistic “truth value” (or “truth content”), which Adorno characterizes in terms of their “unconscious historiography” (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory 274), or the “crystallization of history” that occurs within them (193). Hence, while remaining committed to a Lukácsian theory of reification, Adorno rightly rejects Lukács's overly dogmatic views on the importance of the subjective consciousness (or even political orientation) of the individual artist.8 When criticizing the writings of Naipaul, perhaps we would do well to remember Adorno's reminder that “suffering, not positivity, is the human content of art” (Aesthetic Theory 369), or that “art becomes human only when it gives notice that it will not play a serving role” (281).

In other words, so long as we are content simply to unmask Naipaul's ideological bad faith, or merely criticize him, any number of important questions will remain unanswered. In London Calling, for example, Nixon might have examined the historical sedimentation of the “disinterested” in Naipaul, or he might have sought to appreciate Naipaul's writings as “damaged vehicles of historical truth,” to quote Adorno. Despite the rigor of his approach, Nixon therefore neglects to historicize the form of subjective consciousness that gives Naipaul's literary works their distinctive qualities of detachment, alienation, psychological suffering, and “truthfulness.” Consequently, he can tell us little about the cognitive character of the “disinterested” in Naipaul. Nor can he teach us anything about “the negative embodiment of utopian hope” in Naipaul, or the “broken promise of happiness” which, according to Salman Rushdie, in any case, is the defining characteristic of Naipaul's writings.9

In opposition to both Said and Nixon, it must first be emphasized that the perceiving subject in Naipaul is a form of “objectified consciousness” [sedimentierter Geist], not merely a self-serving or anarchistic subjectivity. Any number of specific sociohistorical factors related to the contemporary neo-colonial context therefore make inevitable the various continuities, repetitions, contradictions, and restrictions that determine the asocial and hostile attributes of the narrative voices in Naipaul's literary works like The Mystic Masseur, A Bend in the River, and Among the Believers. The dialectical movement between the subjective voice and its prior objects is not then determined at random or by mere chance but is rather the result of a complicated process of social labor, a process that belies the historical form of human consciousness that is recurrent in Naipaul's writings. Hence, Naipaul does not so much offer us the unmediated observations of an irresponsible free-agent as he presents us with the “objectively” determined insights or even “truths” of a deeply disenfranchised subject of the Third World in the era of multinational capitalism—which is to say, neocolonialism.

More specifically, if the spontaneity or autonomy of the modernist subject is in reality a highly mediated form of immediacy, as Adorno shows, there are obvious and important epistemological implications that most recent ideological dismissals of writers like Naipaul and Soyinka have failed to address. First, according to Adorno, it is important to remember that an illusory if not self-deluding autonomy is both prior and necessary if truth claims are to be advanced at all. Repeatedly, Adorno argues that it is exceedingly difficult for the modernist subject of late capitalism to be both spontaneous and aware of the need for systemic or deontological social change.10 Secondly, Adorno points out that for any significant social transformation to occur within the modernist context, society will necessarily depend upon a self-conscious and autonomous subject [Gesamtsubjekt], who is able to perceive society's needs and then act accordingly.

Adorno's views in this regard are not far from the views of Chinua Achebe, who has also insisted upon the importance of an autonomous postcolonial subject in his numerous occasional essays collected in Hopes and Impediments. Nor is Adorno far from the concerns of both C. L. R. James and Frantz Fanon, who famously chastised Jean-Paul Sartre for robbing négritude of its vitality and spontaneity. “[C]onsciousness has to lose itself in the night of the absolute,” Fanon wrote in response to Sartre's anti-essentialist critique of négritude. “There is no other way to attain consciousness of the self” (Fanon 133-134). It is also for this reason that Wole Soyinka has bitterly complained of “leftocratic” theory in Africa and how it has, in his opinion, sapped the creative energy of an entire generation of young writers.11 The past failings of Marxist literary criticism of Third World writing, of which Sartre's “Preface to Orphée Noir” may be emblematic, should at least give us pause before rushing to prescribe—rather than understand—the “correct” aesthetic responses to the current neocolonial situation.


Throughout A Bend in the River, Naipaul seems to share Adorno's belief in the importance of a self-conscious and autonomous subject [Gesamtsubjekt], fully capable of decisive and effective action in an increasingly modernized (and often disorienting) world. For Naipaul, sentimentalizing the past inevitably impedes meaningful praxis in the present. By dwelling upon the lost comforts of pre-colonial, religio-community existence, as the early Achebe does in Things Fall Apart, we are rendered impotent when confronted with the harsher realities of secularized and modernized society. Hence, while Achebe advocates the preservation and dissemination of traditional folk-wisdom as a cultural remedy for the many problems caused by the modernization of Africa, Naipaul insists that only by forgetting and “trampling upon” the past may the social problems of the present be confronted and effectively resolved. Like Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who has stated her “absolute scorn” for those who seek cultural roots,12 Naipaul often ridicules as misguided those who attempt to recuperate the lost splendors of the pre-colonial past: “It isn't easy to turn your back on the past,” the character Indar states in A Bend in the River. “It is something you have to arm yourself for, or grief will ambush and destroy you. That is why I hold onto the image of the garden trampled to the ground—it is a small thing, but it helps” (141).

The views of Indar, which are later adopted by the narrator, Salim, form the principal theme of A Bend in the River: Given the cataclysmic changes ushered in by the colonization and industrialization of Africa, the past must be utterly annihilated if a new and better African culture is to emerge. Whereas Achebe seeks in Things Fall Apart to synthesize traditional and modern culture, Naipaul is much more pessimistic about the value of pre-colonial religious and community life in the modern context, specifically tribal and Indo-Muslim lifestyles in Central and East Africa.13 Though breathtakingly cynical, and far from adequately developed, Naipaul's neo-modernist prescriptions for the ills of postcolonial Africa may actually be more realistic than the pre-revolutionary prescriptions once offered by Achebe in Things Fall Apart.14 This is in part because Naipaul's pessimism regarding the future of pre-colonial African culture is connected to his intuitive cynicism regarding the historical inevitability of reification itself, or of the extent of the commodity form's penetration into the daily lives of modern Africans.

For Naipaul, the reification or “objectification” of material reality in modern Africa concurs with the advent of both alienated and historical consciousness, a process aptly illustrated in the early pages of A Bend in the River when the narrator Salim muses over how an ordinary British postage stamp enabled him to detach himself from his local surroundings and consider them “as from a distance”:

Small things can start us off in new ways of thinking, and I was started off by the postage stamps of our area. The British administration gave us beautiful stamps. These stamps depicted local scenes and local things; there was one called “Arab Dhow.” It was as though, in those stamps, a foreigner had said, “This is what is most striking about this place.” Without that stamp of the dhow I might have taken the dhows for granted. As it was, I learned to look at them.


The reification of Salim's material culture is in this sense prior to his own development as alienated or modernist monad, or even the homeless Hegelian-Lukácsian hero of the novel of realism, and it is also prior to his feelings of cultural inferiority as colonialist or manichean subject. In the following paragraph, Salim also tells us that “from an early age [he] developed the habit of looking, detaching [himself] from a familiar scene and trying to consider it from a distance” (15). Even more to the point, Salim adds, “It was from this habit of looking that the idea came to me that as a community we had fallen behind. And that was the beginning of my insecurity” (15-16).

For Salim, then, the British colonization of East Africa indirectly (but also irrevocably) alters the very coordinates or basic structures of his psychic perception.15 First, physical objects like the Arab dhow are weirdly estranged from their immediate surroundings: they are experienced as reified things that are interpellated into a Cartesian, spatial, and grid-like universe, utterly inconsistent with previous or traditional systems of reference and understanding.16 The immediate consequence for Salim is that the path is now cleared for the estrangement of the self as well: he now experiences his own lived body as an estranged object or material thing. In other words, Naipaul implies that, for Salim, alienated monadic consciousness is a direct result of reification's encroachment into the realm of the ontological.17

Another way of saying this might be that Salim is hopelessly “contaminated” with historical consciousness: he has become, as Baudelaire once put it, a frightened child wandering lost in a “forest of symbols” (Kundera 63). However, as Fredric Jameson has also argued in another context, once the techniques of ostranenie, or “strange-making” in the Russian Formalist sense, are applied to the phenomena of social life, the positive result is the “dawning of historical consciousness in general” (Prison-House 57). Perhaps as a deliberate response to Achebe's critique of European history in Things Fall Apart, especially in the last paragraph of Achebe's novel, Salim bluntly states that “[a]ll I know of our history and the history of the Indian Ocean I have got from books written by Europeans” (11). While Salim tells us that the history of the Europeans is filled with lies and hypocrisy (16-17), the more crucial fact remains that it is Europeans who first introduce into Africa the “white mythology” of historical consciousness.18 In this sense, Salim does not really deliberately reject his native culture, customs, and religious beliefs as much as he is like a man afflicted with a debilitating, if not fatal, foreign illness.

Finally Naipaul suggests that people like Salim cannot hope to escape reification but must instead “submit to it” in order to become effective and autonomous agents in the modernized and historical world. The theme of the necessity of submitting to reification is, in fact, the literal meaning of the opening sentence of Naipaul's novel as well, a seemingly innocuous and contradictory tautology with far-reaching implications: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it” (3). While the first independent clause of this compound-complex sentence seems to suggest a static and anti-historical world-view (“the world is what it is”), one must carefully analyze the entire sentence, especially the second independent clause and its relation to the novel's greater theme regarding the necessity of the reification (or the “thingification”) of the individual self (“men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it”). The deliberate “thingification” of the self, or the effort to become “some-thing” rather than allowing oneself to become “nothing” is for Naipaul a crucial step in leaving behind the often stultifying traditions of the past and entering into the modern world. In opposition to Achebe, Naipaul urges his readers to flee from any nostalgic or misplaced longing for onto-communal social existence. We must rather make “things” of ourselves so that we can effectively act within a world of preexistent things—the world that “is what it is,” not necessarily because of its static, eternal, or immutable attributes but because it has become “what it is” in the modern era.


Besides the mandate to make “some-thing” of one's self, Naipaul's response to the situation of modern African history mandates the liquidation of traditional or tribal African art, mostly through stigmatizing the magical and the sublime as irrevocably waning concepts within the African context; this is not to say, however, that historically-dated Eurocentric concepts like the magical or the sublime have ever been appropriate as a means of conceptualizing pre-colonial African art, but that Naipaul's narrator in A Bend in the River exhibits an entirely Western orientation to aesthetic matters.19 More specifically, throughout A Bend in the River, Salim consistently denigrates African art on the basis of its “religious,” “primitive,” and “magical” properties. Naipaul deliberately juxtaposes conflicting aesthetic values of Africans and Europeans by contrasting the “beautiful” paintings of a Belgian woman, which are ironically described as “junk” by Salim, over and against “magical” African art such as sculpture, masks, and tribal fetishes. In the first half of the novel, Salim praises European painting but condemns African art by stating to a black African character: “Look at those paintings [of the Belgian woman]. She wanted to make something beautiful to hang in her house. She didn't hang it there because it was a piece of magic” (42-43). While the magical and primitive art of Africans is belittled by Salim, he nevertheless fears its emotive, repressive, and religious power (84). Salim's fears seem confirmed when another main character, Father Huismans, a Belgian missionary-priest, collects African art and is subsequently killed for the sacrilege of gathering African art works to form a European-style museum.

The magical tribal art of Africa is rejected by Salim primarily because of its irrational character, or because it invokes “the religious dread of simple men” (65). Salim tells us that looking at Father Huismans' museum is “like being on the river at night” (65), or being deep in the “spirit-filled bush” where one is “prey” to the “malin” natives lurking about (55). Because Salim has no magical fetish, he feels vulnerable and “unprotected” outside the town (56); however, he also ridicules those Africans who possess and believe in magical fetishes as protection against modern warfare (80). Above all, Salim rejects the simplicity of African art (51). When Father Huismans is killed, for example, we are told that he errs not in collecting African masks and sculptures for a European-style museum, but because he “reads too much” into African art in the first place (82). For Salim, Father Huismans makes the fatal error of finding “human richness” in African artifacts where everyone else more realistically “sees only bush” (82). In effect, the priest is scapegoated by Naipaul because he cultivates the primordial garden of a dying past instead of “trampling upon it” like Indar and Salim.

Adorno also accepts the Hegelian argument that contemporary art “can no longer afford to be naive” (Aesthetic Theory 2), chiefly because of the political dangers inherent in the modern era. Primitive music, for example, is described by Adorno in his Aesthetic Theory as “repetitive, dreadful, and menacing” (77). In A Bend in the River, Naipaul illustrates this prejudice in the character of the Big Man, a caricature of Zairean dictator Mobutu Seko Sese, who wants to teach modern Africans to be “monkey-smart” (207-208). Because the magical art of archaic societies is largely the result of “an immensely repressive collective consciousness” (Aesthetic Theory 247). Adorno argues that efforts to resuscitate it within the modern context can only lead to cultural disaster and oppression, not unlike the reign of the Big Man in Naipaul's A Bend in the River. Similarly, Naipaul shows us how the bogus black madonna cult which the Big Man initiates, much like his false leopard-skin fez and snake-staff, is the inevitable consequence of efforts to reinvest the naive art of the past with semantic richness.

Not only does Salim reject magical African art, he also recoils from the-sublime or ecstatic aspects of African art and nature. Naipaul, in fact, relies heavily on Conrad's description of the African bush as elementally dark and horrific. If Adorno rejects the sublime as inappropriate in the modern era, Salim's helplessness in the face of the natural immensity of Africa leads not to ecstasy but simple revulsion and irritation. For Adorno, who relies principally on Kant's definition of the sublime,20 the sublime historically signifies “the outright occupation of the work of art by theology” (Aesthetic Theory 283). Accepting Nietzsche's critique of theology's historical demise, Adorno argues that Kant's aesthetics of the sublime is largely irrelevant to the concerns of the modern era, and that the sublime itself has “no place in modern art” (283).21 In place of a now-dated aesthetics of the sublime, which in the modern context can only be comical or ridiculous,22 Adorno argues that “radical negativity” has become the proper heir of the sublime, or he suggests that modernist writers like Naipaul seek an illusion “as bare and non-illusory as the illusion [once] promised by the sublime” (284). Utopian hope is therefore negatively embodied in Naipaul's novel in at least two significant ways: first, if the utopian aim of the Kantian sublime is the political and psychological “emancipation of the human subject” (280), as Adorno claims, radical negativity as logical inheritor of the sublime similarly seeks to free the human subject from social oppression. Secondly, Adorno argues that radical modernists like Naipaul, who scorn the traditional art of the past, paradoxically seek not only the liquidation of traditional art but also its redemption through its estrangement from “native soil” or from its original conditions of emergence, specifically through its relocation in a Western-style museum.23

Naipaul's Father Huismans, who is responsible for starting the first European-style museum in the little town at “the bend in the river,” tells Salim that European-style civilization is itself inevitable in Africa despite temporary setbacks like revolutions, dictatorships, and economic disasters (85). Though put-off by the priest's over-confidence, Salim tells us that he generally accepts Father Huismans' views on the inevitability of the spread of European civilization in Africa. However, unlike the priest, Salim is not ecstatic about the “inevitable” coming of Euro-American civilization to Africa, a culture that is symbolized for him by the local Big-Burger, a fast-food restaurant which resides “at the center of things in town” (99). Salim's views in this regard sharply contrast with those of his friend Indar, who naively denies the imperializing mission of the United States (152), telling Salim that Americans are not a tribe; rather they're just “individuals fighting to make their way, trying hard like you and me not to sink” (152). While Indar fails to understand the homogeneity of Western culture, eliding its ideological or cultural sameness, this insight does not escape Salim, who compares the Euro-American colonizers of Africa to a steady “column of ants on the march” (85-86). In other words, Salim does not fail to grasp that even random and dissimilar individuals may share in the collective experience of alienation. Moreover, by setting a McDonald's style Bigburger restaurant at the very site of Conrad's inner station, Naipaul grotesquely estranges colonialist representations of Africa as “the heart of darkness,” in fact lending a very different (and comical) meaning to Kurtz's garbled utterances about “the horror … the horror” of life in the African bush. This comic edge is undercut, however, by Salim's descriptions of Bigburger sandwiches as “smooth white lips of bread over mangled black tongues of meat” (97). Finally, Naipaul's ambivalence about the virtues and advantages of Western culture is clearly illustrated in his derogative account of contemporary Western art, particularly modernist painting. While Salim states his preference for European art over “primitive” and “magical” African art, he is privately critical of European art and of Father Huisman's museum as well. The paintings of the Belgian lady, for example, are described by Salim as mostly worthless:

On the white wall at the end of the room was a large oil painting of a European port, done in reds and yellows and blues. It was in slapdash modern style; the lady had painted it herself and signed it. She had given it pride of place in her main room. Yet she hadn't thought it worth the trouble of taking away. On the floor, leaning against the walls, were other paintings I had inherited from the lady. It was as if the lady had lost faith in her own junk, and when the independence crisis came, had been glad to go.


Salim directly identifies himself with the Belgian lady by telling us that they both have a “high idea” of themselves when in reality their lives, and the work of their lives, amount to very little (42). If the Belgian lady paints “junk” (41), Salim, as a merchant, deals exclusively in “antiquated junk made for shops like [his own]” (40). Like the unmarried Belgian lady, Salim is also a “spinster” who leads a solitary and uneventful existence. Even Salim's vision of the African bush outside his window, which is described as “blurred through the white-painted window panes” of his home and shop (42), parallels the “slapdash modern style” of the departed lady.

When Salim considers the pitiful situation of the Belgian lady, which he cannot help but acknowledge as parallel to his own, he grows desperate because he senses the utter falsity of his own way of life and the pettiness of his second-rate, Kantian individualism. The situation of the departed Belgian lady reveals to him how unsatisfactory his life is, and it forces him to realize that he has been lying to himself all along about how “special” or “different” he is from the “primitive” black Africans (like Ferdinand, a young man from a local tribe) who surround him. “I knew there was something that separated me from Ferdinand and the bush about me,” Salim tells us. “And it was because I had no means of asserting this difference, or exhibiting my true self, that I fell into the stupidity of exhibiting my things” (42). In desperation, Salim thrusts the paintings of the Belgian lady upon Ferdinand—though he has already informed the reader that the paintings are worthless—primarily as a means of asserting his uniqueness as an individual, a gesture which he privately acknowledges as both “stupid” and false.

While Salim knows that the paintings are junk, he claims them and identifies with them because he feels that, even if they are bad art, they are nevertheless the products of rational rather than mystical labor. In other words, the paintings are not beautiful in actuality, but they attempt to be beautiful for the jaundiced eye of the disinterested viewer. Like the “worthless” popular science magazines that litter Salim's shop (43), the paintings aspire to the virtues of the “disinterested” and are therefore distinct from “simple” tribal African artworks that always “serve a specific [and malignant] religious purpose” (61).


Naipaul's double-edged critique of both traditional African and modern Euro-American culture results primarily from specific economic conditions that are far more urgent than the question of Naipaul's individual (i.e., subjective) orientation or his largely anarchistic political beliefs. At the level of “human history as a whole,”24A Bend in the River seeks to resolve the historical conflict between a waning tribal mode of production in Africa and an increasingly dominant form of Western-style capitalism, which Naipaul characterizes as an inevitable, if not salvific, historical phenomenon. Naipaul suggests then that the only possible solution to the modern crisis of African history is the wholesale liquidation of its traditional cultures, so that a new or “absolutely modern” African culture may come into being. If Naipaul's “solution” is extreme, it nevertheless negatively embodies his utopian hope for the ultimate liberation of Africa from political terror, civil-war, debilitating cynicism, and underdevelopment.

The chief problem with Naipaul's approach is that he too quickly dismisses the cultural products of Africa as dying or hopelessly reified objects rather than, as in Achebe's use of folklore in Things Fall Apart, cultural artifacts that may contain within them the architectural blueprints for a better or more hopeful future. While African art objects for Naipaul may possess a “magical feeling of power” (61), these aesthetic properties must be eradicated to enable the cultural logic of the Euro-American marketplace to prevail within the so-called “heart of darkness” (96). Quite frankly, Naipaul suggests that African magic and mystery must die for Euro-American capitalism to succeed, a negative truth that also suggests a positive agenda for enemies of neo-colonialism.25


  1. See, for example, Blakemore 15-23; Theime; Nixon 177-190; Achebe, Image 782-794; Watt 196-209; Kinkead-Weeks 31-49; and Fleming 90-99.

  2. See Fredric Jameson's theorization of the term “cultural dominant” as well as his periodization of the three “fundamental moments” of capitalism—market, monopoly, and mercantile capitalism—and their relation to the respective “cultural dominants” of realism, modernism, and postmodernism (Postmodernism 35-36). Also, see Jameson's discussion of the “second phase” interpretation, or the social level or interpretive horizon, in which “the very object of [theoretical] analysis [is] dialectically transformed, and … [not] as an individual “text” or work in the narrow sense, but … in the form of the great collective and class discourses of which a text is little more than an individual parole or utterance” (The Political Unconscious 76).

  3. In any case, I do not seek to “save” Naipaul, who hardly needs saving, except, perhaps, from the intolerance, rigidity, and dogmatism of much contemporary political criticism. Naipaul himself is reported to have once commented about Marxist criticism as follows: “Once he [Naipaul] showed me an article written about his books by a Marxist. He said, ‘It's like a Christian writing about Buddhism saying, “If they could only accept Christ, then they'd be saved.” He wants to save me [Eyre's emphasis]’” (Eyre 46).

  4. See Achebe's “What Has Literature Got to Do with It” in which he argues that there is no better preparation for survival within the modern world than the study and preservation of the traditional literatures of the past (Hopes 170).

  5. While Naipaul's “solution” may seem disturbing, we might remember that Walter Benjamin's now widely-celebrated auratic theory, in which he advocated the liquidation of high European culture in favor of its redemption through mechanically reproduced art for the masses, also fastened upon a similar “modernist” resolution to the crises of Western Europe in the late 1930s, much to the dismay of Adorno, Horkheimer, and others of the Frankfurt Institute. As Adorno has already sufficiently demonstrated, Benjamin's position was problematic at best, a mistake at worst. See Wise 195-214.

  6. In a review of Rob Nixon's London Calling: V. S. Naipaul, Postcolonial Mandarin, Bruce King has described Nixon's deliberately politicized critique of Naipaul as a kind of “neo-Stalinism” (133). With considerable irritation, King states his belief that Nixon's book “illustrates what happens when a method of literary criticism becomes institutionalized, unself-questioning, and predictable” (132). Though King may overstate his case, there is no question that much of the recent critical hostility towards Naipaul uncannily parallels the Lukácsian (and Zhandovian) disdain for modernism itself throughout the 30s, 40s, and 50s, construed by Soviet critics at that time as a merely reflective and regressive form of literature. More recently, Richard Wolff, one of the founders of AESA (the Association for Economic and Social Analysis), has stated that the task of Marxism in the 1990s must be defined precisely in its opposition to modernism. Wolff states unequivocally that the “project [at AESA and the journal Rethinking Marxism] entails the presumption that modernist modes of thinking in Marxism have generated all sorts of problems that we wish to resolve, failures we wish to avoid repeating, and missed opportunities” (“Interview” 5-6). But if modernism itself is once again suspect among Marxist critics and theoreticians, it would seem that Naipaul's epic modernism may be calculated to invite the censure of neo-Marxist critics like Rob Nixon, a prospect that would no doubt delight Naipaul, who has no love for Marxist theory or its critics. However, King's own book, V. S. Naipaul, is no more satisfying than Nixon's—mostly because King attempts to skirt politics altogether in the interests of a neutral, anti-theoretical, and “apolitical” critique. For more on the relevance of Marxist literary theory in the African context, see Georg M. Gugelberger's seminal essay (1-20).

  7. See Zuidevaart 43.

  8. This is not to say, however, that Adorno's position is equivalent to the American and “pragmatic” position that the spheres of the public and private are somehow distinct. For Adorno, as for Mao Tse Tung, the personal is still political, but the modernist and alienated artist nevertheless does not experience the personal as political (or the “subjective” realm as objectively constituted).

  9. In a review of The Enigma of Arrival, for example, Salman Rushdie has remarked that Naipaul's novel of English country-life seems marred by a strange exhaustion, a sadness of spirit, even an absence of love. Rather than simply dismiss Naipaul as racist and self-hating, Rushdie demands, “Why such utter weariness?” (151).

  10. See Zuidevaart 108.

  11. See Soyinka 27-57.

  12. Gayatri Spivak comments as follows: “If there's one thing I totally distrust, in fact, more than distrust, despise and have contempt for, it is people looking for roots. Because anyone one can conceive of looking for roots, should, already, you know, be growing rutabagas” (93). Also, see Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, “Introduction: Rhizome” 3-25.

  13. Though Naipaul may seem dangerously anti-African and anti-Islamic, he is actually pessimistic about the value of preserving traditional culture within any modern context. Indar, for example, states his view that “there may be some parts of the world—dead countries or secure and by-passed ones—where men can cherish the past and think of passing on furniture and china to their heirs. Men can do that perhaps in Sweden or Canada. Some pleasant part of France full of half-wits in chateaux; some crumbling Indian palace-city, or some dead colonial town in a hopeless South American country. Elsewhere men are in movement, the world is in movement, and the past can only cause pain [my emphasis] (141).

  14. Ironically, Indar's point is perhaps best illustrated in Achebe's later (and less optimistic) novel, Anthills of the Savannas, when attempts to reintegrate a pre-colonial form of public corporal punishment end up heartily sickening those who had once advocated it for its non-European origin.

  15. For example, in regards to O. Mannoni's Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization, Fanon observes in Black Skin, White Masks, “The arrival of the white man in Madagascar shattered not only its horizons but its psychological mechanisms. … An island like Madagascar, invaded overnight by ‘pioneers of civilization’ even if those pioneers conducted themselves as well as they knew how, suffered the loss of its basic structures. … The landing of the white man on Madagascar inflicted injury without measure” (97).

  16. See Jameson, Postmodernism 410.

  17. Borrowing from Merleau-Ponty, Fanon also speaks at length of this process as the “slow composition of [one's] self as a body in the middle of a spatial and temporal world … a real dialectic between body and world” (111).

  18. See Rober Young's White Mythologies for a more extensive critique of the mythical nature of European historiography, particularly Marxist history writing.

  19. In other words, Salim never approaches anything like an “African” understanding of art; or, as Mary Louise Pratt has put it, Salim sees African art entirely through colonial eyes. Additionally, because Salim supposedly comes from a traditional Muslim family in East Africa—which historically would be a cultural setting that would encourage suspicion toward Western, representational or “mimetic” art, in the first place—his reliability in aesthetic matters is suspect at best and implausible at worst. For these reasons, in discussing Salim's comments on African art, it must be emphasized that for Salim African art is already interpreted for him by Western thinkers. The point here is not that an “authentic” African perspective would be a non-ideological one, as Christopher Miller suggests in Theories of Africans, but simply that it would be a different ideological response.

  20. Regarding the Kantian sublime and its dependence on the subject, Adorno states that “Kant was already aware that it is not quantitative magnitude by itself that is sublime. He rightly defined the sublime in terms of the resistance that the spirit marshals against the prepotence of nature. The feeling of sublimity is not aroused by phenomena in their immediacy. Mountains are sublime not when they crush the human being, but when they evoke images of a space that does not fetter or hem in its occupants and when they invite the viewer to become part of this space” (Aesthetic Theory 284). More pointedly, Adorno states, “the sublime, which Kant had considered to be an aspect of nature, or the unleashing of elemental forces … [is] identical with the emancipation of the subject” (280).

  21. Additionally, Adorno complains that the term the sublime has been so hopelessly corrupted by “the mumbo-jumbo of the high priests of art religion [that] it might be better to stop talking about the sublime completely” (Aesthetic Theory 283).

  22. Adorno states, “[i]n the end the sublime turns into its opposite anyway. … History has caught up with the dictum about the sublime being only a step away from the ridiculous” (Aesthetic Theory 283).

  23. For example, Adorno argues that “[t]he museums will not be shut, nor would it even be desirable to shut them. The natural-history collections of the spirit have actually transformed works of art into the hieroglyphics of history and brought them a new content while the old one shriveled up” (Prisms 185).

  24. See Jameson, Political 76-77.

  25. Thanks to Georg M. Gugelberger and three anonymous readers at College Literature for helpful comments and suggestions on a previous draft of this essay.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays. New York: Anchor, 1990.

———. “An Image of Africa” Massachusetts Review 18 (1977): 782-794.

———. Things Fall Apart. London: Heineman, 1989.

Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. C. Lenhardt. London: Routledge; Kegan Paul, 1984.

———. Prisms. Trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber. Cambridge: MIT P, 1990.

Blakemore, Steven. “‘An Africa of Words’: V. S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River,The South Carolina Review (1985): 15-23.

Deleuze, Gilles & Guatari, Félix. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987.

Eyre, M. Banning. “Naipaul at Wesleyan” The South Carolina Review, 14 (1982): 34-47.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1967.

Fleming, Bruce. “Brothers under the Skin: Achebe on Heart of Darkness.College Literature 19:3 & 20:1 (1992-1993): 90-99.

Gugelberger, Georg M. “Marxist Literary Debates and Their Continuity in African Literary Criticism” Marxism and Africa Literature. Ed. Georg M. Gugelberger. Trenton: Africa World, 1985: 1-20.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980.

———. Postmodernism: or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1990.

———. The Prison-House of Language. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1972.

King, Bruce. Rev. of London Calling: V. S. Naipaul, Postcolonial Mandarin, by Rob Nixon. Research In African Literatures. 24.1 (1993): 132-135.

———. V. S. Naipaul. New York: Saint Martin's, 1993.

Kinkead-Weeks, Mark. “Heart of Darkness and the Third-World Writer.” Sewanee Review 98.1 (1990): 31-49.

Kundera, Milan. The Art of the Novel. Trans. Linda Asher. New York: Grove, 1986.

Lukacs, Gyorgy, John, Connor Cruise O'Brien, and Edward Said. “The Intellectual in the Post-Colonial World: A Discussion.” Salmagundi (1986): 65-81.

Miller, Christopher. Theories of Africans: Francophone Literature and Anthropology in Africa. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990.

Naipaul, V. S. A Bend in the River. New York: Vintage, 1989.

Nixon, Rob. London Calling: V. S. Naipaul, Postcolonial Mandarin. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992.

———. “Preparations for Travel: The Naipaul Brothers' Conradian Avatism.” Research in African Literature, 22 (1991): 177-90.

Pratt, Mary Louise. “Scratches on the Face of the Country; or, What Mr. Barrow Saw in the Land of the Bushmen.” “Race,” Writing, and Difference. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986.

Richter, David H. The Critical Tradition. New York: St. Martin's, 1989.

Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991. London, Granata, 1991.

Smith, Paul. “Interview with Richard D. Wolff.” Mediations. 18.1 (1994): 5-17.

Soyinka, Wole. “The critic and society: Barthes, Leftocracy, and other mythologies.” Black Literature & Literary Theory. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Routledge, 1990: 27-57.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. The Post-colonial Critic. Ed. Sarah Harasym. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Theime, John. The Web of Tradition: Uses of Allusion in V. S. Naipaul's Fiction. London: Hansib, 1988.

Watt, Cedric. “‘A Bloody Racist’: About Achebe's Views of Conrad.” Yearbook of English Studies 13 (1983): 196-209.

Wise, Christopher. “The Profane Illumination: Reflections from the Benjamin-Adorno Debate.” Arena Journal, 2 (New Series): 195-214.

Young, Robert. White Mythologies; Writing History and the West. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Zuidevaart, Lambert. Adorno's Aesthetic Theory. Cambridge: MIT P, 1991.

David Gilmour (review date 2 May 1998)

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SOURCE: Gilmour, David. “A Second Look at the Faithful.” Spectator 280, no. 8856 (2 May 1998): 30-1.

[In the following review, Gilmour considers Beyond Belief to be a sequel to Among the Believers, contending that Naipaul's approach in Beyond Belief is “patient, fastidious and skeptical, generally compassionate to individuals if not to the societies to which they belong.”]

Sir Vidia Naipaul doesn't like religions. He especially dislikes Islam, which he regards as a sterile faith imposed by Arab imperialism. And his lip really curls during his encounters with ‘fundos’, Muslim fundamentalists in Pakistan.

In 1979 he visited Iran, a few months after the fall of the Shah, and Pakistan, where President Zia was installed in incompetent tyranny. His consequent book, Among the Believers, which also recounted his journeys in Malaysia and Indonesia, described a religion which was negative, unregenerate and obsessed by purity and mediaeval punishment. Fundamentalism ‘pushed men to an unappeasable faith; it offered a political desert’. A pure and just society could be established by forbidding alcohol and usury, by chopping off hands, by forcing women to wear veils and banning them from appearing on television. The society of believers could be preserved if it returned to Koranic rules and defeated the conspiracies of its enemies. (In Iran these were the USA, Britain and Israel, in Pakistan they consisted of India, Israel and the Soviet Union. But in a region well stocked with conspiracy theorists Iran usually wins the Credulity Stakes: on his recent journey Naipaul was told by several people that the Ayatollah Khomeini had been a British agent.)

Sixteen years later, the author returned to the same four countries to see how things were going with the faithful. Beyond Belief is a sequel, written with a similar structure and technique and observed from the same angle of vision. The approach is patient, fastidious and sceptical, generally compassionate to individuals if not to the societies to which they belong. Naipaul excels in the use of case histories, illustrating large events by recounting the experiences of people, most of them losers, attempting to come to terms with political realities. There are fine passages on the lives of an Iranian child fighting against Iraq and a Marxist student who wastes years of his life in a futile effort to create revolutionary havoc in Baluchistan. (The main losers, of course, were the poor Baluchi tribesmen.) One chapter, on the vicissitudes of a businessman from Kerman, brilliantly encapsulates the everyday experience of living under Khomeini's half-baked revolution.

Readers of Naipaul's Indian books might have expected a mellower, gentler book. Twenty and thirty years ago he blamed Hinduism for India's backwardness, its intellectual second-rateness, that ‘retreat from civilisation and creativity, from rebirth and growth, to magic and incantation, a retrogression to an almost African night …’ Sardonic and mocking, he jeered at national failings, dwelling on absurdities, Indians unable to make cheese, Indians investing more money in bullock carts than in railways, architects building houses suitable for Siberia, designers making reaping shoes that would lacerate the peasants' feet, politicians simultaneously demanding nuclear weapons and more protection for the holy cow, or opposing electricity and piped water for the villages because they would make country women ‘morally bad’ and ‘sluggish’.

But there was none of this in his later book India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990). India was no longer a ‘wounded old civilisation … without the intellectual means to move ahead’. Under the British, the author had decided, India had enjoyed ‘a time of intellectual recruitment’; it had been ‘set on the way of a new kind of intellectual life’. This idea, absolutely opposite to those put forward in An Area of Darkness (1964) and India: A Wounded Civilisation (1977), is developed further in the current book. India under the British ‘was a time of Hindu regeneration’, the Hindus ‘welcomed the New Learning of Europe and the institutions the British brought’, and now the country, ‘with an intelligentsia that grows by leaps and bounds, expands in all directions’.

Alas, the author can feel no such optimism about the Islamic countries he has recently revisited. Indeed his title and subtitle announce a deeper pessimism and a greater incredulity. While Among the Believers hints at an ironic agnosticism, Beyond Belief suggests an exasperated atheism. The key word in the subtitle is ‘converted’, an adjective Naipaul uses again and again to differentiate Arab Muslims from those who adopted Islam after the Arab conquests. The point is made on the first page. Converted Muslims have turned away from their past, they have rejected their ancient history and embraced that of Islam; they have developed ‘fantasies about who and what they are’, and in their countries ‘there is an element of neurosis and nihilism’.

This theme emerged in the earlier book. Naipaul, who had always thought of Persia either as an undefeated rival of ancient Rome or as the source of much of India's civilisation, discovered that it had been Arabised and all its ‘great past … declared a time of blackness’. The theme has now become an obsession. Islam, he tells us, ‘seeks as an article of faith to erase the past; the believers in the end honour Arabia alone; they have nothing to return to’. Indonesia's failure to protect the great Buddhist monument of Borobudur in Java, the destruction of the rich rice culture of western Sumatra, Pakistan's indifference to Mohenjo-daro—all this and much else can be blamed on Islam, on the ‘fundamentalist rage against the past’ in countries where ‘the impossible dream is of the true faith growing out of spiritual vacancy’.

Sixteen years after the Iranian revolution, Naipaul returned to a country ‘turned inside out, eviscerated, by war and revolution’, a country ‘given an almost universal knowledge of pain’. An evil and incompetent regime had replaced a cruel and relatively efficient one. But the original evil was Islam's. While India was regenerated by British influence, Iran entered the 20th century ‘only with an idea of eastern kingship and the antiquated theological learning of places like Qum’. It entered our era ‘only with a capacity for pain and nihilism’.

The distaste Naipaul feels for Iran is nothing compared to the horror and despair with which he writes about Pakistan. India's Muslims, he argues, stood aside from the regenerative process and thought they could build an earthly paradise simply through an ingathering, by making Islamic laws, by whippings and amputations, by ‘the veiling and effective imprisoning of women, and giving men tomcatting rights over four women at a time, to use and discard at will’. Yet while fundamentalists ranted on about the Prophet and a return to the Golden Age of the 7th century, their country became despotic, impoverished and corrupt, in the author's words ‘a criminal enterprise’. After half a century, concludes Naipaul, Pakistan is

still half serf, still profoundly uneducated, mangling history in its school books as well, undoing the polity it was meant to serve … dedicated only to the idea of the cultural desert here, with glory—of every kind—elsewhere.

In his prologue the author tells us that the point of the book is the stories and their complexities; the reader should not look for ‘conclusions’. No one would argue with the first bit. Beyond Belief is a serious, pains-taking and successful attempt to depict a range of individual experience under various Islamic regimes. But there is something disingenuous about readers and their ‘conclusions’. How could anyone avoid feeling that conclusions have been forced upon them? And how could readers, though they may enjoy the great tour, avoid questioning the author's wider judgments?

‘Fundos’ are not a purely Islamic problem. Hindu fundamentalists tear down mosques, Jewish fundamentalists erect a shrine to the Hebron mass murderer, Baruch Goldstein, and some of the most terrifying people in the world are Christian fundamentalists in the United States. Nor in fact is Islam itself usually fundamentalist. Under the Arab caliphate of Córdoba, Jews enjoyed their longest period without persecution, eight consecutive generations, in the history of the diaspora. Moreover, Iran today is moving away from fundamentalism, although we don't yet know whether the break will be achieved peacefully or after a confrontation with the conservative mullahs. Readers might also question the obsessive theme of conversion. Why are Iranians regarded as converts, but not Egyptians or Syrians? And are not most of us in the West converts to one Middle Eastern religion or another? In any case, does it really matter? Should we be regretting that the Druids have more or less been expunged from our consciousness?

V. S. Naipaul, Tarun Tejpal, and Jonathan Rosen (interview date fall 1998)

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SOURCE: Naipaul, V. S., Tarun Tejpal, and Jonathan Rosen. “V. S. Naipaul: The Art of Fiction CLIV.” Paris Review 40, no. 148 (fall 1998): 38-66.

[In the following interview, Naipaul discusses the central themes of A Way in the World, his background and ambitions, and his development as a writer.]

Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born on 17 August 1932 in Chaguanas, Trinidad, where his ancestors had emigrated from India—his maternal grandfather, at the turn of the century, had traveled from that country as an indentured servant.

Naipaul, in his essay “Prologue to an Autobiography” from Finding the Center, has written: “Half a writer's work … is the discovery of his subject. And a problem for me was that my life had been varied, full of upheavals and moves: from grandmother's Hindu house in the country, still close to the rituals and social ways of village India; to Port of Spain, the negro and G.I. life of its streets, the other, ordered life of my colonial English school, which is called Queen's Royal College, and then Oxford, London and the freelances' room at the BBC. Trying to make a beginning as a writer, I didn't know where to focus.”

After two failed attempts at novels and three months before his twenty-third birthday, Naipaul found his start in the childhood memory of a neighbor in Port of Spain. The memory provided the first sentence for Miguel Street, which he wrote over six weeks in 1955 in the BBC freelancers' room at the Langham Hotel, where he was working part-time editing and presenting a literary program for the Caribbean Service. The book would not be published until 1959, after the success of The Mystic Masseur (1957), which received the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize and The Suffrage of Elvira (1958), which was awarded the Somerset Maugham Award. A House for Mr. Biswas was published in 1961, and in 1971 Naipaul received the Booker Prize for In a Free State. Four novels have appeared since then: Guerrillas (1975), A Bend in the River (1979), The Enigma of Arrival (1987) and A Way in the World. Naipaul received a knighthood in 1990 for his service to literature.

In the early 1960s, Naipaul began writing about his travels. He has written four books on India: The Middle Passage (1962), An Area of Darkness (1964) and India: A Wounded Civilization (1977) and India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990). The Return of Eva Peron and The Killings in Trinidad (published in the same volume in 1980) recorded his experiences in Argentina, Trinidad and the Congo. Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia are the subject of Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981). He returned to those countries in 1995; Beyond Belief, an account of those travels, was published this year.

In conversation with Naipaul, one finds the issues and ideas are always highly subtle and complex—which he keeps reminding you, lest you see things only in monochrome—but the language steers clear of obfuscation and cant. Indeed Naipaul can be a difficult companion. The humbleness of his beginnings, the long struggles, the sheer scale of his artistic beginnings clearly have bred in him deep neuroses—at sixty-six, the neurotic circuitry is still buzzing. Despite the edginess, and the slight air of unpredictability it brings into any interaction with him, Naipaul proved to be an interviewer's delight.

The interview is culled from a series of conversations in New York City and India. Part of the interview was conducted (by Jonathan Rosen) at the Carlyle Hotel on 16 May 1994. Naipaul spent several minutes rearranging the furniture in the hotel suite in an effort to locate the chair best suited to his aching back. He has the habit of removing glasses before answering a question, though that only enhances his scrutinizing expression and attitude of mental vigilance. The occasion for the interview was the publication of A Way in the World, but despite an initial wish to “stay with the book,” Naipaul relaxed into a larger conversation that lasted several hours and touched on many aspects of his life and career.

[Naipaul]: Let me know the range of what you are doing and how you are going to approach it. I want to know with what intensity to talk. Are we going to stay with the book?

[Tejpal and Rosen]: Would you like to?

It's a long career. There are many books. If things are to be interesting, it is better to be specific and focused. It's more stimulating to me, too.

Was A Way in the World a difficult book to write?

In what way?

There are so many different pieces to it, yet it fits together as a whole.

It was written as a whole—from page one to the end. Many writers tend to write summing-up books at the end of their lives.

Were you conscious of trying to sum things up?

Yes. What people have done—people like Waugh, in his war trilogy, or Anthony Powell—is create a character like themselves to whom they can attach these reinterpreted adventures. Powell has a character running through his books who is like him but not him, because he doesn't play a dominant role. I think this is one of the falsities that the form imposes on people, and for many years I've been thinking how to overcome it.

How to overcome …

You didn't understand what I was saying?

I'm guessing that you mean the space between Marcel Proust the author and Marcel the narrator of Remembrance of Things Past.

No, I was thinking—well, yes, put it like that. I was thinking that to write about the war, which was a big experience for him, Waugh had to invent a Waugh character. Whenever I have had to write fiction, I've always had to invent a character who roughly has my background. I thought for many years how to deal with this problem. The answer was to face it boldly—not to create a bogus character but to create, as it were, stages in one's evolution.

I'm struck by how much your autobiography overlaps with the vast history of the West. Do you have a sense that to write about yourself is to write about the larger world? Did you strive to achieve this relationship or did you find it naturally evolving?

Naturally, it had to evolve, because that's learning, isn't it? You can't deny what you've learned; you can't deny your travels; you can't deny the nature of your life. I grew up in a small place and left in when I was quite young and entered the bigger world. You have to contain this in your writing. Do you understand what I am saying?

I do understand, but I was wondering about something a little different.

Try it again. Rephrase it. Make it simple and concrete so we can deal with it.

I imagine you as having begun in a place that you were eager to leave but that has turned out—the more you studied it and returned to it—actually to be at the center of issues that are of enormous importance to the West. You call Trinidad a small place but, as you've written, Columbus wanted it, Raleigh wanted it … When did you become conscious of Trinidad as a focus of the desires of the West, and a great subject?

I have been writing for a long time. For most of that time people were not interested in my work, so my discoveries have tended to be private ones. If it has happened, it's just a coincidence. I wasn't aware of it. Also, it is important to note, the work has not been political or polemic. Such a work written in the 1950s would be dead now. One must always try to see the truth of a situation—it makes things universal.

You mentioned that your readers are coming to you late: do you think that the world is now catching up with you? Is this a change in readership or a change in the world?

It's a change in the world. When I began to write, there were large parts of the world that were not considered worth writing about. Do you know my book The Loss of El Dorado? It contains all the research on Raleigh and Miranda. When it was published, the literary editor of a very important paper in London told me that I only should have written an essay because it wasn't a big enough subject. He was a foolish man. But it gives you an idea of how the world has changed.

Do you think the world is more understanding now of the psychological displacement with which you deal?

It's such a widespread condition now. People still have the idea of the single cultural unit, which actually has never existed. All cultures have been mingled forever. Look at Rome: Etruria was there before, and there were city-states around Rome. Or the East Indies: people from India went out to found further India, then there was the Muslim influence … People come and go all the time; the world has always been in movement.

Do you think you have become an exemplar of that mixed world?

I don't think so. I am always thinking about the book. You are writing to write a book: to satisfy that need, to make a living, to leave a fair record behind, to alter what you think is incomplete and make it good. I am not a spokesman for anybody. I don't think anybody would want me to be a spokesman.

The three explorers in A Way in the World are drawn back to Trinidad at their peril. I sense from your earlier writing that you fear you might make one trip too many—that there is an annihilating aspect to that place from which you came, which might this time overwhelm you.

You mustn't talk like that. It's very frightening. I think I have made my trips there and I won't go back again.

But imaginatively Trinidad does pull you.

No. I'm finished with it imaginatively. You see, a writer tries very hard to see his childhood material as it exists. The nature of that childhood experience is very hard to understand—it has a beginning, a distant background, very dark, and then it has an end when a writer becomes a man. The reason why this early material is so important is that he needs to understand it to make it complete. It is contained, complete. After that there is trouble. You have to depend on your intelligence, on your inner strength. Yes, the later work rises out of this inner strength.

I am struck by your title A Way in the World. It reminds me of the end of Paradise Lost—wandering out after the expulsion. Is the world what you enter when you leave home?

I suppose it depends on the nature of where you live. I don't know whether it is a fair question or if it should be answered. Put it another way.

I guess I'm asking what you mean by world.

People can live very simple lives, can't they? Tucked away, without thinking. I think the world is what you enter when you think—when you become educated, when you question—because you can be in the big world and be utterly provincial.

Did you grow up with a larger idea of the world? An idea represented by the word world?

I always knew that there was a world outside. I couldn't accept that with which I grew up—an agricultural, colonial society. You cannot get any more depressing or limited.

You left Trinidad in 1950 to study at Oxford—setting out across the seas to an alien land in pursuit of ambition. What were you looking for?

I wanted to be very famous. I also wanted to be a writer: to be famous for writing. The absurdity about the ambition was that, at the time, I had no idea what I was going to write about. The ambition came long before the material. The filmmaker Shyam Benegal once told me that he knew he wanted to make films from the age of six. I wasn't as precocious as he: I wanted to be a writer by the age of ten.

I went to Oxford on a colonial government scholarship, which guaranteed to see you through any profession you wanted. I could have become a doctor or an engineer, but I simply wanted to do English at Oxford—not because it was English and not because it was Oxford, but only because it was away from Trinidad. I thought that I would learn about myself in the three or four years I was going to be away. I thought that I would find out my material and miraculously become a writer. Instead of learning a profession, I chose this banality of English—a worthless degree, it has no value at all.

But I wanted to escape Trinidad. I was oppressed by the pettiness of colonial life and by (this relates more particularly to my Indian-Hindu family background) the intense family disputes in which people were judged and condemned on moral grounds. It was not a generous society—neither the colonial world nor the Hindu world. I had a vision that, in the larger world, people would be appreciated for what they were—people would be found interesting for what they were.

Unconnected to the family from which they came?

Yes. I imagined that one would not be subject to that moralizing judgment all the time. People would find what you were saying interesting, or they would find you uninteresting. It actually did happen in England—I did find a more generous way of looking at people. I still find it more generous.

Did you enjoy Oxford?

Actually, I hated Oxford. I hate those degrees and I hate all those ideas of universities. I was far too well prepared for it. I was far more intelligent than most of the people in my college or in my course. I am not boasting, you know well—time has proved all these things. In a way, I had prepared too much for the outer world; there was a kind of solitude and despair, really, at Oxford. I wouldn't wish anyone to go through it.

Do you ever wonder what would have become of you if you had stayed in Trinidad?

I would have killed myself. A friend of mine did—out of stress, I think. He was a boy of mixed race. A lovely boy, and very bright. It was a great waste.

Is he the boy that you mention in the introduction to A House for Mr. Biswas?

Yes, he is the boy I had in mind. We shared an admiration for each other. His death was terrible.

Do you still feel the wounds of your early life?

I think about how lucky I was to escape. I think about how awful and oppressive it was. I see it now more clearly for what it was: the plantation—perhaps a part of the New World but entirely autonomous. No doubt I've healed the wounds because I have thought about it so much. I think about how lucky I was not to have been destroyed utterly. There has been a life of work since then, a life of endeavor.

Why has writing always been the central need of your life—the way out of everything?

It was given to me as an ambition. Or rather, I took my father's example; he was a writer—a journalist, but he also wrote stories. This was very important to me. My father examined our Hindu background in his stories. He found it a very cruel background, and I understood from his stories that it was a very cruel world. So I grew up with the idea that it is important to look inwards and not always define an external enemy. We must examine ourselves—our own weaknesses. I still believe that.

You have said that you see writing as the only truly noble calling.

Yes, for me it is the only noble calling. It is noble because it deals with the truth. You have to look for ways of dealing with your experience. You have to understand it and you have to understand the world. Writing is a constant striving after a deeper understanding. That is pretty noble.

When did you start writing?

I started work on a novel in 1949. It was a very farcical, a very interesting idea: a black man in Trinidad giving himself a name of an African king. This is the idea I tried to explore. It dragged on as a piece of writing for two years because I was too young to know much. I began it a little bit before I left home and finished it during a long vacation from Oxford. I was very glad I did finish it because at least it gave me the experience of finishing a long book. Of course nothing happened to it.

Then, after I left Oxford, really in great conditions of hardship, I began to write something intensely serious. I was trying to find my own voice, my tone—what was really me and not borrowed or acting. This serious voice led me into great shallows of depression, which dragged on for a while until I was told to abandon it by someone to whom I had sent the manuscript. He told me it was rubbish; I wanted to kill him but deep down in my heart I knew he was absolutely right. I spent many weeks feeling wretched because it had been five years and nothing was happening. There was this great need to write, you see. I had decided it was to be my livelihood—I had committed my life to it. Then something happened: out of that gloom, I hit upon my own voice. I found the material that was my own voice; it was inspired by two literary sources: the stories of my father and a Spanish picaresque novel, the very first published, in 1554, Lazarillo Tormes. It is a short book about a little poor boy growing up in imperial Spain, and I loved its tone of voice. I married these two things together and found that it fitted my personality: what became genuine and original and mine really was fed by these two, quite distinct sources.

This is when you began writing Miguel Street?

Yes. It is immensely hard to be the first to write about anything. It is always easy afterwards to copy. So the book I wrote—that mixture of observation and folklore and newspaper cuttings and personal memory—many people can do, but at the time it was something that had to be worked out.

Imagine writing a book like Miguel Street in 1955. Today people are interested in writing from India or other former colonies, but at the time it was not considered writing. It was very hard to have this book with me for four years before it was published. It really upset me and it is still a great shadow over me.

You had written two books by 1955, The Mystic Masseur and Miguel Street, but the first book was not published until 1957 and the stories not until 1959.

My life was very hard. When you are young, when you are destitute, when you wish to make known your presence in the world, two years is a very long time to wait. I was really made to suffer. Then The Mystic Masseur was finally published and it was dismissed by my own paper—I was working at the New Statesman at the time, where an Oxford don—quite famous later, described it as a little savory from a colonial island. A little savory, which didn't represent labor.

It would be interesting to see the books that were considered real books by the reviewers at that time. It is useless to tell me now, “All right, the books have been around for forty years, they are still printed.” I was damaged. I was wounded by this neglect. People today have it much easier, which is why they complain. I never complained, I just had to go on.

You must have been sustained largely by self-belief?

Yes. I never doubted. From the time I was a child, I had the feeling that I was marked.

You started writing A House for Mr. Biswas just as your first novel was published.

Yes. I was casting around in a desperate way for a subject. It was so despairing that I actually began to write with a pencil—I didn't feel secure enough. The idea I had involved someone like my father, who at the end of his life would be looking at the objects by which he is surrounded and considering how they came into his life. I wrote laboriously without inspiration for a very long time—about nine months.

Did you write every day?

Not strictly every day because when you are not inspired you do things with a heavy heart. Also, I was trying at the same time to become a reviewer. Someone had recommended me to the New Statesman—they sent me one thing and then another, but I was trying too hard and it failed. Then they sent me some books on Jamaica, and this nice, easy voice came to me. So there was some achievement at the time—learning how to write short, interesting pieces about a book and to make the book absolutely real to the reader. Eventually, the novel caught fire and thereafter it was all right. I began to devote three weeks out of every four to this work. I think that I knew pretty soon that it was a great work. I was very pleased that, although I was so young, I was committing myself to a major piece of writing because I had begun rather small—thinking that only when one had trained oneself enough would one attempt grand work. If someone had stopped me on the street and said, “I'll give you a million pounds now on one condition: you must not finish your book,” I would have told him to go away. I knew I must finish my book.

How was the book received?

It was received well from the moment it was read by the publisher. It would be nice to say that there was a rush on the book when it was published, but of course there wasn't. It would be nice to say that the world stood up and took notice, but of course the world didn't. The book just clanked along in the way of my earlier books, and it was some time before it made its way.

A House for Mr. Biswas was a departure from your first three books, which were social comedies—you moved away from light, frothy comedy toward a more grim and serious tone.

Actually the tone is not grim. The book is full of comedy. Perhaps the comedy is less verbal, less farcical but it is in everything, I assure you. I can read a page of my writing from any book, however dark you might think it is, and you will laugh. The jokes have become deeper; the comedy has become more profound. Without the humorous view, you couldn't go on. You can't give a dark, tragic view all the time—it must be supported this underlying comedy.

I'd like to read you a sentence from A Way in the World: “It was that idea of the absurd never far away from us that preserved us. It was the other side of that anger and the passion that made the crowd burn the black policeman …” It reminds me of the humor in your early books about Trinidad and the other side of that humor—hysteria—in the books that followed.

It's very curious, isn't it—the same people who burned a policeman alive would dance and sing and tell a funny story about it.

I was particularly struck by the word us—your inclusion of yourself in that situation.

Well, it was in Port of Spain. It has to be us because one is growing up in that atmosphere. It was our idea of the absurd, which comes out in the calypso—it's African, this idea of the absurd. It is something in late life I have come to understand—the hysteria and the sense of the absurd.

And appreciate it more?

I'm more frightened by it. Understanding that the people who can be so absurd and write such funny songs also have a capacity for burning policemen. I fear cruelty.

I can't help noticing that A Way in the World ends, like The Enigma of Arrival, with a funeral.

That was pure accident. I probably didn't think of it until you told me now. What I was aware of, as I was writing, was an emphasis on dead bodies and funerals and corpses. It begins with a man dressing a corpse and goes on to corpses in the Red House, where I worked, and there are lots of corpses in the Raleigh story.

Is that a growing sense of mortality or is that a sense of the way of the world?

Probably it's facing it more boldly when one is older. When one is young, one has ways of dealing. Really, this is the physical thing of dying—I don't know what prompts it. It is for the reader to assess it; the writer mustn't judge himself.

Are you conscious of reworking the elements of earlier fiction?

Yes. Getting the angle right: having acquired the material, writing about it another way and so producing new material.

Would you agree that your later fiction takes a gentler angle? It seems to me that you now have a more accepting approach.

Be concrete. Where am I rough? Where have you found me harsh? Give me an example.

Well, In a Free State.

That book was written out of great pain and very personal stress. It was written very carefully—put together like a watch or a piece of engineering. It is very well made. In 1979, for the first time, I was asked to give a reading in New York and, at the moment of the reading, I was aware of the extraordinary violence of the work—I didn't know it until then, so it wasn't conscious. I was shocked by the violence. When the jokes were made, people laughed; but what followed immediately stopped them. It was a very unsettling experience. Probably that reflects the way it was created—out of personal pain related to my own life, my own anguish.

Can you describe the way you write?

I write slowly.


I used to write faster when I was younger—about one thousand words a day when I was really going. I can't do that now. Now, on a good day, I write about three hundred words—very little.

Do you ever not write?

Very often. Most days are like that.

Hemingway called a day he had not written a day closer to death.

I'm not romantic like that. I just feel rather irritated. But I'm wise enough now and experienced enough to know that it will be all right. If it's in my head, it'll come out all right eventually. It's just finding the right way.

Do you think language should only convey and not, as with John Updike, dance and dazzle?

Well, people have to do what they want to do. I wish my prose to be transparent: I don't want the reader to stumble over me; I want him to look through what I'm saying to what I'm describing. I don't want him ever to say, “Oh, goodness, how nicely written this is.” That would be a failure.

So even as the ideas are complex, the prose stays uncluttered.

Simple, yes. Also, I mustn't use jargon. You are surrounded by jargon—in the newspapers, in friends' conversations—and as a writer, you can become very lazy. You can start using words lazily. I don't want that to happen. Words are valuable. I like to use them in a valuable way.

Do you despair for English literature?

No, I don't despair for it. It doesn't exist now, partly because it is very hard to do again what has been done before. It is in a bad, bad way in England. It has ceased to exist—but so much has existed in the past, perhaps there is no cause for grief.

What about writers emerging from India? Do you feel the same about them?

I haven't examined that, but I think India will have a lot of writing. For many centuries India has had no intellectual life at all. It was a ritualized society, which didn't require writing. But when such societies emerge from a purely ritualistic life and begin to expand industrially, economically and in education, then people begin to need to understand what is happening. People turn to writers, who are there to guide them, to provoke them, to stimulate them. I think there will be a lot of writing in India now. The situation will draw it out.

To return to the question of violence, I'd like to read a passage from A Way in the World: “I had grown up thinking of cruelty as something always in the background. There was an ancient, or not-so-ancient, cruelty in the language of the streets: casual threats, man to man and parents to children, of punishments and degradation that took you back to plantation times.”

Yes. You always heard people saying things in calm language that were what the driver would have said to the slave: I'll beat you till you pee, I'll take the skin off your back. These were awful things to hear, don't you think?

Yet you have always resisted simplifying the anger—blaming it on colonialism or on the white masters of black slaves. There is no easy villain for you.

Of course there is no easy villain. These are safe things to say. They're not helpful in any way, they're not additions to any argument or discussion. They are just chants. Blaming colonialism is a very safe chant. These people would have been very quiet in colonial days; they would have been prepared for a life of subordination. Now that there is no colonialism, they speak very fearlessly. But other people were fearless long before.

You have been criticized for running into the arms of the oppressor.

Who's criticized me?

Derek Walcott, for one.

I don't know. I don't read these things. You mustn't ask me, you must ask him. You must judge these things yourself. I can't deal with all these things. It's been a long career.

I'd like to ask …

You shouldn't have asked me that question about running to the British and the masters … Does it show in my work?

I wouldn't say so.

Then why did you ask it?

Because you always have resisted the simplifications but you have been surrounded by critics who have not resisted them.

Well, that's their problem. Have you read my book The Middle Passage? That book tells black people they can't be white people, which caused immense offense. In 1962, black people thought that because independence was coming, they had become closer to white people.

The Middle Passage was your first attempt at nonfiction.

It is wrong to think of anyone as a producer of fiction because there is a limited amount of material you can work on. Yet to be a writer is to be observing, to be feeling and to be sensitive all the time. To be a serious writer is not to do what you have done before, to move on. I felt the need to move on. I felt I couldn't do again what I had done before—I shouldn't just stay at home and pretend to be writing novels. I should move and travel and explore my world—and let the form take its own natural course. Then a happy thing: a racial government, thinking they should give an appearance of being nonracial, invited me to come back and travel around the region. That's how I began to travel, and how I wrote The Middle Passage.

You travel to India often. You first visited thirty-five years ago and keep coming back, both to write and to holiday. What is the source of your continuing fascination with India?

It is my ancestry, really, because I was born with a knowledge of the past that ended with my grandparents. I couldn't go beyond them, the rest was just absolute blankness. It's really to explore what I call the area of darkness.

Do you think it is crucial to your function and material as a writer to know where you came from and what made you what you are?

When you're like me—born in a place where you don't know the history, and no one tells you the history, and the history, in fact, doesn't exist or, in fact, exists only in documents—when you are born like that, you have to learn about where you came from. It takes a lot of time. You can't simply write about the world as though it is all there, all granted to you. If you are a French or an English writer, you are born to a great knowledge of your origins and your culture. When you are born like me, in an agricultural colony far away, you have to learn everything. The writing has been a process of inquiry and learning for me.

You have written three books on India over the last thirty-five years: An Area of Darkness, A Wounded Civilization and A Million Mutinies Now. Your response to the country has varied with each book.

Actually, the three books stand. Please understand that I do not want any one to supersede another. All three books stand because I think that they all remain true. The books are written in different modes: one is autobiographical, one is analytical and the last is an account of the people's experience in that country. They were written at different times and, of course, like India, people exist in different times. So you could say that An Area of Darkness is still there—the analysis of the invasions and defeat, the psychological wound, is still there. With the Mutinies book, in which people are discovering some little voice with which to express their personality and speak of their needs—that remains true. The books have to be taken as a whole—as still existing, still relevant, still important.

In all of this, you must remember that I am a writer—a man writing a paragraph, a chapter, a section, a book. It is a craft. I am not just a man making statements. So the books represent the different stages of my craft. An Area of Darkness is an extraordinary piece of craft—an extraordinary mix of travel and memory and reading. A Million Mutinies Now represents the discovery that the people in the country are important. It's a very taxing form, in the way that a lot happens during the actual traveling—a lot happens when you meet people. If you don't know how to talk to them, if you don't know how to get them to talk to you, there is no book. You use your judgment and your flair. I look at this and then that person, what he says about himself … His experiences lead you to consider something else and then something else and so on. The book happens during the actual traveling, although the writing takes time, as always. So the books are different bits of craft—always remember that I am a craftsman, changing the craft; I am trying to do new things all the time.

Do you use a tape recorder when you interview people for your nonfiction?

I never use a recorder. It shortens the labor and makes the whole thing more precise—it puts me in control. Also, people find it hard to believe, but an hour and a half with anyone is as much as any text of mine can take.

Do you begin an interview as soon as you meet a person?

First I'd meet you and talk to you; then I'd ask to come and see you. In ninety minutes, I can get two or three thousand words. You'll see me writing by hand and you'll speak slowly and instinctively. Yet it will be spoken and have the element of speech.

An Area of Darkness suggests a lot of anger, as does much of your journalism about India. Do you think anger works better than understanding for a writer?

I don't like to think of it as journalism—journalism is news, an event that is important today. My kind of writing tries to find a spring, the motives of societies and cultures, especially in India. This is not journalism. Let me correct that—it is not something that anybody can do. It's a more profound gift. I'm not competing with journalists.

But does anger work better than understanding?

I think it isn't strictly anger alone. It is deep emotion. Without that deep emotion there is almost no writing—then you do journalism. When you are deeply churned up, you know that you cannot express this naked raw emotion; you have to come to some resolution about it. It is this refinement of emotion, what you call understanding, that really makes the writing. These two things are not opposed to one another—understanding derives from what you call anger. I would call it emotion, deep emotion. Emotion is necessary to writing.

I want to ask a question that comes from reading An Area of Darkness. You write about the Hindu idea that the world is illusion, which seems enormously attractive and, at the same time, terrifying to you. I'm wondering if I read that right?

I think you put your finger on it. It is both frightening and alluring. People can use it as an excuse for inactivity—when things are really bad and you are in a mess, it can be comforting to possess and enter that little chamber of thought where the world is an illusion. I find it very easy to enter that mode of thinking. It was with me for some weeks before writing A Bend in the River. I had the distinct sense of the world as an illusion—I saw it spinning in space as though I really had imagined it all.

You have been to so many places—India, Iran, West Africa, the American Deep South. Are you still drawn to travel?

It gets harder, you know. The trouble is that I can't go places without writing about them. I feel I've missed the experience. I once went to Brazil for ten days and didn't write anything. Well, I wrote something about Argentina and the Falklands, but I didn't possess the experience—I didn't work at it. It just flowed through me. It was a waste of my life. I'm not a holiday taker.

Didn't Valéry say that the world exists to be put in a book? Do you agree?

Or to be thought about, to be contemplated. Then you enjoy it, then it means something. Otherwise you live like a puppy: woof woof, I need my food now, woof woof.

Your new book, Beyond Belief, returns to the subject of Islam, which you also examined in Among the Believers. Do you anticipate any trouble from the prickliness of Islam's defenders with the book's publication?

People might criticize me, but I am very careful never to criticize a faith or articles of a faith. I am just talking now about the historical and social effects. Of course, all one's books are criticized, which is how it should be. But remember this is not a book of opinion. This goes back to my earlier point about all one's work standing together: in the books of exploration that I have been writing, I've been working toward a form where, instead of the traveler being more important than the people he travels among, the people are important. I write about the people I meet—I write about their experiences and I define the civilization by their experiences. This is a book of personal experiences, so it will be very difficult to fault in the way you said because you can't say that it is maligning anything. I looked at personal experiences and made a pattern. In one way, you might simply say that it is a book of stories. It is a book of tales.

Much in the way of A Turn in the South and A Million Mutinies Now?

Absolutely, yes. This book was a different challenge because I am very particular about not repeating a form, and here there were thirty narratives, which I tried to do differently—each one differently so that the reader would not understand the violation that was being done him. I didn't want the stories to read alike.

Are you drained when you finish a book?

Yes, one is drained. These careers are so slow—I write a book and at the end of it I am so tired. Something is wrong with my eyes; I feel I'm going blind. My fingers are so sore that I wrap them in tape. There are all these physical manifestations of a great labor. Then there is a process of just being nothing—utterly vacant. For the past nine months, really, I've been vacant.

Does something begin to agitate you to get back to writing?

I actually find myself being agitated now. I want to get back to my work.

Do you have a new project in mind?

I'm unusual in that I have had a long career. Most people from limited backgrounds write one book. I'm a prose writer. A prose book contains many thousands of sentiments, observations, thoughts—it is a lot of work. The pattern for most people is to do a little thing about their own lives. My career has been other. I found more and more to write. If I had the strength, I probably would do more; there is always more to write about. I just don't have the energy, the physical capacity. You know, one can spend so many days now being physically wretched. I'm aging badly. I've given so much to this career for so long. I spend so much time trying to feel well. One becomes worn out by living, by writing, by thinking.

Have you got enough now?


Do you think I've wasted a bit of myself talking to you?

Not, of course, how I'd put it.

You'll cherish it?

You don't like interviews.

I don't like them because I think that thoughts are so precious you can talk them away. You can lose them.

Stephanie Jones (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Jones, Stephanie. “The Politics and Poetics of Diaspora in V. S. Naipaul's A Way in the World.Journal of Commonwealth Literature 35, no. 1 (2000): 87-97.

[In the following essay, Jones offers a stylistic analysis of A Way in the World, maintaining that its structural tension can be resolved “in a heavier scrutiny of the politics of diaspora bound with a fraught diasporic poetics.”]

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 …1

In the Minerva edition of A Way in the World, the text is subtitled “A Sequence”.2 This terminology implies something more ambiguous than either “a history” or “a novel” or “an autobiography”. It highlights the book's fusion—or corruption—of these given genres, and points up the way the text confuses their established relative associations with hard definitions of fact and fiction. “A sequence” also implies something both more and less fragmented than either “a history” or “a novel” or “an autobiography”. The term suggests a number of separate, internally coherent anecdotes, as well as a formation of stories feeding into and out of one another to generate more diverse and open, half-hidden and slowly-revealed connections; a greater density of linkages than the sequencing offered by a straight history, novel or autobiography. There is, then, a kind of structural tension within the book between the integrity of each story and the interpretative possibilities offered by its position against and within other parts of the text. The resolution of this structural tension is tied to the text's concern with the relative and shifting violability and inviolability of history-telling and fictional narration. This resolution, however, is not located in a politics of post-modern “play”, but in a heavier scrutiny of the politics of diaspora bound within a fraught diasporic poetics. The relativity and open construction of the narratives within the text may be investigated in terms of Paul Gilroy's negotiation and ultimately implicit collapsing of the (closed, teleological, linear) politics of diasporic “identity” as construed in opposition to the (open, anti-teleological, spatially networked) politics of diasporic “identification”.

Against definitions and projections of diaspora grounded in a teleological mythologizing of, yearning back to and programme for accessing a lost homeland,3 diaspora theorists such as Gilroy, Vijay Mishra, James Clifford and Stuart Hall work towards a politics of diaspora framed by a profound distrust of the regressive and millenarian politics of geographical restoration and cultural compensation. Against an idea of reclaiming a given consciousness always already constructed back in a mythical moment in time, Gilroy rejects a linear notion of history and offers instead an idea of “fragile communicative relationships across time and space that are the basis not of diaspora identities but of diaspora identifications”.4 The shift here seems to be deconstructive. Positing “identity” in opposition to “identification”, Gilroy indicates that through spatial shifting centreless networks of identification, a constant affirmative dynamic placement, displacement and replacement—formation and reformation—of diaspora identity occurs. As Hall, working out of a similarly anti-teleological descriptive/prescriptive position, puts it, “[d]iaspora identities … are constantly producing and reproducing themselves anew”.5

In his article “Bordering Naipaul: Indenture History and Diasporic Poetics”, Mishra suggests that within Naipaul's work, “[t]he diasporic experience, the life of the diasporic individual, is seen as a parenthesis, as a bracket, a series of incidentals before and after which the substantive narrative of empires and peoples … gets written down”.6 Without interrogating the validity of this statement in relation to Naipaul's earlier works, A Way in the World may be understood as providing a sense of history which operates precisely against this point of analysis. The big moments of Empire and the famous figures of exploration and revolution with which the book is concerned are themselves bracketed or parenthesized. They are spun out of and complexly wind back into the seemingly obscure, contingent figure and location of Leonard Side, Parry's funeral parlour, Port of Spain, Trinidad. In clamping the text together with the apparently random story of Leonard Side—it is only in the very last sentence of the text that his linkage to the cosmopolitan narratives becomes clear—Naipaul not only makes a straight point about the spatial and temporal scope of empire, but suggests that the telos or beginning of history is not always elsewhere, but is always anywhere; that there are surprisingly few degrees of separation between the seemingly random or peripheral and the seemingly central movements of big history; that there are, in other words, always continuities in apparent discontinuities. So to adapt Homi Bhabha's description of “postcolonial” or “world” literature as a literature of “freak displacements”, A Way in the World may be described as a writing of “freak placements”.7 Generating an anti-teleological diasporic perspective, the text plays with unusual genealogies; with understanding a curious, submerged “chain” (a word that Naipaul uses a lot in the text) of men, from the “historical” figures—Columbus and Raleigh and Miranda—to the “fictional” diasporic black-activists—Lebrun and Blair. Placing their stories against one another, shifting between the centuries from the early colonial wars to the recent era of decolonizations, Naipaul compresses their ancestry, disrupts a linear sense of temporality and positions them as political-emotional sons of fathers and grandsons of grandfathers. In understanding the ideas of romance and of personal power which drives these men, Naipaul identifies an eschatological genealogy through their common commitment to and ultimate betrayal by causes which all trace back to a pseudo-religious offering and seeking of redemption. So in an odd twist, through this textual structuring of his characters without/across/against a linear sense of time, Naipaul denies his characters the millennial, epochal sense of history and histrionic identity—the very form of their genealogical relationship—and thereby constructs his postcolonial figures as enactments of Hall's recognition of the complicity of a backward looking teleological conception of diaspora with hegemonizing, “Western” forms of ethnicity, identity and modes of historicization.8

Early in the text, the author-narrator “writes” an “unwritten story”, the telling of which he prefaces with the qualification that he is “partly working it out for the first time” within the text (p. 45). This overtly-fictional, overtly-prototypal story is of a revolutionary—only referred to as “the narrator”—travelling through an unnamed South American country. The vague, generic revolution in which he is involved is described as finding ideal cover for its agents in the Christian mission-stations of the hinterland. The narrator writes:

The disguise is almost perfect. Both groups have the same kind of dedication; both talk about racial brotherhood; both talk about the wastefulness of the rich and the exploitation of the poor; and both deal in the same stern idea of imminent punishment and justice.

(pp. 49-50)

This linking of religious and political fervour is insistently re-established throughout the text. The passionate mood of “imminent punishment and justice” attaches similarly to revolutionary figures and movements of inter-racial brotherhood and racial purity within the text; to the figures and causes which begin with an abstract idea of racial freedom and devolve into a simplified, or purified, politics of racial righteousness (p. 50).

Writing of Lebrun, an articulate and inspiring Marxist revolutionary, the narrator describes the political renaissance of the man's old age—his reincarnation as “the hidden black-prophet of the century”—as “against the whole life of revolution he had lived; against the ‘political resolution’ he had come to years before …” (p. 130). The narrator himself, however, slips into a subtle parodic use of the language of revolution to suggest a rhetorical continuum between Lebrun's old and new political selves. While his new political character is described as involving a shift against “the universality in which he had shed the burdens of race and shame”, Lebrun is also, in the same passage, described as offering “something higher and more universal” in his new commitment to a politics of racial purity; where he had once been “the man of principle, the man of the true revolution”, he had now became “the man of true African or black redemption, the man of principle there”. The vision Lebrun offers now, of “latent pure revolution”, is described as “the same” as the vision offered by his other, earlier political self; it is only by degrees less mystical, more cathartic, offering a greater redemption (pp. 130-1). Lebrun's very act of betrayal is portrayed as a logical rhetorical extension and heightening of his old political self: it is with “subtle addition” only, and not through any absolute reversal, that he has reached his new position (p. 130). Naipaul ultimately indicates that in the corruption of the purity of his resolution, Lebrun achieves a greater purity of effect; that in the corruption of his principles, he is achieving what seems to be a greater principled truth. In interrogating to the point of collapse the binary opposition between purity and impurity, principle and corruption, Naipaul reveals a profound distrust in the absolute narrative of racial vindication, of the promise of a renewed and renewing purity through the reclamation of a (mythologically) pristine ethnicity and homeland. However, while Lebrun is a rhetorical figure—“an impresario of revolution”—he is not reduced to a simple language effect (p. 107). Naipaul carefully, even tenderly, understands Lebrun as both shaped by the shaming and brutalization of the African diasporic experience; and as shaping a brutal and shaming politics. His political shift—figured by the narrator as a betrayal of “the inscription to me, as to a fellow humanist, in the copy of The Second Struggle [Lebrun's book, given to the narrator years before]”—is directly linked to the justification of the anti-humanist expulsion of the Asian peoples of East Africa during the regimes of Nyerere and Amin: “He never spoke against a black racial regime. He presented Asian dispossession in Amin's Uganda and Nyerere's Tanzania as an aspect of class warfare” (p. 130). Exemplifying Hall's thesis, the narrative of absolute reclamation against the dispersals of the movements of empire becomes a brutalizing hegemonic reality which in fact continues rather than ruptures the Empire's cycles of displacement.

Questioning and ultimately imploding narratives of purity, reclamation and redemption, A Way in the World is engaged in an interrogation of—to again pick up Gilroy's terminology—the privileging of “roots” against the legitimation of “routes”;9 the valuing of an idea of uncontaminated completion against the signification of fragmentations and trajectories. Figured and refigured within the various narrative strands of the text as a questioning of the opposition between seemingly “whole” societies and transitive, routed and rerouted peoples, Naipaul's text implicitly denies the possibility of a positively loaded definition of diaspora. Like Clifford, Naipaul pursues a negative definition of diaspora against ideas of indigenous and national identities; and, concomitantly, pursues a reflexive partial definition of apparently discrete indigenous and national consciousnesses. The centrality of these problematic definitions within the text is pointed up in the epigraph, which itself gestures towards Clifford's question and qualification: “How long does it take to become indigenous? Lines too strictly drawn between original inhabitants … and subsequent immigrants risk ahistoricism”:10

And year by year our memory fades
From all the circle of the hills.
Till from the garden and the wild
A fresh association blow,
And year by year the landscape grow
Familiar to the stranger's child

In the “unwritten”, prototypal story at the beginning of the text, Naipaul seems to offer a template—an almost absolute imagining—of indigenous consciousness when he describes the people of the forest who the unnamed fictional narrator encounters:

They are very far away, these people who can see everything in the forest, who have so many talents, and have perfected so much in their isolation. They are beyond reach. They are further away than any group the narrator has known … Everywhere else, in Asia, Europe north and south, Africa, tribes and peoples have been in collision since the beginning of time. These people, after the migration of their ancestors from Asia, have become people entirely of themselves, without resilience or the talent to adapt. Once their world was broken into, they lost their wholeness.

(p. 56)

While the passage concentrates on the paradoxical vulnerability that accompanies “wholeness”—with its implications of inviolability—and traces the brief, archetypal story of loss which has come to characterize indigenous situations, the aspect of the passage which the text subsequently picks up and plays through is the idea of beginning in migration; of a seeming absolute wholeness beginning in fragmentation; of roots always tracing back to routes. This linkage of the indigenous peoples of the Americas to the Indians of the subcontinent becomes, in other narrative strands of the texts, an ironic deployment of “Indian” which ultimately operates to re-route the term itself.

In one of the “autobiographical” sections of the text, Naipaul writes of a fishing village in the South Americas:

Once aboriginal Indians were masters of these waters. They no longer existed; and that knowledge of currents and tides had passed to their successors. On the south-westernmost point of the long Trinidad peninsula that almost ran into the river estuary there had been an aboriginal port or anchoring place … There was still a fishing village there … Many of the fishermen of Cedros were Asian Indians, descendants of agricultural people from the Gangetic plain. In less than a hundred years the geography of their new home had remade these Asian Indian people of Cedros, touched them with old aboriginal aptitudes, and given them sea skills which their landlocked ancestors had never had.

(p. 217)

Perceiving a gradual shifting from the diasporic into the indigenous—a hybridizing of a diasporic sense of community with an indigenous relationship to land—Naipaul lends a subtle twisted paradoxical truth to the very unsubtle colonial naming of the indigenous peoples of the Americas as “Indian”. Over the page, this brief anecdote is lent further nuance through its juxtaposition with the story of Manuel Sorzono, the Trinidadian Asian Indian Venezuelan who enacts a concomitant shifting—and tension—between diasporic and nationalist constructions of self.

When the author-narrator first sees Sorzono, he takes him for an “out-and-out Venezuelan, a coastal mestizo, a product of a racial mixture that had started with the Spanish settlement, someone who had known only his own landscape and limited language and his own way of life, and was cut off from everything else” (p. 219). Upon seeing the jars of Trinidad Indian pickles in his bag, however, he reconsiders his first assessment:

Had I misread him, then? Was he, after all, an Asian Indian from Trinidad with ideas and assumptions I could intuit—and not the Venezuelan stranger I had taken him for? … He could be one thing or the other: it depended on what you thought he was.

(p. 219)

What he is becomes a question both of how Sorzano is constructed by the narrator's own ancestral history and experience as well as how Sorzano chooses to construct/reveal himself. He reveals his common Indian Trinidadian identity surreptitiously to Naipaul, but at the airport in Venezuela, he carries a national passport and passes through immigration quickly (p. 221, p. 235). Identity, then, flows into shifting identifications beyond Gilroy's use of the term: Sorzano can choose to present, or produce, himself as rooted between the Spanish colonial enterprise and the aboriginal peoples and lands of Venezuela; or routed between the English colonial enterprise and the aboriginal peoples and lands of Trinidad. The point is that the degrees of separation between the two have rapidly and oddly reduced over time; the differential is minimal, mellifluous and ultimately, within a national paradigm, subversively erasable. The author-narrator concludes that “there would be no ambiguities about [his children]; they would be the kind of Venezuelan I had in the beginning taken their father for” (p. 223). They would, in other words, complete the idea of a Venezuelan national. And in recognising this, Naipaul comprehends the inevitable hybridity, or routedness, of national identity; the flow between the travelling narratives of diaspora and the grounding mythologies of nation. So through two seemingly peripheral, seemingly “freak” anecdotes of the displacement and placement of Asian Indians within the South Americas, Naipaul constructs a history of the diasporic Indian which works itself into an involved political position/set of identifications between indigenous and national identities; a position which perhaps most crucially works itself out in the final section of the text, “Coming Home”.

In “Coming Home”, Naipaul writes of an East African nation—probably Nyerere's Tanzania—which is “full of a special hate” for the Indian communities who, “as elsewhere in East Africa … made a closed group”. He writes:

There would have been ancient connections between the coast and India. It was an East African pilot who showed Vasco da Gama the way to India. The Victorian explorer Speke even published a map, said to be based on old Hindu texts, giving Sanskrit names for the rivers, lakes and mountains of Uganda. There would have been an Indian element in the mixed Swahili culture of the coast. But people didn't carry this kind of history in their heads; and the Asian community that was hated was the more recent one that had come over and settled in the half century or so of British rule.

(pp. 348-9)

Again, Naipaul comprehends historical continuities in perceived discontinuities, routes beyond roots, hybridity beyond “whole” communities, in order to debunk the mythological, epochal sense of—or betrayal of—history justifying an exclusionist racial politics. From a critique of Lebrun's diasporic metaphysics of a “pure” homeland, the text becomes a critique of the very brute implications of a “pure”/racialist government in national power. A Way in the World becomes an indictment of the falsely clarifying narratives of “authenticity” and racial power which he understands as characterizing many of the recent government of the Caribbean, South Americas, South Asia and Africa. In a typically bleak ending, Naipaul indicates—as he does in so many of his texts—his appalled sense of futility about the possibility of a break in this racialist-nationalist, anti-historicizing, “frenzied” (a favourite term) cycling of history. Ending the book with the story of the murder of Blair—an international economic aide killed because of his refusal to comply with an anti-Indian, racist programme masquerading as socialist reform—ultimately suggests both Naipaul's insistence on the need for more “freak” histories to be “carried around in people's heads” and his despair of that happening. However, when this insistence is translated into an insistence on the political position of the text—as the very enactment of this necessary reclamation of a more complex historical sense—it is important to recognise that the simplistic frenzy which leads to the murder of Blair is countered by a political point, bound up in the agonized position of the author himself within the text, which doesn't translate into a concomitantly simplistic indictment of racial passion or diasporic racial identification itself.

In the fictional/autobiographical meeting between Blair and Naipaul, Blair tells a story “against” himself; about his irritation with an Asian couple who, because they didn't speak English, kept him waiting in line for a ticket in a New York subway-station while the clerk tried to understand where they wanted to go. His comment to the man in front of him—“What's the matter with that damned Jap?”—is an illustration of his point that “[w]e [are] all tribalists and racialists … we could all easily fall into that kind of behaviour, if we thought we could get away with it” (p. 364). Naipaul is moved by the story:

This was a story to tell us where he had got to; it was an offering … it was like a statement, made without excuse or apology, that after the passion of his politics he could now be another kind of man, ready for new relationships. … He expected his racial passion to be understood; he didn't think he had to explain it. That was impressive; it made me think afresh of his lost community in the blighted cocoa woods. …

(p. 365)

The reference is to the isolated, all black community in Trinidad—another problematic idea of a “whole” society explored within the text—which Blair was born into and from which he arrived in Port of Spain, where Naipaul first met him twenty-five years earlier. Naipaul's sympathy for Blair, his acceptance of his “offering”, signifies a certain relief in the author-narrator against his expectation that Blair would bring with him an unnuanced commitment to the simplistic black racial politics of Trinidad within which Blair's career had begun and which “meant anti-Indian politics and constant anti-Indian agitation”:

Though I was no longer living in Trinidad, I was affected. … The politics that supported Blair's career were more than politics to me, and I didn't like to think of him coming here, to this African country which thought of itself as revolutionary, to unsettle things further. … The local Asian community, with a sense of clan and caste far stronger than anything we knew in Trinidad, never saw me as one of themselves, and I had found ways, as a man on my own, of detaching myself from the racial undercurrents of the place. I felt that with Blair here all that was going to change.

(p. 355)

Naipaul's wariness may be explained in terms of the tension between his identification as diasporic and his identity as an exile. The passage gestures towards the particular shifting quality of his deracination; his particular angst, which is ultimately grounded in the same—or at least a parallel—vigilant and exhausting negotiation between racial commitment and principled disengagement that Blair offers and Naipaul is so relieved to accept.

In seeking to define diaspora against a series of semi-oppositional terms, Clifford suggests that “it involves dwelling, maintaining communities … and in this it is different from exile, with its frequently individualistic focus …”.11 While Naipaul is most famously mythologized in terms of exile—and most famously privileges this idea of himself—the “vision” which he insists it is imperative for a writer “to impose on the world”12 is, according to Mishra, often a “diasporic allegory”.13 He argues that whenever Naipaul engages with situations of the “old” Indian diaspora—peoples with a similar ancestry and history of indenture to himself—the author enacts, or allegorizes, David Spurr's understanding of the problematic of the postcolonial diasporic writer as a kind of twisted re-enactment of the colonial/Hegelian master/slave dialectic of difference and identity. That is, the insistence on “radical difference … as a way of legitimising their own position in the colonial community” (as authority, or as a detached authorial figure “imposing a vision”) and the insistence on identity, which in the colonial/Hegelian sense is a “moral and philosophical precondition for the civilising mission”14 (the ordering of a perceived chaos), but which in Naipaul also becomes an almost unwilled but moral urge towards “identification” of a common sense of disjuncture and agony around the idea of home (or despair of the ordering of a felt chaos). Against readings of Naipaul which incorporate him—some admiringly, but most angrily or dismissively—into the “great English tradition” by characterizing the quality of his deracination simply in terms of exile, Mishra points to Naipaul's “neurosis”: “the signs of schizophrenia verging on madness as a consequence of displacement … the diasporic nerves constantly on edge, the rawness exploding into paranoia”.15 In A Way in the World, this schizophrenia—this saving angst—is manifest in the tension between the expression of his paranoia of involvement in the racial problems of the East African nation and the constant figuring of the author within, and as an intersection between, the various stories of the text.

In a 1994 interview with Aamer Hussein, Naipaul explains: “When I first began to write, I very soon felt the need to identify who the writer was, who was doing his travelling in the world, who was doing his observation of London or wherever. You couldn't suppress yourself.”16 At one level, Naipaul is pointing to an aesthetic imperative, the necessity of a non-fictional form to experiences which, in another interview, he describes as “too particular” to be rendered fictional.17 At another level, however, he is pointing to the sometimes paradoxical nature of the increasingly complex, increasingly “open” structuring of his “fictional” texts. In “Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad”, he writes “[a]n autobiography can distort; facts can be realigned. But fiction never lies: it reveals the writer totally”.18

In A Way in the World, Naipaul's need to identify himself becomes a complex positioning of himself within a hybrid of genres—“autobiography”, “history”, “the novel”—which is a conjuncture of both the particularities of his experiences and ancestral history and the revelations of fictionality. Recognizing himself as part of the genealogy of his characters, he gestures towards himself as a freak placement—both fictionally and historically contingent—connecting Leonard Side to Blair, to Lebrun and back to Miranda and Raleigh. Yet this contingency makes him, within the logic of his own text, central to the histories he is telling; his own narrative is, as part of the routes of empire making and breaking, irrepressible. He is necessarily, personally, particularly involved. So while the fusion and defusion of genres and highlighting of the authorial voice within the text generates an element of post-modern “play” which privileges story-telling—at one point the narrator simply comments that “[w]e all inhabit constructs of the world”—it doesn't validate that play as an ultimate political point in itself (p. 154). It is the generation of a diasporic poetics through the uncomfortable and discomforting location of the author between his individualistic sense of rootlessness and his identifications within and across Indian community routes—between his willed disengagement and insuppressible engagement—that the political emphasis of the novel is ultimately located.


  1. V. S. Naipaul, A Way in the World, London: Minerva, 1994, p. 9. Subsequent references are to this edition and will be cited by page number in the text.

  2. The North American version (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1994) defines the text as “a novel” on the title page.

  3. See William Safran, “Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return”, Diaspora, 1 (1991), 83-99.

  4. Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, London: Verso, 1993, p. 276.

  5. Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora”, Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, ed. Jonathan Rutherford, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990, p. 235.

  6. Vijay Mishra, “(B)ordering Naipaul: Indenture History and Diasporic Poetics”, Diaspora, 5 (1996), 225.

  7. Homi Bhabha, “The World and the Home”, Social Text, 10 (1992), 146.

  8. “Cultural Identity and Diaspora”, p. 235.

  9. Black Atlantic, p. 190.

  10. James Clifford, “Diasporas”, Cultural Anthropology, 9 (1994), 309.

  11. Ibid., p. 308.

  12. V. S. Naipaul, “The Documentary Heresy”, Twentieth Century, Winter (1964-1965), 107.

  13. “(B)ordering Naipaul”, p. 192.

  14. Ibid., p. 193.

  15. Ibid., pp. 224-25.

  16. V. S. Naipaul, Interview with Aamer Hussein, Times Literary Supplement, 2 Sep. 1994, 3-4.

  17. V. S. Naipaul, Interview with Ronald Bryden, The Listener, 22 Mar. 1973, 367.

  18. V. S. Naipaul, “Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad”, The Return of Eva Peron, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980, p. 67.

Pankaj Mishra (review date 20 January 2000)

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SOURCE: Mishra, Pankaj. “The House of Mr. Naipaul.” New York Review of Books (20 January 2000): 14-17.

[In the following review, Mishra explores the major thematic concerns of the family letters collected in Between Father and Son and provides a biographical account of Naipaul's early life, particularly his relationship with his father.]

In an essay called “Prologue to an Autobiography,” V. S. Naipaul tells a story about Indian immigrants in Trinidad. These immigrants had wanted to escape the general dereliction of late-nineteenth-century North India, and they had gone out to another British colony, Trinidad, to work there as indentured laborers. Many of them would have been attracted by the promise of a small grant of land after the end of their contract, or a free return trip to India with their families. But the promise had been fitfully redeemed by the colonial administration; and there were destitute and homeless. Indians everywhere in Trinidad, people without land, or hope of returning to India.

Then, in 1931, a ship called the SS Ganges took a thousand Indians back to India. It returned the next year, and could take only a thousand among the many more who wanted to go. But when the SS Ganges reached, on this second trip, the port of Calcutta, it was stormed by hundreds of immigrants it had brought on the first trip—immigrants who now wanted to go back to Trinidad, because whatever little they saw of India had proved to be a nightmare.

When you travel now through the part of North India that many of the ancestors of Trinidad Indians, including Naipaul, originally lived in—the eastern wing of the state of Uttar Pradesh—you can still see the India the first immigrants to Trinidad left behind: the India of immemorial poverty and desolation, of dusty country roads, mud huts with low thatched roofs, and buffaloes tethered in cow dung-paved courtyards. You can still see children in rags, the long-veiled women hunched over cooking fires, and the shrunken human figures toiling in flat wheat and rice fields.

From this India, Naipaul's grandfather had been brought to Trinidad as a baby in 1880, an India that the poor Indian community re-created in rural parts of Trinidad; and it was to this India that Naipaul's father, Seepersad, born in 1906, almost went back as a boy. He and his mother had gone through the formalities for repatriation, but then at the immigration depot Seepersad panicked and hid himself in a latrine overlooking the sea until his mother changed her mind.

She, if not Seepersad, would have had some regret about that. Things hadn't gone well until then for this family of Brahmin immigrants in Trinidad; and they weren't going to improve much for Seepersad's mother. Seepersad's father, a village pundit, died young, and the sudden destitution forced his elder brother, while still a child, to work in the sugar-cane fields for eight cents a day—half a century later, the memory of his destroyed childhood made him weep before Naipaul, his nephew. Seepersad's illiterate sister was sent away to work in the house of a relative; she suffered two unhappy marriages. Seepersad's early life, too, was hard; he lived with his mother's sister, went to school during the day, and worked in a shop late at night. For some time after his marriage, he was dependent on his wife's wealthy family. Long after he had worked his way into the temporary security of a journalist's job at the Trinidad Guardian, his mother was still living, and eventually died, in great poverty.

It is this background—the small unnoticed tragedies of a displaced impoverished people, unprotected in a small agricultural colony, and holding on to their self-enclosed but fragile Hindu world—that makes A House for Mr Biswas (1961) more than just one of the finest twentieth-century novels in English. It is also a valuable historical record of what would have been an intellectually neglected part of the world—neglected because sometimes certain worlds don't seem important enough, politically or culturally, to be recorded, and more often they don't produce writers and intellectuals who can note their rise or passing.

That the small Indian diaspora in Trinidad, now more urban-based and mixed, should find its chronicler in Naipaul, that the peculiar dereliction and hurt of a disinherited people, and the stirrings, in the midst of that dereliction, of an individual consciousness should be immortalized in what now looks like the epic of postcolonial literature, is in itself extraordinary. That the book should have a precedent is even more so: Naipaul drew some of the novel's events from the life of his father, but he borrowed more directly from his father's stories about his Hindu-peasant childhood, about the life of the Indian countryside that the earliest immigrants had returned to in Trinidad, the life that Seepersad himself had barely emerged from when he started writing about it.

The stories were based on his fourteen years of work as a journalist on Indian matters, and they suggest a writer coming into his own, moving away from journalism, feeling his way around a very literary talent. In their broad background—the caste-bound Hindu village community, the small ambitions and delusions, the petty quarrels and rivalries—they remind you of the North Indian writer Premchand, who in the 1920s and 1930s was writing about the cruelties of feudal society. Seepersad's stories follow the fortunes of a village bully and impostor as he moves from being a stick fighter to a disgraced holy man. The book is titled The Adventures of Gurudeva, but there is no real adventure. The bully's personality and actions—beating his young wife, lecturing on orthodox Hinduism—are exaggerated by the tameness of his peasant setting; separated from it, he ceases to be interesting, and the writer's eye, as in all early literatures, is more interested in registering the world opened up by the process of writing and reflection.

The fancy of Gurudeva was born mainly of the stories that old Jaimungal often told on evenings of the dare-devil exploits of dead and gone bad-johns. He would squat out in the open gallery, and the people living near his house—the second biggest in the village, since it was roofed and galvanized iron and floored with board and had jalousies in the doors and windows and was painted in red and blue and yellow—the neighbours would come and squat before him with their dhoti-clad haunches on the floor and their knees going up to their chins; and they would listen entranced to the stories he told.

As a brave one-time venture—lacking all precedent, not to mention publishers, not even accompanied, as writing in India was, by a larger intellectual or political growth—as a purely individual effort, Seepersad's stories seem miraculous today. His early training as a pundit, the learning of hymns and scriptures, had first awakened him to the power of the word, had attracted him, in the unlikeliest of circumstances, to the idea of writing. But after that he had been on his own, a self-taught man, reading and writing in isolation.

He was struggling to keep afloat most of his life, struggling to define himself, acquire selfhood and culture, and at the same time have a job and possess that small bit of security and comfort that would make the world a less painful place for himself and his large but close-knit family of eight, thrown together by the break-up of the network of extended Hindu families and the rebuffs of wealthier relatives.

Seepersad's achievement, easily acknowledged today, was then fated to be superfluous in a society still mired in peasant wretchedness. Nevertheless, writing—to which Seepersad was drawn initially by his Brahmanical upbringing—became everything to him even in his unpromising circumstances: it was a promise of individual dignity and nobility, a “refusal to be extinguished,” it also offered an end to the life of constant financial anxieties and deprivations. The wish to be a writer was inherited almost instinctively by Seepersad's son Vidia; and it was for both, father and young son, a “wish to seek at some future time for justice.”

Poverty, the fear of extinction, the hope for justice, and writing as redemption: these are the themes of the letters exchanged within Naipaul's family after he first came to live in England in 1950 as a student of English at Oxford on a full scholarship from the colonial government. His father was then almost at the end of his working life; his elder sister, Kamla, was studying at the Benares Hindu University in India, lonely and unhappy but unable to leave. Naipaul, barely eighteen years old, carried not only the responsibility of rescuing his family from financial hardship but the weight of an imprecise and unrealized literary ambition.

In a letter to his younger sister, Sati, some years later, Naipaul uses the word “odyssey” to describe these journeys back to the bigger world, from which Seepersad's own father had traveled not so long ago to Trinidad; and he isn't exaggerating. The physical and spiritual trials implied by the word were suffered by all immigrants from impoverished backgrounds, particularly in the days when going abroad was considerably more expensive and time-consuming than it is today, even in places like Trinidad and India. People who left home for better prospects elsewhere stayed away for a long time, sometimes forever, struggling with different climates and foods, sexual loneliness, and financial insecurity; coping, too, with news, often bad, of other struggles at home.

The letters Naipaul wrote to his family contain only small hints of his own private ordeal, the fear and panic and helplessness he knew as an unformed young man in England—things so painful that a fuller reckoning with them could only have been done in long retrospect, as he himself proved, when he returned to the subject of his early years in England in a book he published as late as 1987: The Enigma of Arrival.

This autobiographical novel is suffused with Naipaul's sense of wonder at his own transplanted physical self in England, at the unlikely achievement of a “profoundly ignorant” Indian from a Hindu-peasant background who not only conceived of, but managed to realize, a high literary ambition; and it takes the reader through all the complex stages—the ignorance, presumption, failure, and slow self-knowledge—of Naipaul's discovery of his subjects and themes.

In the long chapter “The Journey,” he describes how unprepared he was for the big world he entered soon after parting from his family in Trinidad in 1950, and how, although he was traveling to be a writer, that state of unpreparedness, the fear and loneliness he felt in New York and London on that first trip away from home, the raw unmade self he sensed within, couldn't become for him a proper subject. Writing seemed to him then a display of sensibility, where the writer had to come across as a serene man of the world. It was an idea Naipaul had picked up from the literature of imperial Britain he had come across as a young reader, from the books of Evelyn Waugh, Somerset Maugham, Aldous Huxley. More than wanting to write like these writers, he wanted to appear to the world as they appeared to him: “aloof everywhere, unsurprised, immensely knowing.”

The appropriation of a writing personality, a perspective and tone unrelated to the writer's past and present circumstances, occurs a lot in writing from Britain's former colonies. It is a colonial tendency, this random borrowing from more accomplished literatures and civilizations, the first reflex of people just beginning to emerge into the light after centuries of intellectual darkness. In Naipaul's case it kept him from discovering that the complicated past—the Hindu-peasant ancestry, the lower-middle-class upbringing in a racially mixed Caribbean colony—he found shameful and wished to hide behind his borrowed metropolitan personality was really his truest subject. As he wrote in The Enigma of Arrival, “Man and writer were the same person. But that is a writer's greatest discovery. It took time—and how much writing!—to arrive at that synthesis.”

Man and writer, united when Naipaul was in Trinidad, were to be sundered by the shock of the new world he found himself in. In his letters to Kamla, his elder sister in Benares, written when he was waiting to go to England, the jauntiness and confidence—the swift dismissals of Nehru (“first-class showman”) and Jane Austen (“a writer for women”)—is of the precocious reader-writer impatient to plunge into the world and gain some real experience: “As yet I feel that the philosophy I will have to expand in my books is only superficial,” he writes. “I am longing to see something of life.”

Soon he would see something of life, but he wouldn't know what to make of it, and he would only have the feeling, as he did on his first day in New York, of “being lost, of truth not fully faced.” In New York, he is cheated by a taxi driver; in his hotel room, he eats, peasant fashion, the roasted chicken packed by his mother, without a plate, knife, or fork; he is almost scalded by the hot shower. He is beginning to feel a “rawness of nerves and sensibility” that will be with him for many years. But in his letters he only reports that he is “deeply happy.” In London, he is very lonely, and his walks around the city are “ignorant and joyless.” In his letter, the bright scholarship student, attempting enthusiasm, reports to his parents and sister that “England has been proving very pleasant.”

He will maintain the small deception in his letters home—and not only because he wants to keep his family from worrying too much about him. The deception is almost forced upon him by the unresolved conflict between the lonely and fearful young man and the aspiring writer who has to show himself to be aloof everywhere, unsurprised, and immensely knowing. “Understanding oneself,” as he wrote after a nervous breakdown that lasted several months, “is the biggest problem.”

For the first four weeks in England, Naipaul (or Vidia, as he shall be referred to in order to avoid confusion) does not write home at all. And then when he summons up the energy to do so, he is scolded by Kamla for his “impersonal manner”: “You are fully aware that now Pa is left alone at home. You were his lifelong friend. … Do feel for them, Vido, and write them as they deserve. At least do that much.” Vidia recovers enough from his gloom to write a spirited letter that describes the social intricacies of Oxford (“the 1948 people stick mostly to themselves and so on”) and his own success (“the people here accept me”); he quotes a few Prufrockian lines from a poem he has been working on (“In a yellowing world / Of Yellowing leaves / and Yellowing men”); he praises his father (“what a delightful father to have”).

Seepersad does seem like a delightful father: patient, kind, enthusiastic. As Gillon Aitken points out in his elegant and perceptive introduction, his “deep concern for Vidia is a generous and never-failing tribute to the fine intelligence, and the responsive and sensitive spirit, of the younger man.” He gently counsels Vidia to “keep your centre”: “I am glad to know you feel confident; but don't underestimate people and problems.” He keeps asking for descriptions of Oxford; he asks Vidia to send him R. K. Narayan's fiction. The Author's Handbook, and various British newspapers; he encourages him to contact “big shots in the writing and film business.” He offers some excellent literary advice: “Only see that you have succeeded in saying exactly what you want, to say—without showing off; with utter brave sincerity—and you will have achieved style because you will have been yourself.” He works hard and thanklessly at his journalist's job, and complains about his inability to do his own writing: “This is the time I should be writing the things I so long to write,” he writes. “When shall I get the chance? … The Guardian is taking all out of me—writing tosh.” At the same time, he wonders: “Are you quite happy? You must tell me frankly. Barring illness, there is no earthly reason why you shouldn't be.”

It is to Kamla—and he is always franker with her—that Vidia confesses: “A feeling of emptiness is nearly always on me. I see myself struggling in a sort of tunnel blocked up at both ends. My past—Trinidad and the necessity of our parents—lies behind me and I am powerless to help anyone. My future—such as it is—is a full four years away.

In the limbo that Naipaul finds himself in at Oxford, waiting to be a writer, waiting to help his parents, lack of money is one of his biggest problems. He rarely makes enough to be able to send some to his parents; he barely has enough to spend on himself, and is constantly borrowing from his sister and father. Seepersad, on the other hand, rarely stops worrying about not being able to help his son; he frequently apologizes and at the same time enumerates, in the fussy anxious way of people who have known real deprivation, his continuing expenses and debts and small incomes. (“I got back my $90 from the shipping Co. I am sending you $25 out of it, and the remainder returns to my creditor.”)

Later during his stay at Oxford, Vidia scoffs at an Indian from Trinidad: “Can you imagine, a man coming to Oxford for the first time and not looking at the buildings, not looking at the bookshops, but just talking about money—how much he wanted, how little he had?” Being at Oxford and talking about money: it is not how Vidia sees himself. Indeed, he reports to Seepersad that he has discovered in himself “all types of aristocratic traits. … That is the one good thing Oxford has done for me.”

It is part of his growing self-discovery in the West; the awareness that he has as much right to the richness of the world as anyone else. There are several colonial characters in Naipaul's books who arrive at that same realization—people who acknowledge the injustice of colonialism, but are unwilling to define themselves as “victims,” who wish to be active participants in the new world colonialism has exposed them to. There is Indar in A Bend in the River, who has turned his back on the passive life of his Indian community in Africa, and wishes to make a name for himself in the West—the outside world he thinks his people have become incapable of understanding: “We simply accept it. We have grown up paying tribute to it, and that is all that most of us do. It never occurs to us that we might make a contribution to it ourselves.”

At Oxford, Vidia is beginning to understand his own relationship to that world in ways very different from those offered by his limited colonial background or the rhetoric of victimhood. He can now see the “phoney sophistication” of the West Indian upper class, several of whose members are at Oxford, and hopes his father would write about it. He can see that there are “asses in droves” at Oxford; he has the confidence to speculate that the English are a “queer people.”

But behind this “cynical flamboyance,” which makes him popular at Oxford, there is uncertainly and fear, and Vidia himself senses it. “I find myself posing even when I am sincere,” he tells his sister. He also has come face to face with his own ignorance, and finds it difficult to know what his own contribution to the world he is in would be. “What happens,” he asks his sister, who has “taken him for an intellectual giant,” “What happens when a man discovers that he has been lying to himself all the time?”

Writing this in April 1951, Vidia is some months away from a nervous breakdown, of which he would give at first only the broadest hint to his sister and father. It is the lonely fearful young man, not the cynical flamboyant writer, we hear in these words to Kamla immediately after his breakdown: “Oh, it is so difficult to grow up!” To his family, he writes, “I find I have little to tell you”; he goes on to describe in the affectless way of the depressive how he will spend the rest of the day; he says he misses Trinidad and wants to come home for the summer. It is much later that he reveals the full extent of his nervous illness: “I couldn't bear to see anyone, I couldn't bear to read, because it made me think about people; I couldn't go to the cinema; I couldn't listen to the radio.”

His father picks up the signals: “I have been thinking a great deal about you. … Your last two letters had a pathetic tone about them. You seem to be lonely, even sad.” He worries about the “skimpy” food Vidia has been having, and adds, thinking of his own financial constrictions, “I know I haven't been of much use to you; so painful is this thing that I rather not dwell on it.” But he wants to offer help nevertheless, and this is how he will do it if Vidia fails to get a job after finishing university: “You will come home—and do what I am longing to do now, just write; and read and do the things you like to do. … I want you to have that chance which I have never had: somebody to support me and mine while I write,” There would be jobs in Trinidad, but Seepersad knows his son “better than anyone else”: “Nothing but literary success will make you happy.”

Seepersad sets about collecting money to pay some part of his son's trip to Trinidad. But Vidia can't make it; he has run out of money yet again. Seepersad is disappointed. He again tells his son not to worry. In the middle of his own mental illness, when Vidia was barely four years old, he had presented an anthology of poetry to his young son, exhorting him to “live up to the estate of man.” He now says he is sending him another book: You and Your Nerves. He also plans to send some stories, hoping Vidia will help him find a publisher. He mentions his plan again: “Either you support me after you are through with Oxford, and let me devote myself wholly to writing the things I want to write; or I support you so you devote yourself to the same thing.”

A letter from Patricia Hale, Naipaul's future wife, gets mistakenly sent to Trinidad and is opened and read by the entire Naipaul family. Vidia protests against this invasion of privacy; terms “cynical” the family talk of having been “netted.” He has had a few girlfriends before—Scandinavian, Scottish, English—who he says have “rejected” him (the truth here is that his puritan Hindu background hasn't really equipped him for the formalities of courtship and the act of seduction). But in Pat, who has befriended him during his nervous illness, he has found qualities he found in no one: “simplicity, goodness and charm”; and he doesn't want his family to make things difficult for the two of them.

His Hindu parents are disturbed by the thought of their son going in for a “mixed marriage” with a non-Hindu white woman. Seepersad worries about the almost certain rejection his son and his young English bride would face in, Trinidad. To this, Vidia responds with unexpected bluntness, which suddenly reveals the growing gap between his own and his family's ideas about the future: “I don't want to break your heart, but I hope, I never come back to Trinidad, not to live, that is. … [It] has nothing to offer me.”

Meanwhile, Kamla has had enough of Benares and wants to leave India immediately. But Seepersad can't afford to pay her fare; he'll have to ask for a loan. Vidia offers to send five pounds to help relieve the situation, but his father tells him to spend it on winter clothing or on Christmas. Vidia writes back to promise that he “shall move heaven and earth to send home a lump sum of money every year.”

Abruptly, Kamla writes from Benares to inform Vidia that their father has had a bad heart attack. He is disabled and unable to work. His “greatest worry is that he cannot get his stories published.” Kamla—who is frantically searching for ways to help ease the financial situation at home—thinks that publishing the stories means “life and death for him and consequently life or death for us.” “Will you,” she asks Vidia, “in the name of Pa's life, see immediately to his short stories and write him a nice, cheering letter.”

It is hard to think of a literary correspondence full of such rawness of emotion, of such unqualified affection and neediness and aspiration and disappointment; it is even harder to think of correspondents who have made such a large claim on each other's humanity. It is easier to think of something wholly unlike this volume: Rilke's ingratiating letters to his various aristocratic patrons, where a self-satisfied “lyricism” suppresses all hints of the spiritual ache and longing we read about elsewhere in his work.

The ache and longing are honestly confessed to here, along with the desperation, and no one expresses them more intensely than Seepersad, the self-taught man from a poverty-stricken community, who has built up a dream of justice and nobility out of the humiliations and deprivations of his life, and hopes to realize it, in the last year of his life, in the publication of his stories in England. The drama of these last few letters lies in Seepersad's growing dependence upon Vidia—the son to whom he has passed on his dream of justice and nobility, but who is now fighting his own demons, his “fear of failure,” hiding his torment and hysteria from his parents, suppressing it in banter about girlfriends and Oxford and his random travels, venting it only in severe contempt for other Trinidadians and insensitive relatives in England. The son who is unable to assuage his family's anxieties about his well-being, his English girlfriend, his future and who feels his utter helplessness, himself writes, like his father, but half-suspects his work of being worthless.

Vidia now pleads: “Please have some faith in me. I wish I could be the knight in armour, hastening to avenge you and bring you help. But we have to go about things in a much more prosaic way.” In another letter, he tries to reassure his father, “You should not have thought that I was uninterested in your writing,” and then goes on to dismiss contemporary writers from the West Indies and relates how success and fame came to Joyce Cary when he was over fifty.

He adds at the end of the letter: “Please send your stories as soon as possible. We shall probably place them.” The stories are sent by an anxious Seepersad, along with addresses of various literary agents he wants Vidia to contact on his behalf. In letter after letter, he urges Vidia to do something, about the stories: “I think you know what a godsend it would mean to me, if it was accepted. … I know parts would sound rather immature and crude, but it seems that is the sort of thing publishers want these days.” He also muses about publishing a book together with Vidia, with both their names on the cover.

Vidia's own references to the stories are cryptic: “pretty good stuff and I feel sure it will be placed eventually.” He mentions that the job of typing them is a “big one,” Seepersad keeps urging him: “Do get going with the stuff.” But Vidia is once again going through “periods of black depression.” He has also decided—although he doesn't say so now—that the stories aren't “publishable outside Trinidad.” All he can do is encourage his father to write “something really big,” an autobiography.

Writing in August 1953, Seepersad reports having “a terribly miserable time”: Vidia hasn't been in touch lately about his health and Kamla has arrived in England from India “quite broke.” There has been a bigger setback. The Trinidad Guardian is laying him off work. But his affection for his son at this time of despair is unimpaired: “There is not a day—hardly an hour—when we do not think of you and Kamla.” He writes in another letter: “Do not worry about sending us money. It is bad enough we do not send you anything. What a wretchedly poor lot we are. …” He advises his son to take it easy: “You know, you have worked much too hard, from early boyhood to date.” He reports “washing the walls so as to make the home bright for Kamla”; and things do begin to look up slightly as Kamla reaches Trinidad, almost immediately gets a good job, and takes charge of the family. Sati gets engaged to be married to a good Trinidadian Hindu. Kamla sends Vidia some local gossip. Seepersad, in a more relaxed mood, writes a long, considered letter to Vidia, in which he shares his thoughts about the future, hopes Vidia would put off marrying for three or four years, by which time Kamla and Sati and the younger daughters would have taken turns in assisting the family; he also hopes Vidia would consider a teaching job in Trinidad.

This turns out to be his last letter. Three weeks later, he has another heart attack, and dies, only forty-seven years old, and it is Kamla who now writes from Trinidad, out of the depths of a great grief:

There are so many things I want to say but I don't know how to say them. That Pa is dead—well, I guess I have to reconcile myself to that, but I can't. There are few things which haunt me—he didn't see you, who he so much wanted to see; to see England, and most of all to have his book published. What really hurts me is that he worked so hard all his life, all for us.

Vidia can't bring himself to write at first to his mother. Two weeks pass before he sends his own tribute to a kind, generous father:

Everything I did and did well, as I thought—always prompted the thought, “Pa would like to hear of this.” In a way I had always looked upon my life as a continuation of his—a continuation which, I hoped, would also be a fulfilment. It still is; but I have to abandon the idea of growing older in Pa's company; and I have to get the strength to stand alone.

The letters speed up now; there is only a small selection here from the three years after Seepersad's death, and from them you get a sense of Vidia still drifting in England, and even further away from his family. His poverty reduces him to eating cheap food in Oxford; he writes a beseeching letter to Kamla for more money. He fails to get a job in a match factory in India; nothing seems to work out. In a long letter to his mother, he explains why he can't come back to Trinidad just yet. Despite the lack of success so far, he is confident that he will succeed with his writing. The dream of justice is intact: “The world is a pretty awful place, but our star will shine brightly yet,” he writes. He gets married to Patricia Hale, the English girl who had everyone at home very worried.

The letters are silent about his beginnings as a published writer. Living precariously as a BBC freelancer in London, ten months after leaving Oxford, he writes, still experimenting, the first sentence of his first publishable book: “Every morning when he got up Hat would sit on the banister of his back verandah and shout across, ‘What happening there, Bogart?’” Bogart is an eccentric character from a Port of Spain street Vidia lived in as a child, an aspect of his experience that he hasn't yet thought of as proper material. The sentence sets off a chain of associations. He writes the second sentence—Bogart's response, something invented, memory transfigured—and then, suddenly, the unexamined, unremembered past begins to yield up its treasures; the man and the writer begin to come together.

Early in 1956, he sends a telegram: = NOVEL ACCEPTED = LOVE. And then after a brief silence he writes to Kamla: “This is the letter I have been longing to write home ever since I left Trinidad. It is about my book.”

The book is The Mystic Masseur, the novel he has quickly written after a publisher said that she would take on his stories about the Port of Spain street, later collected as Miguel Street, if there was a novel to go before them. The publishers paid him twenty-five pounds for an option; they are going to pay him seventy-five pounds more for the finished novel. It is a very modest beginning: Vidia knows that the books may not work—and they didn't. But it is a beginning nevertheless, after the failures and frustrations of previous years.

Later that year, he visits Trinidad for the first time since his departure six years before. The letters collected here don't reach that point, and Naipaul hasn't written in any detail about this reunion with the family. But we do have a record of it from another source: Vidia's younger brother, Shiva. He is the shy child in the affectionate postscripts of Seepersad's and Vidia's letters, who aged eight had lit his father's funeral pyre and, after a brief writer's career, was himself to die young, like his father and sister Sati. Vidia missed his early childhood. Shiva, closer to his family's distress, grew up with very different memories of that time; and when, at the age of eleven, he saw his elder brother again, the latter had turned into an almost mythical figure.

Sometimes, the postman arrived with blue air-mail letters, the cause of much excitement in our household. Occasionally, I would listen with a kind of dazed astonishment to this notional being—my brother—reading a short story on the radio. When I was about eleven, this mysterious figure suddenly arrived among us. Why he should thus manifest himself, I had no idea. Still, it was an interlude of wonder; of intense excitement for me. I would go and stand in the doorway of his bedroom and gaze curiously upon him as he lay on the bed, smoking cigarettes out of a green tin. The tableau revived my father's fading image. He too, in the warm, quiet afternoons, would lie on that same bed, reading and smoking cigarettes.

Vidia had written, when Seepersad was still alive, of how, as he grew older, “I find myself doing things that remind me of Pa” and how “the more I learn about myself, the more I learn about him.” Here, in this beautiful moment of remembrance and perception, Shiva's tender curiosity stumbled upon that special bond between his elder brother and father: the intimacy that became a blending of aspiration and personalities; the continuation of the father's life that in the end turned out be, however partial or lonely, a fulfillment for his son.

S. Shankar (review date 28 February 2000)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2319

SOURCE: Shankar, S. “Naipaul Writes Home.” Nation 270, no. 8 (28 February 2000): 23-6.

[In the following review, Shankar commends Between Father and Son for the insight it provides into Naipaul's personality and family life and asserts that the collection “is a revelation when it comes to the narrative possibilities in the compilation of letters.”]

Many years ago, when I was about the age that V. S. Naipaul was when he departed Trinidad for England, I would borrow books by him from the library of an erstwhile colonial club in Kuala Lumpur. In a building constructed during the time of the British, A House for Mr. Biswas sat on a shelf whose other books were mostly by writers like Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling. Thinking back now, it seems to me both incongruous and fitting that Naipaul—to the best of my recollection pretty much the only writer not European or North American—should be in such company in such a place. Naipaul's most recent book, Between Father and Son, a collection of family letters from the years leading up to the time of his earliest published works, continues to add to this paradox of his life's work.

Reflecting on the time in which these letters were written, Naipaul wrote many years ago in “Prologue to an Autobiography” that the “career” of a writer wasn't possible in Trinidad. So he had to leave where he was born and travel to England, to Oxford University, to pursue the vocation of writing. All this was a good half-century ago. In the intervening period, Naipaul has succeeded in making a career for himself. Indeed, his prodigious talent has been so repeatedly on display, and so celebrated, that it might be inadequate to call it, anymore, a career. It has long since grown to something of canonical proportions. Naipaul's works—the novels as well as the travel books—have by now attained one pinnacle of contemporary literary success: a regular and uncontested place on college syllabuses around the world.

Were this all, it would be much. But Naipaul's highbrow reputation has been complemented by a reach extending well into the middlebrow. In 1981 he was featured on the cover of Newsweek—and not because he had embroiled himself in some tawdry public scandal or had found himself under the death sentence of a powerful Muslim cleric. It was the aftermath of the Iranian revolution. Naipaul had just published an account of his travels through four non-Arabic Islamic countries, including Iran, titled Among the Believers. With great alacrity, he ascended to the level of an expert on Islam, indeed, on all matters Third World. “If any person is qualified to judge among cultures,” declared James Michaels in an editorial in no less a publication than Forbes, “Naipaul is. He was born in Trinidad in 1932, the grandson of Hindu immigrants from India, lives in England and has probed the Muslim, Latin and African worlds. … And for entertaining and enlightening reading, get any Naipaul book.”

One would be wise, however, to tarry a moment before succumbing to Michaels's hustle and rushing to the closest bookstore. Entertaining? Perhaps. Enlightening? The matter needs serious consideration, for Naipaul has faced his most severe criticism from much farther-flung quarters for his abrasive commentary on the countries that he has written about.

It is customary to make a distinction between Naipaul's early, comic novels—epitomized by his one indisputable masterpiece, A House for Mr. Biswas—and the novels and travel books that succeeded them. In novels like A Bend in the River and Guerrillas and travel books like An Area of Darkness and India: A Wounded Civilization, the comedy is replaced by a far more somber sensibility. And where his disparagement of Caribbean society is blunted somewhat by humor in the earlier works, his discontent with colonial and postcolonial societies later appears without relief.

About India, Naipaul wrote breezily in A Wounded Civilization that “the poverty of the land is reflected in the poverty of the mind; it would be calamitous if it were otherwise.” And then he made the astounding declaration in the essay “Conrad's Darkness” that “Conrad—sixty years before, in the time of a great peace—had been everywhere before me.” In voicing such opinions, Naipaul shows himself—there is no other way to put it—to be willfully contrarian. What else could lead a man of his background and pretensions to assert that Conrad had traveled—for example, in the Congo of the disastrous Belgian colonial rule—“in the time of a great peace”?! Not surprisingly, these views have not endeared Naipaul to many of his fellow postcolonials, and such different writers and critics as George Lamming, Salman Rushdie and A. Sivanandan have voiced their disapproval in the past. In this context, Naipaul's options also offer a telling contrast to those of peers like Wole Soyinka and Nadine Gordimer.

In the past decade, beginning with his third travel book on India, A Million Mutinies Now (1990), Naipaul has been by some measures showing signs of mellowing. He opened Beyond Belief, his 1998 sequel to Among the Believers, by writing, “This is a book about people. It is not a book of opinion.”

A travel book by Naipaul not larded with his opinions? It seemed too good to be true. And the very next paragraph of Beyond Belief proceeded to show it was:

Everyone not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert. Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It makes imperial demands. A convert's world-view alters. … The convert has to turn away from everything that is his. The disturbance for societies is immense, and even after a thousand years can remain unresolved. … People develop fantasies about who and what they are; and in the Islam of converted countries there is an element of neurosis and nihilism.

This is the kind of breathtakingly generalized and opinionated commentary with which we were already familiar. If Naipaul recedes somewhat into the background in the rest of the book, it is not because he now has no opinions to offer but rather because he has found a new way to offer them, with a posture of self-effacement that made his views seem more palatable and less strident.

It is true, however, that Naipaul's opinions on the Third World have evolved from earlier days. The clearest expression of this change is to be seen in a talk titled “Our Universal Civilization,” given at the Manhattan Institute in 1991 and later published in The New York Review of Books. Naipaul propounds in it that a universal civilization beginning in Europe has now spread all over the world. “So much is contained in it,” the author declares: “the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.” If the Third World was earlier “limited,” “restricted,” “half-formed” (his preferred terms), now it is “fixed” and “rigid.” If it was beyond hope before, it generates hope now only because it might—hope against hope!—acquire the “universal civilization,” become more like the West. This is the dismal prospect that Naipaul has held out for the Third World in more recent years, in the midst of the ubiquitous “globalization”: Emulate the West in every respect and be saved, or prepare to “blow away.” In all too many ways, this assurance does not seem substantively different from the compact made by the colonial masters in Naipaul's “time of a great peace.”

It is in this context—the context of the life and work of this singular but dubious chronicler of the Third World—that the publication of Between Father and Son, a collection of the correspondence between the young V. S. Naipaul and, mostly, his father, acquires its main significance. The letters begin in 1949, a few months before Naipaul's departure for England on a scholarship—the very departure that would give him a chance at that vocation of writing he deemed impossible in the colonial society of Trinidad. They end in 1957, a few years after the death of his father. Aside from the correspondence between father (Seepersad) and son, there are letters from and to an elder sister, Kamla, in college in India during the early part of this period; other siblings; and Naipaul's mother. The letters have been edited by Gillon Aitken, Naipaul's literary agent.

Naipaul is still in Trinidad, a 17-year-old student, when the letters begin. When they end, he is securely ensconced in England, a writer and married to Pat, his English wife. The letters chronicle the transformation of the former into the latter. One of the commendable aspects of the book is its narrative force, surprising in a volume that is, after all, a collection of letters. Naipaul's metamorphosis is not without its drama, and though the letters are arranged chronologically, some of the credit for this must surely go to Aitken. A crucial contribution is the decision to include a “postscript” of letters, which take us past the death of Seepersad to the successful publication of Naipaul's first book (The Mystic Masseur). The postscript redeems what would have been otherwise a story of defeat and failure. Between Father and Son is a revelation when it comes to the narrative possibilities in the compilation of letters.

Another engaging aspect of the collection is its depiction of lives led in a time of cataclysmic change in the colonial world. Nineteen forty-nine is only two years after the independence of India, and 1957 only one year before the Federation of the British West Indies came into existence. The letters resolutely ignore such political events—events that will be the flesh and bone of Naipaul's future works—but perhaps precisely because of this they serve to remind us of the ordinary lives that were led in the midst of these extraordinary events. Seepersad was not a wealthy man, and the collection's chronicle of the movement of hopeful members of the family, pleading letters, much-needed money and parcels of shirts, books and food between Trinidad, England and India will be easily recognized by immigrants in similar straits now. At the same time, these details—ships, not planes; letters, not e-mail!—serve to remind us how much indeed the colonial world and the experience of immigration has changed in fifty years.

Avid readers of Naipaul's works will also be interested in the personality revealed in these letters. Critics will find much to dislike. His observation in a letter to Kamla that “Deo is chasing penniless men, Phoolo niggers, and Tara douglas”; his anxiety that “nearly every other man one meets in this country is homosexual”; his contempt for the still-too-Trinidadian Solomon Lutchman, with his accent and gauche manner; his righteous conviction regarding his own superior judgment—all will seem familiar from the narrative persona on display in the later, bleaker works of Naipaul. But there are also times, even if they are fewer in number, when Naipaul surprises—for example, in his criticism of British colonial policy in Kenya or with his complaints about the dullness of life in England.

These letters will no doubt come to be widely used by scholars looking for biographical justification for readings of specific works, A House for Mr. Biswas certainly (as Aitken notes in his introduction), but also many others. Indeed, one wonders whether such a prod to scholars was not one of the motivations in compiling the volume. Is it too much to see here something of an author in the twilight of his career putting his literary affairs in order through the auspices of his literary agent, in the desire to help insure continued relevance and readership?

Be that as it may, one of the reasons to commend this volume is precisely its relationship to one of the most controversial literary reputations of our times. It is that literary aspect that carries the most interesting theme of these letters, their portrayal of the life of an aspiring writer. There are two such lives here, really—Naipaul's and that of his father. Seepersad Naipaul, a journalist for much of his life, also had ambitions of being a fiction writer. He had a few stories published and a few read over BBC radio, but as the years passed and he found himself unable to escape the constrictions of family life in Trinidad, it was really in his young and talented son that Seepersad's hopes and ambitions settled. This volume records both Seepersad's eager hope for himself and his determination on behalf of his son. One of the most poignant moments in these letters is when he writes to his son in England: “I feel so darned cocksure that I can produce a novel within six months—if only I had nothing else to do. This is impossible. But I want to give you just this chance. When your university studies are over, if you do get a good job, all well and good; if you do not, you have not got to worry one little bit. You will come home—and do what I am longing to do now: just write. … I mean nothing but literary success will make you happy.” At other times the father sends the son notes on editing, or recommends books to him, or encourages him to do what our age, alas, has perfected only too well, to “network.”

These letters show us something all too rare. They hold up for view all the small things of the writing life in its earliest stages—the little joy and the obscure success as well as the petty jealousy and the tired compromise. Of such small things too is a great literary reputation such as V. S. Naipaul's—troubling and paradoxical in its very greatness—made.

Joseph Epstein (review date March 2000)

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SOURCE: Epstein, Joseph. “Father Knows Best.” New Criterion 18, no. 7 (March 2000): 58-62.

[In the following review, Epstein explores Naipaul's relationship with his father as found in the letters collected in Between Father and Son.]

Despite the implications of the marital misadventures of a certain gentleman from Thebes, a fellow who wed with all too little forethought, there is not much evidence that a mother exerts a more telling influence over a son than a father. Just as often—I would guess more often—the father is the more significant figure, for good and ill. Having a father who is benevolent or unjust, honorable or corrupt, cheerful or grim, a success or a failure in life, can, along with so many other things, weigh in heavily on the outlook, the ambition, the confidence, and the ultimate fate of a son. The kind of father one gets, of course, comes under that large and scientifically untrackable category known as the luck of the draw.

V. S. Naipaul, in this regard, drew very luckily indeed. His father, Seepersad Naipaul (1906-53), a man of the most modest worldly success, was entirely honorable, generous, selfless, and filled with good sense, for his son if not always for himself. No man ever had anyone more devoted in his corner than Naipaul had in the man he called Pa. When his father died, at the age of forty-seven, V. S. Naipaul, himself only twenty-one, sent home a telegram that, in part, read: “He was the best man I knew. Everything I owe to him.” Allow here for the exaggeration that accompanies grief, but no need to allow much. Later he added: “In a way I had always looked upon my life as a continuation of his—a continuation which, I hoped, would be a fulfillment.”

Until now our picture of Seepersad Naipaul derived largely from the eponymous figure from his son's novel, A House for Mr. Biswas. Comparing his father to the father who is the protagonist of his novel, Naipaul has recently said: “My father was a profounder man in every way. And his wounds are deeper than the other man can say. [My novel is] based on him but it couldn't be the real man.” Affecting the Mr. Biswas of the novel is—I happen to think him one of a small number of memorable comic characters in contemporary literature—Seepersad Naipaul turns out to have been kinder, gentler, more deeply touching than his portrait in fiction.

In A House for Mr. Biswas, Anand, the oldest son and easily most favored child in a crowded household, sails off from Port of Prince for England; a boyhood dominated by school examinations has paid off in a scholarship to Oxford, to which he is now headed. “He missed Anand,” Naipaul writes of Mr. Biswas, “and worried about him.”

Anand's letters, at first rare, become more and more frequent. They were gloomy, self-pitying; then they were tinged with a hysteria which Mr. Biswas immediately understood. He wrote Anand long humorous letters; he wrote about the garden; he gave religious advice; at great expense he sent by air mail a book called Outwitting Our Nerves by two American psychologists. Anand's letters grew rare again. There was nothing Mr. Biswas could do but wait.

This passage, coming toward the close of Naipaul's novel, is a less than adequate summary of the correspondence between Naipaul père et fils. The character of the correspondence, now printed in Between Father and Son1 (which also includes a number of letters between the young V. S. Naipaul and his older sister Kamla, and occasional letters to other family members) is better captured in another passage in the novel, where Naipaul writes: “And now Mr. Biswas needed his son's interest and anger. In all the world there was no one else to whom he could complain.” In fact, in real life, there was an extraordinary reciprocity between the two, father and son, who at different times complained to, bucked up, and relied upon each other.

The letters in Between Father and Son commence in earnest in August of 1950, when the eighteen-year-old V. S. Naipaul writes a letter to his younger sister Sati from New York, a brief stopover on his way to London and thence to Oxford, to take up his scholarship. He will be gone for six years, not once returning in the interval and never again to see the father who will suffer a heart attack in February 1953, which leaves him with a greatly weakened heart that will extinguish him by October of the same year.

Not long after his heart attack, his father writes to Naipaul, “Please take good care of yourself; for should anything untoward happen to you, ‘the last hope of England’ will have vanished.” The joke here is that the last hope of English literature is meant, but behind this small jest Naipaul's father really meant that his own last hope will have vanished. V. S. Naipaul—Vido, as his family called him—was the family hope. Quick, disciplined, moody, good at school (with a “precociousness that marked you out from all the others [of my children],” as his father writes), Vido was his father's and the family's hope to leave some mark on the larger world.

As Naipaul would later—and quite accurately—write: Mr. Biswas's “visions of the future became only visions of Anand's future.” The hope was to break free of decades and decades of the deep obscurity in a country, Trinidad, that was the two stages beyond provincial. Ill, doing work that was beneath him, with every kind of cheese-paring money worry imaginable, Naipaul's father nevertheless writes to him in England that “the truth is the only person I am often worried about is yourself.”

“I don't want you to be like me,” Mr. Biswas tells his son Anand. The meaning of this in Naipaul's novel is that he wants his son to lead a larger, more expansive life, to avoid the trap of domesticity in a provincial setting in which he has himself become ensnared. Although a Brahmin, Seepersad Naipaul was poor and a member of a minority in a country that played no role in the modern world—his life in Trinidad could be viewed as that of a speck on a pin on a dot. The word “marginalized,” so popular among academics doing “post-colonial” studies, does not even begin to get at the quality of his life; the metaphor of margin, after all, assumes a page, but it is not clear that the Naipauls were, in their lives in Trinidad, even on the page. At seventeen, V. S. Naipaul had already planned his escape—an escape with no return: “I have nine months left [in Trinidad]. Then I shall go away never to come back.” Six months after his father's death, when his mother beseeches him to return home, Naipaul writes: “I think I shall die if I had to spend the rest of my life in Trinidad. The place is too small, the values are all wrong, and the people are petty.” His father would have had no difficulty understanding this.

No sooner does Naipaul depart Trinidad than he breathes a different, a deeper and richer air. On the brief layover awaiting the trip to London, he finds New York an astonishment: “Luxury and decadence.” London is even better: “I don't see how I could live anywhere else but in London.” He quickly picks up the reigning spirit at Oxford, which is to work hard but not too hard. He rightly gauges the closing down of the English aristocracy, yet enjoys all that is available to the Oxford undergraduate in the way of aristocratic leisure and small pleasures. The world opens up to him; during vacations he goes to France, visits Spain, meets Germans. A competitor in the skirt chase, he complains about the tallness of English girls. “I have got to learn how to dance,” writes the boy whose dour adult face would one day cause Saul Bellow to remark that one look at him and he could forego Yom Kippur.

As a young man on whom not much was lost, Naipaul did not remain callow for long. An old Arab proverb has it that, when your son becomes a man, make him your brother. Which is precisely what Seepersad Naipaul did. “I am remembering you today,” he writes on the boy's birthday, “as my 19-year old brother.” Along with being brothers, they are fellow writers, shooting literary advice back and forth to each other across the waters. The father asks the son to help place some journalism for him in England, adding “keep the money.” He is working as a subeditor, doing page make-up, on a Trinidadian newspaper, while his son, beginning to do reporting for Isis, an Oxford student magazine, reports: “I find I have a great liking for journalism.” Son writes to father: “I have always admired you as a writer. And I am convinced that, were you born in England, you would have been famous and rich and pounced upon by intellectuals.” Father writes to son: “I cannot imagine seeing you write a bad story. … My God! At your age I could barely manage to write a good letter.” More encouraging yet: “I have no doubt you will be a great writer.”

Seepersad Naipaul's advice to his son about writing is always sound. “Read Conrad for intensity of expression, but for the most part be yourself.” On the formation of style, he tells him:

Don't care to please any person but yourself. Only see that you have succeeded in saying exactly what you want to say—without showing off; with utter, brave sincerity—and you will have achieved style, because you will have been yourself.

The son's advice to the father is, naturally enough, less profound, more about the market for his work. Apropos of his father writing a novel—which he would not live long enough to get around to doing—his son reminds him that he “should realize that the society of the West Indies is a very interesting one—one of phony sophistication.” He reminds his father that Joyce Cary only began writing his novels after retiring from the Colonial Service. “You have enough material for a hundred stories,” he implores, typing out his exhortation in capital letters. “For heaven's sake start writing them. You can write and you know it. Stop making excuses.” Imagine taking this from one's child. Seepersad Naipaul did without the least shred, insofar as one can determine, of resentment.

Even as the boy becomes the man the father himself wished to be, the father continues to worry about him, understanding that his temperament, so much that of the artist, cannot but cause him difficulty. “Perception is rare,” he writes to his son, “and intelligence is by no means widespread. Those who have it to any unusual degree often suffer terribly.” Meanwhile, the son writes: “I discover in myself all types of aristocratic traits.” He is an aristocrat in the making, at least in the sense, as Balzac once wrote, that “a true artist is a prince.” But the hauteur, which comes all too easily to the son, is not—small wonder—everywhere appreciated. He writes to his father that “a friend told me the other day that people don't like me because they feel that I knew they were fools.”

Not all that passes between father and son is about art and soul. Money—money worries, chiefly—come up regularly throughout the correspondence. On the Trinidadian side the old family car needs a tire, the fridge breaks down, the typewriter is on the fritz. They attempt to smuggle in cheaper cigarettes to Vido through the mails; they send him clothes. The father encloses money with his letters whenever he can, but feels guilty that it isn't enough. The son, less convincingly, on the plea from his sister in India, claims he is going to send money to help out at home, but can't quite get round to doing so: “I am really just managing to live—very meagerly. And to have friends in this place, one must have money—to buy them drinks and tea.” In this realm, the father assumes all the guilt. “Do not worry about sending us money,” he writes. “It is bad enough we do not send you anything.” Near the end of his life, he tells his son: “Never despise money.” Quite right, of course, for being able to do so is a luxury available only to the rich.

Although it is the early 1950s—a time when, for the English, wogs began at Calais—there is not much mention of racial prejudice in Naipaul's letters from England. It is his father, in fact, who first brings up the subject, when he complains that white employees on his newspaper in Trinidad get quicker advancement than he. The son notes that Germans he has met “respect Indians, and they are attracted to them,” which suggests that the same cannot be said about the English. Only once, now out of Oxford and thinking about his future, does he note to his mother, apropos of England, that “this country is hot with racial prejudices.”

The barriers of English social class loom large. “These differences,” Naipaul writes home, “are real, whatever one may say.” He complains of a clique at Isis. When his father warns him against marrying too soon, he makes plain that he is scarcely in serious contention for doing so, his own social condition rendering him less than a prize catch: “I tell no one I am rich. I am not blessed with a striking appearance, and I am not a man of distinguished associations. A thorough nonentity, in other words.”

His parents worry about his marrying a white woman, which he eventually will. This supplies the one occasion when the father comes close to lecturing his son, the one time he becomes a touch social scientific: “If an investigation were made, it would show that by far the majority of inter-marriages end in failure.” But the job of pleading is left to his mother, who begs him, “don't marry a white girl please don't.” In the end, though, the father consents to his son's marriage; such is his love, he isn't about to lose this boy over anything—compared to the depth of this love—so trivial as race or religion.

At one point, Naipaul informs his parents that he “has been prey to the gravest emotional upset I have ever experienced.” He chalks it up to “growing up, I suppose,” but he will be plunged into it more than once, and it sounds very much like depression. He will himself later refer to these bouts as “nervous breakdown[s].” A psychologist whom he sees tells him that his breakdown was owing to fear of failure, which he, Naipaul, finds persuasive, though he writes to his mother that he believes it may have been owing to loneliness and the absence of affection. When first told of his son's troubles, his father, a man of the pretherapeutic generation, tells him that he must stop worrying, adding that “most of the things over which we worry are really no true causes of worry at all.” Buddhistically, he advises: “Keep your centre.” He sends him a book, You and Your Nerves, which he thinks will help him resolve his worries. Touching stuff.

Between Father and Son chronicles the story of an extraordinarily sweet relationship, but the one place that it can be said to have a more strictly literary significance is here, on the subject of what I have called the young V. S. Naipaul's early depression. The reasons for his breakdown seem genuine enough: jerked from one culture to another; living with the pressures of being in a minority, without the support of family and friends nearby; the sense that so much rides on his success—all these things can conduce to knock anyone out of the box of normal mental stability.

But with writers of dark vision—of whom V. S. Naipaul is clearly one—the question of what an intrinsic depression might contribute to that vision seems almost as unavoidable as it is unanswerable. Psychoanalyzing the dead is unclean work; doing so to the living is even more insulting, and I feel intrusive even treading lightly here. But the question of depression and dark vision first arose for me in reading the letters of Joseph Conrad, in whose mental economy depression seems undeniably to have played a large role. In Conrad's letters—where the gloom is so pervasive, the aura of hopelessness so strong, the sense of quotidian life as a ferocious combat so unrelenting—one has to wonder whether the writer's vision is owing to the depression or the depression to the vision. Complicated, all this, hideously complicated, and useful in reminding us how little we really know about the workings of first-class literary minds.

If the initial reason for the interest in this book is the fame that V. S. Naipaul would later achieve, the book's real hero is Seepersad Naipaul. The young, being intrinsically self-occupied, to put it gently, are almost never persuasively heroic, at least in civilian roles. Naipaul's father's utter selflessness toward his talented son speaks to a noble nature. Not long after his son has his first novel rejected, the father, offering to support him at home for three years, writes: “I want you to have that chance which I never had: someone to support me and mine while I write.” He knows his son, knows that “nothing but literary success will make you happy.” Later he writes: “Your work is cut out. I stand back of you.”

Seepersad Naipaul comes to seem all the more splendid when one learns that, all this while, life is inexorably grinding him down. “In this struggle for existence,” he writes to his son, “I feel just hemmed in by hard, inescapable facts and forces.” His large family makes its unending demands. His job doesn't give him the time he requires to write the stories that, only after the wish for his son's success, are the true name of his desire. The penultimate nail in the coffin comes when he writes to his son: “This will pain you: but your Ma will be having a baby,” their seventh child. The ultimate nail, of course, is the heart attack that comes in his forty-seventh year. Still, he soldiers on. In the last letter to his son printed in this book, he writes of his belief in a “divine Providence,” available “only for those who trust.”

At a time when V. S. Naipaul is blocked in his writing, his father urges him to begin a new novel and offers himself as a possible subject. “If you are at a loss for a theme, take me for it,” he writes, and then provides a sample opening. Nine years later—in 1961—V. S. Naipaul would show that he had taken up his father's suggestion, when he published A House for Mr. Biswas, his one book, my guess is, that has a chance of living well beyond its author. Earlier, soon after his son arrives at Oxford in fact, the father suggests, “If you could write me letters about things and people—especially people—at Oxford, I could compile them in a book: LETTERS BETWEEN A FATHER AND SON, or MY OXFORD LETTERS. What think you?” It's not known what his son thought of this suggestion, but now we have that very book. It's almost enough to make one believe in a divine Providence, at least for those who trust.


  1. Between Father and Son: Family Letters, by V. S. Naipaul; Alfred A. Knopf, 297 pages.

Ranu Samantrai (essay date spring 2000)

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SOURCE: Samantrai, Ranu. “Claiming the Burden: Naipaul's Africa.” Research in African Literatures 31, no. 1 (spring 2000): 50-62.

[In the following essay, Samantrai examines the function of imperialistic discourse in A Bend in the River and describes the novel as “a fictional documentation of the political shift from colonial to postcolonial Africa.”]

In his work on the epistemology of the anthropological endeavor, Johannes Fabian argues that the “West” constructs its relationship with “the Rest” (28) through a notion of time that affirms “difference as distance” (16). Fabian is concerned primarily with the notion of modernity, the trope through which the West locates itself and constructs the difference of its racial and cultural others. Inherent in his “Politics of Time,” however, is a politics of sexuality that, in addition to creating a teleological history for the triumph of the normative Western subject, also posits a specifically gendered location for the Rest. The epistemology Fabian describes is identical to that which informs the neocolonial vision of V. S. Naipaul, perhaps the most widely read contemporary apologist for European colonialism.

To locate his own writing, Naipaul declares, “I do not write for Indians, who in any case do not read. My work is only possible in a liberal, civilized country. It is not possible in primitive societies” (Hardwick 1). His explanation of the link between personal empowerment, literature, and international relations is a small and perhaps trivial example of the residue of the age of the European empires. But the legitimating discourses of imperialism have proven to be surprisingly intransigent, shaping the relations between West and Rest long after the end of direct military occupation of the colonies. In this essay I intend to investigate terms which derive their salience from the logic that once justified imperialism, and which define the still stable boundaries between the major players in the colonial drama.1 I shall do so by examining their function in a particular text, Naipaul's A Bend in the River, which provides a fictional documentation of the political shift from colonial to postcolonial Africa. I take Naipaul's novel to be a local enactment of the process of constructing a logic that enables an expression of imperialism to appear reasonable, even inevitable, despite the loss of the context of European empires. Hence my analysis of this text belongs in the project defined by Paul Gilroy as the ongoing task of “mapping the changing contours of racist ideologies, the semantic fields in which they operate, their special rhetoric, and their internal fractures, as well as their continuities” (263).

A Bend in the River provides a map for reading the “racial subjectification and subjection” of social agents (Goldberg xii). Naipaul creates racial groupings through the language of gender, which in turn is based upon a developmental paradigm of the masculine as progressive differentiation from the feminine. An unquestioned understanding of time as linear and forward moving allows Naipaul to place his characters on an evolutionary scale of racial and gendered development. A Bend in the River thus explains colonial rule and the continuing supremacy of the West as the inevitable consequence of the natural laws of progress. Not surprisingly, the violence of colonialism is also explained away as the exercise of the legitimate and benevolent authority of the father over both mothers and children. In other words, Naipaul creates anew the notion of “modern man,” drawing upon the concepts of progress and normative masculinity to shore up a beleaguered ideology of Euro-American supremacy. It is, by now, commonplace to note the inextricability of race and gender in the rhetoric of imperialism. The novelty of A Bend in the River lies in Naipaul's deployment of this rhetoric at the moment the colony wins its independence. The novel thus takes on the task of defending the practice of colonialism by demonstrating the continuing veracity of its logic in the postcolonial world.

Modernity, according to Fabian, can be traced to “a succession of attempts to secularize Judeo-Christian Time by generalizing and universalizing it” (2). These attempts, most famously undertaken by social evolutionists, undermined the Judeo-Christian understanding of time as “the medium of sacred history” (2) and eventually replaced “faith in salvation by faith in progress and industry” (17).2 But the teleology remained essentially the same, for secularized Time still “‘accomplished’ or brought about things in the course of evolution,” thus providing a way to chart the flow of human history (15). Anthropology, the discourse through which the West articulates its relationship with the Rest, combined the scheme of developmental stages leading to civilization with “the most celebrated scientific achievement of that period, the comparative method” (16) to generate a hierarchy of cultures on a scale of evolutionary time:

Anthropology contributed above all to the intellectual justification of the colonial enterprise. It gave to politics and economics—both concerned with human Time—a firm belief in “natural,” i.e., evolutionary Time. It promoted a scheme in terms of which not only past cultures, but all living societies were irrevocably placed on a temporal slope, a stream of Time—some upstream, others down-stream. Civilization, evolution, development, acculturation, modernization (and their cousins, industrialization, urbanization) are all terms whose conceptual content derives, in ways that can be specific, from evolutionary Time.


As an inheritor of this epistemological tradition, Naipaul reserves the space of modernity for the European civilization and, despite their obvious presence in the physical present, assigns various stages in the evolutionary past to non-Europeans.3 Hence, although his protagonist's flight away from the moment of decolonization and toward a safely European town is obviously a wish to recover the past of the European empire, Naipaul represents it as a wish to fall into step with the forward march of progress. Moreover, differences between various races and societies are attributed to their positions in the evolution of civilization. The positions themselves are not contingent upon the relational field of political power, but are fixed by the essence of the race. Thus, in his version of African history Salim, the novel's protagonist, can establish the conquest of the weak by the strong as not only justified but inevitable. Here, for instance, is Salim's explanation of the transfer of power in Africa from Arabs to Europeans:

For Europe it [advancing into the center of the continent] was one little probe. For the Arabs of central Africa it was their all; the Arabian energy that had pushed them into Africa had died down at its source, and their power was like the light of a star that travels on after the star itself has become dead. Arab power had vanished […].


There is no struggle, no domination or resistance. Arabs lose their “energy” and simply vanish. Europeans, an “intelligent and energetic people,” step in to fill the void (23). An underlying logical necessity allows human beings to remain innocent, unimplicated in these shifting relations of power. This passage suggests that natural, universal laws provide a neat order for human history that renders irrelevant questions regarding local oppressions and the historical violence of victory. “The Now and then,” says Fabian, “is absorbed by the Always of the rules of the game” (99).

But if the transfer of power is always so easy, so much a part of the inevitable march of progress, why then does this novel determinedly oppose it when Africans are the beneficiaries? Why can decolonization not be viewed as another step forward in the grand march of progress? The tautology established between “Europe” and “modern” forecloses this reading of African independence.4 The primary groups of actors in Naipaul's Africa—Europeans, Arabs and an adjacent group of Indians, and Africans—each manifest a discrete sexual energy that determines their position on the evolutionary ladder leading to modern man. Africans are the most feminized and the least evolved; not surprisingly, Europeans occupy the pinnacles of both masculinity and development. Arabs fall somewhere in between, but do so because of a curious twist: they are not newcomers to civilization, but are rendered effeminate because their civilizations are too old. In other words, while Africans are pre-oedipal, Arabs are senile, made impotent by their great age.5 In each case, males are taken to be representatives of the group, their virility serving as the measure of the group's development. Together, the three “races” of Naipaul's Africa form a parable of the colonial encounter that affirms European colonial rule as the only logical order that can govern all fairly.

To accomplish this differentiation of racial energies, Naipaul relies on the notion of the racial zone. Specifically, his Africa is a gendered topos. Implicit in the conflation of geography with people is the idea, common to much European racial theory, of “divinely ordained racial zones” (Banton 10). The dark continent gives birth to its own dark people, and together they represent the force of a past so distant and murky that its physical contemporaneity poses a threat to the light of the modern present. Thus Salim's early hopes of finding Europe and moving forward in the story of progress fade as he drives “deeper into Africa” and encounters the bush. Somehow, simply by looking at the landscape he knows that he is “going in the wrong direction,” that the land itself precludes the possibilities of “a new life” (10). Traveling into the heart of Africa, even in an attempt to meet Europe, necessarily involves traveling backward through temporal zones. Here Salim is very much in the tradition of the colonial explorer who traveled in order to complete his knowledge of history. As one contributor to that tradition put it, “The philosophical traveller, sailing to the ends of the earth, is in fact travelling in time; he is exploring the past; every step he makes is the passage of an age” (Degérando 63).

The land of Africa, here called bush, itself becomes evidence of arrested development, as does its people's putative proximity to a state of nature. Salim describes European and Arab energy as always productive, the energy of beating back the bush to establish the fragile hold of human civilization. He admires Arab power at its height on the African continent: “Once, great explorers and warriors, the Arabs had ruled. They had pushed into the interior and had built towns and planted orchards in the forest” (20). The consequences of their eventual failure are a predictable victory for the enemy of culture: “Their towns had disappeared, swallowed up in bush.” Arabs and Europeans establish civil societies by taming their natural surroundings and creating civilizations out of bush. When Salim says that “at the bend in the river there had grown up a European, and not an Arab town,” he makes the struggle to civilize Africa a task for foreign races (26). In his story there is no African civilization. Instead, African takeovers result not from the energy of human beings, but from a precivilized nature that is essentially destructive, the enemy of human endeavor. The power that this nature grants to its creatures is strangely devoid of human will or energy: “The slaves had swamped the masters; the Arabian race of the master had virtually disappeared” (20).

In contrast to this ahistorical African essence of destructive anti-energy, the waxing and waning of the positive energies of Arabs and Europeans shape history. Inheriting from his colonial intellectual predecessors the belief that the “failure to build cities [is] incontrovertible proof of barbarism” (Pagden 70-71), Salim constructs a hierarchy of cultures in terms of complexity of social organization and distance from nature. At the bottom of his ladder, Africans are indistinguishable from the bush, acting as agents of its destructive force. They live in “hidden villages” (71), are defined by tribal membership and isolated in a “safe world, protected from other men by forest and clogged-up waterways” (15). Next on the developmental ladder, Arabs establish the larger, more complex social organizations of towns. They clear and cultivate the bush and link Africa with other parts of the world through trade routes. But as our guide through this mythic history of the African continent points out, the “Arab town [which once existed at the bend in the river] would have been only a little more substantial than the African settlements, and technologically not much more advanced” (69).

Finally, when the Arabs accomplish all they can and run out of energy, Europeans step in to complete the civilizing process. They incorporate Africa into international empires and establish cities, providing in their technology evidence of their advanced evolution and superior virility. Under their rule the continent knows a “miraculous peace”: they control the destructive nature of Africa and of “the African personality,” allowing men to “pay little attention to tribal boundaries” that thwart the development of individual autonomy and collective accomplishment (40). European rule makes the continent accessible to explorers, traders, and settlers, all of whom serve the important function, as “agents of Europe,” of beating back the hostile bush and bringing it to some degree of civilization (259). So “for a short while before independence,” they succeed in making the African land “part of the present” (14). Again, the narrative suggests that the flow of progress is as smooth and uncontested, with power passing along appropriately from the outdated to the modern, always to those most fit to rule.

In a provocative essay on the psychology of power and resistance during British rule in India, Ashis Nandy has argued that British imperialism invariably used a “homology between sexual and political dominance” to justify itself (4). Naipaul's conflation of evolutionary and gender hierarchies implies that the sexual energy and character of a race can be mapped over time: the Arab contribution exists in the past; only Europeans are described as currently “an intelligent and energetic people, and at the peak of their powers” (23). Thus colonialism is transformed into a phenomenon of the biological, rather than the political world. And given the inevitability of the biological, objections to the European domination of Africa appear increasingly unreasonable.

If the “probes” of the colonial endeavor are the expression of the peculiar and obviously masculine energy of a race, then it is only logical that the group with superior virility should win. With Arabs and Europeans occupying the male position in this intercourse, Africa becomes the female body upon which they prove their masculine prowess. Africans are never represented in the masculine position; indeed, while Europeans and Arabs have the energy for geographic penetration, Africans are never said to have any energy at all. Rather, they and their continent “swamp” and “swallow” their masters, posing by their destructive, feminine behavior the threat of castration to masculine intruders.6 In Salim's chronology, then, decolonization is an aberration in the orderly, progressive process of change. The sign of its abnormality is the decay of the European towns as they are reclaimed by the bush. Over and again the refrain is sounded of everything returning to the bush as Africans take over from Europeans. Without the visible presence of modernity in the form of European bodies and technology, there is nothing to prevent the land and its natives from destroying the foreign cultivation of civilization and returning to their natural barbaric state.

For Naipaul, the racial zone is both temporal and gendered: everything touched by Africa and Africans not only returns to bush, but is simultaneously feminized. When the palace built by a “great man of our [the Muslim] community” is taken over by the new nation's army, its occupation by Africans is immediately evident in the “women's washing hung out in the partitioned verandahs upstairs and downstairs” (73). The movement toward the feminine after independence is deliberately encouraged by the nation's new President, who creates his political persona as the true son of Africa by dressing in African garb, addressing his people in a common slang and, most important, by making his mother the representative “poor woman of Africa” (142). The President's mother, who financed her son's education by working as a maid in a hotel catering to Europeans, serves as a symbol of the oppression suffered under colonial rule. Her extreme vulnerability as a poor black woman working for white employers makes her the ideal focal point around which the various peoples of the nation can become one group. The President's pilgrimage to his mother's village to establish a shrine in her honor is simultaneously an attempt “to give sanctity to the bush of Africa” (143). All these gestures of valorization of Africa—its land, historical experience, and people—mark the President as an enemy of the values of modernity. He chooses the feminine, destructive power of the bush and the female victim of colonial energy as the referent for African identity and unity. In Naipaul's parable of the development of civilization, the President provides proof that African rule can only encourage the continent to descend the evolutionary ladder of gendered development.

For Salim, the Africa invoked by the figure of the mother is the “real Africa” (108). Places like his town at the bend in the river, along with its residents, have been changed through contact with Europeans and are no longer authentically Africa. The real Africa exists only in bush villages where an enamel basin is considered a miracle of foreign technology (11). The distance between pretensions to modernity and the real thing is measured through Zabeth, the representative woman of Africa. She is the sole link between her village and the rest of the world, and she is willing to go to extreme “trouble and danger to sell simple village things, and to take other goods back to the people of her village” (13). Unusual though she is, Salim does not doubt Zabeth's authenticity. For despite her ability to leave her own village at will and be connected through her trade to “the larger world,” Salim is confident that she lives a “purely African life.” Moreover, she acts in conjunction with the bush to guard both the physical and the metaphysical integrity of the “true, safe world” of her village (41):

Every man here knew that he was watched from above by his ancestors, living forever in a higher sphere, their passage on earth not forgotten, but essentially preserved, part of the presence of the forest. In the deepest forest was the greatest security. That was the security that Zabeth left behind, to get her precious cargo; that was the security to which she returned.


When Zabeth moves between village and town, then, she is actually moving in and out of measurable time, in and out of history itself. Her movements cross the boundaries of the temporal zones of ahistorical repetition and progressive change. She is able to make the tremendous leap from one world to another and back only because she knows she is “especially protected” (52). As a “person of power, a prophetess,” Zabeth carries the bush with her wherever she goes, covering herself with its “protecting ointments,” the smell of which repel and warn (15-16).

Other Africans can leave the village safely only under Zabeth's protection. Interestingly, only women make this journey. This information is not imparted casually: the phrase “Zabeth and her women” is repeated six times in as many paragraphs (12-14). This is an important point for Salim. Apparently, authentic African men in their natural state in the bush need protection, both physical and metaphysical. The bush itself keeps them “protected from other men by forest and clogged-up waterways” (15). And women act as the human agents of the bush, taking upon themselves the risk of dealing with the threatening outside world for whatever the men need. African men, then, are frozen as children who have not yet acquired their adult gender identity. Their women must act on their behalf and for their protection. And since masculinity provides the measure of the status of the race, Africans as a group can be said to be children in the great family of Man.

Salim is certainly not alone in representing “primitives” as children. This is a strategy so common to West's thinking about the Rest that it is hardly possible to speak of relations between nations without drawing upon the adult-child paradigm. It is implicit in all our euphemisms for the global imbalance of power. Developed/developing, backward/advanced, First World/Third World: all suggest that if they are obedient and follow the leader of their parents, the Rest will grow up to become just like the West.7 Fabian argues that the adult-child paradigm is the most pernicious legacy of the ideology of imperialism:

Aside from the evolutionist figure of the savage there has been no conception more obviously implicated in political and cultural oppression than that of the childlike native. Moreover, what could be clearer evidence of temporal distancing than placing the Now of the primitive life in the Then of the Western adult?


The persistence of such a legacy is not accidental if, as Nandy writes, the theory of progress and the homology between political and sexual dominance necessitates a “subsidiary homology between childhood and the state of being colonized” (11). Nandy suggests that the modern concept of the child as inferior to, rather than simply a smaller version of the adult, emerged in direct relation to the doctrine of progress regnant in seventeenth-century Europe. At the same time, “colonialism was becoming consolidated as an important cultural process and a way of life” (14). The result was the conflation of the individual life with the position of a civilization in the stream of evolutionary time:

Colonialism dutifully picked up these ideas of growth and development and drew a new parallel between primitivism and childhood. Thus, the theory of social progress was telescoped not merely into the individual's life cycle in Europe but also into the area of cultural differences in the colonies. What was childlikeness of the child and childishness of immature adults now also become the lovable and unlovable savagery of primitive and the primitivism of subject societies.


Nandy's argument helps to clarify the sleight of hand Naipaul uses to make contemporaneous individual characters the representatives of different moments in a unified, linear human history. He manages both chronological sameness and difference for his characters by, as Nandy describes it, superimposing the individual life cycle, made meaningful by the idea of progress, on entire civilizations. Again, this conflation has become so commonplace for us that it is difficult to remember that the evolution of the species and the maturation of the individual are entirely distinct phenomena. Even Freud, who has taken much of the blame for establishing the homology between the construction of individual subjectivity and group identity, was careful to preserve the distinction through the form of the analogy:

When […] we look at the relationship between the process of human civilization and the developmental or educative process of individual human beings, we shall conclude without much hesitation that the two are very similar in nature, if not the very same process applied to different kinds of object. The process of the civilization of the human species is, of course, an abstraction of a higher order than is the development of the individual and it is therefore harder to apprehend in concrete terms, nor should we pursue the analogies to an obsessional extreme; but in view of the similarity between the aims of the two processes—in the one case the integration of a separate individual into a human group, and in the other case the creation of a unified group out of many individuals—we cannot be surprised at the similarity between the means employed and the resultant phenomenon.

(Civilization 36-37; see also Totem and Taboo)

Naipaul pursues the analogy to an obsessional extreme, and in the process forgets that it is an analogy. His Africa is the eternally infantilizing mother, and each individual African man who grows up in the bush remains forever a child. In their natural state, African males have no access to “‘normal,’ fully socialized and male adulthood” (Nandy 13). Those who leave the protection of the bush/mother to begin the journey to adult masculinity may evolve through their contact with the Western world, but they also forfeit their status as real Africans. In any case, they eventually fail, individually and as representatives of their race, to catch up to normal males in the swiftly moving stream of individual and civilizational development.

Naipaul's test case for this abortive attempt to transcend the limitations of race is Ferdinand, Zabeth's son. Ferdinand evolves simultaneously as he matures into adulthood, providing proof for Salim's theory that the feminine, the savage, and the child all share one symbolic space as the antonyms of modern man. Ferdinand believes himself to be “evolved and important,” both through his status as a lycée student and as “a new man of Africa” (53). But when at the first sign of trouble he flees to Salim for protection, all pretense of development falls away and he is revealed as still essentially Africa: “[H]e was wild, close to hysteria, possessed by all the African terror of strange Africans” (76). His need for protection marks Ferdinand as a “bush African.” When this “big boy, almost a man, sob[s],” he reveals the effeminate weakness of his nature, which continues unchanged despite the appearance of near-adult masculinity (77).

The protection that an African can provide only through magic can be provided by any ordinary foreigner. Thus when Ferdinand's evolution proves too superficial, Salim takes Zabeth's place and offers Ferdinand his familial shelter (88). There is no African father in Salim's narrative; given that lack and in light of the self-acknowledged inadequacy of his mother, it is only natural for the African child/male to seek a father from outside his race. At the same time, because the imbalance of power between African and non-African is represented in terms of the father-child paradigm, it is rendered a wholly beneficial relationship for the African. The point is the logical necessity, from the point of view of the dominated, of domination. Ferdinand himself acknowledges Salim's legitimate authority by seeking his protection.

Eventually, however, continued exposure to the West through education does transform Ferdinand into an “evolved and important” man: “From the dugout to a first-class cabin to the steamer, from a forest village to the polytechnic to an administrative cadetship—he had leapt centuries” (164). His Western clothes no longer appear ridiculous on him and he is not dependent on women to act as a buffer between himself and the world of real men. Yet unlike Salim, who eventually achieves a state of pure autonomy in his separation from the Muslim community, Ferdinand can never not belong to Africa. For if the process of evolution is telescoped into every individual life cycle, then no African can overcome fully the handicap of starting out centuries behind every non-African. And if progress is measured by the ability of the individual male to develop a proper masculinity, then every African male, including the evolved Ferdinand, must contend with the flaw in his racial make-up that drives him to seek the protection of women. Thus, to the very end of the novel Ferdinand wishes “to be a child again” and regrets that a return to village life has become impossible.

If this failure on the part of African men remained, in each case, an individual failure, the colonial world could go on functioning smoothly. But in the world of A Bend in the River, the entire race is engaged in a doomed quest for a place in the company of adult men/nations. This large-scale rebellion of the son against the father has consequences for the stability of the colonial/familial order as a whole. In the family romance of imperialism, the President's schemes to “modernize” Africa are attempts to usurp the proper role of the father. And as Ferdinand fails, so must this larger attempt at African self-development fail, for modernity is a property of the West that cannot be detached and appropriated by the Rest.

Initially it appears that without the constraints imposed by colonial authority, the President can accomplish the “miracle of making Africa and African men modern” (108). But while the development carried out by Europeans is original and good, that attempted by the President is imitative and certain to fail. The European suburb stands as long as the Europeans are there to hold back the bush; the President's institute, on the other hand, is unable to withstand the pressure of the bush and becomes shabby almost as soon as it is built. The inexperienced child attempting to be a “Big Man” not only looks foolish, but ultimately harms both himself and the mother he wishes to protect. In the midst of the new gardens that are supposed to match those of the once grand imperial city, the President replaces a European figure with “a gigantic statue of an African tribesman with spear and shield” (259). The exaggerated size of the African's self-representation indicates “the stupidity and aggressiveness and pride and hurt” that motivate this obvious and pathetic competition (108). Not coincidentally, the original statue that the President removes was of “the European explorer who had charted the river and used the first steamer” (259). This latter figure is the symbol of Europe's conquest of Africa, the herald of the colonists' ability to penetrate the continent with their machines and expose its mysteries with their knowledge. The Big Man, the loyal son of Africa, avenges his mother by destroying the monument to her violation. He imagines himself stronger and bigger than her violator, able to restore her modesty and comfort her suffering. Beside the huge African tribesman, the President places a smaller statue of “an African madonna with a bowed, veiled head,” inspiring and accepting the protection of her giant son (259).

But in the Africa of Naipaul's imagination, neither mother nor son knows what is best for them. Under the benevolent rule of the colonial father, there was a safe place for the exercise of the feminine/maternal power of the bush. The bush was developed wisely, never violated. At its heart it remained a safe haven for African men, a separate sphere where they could remain children. The power exercised by women like Zabeth, and by extension the power of Mother Africa, though limited, was stable. Colonial Africa was a world in which there was a well-ordered place for everyone, and everyone knew his/her place. Paradoxically, when the men of Africa rebel against the rule of the father in the name of the mother, they destroy this stability. The very man who gained the confidence of Africans by promising to sanctify the mother and her terrain tries to “bypass the real Africa” (108) by imposing modernity on the bush.

Without a colonial-patriarchal structure defining the place of the feminine, the bush as the symbol of the African essence is unable to regulate the exercise of its power and becomes indiscriminately destructive. Its peculiarly “African rage, the wish to destroy, regardless of the consequences” (32) threatens its people, its new capital city, the statues erected by its favored son, and even itself. Freed from the tight control of foreign rule, the bush creates new, increasingly destructive products, signified by the appearance of hitherto unseen water hyacinths. This “new thing in the river” (51) produced somewhere in the dark heart of the continent, appears to be self-generating and sustaining, mocking all efforts at regulation as it proceeds, swamping and swallowing everything in its ominous progress to the gardens and the statues in the center of the capital (259).

The logical conclusion that must be drawn from A Bend in the River, then, is that Africa must be ruled by Europe, and for its own good. It must be protected from itself and its people, from the destruction that well-meaning but incompetent women and children—those who can never be the agents driving the machine of progress—can wreak if left unregulated. Long after their official departure from the continent, Naipaul's Europeans continue to be the only people who can tame it. Even the new President calls upon them when serious trouble erupts, for he knows that only white men can “save them [Africans] from suicide” (79). Their presence in the town serves to reassure its inhabitants that “for the first time since independence there was some guiding intelligence in the capital, and that the free-for-all independence had come to an end” (82). In one day the white men quell the disturbance that black men had not been able to control for months.

While African violence is always instinctive and disruptive, Europeans use their might on behalf of the forces of stability and order. Hence, despite the overt end of their rule, they still occupy the position of the father, the only legitimate disciplinarian. Their superior technology and economic and cultural dominance makes this race of conquerors an extraordinary example of superbly effective hyper-masculinity in Salim's world. He responds to them with an appropriately trusting awe:

The gunfire went on. But it came no nearer. It was like the sound of the weapons of the President's white men, the promise of order and continuity; and it was oddly comforting, like the sound of rain in the night. All that was threatening, in that great unknown outside, was being held in check.


That is why, in the teleology of A Bend in the River, decolonization must be viewed as an aberration in the history of progress. If Europe is the epitome of social evolution, then movement away from it is always a step backward in history and in maturity. Salim, surveying the ruins of the Europeans' suburb, which is “now bush again,” laments the setback brought about by Africa's rejection of Europe's paternal guidance:

Sun and rain and bush had made the site look old, like the site of a dead civilization. The ruins, spreading over so many acres, seemed to speak of a final catastrophe. But the civilization wasn't dead. It was the civilization I existed in and in fact was still working towards. And that could make for an odd feeling: to be among the ruins was to have your time-sense unsettled. You felt like a ghost, not from the past, but from the future. You felt that your life and ambition had already been lived out for you and you were looking at the relics of that life. You were in a place where the future had come and gone.


If Salim's ideals—progress, continuity, order—are to survive the end of European colonial empires, relationships between the developed and the developing, the backward and the advanced, the masculine and the feminine must remain stable. Naipaul's novel enacts an epistemology that locks in place the relationship of colonizer and colonized even after the end of direct military occupation. Supported by the continuing political, cultural, and economic dominance of the West, the relative positions of Africa and Europe need not change in the postcolonial world. If it is naturalized and universalized by a cross-referencing of social (via meaningful time) and individual (via the gendered topos) evolution, racial subjectification still can be said to be a matter of essences, and not of politics. Together, discursive subjectification and economic subjection can ensure that progress for the Rest will continue to mean becoming like the West, individually and as societies. As a moment in the semantic field of postcolonial racism, A Bend in the River does not offer a story of the end of the colonial encounter. Instead, it provides a way to recycle the colonial fantasy into a neocolonial reality.


  1. I take the definitions of imperialism and colonialism from Edward Said: “‘[I]mperialism’ means the practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan center ruling a distant territory; ‘colonialism,’ which is almost always a consequence of imperialism, is the implanting of settlements of distant territory” (9).

  2. Fabian is careful to point out that social evolutionism must not be confused with Darwin's theory of evolution. In fact, social evolutionists misunderstood the point of much of Darwin's work. Darwin naturalized Time, which is to say he freed it from historical meaning. The social evolutionists rehistoricized it by reading an inner necessity into the meaningless process of evolution (12-15).

  3. Fabian distinguishes between Physical (elapsed time measured by natural laws governing the universe), Mundane (time measured “by reference to points on a scale”), and Typological (time measured “in terms of socioculturally meaningful events”) Time (22-23).

  4. Both “Africa” and “Europe” remain generalized terms in this novel. The specific nation in which the town at the bend in the river remains unidentified. Indeed, this is Naipaul's favorite setting: what he would call a backward Third World country where the political situation is particularly volatile. The novel's African setting is significant, however, for Naipaul is concerned specifically with the ramifications of African independence. The historical moment at the end of colonial rule is the primary object of representation, while the unspecified location suggests that the nature of decolonization is identical everywhere on the continent. With its insistent references to a generic “African politics” and “African personality,” the novel suggests that the town at the bend in the river could be located in any or all African nations.

    In fact, the novel's setting is only a thinly disguised representation of the Republic of the Congo: the novel is developed from an earlier essay, “A New King for the Congo: Mobutu and the Nihilism of Africa.” The later text follows its predecessor so closely that their two narrators, Salim and the essayist called “Naipaul,” have identical political opinions, rendering them virtually interchangeable. My aim is not to defend Mobutu or to provide an alibi for the history of Zaire/the Congo after decolonization. Such a defense is not necessary because Naipaul's text exceeds a strictly literal reading. Instead, the nation and its leader are figures in a parable, and as such they can be substituted for any African colony that seeks independence.

  5. This position for Arabs and Indians is established through a series of complicated plot maneuvers which deserve close reading, but which must remain material for another essay. It is important to note, however, that the failed masculinity of both Africans and Indians/Arabs is crucial to the logic of this novel, which equates whiteness with masculinity and requires its protagonist to move to the topos of the white man in order to complete his own process of maturation. For further discussion of the notion that some cultures, and particularly Asian cultures, are senile and degenerate, see Nandy.

  6. The metaphor of swamping is popular among those who imagine themselves to be defenders of a beleaguered West. Its most famous advocate in recent memory is Margaret Thatcher, who used, with great success during her 1978 campaign, the threat of black immigrants swamping white Britain: “People are really rather afraid that this country might be swamped by people with a different culture. And, you know, the British character has done so much for democracy, for law, and done so much throughout the world, that if there is a fear that it might be swamped, people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in.” Once its slaves, servants, and subjects, the Rest now appear to be the West's worst nightmare.

  7. Bonnie Barthold, writing before the legal end of apartheid, points out that “[i]n the language of the press, Africa is ‘developing,’ and part of what is developing is time: Africa is catching up with the times, and with time. In its more malevolent, South African aspect, the Bantustan is a place where the ‘native’ can develop ‘at his own rate,’ and thus the apartness of apartheid devolves on the assumption that African time is different from the time of the Afrikaner” (5).

  8. See also Banton for the shift in European thought from the figure of the noble savage to that of the savage as “representative of the childhood of man” (10).

Works Cited

Banton, Michael. Racial Theories. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987.

Barthold, Bonnie. Black Time: The Fiction of Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States. New Haven: Yale UP, 1981.

Degérando, Joseph-Marie. The Observation of Savage Peoples. 1800. Ed. F. C. T. Moore. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.

Fabian, Johannes. Time and the Other: Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York: Columbia UP, 1938.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Ed. and trans. James Strachey. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1950.

———. Totem and Taboo. 1913. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1930.

Gilroy, Paul. “One Nation under a Groove: The Cultural Politics of ‘Race’ and Racism in Britain.” Anatomy of Racism. Ed. David Theo Goldberg. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1990. 263-94.

Goldberg, David Theo. “Introduction.” Anatomy of Racism. Ed. David Theo Goldberg. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1990. xi-xxiii.

Hardwick, Elizabeth. “Meeting V. S. Naipaul.” New York Times Book Review 13 May 1979: 1.

Naipaul, V. S. “A New King for the Congo: Mobutu and the Nihilism of Africa.” The Return of Eva Peron, with the Killings in Trinidad. New York: Vintage, 1974.

———. A Bend in the River. New York: Penguin, 1979.

Nandy, Ashis. The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 1983.

Pagden, Anthony. The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1982.

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knopf, 1993.

Thatcher, Margaret, Interview. World in Action. Granada Television. 30 Jan. 1978.

Farhad B. Idris (essay date spring 2000)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5881

SOURCE: Idris, Farhad B. “The Native Returns: Conrad and Orientalism in V. S. Naipaul's An Area of Darkness.South Carolina Review 32, no. 2 (spring 2000): 43-53.

[In the following essay, Idris investigates the influence of Joseph Conrad on An Area of Darkness.]

An Area of Darkness is the account of V. S. Naipaul's first visit to India. Born in a Trinidad Indian community, Naipaul went to England at the age of eighteen, in 1950, on a government scholarship to study at Oxford. After graduation and stints at a cement company and the BBC, he succeeded in realizing his old ambition—a writing career. By the time Naipaul got to India, in 1962 at the age of thirty, he had established himself as a writer and had to his credit six books, including the masterpiece A House for Mr. Biswas.1 The last of these, Middle Passage, is a travel book about the Caribbean islands. In it, Naipaul discovered his true talent: writing about decolonized third-world countries. He honed a special vision for the task—an X-ray gaze into the ills of these newly emerging societies. Passage, the first in the genre, sets the general pattern Naipaul's travel writing was to follow. Indeed, readers familiar with Passage have a distinct premonition what to expect in Darkness. The two books are alike in many ways but also dissimilar in that Naipaul uses two different criteria in treating the two societies. In the West Indies, his standard is modernity and the way it manifests itself in the formation of the nation-state. In India, on the other hand, his vision is stereotypically orientalist: i.e., India is depicted as irremediably static and as quite incapable of modernity.2

Darkness presents India as a space the narrator traverses to define his own identity. Then the space for the orientalist's exploration is always a proving ground for the self. In this respect, Naipaul follows in the footsteps of such figures as Conrad's Marlow and Jim; Kipling's Kim and (in “The Man Who Would be King”) Peachy Carnehan and Daniel Dravot; and Paul Scott's Merrick. As Naipaul uses India to reconfirm orientalist stereotypes in Darkness, the text clamorously echoes Conrad's Heart of Darkness, a work Naipaul holds in singular esteem in his essay “Conrad's Darkness” (The Return of Eva Peron 205-28). Conrad's influence on Naipaul's African writing, apparent largely in this essay, has merited a deluge of critical attention, but this same influence on Naipaul's Indian writing, in particular, on An Area of Darkness, has received inadequate notice—though the title blatantly calls attention to Heart of Darkness.3

Glyne Griffith is one of the early critics to examine the orientalist dimension to Naipaul's travel writing. Griffith does draw a parallel between Heart of Darkness and An Area of Darkness and maintains that Naipaul's “emphasis on the scatological reveals an ontological crisis which is represented in the narrative by brutes defecating everywhere” (89). Thus Naipaul experiences “a horror similar to Kurtz's and Marlow's … [and] fears the loss of identity, an identity grounded in difference and deferral” (89). Like Griffith, Sara Suleri treats Naipaul's orientalism while examining the problematics of self and identity in An Area of Darkness. She reads the book as an orientalist text that undermines its own stereotyping because the narrator cannot deny his bodily identity as an Indian. This creates an ambiguity in the text, which is never truly resolved.4

Griffith and Suleri do treat orientalism and indicate the mediation of Heart of Darkness in An Area of Darkness, but their focus is primarily on the text's orientalist narrator's self. An Area of Darkness, however, shows a more profound affinity with orientalism and establishes a strong intertextual link with Heart of Darkness. Indeed Conrad's presence can be detected early in the opening pages of Naipaul's text. Like Marlow, the narrator in Naipaul's Darkness approaches India as a destination that exists more in myth than in reality. A clue to this India appears early in the text when Naipaul recounts his boyhood image of India. His childhood India was “an area of imagination”—a land of myth in other words. Thinking about the India of ancient glory, he became a “nationalist” and had even “committed to memory” the maps of India of yore (41). One is reminded of the “blank spaces” in Marlow's boyhood map that gradually “got filled … with rivers and lakes and names,” which “had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery—a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over” (61).5 Marlow sadly recalls that “it had become a place for darkness” (61). Similarly, Naipaul's interest in India declined upon its independence (41).6 Independence ushers India into the real world while colonial India can be more easily imagined as a mythic land. In modern times, no longer a land of myth, India becomes a land of “darkness” to Naipaul. If India is realized, it cannot be fantasized, and if it cannot be fantasized, it is not interesting. Marlow views Africa as a locus for adventure; Naipaul views India as a land of antiquated grandeur, whose eminence he vainly searches for in his visit. Familiarity does not breed contempt here because there is no familiarity to begin with. When the reality of modern India overwhelms him, he can only recoil in horror. In a separate piece written during the same trip, Naipaul says,

Perhaps India is only a word, a mystical idea that embraces all those vast plains and rivers through which the train moves, all those anonymous figures asleep on railway platforms and footpaths of Bombay. … Perhaps it is this, this vastness which no one gets to know: India as an ache, for which one has great tenderness, but from which at length one always wishes to separate oneself.

(Barracoon 46)

It is significant that Naipaul's journey from Europe to India follows the old trade route and the India that he will describe is presaged through various little scenes of the journey. The voyage parallels Marlow's expedition in subtle ways. As the French steamer carries Marlow toward Congo, Africa imposes its formidable indistinctness on him. Unlike other coasts with their “smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage” outline, the African coast lacks contour (70-1). It is “featureless,” “still in the process of making,” and “with an aspect of monotonous grimness” (71). Indeed, Marlow's first impressions of Africa, “a God-forsaken wilderness” (71), form the staple of the account he is to render later. Thus he foregrounds early in the text the impression that Africa is a homogeneous entity, exists beyond time, inspires foreboding, and possesses no power to represent itself.

In Blank Darkness: Africanist Discourse in French, Christopher Miller points out a curious fact about Heart of Darkness, that the huge blank is not named Africa by Marlow, that although the continent is named earlier among other ones, he refrains from ever mentioning it in the rest of the text (174-5).7 Examining Conrad's original handwritten manuscript, Miller indicates how certain place names were dropped later by Conrad—markers that would have given Africa a clear profile. In fact, removing all traces of an African identity and rendering the continent into an abstraction seemed to have been an intentional project of Conrad. Since Marlow's voyage occurs in a backward direction, all vestiges of civilization must be effaced because his is a devolutionary journey leading to the primal state of humanity.

Matching Marlow's gradual loss of civilizational values, Naipaul notices the steady erosion of the same early in An Area of Darkness. Eastern values are wholesome enough at first but begin to decay soon. Thus Greece begins with “the emphasis on sweets … in the posters for Indian films with the actress Nargis … in the instantaneous friendships, the invitations to meals and homes” (10). But true east is not Greece but Egypt, characterized by the “chaos of uneconomical movement, the self stimulated din, the sudden feeling of insecurity, the conviction that all men were not brothers and that luggage was in danger” (10). “[A] foreshadowing of the caste system” can be seen in “the faded hotel,” for the “old French waiter only served; he had his runners, sad-eyed Negroes … who fetched and cleared away” (11). An Egyptian sitting in the compartment of the train to Cairo “hawked twice, with an expert tongue rolled the phlegm into a ball, plucked the ball out of his thumb and forefinger, considered it, and then rubbed it away between his palms” (11-12), thus anticipating the casual and public defecation of Indians Naipaul will describe in the east of the east, India. A similar portent appears in the Pyramids that “function as a public latrine” (12). To Naipaul, all these point toward a new idea of man, recognizable in his otherness to the European:

From Athens to Bombay another idea of man had defined itself by degrees, a new type of authority and subservience. The physique of Europe had melted away first into that of Africa and then, through Semitic Arabia, into Aryan Asia. Men had been diminished and deformed; they begged and whined.


Overwhelmed by this degradation, Naipaul has “a new awareness of … [himself] as a whole human being and a determination, touched with fear, to remain what … [he] was” (13).

Several scholars have noted that An Area of Darkness is a dip into Naipaul's own self. (These scholars are not aware of the orientalist dimension of this self.)8 Like Marlow's resisting of primal instincts that Africa tempts him with, Naipaul struggles to suppress Indian ways of looking at things. But the resolve is “touched with fear,” because Naipaul, with his Indian roots, has his sensitivity to Indian culture. Hence, not giving in to “Indianness” is a constant battle for him. The struggle is worsened by the material reality of India and its teeming millions. Consequently, the Indians are rendered an abstraction, and Naipaul has to withstand its claim on him:

And for the first time in my life I was one of the crowd. … Now in Bombay I entered a shop or a restaurant and awaited a special quality of response. And there was nothing. It was like being denied part of my reality. Again and again I was caught. I was faceless. I might sink without a trace into that Indian crowd. I had been made by Trinidad and England; recognition of my difference was necessary to me. I felt the need to impose myself, and didn't know how.


Thus Naipaul's attempt to keep his identity inviolate echoes Marlow's struggle not to respond to Africa's wild call, to “the thought of their [Africans'] humanity,” to “the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar” (113).

There is a crucial difference between Marlow and Naipaul here. In the Manichaean opposition between the European and the African, Marlow's identity is safer than that of Naipaul because no such opposition exists between Naipaul and the Indians in physical appearance. The kinship in this case is not too remote, for the race is the same (in fact, his blood kin, the Dubes, are there too), imbricating difference with sameness in an indelible conflation. Since physical sameness cannot be erased, Naipaul can assert only his mental difference, his cultural superiority, his espousal of enlightened values, in a land of benighted ignorance.

Just as Heart of Darkness makes use of two key nineteenth-century concepts—Spencer's sociological notion of primitive and advanced societies and Darwin's theory of evolution—9An Area of Darkness presents a contrast between India as a stagnating and primitive society and Europe as a dynamic and advanced one. Discussing the two cultures, Naipaul notes that “the British pillaged the country thoroughly; during their rule manufactures and crafts declined” and that “a biscuit factory is a poor exchange for gold embroidery (208). Still, to Naipaul, the principle Europe embodied during its colonial encounter with India was “positive” because it held enlightenment knowledge and hence ranked higher on the evolutionary scale of nations. As he says,

It was a clash between a positive principle and a negative; and nothing more negative can be imagined than the conjunction in the eighteenth century of a static Islam and a decadent Hinduism. In any clash between post-Renaissance Europe and India, India was bound to lose.


Long conquered by invasive forces, India lost its vitality, surviving on moribund imitative gestures. Its confrontation with Europe led to the inevitable consequence: defeat. While Europe, with its positive principle, inexorably progressed, India with its negative principle intractably regressed.

But it is not merely social Darwinism that prejudices Naipaul against India; echoes of evolutionary Darwin resonate in An Area of Darkness on many occasions. As soon as Naipaul arrives in India, he begins to notice the Indians and is shocked to see that the vast majority of them are deformed and devolved, people with arrested growth. The first Indian Naipaul meets upon arrival at the Bombay Port is Coelho, the Goan, sent by Naipaul's travel agency to facilitate his exit through the Indian Customs. Coelho is described as “tall and thin and shabby and nervous” (9) while his assistant is “stunted and bony” (10). The Indians Naipaul sees on the other vessels are “of small physique, betokening all the fearful things that had soon to be faced” (42-3).

Marlow positions Africans at an earlier point in the timeline of evolving civilizations. “These people,” in Miller's reading of Heart of Darkness, “are thus stuck in time, prior to time, and outside it, in a ‘perpetual childhood’” (179). Similarly, Indians, to Naipaul, are a sub species of humanity. However, unlike Marlow's depiction of Africans, Naipaul clearly describes them in terms of failed evolution:

I had seen the physique of the people of Andhra, which had suggested the possibility of an evolution downwards, wasted body to wasted body, Nature mocking herself, incapable of remission. Compassion and pity did not answer; they were refinements of hope. Fear was what I felt. Contempt was what I had to fight against; to give way to that was to abandon the self I had known.


Not surprisingly, in the ruins of Vijaynagar, the Indians “inside, the inheritors of this greatness: men and women and children, [appear] thin as crickets, like lizards among the stones” (204).10

Indians who are not in the category of devolved humanity do not fare all that well in An Area of Darkness. They are India's rising bourgeoisie, and they are the topic of Naipaul's severest censure for their “mimicry” of the departed British. Thus there are Bunty, the boxwallah, and Mrs Mahindra, the contractor's wife.11 The “boxwallahs,” a class of men who hold sinecure executive positions in British businesses mostly in Calcutta, is the most despicable product of the East-West encounter because they still ape Raj manners. Mrs Mahindra, representing her class's crass imitation of the West, unabashedly professes her “Craze, just craze for foreign” and takes a great deal of pride in possessing things foreign (85).

Then, the most powerful figure of mimicry emerging from the colonial encounter, absurd and outrageous, occurs in the master text in the genre, Heart of Darkness. This is the African fireman on Marlow's steamboat, the “improved specimen,” improved because he has been exposed to European machinery (114). Thus privileged (he has received a “few months of training) and “full of improving knowledge,” his appearance is “as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind-legs” (114).

Even Indian nationalism, Naipaul claims, began as a mimicry of the British (211). Curiously enough, in Naipaul's estimate of Indian nationalists in Darkness, Gandhi is an admirable figure. Naipaul calls Gandhi “the least Indian of Indian leaders” (73) whereas “Nehru is more Indian [because] he has a romantic feeling for the country and its past …” (73). Gandhi, according to Naipaul, “saw India so clearly because he was in part a colonial” (73). The roles of these two nationalist leaders will be reversed in India: A Wounded Civilization, Naipaul's next book on India. But in Darkness, why is Naipaul so approving of Gandhi?

The reason relates to the text's orientalist vision of India. Certainly, it is much easier to conceive India through an orientalist lens, unchanging and beyond the reach of modernity, only if India remains a land of holy poverty as Gandhi wanted it to be after independence.12 Indeed Gandhi's anti-modern vision of India is the rife ground for orientalist imaginings. To Naipaul, Nehru, on the other hand, “has a romantic feeling for the country and its past; he takes it to the heart, and the India he writes about cannot easily be recognized” (emphasis added) (73). Obviously, the modern India that Nehru is trying to create would cause India to lose its oriental charm. This is the reason that when Naipaul first arrives in Bombay, he is shocked to see how “The building [of Bombay] spoke of London and industrial England; and how, in spite of knowledge, this seemed ordinary and inappropriate” (43).

As in Heart of Darkness, a certain ambiguity pervades An Area of Darkness in the text's treatment of imperialism. Heart of Darkness, in Miller's words,

elicits such ambivalence among readers nowadays [because] it is neither colonialistic enough to be damnable nor ironic enough to be completely untainted by “colonialistic bias.” The net effect is a subversion of Africanist discourse from within.


A like tendency is seen in An Area of Darkness. Naipaul does not pronounce British rule in India either beneficial or harmful, though most of his comments on the issue suggest the latter. He declares that England in India was “an incongruous imposition” (189) and reacts against the English presence on more than one occasion: “The British had possessed the country so completely. Their withdrawal was so irrevocable” and “The British pillaged the country thoroughly; during their rule manufactures and crafts declined” (187, 208). Naipaul inspects the issue at length in an article published soon after Darkness and observes that “it was an encounter which ended in mutual recoil and futility” (Barracoon 59). Thus Naipaul's critique of British imperialism in India resembles Conrad's excoriation of Leopoldine Congo, although British imperialism is hardly a focus in Naipaul's Darkness as the Belgian is in Conrad's.

Like Conrad's Darkness, Naipaul's Darkness betrays a profound epistemological uncertainty about its subject. Naipaul often adopts the first person plural to describe Indians, and Peggy Nightingale praises him for assuming “a voice with which to condemn himself and all who follow him in expressions of anger and sensibility” (85-6). “This remarkably complex manipulation of point of view,” she asserts,

expresses brilliantly Naipaul's own inner turmoil—his sense of belonging and not belonging. Following as it does his declaration of his need to feel different, to be recognized as distinctive, not just one of Indian mass, it is especially telling.


What is proposed in this statement certainly grants Naipaul a remarkable power, for his is a consciousness that feels Indianness and all its denial and bad attitudes and yet can distance itself from those and critique them on a Western platform. It is a consciousness that can penetrate its object of study though it itself is a part of the same object. Thus it intimates its right to a complete epistemological grip on its object.

Notwithstanding that tremendous claim, being both within and without India (much in the fashion of Kipling's Kim), ambiguity surrounds the nature of experience Naipaul narrates, creating a sense of indeterminacy in it. On the one hand, Naipaul claims full control over his subject; on the other, he disavows the finding it yields. At the end of Darkness, he says,

It was a journey that ought not to have been made; it had broken my life into two. “Write me as soon as you get to Europe,” an Indian friend had said. “I want your freshest impressions.” I forget now what I wrote. It was violent and incoherent; but, like everything I wrote about India, it exorcised nothing.


This apparent contradiction, knowing India and not knowing it, corresponds to the duality inherent in the discourse of Indology. Ronald Inden, in “Orientalist Constructions of India,” explains that two seemingly opposing groups of thinkers have governed oriental studies about India from its start: the romantic/idealist and the utilitarian/positivist.13 The former, called the “Orientalists,” from whom the discourse gains its name, were pioneered by Sir William Jones while the latter, known as “Anglicists,” were headed by James Mill (416-7).14 The idealist view emphasizes India's differences from Western culture and is fascinated by them whereas the positivist denigrates them, recommending their speedy replacement with Western values. Both views, according to Inden, conform to the episteme of Indology: that India is Europe's other.

Naipaul's India in Darkness veers between the two. The India of his childhood, the land of myth and fantasy, conforms to the romantic India created by Jones and those loyal to him whereas Naipaul's felt experience of India and his commentary on it comply more with the view advanced by Mill and the positivists. The tension from the two pressures creates the epistemological uncertainty in An Area of Darkness.

Inden informs us that early Indological accounts usually had two components: descriptive and commentative. There is another, explanatory or interpretive, but this last is a later phenomenon (410-1). All three can be seen in Naipaul's writings about India; in Darkness, however, Naipaul mostly describes and sometimes comments. His description—as all Indological descriptions are—is placed in what Inden would call “a framing commentary” (411). Treating a similar issue in Darkness, Ashish Roy shows that description and narration—or the “failure of narrative [which] yields a successful narrative, a narrative of success”—go on to the making of self in the text (243). Analyzing an anecdote in which the narrator of Darkness has just alighted from an airconditioned train compartment into the blistering heat of Delhi—where beggars whine, overburdened porters stagger under loads of trunks, and a hotel agent waves his “grubby folder” from time to time—Roy remarks,

[H]ere with one leap of the imagination, the bounder recollects his true self of which he was about to be stripped, annihilates the enemy, composes himself in the midst of all activity that is nonactivity, reaches out, slowly concentrates, reads. Writes! Authorizes the scene of writing.


With all its inactivity and ahistory, the Indian civilization perfectly answers to the descriptive mode of representation, however tedious the task may be. Description, moreover, is the appropriate mode to represent what is timeless and lacking the power of representing itself. For these reasons, description, according to Roy, is considered the damned genre in Western writing: “Description has always, in Western rhetorical theory, been regarded as a second-order, menial labor, a necessary evil in the heroic gesture of making narratives” (257).

What Inden calls “commentative” accounts in Indology resemble the kind of narration Roy has in mind. Commentary requires an application of the self that still remains detached from its object. The self can penetrate the distance and invade the descriptive space of the object only by employing the narrative mode. Descriptive material, mute and inert for the most part, finds expression and animation when linked with the narrator's narration. One is reminded of Edward Said's comment: “in discussions of the Orient, the Orient is all absence, whereas one feels the Orientalist and what he says as presence; yet we must not forget that the Orientalist's presence is enabled by the Orient's effective absence” (208). This strategy of orientalist discourse is manifest in Heart of Darkness. The Africans do not possess “any clear idea of time, as we at the end of countless ages have. They still belonged to the beginning of time—had no inherited experience to teach them, as it were …” (121). Quoting the above, Miller indicates the “perpetual childhood” Africans are condemned to live in by Marlow (179). “There is nothing anterior to their present moment,” Miller notes, “nothing to inherit from; time begins with the arrival of the whites and, as we shall see, with the arrival of their genre, the novel” (179).

That Naipaul succumbs to similar stereotyping in his Darkness is evident in his comment on the state of literature in India. He declares novel-writing to be an inappropriate vocation for Indians: “Indian attempts at the novel further reveal the Indian confusion. The novel is of the West. It is part of that Western concern with the condition of men, a response to the here and now” (214). Naipaul ridicules Indian novelists who mimic Western writers, but his sample is too scanty to be representative. He describes only those who write in English. Certainly, the following does not apply to many who write in Indian languages.

Other writers quickly fatigued me with their assertions that poverty was sad, that death was sad. I read of poor fishermen, poor peasants, poor rickshaw-men; innumerable pretty young girls either simply or suddenly died, or shared the landlord's bed, paid the family's medical bills and then committed suicide; and many of the “modern” short stories were only refurbished folk tales.


Even if Indian novels pursued mostly such trite stories, Naipaul does not grant them their own aesthetic criteria. In this “description” of Indian novels, a “framing” or “interpretive” “commentary” is not late in coming.

The sweetness and sadness which can be found in Indian writing and Indian films are a turning away from a too overwhelming reality; they reduce the horror to a warm, virtuous emotion. Indian sentimentality is the opposite of concern.


When Said notes that orientalist studies is characterized by “[t]he defeat of narrative by vision” (239), he is surely talking about description. According to Said, there exists a “conflict between a holistic view of the Orient (description, monumental record) and a narrative of events in the Orient” (239). This conflict occurs because “[t]he Orientalist surveys the Orient from above, with the aim of getting hold of the whole sprawling panorama before him—culture, religion, mind, history, society” (239). Said argues that “[a]gainst this static system of ‘synchronic essentialism,’” which views the orient “panoptically,” there is the diachronic pressure of narrative, not of the orientalist but of the orient itself (240). The orientalist suppresses this energy by imposing his “monumental form of encyclopedic or lexicographical vision” on the orient (240). Narrative, Said rightly insists, has the power to usurp the inflicted vision, which is why the orientalist denies the orient the strength of narrative. In Said's words,

Narrative asserts the power of men to be born, develop, and die, the tendency of institutions and actualities to change, the likelihood that modernity and contemporaneity will finally overtake “classical civilization”. …


Said recognizes the inherently subversive power of narrative here. Curiously, so does Naipaul. In the foreword to Middle Passage, he writes, “The novelist works towards conclusions of which he is often unaware; and it is better that he should.” The unexpected conclusions in the novel, Bakhtin would say, testify to the genre's irreducible potential for dialogism. This is why Naipaul refuses to treat India imaginatively because such a mode might overthrow the preconceived notions he has about India—the monologic seal he wants to silence it with.15 True not only of Darkness but most of Naipaul's early non-fiction, the strategy is a product of deliberate effort. In an interview given years later, Naipaul says that his fiction and non-fiction “come out of two entirely different segments of the brain,” that “fiction begins on the typewriter” while the “other has to be done very carefully, so it's done by hand, because it's very planned …” (Jussawallah 82). Thus fiction is spontaneous while non-fiction is studied. A major difficulty in the latter is the struggle the author endures to suppress elements undermining his set impressions. Naipaul states in the same interview that the travel writer has “got to be alert to the various pressures, all the temptations to draw social lessons” (82).

Naipaul denies Indians a role in the account of India he offers in Darkness, and India becomes a construct of his orientalist fantasy in the text. Indians who appear in the text remain passive participants in his narrative, which, in the last analysis, is a study of Naipaul's own self. That self fights a hard battle to efface its own Indianness and to shield its identity from being Indianized. The discourse of orientalism comes very handy to Naipaul to overcome the threat of his disintegrating self, for it is preserved by creating a dialectic of the self and the other and adhering to their defined parameters. Naipaul's interest in his self, ironically, resembles an attempt at narcissism, the same narcissism he critiques in the culture that the Raj transplanted onto India (187-99). Reviewing Darkness, V. S. Pritchett observes that “Narcissism is an inevitable aspect of imperialism”—that is, the phenomenon is not accidental as Naipaul seems to think (362). Threatened by dissolution, the narrative self in orientalist representations exhibits a strong tendency toward narcissism, which, indeed, is an inevitable aspect also of orientalism.


  1. This biographical information is taken from Jussawallah (xix).

  2. For an explanation of “orientalist” representation, see Edward Said's Orientalism. In it, Said maintains that western culture views the orient in stereotypical terms, producing “the discourse of orientalism” that treats the orient as the west's other—feminine in essence, exotic in appeal, and unchanging for centuries.

  3. Adewale Maja-Pearce studies Conrad's influence in A Bend in the River. Not focusing on any particular text, Selwyn Cudjoe explores the Conradian stamp on Naipaul's sensibility (160-66). Conrad receives considerable attention in Dennis Walder's study, and Walder shows how In a Free State draws on Heart of Darkness and recasts it as a postcolonial text. Rob Nixon identifies Heart of Darkness as a seminal work affecting all subsequent representation of Africa, including Naipaul's as well as Chinua Achebe's: “Heart of Darkness has exerted a centripetal pull over Western representation of Africa unequaled in this century by the sway of any other text over the portrayal of any single continent” (90). Though Nixon observes that “[m]ore subtly, India, too, becomes a semi-Conradian Area of Darkness,” he does not quite explain how it is so (88). Similarly, Fawzia Mustafa, in a recent study of Naipaul, notes that “textual echoing of Heart of Darkness … resonates beyond the title's allusion” in Naipaul's Darkness. Her reading of the text does not pursue this reverberation either.

  4. What is remarkable in Suleri's reading of Naipaul is the link she seeks to establish between his The Enigma of Arrival and Heart of Darkness. She argues that Naipaul's

    The Enigma of Arrival startlingly repeats the structural principle of the previous text [A Bend in the River] by revising Heart of Darkness into a comic tale. Naipaul as narrator is both Marlow and the Harlequin; Kurtz is inverted into the powerless landlord; the wilderness is recast as England at the end of empire, whose entropic impulse Naipaul maps with a quiet but exquisite pleasure.


  5. As Christopher Miller has explained, Marlow renders Africa into “the property of boy's adventure”; with his “passion for maps and the “blank spaces on the earth,” he relives the boyhood self of his author (173).

  6. Naipaul talks about the “two Indias” he grew up with in many other writings as well. The notions of the India of imagination and the India of reality also appear in India: A Million Mutinies Now (7-8).

  7. Miller also mentions the source of his own title, which is derived from the “blank spaces” the boy Marlow sees in the map.

  8. Two early reviewers of Darkness note that the work is more about Naipaul than the country he visits. D. J. Enright comments,

    [A] travel book by an author of little personality is likely to be plain dull; a travel book by an author with a pronounced personality (like Mr. Naipaul) is likely to tell us more about the author than about the country. Heads, the country loses; tails, the author wins.


    V. S. Pritchett makes the same observation:

    this most compelling and vivid book on India in a long time owes its success to “Mr Naipaul's eye and ear as a novelist and as much to the fact that he was one of those disturbed egotistical travellers who hit upon their necessary enemy.


  9. Two New Historicist studies examine Darwinism and related issues in Heart of Darkness. See Shaffer and Kershner.

  10. Compare Marlow's “A lot of people [Africans], mostly black and naked, moved about like ants” (74).

  11. Naipaul explains the origin of the term “boxwallah” in “Jamshed into Jimmy,” an article that first appeared in New Statesman in 1963 and was subsequently reprinted in The Overcrowded Barracoon. He thinks it derives from “the Anglo-Indian office-box of which Kipling speaks so feelingly in Something of Myself” (52).

  12. For a discussion on Gandhi's insistence that India remain traditional after independence, see Partha Chatterjee (85-130).

  13. Inspired by Edward Said, Inden's article examines “Indology,” a prominent branch of orientalist studies. His work is similar to Miller's Blank Darkness, which probes “Africanist” representations of Africa.

  14. Sir William Jones's failure to produce a master text of India, Inden observes, caused him and his followers to lose the battle to Anglicists who “argued that Western knowledge in English should displace the Eastern” (417). Mill's History of India, on the other hand, purported to be just that. It claimed to explain away all facets of Indian life and became in the nineteenth century the “hegemonic textbook of Indian history,” shaping the policies of the East Indian Company (417-18).

  15. Naipaul has never written a novel that is set in India. Only a short story of his, “One Out of Many” in In a Free State, is partly set in Bombay. He, however, offers more than one fictional account of Africa: “In a Free State” and A Bend in the River.

Works Cited

Chatterjee, Partha. Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.

Conrad, Joseph. Youth, Heart of Darkness, Typhoon. New York: The Modern Library, 1993.

Cudjoe, Selwyn. V. S. Naipaul: A Materialist Reading. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1988.

Enright, D. J. “Who is India.” Rev. of An Area of Darkness. Encounter (16 December 1964): 59-64.

Griffith, Glyne. “Travel Narrative as Cultural Critique: V. S. Naipaul's Travelling Theory.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 29. 2 (1993): 87-92.

Inden, Ronald. “Orientalist Constructions of India.” Modern Asian Studies 20. 3 (1986): 401-66.

Jussawalla, Feroza, ed. Conversation with V. S. Naipaul. Jackson: U of Mississippi, 1997.

Kershner, R. B., Jr. “Degeneration: The Explanatory Nightmare.” Georgia Review 40 (1986): 416-44.

Maja-Pearce, Adewale. “The Naipauls on Africa: An African's View.” The Journal of Commowealth Literature 20 (1985): 111-17.

Miller, Christopher. Blank Darkness: Africanist Discourse in French. Chicago, U of Chicago P, 1985.

Mustafa, Fawzia. V. S. Naipaul. Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1995.

Naipaul, V. S. The Middle Passage: Impressions of Five Societies—British, French and Dutch—in the West Indies and South America. 1962. New York: Vintage, 1981.

———. An Area of Darkness. 1964. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1984.

———. The Overcrowded Barracoon. New York: Knopf, 1973.

———. India: A Wounded Civilization. New York: Penguin, 1977.

———. The Return of Eva Perón: with the Killings in Trinidad. New York: Knopf, 1980.

———. India: A Million Mutinies Now. London: Minerva, 1990.

Nightingale, Peggy. Journey through Darkness: The Writing of V. S. Naipaul. New York: U of Queensland P, 1987.

Nixon, Rob. London Calling: V. S. Naipaul, Postcolonial Mandarin. New York: Oxford U P, 1992.

Pritchett, V. S. “Back to India.” Rev. of An Area of Darkness. New Statesman (11 September 1964): 361-2.

Roy, Ashish. “Race and the Figures of History in Naipaul's An Area of Darkness.Critique 32.4 (1991): 235-257.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1978.

Shaffer, Brain W. “‘Rebarbarizing Civilization’: Conrad's African Fiction and Spencerian Sociology.” PMLA 108.1 (1993): 45-58.

Suleri, Sara. The Rhetoric of English India. Chicago: Chicago U P, 1992.

Walder, Dennis. “V. S. Naipaul and the Postcolonial Order: Reading In a Free State.” Recasting the World: Writing after Colonialism. Ed. Jonathan White. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U P, 1993.

Robert M. Greenberg (essay date summer 2000)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10243

SOURCE: Greenberg, Robert M. “Anger and the Alchemy of Literary Method in V. S. Naipaul's Political Fiction: The Case of The Mimic Men.Twentieth Century Literature 46, no. 2 (summer 2000): 214-37.

[In the following essay, Greenberg considers the impact of Naipaul's racial attitudes and pessimism on his novel The Mimic Men.]

V. S. Naipaul's fiction and nonfiction since the 1960s have reflected an unenthusiastic view of postcolonial nationalism and nation building. He has had difficulty believing in the ability of new nations in Africa and the Caribbean to raise themselves to a condition of economic autonomy and cultural authenticity. He has also been against a political rhetoric and agenda that calls for breaking cultural ties with European nations.1 Instead, political skepticism, Western cultural conservatism, and realist and modernist aesthetics have determined the selection and treatment of subjects in Naipaul's writing. These approaches have caused postcolonial intellectuals to complain about his lack of interest in local culture2 and to grumble about his choice of material—such as Mobutu Sese Seko's reign in the Congo and the Michael de Freitas trial in Trinidad—that reflects pessimistically on politics, revolution, and the prospects of national renewal.

Naipaul, however, is probably the most honored living author in the British literary world. Even those postcolonial intellectuals averse to his politics concede his great talent as a novelist and the rewards of reading him.3 In addition, there is his irrefutable commitment to the Third World, implicit in 40 years of writing about non-Western nations and peoples. His practice of revisiting places written about earlier—Africa, India, the West Indies, non-Arabic Islamic countries, and South America—underscores the abiding strength of his interest in cultures and governments of the Third World. They are the subjects on which he has chosen to expend his talent. Whereas often in his investigative travel writing during the 1970s and 80s he found fresh instances that corroborated his earlier harsh judgments, more recently in books such as A Turn in the South (1989) and Beyond Belief (1998), he demonstrates a new receptiveness to the places he visits and the people he meets.

Nevertheless, exactly how well- or ill-intentioned Naipaul is toward the Third World remains a much debated literary and political question. That he is, as he believes, a disinterested observer who works empirically, without cultural bias, is difficult to accept.4 Eugene Goodheart's description of Naipaul's point of view as possessing “prejudice” within “clear-sightedness” seems closer to the truth. While Naipaul is uncompromisingly committed to the description and representation of what he sees, he nevertheless includes in this description his previously formed opinions, what Goodheart calls the “prejudices” of Naipaul's “incorrigible subjectivity” and temperament (245-46), and what Naipaul views as the conclusions he reached earlier in his life. “Never give a person a second chance,” Paul Theroux remembers Naipaul telling him when they first became acquainted in Africa. “If someone lets you down once, he'll do it again” (“V. S. Naipaul” 447).

Twenty-five years of age to Naipaul's 34, Theroux also remembers Naipaul's “doubt, disbelief, skepticism, instinctive mistrust; I had never found these qualities so powerful in a person; and they were allied to a fiercely independent spirit” (449).5 This independent, often fiercely opinionated spirit is explained in great part by his creative isolation, his need to provide his own foundation where most writers find firm ground in their relation, however embattled, to their homeland or their adopted country.6 In Naipaul's case, self-validation is the only platform for his ego and ideas, the only strategy against his displacement from Trinidad, where he was born and raised and from the alienation of living in England, his usual residence as an adult. Even those periods when he has sought to establish a home base—such as the 1970s when he lived in Wiltshire or the somewhat earlier period when he owned a house in London—do not seem to reduce his combativeness. For example, in a short article in the Saturday Evening Post in 1967, he defends what he calls his “snobbery” for not wanting a particular (unidentified) group of people moving into his neighborhood in London. He does this by asserting that the power of past experience is unfortunately greater than the power of liberal goodwill: “The sad fact about prejudices between classes, castes or indeed races, is that they are an accretion of observations and cannot be destroyed by simple contradiction” (“What's Wrong” 18).

If Naipaul's cultural displacement and existential unease would seem to explain why he is quick on the trigger with his opinions, two forces from his Trinidadian childhood and youth help to explain the occasional racial caste of his opinions and the effect of these opinions on his fiction. These two forces are an undertone of Indian pessimism and a persistent lack of generosity in one's estimation of blacks. Throughout his political fiction—including, along with The Mimic Men (1967), In a Free State (1971), Guerrillas (1975), and A Bend in the River (1979)—these attitudes direct, shape, and color his work. At the core of the power of The Mimic Men, for example, are a passive East Indian protagonist who anticipates failure, and explicit racial characterizations. And while space limits me to a thorough treatment only of The Mimic Men in this essay, I would mention briefly here several manifestations of these forces in his other three political novels. The preoccupation of the narrator with the body odor of Africans in In a Free State has understandably focused much debate on Naipaul's possible racism.7 As for the influence of Naipaul's ancestral pessimism, it may be seen in the forgotten colonial towns and decaying hotels in In a Free State, in the acidic skepticism turned on white Western radicals in Guerrillas, and in the delineation of Salim's experience of historical vulnerability in A Bend in the River. In each instance, there is an almost Eastern sense of the inevitable emptiness and false pride behind worldly endeavor—of the transience, ultimately, of all power and empire. Naipaul says in an interview with Charles Wheeler: “I have to admit … that a lot of Hindu attitudes, the deeper attitudes, are probably also mine—that I probably do have a feeling about the vanity of human action and human life” (42).

A valuable entry point into Naipaul's attitude about discovering individual and ancestral identity is found in the text of a speech Naipaul gave at a conference in Trinidad on the East Indian community. It will also be helpful to become acquainted through this speech with Naipaul's views about black-Indian relations and his ambivalence about a cosmopolitan versus a local and particularistic approach to art and life. Naipaul concedes in this 1975 speech his obsession with the emergence of Black Power in the West Indies8 and Mobutu's “big man,” corrupt, nationalistic dictatorship.9 He says:

Earlier this year I was in the Congo—it's not a journey I recommend. You'll find in the Congo all the nice ideas of Fanon ridiculously caricatured by the present ruler. But fine words of black consciousness are simply used to buttress a personal rule. I must be careful, I mustn't let myself run on about the Congo. But my point is the nihilism that can arise from nice words. Mobutu says, you know, that he doesn't have a borrowed soul any longer; his particular thing is “authenticity.” Authenticity means that Mobutu is good for you, that things are all right as they are. It is rejection of the strange, the difficult, the taxing; it is despair. It's a version of many of the things we have been hearing about in this part of the world.10

(Introduction 7-8)

The final sentence refers to a point earlier in his speech where Naipaul emphasizes the importance of scholarly research for self-knowledge about one's past and contrasts this kind of studious commitment to books and libraries with what he believes Caribbean black nationalists were doing by pursuing a spontaneous racial “sentiment” (6). He says, “the whole business of looking at one's past—one's assessment of one's culture—does open out in a rather frightening way.” But, he emphasizes, “it requires effort; it isn't amenable to sentimental political slogans.” His method begins with direct personal experience and observation:

I begin with myself: this man, this language, this island, this background, this school, this time. I begin from all that and I try to investigate it, I try to understand it. I try to arrive at some degree of self-knowledge.


But despite Naipaul's empirical approach to knowledge about himself and other people of color, ambiguity about his fundamental sympathy or hostility to the Third World remains. To date he has strictly limited his autobiographical discussion of the “racial antagonisms” in Trinidad.11 Even his lengthy discussion of black-Indian racial tensions and rivalry in The Middle Passage (1962) demonstrates his wish to avoid painful autobiographical testimony or to scrutinize the ideological biases and cultural privileging that might creep into his “disinterested” generalizations.12 Here are some key passages about black-Indian relations from the study of five Caribbean nations in The Middle Passage:

When people speak of the race problem in Trinidad they do not mean the Negro-white problem. They mean the Negro-Indian rivalry. This will be denied by the whites, who will insist that the basic problem remains the contempt of their group for the non-white.


Though now one racialism seems to be reacting on the other, each has different roots. Indian politicians have created Indian racialism out of a harmless egoism. Negro racialism is more complex. It is an overdue assertion of dignity; it has elements of bitterness. … It has profound intellectual promptings as well, in the realization that the Negro problem lies not simply in the attitude of others to the Negro, but in the Negro's attitude to himself. It is as yet confused, for the Negro, while rejecting the guilt imposed on him by the white man, is not able to shake off the prejudices he has inherited from the white man.


The Negro has a deep contempt … for all that is not white; his values are the values of white imperialism at its most bigoted. The Indian despises the Negro for not being an Indian; he has, in addition, taken over all the white prejudices against the Negro. … Indians and Negroes appeal to the unacknowledged white audience to see how much they despise one another. They despise one another by reference to the whites; and the irony is that their antagonism should have reached its peak today, when white prejudices have ceased to matter.


Other than the final few sentences when both groups' feelings are discussed in parity, one is struck by the difference in origin Naipaul attributes to each group's racism. Troubled historical deeps and psychological difficulty in achieving self-approval give rise to black racism toward Indians, while Indian racism toward blacks derives from “harmless egoism” (83) and the manipulation of politicians. He identifies no serious problem in the psyche of Indians that causes their racism. It is also troubling that he does not acknowledge the potential of his personal experience for prejudicing his account of his homeland.

In the same conference speech in Trinidad, Naipaul rejects worldly cosmopolitanism. Being a “citizen of the world,” he says, is a product of “despair, defeat, and usually ignorance,” the response of a man “who has dropped out, who can't face the present and can't face his position in the world” (7). Yet it is difficult to shake off the conviction that Naipaul is largely a transnational exile with values that Rob Nixon has nicely captured with his book's subtitle Postcolonial Mandarin. Whether Naipaul works from the condition of being a citizen of the world as opposed to being rooted in a self-knowledge of “the strands of [his] … background” (Introduction 7) remains, in fact, somewhat opaque and unresolvable—and fortunately so Particularism and cosmopolitanism comprise a shifting dynamic in Naipaul outlook and writing, and the lack of resolution has resulted in a fruitful dialectical interaction between these two approaches. A dualistic approach persists in his world view: he is an individual of color with a particular set of formative experiences, and he is a displaced Western cultural conservative with a hierarchical and transnational sense of standards and social order including the value of empire.

Before we turn to an analysis of The Mimic Men, it is also helpful to go a little more deeply into the East Indian experience and heritage that informs Naipaul's approach. Raised in Trinidad in a racial minority where, politically, there was a feeling of Indian powerlessness and vulnerability before the black majority (Tikasingh 13-14, 27-28); exposed to the practice of Hindu ritual and a large extended Brahmin family that included, on his mother's side, both wealthy landowners and “pundits” (Naipaul “Prologue” 59-63, 75); and shaped by a home life, when not at his grandmother's estate, oriented toward schoolwork, writing, and winning a scholarship to college in England, Naipaul was fully immersed in the Indian community. A sense of caste, of Brahminic roots, persisted, despite the community's loss of contact with the motherland (Naipaul, Introduction 5-6). Naipaul says persuasively, “for all its physical wretchedness and internal tensions, the life of the clan had given us all a start. It had given us a caste certainty, a high sense of the self” (“Prologue” 57). Looking deeper still, one finds, in Naipaul's experience as an Indian, a source of the rage that permeates his personality and plays an important role in determining his material and the attitudes with which he shapes it. It is rage at blacks who have been the majority and have persecuted Indians (and Chinese) in Africa and the West Indies;13 at the British from whose imperial culture and canonical literature Naipaul feels excluded, despite his Oxford scholarship and education (Return of Eva Peron 205-28); at the predetermined attitudes of white liberals and black nationalists, about the work he was expected to produce as an intellectual of color; and at the difficulty of earning a living, despite the early recognition of great talent (Enigma of Arrival 269-70). Finally, as The Enigma of Arrival (1987) reveals, Naipaul feels that his Indian heritage has also left him with a historical sensibility attuned not so much to worldly accomplishment and solidity as to change, ruin, decay, and failure. About this old, Hindu worldly feeling, Naipaul says:

To see the possibility, the certainty, of ruin, even at the moment of creation: it was my temperament. Those nerves had been given me as a child in Trinidad partly by our family circumstances: the half-ruined or broken-down houses we lived in, our many moves, our general uncertainty. Possibly, too, this mode of feeling went deeper and was an ancestral inheritance, something that came with the history that made me: not only India, with its ideas of a world outside men's control, but also the colonial plantations or estates of Trinidad, to which my impoverished Indian ancestors had been transported in the last century.


In Naipaul's diasporic Indian sensibility and his rejection of black cultural primacy, then, are found the origin of the racial dynamics and antinationalist politics that inform his political novels. But in the manner in which he opens up this material, working into and around the pull of these centripetal forces, we also begin to find the mitigating effect of his literary approach on his social rage and an indication of his quality and motives as a novelist. Naipaul's political novels possess a striking balance and interest in entering all characters empathetically, including those characters toward whom he is critical, such as Guerillas's Jimmy Ahmed.15 To this end, one encounters in Naipaul's fiction a political and historical imagination reliant on formal literary design; and it is this design that gives his examination of personal and political affairs an overall sense of justice and human concern.16 This is the reason one is tempted to implore those for whom political judgments are foremost to read Naipaul before they categorize his work as politically conservative and of no value. Let Naipaul do his job as a novelist: let him reveal aspects of being-in-the-world beyond what they knew before reading him (Ricoeur 178). Afterward, they may employ him, if they wish, in another discourse, as an instance of a political view they dislike. But let them first open themselves to the characters and their experiences, to sense the world as Naipaul would like them to sense it.

In selecting one of Naipaul's political novels for close scrutiny, it is my hope that the West Indian racial dynamics and politics described in The Mimic Men will enable us, to some extent, to take the measure of Naipaul's political fiction more generally. Specifically, I hope to show that Naipaul's racial bias toward blacks largely tends to dissolve in his political fiction, serving as a goad to racial candor rather than an expression of racial prejudice. I also plan to argue—moving to explicit theoretical discourse only after The Mimic Men has been concretely described—that Naipaul's realist impulse is his most abiding artistic motive and that modernist ambiguities needn't keep us from pursuing a historically and textually supported reading of his works. It is true that Naipaul's later political novels are tied, to some extent, to other aesthetic approaches. The action of Guerillas comes out of an edgy expressionism, and A Bend in the River has a strong moral and symbolist dimension. Yet both works are grounded at the same time in realism. A nonfiction article on Michael de Freitas provides the factual springboard for Guerillas (see the second half of The Return of Eva Peron with the Killings in Trinidad). And the appearance of certain similar material in both A Bend in the River and the final chapter of A Way in the World (1994) suggests the existence of a common source from which Naipaul the realist is trying to fashion representative characters and situations.17

Let us turn now to a reading of The Mimic Men. Writing his memoir in a suburban hotel in London, Ralph Singh, the first-person narrator of The Mimic Men, intends his work to be a representative autobiography of a Caribbean politician in the 1950s. The exhilaration of becoming a cabinet minister of a new political party, then the shock of being ousted by his party before a second-term election, provide the rhetorical momentum of the retrospective narration. Naipaul's sixth work of fiction, The Mimic Men, is a novel of education about a sensitive middle-class Caribbean East Indian and, inescapably, a fictionalized portrait of an artist as a young man. Onto this bildungsroman Naipaul fuses notable experiences of East Indian politicians in Trinidad (Rudranath Capildeo) and British Guyana (Cheddi Jagan) who, Dolly Hassan observes, saw a “downward plunge in their political careers immediately after independence talks with London” (256).18 Naipaul's character, in other words, is located in the period before full independence and Black Power came to various Caribbean nations. (Trinidad and Tobago achieved full independence together in 1962.)

The novel begins with Singh's college years in London during World War II, then follows his return to the Trinidad-like island of Isabella with an English wife at war's end (58). Because The Mimic Men begins and ends in London, Singh asserts—somewhat disorientingly for the reader—that the period when he returns to his home in the West Indies (and that occupies most of the novel along with his childhood retrospective) is a “parenthesis” within the larger state of exile that characterizes his postcolonial existence (10, 41). This view establishes a temporary conflict between the narrator's story and his professed attitude about it that only his eventual reevaluation of his viewpoint resolves by giving more emphasis to his political adventure on Isabella. The cosmopolitanism of his London years may ultimately assimilate the particularism of his West Indian experience, but we come to see that it is this particularism that is the foundation out of which his later accomplishments as a politician arise and out of which Singh's postcolonial memoir and his artistry develop.

Ralph Singh repeatedly emphasizes that his political opportunity came to him unsought, that his success with his black boyhood friend Ethelbert Browne in fostering a popular movement was “little more than a game, a heightening of life, an extension of the celebratory mood in which I returned to my island” (38). A successful real-estate developer with family lands, a dandy living ostentatiously, Singh claims that when he was ousted, he felt “relief, solitude, penance, peace” (40). Yet there is, clearly, self-recrimination and loss at having to return to London as a nobody near the age of 40 (25). “My career is by no means unusual,” he consoles himself. “It falls into the pattern. The career of the colonial politician is short and ends brutally” (8). Nonetheless, at a crucial point in the present-tense narrative commentary, Singh concedes that his political adventure may be a development for which his life has been preparing him (184), that it may reflect deeper forces of his character.

This attitude about his political career—that it was a lark and that it reflected a deeper inevitability—arises from what he calls the “placidity” in his nature, the disinclination to resist where life leads him. This placidity Singh sees, looking back, in his agreement to marry an ambitious London East Ender (46-47) and in the acquiescence to the disintegration of his marriage (72-73). He sees it also in his failure, in the face of class and racial snobbery, to confront the Deschampsneufs, an old French slave-owning family. “Why, recognizing the enemy, did you not kill him swiftly?” (176), Singh asks himself in several situations, as a kind of refrain concerning his passivity before his cultural enemies.

As an explanation for his placidity, in addition to a psychological dependence on women and a skepticism about the true social power of East Indian men, Singh offers his cultural heritage—his Indian Hindu ancestry and the philosophical resignation imbued in him by an ancient culture. But here too, counterpoised to one tendency in his psychology, there is another. Since boyhood, Singh has had a sense of being “marked” (94, 112) for “chieftaincy” (100, 142). This boyhood sense of a heroic destiny translates during his political career to the spiritual idea of service and suffering for mankind (207-08). A psychological touchstone of Singh's political career is clearly the legend and memory of his father, who walked out on job and family to lead a movement that espoused “a type of Hinduism” that mixed “acceptance with revolt, despair and action” (128-29, 166).

But the core of the novel leading up to Singh's political years is his depiction of the multiracial nature of Isabella as seen in the microcosm of Singh's friendships at school. Once he has described the racial tensions and the painful sympathies these tensions produced in him, he can acknowledge that his view of his political career as “arbitrary” and “whimsical” (183) may have been inaccurate. “I find I have indeed been describing the youth and early manhood of a leader of some sort, a politician, or at least a disturber” (184), he eventually admits.

We are assisted in understanding the painful social fabric of an island like Isabella by understanding the racial and cultural divisions in Trinidad, glimpsed earlier in Naipaul's cultural commentary in The Middle Passage. Unchanged significantly from earlier decades, censuses taken in the 1960s reveal that the East Indian population of Trinidad was 40 percent, the black population 43 percent, the combined white and Chinese population 3 percent, and the mixed population (combining some of the preceding as well as Spanish and Carib blood) 14 percent. Blacks dominated the civil service, Indians the rural economy. Both had members of the professional class, while blacks were a majority in government (Black et al. 81-82). A comment in The Enigma of Arrival conveys the pain that cultural fragmentation caused Naipaul:

Their [Trinidadians'] racial obsessions, which once could tug at my heart, made them simple people. Part of the fear of extinction which I had developed as a child had to do with this: the fear of being swallowed up or extinguished by the simplicity of one side or the other, my side or the side that wasn't mine.


On a Sunday drive when Singh is a boy, he sees in human features markers of the island's racial history:

We went through purely mulatto villages where the people were a baked copper colour, much disfigured by disease. They had big light eyes and kinky red hair. My father described them as Spaniards. … They permitted no Negroes to settle among them. … We drove through Carib areas where the people were more Negro than Carib. Ex-slaves, fleeing the plantations, had settled here and intermarried with the very people who [had been] … their great tormentors … [and] had by this intermarriage become their depressed serfs. Now the Caribs had been absorbed and had simply ceased to be.


A depiction of Isabella's racial diversity and tensions is accomplished not only through setting but also through a fully realized description of Singh's friends at lower school and at Isabella Imperial (modeled on Queen's Royal College, the prep school attended by Naipaul [White 157-59]), where the talented young men of all races and classes are sent, including the son of the Deschampsneufs. In addition to “Champ” (with whom he has belching matches [95]), there is Eden, very black and called “Spite,” “because some boys said he was black for spite” (136); Hok, with Chinese and black blood and a “nervous” and bookish personality similar to Singh's (95); and Browne, who is knowledgeable about street life, yet who, at an earlier age, innocently performed “coon songs” (144) at a school concert (92). “Neither masters nor students in those days,”19 Singh reports about the prewar period, “worried about wounding anyone's racial or political susceptibilities; the curious result was that almost no one was offended. A Negro boy with an extravagantly jutting head could, for instance, be called Mango. … So now I became Guru” (130). (A far less offensive nickname, we might observe, since it referred to his father, who had become known as Gurudeva.)20 Naipaul's use of boyhood candor and innocence to convey racial and psychological points of stress also captures the boys' moments of solidarity. When Eden angers the teacher with an incorrect explanation about the function of a large two-pronged switch, the teacher's brutal sarcasm elicits a shared group resentment:

“You get this to generate electricity, Eden, I will give you my salary for a month. … I will work for you in your garden.” He had saved it for last, not only the familiar pun on Eden's name, but his statement, white man to black boy, of what he considered Eden's true role, that of garden-boy or yard-boy. It was cruel; it went too near the truth; Eden's background was of the simplest. Our traditions were brutal; but now we all went still. Deschampsneufs stared down frowning at his crossed arms, like someone sharing the abuse.


The boys also talked about selective breeding, a subject on which Deschampsneufs “was allowed a certain authority” since “in slave days the Desschampsneufs had kept a slave stud-farm on one of the islets off Isabella” reputed to be inhabited by “a super-race still” (137). As a result,

Eden, attempting to clown and perhaps also looking for a tribute to his superb physique, said, “Champ, you would let me breed?” Deschampsneufs considered him. “It would be a pity to let the strain die out,” he said. “Yes, Spite. I think we will let you breed. But we have to cross you with a damn intelligent woman.”


For Singh, as they reach adolescence, friendship with Browne involves learning about slave history and seeing the world as Browne sees it. Entrance into the perspective of poor blacks like Browne's father and the thought of the “thousands who, from their fields, could look forward to nothing but servitude and days in the sun” (145-46) becomes too painful for Singh to bear: “I grew to fear Browne's fellowship. I grew to hate the very hills” (145). Browne made him feel, he says, that “we walked in a garden of hell, among trees, some still without popular names, whose seeds had sometimes been brought to our island in the intestines of slaves” (147).21

A feeling of being engulfed reaches a crisis in The Mimic Men when Singh visits Browne's house to repay a visit Browne had futilely attempted to pay to his home (Browne was rebuffed by Singh's mother [147]). Here Singh betrays the attitude of the Trinidadian Indian community that “their civilization was superior to the African” and that the “Indian had difficulty in learning anything from Africans.”22 But Singh also reveals through his perception of the cultural impoverishment of the Brownes his concern about his own resources to escape annihilation and create a life. Singh is greeted by Browne's father—a “genuine old-time Negro, grey-headed and pipe-smoking” who is thrilled to meet one of his son's schoolmates. But Singh (revealing perhaps Naipaul's attitudes as well) is chagrined to see Mr. Browne in his “flannel vest, which was grimy with little rolls of dirt,” to see “the narrow room” and on the wall, “framed pictures of Joe Louis, Jesse Owen, Haile Selassie and Jesus” (148-49). When Browne's father calls to his son elsewhere in the house, Singh hears the son mutter something about “that black jackass” (149). In this scene, we slowly discover not only Singh's sense of superiority but also how it serves to protect Singh from the fear of suffocating, of hopelessness, that threatens him with extinction:

We never forgive those who catch us in postures of indignity. That Saturday, with its two gestures, its two visits, its two failures, marked the end of the special intensity of our relationship. I cannot deny that I was relieved. I had been choked in that interior, and not by its smallness. Joe Louis and Haile Selassie on the wall, the flannel vest, the family photograph, that black jackass: it was more than an interior I had entered. I felt I had had a glimpse of the prison of the spirit in which Browne lived.


But the prison of the spirit Singh reveals is also his own, despite his telling himself it belongs only to blacks. “Was it only for Browne that I was concerned?” (151), Singh asks a page later.

This weave of sympathy and superiority generates in Singh's narrative commentary permutations of liberal and conservative political views. Singh, the conservative memoirist at 40, views his feelings as a teenager and later as a politician conservatively:

It was my tendency at the time, part of my anxiety to put myself in the place of those I thought were distressed; and perhaps, like those misguided reformers who believe that for rich and poor there is no reality but money, I failed to see much. I minimized the quality of personality. But so it is when we seek to forget ourselves by taking on the burden of others. Was it only for Browne that I was concerned?”


Unelaborated on, in this final sentence, we have Singh's crucial insight into identity on Isabella. While the races were culturally fragmented, they all occupied the same prison house.

Approximately 15 years later, Browne approaches Ralph Singh about putting money into a socialist-oriented newspaper Browne has founded. They had encountered each other in London during Singh's college years; Browne was a political pamphleteer with unconventional ideas. Now on Isabella, Browne proposes that they do a newspaper issue celebrating the dockworker's strike and exodus to the hills and that Singh write the main article about Singh's father, Gurudeva, who was their leader (166, 185-87). To Singh's and Browne's amazement, after several more issues, they have started a political awakening among the masses (189-90). Campaigning for their new party, however, Singh feels that he is back in the airless inner world of black Isabellan life, close once more to the sympathy freighted with hopelessness that he could not bear as a teenager and that had driven him to London (194). He speaks of the “smell of heated sweat, once rejected” of the black crowds (193) and of commitment

to a whole new mythology, dark and alien … [and] to a series of interiors I never wanted to enter. Joe Louis, Haile Selassie, Jesus, that black jackass, the comic boy-singer: the distaste and alarm of boyhood rose up strongly.


But there is a sense of moral purpose now: “the virtue I found in that acrid smell was the virtue of the protecting, the massed and the heedless,” even as Browne, “less sentimental,” mutters sarcastically to him in crowds about “the old bouquet d'Afrique” (194). Singh finds himself able to react differently now for another reason. Power has provided a psychological uplift. The ability to play on their followers through writing and speeches is compelling.

Singh's sense of superiority to blacks persists in his attitude toward his fellow cabinet officers. Singh speaks of the “sartorial fashion” of the ministers, the “flesh swelling on the back of their necks from the good living” (191), and their Swiss bank accounts (205), while his public image, he tells us, is that of “the rich man with a certain name who had put himself on the side of the poor, who appeared to have turned his back on the making of money” (193). But beyond these differences from his fellow ministers, Singh, as Naipaul draws him, is committed to their goals and frustrated by their collective inability to go beyond the rhetoric that swept them into office—the same rhetoric, Singh repeatedly asserts, that was emerging in 20 European colonial possessions (190, 193). They were socialist, for the working man; they stood for the “dignity of distress” and the “dignity of our indignity” (198). But, once in office, they found they had no true power and were ever in danger of mistaking words for power (8). Without external capital for investment or internal industries, without the backing of trade unions or a galvanizing nationalism, they had only “the negative frenzy of a deep violation which could lead to further frenzy alone” (205, 216). Hence the intensified proclamations of oppression, with utterances of racial antagonism, making Browne into a “folk-leader” (211) rather than a nation builder.

Singh is also asked to handle certain crucial projects—the renegotiation of the bauxite contract with the Americans and then the “disturbances” at sugar estates by “Asiatics,” who were “cool” (194, 219) to the party's idea of workers' universal “distress.” (“Distress” is Naipaul's shorthand word throughout the novel for the historical, social, cultural, and psychological problems of working-class Isabellans.) But when Singh is asked to handle the nationalization of industries like sugar, he is given an impossible task. The party is on record favoring nationalization, but “nationalization was as impossible as getting rid of the expatriate civil servants: so much London had made clear” (220). When his efforts in London fail, he is repudiated by his party. There is some of the old self-recrimination that he did not go for the jugular at the critical moment, by trying more vigorously to protect his position through his constituency; but, he explains, “the prospect wearied me” “of keeping power in a situation which would always turn to air in my hands” (221)—that is, having only words as a resource, not real economic or political power. He is condemned at a meeting for selling out on the nationalization issue: “it was my playboy attitude to distress” (238).

John Thieme, among others,23 raises the important issue of the reliability of Singh's point of view, given the fact that the narrative past of Singh's youth and return to Isabella are immersed in the narrative present of the ex-minister's memoir. “From first to last,” Thieme observes,

the narrative mode leaves the reader imprisoned in the egotistical mental world of Singh, confined to the perspective imposed on his material by the studied elegance of his prose style and the precosity [sic] of his use of literary and cultural allusion.


Is Ralph Singh a “charlatan”? (514) asks Thieme. Is Singh manipulating the past and conflating past and present to construct a self-approving literary persona? Thieme believes we cannot say, although he does argue that Naipaul seems to adopt an ironic attitude about Singh's passive postcolonial existence in London (518).

In my view, Naipaul does give us sufficient context and judgments in the narrative present of the memoir to enable us to evaluate Ralph Singh as a politician. Naipaul would not have been content with leaving the reader with an indeterminate point of view and with failing to provide the means to gauge Singh's report of reality or his critical assessment of it. We are told that Singh is no more or less a politician than the others. They all are too dependent on words; they all manipulate, intoxicated by their power (194-95, 204, 207). As to Singh's sincerity in embracing the protest rhetoric of “distress,” we are told repeatedly that both Browne (185, 186, 194, 203) and Singh (191, 194) are ambivalent. We can, therefore, evaluate Singh and say that he moves from a feeling as a teenager of drowning in the fact of social “distress” (which he locates predominantly in black life and in his relations with blacks) to his desire and ability as a politician to immerse himself in a black workers' movement and to try to use his power to relieve the problems of island laborers. Within the limits of Singh's character and viewpoint, there is a change and a definable growth in Singh's vision and commitment to others. When egotism would prompt Singh to try to hold onto his office, and when the politician's insincerity is the only lever, Singh does not fight back; he allows himself to be ousted: “Control, the prospect of power, and its corollary, the prospect of keeping power in a situation which would always turn to air in my hands … wearied me” (221).

To the critic who would argue that the novel's “facts” and the narrator's interpretation of these “facts” reflect ideological presuppositions arrayed to undercut confidence in nation building, one can respond that Naipaul's depiction of the racial and ethnic fragmentation on Isabella—“a society not held together by a common interest” (206)—fairly accurately reflects the sociocultural and political climate of Trinidad and other similar neighboring countries such as British Guyana and Suriname. Regarding the potential complaint about the prewar retrogressive racial types—that in the prep-school scenes Naipaul perpetuates “racist” views and brutal stereotypes—I would argue that in candidly dramatizing backward racial attitudes between the boys, Naipaul unpacks cultural stigmas and wounds, usefully exposing the colonial burden of self-division.

What of the colonial mimicry alluded to in the novel's title? Naipaul sees the difficulty in bringing about significant change on the island as the result of its geographical, economic, and cultural marginality24—as the passage from which the novel's title is drawn suggests:

We, here on our island, handling books printed in this world, and using its goods, had been abandoned and forgotten. We pretended to be real, to be learning, to be preparing our selves for life, we mimic men of the New World, one unknown corner of it.


They are not real because they lack the resources to be real. Nixon observes that mimicry in Naipaul's nonfiction is attributed by Naipaul to “partly Westernized societies of the Third World [that] have learned the security of living off the creativeness of others. By languishing in the idleness of that dependency, they dehumanize themselves” (131). Yet in The Mimic Men neither idleness nor lack of responsibility is shown to be the dominant trait of Singh's friends, or of his colleagues in government. The reason they “pretend” to be “real” and to be “learning,” the novel seems to say, is that they are on a far-flung island, borrowers not producers (Nixon 130), and aspirants without resources, ideals, or models of high achievement. They cannot create an authentic culture without a greater past, and their past is one of slavery, indentured servitude, colonial brutality, and colonial neglect.

Building on the view of Homi K. Bhabha that postcolonial mimicry does not nullify invention (86-87), Fawzia Mustafa has argued that the use of the genre and solipsistic frame of “the memoir is Naipaul's way of preventing rather than allowing his protagonist to negotiate his way out of the role into which he has ‘written’ himself.” Moreover, Mustafa adds, “the ‘knowledge’ that is supposed to stem from ‘self-knowledge’ through the agency of writing is, for Ralph Singh, only an existentialist epiphany of marginality through choice.” Instead of contestation and invention, Mustafa complains, Naipaul gives us “mimicry and repetition” (106). The problem is the priority Singh gives to writing over fresh vision and action.

Mustafa's minimizing phrase about Singh's “existentialist epiphany of marginality” is, indeed, a fairly accurate description of Singh at the novel's end and does move us to the problem of Naipaul's having given priority to both writing and to an upper-middle-class East Indian point of view in attempting to treat the British West Indies of the 1940s and 1950s. As Singh overcomes the atomism that tortured him in London in his student days (18, 27, 52), his vitality becomes located beneath the surface—in his writing. On the surface, he accepts social marginality and imperial London. While postcolonial theorists such as Mustafa want breakthrough and new cultural life that they can affirm and hope to see extended, Naipaul disappoints them, providing instead meditation on a political life involving pained, complex merger with the masses—but from an exceptional not a representative point of view.

The Mimic Men seems to be saying that just as Singh is able to revisit painful experiences of youth with new confidence as an adult politician, so the postcolonial writer or intellectual must go backward into the burden of colonial self-division before he or she can go forward into the political sphere. Naipaul's protagonist, given his race, class, and temperament, cannot envision a recentering of cultural life for the entire postcolonial West Indies. But he can describe the struggle for knowledge of self and world. And he can achieve an aesthetic centering that encompasses the racial dynamics and politics of Caribbean nations like Trinidad, not a revolutionary or even barrier-breaking outcome but an honest and original cultural act that provides readers a deep sense of the West Indian experience.

Jean-Pierre Durix observes that certain postcolonial novelists need to write “against ready-made representations” and “reclaim their personal image” of the past “before they can be comfortable” with contemporary subjects (12). Because their past has been “eclipsed or devalued,” they need to reclaim their colonized youth before they can move on to their postcolonial adulthood (12). Such an analysis illuminates Naipaul's motive and message in The Mimic Men.

Thus far, I have deferred theoretical discussion of Naipaul's ongoing relation to the realist tradition of English fiction. This relation is important, however, given the fact that, on the one hand, Naipaul is trying to represent a societal transition from a colonial to postcolonial situation and, on the other hand, that he acknowledges in The Mimic Men that he is describing a world that lacks cultural models, including artistic precedents. Typical of postcolonial critical discourse in this regard is Sara Suleri's view that Naipaul is beyond realism since he is writing about a Third World place and time lacking continuity with England in the colonial period. Suleri observes that Naipaul's “mature writing no longer conceives of the literary as a recourse from the political” as is the case in earlier British fiction, “but instead internalizes the imperial tradition represented by both modes into a dazzling idiom that no longer needs to indicate the referents of its discourse.” To Suleri, Naipaul draws the present not by representating fresh situations and new narratives or myths but backwardly in a “highly sophisticated ironizing of imperial mythmaking” (154-55).

I believe I have shown that there is fresh, meaningful representation and storytelling in The Mimic Men. However, Suleri's antirealist emphasis does point us to an important anxiety about language in The Mimic Men. And this anxiety derives from more than just the unreliable nature of its subjective, first-person, retrospective viewpoint. We need to seek its origin in the crisis of linguistic authority for which Ralph Singh's plight as a politician is synecdochial. Singh's frustration that his words, although effective as oratory, were not attached to real things, real power to shape events, is the danger that Naipaul himself knowingly courts in his attempt to write a culturally meaningful narrative about a postcolonial situation for which there are no precedents and for which resources must, to some extent, be improvised, self-generated. Yet, as I hope I have shown, Naipaul does succeed in finding his way through this challenge; and pivotal to his success is his Conradian use of retrospective narrative as a way of marrying what Suleri characterizes as the “objectlessness of postcolonial indignation” (155) of his mimic men (and what I would categorize as the work's modernist aspects) with a social, psychological, and political anatomy of Isabellan life and politics that is rooted philosophically and aesthetically in realism.

How can I support a reading of the novel as morally coherent and largely objective when I have observed racial and ethnic biases playing a role in shaping Naipaul's vision and when Naipaul seems to approach writing in a state of emotional defensiveness? “I may sit down in enormous rage to write something,” Naipaul admits to Rowe-Evans.

I might even begin in terms of caricature and animosity; but in the course of writing, something will happen. That side of me, that comes out in the writing, is the better side, and better not because it's nicer, but because it's truer; it's the side that in one's rage one might wish to forget. I began my recent book about Africa [In a Free State] with a great hatred of everyone, of the entire continent; and that had to be refined away, giving place to comprehension.


Naipaul's description of the evolution he undergoes while writing seems accurate. He does move toward understanding and compassion, even for those he begins by disliking.

My intention in providing a close reading, grounded in the overt “argument” of the narrative, has not been to ignore either Naipaul's ethnic panic about Black Power nor Naipaul's sense of Indian cultural superiority. In fact, one purpose for establishing a detailed cultural context is to establish the interested novelistic choices and strategies implicit in Naipaul's assembling of his fictional world. That I have chosen in the end to articulate what I think are the overt meanings the text leads us to, rather than to emphasize Naipaul's slippages into bigotry or nostalgia for empire, reflects my belief that we lose more than we gain if we approach Naipaul's political fiction primarily to deconstruct his professed beliefs in representation and artistic “truth.”25 Are there vestiges of racism and adulation of empire in The Mimic Men that I've omitted in my effort to adduce a unified work? Certainly there is sympathy for empire in the penultimate London episode with Lord Stockwell, the sugar-cane estate owner who gains Singh's respect by telling him he knew and admired Singh's father (225-29). And, as I have already indicated, there is perhaps more than a trace of racism in Naipaul's use of Browne's father as a typical rural worker, since the basic pattern in the Caribbean was that East Indians made up more of the oppressed agricultural population and blacks tended to be found in the cities (145-49).

But most important for a realist reading is the depiction of the new political movement and social fabric delineated in The Mimic Men, especially the fragile alliance between the East Indians and the Afro-Caribbeans. The Mimic Men appears to accurately reflect the multiethnic societies and political fragmentation that typifies Trinidad, British Guyana, and Suriname (see Simms, MacDonald, Dew, and Naipaul, Middle Passage). Moreover, The Mimic Men appears to be derived in significant ways from the short-lived coalition government of the East Indian Cheddi Jagan and the black Forbes Burnham in British Guyana in 1953, a government that ended after several months when their new constitution was suspended by Whitehall and British troops were sent in to quell estate strikes.26 The Burnham-Jagan government provides Naipaul with the historical basis to explore an early and important political experiment in Caribbean independence. In addition, by reversing the dominance in the relationship—in 1953 Cheddi Jagan and his politically talented wife Janet outmaneuvered Forbes Burnham (Simms 107-10)—he is able to include his fears of black nationalism. However, it is erroneous to assume that this selection of the Burnham-Jagan government as a model was a conservative choice and is necessarily an expression of antagonism to postcolonial nationalism. For one, the Burnham-Jagan government was leftist, highly independent, and by most considered revolutionary. Secondly, and more important to Naipaul, was the fact that it was a coalition government that sought to overcome the social fragmentation that distressed him. As The Middle Passage makes perfectly clear, coalition government and the quest to find shared communal values were at the core of Naipaul's political hopes (224, 230-31).

Finally, it is interesting to note that Naipaul saw both Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham speak at Oxford after their government fell in 1953 and that he came away with a positive opinion of Burnham as well as Jagan. As he indicates in The Middle Passage, the change in his estimate of them in 1961, once they were political rivals pursuing votes from their own racial group, turns on the fact that Burnham, while still a great orator, no longer had a message or purpose other than stirring racially polarizing attitudes (131-32, 140), much as Ethelbert Browne is shown to drift into stirring “negative frenzy” (205, 216) in the novel.

For all these reasons, especially the historical and political context just described, Naipaul's novel supports a realist interpretation, its poetical texture and Conradian retrospective narration notwithstanding.

To categorize Naipaul's cultural and political biases before reading the novel and then to seize on evidence during the reading that confirm these biases may be empowering for postcolonial critics of the “Naipaul fallacy” (Appiah 146; Gates, “Introduction” 14; “Talkin'” 405), but it does not give the novel its chance to enlarge our experience as readers. Instead, we need to let the novel reveal its world.


  1. Naipaul, The Overcrowded Barracoon 250-54. See also The Middle Passage 168-99, esp. 168-74, 178.

  2. See Cudjoe 14-15, Brennan 174, Maja-Pearce 111.

  3. See Searle 46-47, Said 320, Mustafa 1-3; Maja-Pearce 111.

  4. In a 1973 interview Naipaul says: “I think that one reason why my journalism can last is because I never had any such ideas about Left or Right. One just looked at what had happened. There are no principles involved in one's vision” (qtd. in Bryden). For more discussion on this question of Naipaul's disinterested objectivity, see Nixon 28-34.

  5. Theroux's recent book about their relationship (Sir Vidia's Shadow) contains further characterization of Naipaul as a dogmatic and selfish curmudgeon.

  6. See Rowe-Evans's interview with Naipaul on how the “solitude and loneliness of the job” produces “crankish” behavior in writers (33). For another interesting and complementary view of Naipaul's aversion to community and self-reliance, see Nixon 1-10.

  7. The repeated mention of the body odor of Africans by the white protagonists, Linda and Bobby, in In a Free State has elicited much critical commentary. For the reaction of an African critic, see Adewale Maja-Pearce's article (111-12), in which she reminds us of lines in In a Free State such as “The African opened the door himself. He filled the car with his smell” (136); “The boy was big and he moved briskly, creating little turbulences of stink” (175); “The tall boy came to clear away Bobby and Linda's plates and left a little of his stink behind” (178). Peggy Nightingale tries to evade an imputation that Naipaul is guilty of malicious racial stereotyping by pointing out that “references to the dirtiness and smell of Africans are balanced by allusions to Linda's vaginal deodorant and Bobby's sexual activities (165). Landeg White tries similarly to justify the objectionable emphases on “physical unpleasantness”: “Words like ‘fat’ and ‘smell’ enter the story as part of Linda's vocabulary and are adopted as Naipaul's from the Hunting Lodge incident onwards; but the same points are made about the Colonel” (200). The impression, however, of an unkind preoccupation with African body odor is not so easily dismissed; and even the argument of realism in a country with non-Western bathing practices and facilities does not fully mitigate the sense of an underlying lack of generosity and troubling fixation. Dennis Walder's discussion is helpful as he tries to consider the “question of how adequately the author has distanced himself from the racism of his characters.” Walder points out the difficulty of knowing whether we are “inhabiting the expatriate consciousness,” the fictional narrator's perspective, or the author's (113). Nevertheless, Walder's conclusion contains an indictment: “Naipaul's imaginative perspective too readily accommodates the familiar, dehumanizing, dehistorizing stereotyping in Western, if not racist, ideology” (114).

  8. See the discussion in the 1970 essay “Power?” in The Overcrowded Barracoon 246-54.

  9. Naipaul had at least one run-in with Mobutu's army. See Theroux's “V. S. Naipaul”:

    we took my car to Rowanda, and I did the driving. One day we made a wrong turn and ended up in the Congo. Border guards detained us. They … carried guns. When they sent us away, Naipaul said, “Did you see their uniforms? Did you hear their bad French? Let's get out of here.”


  10. Naipaul is referring here to the emergence of Black Power in the Caribbean.

  11. An unusual instance is found in “Prologue to an Autobiography” 32. Relevant here, also, is the view of Arnold Rampersad, also raised in Trinidad, that

    Trinidad had wounded … [Naipaul] as a child and youth … in the ever-present campaign of humiliation and demoralization and threats of violence aimed at Indians that he would have encountered … in the capital, Port of Spain, in the late 1940s.


    Such experiences would help to explain his antagonism to blacks and his rejection of his homeland.

  12. See Rowe-Evans on Naipaul's explanation of his removal from “entanglements, from rivalries, from competition” (31). See also Bryden 367. For a superb summary of these tendencies, see Rob Nixon 17-35.

  13. See The Enigma of Arrival 152-53, Tikasingh 27-28, Sowell 341-42, and Rampersad 45.

  14. In An Area of Darkness, when Naipaul flies to Rome after living for a year in India close to the “Indian negation,” there occurs a related observation:

    It was only now, as my experience of India defined itself more properly against my own homelessness, that I saw how close in the past year I had been to the total Indian negation, how much it had become the basis of thought and feeling. And already, with this awareness, in a world where illusion could only be a concept and not something felt in the bones, it was slipping away from me.


  15. It is revealing, for instance, that in Guerillas we encounter not only a very chilling black character in Jimmy Ahmed but also a very sophisticated and intelligent black in Meredith Herbert.

  16. V. S. Pritchett has pointed out that Naipaul is always “true to his design” (qtd. in Michener 72).

  17. I am thinking not only of the “big man” dictatorship found in both works, but more specifically of the shrewd, elderly non-African businessmen in each, the Arab Nazruddin in one, and an unnamed Indian in the other (see A Bend 20-24; “Home Again,” A Way 358-61).

  18. Hassan identifies these two Indian politicians as possible sources for Ralph Singh (256). See the chapter titled “British Guiana” in The Middle Passage for a description of Naipaul's travels with Cheddi and Janet Jagan on a campaign swing in 1960.

  19. I believe that he is speaking about the mid to late 1930s; we know that Singh returned to Isabella after college in 1945.

  20. This allusion, however, to his father's “guru” status does fall in the category of an embarrassment. The Indian ritual killing of Tamago, the Deschampsneufs's racing horse, is believed to have been the work of Singh's father's group (140-42).

  21. It is noteworthy that Naipaul's protagonist locates rural “distress” in black life, whereas on Trinidad rural workers were generally East Indian (Black et al. 99).

  22. See Tikasingh 20-21. Tikasingh paraphrases an essay read by a Trinidadian barrister before the Indian National Congress in 1913. The author, R. E. M. Hosein, was very concerned about assimilation of Indians and intermarriage. Tikasingh's research concerns the first two decades of the twentieth century. Jan Knippers Black confirms, in his 1976 survey of Trinidad society, that Hinduism on Trinidad includes for Indians “a feeling of cultural superiority” (79); that Indians resisted assimilation into a Creole society they “considered inferior to their own cultural heritages” (80); and that East Indians felt a “stereotyped and reciprocating animosity toward and avoidance of the Negroes” (85).

  23. See, for example, White 157-59. For a review of criticism on the issue of the overlap between Naipaul's attitudes and Ralph Singh's, see Hassan 257-58.

  24. As Rob Nixon has observed, Naipaul's thoughts on colonial mimicry were forming in his novels in the 1950s and are fully formed in The Middle Passage (Nixon 201n21).

  25. He says to Aamer Hussein that his purpose in inventing reality rather than replicating it photographically is “to deliver the truth, really, to deliver a form of reality” (154). He also speaks of “pinning down reality” (155).

  26. A reading of Simms's Trouble in Guyana gives one the impression that Naipaul was very familiar with the story of the Burnham-Jagan government of 1953 and the ethnic fragmentation and Guyanese politics that followed the disintegration of their relationship—at least very familiar by the time he began writing The Mimic Men, and somewhat conversant when he visited Guiana to research The Middle Passage in 1961.

Works Cited

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Bhabha, K. Homi. “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse.” The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994. 85-92.

Black, Jan Knippers, et al. Area Handbook for Trinidad and Tobago. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1976. Prepared by Foreign Area Studies of the American University.

Brennan, Timothy. “The National Longing for Form.” Post-Colonial Studies Reader. Ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. London: Routledge, 1995. 170-75.

Bryden, Ronald. “The Novelist V. S. Naipaul Talks about His Work to Ronald Bryden.” The Listener (22 Mar. 1973): 367.

Cudjoe, Selwyn R. V. S. Naipaul: A Materialist Reading. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1988.

Dew, Edward M. The Trouble in Suriname, 1975-1993. Westport: Praeger, 1994.

Durix, Jean-Pierre. Mimesis, Genres and Post-Colonial Discourse: Deconstructing Magic Realism. New York: St. Martin's, 1998.

Gates Jr., Henry Louis. “Editor's Introduction: Writing ‘Race’ and the Difference It Makes.” “Race,” Writing, and Difference. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985. 1-20.

———. “Talkin' That Talk.” “Race,” Writing, and Difference. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985. 402-09.

Goodheart, Eugene. “V. S. Naipaul's Mandarin Sensibility. Partisan Review 50 (1983): 244-56.

Hassan, Dolly Zulakha. V. S. Naipaul and the West Indies. New York: Peter Lang, 1989.

Hussein, Aamer. “Delivering The Truth: An Interview With V. S. Naipaul.” Conversations with V. S. Naipaul. Ed. Feroza Jussawalla. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1997. 154-61.

MacDonald, Scott B. Trinidad and Tobago: Democracy and Development in the Caribbean. New York: Praeger, 1986.

Maja-Pearce, Adewale. “The Naipauls on Africa: An African View.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 20.1 (1985): 111-17.

Michener, Charles. “The Dark Visions of V. S. Naipaul.” Conversations with V. S. Naipaul. Ed. Feroza Jussawalla. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1997. 63-74.

Mustafa, Fawzia. V. S. Naipaul. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995.

Naipaul, V. S. An Area of Darkness. New York: Macmillan, 1964.

———. A Bend in the River. New York: Knopf, 1979.

———. Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted People. New York: Random, 1998.

———. The Enigma of Arrival. New York: Knopf, 1987.

———. Guerrillas. London: Andre Deutsch, 1975.

———. In a Free State. 1971. London: Penguin, 1973.

———. Introduction. East Indians in the Caribbean: Colonialism and the Struggle for Identity. Proc. of Symposium on the East Indian in the Caribbean. U of West Indies, June 1975. Millwood: Krause International, 1982. 1-9.

———. The Middle Passage. London: Andre Deutsch, 1962.

———. The Mimic Men. 1967. London: Penguin, 1969.

———. The Overcrowded Barracoon and Other Articles. London: Andre Deutsch, 1972.

———. “Prologue to an Autobiography.” Finding the Center: Two Narratives. London: Andre Deutsch, 1989. 15-85.

———. The Return of Eva Peron with the Killings in Trinidad. New York: Knopf, 1980.

———. A Turn in the South. 1989. New York: Vintage, International Edition, 1990.

———. A Way in the World. 1994. New York: Vintage, International Edition, 1995.

———. “What's Wrong with Being a Snob?” Saturday Evening Post (3 June 1967): 12, 18.

Nightingale, Peggy. Journey Through Darkness: The Writings of V. S. Naipaul. St. Lucia: U of Queensland P, 1987.

Nixon, Rob. London Calling: V. S. Naipaul, Postcolonial Mandarin. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.

Rampersad, Arnold. “V. S. Naipaul: Turning in the South.” Raritan 10.1 (1990): 24-47.

Ricoeur, Paul. “Metaphor and the Central Problem of Hermeneutics.” Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences. Ed. and trans. John B. Thompson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981. 165-181.

Rowe-Evans, Adrian. “V. S. Naipaul: A Transition Interview.” Conversations with V. S. Naipaul. Ed. Feroza Jussawalla. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1997. 24-36.

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. London: Vintage, 1994.

Searle, Chris. “Naipaulicity: A Form of Cultural Imperialism.” Race and Class 26.2 (1984): 45-62.

Simms, Peter. Trouble in Guyana: An Account of People, Personalities and Politics as They Were in British Guiana. London: Allen & Unwin, 1966.

Sowell, Thomas. Migrations and Culture: A World View. New York: Harper, 1996. 309-70.

Suleri, Sara. The Rhetoric of English India. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.

Theroux, Paul. Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents. Boston: Houghton, 1998.

———. “V. S. Naipaul.” Modern Fiction Studies 30.3 (1984): 445-54.

Thieme, John. “Hindu Castaway: Ralph Singh's Journey in The Mimic Men.Modern Fiction Studies 30.3 (1984): 505-18.

Tikasingh, Gerad. “Toward a Formulation of the Indian View of History: The Representation of Indian Opinion in Trinidad, 1900-1921.” East Indians in the Caribbean: Colonialism and the Struggle for Identity. Proc. of Symposium on the East Indian in the Caribbean. U of West Indies, June 1975. Millwood: Krause International, 1982. 11-32.

Walder, Dennis. “V. S. Naipaul and the Postcolonial Order.” Recasting the World: Writing After Colonialism. Ed. Jonathan White. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993. 82-119.

Wheeler, Charles. “‘It's Every Man for Himself’—V. S. Naipaul on India.” Conversations with V. S. Naipaul. Ed. Feroza Jussawalla. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1997. 39-44.

White, Landeg. V. S. Naipaul: A Critical Introduction. London: Macmillan, 1975.

Bruce King (review date summer 2000)

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SOURCE: King, Bruce. Review of Between Father and Son, by V. S. Naipaul. World Literature Today 74, no. 3 (summer 2000): 575-76.

[In the following review, King finds what he calls unexpected details included in the letters of Between Father and Son.]

The letters gathered in Between Father and Son are mostly between V. S. Naipaul, his older sister Kamla, and their father Seepersad Naipaul. The mother seldom writes and seems an outsider to their interests in writing, culture, and becoming independent from her wealthy but insulting family. In one of the last letters before his death, Seepersad remarks that he and his wife have never grown close. The other five children are younger, and a major theme of the letters is the conflict between devoting oneself to a future career, especially as a writer, and helping others in the family gain an education. This was a time in the British colonies when there was little public education and the way up the economic and social ladder was to earn a scholarship to one of a few elite schools, and then for the very few to win a scholarship to study abroad.

When the volume begins, Vidia has left for Oxford University, where he will study English, and Kamla is already at Benares Hindu University taking courses in Indian culture. They are both brilliant scholarship students but lonely, isolated, unaccustomed to life outside their extended family, a loneliness that will become worse as Vidia falls into a deep depression that lasts for most of his stay at Oxford and leads to months of breakdown, while Kamla becomes highly emotional, even unstable. They are often ill (Vidia suffers from asthma) and, along with their father, usually in financial trouble. They keep sending each other small sums that they cannot afford. They are also similar in having spending sprees to cheer themselves up. Vidia laments his thin coat in which he freezes and his old shoes which leak in the rain, and he never has money to repair his typewriter; but he brags of having tea every day at the most expensive hotel in Oxford. Those quirks of Naipaul's personality that have amused or angered others over the years were already present, and their causes are obvious, as is their model in his father, who, while always in debt, becomes obsessed with raising expensive orchids and who keeps asking for novels from England.

While the outlines of the Naipaul family story are known from his novels and autobiographical essays, the details are unexpected. There is Vido (the name he used until the British dubbed him Vidia), who was a good bowler at cricket, who enjoyed doing hard, day-long physical labor on farms during his university vacations, who arrived at Oxford unfamiliar with European three-course meals (which he describes to his family the way an American tourist might describe the conventions of traditional Indian eating), who was learning that in England one says “raincoat” instead of “cloak,” and who wanted to prove that he can write English better than the English can. There is Seepersad, who, while his son was at Oxford, was himself having his first short stories read on the BBC Caribbean Voices Program and who felt that if only he did not have a family to support he could become a writer, his main ambition in life; and there is Kamla, who is the one to return home to support the family after Seepersad has a stroke and dies, while a tougher Vidia announces that he has taken an English wife and that his first novel has been accepted for publication.

James Wood (review date 1 October 2001)

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SOURCE: Wood, James. “Saving Vidia.” New Statesman (1 October 2001): 79-80.

[In the following review, Wood applauds Half a Life,finding it intelligent and complex.]

It is a delight, after the spilt “fury” of Salman Rushdie's latest assemblage, to savour the furious control of V S Naipaul's new novel. Here, anger is measured in sips, and compassion, of which there is more than might be expected in one of Naipaul's late works, is subtly rationed. Half a Life confirms Naipaul's stature as the greatest living analyst of the colonial and post-colonial dilemma; and those who have never approved of that analysis, and have objected over the years to what they see as Naipaul's fatalism, snobbery or even racism, may find in this book the surprise of a submerged radicalism, a willingness to see things from the eyes of the disadvantaged. At times, the lion does indeed consent to lie down with the underdog.

In the simplest possible prose, in sentences dried down to pure duty, this novel unfolds its compelling story. One day, young Willie Chandran asks his father about his curious middle name. In the course of providing an explanation, the father tells Willie his life story. The son of a successful clerk and proud Brahmin, Willie's father deliberately ruined his chances of betterment by deciding, in the spirit of Gandhi (it was the 1930s), that he should abandon his college degree and submit to a political sacrifice. The sacrifice involved choosing a wife from a low caste, a “backward”. Willie's father had no love for this woman, was indeed repelled by her “backwardness”. But he married her anyway. When their son, Willie, was born, his father anxiously scrutinised him to see “how much of the backward could be read in his features … Anyone seeing me bend over the infant would have thought I was looking at the little creature with pride.” So Willie, in turn, grows up despising his cruel and cold father, and is eager to leave India. It is 1957. Willie enrolls at a college of education in London, and begins a new life there as a “colonial”.

The novel is 50 pages old at this point. The story of this “sacrifice”, both cruel and masochistic, is tremendously compulsive; it has the compulsion of illogical logic. Like Stavrogin's similarly masochistic marriage to a low-born woman in Dostoevsky's The Possessed, it is a gesture that has the veneer of principle but is in fact pathological; and like Stavrogin's act, it is so abnormal that we read on simply in order to find a solving normality. There is none, as Willie suspects—it is why he so hates his father. Its logic is simply that, having been embarked on, it must be continued to the end—a logic curiously analogous to the reading experience (which explains the deep compulsion of Dostoevsky and, in this case, of Naipaul).

Willie's father makes his sacrifice because of apparently radical, or at least progressive, impulses. But the vileness of his act, its unredeemed quality, lies in the paradox that he is not remotely “progressive” in his treatment of his low-caste wife. He is, if anything, more disdainful of his wife's disadvantage, more obsessed by caste distinctions, than he would have been if he had never married her. It is a paradox that runs like a fault line through the entire novel and provides its special richness of political complexity. Behind the arras of the apparently political, suggests Naipaul, lies the messy corpse of our actual motives; and our actual motives may have nothing at all to do with the political.

The best example of this is found in Willie's somewhat doomed life. As an Indian student in 1950s London, suffering the usual humiliations, he finds that he is less willing to criticise his father. And as he sees how much of late-imperial Britain is actually the invention of the recent past, he also feels that the old rules of India—the caste traditions, and so on—no longer hold him: “he was free to present himself as he wished. He could, as it were, write his own revolution.”

Up to a point, Willie remakes himself. He gets on in the immigrant-bohemian society of Notting Hill; he writes radio pieces for the BBC; he has a brief affair with an Englishwoman who works at the perfume counter in Debenhams; he writes a book of stories that is rather condescendingly accepted and published—here Naipaul revisits the primal scene of his own “humiliation” as a young Indian writer from Trinidad trying to “find the centre”, a scenario he has repeatedly described, fictively and autobiographically.

But Willie is ultimately unable to escape his father's negative obsession with caste. He has inherited it. And in imperial or colonial societies, where Willie now lives, an obsession with caste must become an obsession with race. In London, for instance, Willie befriends Percy Cato, a Jamaican of “mixed parentage”, “more brown than black”. Willie likes Percy, but can't help feeling, because of Percy's blackness, that “he stood a rung or two or many rungs above Percy”. Race has become caste. He meets Ana, a Portuguese African from Mozambique (she had a Portuguese grandfather), marries her, and goes to live with her on her family estate in Mozambique. There, Willie and his wife's friends are higher up the ladder than the Africans, but they are not pure Portuguese, either. Slowly Willie realises “that the world I had entered was only a half-and-half world, that many of the people who were our friends considered themselves, deep down, people of the second rank”.

So the son of a Brahmin father and a “backward” mother has made it all the way up—to “the second rank”. In the last third of the novel, with terse economy and unsparing acuteness, Naipaul uncovers this second-rank world, a world of braggarts, reactionaries and fakers, people who are very big in a wilderness, but who would be very small in an oasis, and who secretly know it. Nothing is finer than the portrait of the local “big shots”, Jacinto and Carla Correia. Jacinto, of mixed Portuguese-African descent, has money, and has had his children educated in Lisbon—where he anxiously tells them “always to use taxis. People must never think of them as colonial nobodies.”

As if it were not clear enough to Willie that this world is built on false foundations, one day, visiting a restaurant with his friends, he sees the pure-Portuguese owner abusing a black worker, “a big light-eyed mulatto man”. Willie says nothing, but tells us that whenever he remembered “the big sweating man with the abused light eyes, carrying the shame of his birth on his face like a brand”, he would think: “Who will rescue that man? Who will avenge him?”

Willie spends 18 years in Mozambique, and the novel ends at the moment of his decision to leave. He is in his forties. Thus the novel has covered, literally, “half a life”. But Naipaul means his title more darkly, too. Willie has lived only half a life because, of mixed parentage himself, he is only “half-and-half”. And Willie chose to spend most of his life in colonial Mozambique, a “half-and-half” society. More deeply, Willie is half a man because his father's baleful shadow has cut across his life, scything it in two. Notionally free to make himself anew, Willie finds that, in truth, he is doomed to repeat the sacrificial frigidity of his father's life; notionally free of the artifice of caste and race, he is in fact as imprisoned by it as his father—with the difference that at least his father chose to imprison himself, whereas Willie never asked for his own imprisonment. The repellent “sacrifice” of Willie's father has the peculiar effect of both undermining caste and inscribing it more deeply in the fabric of life. By turning caste into a decision, a choice, its bases are exposed as artificial; but by making it a curse, to be handed on from father to son, it has been fatalised, turned into a pathology.

This is how Naipaul's intelligent novel works, too: on the one hand, it remorselessly exposes caste and race distinctions as nothing more than accidents, choices and fake rules; on the other hand, its relentless attention to those very distinctions makes them seem pathologically immoveable. It is this paradoxical movement, between sympathy and coldness, between a potentially radical awareness of the disease of race and an apparently more conservative determination to insist on the permanence of that disease, that produces the novel's powerful, shifting complexity.

Those who are suspicious of Naipaul's politics will surely trace the book's ambivalence to its author and accuse him of political pessimism, even fatalism; those more disposed to Naipaul will find power in that pessimism, as well as the seeds of a cold compassion: because what Willie thinks about the abused restaurant worker might also be said, in pity, of poor trapped Willie, and even perhaps of Naipaul: “Who will rescue that man? Who will avenge him?”

Patrick Marnham (review date 6 October 2001)

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SOURCE: Marnham, Patrick. “An Innocent, but Not at Home.” Spectator 287, no. 9035 (6 October 2001): 69-70.

[In the following review, Marnham describes Half a Life as a novel but also as a topical book on contemporary political and cultural issues.]

Willie Chandran, from a family of temple priests, grows up in a maharajah's state in the last days of the Raj. Mocked at school because his middle name is ‘Somerset’, he discovers that he was named after a great English writer who had a stammer and who once visited his father while travelling to gather material for a book about spirituality. His father had quarrelled with his own family by marrying Willie's mother, an ill-favoured and sarcastic woman of low caste. Subsequently this father abandoned all chance of a future as an engineer or doctor; he ‘gave up education and unfitted himself for life’. Instead he became a holy man, taking a vow of silence and living by begging in an ashram.

Willie Chandran's childhood is spent in genteel poverty on the fringe of the maharajah's court. But he has hopes of future distinction since he is raised in the shade of the revered Mr Maugham. As Gandhi's ‘civil disobedience’ spreads through the Raj, Willie's childhood world becomes increasingly confused, his father's certainties dissolve and British rule collapses. Willie's view of India becomes misty and uncertain, like that of a foreigner. And his personal confusion is complicated by the enveloping chaos of Indian independence; this is the familiar world of Naipaul, where ordinary lives are swamped by political turmoil.

Half a Life is entirely set in the recent past and follows Chandran's life, or ‘half life’, from India to literary failure in London and finally to a Portuguese colony in Africa. These three periods in Chandran's progress act as a sort of background to destinies first glimpsed in The Mimic Men, Guerrillas and A Bend in the River. But Half a Life is more than a reprise; it is an unexpectedly topical book since it links Europe and Asia in a bitter political struggle and depicts some of the consequences of political decline, loss of control, post-colonial weakness, personal confusion and self-hatred, the melancholy litany of themes that support the life of Naipaul's silhouetted characters.

The interlude on the fringes of Fifties literary-political London, Fitzrovia and the slums of pre-gentrified Notting Hill is accomplished in barely 50 pages. Willie knows of Speakers' Corner as an international symbol of freedom, but when he gets there for the first time he is struck by the thought that ‘the families of these men might have been glad to get them out of the house in the afternoon’. Later he is taken to lunch at Chez Victor with its little notice ‘le Patron mange ici’ and a glimpse of V. S. Pritchett across the room—pointed out to Willie as the main reviewer in the New Statesman, a paper he had seen in the college library ‘full of mystery [and] English issues he didn't understand’.

This is the world of left-wing parties to which a boorish and tedious poet can be invited to recreate Proust's ‘nosegay effect’, like a little bit of dead fern setting the whole thing off. It is also the world of ‘bedroom Marxists’, so-called after the room on which their Marxism is centred, and where it stops. One of them, Percy Cato, works for a violent slum landlord who makes an incognito cameo appearance at one such party, bearing champagne. The landlord, surely a portrait of the late Peter Rachman, has ‘an extraordinarily soft voice … an accent that was not the accent of a professional man’ and eyes that were ‘cold and still’. He explains to Willie that as a property developer his work consists of helping elderly protected tenants in the big houses ‘to move out to the leafy suburbs or a nice little country cottage’. Naipaul's jokes are as usual deadly and understated, and if anything darker. Marcus, the West African Marxist, training for presidential power, is dedicated to, or rather insatiable about, interracial sex, but his real ambition is to be the first black man to open an account at Coutts.

Willie, in contrast to his London friends, and in contrast to many of Naipaul's earlier heroes, remains an innocent. When his attempts to contact the great Somerset Maugham meet with a meaningless and senile response he abandons his hopes of becoming a successful writer in London, falls in love with Ana and sets off for Africa in a final bid to make sense of his life. In the past Naipaul has used Africa as a metaphor for disintegration and despair; but Willie Chandran discovers a different continent redolent of strength and fertility. From the sea he first observes the rivers of the northern province, very wide rivers, quiet and empty, whose frightening mouths have barred any possible road or land route. Ana had ‘broken out of’ Portuguese when she first came to England, regarding her native tongue as an intellectual prison. Now in this obscure corner of the colony, Willie has to learn Portuguese. His youthful unease with archaic Victorian literature develops into something more alarming; he begins to fear that he may be losing his powers of self-expression. Having first abandoned his native tongue and then the English language of his writing, he worries that he will lose the gift of speech itself. For Willie, leaving England means severing the last link with the identity of his childhood and the cultural birthright that would have been his under the Raj, if Gandhi and Nehru had not prevailed.

But in Africa he finds that he is at last able to add an important new dimension to his life with the discovery of sexual passion. As he is overwhelmed by this new happiness his thoughts turn in unexpected directions—he thinks of ‘his poor father and mother who had known nothing like this moment’. As passion develops, ‘the brutality of sexual life’ leads to helpless obsession and then ‘sexual madness’, and Willie begins to feel some ‘respect for the religious outlawing of sexual extremes’. When the affair ends, Africa continues, the broken-down machinery and the broken-down people, the sham grandeur of the last estate managers, an imprisoned snake in a green bottle that time will inevitably release, the abandoned shops and military barracks, the insurgents creeping past the command post and investing the town centre, the constant battle to ‘squeeze comfort out of the hard land, like blood out of a stone’, and ‘the encroaching darkness that covers the mind’.

In Half a Life Naipaul remains constant to himself, awkward and uncompromising, succeeding where few novelists venture to go, steadily refusing in his own words ‘to tell his readers what they already know’, and once again demonstrating his ability to raise the failed lives of his characters to the tragic dimension by reference to public issues and universal truths.

Philip Hensher (review date 20 October 2001)

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SOURCE: Hensher, Philip. “A Perfectly Targeted Prize.” Spectator 287, no. 9037 (20 October 2001): 44-5.

[In the following review, Hensher assesses Naipaul's literary achievements and deems him “a supremely deserving Nobel laureate.”]

The best aspect of V. S. Naipaul's Nobel Prize is that, for once, the prize has not been influenced by any political considerations, and can only be taken as an acknowledgment of a great literary master. If ever there was a moment when external considerations might have discouraged the Nobel committee from rewarding the author of Among the Believers, that magnificently disdainful journey through Islam, this is it. They have, admirably, not taken that into account, and nobody can doubt that, for once, here is an author who is being rewarded for the only thing that matters, the quality of his work. He is a supremely deserving Nobel laureate.

In recent years, rows over his always audacious public pronouncements and, alas, title-tattle about his private life have proliferated alarmingly, to the point that the reviews of Half a Life, his brilliant new novel, hardly seemed to engage with the book at all. In an age when fame can be based on nothing at all, it sometimes seems difficult to remember that Naipaul's claim on our attention is not founded on throwaway remarks or a private life of which, despite extensive and unpleasant scrutiny, we can claim to know nothing at all. In the end, the memoirs and the malice of the press are utterly insignificant; The Enigma of Arrival is unaffected by the bickering, just as we read Othello without worrying about the second-best bed. Anyone starting on these subjects in this context should be aware of how small-minded they sound.

The key to Naipaul's artistic trajectory, I think, lies in the series of extraordinary polemical travel books he started to write in the 1960s. Beginning with The Middle Passage in 1962, Naipaul travelled through the relics of colonialism in the New World, and returned to the India of his ancestors in An Area of Darkness and two subsequent books. His two studies of Islamic civilisation, Among the Believers and Beyond Belief, came later; like all these studies, they seem to be driven by a furious, confident conviction, and not at all by tact. The blazing certainty which allows Naipaul to take on a gigantic cultural fact like caste takes the breath away, and in the end they are thrilling whether or not they command assent. For what it's worth, I find a lot more to agree with in the Indian books than in Naipaul's studies of Islam, but he has written nothing more exciting than Among the Believers. The vividness of the encounters, the force of the polemic and, always, the beauty of the writing are compelling, and propel the reader through what can seem an all-encompassing unfairness.

They are superb books on their own terms, but viewed in the context of Naipaul's career, it is tempting to think that he undertook the grand enterprise, which began by investigating the roots of his own complex culture, in a spirit of self-improvement. Such an investigation of the great movements of cultures and empires which converge on this particular individual would draw Naipaul across the world, and the project had a gigantic impact on Naipaul's fiction. The emphasis changed distinctly between Naipaul's first novels and the extraordinary sequence which began in the 1970s. His first novels are rooted in his personal history, and explore the extraordinary position of a family doubly deracinated, an Indian view of Trinidad in the last days of empire, dreaming of London. Rich as this ambiguous cultural experience was, Naipaul might have started to reflect by the early 1960s that the individual personal experience was not a sufficient basis for his ambitions. He could perfectly well have continued in the sumptuous vein of The Mystic Masseur and A House for Mr Biswas all his career, and he would still have been a wonderful novelist. Instead, he sent himself out into the world, and the steadily expanding horizon beneath his contemplation is depicted in a series of masterpieces, of an intellectual scope and grandeur not seen in English since Conrad.

That is emphatically not to denigrate the first, Caribbean novels. They have a delirious hilarity—the dazzling pay-off of The Mystic Masseur infallibly provokes a bark of laughter, and the raucous tale of ‘the Mechanical Genius’ in Miguel Street has the same blissful sense of escalating outrage as the best of Waugh. The powerful charm of the manner, too, in which the driest and most sophisticated of narrators eyes chaotic lives isn't the least of the attractions of A House for Mr Biswas. But, looking back, what is chiefly striking is the mastery of architecture, the innovative and complex structures, and an underlying seriousness in the treatment of big themes. Miguel Street, for instance, is a complete delight, and goes down like a gin fizz at sunset, but its daring is unmistakable. Brilliant, for instance, to structure the novel unconsecutively and without any clear chronology, so that character pop up 20 pages after their deaths are reported; how unobtrusively it conveys the message that nothing, really, will ever change here. The fervent tone of the conclusion, as the narrator departs for England for good, might seem curious in so delicate and merry a comedy; that it is entirely natural shows how serious the attention to cultures has been throughout. In A House for Mr Biswas, that grand and tragic exploration of a bad writer's life in the most elevated terms, he showed how rich the multiple conflicts of cultures, languages and discourses could prove. In the end, A House for Mr Biswas is not just a desperate and heartrending individual tragedy, but a suggestive parable about deracination; Biswas is not at home in his place, in the literature he aspires to, in his skin.

That this, in part, was Naipaul's own condition is suggested by a startling passage in An Area of Darkness in which he reflects that, visiting India, for the first time in his life he can melt into a crowd. That sense of egregiousness is a profound one, and anyone else, having achieved the marvellous and grand fiction of A House for Mr Biswas, might have thought that the theme was not yet exhausted. Indeed, Naipaul's subsequent novels burrowed deep into the condition in different ways. A Bend in the River of 1979, which in some ways I love best of all his novels, is as good and wise as Conrad (one keeps returning to the awesome comparison) in its portrait of a small businessman in a vast and turbulent Africa, and its thoughts on the nature and meaning of trade. By The Enigma of Arrival he found himself ready to return to the personal experience, but, immensely enriched by thought and wider investigations, the result was the strangest and grandest of all his books, a novel whose implications and method we will be struggling with for decades to come.

In general, Naipaul's supremacy lies in two quite separate directions. The first is the sheer beauty of the writing—I put it like that, knowing how inadequate and imprecise the praise is, but on every page, one is brought up by the elegance and balance of the sentences, the refinement of the cadences, the unfailing precision of the vocabulary. There is something almost 18th-century about Naipaul's elegance in prose, the infallible instinct with which he alternates plain and elevated vocabulary. It is a style Johnson would have admired. His other excellence is in the daring of the architecture. The grandeur and stillness of The Enigma of Arrival stem from the fact that it is overwhelmingly put together out of descriptions, and the dialogue, when it comes, strikes one with the force of ancient proverbs. The fecundity of the invention, it seems, is in no danger of faltering. Half a Life, published this year, is the most amazing demonstration of the possibilities of narrative; twice, the novel switches back in time, as if to fill in gaps, and each time the effect is of a completely new perspective on what had seemed entirely clear. Not the least of the novel's daring effects is its shocking truncatedness; it really feels like half a life, and the possibilities go on ringing in the silence after the last page.

Few writers go on and on breaking new ground, and Naipaul starts to look unique as a novelist who has exhibited mastery in every phase of his career. His monklike devotion to his craft inspires awe, and, if his ambition never appears absurd or overweening, that is because it has consistently been matched by his achievement. He is one of very few writers who, on being rewarded with the Nobel Prize or a knighthood, appear to confer distinction and authority on the honour, rather than the other way round. His works have no need of these worldly baubles.

Lee Siegel (review date 21 October 2001)

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SOURCE: Siegel, Lee. “The Riddle of Identity: Preserving the Idea of Freedom Despite the Weight of History.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (21 October 2001): 4.

[In the following review, Siegel judges Half a Life as the artistic interpretation of Naipaul's preoccupation, in his nonfiction, with the reality of poverty.]

V. S. Naipaul hates poverty. He hates the miserable material and intellectual conditions he encountered in his travels to Islamic countries; he hates the sordidness of Third World regimes. He is less interested in the suffering imposed by colonialism, which he knows and acknowledges, than he is in the suffering that he observes in the urgent present.

For Naipaul's critics, however, it is rank snobbery merely to record the degradations of poverty or to register one's disgust at poverty. Rather, one must uncover the long history, often the long colonial history, that produced such conditions. Rewriting the standard, deceitful version of this history will set the record straight. Dwelling on the repellent condition of the poor alone perpetuates the great historical lie of the lower classes predestined to their doom. Better to tell a littler lie about the history-beleaguered poor and their virtue and modest heroism.

Yet Naipaul's repulsion at squalor in the present moment implies that life could be different, just as his critics' deep contextualizing of squalor implies that conditions will never change. And so for all Naipaul's fictional evocation of colonial and post-colonial history, he is ultimately concerned with life in its immediate variety, in the same way as, in his travels, he is more concerned with the living human fact of poverty than with its dead roots. An aura of presentness envelops every historical detail in Naipaul's fiction.

This intangible, intuited presentness is the metaphysical dimension in Naipaul, which rests lightly on his physical and historical particulars like beads of dew on a blade of grass. Call it the metaphysics of private life, a realm that persists like the African interior in Naipaul's Bend in the River: “You felt the land taking you back to something that was familiar, something you had known at some time but had forgotten or ignored, but which was always there.”

Half a Life, a masterpiece of implicitness, is explicitly concerned with drawing out the metaphysical-private while keeping it embedded in society and history. This small, sparely written tale embodies a fragile idea of freedom, a vision of human life disentangling itself from the encumbrances of time and place. It is the artistic version of Naipaul's obsession, in his nonfiction, with the living fact of poverty rather than its inanimate antecedents. In this novel, the intuited, secret relations between people are even more the agents of personal change than history is.

Told partly in the third person and partly in the first person, the novel itself is divided in half. Its main character is Willie Somerset Chandran, but the book begins with a narrator informing us that we are about to hear the story of Willie's father, who commences to recite the tale himself.

The father, who significantly is never given a name, was born a Brahmin, but he rebelled against his origins for both Oedipal and political reasons. Or at least he thought he rebelled. Naipaul has him tell his hilarious tale as the classic story of the ne'er-do-well at cross-purposes with himself—but prevailing in the end.

Willie's father tries various types of defiance, all futile, finally hitting on the most scandalous gambit of all, “to marry the lowest person I could find,” a “backward,” a woman below the lowest caste, the niece of a revolutionary. Meeting such a woman, he hides her away in an image-maker's shop, run by a man who “looked blind … because his glasses were always dusty with the chippings of his workmen.” The shop is full of statues and ancestral busts, some of the busts wearing, most strangely, “the real glasses of the people” that they represented. Shortly afterward, the father goes off on a pilgrimage, as Gandhi, his hero, had once done. His ordeal makes the father a holy figure, which incidentally has the effect of protecting him from charges of Robin Hood-like theft, and attracts journalists and writers from all over the world. One of these is W. Somerset Maugham, after whom the father names his only son, Willie.

From the father's first-person tale, the novel shifts back into a third-person narrative about Willie's life. This division of the novel into the third and first person reflects the hybridness of any individual life, with its combination of historical and family influences on the one hand and our own creative will on the other.

Himself the product of two very different halves—Brahmin and “backward”—Willie struggles throughout the novel, as do so many of Naipaul's characters, to find an identity and a way in the world. He despises his father, who never falls to misunderstand his son in often affectionate and well-meaning ways, and he constantly checks his own experience against his father's to make certain that he is following a better path through life. This is, one might say, the “backward” glancing side of him.

Willie starts his education at a mission school, at the behest of his mother—who quickly began to dominate Willie's father—but he is soon off to a small, obscure college in London, where he starts to make his way as a writer, enters London's literary bohemia and modestly publishes his vignettes.

Willie had started writing in school back in India, where he composed parables in which monstrous fathers are foiled, richly humorous stories that he left out of his composition book for his father to read. Through writing, Willie begins to question the boundaries of his identity. His first literary efforts in England disappoint him. Then he begins borrowing characters from old American movies and weaving new stories around them. Writing about experiences different from his own, he learns to better express his true feelings. This is one more step in his gradual understanding of the arbitrariness of identity and culture.

Willie sees life partly—halfly, as it were—through his father's experience, so his attempts to make a different destiny for himself often echo his father's experience. “This habit of non-seeing I have got from my father,” Willie reflects, and he resolves to look harder at the world. The dark delicious irony is that by constantly seeing his father's habit of non-seeing (or half-seeing), Willie is doing it himself by looking back at his father rather than forward and outward. One recalls the image-maker with his dusty glasses and his bespectacled ancestral busts. But Willie does not exactly repeat his father's fate.

In London, Willie feels what it means to be a stranger in a strange place. The rudiments of living escape him. His sole means of experiencing women is to seduce his friends' girlfriends, which he very comically blames on his father's influence and his cultural background. Once again, his father becomes a formative reference point and a determining one. Yet at the same time, Willie learns through women the essential “halfness” of life. June, a friend's girlfriend, is slatternly and coarse; she also wholesomely marries her high school sweetheart and embarks on a conventional middle class life. Willie later sees a prostitute, who services him while she is “half-dressed,” waiting for a train, looking no different than any other working-girl from the provinces.

The word “half” is repeated like a soft incantation throughout this novel. It is the metaphysical-private dimension, the “something you had known at some time but had forgotten or ignored,” a door onto a way in the world. If Willie's halfness is the product of history, his slow-drawing perception of life's essential incompleteness teaches him to navigate a permanent condition that exists beyond history. This theme is seamlessly knitted into every one of the novel's particular events.

Lying about his life in London in order to more completely escape from his past (as his father had once lied about himself). Willie is living one kind of half-life. Meeting a women named Ana, and then traveling with her to her ancestral home in Mozambique, is another. Ana, however, offers a better kind of half-life, despite the fact that Willie has married her out of despair at having no prospects in London. It is something like his father marrying the “backward” for all the wrong reasons. Yet Willie's choice is also better; he and Ana are in love, and she turns him into a man. With each misstep that Willie makes, he also comes a little closer to a fuller existence.

Willie himself takes over the narration of his life In Africa, where he ends up staying for 18 years, living with Ana, who is half African and half Portuguese, and among her “half and half” friends. Ana is more comfortable with her past than Willie is with his. Her name, after all, runs forward and backward without changing. After a time, though, Willie grows tired of this kind and sympathetic woman. He betrays her with prostitutes, discovering first a new sexual side of himself, then feeling a revulsion against heartless sex—thus stumbling upon a new harmony of identity. His final infidelity, with a forlorn woman named Graca, completes him as a sexual being, granting him a desire and fulfillment that he never knew before.

That is not to say that Willie has achieved anything like wholeness. His efforts at becoming a full human being with an achieved identity are often as mistaken and ingenuous as his father's perceptions of the world. “I wish you could be in the room when we make love,” he brutally says to Ana about him and Graca. “Then you would understand.” When, at the end of his stay in Africa, he slips on the wet steps of the estate where has been living with Ana, he says that “the physical pain of my damaged body was like the other pain that had been with me for months, and perhaps for years.” Though he has learned to grow by seeing one side of life, then another, Willie is still wracked by his own enigma.

For Willie ends by telling his story to his sister Sarojini, who has inherited his mother's backwardness and has always repelled him. He joins her in Germany, where she lives with her husband, a German revolutionary. In other words, he is to some extent repeating his father's experience with a “backward” spouse, the niece of a revolutionary, and reliving the alien life his father found himself in with her.

And Willie is relating his story to his sister, just as his father told his story to his son. Yet Willie is telling his own story, in his own voice. Yet it is a story about how he did not live his own life. Yet he has lived only the first half of his life, though the beginning of the second half of his life finds him in a situation similar to his father's. Yet the father's namelessness signifies both a determining influence and a harmless cipher. And although the story that Willie recites to Sarojini concludes with Willie's declaration to Ana that he is tired of living her life, he is, after all, telling to Sarojini in Germany and very far from living his own life.

The ironies in Half a Life wind like a fugue into infinity, away from those colonial and postcolonial conditions that dog Willie's existence. The novel gently swells to such a chord of mystery and tentativeness that it is as if Naipaul wants to say that there can be no resolution of identity, but that the perception of the riddle of identity, as it unfolds through intimate relations in the present moment, discernible to the open mind, is a potent freedom. Life's meaning lies in the way its meaning never ends.

“How can anyone say who he is?” asks Graca, who suddenly strikes the still comically myopic Willie as insane. He looks at her and thinks, “I was making love to a deranged woman.” As usual, he is half right. To recognize that identity is an enigma is a cause of derangement but also a mark of sanity. To make that sentiment breathe in the mouth of a living character, and then rise from the page with silent laughter, is a beautiful completion: the mark of a genius and a cause of unending delight.

Jonathan Yardley (review date 21 October 2001)

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SOURCE: Yardley, Jonathan. Review of Half a Life, by V. S. Naipaul. Washington Post Book World (21 October 2001): 2.

[In the following positive review, Yardley delineates the key thematic concerns of Half a Life.]

V. S. Naipaul marks his rise to Nobel laureate, however accidentally, with a strange new novel [Half a Life] that is at once of a piece with and apart from most of his previous work. On the one hand it is a continuation of his preoccupation with the innumerable questions raised by cultural and racial identity; on the other hand its spare, melancholy, elusive, somewhat heavily ironic tone contrasts with the more animated quality of his best fiction (A House for Mr. Biswas, for example), and the graphic sex with which its final sections are filled is a stark departure from his almost priggish treatment of the subject previously.

The heart of the novel can be found in a brief scene three-quarters of the way through. At a rough restaurant on the coast of the African nation where he is living, Willie Chandran encounters a “big light-eyed man” who is being abused by his Portuguese boss as he goes about his work as a tiler. Afterward Willie's lover, Ana, herself part Portuguese and part African, tells him that the tiler is illegitimate, with an African mother and an important Portuguese landowner for a father. “The rich Portuguese put their illegitimate mulatto children to learning certain trades,” she tells him: “Electrician, mechanic, metal-worker, carpenter, tiler,” to which Willie responds:

“I said nothing more to Ana. But whenever I remembered the big sweating man with the abused light eyes, carrying the shame of his birth on his face like a brand, I would think, ‘Who will rescue that man? Who will avenge him?’”

It is a question of the utmost urgency to Willie, and the central motif of Half a Life, Naipaul's 13th novel. It is about a man—the phrase is used to describe someone else, but it clearly is meant to describe Willie as well—“who appeared to have no proper place in the world.” He is spending this, what we are to take to be the first half of his life, trying to find such a place, “just letting the days go by,” trusting “that one day something would happen, an illumination would come to him, and he would be taken by a set of events to the place he should go.”

Willie was born in India 40-some years ago. His father was a “man of high caste, high in the maharaja's revenue service,” who heard the call of Mahatma Gandhi in the early 1930s and decided to make a sacrifice of himself, a “lasting kind of sacrifice, something the mahatma would have approved of.” Rather than marry in his own caste he would choose “the lowest person I could find.” He settled upon a fellow college student, who was “small and coarse featured, almost tribal in appearance, noticeably black, with two big top teeth that showed very white,” clearly a woman of “a backward caste.”

This man of sacrifice is noticed by the eminent British writer Somerset Maugham, who comes to India (in a cameo role) to research a book. Eventually he emerges in Maugham's portrait as someone of great spirituality and self-sacrifice, a role he knows is far from accurate but into which he finds himself slipping easily and comfortably. But those of whom the greatest sacrifice is exacted are the two children of this strange and unhappy relationship, Willie and his sister. Bitterly unhappy in India, loving his mother and despising his father, Willie manages to get a scholarship to a second-rate college in London and flees there.

In college and in London itself, Willie “thought he was swimming in ignorance, had lived without a knowledge of time.” Yet in and out of school, his education proceeds apace. Thousands of miles from home, he begins to sense the condescension and indifference with which the British had treated his father, and disdain gradually metamorphoses into empathy. He also begins to understand that “the old rules [of India] no longer bound him,” that “freedom … was his for the asking.” It is a revelation: “No one he met, in the college or outside it, knew the rules of Willie's own place, and Willie began to understand that he was free to present himself as he wished. He could, as it were, write his own revolution. The possibilities were dizzying. He could, within reason, remake himself and his past and his ancestry.”

This is exactly what he does. He fabricates a past for himself that denies his divided identity and presents himself as whole. For a while he participates in “the special, passing bohemian-immigrant life of London of the late 1950s,” though eventually he realizes that “the lost, the unbalanced, the alcoholic, the truly bohemian—those parties in shabby Notting Hill flats no longer seemed metropolitan and dazzling.” By this point he has created a minor career for himself as part-time author of scripts for the BBC, which gives him courage to try his hand at writing stories. He takes scenes and plots from movies with Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart and reworks them to his own purposes, finding that “it was easier, with these borrowed stories far outside his own experience, and with these characters far outside himself, to be truer to his feelings than it had been with his cautious, half-hidden parables at school.”

For a time it works: “Whenever Willie felt he was running out of material, running out of cinematic moments, he went to see old movies or foreign movies.” It doesn't last. In time—inevitably—his writing “began to lead him to difficult things, things he couldn't face, and he stopped.” He cobbles together a little book of stories that is published and almost universally neglected, save by a young woman of mixed African background who tells him in a letter that “in your stories for the first time I find moments that are like moments in my own life.” This is Ana. They meet, though he is apprehensive: “But as soon as he saw her all his anxieties fell away, and he was conquered. She behaved as though she had always known him, and had always liked him. She was young and small and thin, and quite pretty. She had a wonderfully easy manner. And what was most intoxicating for Willie was that for the first time in his life he felt himself in the presence of someone who accepted him completely. At home his life had been ruled by his mixed inheritance. [But with Ana] there was, so to speak, nothing to push against, no misgiving to overcome, no feeling of distance.”

So when she decides to go back home to her Portuguese African country, he accompanies her. In “that regulated colonial world” in which “to be even a second-rank Portuguese was to have a kind of high status,” he finds “a complete acceptance.” Though this does not change, he “began to understand—and was helped in this understanding by my own background—that the world I had entered was only a half-and-half world, that many of the people who were our friends considered themselves, deep down, people of the second rank.” Wherever he turns, he finds people whose place in the world is no more certain or secure than his own, though at the end of his African sojourn he is still so caught up in his own fears, resentments and anxieties that he fails to grasp that this is, in truth, a universal condition.

It is for Naipaul, not Willie Chandran, to make this central point. He does so with subtlety and nuance. The novel is told by an omniscient narrator—perhaps to distance Naipaul and his own experience from Willie and his story—but the point of view is self-evidently Willie's. He is a man of intelligence and character who is blind to the full truth about himself, at once worldly and self-deceiving. It is a state of mind that is, or should be, familiar to all too many of us.

Diane Mehta (review date November 2001)

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SOURCE: Mehta, Diane. Review of Half a Life, by V. S. Naipaul. Atlantic Monthly 288, no. 4 (November 2001): 144-45.

[In the following review, Mehta offers a mixed assessment of Half a Life.]

“You can keep your socks on,” a prostitute instructs the raw Willie Chandran, an Indian immigrant and the protagonist of V. S. Naipaul's first work of fiction [Half a Life] in seven years. Half Brahmin, half Untouchable, Willie arrives in London in the late 1950s, and immediately immerses himself in that era's “bohemian-immigrant life,” which for him includes sleeping with his friends' girlfriends or with prostitutes. In the first half of this novel the parallels between Willie's life and that of his creator are unmistakable: An aspiring writer from the imperial hinterlands journeys to London and gets involved with literary types, most of whom turn out to be self-aggrandizing schemers and fakirs. His initial attempts to publish his stories are curtly rebuffed: “India,” he's told, “isn't really a subject.” Ultimately, though, he places his work with a small Marxist press—at which point his life deviates dramatically from Naipaul's.

Having engaged in a surreptitious and brutal sex life, Willie bumbles along passively and marries the first woman who admires his writing. He then follows her—a mixed-race Portuguese-African—to her estate in one of Portugal's East African outposts. Here he is no less an outsider than he was in London or India. Colonialism is coming to an end, rebellion is simmering, and in no time Willie discovers the real Africa, which resembles an uglier and more extreme version of London, minus the Britannic gentility. The dark center of this book is race. The novel brims with stereotypes certain to make most of us uncomfortable, with Africans faring the worst by far (the men are sex-charged, the women sluts). Apparently not even colonialism could save Africa from itself. Yet Naipaul is no kinder to the European interlopers, and his novel as a whole amounts to a sneer at hypocrites of every stripe. Hardly a single character escapes the authorial lash, and typically enough, the only decent person in the book—Willie's wife—is humiliated and alone at the end.

Half a Life has a few problems, including some stilted dialogue and a scrambled, distracting chronology. But Naipaul's style is so frank it seems intimate, and the awful characters are studied and well crafted. Behind the matter-of-fact style is a cuttingly ironic view of human relations, and occasionally the author's voice simply overwhelms his narrator's. Yet when Naipaul talks, we listen, and speaking through the guise of a fictional character may be the least offensive way for him to tell us what he thinks. Here he assigns Willie the task of moral spokesman and watches him screw up—a handy reminder that in Naipaul's world a despicable fool is the best possible candidate for Everyman.

J. M. Coetzee (review date 1 November 2001)

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SOURCE: Coetzee, J. M. “The Razor's Edge.” New York Review of Books (1 November 2001): 8-10.

[In the following review, Coetzee provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of Half a Life.]

In later life the English writer W. Somerset Maugham developed an interest in Indian spirituality. He visited India in 1938, and in Madras was taken to an ashram to meet a man who, born Venkataraman, had retreated to a life of silence, self-mortification, and prayer, and was now known simply as the Maharshi.

While waiting for his audience, Maugham fainted, perhaps because of the heat. When he came to, he found he could not speak (it must be mentioned that Maugham was a lifelong stammerer). The Maharshi comforted him by pronouncing that “silence also is conversation.”

News of the fainting fit, according to Maugham, soon spread across India: through the power of the Maharshi, it was said, the pilgrim had been translated into the realm of the infinite. Though Maugham had no recollection of visiting the infinite, the event left its mark on him: he describes it in A Writer's Notebook (1949) and again in Points of View (1958): he also works it into The Razor's Edge (1944), the novel that made his name in the United States.

The Razor's Edge tells the story of an American who, having prepared himself by acquiring a deep tan and donning Indian garb, visits the guru Shri Ganesha and at his hands has an ecstatic spiritual experience, “an experience of the same order as the mystics have had all over the world through all the centuries.” With Shri Ganesha's blessing, this proto-hippie returns to Illinois where he plans to practice “calmness, forbearance, compassion, selflessness and continence” while driving a taxi. “It's a mistake to think that those holy men of India lead useless lives,” he says. “they are a shining light in the darkness.”

The story of the happy symbiosis between Venkataraman the holy man and Maugham the writer, Venkataraman providing Maugham with a marketable version of Indian spirituality, Maugham providing Venkataraman with publicity and tourist business, forms the starting point for V. S. Naipaul's new novel Half a Life.

Was the historical Venkataraman, dispenser of gnomic wisdom, a fake? This is not what concerns Naipaul here. Fasting, celibacy, silence: Why do people make self-denial their central religious practice, in India in particular, and what are the human consequences? In rewriting, in free fashion, the story of Somerset Maugham and the holy man, these become the questions Naipaul explores instead.

To understand the story, Naipaul suggests, we need to view Indian asceticism historically. Once upon a time Hindu temples supported an entire priestly caste. Then, as a result of foreign invasions, first Muslim, later British, the temples lost their revenues. The priests became trapped in a vicious cycle: poverty led to loss of energy and desire, which led to passivity, which led to deeper poverty. The caste was in terminal decline. Instead of quitting temple life, however, the caste came up with an ingenious transvaluation of values: not eating, and denial of the appetites in general, was propagated as admirable in itself, worthy of veneration and hence of tribute.

This is Naipaul's briskly materialist account of how a Brahmin ethos of self-denial and fatalism, an ethos that scorned individual enterprise and hard work, gained the high ground in India. In Naipaul's story, a nineteenth-century Brahmin named Chandran has the gumption to break out of the system. He saves his pennies, journeys to the nearest big town—the capital of one of the “independent” backwater states in British India—and gets a job as a clerk in the maharajah's palace. His son continues the climb of the family through the ranks of the civil service. All seems well: the Chandrans have found a safe niche for themselves, and they no longer have to mortify their bodies either.

But the grandson (we are now in the 1930s) is a rebel of a kind. Rumors of Gandhi and his nationalist movement abound. The Mahatma calls for a boycott of universities; the grandson (henceforth called simply Chandran) responds by burning his Shelley and Hardy in the college yard (he does not like literature anyway). He wants for a storm to break over his head, but no one has noticed.

Gandhi proclaims that the caste system is wrong. How does a Brahmin fight the caste system? Answer: by marrying down. Chandran picks on an ugly, dark skinned girl in his class belonging to a so-called backward caste—in everyday parlance, a “backward”—and pays court to her in clumsy fashion. In no time at all the girl, using lies and threats, has compelled him to make good on his promises.

In disgrace, Chandran is set to work in the maharajah's tax office. There he indulges in surreptitious acts of what he tells himself is civil disobedience, though his true motives are idle and malicious. His mischief exposed, and about to be tried, he takes sanctuary in a temple, where he protects himself from what he chooses to call persecution by taking a vow of silence. His vow turns him into a local hero. People come to watch him being silent and to bring offerings.

It is into this hotbed of deceit and hypocrisy that the gullible Westerner Somerset Maugham treads. “Are you happy?” Maugham asks the holy man. Using pencil and pad, Chandran replies: “Within my silence I feel quite free. That is happiness.” What wisdom! thinks Maugham. The comedy is rich: the freedom Chandran enjoys is freedom from prosecution.

Maugham publishes a book, and Chandran is suddenly famous, famous for having been written about by a foreigner. Visitors from abroad follow in Maugham's footsteps. To them Chandran recounts how he gave up a glittering career in the civil service for a life of prayer and self-sacrifice. Soon he comes to believe his own lies. Following the lead of his Brahmin ancestors, he has found a way of repudiating the world yet prospering. He sees no irony in this. Instead he is awed: a “higher power” must be guiding him, he thinks.

Like Kafka's hunger artist, Chandran makes a living doing what he secretly finds easy: denying his appetites (though his appetites are not so exiguous that he cannot father two children on his “backward” wife). In Kafka's story, despite the hunger artist's protestations to the contrary, there is a certain heroism in self-starving, a minimal heroism befitting post-heroic time. In Chandran there is no heroism: it is genuine poverty of spirit that allows him to be content with so little.

In his first and most critical book about India, An Area of Darkness (1964), Naipaul describes Gandhi as a man deeply influenced by Christian ethics, capable, after twenty years in South Africa, of seeing India with the critical eye of an outsider, and in this sense “the least Indian of Indian leaders.” But India undid Gandhi, says Naipaul, turning him into a mahatma, an icon, so as to ignore his social message.

Chandran likes to think of himself as a follower of Gandhi. But, Naipaul suggests implicitly, the question Chandran is asking of himself is not the Gandhian “How shall I act?” but the Hindu “What shall I give up?” He prefers giving up because giving up costs him nothing.

In honor of his British patron, Chandran names his first-born William Somerset Chandran. Since young Willie comes from a mixed (mixed-caste) marriage, it is thought prudent to send him to a Christian school. Soon Willie longs to be a missionary and a Canadian like his teachers. English compositions he fantasizes himself as a regular Canadian boy with a “Mom” and a “Pop” and a car. His teachers reward him with high marks, but his father is hurt to find himself written out of his son's life.

In due course, however, Willie finds out what the missionaries are really after: converts to Christianity, the destruction of heathen religion. Feeling fooled, he stops going to school.

Calling in old debts, Chandran writes to Maugham asking him to pull strings on the boy's behalf. He gets a typewritten letter back: “Dear Chandran. It was very nice getting your letter. I have nice memories of the country, and it is nice hearing from Indian friends. Yours very sincerely …” Other foreign friends prove equally evasive. Then someone in the British House of Lords waves a wand and Willie, at the age of twenty, is whisked across the seas on a college scholarship.

The year is 1956, London is bursting at the seams with immigrants from the Caribbean. Before long race riots break out: young whites in mock Edwardian clothes roam the streets looking for blacks to beat up. Willie hides in his college rooms. Hiding out is not a new experience for him: it is what he does at home when there are caste riots.

What Willie learns about in London is, principally, sex. The girlfriend of a Jamaican fellow student takes pity on him and relieves him of his virginity. She then gives him a useful little cross-cultural lecture. Marriages in India are arranged, she says, so Indian men don't think they need to satisfy a woman sexually. But things are different in England. He should try harder. Willie consults a paperback called The Physiology of Sex and learns that the average man can maintain an erection for ten or fifteen minutes. He refuses to read further.

“How did you learn about sex?” he asks his Jamaican friend. Sex is a brutal business, the friend replies; you have to start young. Willie is dismayed. In Jamaica boys practice by “fingering and then raping little girls.” How is he, coming from a culture where there is no such thing as seduction and no “art of sex,” going to find a girlfriend?

He plucks up the courage to approach a streetwalker. Their intercourse is joyless and humiliating: “Fuck like an Englishman,” the woman commands when he takes too long.

Chandran the charlatan sadhu and his son the inept lover: they might seem the stuff of comedy, but not in Naipaul's hands. Naipaul is a master of English prose, and the prose of Half a Life is as clean and cold as a knife. The male Chandrans are defective human beings who leave the reader chilled rather than amused; the “backward” wife and Willie's sister, who grows into a smug left-wing fellow traveler, are little better.

Both father and son believe they see through other people. But they detect lies and self-deception all around them only because they are incapable of imagining anyone unlike themselves. Their shrewdness of insight is grounded in nothing but a self-protective reflex of suspicion. Their rule of thumb is always to give the least charitable interpretation. Self-absorption, minginess of spirit, rather than inexperience, are at the root of Willie's failures in love.

As for his father, a measure of his constitutional meanness is his response to books. As a student, he does not “understand” the courses he is taking, and in particular does not “understand” literature. The education he is subjected to, principally English literature taught by rote, is certainly irrelevant to his life. Nevertheless, there is in him a deep impulse not to understand, not to know. He is, strictly speaking, ineducable. His bonfire of the classics is not a healthily critical response to a deadening colonial education. It does not free him for another, better kind of education, for he has no idea of what a good education might be. In fact, he has no ideas at all.

Willie is similarly blank-minded. Arriving in Britain, he is soon made aware of how ignorant he is. But in a typical reflex action he finds someone else to blame, in this case his mother: he is incurious about the world because he is the child of a “backward.” Inheritance is character is fate.

College life shows him that Indian etiquette is as irrational and quaint as British etiquette. But this insight does not spell the beginning of self-knowledge. I know about both India and England, he reasons, whereas the English know only about England, therefore I am free to say what I like about my country. He invents a new and less shameful past for himself, turning his mother into a member of an ancient Christian community and his father into the son of a courtier. “He began to remake himself. It excited him, and began to give him a feeling of power.”

Why are this unappealing pair the way they are? What do they reveal about the society that produced them? Here the key word is sacrifice. Willie has been quick to identify the joylessness at the heart of his father's brand of Gandhianism because he knows at first hand what it is like to be given up. One of Willie's schoolboy stories is about a Brahmin who ritually sacrifices “backward” children for the sake of riches, and ends up sacrificing his own two children. It is this story, titled “A Life of Sacrifice,” with its not so covert accusation against him, that determines Chandran—a man who makes a living out of what he calls self-sacrifice—to send his son to England: “The boy will poison what remains of my life. I must get him far away from here.”

What Willie has detected is that sacrificing your desires means, in practice, not loving the people you ought to love. Chandran reacts to detection by pushing the sacrifice of his son one step further. Behind Chandran's fiction that he has sacrificed a career for the sake of a life of self-mortification lies a Hindu tradition embodied, if not in Gandhi (whom Willie and his mother despise), then in what Indians like Chandran have made of Gandhi in turning him into the holy man of the nation; embodied more generally in a fatalistic philosophy that teaches that best is least, that striving toward self-improvement is ultimately pointless.

Though bored by his studies. Willie clearly has gifts as a writer. Prompted by an English friend to whom he shows his old stories, he reads Hemingway. Using “The Killers” as a model, translating situations from Hollywood movies into vaguely conceived Indian settings, splicing stories from London onto stories he remembers from home, he throws himself into a fury of composition. To his surprise “it was easier, with these borrowed stories far outside his own experience, and with these characters far outside himself, to be truer to his feelings than it had been with his cautious, half-hidden parables at school.”

The vein of autobiography in Naipaul's fictional oeuvre runs deep. But the Naipaul selves do not have a simple relationship to their author: they are stages in a process of continual self-creation and revision. W. S. Chandran is and is not V. S. Naipaul. As beginning writers, for instance, both Willie and Naipaul find inspiration in Hollywood, but Willie is far less literate than Naipaul, who used as models Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley, and (it comes as no surprise) Somerset Maugham, with his characteristically English tone, “aloof everywhere, unsurprised, immensely knowing.” Nevertheless, in Willie's discovery that he is truest to himself when he seems most remote, it is hard not to hear his author replying to today's dogma that the writer should write from the position of his or her nationality, race, and gender.

For weeks on end Willie is absorbed in his fictions. But then writing begins to lead him to “things he [can't] face,” and he stops. Never again in his life—at least in the life we read of in Half a Life—does he take up the pen.

He emerges from the storm with a fund of twenty-six stories, which he offers to a sympathetic publisher. The book, when it comes out, is barely noticed, and by then, anyhow, he is ashamed of it. But he does get a fan letter, from a girl with a Portuguese name. “In your stories for the first time I find moments that are like moments in my own life,” she writes. Knowing how his stories were put together, Willie is surprised. Nevertheless the two arrange to meet, and they fall in love. Her name is Ana; she is heir to an estate in Mozambique. On an impulse, Willie follows Ana to Africa and spends eighteen years there as her kept man. The story of those years takes up the second half of Half a Life.

Naipaul's India is abstract and his London sketchy, but his Mozambique is convincingly realized. Mozambique of colonial times produced no writers of stature. The country's best writer, Mia Couto, belongs to the post-independence generation, and is anyhow too much under the sway of magic realism to be a reliable chronicler. Thus Naipaul would seem to be free to invent a fantasy antebellum Mozambique of his own. But he does not. His allegiance is to the real, to real history as borne by real people; the second part of Half a Life has a strongly journalistic flavor, with Willie Chandran used as medium for representative vignettes of colonial life.

This part of the novel in fact belongs to a mode of writing that Naipaul has perfected over the years, in which historical reportage and social analysis flow into and out of autobiographically colored fiction and travel memoir: a mixed mode that may turn out to be Naipaul's principal legacy to English letters.

The picture we get of Mozambique in its last years under Portuguese rule (Willie spends the years between 1959 and 1977 there) is fresh and surprising. Ana is a Creole, an Africanized Portuguese. On the social scale, this ranks her below “full” Portuguese but above mestizos, who are in turn above blacks. To Willie, coming from caste-bound India, minute social gradations based on parentage are of course far from strange.

The circle in which Ana and Willie move is made up of plantation owners and farm managers: social life consists of visits with neighbors and trips to town for supplies. Yet Willie (who is in this respect indistinguishable from his author) explores settler life without the condescension one might expect of a bien-pensant Western liberal. On the contrary, he approves of Creole society, notably of the opportunities it allows for sexual variety. Even when the guerrillas close in and the end grows nigh, his settler friends go on “enjoying the moment, filling the old room with talk and laughter, like people who didn't mind, like people who knew how to live with history.” “I never admired the Portuguese as much as I admired them then,” he reflects afterward. “I wished it was possible for me to live as easily with the past.”

The freedom to go against orthodoxy evinced here is consistent with Naipaul's attitude toward his own colonial past, namely that just because he is descended from indentured Indian plantation workers he cannot be locked forever into postures of victimhood. His grasp of imperialism, colonialism, and slavery takes in more than just the Western varieties: he sees India, for example, as more deeply marked by what it suffered under Muslim rule than under the British. In Africa one does not have to be white to be a settler. The East African littoral has absorbed Arabs and Indians as well as Europeans, and Africanized them.

One strand of Naipaul's complex self-conception and self-creation is as part of a reconquest of Britain by once subject peoples. “In 1950 in London,” he writes in The Enigma of Arrival, “I was at the beginning of that great movement of peoples that was to take place in the second half of the twentieth century—a movement and a cultural mixing greater than the peopling of the United States.” The Enigma of Arrival itself is about reinhabiting the roles of explorer of and settler in rural Wiltshire.

The migrants Naipaul writes about had received an anachronistic colonial education—those who had received any education at all. From another perspective, however, they were trustees of a culture that had decayed in the “mother” country. “Indians are the only surviving Englishmen,” said Malcolm Muggeridge famously. Naipaul's own often magisterial authorial stance is more Victorian than any indigenous Briton would dare to be.

Willie's adventures in Africa are mainly sexual. His relations with Ana have never been passionate; he begins to visit African prostitutes, many of them, by Western standards, children. From prostitutes he graduates to an affair with a friend of Ana's named Graça, and Graça shows him how brutal sex can be. “How terrible it would have been,” he thinks afterward, “if … I had died without knowing this depth of satisfaction, this other person that I had just discovered within myself.” With uncharacteristic compassion, his thoughts go to his parents in benighted India, to “my poor father and mother who had known nothing like this moment.”

Willie has one more stage to attain in his sexual odyssey. With delicate obliqueness, Ana gives him to understand that Graça is mentally unstable. And indeed, as the Portuguese troops pull out and the guerrillas move in, Graça falls into a mania of self-abasement. Willie begins to see why religions condemn sexual extremism. Anyhow, he has grown tired of his colonial adventure. He is forty-one; half his life is over, he takes leave of Ana, retreats to his sister in the snows of Germany; the book ends.

Half a Life is the story of the progress of a man from a loveless beginning to a solitary end that may turn out to be not a true end, just a plateau of rest and recuperation. The experiences that mark his progress are sexual in nature. The women with whom he has them figure as objects of desire, repugnance, or fascination—sometimes all three—reported on with a mercilessly unclouded eye.

In the London part of the book we visit for the third or fourth time in Naipaul's oeuvre, since The Mimic Men of 1967, the upstairs room with the naked electric bulb and the mattress on newspapers on the floor where the young man first has sex. Each time the scene is reworked; progressively it has become more bestial and more desperate. It is as though Naipaul will not let go of the scene until he has wrung a last meaning from it that it will not yield.

In Africa, as he embraces his first child prostitute, the ghosts of his London women rise before him. But

just at the moment when I was about to fail, an extraordinary look of command and aggression and need filled [the girl's] eyes, her body became all tension, and I was squeezed by her strong hands and legs. In a split-second—like the split-second of decision when I looked down a gun-sight—I thought, “This is what Átvaro [the friend who has brought him to the brothel] lives for,” and I revived.

Afterward “I began to live with a new idea of sex. … It was like being given a new idea of myself.”

The moment with the girl evokes the unlikely other passion Willie has discovered in Africa: guns. Aiming and pulling the trigger becomes, for him, an existential testing, at a level inaccessible to rational control, of the truth of the will. The African women he sleeps with test the truth of his desire in an equally naked way.

It is in identifying the sexual embrace as the ultimate arena of truth that Naipaul comes closest to articulating the nature of the spiritual journey Willie is engaged on, and to measuring his distance from a way of life—represented, if only parodically, by his father—that treats denial of desire as the road to enlightenment.

Through intimacy with African women, Willie is able to free himself from the ghosts of London. But what is so different about these women? Watching a covey of girls dancing provocatively before their clients, he senses that they embody something beyond their individual selves, some inscrutable “deeper spirit.” “I began to have an idea that there was something in the African heart that was shut away from the rest of us, and beyond politics.”

Naipaul knows Africa well. He has lived and worked in East Africa (“Home Again,” in A Way in the World [1994], is based on his time there); he has written books about Africa, notably In a Free State (1971) and A Bend in the River (1979). Overall his vision of Africa remains remarkably constant, one might even say rigid. It is a “dream-like and threatening” place that resists understanding, that eats away at reason and the technological products of reason. Joseph Conrad, the man from the outskirts of the West who became a classic of English literature, is one of Naipaul's masters. For good or ill, Naipaul's Africa comes out of Heart of Darkness.

Half a Life does not give the impression of having been carefully worked over, and the technical weaknesses that result are not negligible. Naipaul's plan is to present the whole story as if recounted by Willie. Even the story of Chandran père is to be based on what Willie heard from his lips. But the plan is carried out only halfheartedly. Despite the coldness between father and son, Willie is given access to his father's most secret feelings, including physical repugnance at his wife. At moments the pretense that Willie is guiding the story line is dropped in favor of interventions from an old-fashioned omniscient narrator.

There are other weaknesses. Scenes of literary life in London read as if from a satirical roman à clef to which the reader has no key. The youthful Willie's love for Ana comes close to falling into cliché. Most strikingly of all, Willie's story ends not only without resolution but without any glimpse of what a resolution might look like. Half a Life reads like the cut-off first half of a book that might be called A Full Life.

Strictures such as these will not trouble Naipaul. In his view the novel as a vehicle for creative energies reached its high point in the nineteenth century; to write impeccably crafted novels in our day is to indulge in antiquarianism. Given his own achievements in pioneering an alternative, fluid, semifictional form, this is a view worth taking seriously.

Nevertheless one is left at the end of Half a Life with the feeling that not only Willie Chandran but Naipaul himself does not know what will happen next. And what indeed does a forty-one-year-old refugee do who has never worked for a living and has only one accomplishment behind him, a book of stories published years ago? Who is Willie Chandran anyway? Why is Naipaul, author of over twenty books and now approaching seventy, pouring his energies into an alter ego whose distinguishing mark is that he has turned his back on a literary career?

One of the more consistent themes in the story Naipaul tells of his own life is that it was by a pure effort of will that he became a writer. He was not gifted with fantasy; he had only his childhood in paltry Port of Spain to call on, no larger historical memory (this was where Trinidad failed him, and, behind Trinidad, India); he seemed to have no subject. Only after a decades-long labor of writing did he finally come to the Proustian realization that he had known his true subject all along, and his subject was himself—himself and his efforts, as a colonial raised in a culture that did not (he was told) belong to him and without (he was told) a history, to find a way in the world.

What was lost, in the course of his labor of self-construction, was the other side of life, the human side. Half a Life is a story (one among several one can imagine) of where Naipaul might have gone if, having exhausted his first fund of memories, he had, instead of secluding himself with his typewriter, followed his heart.

There was a time, not too long past, when, for a young person blessed with talent and ready to undertake solitary exertions, becoming a writer seemed the quickest of shortcuts from obscurity and poverty to fame and riches. The career of Naipaul himself is a case in point.

To the illiterate and semiliterate, becoming a writer is hard to distinguish from simply getting into print, that is, being able to point to a block of printed pages with your name on the cover. Naipaul's first novel, The Mystic Masseur (1957), gives a not entirely parodic picture of naive authorship. It has now been filmed by Merchant Ivory Productions, with Ismail Merchant directing and Aasif Mandvi giving a thoroughly convincing performance as Ganesh, the obtuse but shrewd young man with writing ambitions. Ganesh may have only a hazy notion of what authorship really is, but in rural Trinidad that puts him several steps ahead of the rest of the community. The “books” Ganesh ends up writing have nothing creative about them, in fact become part of the holyman scam (“The Mystic Masseur”) that he and his wife cook up, yet they form a platform from which he can rise to modest wealth and political power.

Like the book, the film runs out of steam halfway through. Nonetheless it provides an affectionate and engaging glimpse into the pre-electronic world of Naipaul's childhood.

John Thieme (essay date 2002)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2902

SOURCE: Thieme, John. “Naipaul's Nobel.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 37, no. 1 (2002): 1-7.

[In the following essay, Thieme finds it surprising that Naipaul was awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature.]

Perhaps it shouldn't have done, but in many ways it came as something of a surprise to hear that V. S. Naipaul had won the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature. His name had first been mentioned in connection with the Prize at least three decades before, at a time when his reputation was riding high with both the British literary establishment and in academic circles; and the succession of accolades that had been showered on him in the U.K. had culminated in the award of the Booker for In a Free State in 1971. At that time it seemed likely that, given the political rotations that appeared to characterize the award of the Nobel, there might be well be a Caribbean winner and, if so, then surely Naipaul was a front runner. Then came the rumours that he had been short-listed, but rejected on the grounds that his work lacked insufficient humanitarian concern. They may have been unfounded, but the word was that the Nobel jury had been more sympathetic to the claims of Wilson Harris. There could be little doubt as to his humanitarian concern, but Harris, like Naipaul, was also to remain a bridesmaid in the ensuing years, allegedly nominated on several occasions but never finally finding favour with the jury.

When the Prize was awarded to Derek Walcott in 1992, it looked as though the door had been closed on both Naipaul and Harris. It seemed unlikely that another anglophone Caribbean writer would be in the frame for a generation or more. In the meantime, Naipaul's star had continued to ascend in certain spheres, while waning somewhat with academe. His American reputation had been established when Guerrillas (1975) was widely (mis?)read as an attack on black radicalism and consequently found favour as part of the backlash against 'sixties Black Power activism. And in the West more generally, as he increasingly turned from fiction to non-fiction, as well as producing works that conflated the two genres, his renown as an impartial observer of the malaise of post-colonial societies kept on growing and he was widely praised for a forthright clear sightedness that provided an antidote to the shibboleths of political correctness. No matter that his supposed lucidity consigned whole continents and religions to oblivion, as he sweepingly declared that “Africa has no future”1 and “Muslim fundamentalism has no intellectual substance to it, therefore it must collapse”2 and in so doing played his own small part in widening the rifts between the world's “haves” and “have-nots”. No matter that from the outset he had dismissed his home island of Trinidad as “unimportant, uncreative, cynical”,3 while allowing himself to be exempt from the charge of lack of creativity as a lone genius, who had heroically made a career for himself by escaping to the metropolis. No matter that he had dismissed the Caribbean as the “Third World's third world”.4 Naipaul's polemics served the needs of those among the Western intelligentsia who clung to the myth that there was a gaping chasm between “them” and “us”, appeared to regret the demise of colonial “order” and believed that the only solution to the problems of “the wretched of the earth” lay in the adoption of Western values. As they praised the perspicacity of his searing indictments of post-colonial societies, he, intentionally or otherwise, vicariously became their hatchet man. This, of course, says more about Naipaul's readers than the writer himself and, to be fair, his critique of non-Western societies as “half-made”5 seems to have been born out of genuine conviction, but it still ministered to a metropolitan market for reactionary cultural commentary.

In any case, while Naipaul's writing continued to attract an increasing amount of adverse criticism outside the West, his popularity remained high in British establishments circles: he was knighted in 1990 and became the first winner of the David Cohen Prize for “lifetime achievement by a living British writer” in 1993. He had, after all, repudiated his Caribbean roots many years before and chosen to call himself a British writer. There were still numerous expressions of doubt about the writer's character: most notably in Paul Theroux's often acerbic account of his lengthy friendship with Naipaul, Sir Vidia's Shadow,6 and also in books such as Diana Athill's Stet,7 in which the author describes the apprehension she felt when dealing with VSN, as a senior editor at his long-time publisher, André Deutsch. Moreover, the level of interest in his work in Western academic circles declined as critics and students increasingly preferred the post-Rushdie generation of writers' stress on hybridity to Naipaul's emphasis on displacement. True, he could be seen as the forerunner of such writers, the literary scout who had disturbed monocultural assumptions many years before Rushdie, Ondaatje, Mo and others helped establish the migrant as the representative protagonist of the last quarter of the twentieth century, but then Walcott and Harris had both developed their nuanced accounts of the cross-cultural experience at much the same time as the early Naipaul and had done so without concessions to gesture politics or overt self-dramatization. Both Walcott and Harris were, and are, of course, “difficult” authors, building metaphor into metaphor in their writing; and so perhaps it was not surprising that for many years they attracted less attention in this respect. Naipaul, in contrast, has worked in transparent modes, documenting concrete particulars in a spare style that appears to provide his readers with immediate access to actual situations rather than making them work their way through levels of interlocking imagery to find meaning. And perhaps it is the simple elegance of his prose style that has persuaded certain sections of his readership that he is a deft and discerning witness.

However, despite his brilliance in this vein, by the end of the last millennium it looked as though the Nobel should have passed Naipaul by. It seemed unlikely that there would be another Caribbean winner for the time being and in intellectual circles he was beginning to seem a yesterday's man, a writer whose penchant for pricking the bubble of political correctness had lost valency, as the debates moved on and became subtler. Despite the challenge to monoculturalism implicit in some aspects of his writing, he had from the first demonstrated a hostility to hybridity, for example in dramatizing a classically conservative attitude to the supposed perils of miscegenation in a novel such as The Mimic Men (1967). Given that Rushdie, Bhabha, Ondaatje, Ghosh and numerous other writers had pointed up the positive dimensions of migration and hybridity, Naipaul's nostalgic longing for a pure. Edenic moment in the past, when cultures were homogeneous.8 seemed to be out of step with contemporary thinking, whether in the academy or, in this case, the world at large. Derek Walcott even found him provincial, when he located The Enigma of Arrival (1987) in the very English tradition of the “elegiac pastoralist”.9

Some of the reductiveness and harshness of Naipaul's polemical attacks on post-colonial societies began to disappear. In A Way in the World (1994), he unearthed traces of the Amerindian cultures that underlay the Spanish foundations of Trinidad10 and in so doing effectively overturned his earlier view of the island's past as centred on “the two moments when Trinidad was touched by history”,11 two moments of contact with Europe; and he problematized issues of ancestral origins with a greater degree of humility than hitherto: “We cannot understand all the traits we have inherited. Sometimes we can be strangers to ourselves”.12 Slightly earlier, in India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990), he had taken a very different view of the sub-continent from that of his two previous books on India,13 which had represented the country as irrevocably trapped in the quietism of a paralysing Hinduism that precluded Western self-realization and progress.14 Now India was reconstructed as a mosaic of communal pieces, each asserting its distinctive capacity for creativity through “mutiny”. Yet even this change left one uncomfortable, not so much because there was no real acknowledgement of the fairly total about-face he had taken, but because the book's evidence was assembled from a myriad of interviewees and, although most of it was written in inverted commas, the various interlocutors seemed to share a common sub-Naipaulian way of speaking. At the same time, Naipaul's public appeal continued to depend in part on his power as a gadfly. So, despite some evidence of a quieter, more humane Naipaul, if the criterion of humanitarianism remained important, he seemed an unlikely candidate for the Nobel as we entered the new Millennium.

However, other criteria were clearly at work. His name was still being mentioned and, after all, he had succeeded in reconstructing himself as British (while retaining the right to boldly comment where few Britons had commented before) and consequently the unlikelihood of their being another Caribbean laureate was not really relevant. So perhaps it should not have been a surprise to hear he had won the Prize. In any case, I'd like to speculate on why he may have found favour with the Nobel jury at this moment in time and also on whether he deserved the Prize. One thing that Naipaul has shared with Wilson Harris over the years is an extraordinary capacity to reinvent himself, while in a sense producing books that are all one work. Whether fiction or non-fiction, or an amalgam of the two, whether ostensibly about individuals or communities, this work is a continuing, often displaced, autobiography and Naipaul's more recent interviews have emphasized the highly personal nature of his writing. So much so that he now expresses surprise that he has touched a chord in other people, when his subject has been his own very particular experience. This is perhaps where his main achievement lies: in, consciously or unconsciously, having created a persona, with which, despite his testy polemics, we can identify all too readily. In his Nobel Lecture, he spoke of having “moved by intuition alone” without having any “guiding political idea”,15 comparing himself with R. K. Narayan in this respect and identifying this lack of any overriding political conviction as an ancestral Indian trait. This involves a disturbingly stereotypical view of India, which again predicates an essentialist view of a particularly heterogeneous nation; and whether it is correct to characterize Narayan as he does presents a further difficulty, though at least it is endorsed by the creator of Malgudi's own habitual way of presenting himself—and certainly Narayan is less frequently and less overtly concerned with politics than Naipaul. But where Naipaul is concerned, it is extremely difficult to accept the writer at his own self-evaluation. In the Nobel Lecture, he intermingles autobiography with comments on phenomena such as “colonial shame and fantasy”16 and one is left feeling—and again the author may be blissfully unaware of this—that the personal is highly charged with the political.

In his presentation speech at the Nobel ceremony, the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy referred to Naipaul's having praised the West for recognizing “the right to individual endeavour” and for being devoted to European civilization as “the only one of the alternative cultures available to him that made it possible for him to become a writer”.17 In short, personal endeavour is possible in the West and not elsewhere—or at least this is so as far as Naipaul is concerned. The Academy seems to have chosen him at this moment in time, because of his ostensible concern with the individual rather than the macro-political, without having grasped the extent to which his vision is suffused with politics and the extent to which his micro-politics embody a very particular pro-Western ideology. So could it be that it has arrived at a moment in its own evolution, when it wishes to distance itself from the charge that its decisions are influenced by political considerations, but has not appreciated just how politically charged Naipaul's writing is? Or, worse still, has it, in the wake of September 11th, fallen into line with America's declared war on the opponents of “freedom” and found a laureate who has frequently seen the West as the ultimate arbiter of freedom? If either of these speculations—and they are, of course, no more than speculations—has any substance, then the Academy has scored a spectacular own goal. In any case, Naipaul's expressed attitudes make it possible to imagine such a scenario.

Does Naipaul deserve the Prize? Individuals will have to decide for themselves. If a brilliant espousal of pro-Western conservative ideology and a revitalization of the tradition of pastoral elegy (the Academy's press release saw The Enigma of Arrival and not A House for Mr Biswas or The Mimic Men as his masterpiece18) are qualifications, then he surely does. And then there are his wonderfully pithy short sentences. To quote Derek Walcott's essay on The Enigma of Arrival once again, “There isn't a better English around, and for me this is wonderful without bewilderment, since our finest writer of the English sentence by praising the beauty of England, however threatened with industrial encroachment preserves it from itself”.19 Yet one doubts that prose style was at the top of the Nobel jury's shopping list when it came to choosing its 2001 laureate. Besides, Walcott's own sentences in this essay, and in many others, are at least as wonderful, albeit in a different vein; and so are those of a number of Naipaul's other contemporaries. The published citation does mention style, but puts more emphasis on other factors. The press release describes Naipaul as “a literary circumnavigator, only ever really at home in himself, in his inimitable voice” and refers to him as “[s]ingularly unaffected by literary fashion and models”.20 This suggests that it has taken Naipaul at his own estimate and in so doing succumbed to his self-perpetuated myth of himself as a lone genius who transcended his Caribbean origins.21 The press release goes on to call him “a modern philosophe, carrying on the tradition that started originally with Lettres persanes and Candide”, saying that “he transforms rage into precision and allows events to speak with their own inherent irony”.22 The lack of awareness of the extent to which irony is culturally encoded and dependent on the agency of its author would be troubling in an undergraduate essay. Here it is more so, since it is compounded by the emphasis on Naipaul's adoption of Western values as the only means by which he could achieve fulfilment as a writer. There is a contradiction: on the one hand, Naipaul is a neutral witness, uninfluenced by cultural trends, who allows events to speak for themselves; on the other, he is a writer who has found himself through “his devotion to European civilisation” and its recognition of “the right to individual endeavour”.23 There appears to be a blindness to the extent to which Naipaul works within a Western discourse, which presents itself as unfashionable, but is in fact part of the conservative mainstream. The Academy's comments echo Naipaul's own numerous remarks on the failings of post-colonial societies, which of course are remarks that construct the irony that is supposedly inherent in events. In such a reading of world culture, individual endeavour has become the monopoly of the West, but Walcott, Harris and a million other mutineers suggest otherwise. Perhaps, then, it is best to make the case for Naipaul's Nobel in terms of his “wonderful” English sentences, but, as Walcott so astutely points out, they themselves are but the formal expression of his predilection for pastoral elegy.


  1. “Meeting V. S. Naipaul”, Naipaul interviewed by Elizabeth Hardwick, New Times Book Review, 13 May 1979, p. 36.

  2. Naipaul interviewed by Edward Behr, Newsweek, 18 August 1980, p. 38.

  3. The Middle Passage, 1962; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969, p. 43.

  4. The Overcrowded Barracoon, London: André Deutsch, 1972, p. 250.

  5. E.g. in his essay “Conrad's Darkness” in The Return of Eva Perón with The Killings in Trinidad, London: André Deutsch, 1980, p. 216.

  6. Paul Theroux, Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship across Five Continents, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

  7. Diana Athill, Stet, London: Granta Books, 2000.

  8. E.g. in the Epilogue to In a Free State: “[…] Perhaps that had been the only pure time, at the beginning, when the ancient artist, knowing no other land, had learned to look at his own and see it as complete”, In a Free State, London André Deutsch, 1971, p. 255.

  9. Walcott, “The Garden Path: V. S. Naipaul”, What the Twilight Says: Essays, London: Faber, 1998, p. 122.

  10. E.g. A Way in the World, London: Heinemann, 1994, pp. 8 and 41.

  11. The Loss of El Dorado, 1969; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973, p. 15.

  12. A Way in the World, London: Heinemann, 1994, p. 9.

  13. An Area of Darkness, London: André Deutsch, 1964; and India: A Wounded Civilization, London: André Deutsch, 1977.

  14. See particularly India: A Wounded Civilization, p. 25.

  15. Naipaul, Nobel Lecture, 7 December 2001, Official Website of the Nobel Foundation,

  16. Ibid.

  17. Horace Engdahl, Presentation Speech: The 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature, Official Website of the Nobel Foundation,

  18. Press Release, 11 October 2001,

  19. “The Garden Path: V. S. Naipaul”, p. 126.

  20. Press Release, 11 October 2000, op. cit.

  21. See Walcott, “The Garden Path: V. S. Naipaul”, pp. 127-8 on Naipaul's numerous predecessors and contemporaries who negate “The myth of Naipaul as a phenomenon, as a singular, contradictory genius who survived the cane fields and the bush at great cost […]” (p. 128).

  22. Press Release, 11 October 2000.

  23. Horace Engdahl, Presentation Speech, op. cit.

Ervin Beck (essay date spring 2002)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 961

SOURCE: Beck, Ervin. “Naipaul's ‘B. Wordsworth.’” Explicator 60, no. 3 (spring 2002): 175-76.

[In the following essay, Beck asserts that the short story “B. Wordsworth” shows how Naipaul dealt with having a British literary canon thrust upon him and his reactions to it, and his development of a calypso-influenced, Trinidadian form.]

V. S. Naipaul's novel The Mimic Men (1967) is probably the best known and most complex handling of the postcolonial literary trope of “mimicry” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin) in Caribbean literature. The short story about Black Wordsworth in Miguel Street (1959), the first book Naipaul actually wrote (c. 1955), is also his first explicit handling of the problem of literary mimicry—that is, the colonized subject responding to the English literary canon thrust upon him by colonial education and an imposed foreign culture. “B. Wordsworth” not only depicts the condition that Naipaul personally reacted to in his own experience, but in the context of the whole of Miguel Street it also shows how Naipaul overcame the problem of British precedent and indigenized English fiction writing by using a calypso-influenced, Trinidadian form.

The most obvious mimicry in the story, of course, is the name of the Port-of-Spain poet “Black Wordsworth,” which cannot be his christened name but is the result of his self-naming. The man is so colonized that he abandons his native Trinidadian identity and chooses that of the pre-eminent English poet transmitted by empire, William Wordsworth.

The name “Black” also indicates that the poet has accepted the racist definition of himself given him by his colonizers.

Black Wordsworth imitates his namesake in many ways. He discovered his calling as a poet at the age of twenty years, when he “felt the power within myself” (51). William Wordsworth, too, began writing poetry at twenty as a response to his tour of the Alps in 1790. Black Wordsworth's life in Port-of-Spain also mimics William Wordsworth's. He deliberately fits himself into the Wordsworthian tradition of “nature poet” by choosing to live in an urban compound entirely given over to vegetation—his own wild place. “White Wordsworth was my brother. We share one heart” (46), he says.

The autobiographical narrative that he summarizes for his young disciple, the narrator, replicates that of Wordsworth's speaker in the Lucy poems: young love turned tragic by the death of the beloved. We do not have enough evidence to know whether Black Wordsworth's death-doomed love was an actual experience, but in light of other Wordsworthian elements in Black Wordsworth's self-creation, it may be more imagined than real.

As a would-be poet, Black Wordsworth shows that he has been most profoundly influenced by Wordsworth's lyric masterpiece “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Early Childhood,” which has been canonized as “the great ode” in English. Black Wordsworth's ambition to equal William Wordsworth by writing the greatest poem in the English language, and to do so by writing one line a month, is realized in the single line that he has been able to compose: “The past is deep” (50). If one had to condense William Wordsworth's “Ode” to four words, “The past is deep” would not be a bad summary, because the poem is grounded in the Platonic notion of the soul's immortality, hence its eternal (deep) past. We learn by that single line that Black Wordsworth is so entirely overwhelmed by Wordsworth's achievement that even in his most creative moments, he cannot go beyond his master.

However, when Black Wordsworth tells the narrator that he can “watch a small flower like the morning glory and cry” (46), he reveals that he has profoundly misunderstood the work of his master. When at the end of the “Ode” William Wordsworth says he is finally able to conjure up “thoughts that lie too deep for tears,” he means, of course, that he has matured into adulthood—out of mere sensory experience—and become able to transcend the emotions of loss through the cultivation of his intellect and “philosophic mind.” In finding mere tears at the end of his poet's quest, and also in writing poems about “mothers” (46), Black Wordsworth reveals that he is essentially a sentimental poet.

Both conditions—a poet's immature fixation on the physical environment and a colonized subject's fixation on the colonizer's canonical culture—explain the creative paralysis in Black Wordsworth's life. Black Wordsworth therefore represents the colonized poet that Naipaul the writer knew he had to avoid becoming. In real life, the author moved to England, as the narrator also does at the end of Miguel Street.

Some hints in the story suggest that Black Wordsworth could have avoided colonialist mimicry, too. After all, despite his failure to sell his Wordsworthian poems, he did earn his small living by writing and selling calypsoes: “I sing calypsoes in the calypso season” (50), he tells the narrator. Had he specialized in the calypso genre, he might have become indigenously creative and earned both money and a name for himself in his community

Naipaul shows his mastery of creative mimicry insofar as his story replicates a kind of European realism, but in a calypso-like form. Snatches of lines from calypsoes appear in other stories in Miguel Street, namely “The Thing Without a Name,” “The Pyrotechnist,” “The Maternal Instinct,” “The Blue Cart,” “Love, Love, Love Alone,” “Caution,” “Until the Soldiers Came,” and “Hat.” But, more important, each short story itself is calypso-like in being a gossipy, satiric sketch of a socially aberrant character. Naipaul's book illustrates the more recent value placed on mimicry in postcolonial thought, as in the work of theorist Homi Bhabha, who sees mimicry as always imperfect and therefore creative in its own mongrelized way.

Works Cited

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. “Mimicry.” Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies. New York: Routledge, 1998. 139-42.

Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994, Ch. 4.

Naipaul, V. S. Miguel Street. Hammondsworth: Penguin, 1971.

Mervyn Morris (essay date spring 2002)

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SOURCE: Morris, Mervyn. “Sir Vidia and the Prize.” World Literature Today 76, no. 2 (spring 2002): 11-14.

[In the following essay, Morris discusses the mixed reaction to Naipaul's 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature and traces the author's attitude toward Trinidad in his writings.]

V. S. Naipaul has published novels, short stories, autobiography, letters,1 travel books, enquiries into history and politics, critical essays, personal essays, and innovative combinations of these forms. “My aim every time,” he says in his Nobel Lecture, “was [to] do a book, to create something that would be easy and interesting to read.” There is worldwide consensus that this has been achieved. It is generally acknowledged that the man writes very well.

Not everyone admires Naipaul, however. There are some formidable, well-known names among the readers who have expressed serious reservations. Baldly summarized, their main complaints are that much of Naipaul's work displays a lack of ordinary human sympathy, that with insufficient knowledge he has written overconfidently about various societies and cultures, and that his writing privileges Europe while tending to be contemptuous of Europe's colonial victims.

Caribbean admirers of Naipaul are said to overvalue his (merely) technical skills, and to be not concerned enough about the negative implications of his work. Many of the wounded know by heart, and are willing to recite, some of the famously hurtful passages—which are not always easily dismissed: “The island blacks will continue to be dependent on the books, films and goods of others; in this important way they will continue to be the half-made societies of a dependent people, the Third World's third world. They will forever consume; they will never create. They are without material resources; they will never develop the higher skills.”2

In some of his interviews Naipaul has seemed to cultivate a cavalier offensiveness: the red dot on a Hindu woman's forehead means “My head is empty.”3 “Africa has no future.”4 We know he doesn't literally mean what he has said, but we may bristle at what sounds like gratuitous rudeness. Some of these moments may perhaps be seen, however, as delightfully Trinidadian—Naipaul giving rein to verbal playfulness, outrageously following where the straight-man questioner has led. Many years ago, he characterized the Trinidadian as “a quick, civilized person whose values are always human ones, whose standards are only those of wit and style.”5

There was Caribbean consternation when, in an early response to news of the award, he was reported to have expressed gratitude to England (where he now lives) and India (the land of his ancestors) and failed to mention Trinidad, where he was born. Was this a pointed omission? Was Naipaul not a Caribbean writer?6 On a Jamaican radio station I was asked, in effect, why Caribbean people should be pleased that the Nobel Prize had gone to this writer who has turned his back on us.

In important senses he hasn't, of course. With the ambition to be a writer, he felt the need to get out (as George Lamming put it in The Pleasures of Exile).7 Naipaul, having won a Trinidad Scholarship which took him to Oxford, did not—like some of his contemporaries—return to live and work in the Caribbean, but he has visited from time to time; he has accepted Caribbean honours;8 and in his writing Trinidad has continued to be a source of material or a point of reference. A Way in the World (1994) explores aspects of Trinidad history and the experience of a Trinidadian writer: “The article [by Lebrun] seemed to me a miraculous piece of writing. It stuck closely to what I had actually written, but was about so much more. Reading the article, I thought I understood why as a child I felt that history had been burnt away in the place where I born.”9 Whatever else it may be, The Enigma of Arrival (1987)—with its detailed perceptions of Wiltshire and English heritage, its meditation on empire, decay, and death—is a book about a Trinidadian writer: “So, from the starting point of Trinidad, my knowledge and self-knowledge grew. The street in Port of Spain where I had spent part of my childhood; a reconstruction of my ‘Indian’ family life in Trinidad; a journey to Caribbean and South American colonies; a later journey to the special ancestral land of India. My curiosity spread in all directions. Every exploration, every book, added to my knowledge, qualified my earlier idea of myself and the world.”10

Naipaul is said to have been first seriously considered for the Nobel Prize several years ago. It has been suggested that his critical perspectives on Islam—Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981) and Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (1998)—may have tipped the scales in his favour at this particular time.

Appropriately, his Nobel Lecture has other things in mind. It centres on the mystery of the writer's gift, insists that writing is a process of discovery, and (once more with feeling) acknowledges his beginnings in Trinidad: “To give you this idea of my background, I have had to call on knowledge and ideas that came to me much later, principally from my writing.” As a child he was surrounded by “areas of darkness”; when he became a writer, those areas of darkness became his subjects: “The land; the aborigines; the New World; the colony; the history; India; the Muslim world, to which I also felt myself related; Africa; and then England, where I was doing my writing.” He never had a plan. He “followed no system.” He “worked intuitively.”

One consequence of this intuitive approach is an impatience with other people's categories. After the early novels, he deliberately blurs distinctions between “fiction” and “nonfiction.” A House for Mr Biswas (1961) is now known to be largely autobiographical, but the novel does not foreground that circumstance. (Years later, in another context, Naipaul wrote: “An autobiography can distort; facts can be realigned. But fiction never lies: it reveals the writer totally.”)11The Mimic Men (1967) takes the form of a fictional autobiography, and the narrator's opinions are frequently similar to views expressed by Naipaul in “nonfiction” articles. Naipaul's most recent book, Half a Life (2001), is a finely wrought conventional novel, which some readers see as partly a response to the Paul Theroux version of Naipaul's visit to East Africa.12 In In a Free State (1971), a prologue and an epilogue, purporting to be extracts from the author's diary, introduce the writer in his own person as part of the “fictional” construct. The Enigma of Arrival (1987), designated “a novel in five sections,” is read by many as mainly autobiography. In parts of A Way in the World (1994) the author seems to be presented as himself, though there are some invented names and details. Lebrun is a fictionalized portrait of C.L.R. James (and taken to be so by Farrukh Dhondy in his recent biography of James).13 “In both The Enigma of Arrival and A Way in the World,” writes Caryl Phillips, “Naipaul challenges the notion of form. … Novel? Sequence? Who cares.”14 And Naipaul says in Reading & Writing (2000): “For every kind of experience there is a proper form.”15 As an undergraduate at Oxford, he had been puzzled by “the very idea of fiction and the novel.”

A novel was something made up; that was almost its definition. At the same time it was expected to be true, to be drawn from life; so that part of the point of a novel came from half rejecting the fiction, or looking through it to a reality.

Later, when I had begun to identify my material and had begun to be a writer, working more or less intuitively, this ambiguity ceased to worry me. In 1955, the year of this break-through, I was able to understand Evelyn Waugh's definition of fiction (in the dedication of Officers and Gentlemen, published that year) as “experience totally transformed”; I wouldn't have understood or believed the words the year before.16

He believes, as he says in the Nobel Lecture, that “all literary forms are equally valuable.”

He has pointed to changes in his approach to travel and the writing of travel books: “It came to me … when I set out to write my third book about India—twenty-six years after the first—that what was most important about a travel book were the people the writer travelled among. The people had to define themselves.” There is a world of difference between The Middle Passage and his recent travel books: “I had trouble with the ‘I’ of the travel writer; I thought that as traveller and narrator he was in unchallenged command and had to make big judgements.”17 Less assertive than he used to be, he listens, he records, he arranges.

Monitoring the play between the writing self and other worlds, we are admitted to the process of Naipaul's development. He cannot be everything we ask. He is the particular writer he is, with distinct (if often partial) acuteness and an extraordinary gift of style. As he says in the lecture: “At every stage I could only work within my knowledge and sensibility and talent and world-view.” He has made the point before, in Finding the Centre: “To write was to learn. Beginning a book, I always felt I was in possession of all the facts about myself; at the end I was always surprised. The book before always turned out to have been written by a man with incomplete knowledge.”18 In Reading & Writing, similarly: “Each book took me to deeper understanding and deeper feeling, and that led to a different way of writing. Every book was a stage in a process of finding out; it couldn't be repeated.”19

Naipaul is of course much more than a thoughtful writer absorbed in contemplation of his own slow growth. He is a fastidious craftsman, lucid, fluent, and subtle; a maker of intricate structures; a disturbing commentator on colonial legacies, including neocolonialism; a compelling delineator of power and its victims, freedom and its perils. In the end we read and admire Naipaul not because we approve his attitudes or his perceptions, but because each world he renders, the life or half a life he presents, is “experience totally transformed,” made luminous by an almost invisible style.


  1. V. S. Naipaul, Between Father and Son: Family Letters, ed. Gillon Aitken, New York, Knopf, 2000. The editor is grateful to Naipaul “for his understandably disengaged approval of the project” (xi).

  2. V. S. Naipaul, The Overcrowded Barracoon, London, André Deutsch, 1972, p. 250.

  3. Quoted by Robert Hughes, Time, 22 October 2001, p. 45.

  4. Elizabeth Hardwick, “Meeting V. S. Naipaul,” New York Times Book Review, 13 May 1979. Conversations with V. S. Naipaul, ed. Feroza Jussawalla, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1997, p. 49.

  5. V. S. Naipaul, The Middle Passage, London, Deutsch, 1962, p. 77.

  6. Naipaul, offended by Diana Athill's critical response to the manuscript of Guerrillas, took it from André Deutsch, where she was his editor, and offered it to Secker & Warburg. Then he came back to Deutsch. Athill writes: “Vidia never said why he bolted from Secker's, but his agent told André that it was because when they announced Guerrillas in their catalogue they described him as ‘the West Indian novelist’.” Diana Athill, Stet, New York, Grove, 2000, p. 232. See also Robert Hughes, loc. cit.: “Nothing disgusts him more than to be called a Caribbean writer.”

  7. George Lamming, The Pleasure of Exile, London, Michael Joseph, 1960, p. 41.

  8. Such as a D.Litt. from the University of the West Indies (in 1975) and Trinidad's Trinity Cross (in 1990).

  9. V. S. Naipaul, A Way in the World, New York, Knopf, 1994, p. 114.

  10. V. S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival, New York, Viking, 1987, p. 141.

  11. V. S. Naipaul, The Return of Eva Perón, New York, Knopf, 1980, p. 63.

  12. Paul Theroux, Sir Vidia's Shadow, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1998, Part One.

  13. Farrukh Dhondy, C.L.R. James, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2001, pp. 136-43.

  14. Caryl Phillips, A New World Order, Secker & Warburg, 2001, pp. 199-200.

  15. V. S. Naipaul, Reading & Writing, New York, New York Review Books, 2000, p. 49.

  16. Ibid., pp. 22-23.

  17. Ibid., p. 30.

  18. V. S. Naipaul, Finding the Centre, London, Deutsch, 1984, p. 33.

  19. Naipaul, Reading & Writing, p. 27.

L. R. Leavis (essay date April 2002)

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SOURCE: Leavis, L. R. “Travelling Through Colonialism and Postcolonialism: V. S. Naipaul's A Way in the World.English Studies 83, no. 2 (April 2002): 136-48.

[In the following essay, Leavis praises A Way in the World, judging the work as a culmination of genres and interests, and as a combination of travel narrative, biography, ideas about oppression and the oppressed, and historical research.]

Before coming to a key work by a writer who has been publishing since the late fifties, I wish to stitch together from various materials an impression of the context in which his art can be seen (inevitably from an English point of view—but then, from what he has recently written, Naipaul still seems to care about England).1

In his autobiographical essay, Reading and Writing: A Personal Account (New York, 2000), V. S. Naipaul in a particularly arresting paragraph recalls the pressures that drove him at a stage in his life into writing his travel books:

Fiction had taken me as far as it could go. There were certain things it couldn't deal with. It couldn't deal with my years in England; there was no social depth to the experience; it seemed more a matter for autobiography. And it couldn't deal with my growing knowledge of the wider world. Fiction, by its nature, functioning best within certain fixed social boundaries, seemed to be pushing me back to worlds—like the island world, or the world of my childhood—smaller than the one I inhabited. Fiction, which had once liberated me and enlightened me, now seemed to be pushing me towards being simpler than I really was. For some years—three, perhaps four—I didn't really know how to move; I was quite lost.

Of course, countless writers have undergone versions of such a ‘fictional crisis’. Naipaul's depiction of his position in what he clearly sees as a turning-point in his life is lucidly honest. At best, when he was at that time capable of turning experience into art, he became trapped by the narrowness of the society or world he was confined to, or else circumscribed by the restrictions of his own situation in an alien society which he did not understand. These are recollections about a man between cultures struggling in his early thirties with the expression of a personal identity. I mean identity as man and as the writer who became involved in much of his works with people who are ‘quite lost’.

About his childhood in Trinidad he once said:

When I was in the fourth form, I wrote a vow on the endpapers of my Kennedy Revised Latin Primer to leave within five years. I left after six.2

One places this beside the loaded phrase ‘my growing knowledge of the wider world’ (of the first quote) to understand the essence of the writer, who had tried comedy as with A House for Mr. Biswas (1961),3 and was travelling farther while acutely conscious of his background. Naipaul had been living in England since 1950, and this was a period when the great English tradition of the novel was waning, or to be brutally honest, had long waned. And in ‘Jasmine’, an essay published in The Times Literary Supplement of 4 June 1964, collected in The Overcrowded Barracoon (1984), we see that the Oxford University English course he had studied on a scholarship in the early fifties had ‘little to do with literature’, being selectively historical and scholarly (with Anglo-Saxon)—so of no use to him.4

In his recalled predicament (in Reading and Writing) of (temporarily) abandoning fiction for travel books, he is close to reducing it to the conservative model of the novels of Jane Austen,5 where a narrow social world is accurately described. In this essay he (among others) mentions Charles Dickens, an island novelist of world fame, D. H. Lawrence, who tried to break away from his little island, and Joseph Conrad, a wanderer and voyager who settled on one to write fiction. These also all wrote travel books as well as fiction. However, one cannot imagine any of these pioneers, who extended the English novel well beyond Jane Austen in their idiosyncratic ways, as rejecting fiction for being too narrow! In this respect, Naipaul then felt more alien to English society of the time and more frustrated by an English conception of fiction than even the Polish emigré Joseph Conrad, who once in a letter bitterly ascribed the commercial failure of his novel The Secret Agent to his ‘foreignness’.

Naipaul's position in England in the late fifties was cruelly difficult—and he has referred to the early fifties as ‘very hard years’.6 In ‘London’, a short article printed in The Times Literary Supplement of 15 August 1958, and the first piece collected in The Overcrowded Barracoon, he outlines his circumstances at the time. He is living in England and depends on an English audience, and is writing about Trinidad. As he says (simply and moving), at that time he is writing for England. He has written three books in five years which have not sold well, for the public do not want him because he is ‘too foreign’, while the Americans don't want him because he is ‘too British’. ‘People have been used to reading about non-Europeans through European eyes’, he observes, and they do not know the novels of the Indian writer R. K. Narayan, and so have no point of reference for his own novels.7 It appears that only his journalism is paying—and earlier he had done B.B.C. broadcasting (among other things, of some of his short stories). He says that he has been urged to write about England instead, and would like to do so, but does not know enough about it. Anyway, for someone in his position, in England ‘everything goes on behind closed doors’. Thirty years later he would have had a real chance to have been accepted on his own terms, one feels, for the literary climate with respect to other cultures was to radically change, as ‘postcolonial literature’ became appreciated. But in this piece he is putting a brave face on things. From his journalistic activities of this period, one can see that though he is finding his voice (some late-sixties/early-seventies pieces still read like Graham Greene), he is a fresh talent with a cultural diversity (within certain clear parameters and ethnic bias) that is international. He ends by prophetically saying that while London ‘is the best place to write in’, he needs to be able to refresh himself by travel. In 1961 Naipaul received a grant from the Trinidad government to travel in the Caribbean. Then followed a long period of travelling widely.

Returning to Reading and Writing, Naipaul mentions 1955 as the year of his initial literary breakthrough, when he was (more than coincidentally) able to understand Evelyn Waugh's definition of fiction (in the dedication to Officers and Gentlemen) as ‘experience totally transformed’. Naipaul also tells us how, when he encountered Joseph Conrad's generous letter of advice to Edward Noble (of 28 October 1895) about a novel he had been sent, he realised that he himself during his formative years had shared the same view of literature not being a mere mechanism of plot, a series of accidents:

For Conrad, as for the narrator of Under Western Eyes, the discovery of every tale was a moral one. It was for me too, without my knowing it.8

Whatever his present attitude to ‘the novel’ (which I will return to finally),9 whenever he has employed the form (with whatever success, in whatever variety), he has taken it seriously, unlike the metafictionists, who have toyed with it.

Naipaul's father had once advised him to read Conrad ‘for intensity of expression’.10 One adds to this his piece ‘Conrad's Darkness’, originally published in July 1974 in The New York Review of Books, which appeared in The Return of Eva Péron with The Killings on Trinidad (1980). Here, beyond saying that he (surprisingly and disappointingly) never got beyond the opening pages of Nostromo, for him Conrad was Lord Jim, Under Western Eyes, and, understandably from his own fiction like Guerillas (1975) and A Bend in the River (1979), the extreme, pessimistic allegory Heart of Darkness.

Naipaul goes further in Reading and Writing to categorise the travel books that he knew at that early period of self-struggle as being written by ‘metropolitan people’ unlike himself, such as ‘Huxley, Lawrence, Waugh’:

They wrote at a time of empire; whatever their character at home, they inevitably in their travel became semi-imperial, using the accidents of travel to define their metropolitan personalities against a foreign background.

My travel was not like that. I was a colonial travelling in New World plantation colonies which were like the one I had grown up in. To look, as a visitor, at other semiderelict communities in despoiled land, in the great romantic setting of the New World, was to see, as from a distance, what one's own community might have looked like. It was to be taken out of oneself and one's immediate circumstances—the material of fiction—and to have a new vision of what one had been born into, and to have an intimation of a sequence of historical events going far back.

Perhaps this distinction is not fair to Lawrence, really an ‘anti-metropolitan personality’, in fact, whose travel books in places surely go beyond his ‘semi-imperial’(!) identity in a leap of perceptive intelligence; but one sees what he means with Waugh. Put Naipaul's An Area of Darkness (1964) next to Waugh's When the Going Was Good (1946), and while one suspects that Naipaul may have learned from Waugh's travel book (especially its humour), the voices and experiences of the two narrators are completely different, notably in the understanding of and attitudes to people and cultures. To cite a clear instance, Naipaul's observer's independence is threatened, almost overwhelmed by a Sikh's challenge in a way that never happens to Waugh, whether faced by fellow whites, or a victim of a mad Brazilian planter, or when he is thrown off an African steamer by an infuriated captain. And Naipaul is not pretending to be a ‘metropolitan person’ with an assured centre; he can take over Indian voices, and when he returns to London he feels that ‘my experience of India’ is now defining itself ‘more properly against my own homelessness’. Through detachment he is trying to estimate the nature of India, the English rule of India, and the difference between the English colonisation of Trinidad and India. In his evaluation he has been trying to define himself:

To preserve conception of India as a country still whole, historical facts had not been suppressed. They had been acknowledged and ignored; and it was only in India that I was able to see this as part of the Indian ability to retreat, the ability genuinely not to see what was obvious: with others a foundation of neurosis, but with Indians only part of a greater philosophy of despair, leading to passivity, detachment, acceptance. It is only now, as the impatience of the observer is dissipated in the process of writing and self-inquiry, that I see how much this philosophy had also been mine. It had enabled me, through the stresses of a long residence in England, to withdraw completely from nationality and loyalties except to persons; it had made me content to be myself alone, my work, my name (the last two so different from the first); it had convinced me that every man was an island, and taught me to shield all that I knew to be good and pure within myself from the corruption of causes.

Naipaul was, and at best still is, in a sympathetically judicious, but vulnerable observer's position—which does not preclude disgust or ironic aloofness and even superiority. This last is a defect that can crop up in certain contexts—just as Naipaul is sometimes not really a critic when writing on English authors such as Dickens, for example. He tends with confidence to understand Dickens only in terms relating to a period in his own development, and seems not to appreciate that ‘realism’ can include psychological realism. And a surgical attitude towards the ‘human material’ in some studies may understandably cause offence.11 But in his best creative writing (and one includes some of his travel and his historical books here, though these were not written for quite the same purpose) Naipaul's position is also the main strength behind his perception. It is tied to his method of inquiry and is the basis of his originality.

In a witty and subtle review article (‘The Last of the Aryans’) on the Indian writer Nirad Chaudhuri (known for his A Passage to England), first published in the January 1966 issue of Encounter, and also collected in The Overcrowded Barracoon, Naipaul makes the following diagnosis from a passage in Chaudhuri's The Continent of Circe:

It might seem then that Chaudhuri, in an attempt to make a whole of Hindu attitudes, has succumbed to any number of Hindu contradictions. But I also feel that Chaudhuri, living in Delhi, enduring slights and persecutions, has at last succumbed to what we may call the enemy. He sees India as too big; he has lost his gift of detachment, his world view.

This is plainly a judgement telling us about Naipaul's personal understanding of a predicament, and carries a conviction beyond fascinating echoes of E. M. Forster's perceptions in A Passage to India of how India overwhelms. It tells us especially about the value of a detachment related to a ‘world view’ for Naipaul at the time (and later!).12

In a most recent piece, in the August 2000 issue of the Tatler, Naipaul attacks the aggressively plebeian and anti-elitist climate under Tony Blair in England, a country which he (with reason) sees has been destroying its values for the last fifty years. The names one picks out among the British figures he cites from the past as men who had serious ideas about civilisation are Waugh and Orwell. Orwell (who like Naipaul had done broadcasting for the B.B.C.) was, I think, a better essayist and journalist than novelist. There is something sterile and more than something claustrophobic about many of his novels. But the impressive side of Orwell, his non-partisan liberal individualism, which refused to swallow cant from any side, as evidenced in Homage to Catalonia or the story ‘Shooting an Elephant’, must have struck a chord in Naipaul. And Orwell in his way was very much concerned with India, as Naipaul has been. Orwell had reacted to colonialism from the other side. Being an uprooted Englishman, who had renounced his preparation for a mindless imperialist existence climaxed by a job in the Burma Police, a man who turned against his middle-class background to the working man, but who could not swallow Communism, Orwell was an eternal outsider with a sense of guilt beyond anything Naipaul may have felt in going outside the culture of his birthplace and family. This we see in his novel attempts, in A Clergyman's Daughter and Coming Up for Air, where a country is viewed, past and present, from an alienated and cut-off narrative vision. Orwell used to assume Sherlock Holmes (‘The Great Master of’) disguises to mix with English tramps and hop-pickers, not just to get material, but to lose his own class. And Orwell turned to using Henry Mayhew's 19th century invention of documentary reporting for his studies of low life in books like Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier. These are decent, feeling protests against society, and travel books in their modest way, if hardly comparing with the range and imaginative depth of understanding achieved by Naipaul in his travel writing about India.

So perhaps Orwell connects with a formative stage in Naipaul's own life when he viewed England from outside in the fifties and early sixties, looking for what he found congenial in it in his characteristic ‘all-devouring’ way, before he ‘invented himself’ as a writer13 by finding methods and developing emotional, cultural and intellectual interests which could bring depth to his curiously vulnerable yet detached position. One can appreciate the journey of Naipaul's development from comparing the English setting in The Mimic Men (1967) with the mellower (but still detached) The Enigma of Arrival (1987), always remembering that Naipaul is much more of a novelist than Orwell, and is not encumbered by Orwell's total sense of guilt and self-disgust, which tends to dwell on a masochistic view of a human condition of being trapped in society.

The danger for Naipaul seems to be that in building up his articulate and intellectual observer's position, there is a dislocation between his past inner vulnerability and his sense of an almost logical mastery of cultural material. In contrast, Orwell's strength lies in his humility, but in creative writing the outsider's vision revealingly connects Naipaul with Orwell as well as with Conrad. Naipaul's narrative figure of the coastal trader Salim (from an Indian family who is in the East African country of A Bend in the River [1979]) is a passive and flawed observer. This narrator of one of his most successful novels may be a convincing extension of Naipaul's voice—the vision is original—but the reader who knows his Conrad and Orwell will remember the Orwellian observer-protagonist (Winston Smith being the most vivid) and Conrad's Marlow, and feel that Naipaul's ‘The Big Man’ president is a more complete and suggestive rendering of the chaos and corruption of power than Big Brother,14 and set in a far more pointed context.

A Way in the World (1994) concentrates on a central ‘objective’ examination of uprooted people, much as his 1971 Booker Prize-winning sequence of five works In a Free State was concerned with the same study. This is very much Naipaul's niche as a traveller-observer writer who turns to fiction. A Way in the World seems to sum up most of Naipaul's writing career, given that comedy has been left behind. It may be said to be the culmination of a lifetime's endeavour, for it is a fusion of genres and interests: in it we find Naipaul's own life transformed into fiction, his travel interests and preoccupations, his involvement with people, his fascination with the pattern of experience of certain types of individual, his ideas about oppressor and oppressed, and his historical research. So we read about significant episodes in his life in the Caribbean and in England, we meet voices of travellers and explorers out of history like the Venezuelan Francisco Miranda and Sir Walter Raleigh, and we encounter postcolonial Africa in a vision that Conrad would have understood. Naipaul's historical research into nineteenth-century English rule of Trinidad in The Loss of El Dorado: A History (1970) clearly informs the section ‘In the Gulf of Desolation’; this historical grasp of the life of Miranda, con-man and adventurer of colonial times, is turned into a central narrative in a book comprised of a web of moral (but not moralistic) tales interlocking together.

This ‘interlocking’ is both extremely simple and subtly effective. The simple nature is obvious; characters like Blair, the Marxist revolutionary Lebrun (who had written an impressive history which included a study of Miranda), and the Englishman Foster Morris (who had met Lebrun) prove to be more than accidental encounters in the narrator's life, and help to flesh out the sense of destiny behind the tales; one might call it the classic story-teller's method of ‘controlled coincidence’ for deeper purposes. More importantly, these various studies and fragments connect together through the author's underlying vision, which goes with his interest in people and history. So the first two sections, ‘An Inheritance’ and ‘History’, convey the author's childhood and adolescent memories of Trinidad, but involve the reader in currents and interests that shaped his life. The fascination for the Mohammedan Indian Leonard Side, ‘a decorator of cakes and arranger of flowers’ (who dressed Christian bodies in a funeral parlour and had a picture of Christ in his house) introduces a characteristic note in the book; incongruities in people began to strike Naipaul early in his life (fictionalised account or not), and he wished to understand them in their environment. In the case of the civil servant Blair, whom the narrator encounters (in the second section) as a seventeen-year-old junior clerk in the Registrar-General's Department, Port of Spain, it is more than this; the book makes it clear that Blair will die violently twenty years later in another function in East Africa. The man's career and the nature of his identity over a period of changes are what preoccupy Naipaul, and will preoccupy him with other characters, including famous historical figures.

Midway in the second section, when as a youth he is trying to write sketches about Port of Spain life, Naipaul articulates with hindsight the confused doubts he had at the time:

What was the basis of the writer's attitude? What other world did he know, what other experience did he bring to his way of looking? How could a writer write about this world, if it was the only world he knew?

It is not for nothing that we are told that in the vault of the government building where he worked were lodged:

All the records of the colony […], all the births, deaths, deeds, transfers of property and slaves, all the life of the island for the century and a half of the colonial time.

For as the section unfolds, the sense of the past takes over the narrative, along with the cruelty of a changing, rootless present:

It was as though, with the colonial past, all the colonial landscape was being trampled over and undone; as though, with that past, the very idea of regulation had been rejected; as though, after the sacrament of the square, the energy of revolt had become a thing on its own, eating away at the land.

The section ends with the spasms of violence in recent Trinidadian history echoing the pattern of events from the beginnings of the Spanish colonisation in the sixteenth century and the English rule in the nineteenth.

A Way in the World focusses on this sense of layers of history behind the predicament of the individual. So ‘Passenger’ portrays the narrator's gathering comprehension both of himself and of a (fictitious) novelist called Foster Morris.15 This Englishman when in Trinidad in the late thirties had written a novel about local events as if the people there were English, not understanding their way of seeing or their ‘deprivation’:

We didn't have backgrounds. We didn't have a past. For most of us the past stopped with our grandparents; beyond that was a blank.16

Morris had given the narrator valuable advice when he had started his own writing career, but now he comes to understand that there is a menace behind Morris's behaviour to him relating to Morris's fossilized ‘liberalism’, which causes a cynical malice defined by the story. This sense of threat and hostility is very potent; Naipaul is good in his touchy, spiky way at conveying ‘bad vibes’ (he once in 1982 as star guest walked out of a PEN conference in Amsterdam). But the narrator places Morris's Trinidad novel as part of ‘the great chain of changing outside vision of that part of the world’ which is ‘a fair record of one side of a civilisation’. Perhaps E. M. Forster himself could have transcended his Englishness to write a novel under West Indian conditions that might have been even ‘fairer’!

The study of the Trinidadian-Panamanian communist Lebrun in ‘On the Run’ is a record of something else, though the book answers a familiar question: ‘How, considering when he was born, had he become the man he was?’ Sympathetic interpretation is strikingly combined with sharp satire: we see the two characters Lebrun builds and uses for himself, ‘the man of the revolutionary cause’, and when it suits him, ‘the man of racial redemption’. Lebrun at the height of his prestige in old age:

… never spoke against a black racial regime. He presented Asian dispossession in Amin's Uganda and Nyerere's Tanzania as an aspect of class warfare. Guyana in South America he defended in a curious way: since the days of slavery, he said on one radio programme, the Caribbean could be considered as black people's territory.

This extremism is not just straight hypocrisy. As ageing celebrity he ‘never tried to stay in the places he visited’ (unlike the much younger West Indian revolutionary), returning to bases in Europe or Canada. He rootlessly toured Africa:

as a famous black man. He was welcomed by the leaders; his reputation began to feed on itself. He was said to be advising. He went to all kinds of tyrannies; to countries of murderous tribal wars; to collapsed economies. But when he came back he spoke on the television and radio as though he had been granted a vision of something more ideal, an Africa stripped of all that was incidental and passing …

In French West Africa he finds a ruler of state ‘who was ready to be his disciple, because the advice matched the ruler's own need’:

When the dictatorship collapsed and the desolate country was opened, no one thought of calling him to account. He was not associated with desolation. He was, rather, the man who had held fast both to ideas of revolution and African redemption; and had not been rewarded for his pains. In the mess of Africa and the Caribbean he was oddly pure.

The narrator visits the West African country that had been advised by Lebrun, and gives a Heart of Darkness atmosphere of forlorn street slogans with ‘INCREASE PRODUCTION’ and gangs of sinister criminal muggers, ‘the only local people I had seen who behaved like free people’. Yet this account is original; there is an understanding portrait of the country's West Indian Principal, and an ironical sympathy for Lebrun in the diagnosis of his criminally irresponsible position.

This may be a dark vision of anarchy, but Naipaul's view of Lebrun's life has a very human emphasis. The positives in the book further come out with the pathos and vividness of the account of Raleigh's last voyage, ‘A Parcel of Papers, a Roll of Tobacco, a Tortoise’, and the moral view behind the irony in ‘A New Man’, about an Asian Indian from Trinidad turned Venezuelan called Manuel Sorzano. The native Indian captive who voyages as a trophy with Raleigh to England and is returned to the Spanish concludes that for:

‘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 for them the world is a safer place.’

The story shows from the dishonesties detected in Raleigh's past travel accounts, the confusions and gripping tragedy of his fatal last voyage, and the eerie, remote strangeness of what the English and Spanish experience (heightened by being seen through the eyes of the Indian hostage), that there are equal dangers for the colonising European. It is significant in the pattern of the book that Raleigh is going home to be executed, as later Miranda is going ‘home’ to be imprisoned.

Manuel Sorzano is a self-made man by unscrupulous means (looting treasure found on a building site) who is between cultures and identities:

A new land, a new name, a new identity, a new kind of family life, new languages even (Surinam Hindi would have been different from the Hindi he would have heard in Trinidad)—his life should have been full of stress, but he gave the impression of living as intuitively as he had always done, surviving, with no idea of being lost or in a void.

He has found his ‘El Dorado’ (which he wears as a gold necklace), yet his real treasure seems to be his blindly instinctive contact with the culture of his roots:

… living intuitively, he was possessed by what had remained of his ancestral culture. He couldn't stand back from it or assess it; he couldn't acquire external knowledge about it; and it would die with him. He would have no means of passing it on to his children. They had Spanish names and spoke only Venezuelan. These Sorzanos would be quite different; there would be no ambiguities about them; they would be the kind of Venezuelan stranger I had in the beginning taken their father for.

And he has gained a kind of ‘wisdom’ from his experiences, primitive as he is. This comes out in his verdict to his Venezuelan policeman son who (to the father's deep relief) after a turmoil of humiliation can't kill his unfaithful mistress:

‘I say, “I never had the kind of excitement in my life that you and your generation are looking for in yours. Yours is a modern way, and I must tell you I jealous you a little bit for it, for the freedom it give. But if you want this kind of freedom, you have to pay the price. Other people must have their excitement and freedom too. You can't tie them down. You can't start thinking of fair and unfair. Once you start looking for this excitement, you have to put away this idea of fair and unfair.”’

‘Fairness’ has to do with traditional ‘macho justice’, where the girl would be killed for infidelity because she broke the code. Naipaul gives a convincing and powerful insight into a crude man adapting to a different way of life in a raw modern state. A spicing of detached, wry irony avoids any suspicion of sentimentality.

Miranda's early-nineteenth-century sojourn in Trinidad before and after a failed invasion of Venezuela is brilliantly described. It is seen as a final watershed in a turbulent life of a self-made egotist who was driven by ambition, first to rise within the Spanish class system of his rulers, and then, when thwarted, in a frenzy of hatred of the Spanish, as a rebel in various identities—in Naipaul's words, ‘he had made himself over many times’. We also catch an epistolary glimpse of his wife's predicament in England. Miranda is beginning to look back at his past with some objectivity, and this makes him relate to other people like the English governor of Trinidad in a less dishonest way than the mere manipulative flattery of a crook. His past roles, treacheries and disguises are dropping away as he is getting nearer to his roots: in his words ‘I feel as though I am losing pieces of myself’. He is trapped in a rotten fabric and in a pattern of action that will lead to his destruction, and he now knows it, even if it can't be admitted. ‘The world shrinks around him’ while he waits. His final capture comes as a relief, and his understanding through failure of his attempt to ‘liberate’ Venezuela gives him self-knowledge that is ‘a kind of release’. His dealings with the Venezuelan lawyer, Andrés Level de Goda, who visits him in a Spanish prison and with the prison governor show him gathering real dignity and stature. In his cell awaiting transportation to Spain, he can diagnose himself frankly to Level:

‘Because of the way I have lived, always in other people's countries, I have always been able to hold two or more different ideas in my head at the same time. Two ideas about my country, two or three or four ideas about myself. I have paid a heavy price for this.’

One could add that other people (victims of Miranda's unbridled egotism) have paid a heavier price. But, far more than with Raleigh and even Lebrun, in this re-creation of history there is a gripping human insight into a flawed nature that emerges from the life of frenzied masquerades of a con-man on the run.

The book concludes with the ‘modern’ murder of Blair in a corrupt East African regime. He has been hired by the president to stamp out financial irregularities, and is butchered because of his investigations into gold and ivory smuggling. The Englishman Richard, who stays, with less excuse than Lebrun, a party-line Marxist, contrasts with the integrity of men like Blair, who die undiminished, or the academic De Groot, who ‘in Africa had no special cause; people looking for a man with a cause found him incomplete’. Here, besides the zest for description in the book, is the counterbalance to Naipaul's savage vision of chaos.

The English novel has provided classic panoramas of human effort set against existential chaos. Dr Oswald Spengler's ideas of cycles of history certainly reflected perspectives early in the twentieth century, before the collapse of Western colonialism. Conrad's Nostromo allegorically opens with human figures swallowed up by a South American landscape, and singles out the effort of individual will and human suffering. E. M. Forster's A Passage to India depicts Fielding's questioning of English rule (and of his own Humanism itself) in an India dwarfed by an inchoate mass of nature and humanity. Conrad and Forster would have comprehended Naipaul's value for understanding through experience and for an ultimate moral integrity whatever the scale of anarchy. Naipaul is as much preoccupied with the effects of colonialism as they are, but his concerns and angle of vision here are very different.

He remains characteristically the essential traveller, who at the same time warns of the dangers and abuses of the travelling way of life. So the third sequence in the book, ‘New Clothes’, sketches a vivid allegorical narrative about an intruder's exploitation of a South American country. Here Naipaul as narrator mediates between the experiences of some twentieth century Black Power extremist on the run and English Tudor contact with the land three hundred and fifty years earlier. There is some contrast with the rest of the volume, for this is a nostalgic glimpse of the rare freshness of a virgin territory, where people live as yet unspoiled in a closed community with no horizons. But while his travellers/observers like Miranda pick out the human landscape (as when he notices the Chinese imported labour in Trinidad), the view dwells on themselves and their destinies, or the destinies of other travellers such as Lebrun and Blair. Conrad in Nostromo not only gives the feel of societies as Naipaul brilliantly does, his vision can switch into them impersonally and leave the individual vision behind; he is far more than being just ‘the novelist of isolation’. Naipaul only works through limited narrative; he does not depict a Manuel Sorzano (for instance) and his son both in their relationship to each other and in a community, so creating an organic sense of the individual in society. For Conrad the individual is part of society, as Martin Decoud and Axel Heyst (in Victory) most painfully discover.

So Naipaul's bent lies not in a view of the individual in a society but in his reconstruction of the complexity and confusion of the traveller Miranda's situation (or the simpler Venezuelan Indian of ‘A New Man’), which has everything to do with colonialism, imposed identity and change. Conrad's equivalent of Miranda or Lebrun would only be the sophisticated barbarian Pedrito Montero, or the adventurer Sotillo, who merely passes from unscrupulous egotist to maniac, remaining a despicable image. Certainly, Naipaul makes us understand the case-history of Miranda, who is humanised by his partial coming to terms with himself and society; his acceptance of his Spanish prison marks a final dignity. But tellingly, the centre of Conrad's novel is elsewhere, in the collective suffering of society and the individuals who make it up, though it remains a work of savage satire.

At the conclusion of Reading and Writing Naipaul praises ‘the glorious cinema’ of the first fifty years of the last century, and controversially asserts that the realistic novel as practised in the nineteenth century (and taught in the twentieth!) can no longer deal with modern reality,17 though Mark Twain has shown that a novel (however repetitive) can be written about viewing chaos while travelling down the Mississippi on a raft. I have no trouble in reading A Way in the World as ‘realism’—given that this term encompasses the imaginative bearing some relation to the real world. And Naipaul's work, though he does not regard it as a novel, in a sense is just as much one as Nostromo or A Passage to India in that the author has a central controlling concern which unifies his ‘sequences’. However, one cannot avoid the judgement that it is a construct, being a vehicle for a developed talent which has become highly specialised. One appreciates that Naipaul's view has been fixed on the horizon, and that he is suffocated by place. His reality is that of an immensely knowledgeable man's who is passing through and looking back in the history of colonial change. While he has been searching for the gulf behind societies, he has been fascinated—obsessed even!—by people congenial to his considerable if sometimes rather supercilious gifts.18


  1. For a quite different, Indian view of Naipaul, see Pankaj Mishra's ‘The House of Mr Naipaul’ in The New York Review of Books of January 20, 2000. This is a lucid review of Naipaul's Between Father and Son: Family Letters (London, 1999).

  2. The Middle Passage: Impressions of Five Societies—British, French and Dutch in the West Indies and South America, 1963.

  3. The surrealistic comedy in The House of Mr Biswas is rather in the vein of the blackest parts of H. G. Wells's Mr Polly—as Wells's novel is also a Dickens-inspired imaginative fantasy loosely based on the author's own father, a poignant comparison could be made between novels of two different cultures. Naipaul's novel, of course, (unlike Wells's) gives a concrete sense of a family—his own family.

  4. V. S. Naipaul's gifted younger brother, Shiva Naipaul (1945-85), also novelist and travel writer, took an Oxford degree in Chinese.

  5. Naipaul hated Jane Austen's Emma on first reading it, finding it slick and full of gossip.

  6. See the treatment of his first arrival in England in the autobiographical novel The Enigma of Arrival (1987).

  7. His friend Narayan also occupies him in An Area of Darkness (1964). Naipaul can at times be bluntly dismissive of those who are not cosmopolitan (see footnote 12). Naipaul much later in Reading and Writing (2000) explains the crucial difference between Narayan and himself as the following; he too could in dealing with experience ‘begin only with the externals of things’, but to do more, he ‘had to find other ways’, unlike Narayan, for Naipaul most revealingly puts it: ‘I had no idea or illusion of a complete world waiting for me somewhere’. The reader of Naipaul can see how these ‘other ways’ (which had included a deepening understanding of his father) would eventually lead to the art of A Way in the World.

  8. Reading and Writing, New York, 2000, p. 18.

  9. Naipaul seems to confuse the undoubted commercialisation of the current novel and the glibness of much academic teaching of it with an essential limitation of form and of adaptability to modern conditions. Perhaps another factor is his personal sense of having exhausted material as a novelist.

  10. Between Father and Son: Family Letters by V. S. Naipaul, ed. Gillon R. Aitken, London, 1999.

  11. As in Among the Believers (1981), a study of Islam.

  12. And see an interview in At Random Magazine (June 1998) with Tarun J. Tejpal where Naipaul intemperately pronounces on other writers (including T. S. Eliot):

    ‘What's there in Joyce for me? A blind man living in Trieste. And talking about Dublin. There's nothing in it for me, it's not universal. And a man of so little, so little imagination, able to record life around him in such a petty way, but depending on an ancient narrative. No, no, no.’

  13. See Naipaul's Finding the Centre (1984) for a description of the writer's struggle with his relation to his family and background.

  14. That in A Bend in the River, the Belgian historian Raymond is engaged by The Big Man to write propaganda, is another sign of the influence on Naipaul of Winston Smith's experiences.

  15. While he is of a different generation, from Oxford and not Cambridge, and a Graham Greene protégé, the name has E. M. Forster suggestions (Forster + his homosexual novel Maurice).

  16. Compare this insight with Naipaul's conclusion in Reading and Writing (in ‘The Writer and India 2’) about Narayan's India:

    Narayan's world is not, after all, as rooted and complete as it appears. His small people dream simply of what they think has gone before, but they are without personal ancestry; there is a great blank in their past.

  17. The late twentieth century, surfeited with news, culturally far more confused, threatening again to be as full of tribal or folk movement as during the centuries of the Roman Empire, needs another kind of interpretation.

  18. In a filmed interview shown on B.B.C.'s Open University, Naipaul has explained that he could quickly tell whether people he interviewed would be of use to him in his travel books or not.

George Packer (essay date summer 2002)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3223

SOURCE: Packer, George. “V. S. Naipaul's Pursuit of Happiness.” Dissent (summer 2002): 85-9.

[In the following essay, Packer traces Naipaul's literary development.]

In October 1953, V. S. Naipaul's father died in Port of Spain, Trinidad. He died in disappointment and misery. He had been waiting to see his son, who was finishing a degree at Oxford, and waiting for his own book of stories to find a publisher. All his life he had struggled to be more than a journalist for the Trinidad Guardian—to be a writer. V. S. Naipaul had not so much been handed this ambition as become its living extension. “I had always looked upon my life as a continuation of his—a continuation which, I hoped, would also be a fulfillment.” To read the letters published recently in Between Father and Son is to see where Naipaul got the spareness of his style, right down to the semi-colons.

Naipaul's mother and older sister pleaded with him to come home to Trinidad and take up his family duty. Before his death, his father had asked the same thing, and Naipaul had written from Oxford: “If I did so, I shall die from intellectual starvation.” With his father dead, the pressure to return became intense. “Our family was in distress. I should have done something for them, gone back to them. But, without having become a writer, I couldn't go back.” And so for three years Naipaul put his family off. He was living in London, writing occasional scripts for the BBC Caribbean Service, and trying to complete the book that would make him a writer and lift his family out of debt.

Years later, Naipaul would come across a de Chirico painting to which Guillaume Apollinaire had given the title The Enigma of Arrival. In his book of the same title, Naipaul wrote, “I felt that in an indirect, poetical way the title referred to something in my own experience.” It gave him the idea for a story:

My narrator … would arrive—for a reason I had yet to work out—at that classical port with the walls and gateways like cutouts. He would walk past that muffled figure on the quayside. He would move from that silence and desolation, that blankness, to a gateway or door. He would enter there and be swallowed by the life and noise of a crowded city. (I imagined something like an Indian bazaar scene.) The mission he had come on—family business, study, religious initiation—would give him encounters and adventures. He would enter interiors, of houses and temples. Gradually there would come to him a feeling that he was getting nowhere; he would lose his sense of mission; he would begin to know only that he was lost. His feeling of adventure would give way to panic. He would want to escape, to get back to the quayside and his ship. But he wouldn't know how. I imagined some religious ritual in which, led on by kindly people, he would unwittingly take part and find himself the intended victim. At the moment of crisis he would come upon a door, open it, and find himself back on the quayside of arrival. He has been saved; the world is as he remembered it. Only one thing is missing now. Above the cut-out walls and buildings there is no mast, no sail. The antique ship has gone. The traveler has lived out his life.

Put this unwritten fantasy alongside the moment when Naipaul chose his vocation over the expectations of his family. It required an immense leap of faith for a young Indian in the grip of “a panic about failing to be what I should be” not to lose his own sense of mission. His letters home, often filled with shame, also display an astonishing assurance: “Look, I am going to be a success as a writer. I know that. I have gambled all my future on that possibility. Do you want to throw your lot with me or don't you?” And yet all his life the enigma of arrival has haunted Naipaul—the sense of living out his life, like the traveler in the unwritten tale, without having achieved his purpose.

The bet paid off. At the end of 1955, he sold his first novel, The Mystic Masseur. Half a century and two dozen books later, Naipaul at last has his Nobel Prize.

When the announcement came last fall—after years of rumors, short lists, and steadily avowed indifference from Naipaul himself—an article in Le Monde Diplomatique compared the selection to Henry Kissinger's receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. According to Pascale Casanova, Naipaul “disavows his past; he sees himself as an English writer … [He] is contemptuous of the peoples of the South, and he is a mouthpiece for extreme conservative and nationalist views.” And, as if that weren't bad enough, “His favorite novelist is Balzac.”

Through much of his career, Naipaul has been denounced from the left, especially by partisans of third world countries and cultures, those societies that he's called “half-made.” Derek Walcott, a fellow West Indian Nobelist, attacked the author of The Enigma of Arrival as racist. And, as his rejection by the left grew, Naipaul became something of a hero to the right, the one dark-skinned writer who could be counted on to tell the third world what it didn't want to hear about itself. The embrace culminated in this country a decade ago with an invitation for Naipaul to speak before the conservative Manhattan Institute. Last fall, when the World Trade Center attacks and Naipaul's Nobel followed each other in rapid succession, the address to the Manhattan Institute circulated on the Internet.

Its title is “Our Universal Civilization,” and in an unspoken way, it takes one back to the crucial period when Naipaul defied his family's wishes and stayed in London to become a writer. Naipaul turns seventy this summer, in the same month that his latest work, a collection of his essays called The Writer and the World, including the Manhattan Institute address, is to be published. He appears to have reached the end of his career. His most recent novel, Half a Life, turning over much-plowed ground, is barely half a book. V. S. Naipaul seems to have said what he has to say. Seen from this vantage point, the course of his work follows an internal logic that was not at all clear before. The decision not to return to Trinidad, the pivotal moment of his literary career, also holds the key to the vision that receives its most explicit expression in “Our Universal Civilization.” And Naipaul himself turns out not to be what his shallower critics and admires imagined.

His writing life falls into three phases. First there was an early, comic phases. Working alarmingly hard, he produced four books while still in his twenties, books about Trinidadian Indians and their marginal lives and strivings and futilities, culminating in the great portrait of his father, A House for Mr. Biswas. Trinidad hasn't yet become one of the “half-made societies.” Naipaul is recording what he knows from childhood, and everything—even the epic-length Biswas—comes across as a dense miniature, befitting the scale of the insular world where he would have faced intellectual starvation. The speed of composition betrays what Naipaul would call “a fear of extinction.”

Then, knowing that he had come to the end of his childhood material, and riding the confidence of having written a masterpiece, in the early 1960s Naipaul began to travel. The travel began his middle phase, a severe and tragic phase, for the places he traveled to, repeatedly, even obsessively (back to the West Indies where racial revolution was stirring; then to his ancestral India; and finally to newly independent Africa) brought out a new kind of panic in Naipaul. This wasn't the merely personal raw nerves of a young colonial becoming a writer in the imperial center. His travels put politics in his writing, and his panic became a political panic:

The new politics, the curious reliance of men on institutions they were yet working to undermine, the simplicity of beliefs 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. They were not things from which I could detach myself.

Instead of suppressing this political panic in order to write, he wrote directly out of it—beginning with The Mimic Men (1967), a lesser-known novel that marks the start of the new phase, and then in the novels from the 1970s that made him an international writer: In a Free State, Guerrillas, and A Bend in the River.

The violence that characterizes these books, physical and emotional, confirms that Naipaul could not easily “detach himself.” He had nowhere to go, no position from which to view the world's disorders with equanimity. The Europeans in these books appear to have a free ride in the third world countries where they seek personal or political fulfillment, dabbling in Caribbean revolution or African authenticity, only to find out in brutal, sometimes fatal ways that the late colonial world has turned back on them in nihilistic rage. A group of expatriates in A Bend in the River, set in a thinly disguised Zaire under Mobutu, sit in a room listening to Joan Baez songs, and only the narrator, an Indian from the east coast of Africa, entranced though he is by the sound of the voice, knows that “it was make-believe. … You couldn't listen to sweet songs about injustice unless you expected justice and received it much of the time. You couldn't sing songs about the end of the world unless—like the other people in that room, so beautiful with such simple things: African mats on the floor and African hangings on the wall and spears and masks—you felt that the world was going on and you were safe in it. How easy it was, in that room, to make those assumptions!” The narrator's own credo, set down in the opening sentence, is that of a man who lives outside the room, without the luxury of indulgent fantasies: “The world is what it is: men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”

And so Naipaul's great novels from the middle phase gave him the reputation of a conservative. Not only that: a traitor as well, for a writer with brown skin was not supposed to point out the shams and illusions of third world politics. In fact, there's no use pretending that Naipaul's political panic made him a sympathetic or even fair interpreter of the post-colonial world. Under his scrutiny Africa in particular is prone to dissolving in a singularly powerful mood of menace, fear, and disgust. Naipaul never tells you what country is inducing these feelings; it is, indiscriminately, “Africa.” After picking up a couple of African hitchhikers, one of the English expatriates driving through Africa in In a Free State (1971), for which Naipaul won the Booker Prize, comments on the “smell of Africa … It is a smell of rotting vegetation and Africans. One is very much like the other.”

Guerrillas (1975), about racial disturbance on a Caribbean island, is even uglier. It ends with a scene in which a mixed-race man of revolutionary delusions sodomizes a white Englishwoman who's taken a passing sexual and political interest in him. Just before leading her out to be slaughtered by machete,

He said, very softly, “You are rotten meat.”

It was his tone, rather than the words, that alarmed her. When she turned over to look at him she saw that his eyes were very bright and appeared sightless, the pupils mere points of glitter. He was still erect and looked very big.

He put his hand lightly on her shoulder and said, “You look frightened, Jane.”

“I'm thinking I have to go back.”

She swung her legs over the edge of the bed, he allowed his hand to slip off her shoulder, and she stood up.

“But I haven't come, Jane.”

This is the Naipaul most people think they know. The ruthlessness of observation is matched by the precision of language, as if Naipaul can only represent the source of panic with the at most syntactical control. “The greatest writing is a disturbing vision offered from a position of strength,” he once said. “Aspire to that.” But the idea of a supreme and cold-hearted detachment is an illusion. Naipaul couldn't enter the experience of his blighted characters as deeply as he does, even in a novel like Guerrillas, if he were not writing about rage and despair from the inside.

It was these novels, from the middle phase, that introduced me to Naipaul. I read him before I knew not to like him. I had come back from living in Africa in my early twenties, I was trying to write about it, and Naipaul's ability to evoke the anxiety and disorientation I was feeling presented a model from which a young writer could learn. I couldn't feel close to him as I did to other writers—the ugliness was too much—and I was fairly sure that if I met him I wouldn't like him (Saul Bellow once said that after spending an hour with Naipaul he could skip Yom Kippur that year). But as a master of literary craft and a writer fearlessly dedicated to a vision, Naipaul inspired, and still does. It didn't matter that his vision of Africa was different from mine and in some ways repelled me. It was the intensity of his commitment that mattered.

A Bend in the River is Naipaul's masterpiece, and also the last novel of the middle phase. Its imaginative range is broader than anything before it. Indians, Europeans, and Africans are all portrayed as individuals caught in the swell of history, trying to realize themselves against their own and the world's limitations. In the middle of the novel there is an extraordinary passage, a monologue filling fifteen pages. Indar, a childhood friend of the narrator—both Indians from the east coast of Africa, meeting again as adults in Mobutu's Zaire—tells the story of how he went down from Oxford to London in search of a career. In the story, he presents himself at India House as a candidate for the Indian diplomatic service and is humiliated by a series of lackeys and time-servers. He leaves in a daze of rage and starts walking along the Thames, playing with a fantasy of going back to his old village life. Then he begins to notice the wrought-iron dolphins on lamp standards along the Embankment, the wrought-iron camels acting as bench supports. And he has an insight:

I understood that London wasn't simply a place that was there, as people say of mountains, but that it had been made by men, that men had given attention to details as minute as those camels.

I began to understand at the same time that my anguish about being a man adrift was false, that for me that dream of home and security was nothing more than a dream of isolation, anachronistic and stupid and very feeble. I belonged to myself alone. I was going to surrender my manhood to nobody. For someone like me there was only one civilization and one place—London, or a place like it. Every other kind of life was make-believe. Home—what for? To hide? To bow to our great men? For people in our situation, led into slavery, that is the biggest trap of all. We have nothing. We solace ourselves with that idea of the great men of our tribe, the Gandhi and the Nehru, and we castrate ourselves. “Here, take my manhood and invest it for me. Take my manhood and be a greater man yourself, for my sake!” No! I want to be a man myself.

In the middle of his great novel about Africa, Naipaul is suddenly writing the central story of his own life, of his younger self—of that moment when he decided not to return to Trinidad after his father's death. And this would become the constant subject of his third, late phase—an autobiographical phase, an obsessive and, finally, exhausted return to his origins as a writer, in books like Finding the Center (1984), The Enigma of Arrival (1987), A Way in the World (1994), and last year's Half a Life. The anxiety has subsided. The fiction has turned inward, and the nonfiction (for Naipaul has been an equally obsessive traveler, writing journalism about the troubled corners of the world well into his seventh decade) has grown more generous—his portraits of static and decaying societies are no less harsh, but individuals trapped within those societies emerge as the true voices of these books.

Then what are we to make of the charge that Naipaul has repudiated his background, that he identifies with the oppressor and despises the oppressed? The truth is that Naipaul has no easily identifiable political views. The great ideological struggle of his writing life, the cold war, is totally ignored in his work. He hasn't chosen sides in competing visions of how modern societies should be organized. He is profoundly skeptical of every ideology. What interests him is the individual, and his fiercest passion has always been for the individual to be free from the dead hand of the given. The closest he's come to expressing something like a vision of the good society is the Manhattan Institute talk. In it, he tells the story of a young Indonesian whom he met years ago, and who was thwarted in his desire to become a poet. Naipaul then describes the “universal civilization” that made room for him, a young Indian from Trinidad, when he was trying to become a writer.

I would say that it is the civilization that both gave the prompting and the idea of the literary vocation; and also gave the means to fulfill that prompting; the civilization that enables me to make that journey from the periphery to the center; the civilization that links me not only to this audience but also that now not-so-young man in Java whose background was as ritualized as my own, and on whom—as on me—the outer world had worked, and given the ambition to write.

It sounds like utter hubris and the worst sort of solipsism: the “universal civilization” is the one that made room for Naipaul to become a writer. And yet, in one form or another, this is the longing of millions of people the world over—those oppressed and nameless masses whom Naipaul is supposed to despise. It is an idea that his critics take entirely for granted. Looking back over the half-century of his writing life, one can now see that his purpose all along was to give value to that longing. At the end of his talk to the Manhattan Institute, Naipaul suddenly mentions the phrase “the pursuit of happiness.” He says: “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. It is an immense human idea.” Naipaul, often accused of making himself over as an Englishman, turns out to be an American.

Bruce Bawer (essay date autumn 2002)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5531

SOURCE: Bawer, Bruce. “Civilization and V. S. Naipaul.” Hudson Review 55, no. 3 (autumn 2002): 371-84.

[In the following essay, Bawer offers an overview of Naipaul's literary oeuvre and judges the author an ardent and eloquent defender of civilization.]

Last December, on the day after being presented with the Nobel Prize for Literature, V. S. Naipaul sat down in Stockholm for a televised conversation with three fellow literary laureates, Günter Grass, Nadine Gordimer, and Seamus Heaney, and with Per Wästberg, a member of the Swedish Academy. One might have expected that the topic under discussion would be writing and literature, but the Nobelists soon turned to politics. Naipaul, alone in resisting this direction, protested that he is not political: he just writes about people. “Perhaps that's too frivolous,” he suggested slyly. Gordimer, perhaps failing to understand that there was more than a little irony in the air, and that in Naipaul's view writing about people, far from being frivolous, is in fact precisely what a serious writer does, was quick to challenge his self-characterization, insisting: “Your very existence as a boy living under colonial rule in Trinidad was political!”

This was, needless to say, meant as praise. To many members of the literary (and academic) establishment, after all, colonialism is the paramount literary theme and political issue of our time, and to be a child growing up in a colonial setting is to fill a strictly defined role in a familiar morality play. It is to be a victim, and thus a figure of virtue—and thus, of course, political. And to be political is to be serious. (In such circles, indeed, politics is the ultimate seriousness.) For Naipaul, contrarily, who was that boy in Trinidad (he was born in Chaguanas, a village of 1500 that his father sardonically called “the peasants' paradise”), and who would certainly place colonialism at the head of his own list of literary themes, to be truly serious is to transcend the merely political. To be serious is to notice and remember the specifics, the contradictions, the ambiguities—to honor the whole human person rather than to reduce him or her to a one-dimensional symbol of virtuous victimhood or (for that matter) anything else. It is to tell the truth about the world, however much that truth may confound ideology, rather than (as Naipaul himself put it in his Nobel Prize speech) to turn “living issues into abstractions.”

Naipaul, born in 1932, has honored the human from the very beginning—though at the beginning, to be sure, he did it largely with humor. His first book, The Mystic Masseur—which was published in 1957, seven years after his emigration to England (where he still lives)—is a brief, hilarious tour de force about Ganesh Ramsumair, a bumptious, good-natured young Trinidadian of modest education and limited spiritual proclivities who stumbles into a successful career as a holy man and healer (and, eventually, a national political leader).1 It sounds like a racket, but the naive, sincere, and rather innocent Ganesh isn't really out to con—a fact that only makes the whole thing funnier. (As a character in Breakfast at Tiffany's says of Holly Golightly: “She's a phony. But she's a real phony. You know why? Because she honestly believes all this phony junk she believes in.”) The book, which in some respects brings to mind Joyce Cary's classic Mister Johnson, is a pitch-perfect feast of Trinidadian dialect and captures aspects of that island's culture with an irony that sometimes amuses—

He never saw Leela again until the night of their wedding, and both he and Ramlogan pretended he had never seen her at all, because they were both good Hindus and knew it was wrong for a man to see his wife before marriage.

—and sometimes stings:

Leela continued to cry and Ganesh loosened his leather belt and beat her.

It was their first beating, a formal affair done without anger on Ganesh's part or resentment on Leela's; and although it formed no part of the marriage ceremony itself, it meant much to both of them. It meant that they had grown up and become independent. Ganesh had become a man; Leela a wife as privileged as any other big woman. Now she too would have tales to tell of her husband's beatings; and when she went home she would be able to look sad and sullen as every woman should.

The moment was precious.

Three more volumes of Trinidad fiction followed. After The Suffrage of Elvira (1958), another satirical yarn, and Miguel Street (1959),2 a linked sequence of Chekhovian character sketches, Naipaul published the most splendid book of his entire career: A House for Mr. Biswas (1961).3 A chronicle of one man's life from birth to his death at age forty-six, it is partially based on the life of Naipaul's own father, Seepersad Naipaul, who grew up in a destitute Hindu family in an obscure Trinidad village and ended up a journalist in Port au Prince who sent his sons to Oxford. Naive, irresolute, timid, and baffled by life, yet at the same time sharp, opinionated, temperamental, and derisively witty, Mr. Biswas spends most of his life under the thumb of his despised, domineering in-laws, who provide him with both a job and a roof over his head. He longs for a house of his own; and it is this longing that, in the end, defines his life.

The portrait of Mr. Biswas in this substantial novel is, astonishingly, without a trace of sentimentality (an accomplishment which will especially impress anyone who reads Between Father and Son,4 an affecting collection of letters between the young Naipaul and his father which reveal their deep love for each other); and the portrait of Trinidad is even richer than in The Mystic Masseur. The lush landscape, the shabby dwellings, the stifling lack of cultural stimulation, the sundry traditions, hypocrisies, superstitions, rituals, and pretensions that make up a great deal of the island's common culture: Naipaul brings it all to life with remarkable elegance and precision. He captures the ambiguous relationship of Trinidadians to England and to the English language (which, for many of them, both is and isn't their native tongue) as well as their feeling of awesome distance from the great world, their images of which are shaped mostly by American movies. (After his brother-in-law returns from England and does some name-dropping, Biswas goes to bed, his head ringing with the “great names” he has heard: “To think that the man who had met those people was sleeping under the same roof! There, where Owad had been, was surely where life was to be found.”) Crowded with humor and sadness, poignancy and absurdity, this deeply human—and deeply moving—novel feels as alive as wild grass sprouting in the tropical sun; yet it is also, miraculously, a masterpiece of control, with the structural balance and purity of a classical symphony.

Alas, Naipaul has never quite equaled the accomplishment of A House for Mr. Biswas. He followed it with Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion (1963), a surprisingly English light novel about an unadventurous London businessman whose life takes a surprising and hopeful new turn at age sixty-two.5 This charming, entirely conventional work might have been written by any one of a number of English writers; the darker, more unusual The Mimic Men (1967)—about a very different man in a very different London—could only have been written by Naipaul.6 The narrator is Ralph Singh, born Ranjit Kripalsingh, once a powerful leader on Isabella (read Trinidad) but now, at forty, a has-been who leads a twilight existence in London, kept company by the memories and reflections that he relates to us dryly and undramatically. (One can almost imagine him as Ganesh, post-Mystic Masseur.) There is much of value in this book. The prose is of a rare stateliness and intelligence, studded with clever, sometimes almost epigrammatic mots. (Singh on politicians and reporters. “The losers come and go, the recorders go on.”) The sophisticated tone—in particular, Singh's way of talking about power and women—brings to mind the finest of all Graham Greene's novels, The End of the Affair. And Singh's preoccupation with his own “placelessness,” his question-mark identity as a “mimic man”—an imitation Englishman—makes for some genuinely thought-provoking observations about identity (and for echoes, too, of Biswas: “There, in Liège in a traffic jam, on the snow slopes of the Laurentians, was the true, pure world”). It is plain that Naipaul (for whom Singh is obviously, to a large extent, a spokesman) is haunted by the question: What does a gifted, ambitious person from a place like Trinidad do with his life? What are the options, and how ethical, satisfactory, lasting, and culturally valuable are they? Is such a person fated to end his life in exile, a lonely émigré? Yet the interminable self-contemplation, articulate and sagacious though it is, proves to be a bit too much of a good thing, and this gray, humorless, dispassionate novel eventually sinks under the weight of it all.

A considerably more captivating work is In a Free State, a nearly perfect novella that was published in 1971 with two fine stories and an autobiographical prologue and epilogue.7 If Biswas makes one feel as if one knows Trinidad, In A Free State makes one feel as if one has more than a passing acquaintance with sub-Saharan Africa. The situation presented in the novella is simple: Bobby, a homosexual Englishman who works for the Foreign Office, and Linda, the wife of one of his colleagues, are driving across the African country where they have both lived for several years and which, having won its independence, is now in the grip of civil war. Bobby loves the country; Linda despises it. Naipaul does a splendid job of realizing these two sophisticated and opinionated individuals, whose conversation—a veritable anthology of British truisms about Africa that is charged, by turns, with wistfulness, bitterness, anger, and regret (and, increasingly, fear)—shifts convincingly between moments of shared feeling and of harsh discord. Neither of the two characters—who are among Naipaul's most vibrant—comes across as a stereotype or an authorial mouthpiece; they are not meant to represent good and evil, or right and wrong. They are simply two reasonably decent and intelligent people, civilized, imperfect, reacting in their different (and plausible) ways to a highly challenging set of circumstances in which they are morally implicated, purely by virtue of their identity as representatives of a former colonial power. As the story progresses, the tension between them—and between them and the natives they encounter along the way—builds convincingly, filling the reader with a sense of dread, of some impending doom that seems at once personal and general. The result is a relatively short work that packs a substantial wallop, evoking a world in which there are no simple answers, either in individual lives or in the lives of nations and continents. In brilliantly restrained and economical prose, Naipaul impresses upon the reader the savagery that lurks in the human soul and the precariousness—and preciousness—of the civilization that protects some of us from the full expression of that savagery.

In a Free State signaled a shift for Naipaul. It was followed by books that, leaving behind the sweetness and humor of The Mystic Masseur and the rich human sensitivity of A House for Mr. Biswas, looked upon the former European colonial world with a colder and harsher eye. Guerrillas (1975),8 which focuses on a radical black Caribbean leader named Jimmy Ahmed, his lover Bryant, and his activist cronies Jane (a Canadian) and Roche (a South African), is based on events that took place in Trinidad in the early 1970s and that Naipaul recounted in an essay, “Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad.” The novel might well be described as Naipaul's Waste Land—not only on account of its relentlessly bleak portrayal of the modern world, but also because it is chock full of literary allusions. Yet though it has a certain chilling power, the dramatis personae—with their mindless, arrogant devotion to modish radicalism—are so unsympathetic that Naipaul's stark delineation of the human capacity for senseless violence and lust for mastery proves to be more impressive than truly affecting.

This cannot be said, however, of Naipaul's next novel. With an expertly sustained tone and atmosphere that bring to mind Heart of Darkness, Camus's The Plague, and Greene's political novels, A Bend in the River (1979)9 offers Naipaul's most sustained and terrifying vision of social chaos and tyranny. At its outset, the novel's protagonist, Salim, a member of a Muslim merchant family that originated in India but has lived in an unnamed African country for generations, flees the brutal pandemonium of his coastal city for a town in the interior. But there is no escape; the entire country (to which the highly sympathetic Salim, who has no other home, both does and does not belong) is engulfed in irrational turmoil. Plagued by tribal warfare, autocratic and murderous government, and an inefficient and corruption-ridden economy, it is trapped on the bloody borderland between primitivism and civilization. Naipaul depicts this setting with absolute authority, writing about it as if he has lived in such a place all his life—writing about it, indeed, the way a doctor might describe a corpse he has dissected.

In the press release announcing Naipaul's Nobel Prize, the Swedish Academy noted that Naipaul “began to experience the inadequacy of fiction while he was working on The Loss of El Dorado.10 This book, published in 1970, is a comprehensive history of Trinidad's colonial era, the particulars of which were so terrible that Naipaul felt compelled to present them straightforwardly and (as the Swedish Academy put it) to “abstain from mere fictionalisation.” Within a few years Naipaul was stating that he could “no longer understand why it is important to write or read invented stories”—a staggering confession for any novelist, let alone the author of A House for Mr. Biswas. Not surprisingly, the effects of this new indifference to imaginative fiction could be observed in his writing. The Enigma of Arrival (1987), which is labeled a novel, consists of the melancholy musings of an author who lives in Naipaul's own rural Wiltshire and who in his background and views is indistinguishable from Naipaul.11 This author lives primarily in his mind and his work, secondarily on a landscape (which is described in monotonous detail), and only thirdly among people, the handful of farm laborers and managers with whom he happens to come into regular, if superficial, contact and who, over the course of the book, die off one by one. In this staggeringly inert book, which is almost entirely lacking in action or conflict, the narrator's thoughts—much as in The Mimic Men—circle around the question of what it means to be a sometime colonial subject now living in the former (and now decaying) imperial metropole. Naipaul gives us much to chew on here but, alas, little to savor.

The same criticism might be leveled at A Way in the World (1994),12 which is also identified as a novel, and which draws on much of the same material as The Loss of El Dorado. The book's narrator (again a Naipaul stand-in) begins by telling us a story about his Trinidad boyhood, then devotes a chapter apiece to accounts of (among others) a forgotten English travel writer of the 1930s, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Francisco Miranda, a nineteenth-century Venezuelan revolutionary. The conceit is that these are people he has considered writing books about; the chapters' common setting is Trinidad, and colonialism—with its characteristic injustices, indignities, and abominations—is the overarching issue. For the most part, these stories are not dramatized, merely related; one gathers that truth is being mixed with fiction, though it is never entirely clear what's invented and what isn't. There are passages in this book that are quite interesting, and the chapters, with their varied glimpses of colonialism, do have a certain cumulative effectiveness; yet in the end, the parts of this uneven book fail to add up to anything that might be reasonably considered a novel.

And what of Naipaul's most recent novel, Half a Life (2001)?13 Set in India, Europe, and Africa, this compact account of an Indian named Willie Chandran is in fact Naipaul's first real novel in over two decades and is certainly tauter and more energetic than The Enigma of Arrival or A Way in the World; yet though Naipaul appears determined to recapture the charm, warmth, and mirthfulness of The Mystic Masseur and Biswas as well as to revisit the edgy territory of In a Free State and A Bend in the River (while leaving behind most of the edge), Half a Life falls short of all these works and ultimately seems only to confirm that, despite this apparent attempt to re-establish himself as an author of genuine novels, Naipaul's heart is no longer in the art of fiction.

Even as he has ceased to produce major novels, however, Naipaul has continued to turn out valuable and important nonfiction. The first of his nonfiction books was The Middle Passage: The Caribbean Revisited (1962),14 a brief account of a journey in the West Indies, and most of the nonfiction books that have followed have also been travel chronicles, most of them about places with some connection to Naipaul's own background. He has written three volumes—An Area of Darkness (1964), India: A Wounded Civilization (1977), and India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990)15—about the land he refers to as “the country from which my grandfather came, a country never physically described and therefore never real, a country out in the void beyond the dot of Trinidad”; and he has written two—Among the Believers: An Islamic, Journey (1981)16 and Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples (1998)17—about Islam, a religion with which he grew up at close quarters. A Turn in the South (1989)18 records a trip around the American South, a region with which he has no personal affiliation (though he draws several insightful comparisons between it and his own West Indies), while The Overcrowded Barracoon (1972), The Return of Eva Perón (1980), and Finding the Center (1984) bring together articles and essays on a variety of topics and places.19 Naipaul's newest book, a substantial and handsomely produced compendium entitled The Writer and the World, includes excerpts from several of these volumes.20

Naipaul's travel books vary somewhat in form and style: the earlier ones tend to be more pithy and self-consciously artistic, while the later ones are expansive and reportorial. But they are all the work of a writer who observes and listens conscientiously, faithfully records the testimony of persons with a wide range of views, and states his conclusions without regard to whether they square with anyone's ideology. He is a man not of noble sentiments but of hard truths. As Ian Buruma observed in 1991 (the year after Naipaul was knighted by the Queen of England), “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.” Naipaul, Buruma notes, is “impatient with all abstractions”; and indeed what all of Naipaul's travel books have in common is a fierce particularity.

Some critics, of course, have not shared Buruma's admiration. Many have taken Naipaul to task for his blunt comments about Third World countries. He has received especially harsh criticism for what some readers have called his derogatory and hysterical view of Islam—though it can be (shall we say) instructive to revisit some of these critiques in the wake of September 11. Consider a review of Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981), published in these very pages twenty years ago, in which Marvin Mudrick described Naipaul's vision of Islam as “monotonously alarmist.” The book, Mudrick sneered, is “Grand Guignol with Dracula makeup and howls from the wind-machines in the wings as Islamic fanaticism threatens the very foundations of civilization: the sky is falling! the sky is falling!” Derisively, Mudrick asked: “Does he [Naipaul] expect the Bedouins led by Rudolph Valentino to come sweeping like the simoom out of the desert descending on Bloomingdale's with fire and sword and no-limit credit cards?” (In quoting these lines, I don't mean to fault Mudrick for failing to share Naipaul's foresight. I merely wish to point out that even Mudrick, a gutsy, independent-minded critic who wasn't afraid to challenge conventional wisdom, was capable of slamming Naipaul for his take on political Islam.)

In any event, to turn from the critics' charges of malice and hysteria to the travel books themselves is to be struck—most of the time, anyway—by Naipaul's tentativeness and modesty. Though at times, to be sure, he can seem to be looking at people and places from a rather haughty, sardonic distance, what is most conspicuous in these volumes is not vitriol but engagement. His curiosity about cultural divergences within countries and regions, for example, is admirable. “In Trinidad,” he observes in The Middle Passage, “there is no memory of slavery; in British Guiana it is hard to forget it. The very word ‘Negro,’ because of its association with slavery, is resented by many black Guianese; the preferred word is ‘African,’ which will cause deep offense in Trinidad.” Naipaul's alertness to such nuances is on frequent display in his travel books and is, I would suggest, the very definition of respect. I would add that this attentiveness to differences in manners, values, habits, dialects, and Weltanschauung—and to the fundamental human urges they express—accomplishes something quite special: at certain moments, mainly in the early books, one can feel that one is brushing against the very essence of the human animal; it is almost as if an observer from another planet, or a member of some higher form of life, were reporting on our species, noting human beings' primal preoccupations with sex, money, their stomachs, their bowels, their appearance and dress, not to mention the depressingly predictable prejudices by which they seek to shore up their identities. One fact, in any event, emerges clearly from a reading of these books: that Naipaul visits foreign places not because he wishes to condemn, but because he wishes to understand—to understand individual cultures, to understand homo sapiens generally, and, most intimately of all, to understand himself. This is, after all, a man who in his Nobel acceptance speech described himself as “the sum of my books”—by which, he explained, he meant that his books, both fiction and nonfiction, had grown out of a need to comprehend his own background, to probe and plumb the “areas of darkness around me,” the mysterious contexts that molded his identity.

Not that all is darkness in Naipaul's nonfiction. In The Middle Passage especially, he exhibits a Maughamesque eye for the human comedy. On the ship from England to Trinidad, Naipaul meets “a fat brown-skinned Grenadian of thirty-three.”

He said he had ten children in Grenada, in various parishes and by various women. He had gone to England to get away from them all, but then had begun to feel that he should go back and face his responsibilities. He thought he might even get married. He hadn't yet decided who to, but it probably would be the mother of his last child. He loved this child; he didn't care for the others. I asked why, then, he had so many. Didn't they have contraceptives in Grenada? He said with some indignation that he was a Roman Catholic; and for the rest of the journey never spoke to me.

Such comic incidents, however, become rarer in the later travel books, which are possessed—indeed propelled—by an intense awareness of man's inhumanity to man, whether it is manifested as Western imperialism or Islamist tyranny or the despotism of some sub-Saharan president-for-life. Naipaul tends to visit places where there are multitudes of destitute and downtrodden people, and in his view such people's lack of attractive life options is something to lament; the way in which their societies shackle their minds, their governments break their spirits, and their cultures stifle their growth as individuals can provoke his fury. In India, for example, while recognizing that the extended family—the clan—“gave protection and identity, and saved people from the wild,” he also feels compelled to point out that it “was itself a little state, and it could be a hard place, full of politics, full of hatreds and changing alliances and moral denunciations. It was the kind of family life I had known for much of my childhood: an early introduction to the ways of the world, and to the nature of cruelty. It had given me … a taste for the other kind of life, the solitary or less crowded life, where one had space around oneself.” Similarly, in the Moslem countries, he is irked that Islamic fundamentalism “allows to only one people—the Arabs, the original people of the Prophet—a past, and sacred places, pilgrimages, and earth reverences. … Converted peoples have to strip themselves of their past; of converted peoples nothing is required but the purest faith (if such a thing can be arrived at), Islam, submission. It is the most uncompromising kind of imperialism.” Plainly, the personal angle is vital here: if Naipaul is preoccupied with Islam's eradication of the history of conquered peoples, it surely owes something to his intense awareness of having come to English culture as an imperial subject. (Can it be that Naipaul, in A Turn in the South, treats Protestant fundamentalism far more gently than he treats Islamic fundamentalism in his books on Islam because the religion of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson simply doesn't have the personal resonance for him that Islam does?)

At the center of Naipaul's oeuvre lies a profound irony. It was Western colonialism that provided him with his first experiences of indignity and exploitation, and planted in him a lifelong feeling of dislocation and an ire that continues to burn in his soul. Yet he is at the same time clear-sighted enough to recognize that in today's world, the most reprehensible injustices are perpetrated by powers aligned against the West, and that the West is now in fact the part of the world in which human rights are most thoroughly protected, human talents most consistently rewarded, human life most sincerely valued, and human potential most fully realized. It is in the West, in short, that men and women are most likely to enjoy the greatest gift of all, the chance really to live—and, in his case, the ability to write whatever he wants. Consequently Naipaul cherishes Western civilization and refuses to condescend to Third World peoples by using dishonest euphemisms to describe what he calls their “half-made” societies. He cares enough for them to admit that they deserve better—and what they deserve is Western civilization, which Naipaul, in a 1990 lecture, identified as “the universal civilization” (an appropriate term, because the civilization's intellectual and cultural legacy is, or should be, the property of all).21 The universal civilization, Naipaul states in his lecture, “has been a long time in the making. It wasn't always universal; it wasn't always as attractive as it is today. The expansion of Europe gave it for at least three centuries a racial taint, which still causes pain. In Trinidad, I grew up in the last days of that kind of racialism. And that, perhaps, has given me a greater appreciation of the immense changes that have taken place since the end of the war, the extraordinary attempt of this civilization to accommodate the rest of the world, and all the currents of that world's thought.” Naipaul goes on to praise Western values, in particular

the beauty of the idea of the pursuit of happiness. Familiar words, easy to take for granted; easy to misconstrue. This idea of the pursuit of happiness is at the heart of the attractiveness of the civilization to so many outside it or on its periphery. I find it marvelous to contemplate to what an extent, after two centuries, and after the terrible history of the earlier part of this century, the idea has come to a kind of fruition. It is an elastic idea; it fits all men. It 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. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.

Because he goes around saying such things, there was widespread surprise when Naipaul was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001. To many observes, the prize seemed out of character for the Swedish Academy, which in recent years has tended to favor writers—among them Dario Fo (1997), José Saramago (1998), and Günter Grass (1999)—who take a very different view of Western civilization.

Certainly Naipaul was the odd man out on that Stockholm stage last December—an event that surely gave many viewers a sense of what it is that makes him, now more than ever, such a vitally important cultural figure. Inevitably, September 11 came up. Gordimer identified terrorism's root cause as poverty; Grass concurred, portraying 9/11 as a case of the victimized justifiably striking back at the powerful. As for the victims of 9/11, Grass charged that Americans value “white lives” more than non-white lives. (One gathered that he had never seen photographs of the World Trade Center dead). Naipaul responded with admirable temperateness. We are, he said softly, engaged in a struggle between freedom and tyranny. Gesturing with his arms to indicate himself, his interlocutors, and the room they were in—which, with its high wall of crowded bookshelves, was a veritable visual representation of the idea of the civilized life, of higher learning, and of literary achievement—Naipaul said: “You cannot imagine this kind of conversation taking place in …” And he listed several Islamic countries. When Gordimer conceded that “perhaps” Osama bin Ladin's terrorism “is not a good way to redress the balance between the haves and have-notes” (which was the closest either she or Grass came to condemning acts of terror), Naipaul replied by stressing how urgent it was for writers “to know the world more intimately” instead of employing “blanket characterizations.” He dismissed as “utterly romantic” the belief that the destruction of the World Trade Center was an action taken on behalf of the world's economically deprived. He rejected Grass's claim that the U.S. was responsible for (among much else) Rwandan genocide. And he stated unequivocally that the terrorism of 9/11 had been an “assault on civilization.”

Indeed. But how cheering it is that the year that saw that terrible assault on civilization also saw the presentation of a Nobel Prize in Literature to someone whose entire body of work might justifiably be described as a defense of civilization. And not a facile defense, either, but an ardent and eloquent defense by a writer who—having experienced that civilization at its height and at its depths, and having also seen a myriad of gruesome alternatives up close—knows whereof he speaks.


  1. The Mystic Masseur, by V. S. Naipaul. Vintage Books.

  2. V. S. Naipaul, The Suffrage of Elvira (London, 1958) and Miguel Street (London, 1959).

  3. A House for Mr. Biswas, by V. S. Naipaul. Vintage Books.

  4. Between Father and Son: Family Letters, by V. S. Naipaul. Vintage Books.

  5. V. S. Naipaul, Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion (Harmondsworth, 1982).

  6. The Mimic Men, by V. S. Naipaul. Vintage Books. Also published in 1967 was Naipaul's short-story collection A Flag on the Island (Harmondsworth, 1985).

  7. In a Free State, by V. S. Naipaul. Vintage Books.

  8. Guerrillas, by V. S. Naipaul. Vintage Books.

  9. A Bend in the River, by V. S. Naipaul. Vintage Books.

  10. V. S. Naipaul, The Loss of El Dorado (New York, 1970).

  11. The Enigma of Arrival, by V. S. Naipaul. Vintage Books.

  12. A Way in the World, by V. S. Naipaul. Vintage Books.

  13. Half a Life, by V. S. Naipaul. Alfred A. Knopf, $24.00; Vintage Books.

  14. The Middle Passage: The Caribbean Revisited, by V. S. Naipaul. Vintage Books.

  15. V. S. Naipaul, An Area of Darkness (London, 1987), India: A Wounded Civilization (London, 1977), and India: A Million Mutinies Now (London, 1990).

  16. Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey, by V. S. Naipaul, Vintage Books.

  17. Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples, by V. S. Naipaul. Vintage Books.

  18. A Turn in the South, by V. S. Naipaul. Vintage Books.

  19. V. S. Naipaul. The Overcrowded Barracoon (Harmondsworth, 1981), The Return of Eva Perón, with The Killings in Trinidad (Harmondsworth, 1983), and Finding the Center (Harmondsworth, 1985).

  20. The Writer and the World: Essays, by V. S. Naipaul. Alfred A. Knopf.

  21. Naipaul's lecture, “The Universal Civilization,” appears as a “postscript” in his collection The Writer and the World. Though dated 1992 in the book, the lecture was first given at the Manhattan Institute in New York in 1990.

Bruce King (review date April-June 2003)

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SOURCE: King, Bruce. Review of Half a Life, by V. S. Naipaul. World Literature Today 77, no. 1 (April-June 2003): 90.

[In the following review, King provides a favorable assessment of Half a Life.]

V. S. Naipaul's new novel, Half a Life, tells of someone like the author but his opposite, someone who does not know what he wants to do, who wastes his opportunities, who drifts, never takes root, never builds a house, never becomes morally or financially independent. He does many of the things Naipaul has done, such as go to England for further education, write for the BBC, write a book of short stories, travel to Africa, but each parallel ends with flight revealing lack of purpose. Having fled from Africa, Willie Chandran laments, “I am forty-one, in middle life … I have risked nothing. And now the best part of my life is over”; at the conclusion, before leaving for Berlin, Willie tells his wife, “The best part of my life has gone, and I done nothing.”

Is Willie right? He has traveled from India to England, Africa, and Germany. By the standards of most people, he has had a remarkably full life by the age of forty-one, but is a life of action good? Throughout the novel the value of political action and of political gestures are called into doubt. Ideas of revolutionary justice, liberation, and egalitarianism seem inevitably to lead to “the Pol Pot position” of massive killing to cleanse society and culture of aliens, hybridity, and their influence. Nevertheless, everyone is hybrid.

Although the novel has an epic sweep of allusion, ranging in time from India before the Islamic conquest to the present, with Indians in contemporary Berlin supporting the Tamil struggle in Sri Lanka, its main events cover about a century, starting with a great-grandfather in the 1890s. Half a Life is a version of the multigenerational family story within a colonial setting and tells of a foolish father, his bad marriage, and his relationship to his son, who will eventually go to England for further education, become a writer, and tell the reader the story that comprises the novel. Half a Life might be regarded as a version of that autobiographical novel which continues to exist at a deep level of the imagination behind much of Naipaul's fiction.

Major themes are conquest, colonialism, its establishment by force, its history, its nature, the social and racial orders it produces, and the problems of what replaces it. The novel suggests that life has always been a series of diasporas of translations from one place to another, and what seems settled is actually undergoing a process of change. Behind the concern with imperialism is the more significant theme that life consists of people desiring more and trying to satisfy and advance themselves by conquering or tricking others. Although we create stories to give order to and to make sense of our lives, history repeats itself as a cycle of themes and variations.

Characteristic of Half a Life is the reliance on dialogue and the telling of the histories of characters through compressed anecdotes. The fiction is influenced by Naipaul's nonfictional reportage, in which the author has largely disappeared to be replaced by voices; or, the author has become one of the characters, explaining his perspective on events in relationship to his own experiences. Because the main character lacks in passion, the tone is flat, but the story is filled with social life economically presented, and Naipaul's technique is brilliant.

Terry Eagleton (review date September 2003)

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SOURCE: Eagleton, Terry. “A Mind So Fine: The Contradictions of V. S. Naipaul.” Harper's Magazine 307, no. 1840 (September 2003): 79-84.

[In the following review, Eagleton places Naipaul within the context of other English literary emigrés and contends that the essays and speeches collected in Literary Occasions chart “the extraordinary spiral of displacements that make up Naipaul's career.”]

Arriving at Oxford University from a down-at-heel family in Trinidad, the eighteen-year-old V. S. Naipaul wrote: “Gone are the days of the aristocrats. Nearly everyone comes to Oxford on a state grant. The standard of the place naturally goes down.” It was as though Dick Cheney were to complain that there were too few Trotskyists in his golf club. My own entry into the dreaming spires, a decade or so later, was unfortunate for just the opposite reason: the place was positively swarming with patricians, almost all of whom seemed to be called Nigel. Towering in stature as a result of generations of fine breeding, they brayed rather than spoke, elbowed the townspeople off the thin medieval pavements, and joked about letting loose their hounds on “oiks” (working-class undergraduates) like myself. As a stunted North-of-England plebeian, I found myself ducking servilely between their legs like Gulliver in Brobdingnag. It was the kind of place in which one would as soon have worn a pink tutu as sported jeans. Naipaul would have been in his element.

Most of that was to change as the demotic sixties hit their stride. Previously, working-class students would disappear for three days or so into some private room before emerging mysteriously bereft of their Glaswegian or West Country accents. Now everyone was speaking through their noses like John Lennon, distressing their vowels, and meticulously inserting the odd glottal stop into their speech. The patricians were still in evidence, but rumor had it that there were plans for confining them to a special reservation in Magdalen College deer park, where they would be publicly fed three times a day.

Arriving in England only to become plus anglais que les Anglais is a familiar émigré tale. V. S. Naipaul, who came to the country in 1950 and has made it his home ever since, is one of the latest in a venerable line of literary refugees, several of them among the most eminent figures in modern “English” literature. There was Joseph Conrad, the Pole who commended the chuckleheaded values of the British merchant navy; Henry James, the American who attended English country-house parties as devotedly as Madonna drops in on fashion shows; T. S. Eliot, who looked and sounded like a rather dotty Anglican vicar. Eliot famously remarked of his compatriot James that “he had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it,” which was a backhanded way of congratulating him on being a kosher Englishman, since the English have customs and pieties rather than fancy theories. It was self-congratulation too: it takes one expertly disguised expatriate to know another.

George Bernard Shaw recognized immediately that his fellow Dubliner Oscar Wilde had appointed himself Irish jester to the English court, a role he shared with Shaw and which would later be inherited by Brendan Behan. Shaw was also aware of how dangerous as well as exhilarating this bit part was. The English relished Wilde's mimicry of them but also suspected that imitation was the sincerest form of mockery. (It was Naipaul who was later to put into currency the phrase “mimic men,” the title of one of his more lugubrious novels.) Wilde's use of the English language was a shade too polished and perfect; the genuine English aristocrat of the Victorian era said things like “huntin'” and “shootin',” too indolent to labor over his consonants. And indeed, without Farquhar, Steele, Sheridan, Goldsmith, Shaw, Wilde, and O'Casey, there would have been precious little English stage comedy to boast of. Who better placed to write comedy than those who know the natives' language and conventions from the inside, yet are also foreign enough to cast a sardonic eye on their sanctities? The Irish did not only have to send the British their rents and cattle; they also had to write most of their great literature for them.

In Ireland, as in Naipaul's Trinidad, one of the most revered of all native customs was getting out of the place. The mountains in Ireland, somewhat unusually, are ringed around the coast, as though divinely arranged to keep the natives in; but writers could usually rely on being driven out by church and state to Boston or Birmingham. Although Naipaul found himself hemmed in by an ocean rather than a mountain range, crossing it proved to be a one-way passage, as it did for James Joyce. Like Naipaul, Joyce abandoned his country early but never ceased to revisit it in imagination; having escaped in reality, both men could then find their way back in fantasy. Joyce once remarked that it was this freedom from English social and literary convention that lay at the root of his talent. Deprived of a stable tradition, the colonial writer has to pillage, to parody, to make it up as he or she goes along, so that exile and experiment go together like Laurel and Hardy. It is not surprising that Ireland was the only region of the British Isles early last century to produce a flourishing indigenous modernism. Otherwise, Britain had to import its modernism, along with its Ford cars and chinoiserie.

Naipaul is not nearly as avant-garde a writer as Joyce (who is?), but he has been both blessed and afflicted by a similarly skewed relationship to the metropolis. Joyce leapt over the imperial capital of London into the arms of the continentals, with whom Ireland had enjoyed a fruitful cultural relationship ever since the monastic émigrés of the Middle Ages. (His fellow Dubliner Samuel Beckett was to do much the same some years later.) As a Trinidadian, however, Naipaul had no such organic affinity to continental Europe; it was England or nothing.

In the litany of literary refugees, Wilde, Shaw, and Joyce stand out in one notable way. They are the only ones who were adamantly on the political left—though “Stalinist” might describe Shaw more accurately than “socialist,” and Joyce's radical sympathies were short-lived. The others were either studiously “unpolitical,” or ensconced somewhere on the political right. For many—Conrad, Pound, Yeats, Eliot, Lewis—the right in question was an unpleasantly embattled one, rather than the moderate Burkean Toryism of many of the English natives. If you think too much about conservatism, you cannot really be an English conservative, and other mimic men recognized as much. The resilience of this brand of conservatism lies in its distaste for the political in favor of the customary, instinctual, and spontaneous. When Naipaul disowns politics by informing us, in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, that he has “no guiding political idea” and cherishes his “intuition alone,” he is telling us his politics. It is, presumably, pure intuition that leads him to conclude An Area of Darkness with the declaration that the Indians have no sense of history and their country “will never cease to require the arbitration of a conqueror.”

There is, then, a well-attested affinity in British culture between the émigré and the conservative intellectual—not only in the literary field but all the way from Wittgenstein and Namier to Popper and Gombrich. Like Conrad, some of these luminaries were in flight from political turbulence at the heart of Europe and turned to what seemed a more sedate, traditionalist milieu in the United Kingdom. Others, such as James and Eliot, were allured by what felt like a more “organic” social order—mannered, devious, and stratified—in which their thought could flourish more vigorously than it would in an autocratic culture or in a brashly explicit one like the United States. And émigrés do not kick a hole in the lifeboat they are clambering aboard; they compensate for their outsider status by becoming honorary aristocrats—but aristocrats of wit and style rather than of blood and property. From Wilde to Tom Stoppard, Ernest Gellner to Isaiah Berlin, expatriates intent on out-Englishing the English have resorted to humor, satire, and an acerbic vein of wit. In doing so, they become spiritually superior to the philistine middle classes who want to ship them back home.

Naipaul's conservatism has been lambasted often enough, notably by postcolonial critics, though his opinion of this school of thought is not, one imagines, all that different from what Clint Eastwood's would be if he ever got wind of it. Dagmar Barnouw's Naipaul's Strangers is a bravely unfashionable attempt to rescue the writer from those who accuse him of racism, chauvinism, and snobbery; and, although some might consider this as easy as defending George Bush from the charge of being parochial, the book yields some admirably sensitive readings of Naipaul's prose, despite being extravagantly uncritical of its revered subject. Its pages are everywhere redolent of the smell of incense.

Barnouw does aim a few well-targeted shots at the postcolonial romanticizing of “the other,” recording Naipaul's distaste for, in the words of another critic, “privileged people who are sentimental about primitivism in the Third World.” Anyone suffering from this widespread affliction could certainly do worse than read a few of Naipaul's books, even if the cure might turn out to be more nauseating than the disease. This, after all, is the man whose oracular pronouncements include the judgment that nothing was ever created in the West Indies; that the West Indians never seriously doubted the virtue of the imperialist culture to which they aspired; and that the ethnic situation of African Americans cannot be the subject of serious literature. If Naipaul is understandably irritated by well-heeled sentimentalists, it is partly because they dispute his insinuation that when it comes to colonialism, the natives were at least as much to blame as their masters.

If you do not wish to provoke your compatriots to helpless fury, it is probably advisable not to open your account of the Caribbean, The Middle Passage, with the sentence: “There was such a crowd of immigrant-type West Indians on the boat-train platform at Waterloo that I was glad I was travelling first class to the West Indies.” Boa Vista, in Brazil near the border with British Guiana, is a “preposterous city” (the Waugh-like epithet is significant), which probably means, among other things, that they did not bring Naipaul his coffee quickly enough. It is hard to know, muses Naipaul, what the Guianese are thinking—just as it is hard to know what he himself is thinking when churning out an obtuse cliché such as that. Like the equally dyspeptic traveler Paul Theroux, Sir Vidia seems to find most of the people he meets in his wanderings so disagreeable that one wonders why he doesn't just stay at home.

Perhaps traveling is a way of staying faithful to having grown up nowhere in particular; you can feel homeless anywhere at all. Like Gulliver, Naipaul finds the same pettiness, corruption, and betrayal everywhere he goes. India, he announces in An Area of Darkness, “invited conquest” and has nothing to contribute to the world. It is a country “with an infinite capacity for being plundered,” which is rather like claiming that Ethiopian children have an infinite capacity for starving to death. The Taj Mahal, he reflects, might as well be transported slab by slab to the United States, since in India it is sheerly wasteful. No doubt some enterprising Texan will take the hint. In Naipaul's own contemptuous imagery, India comes down to the starving child defecating by the wayside and the mangy dog waiting to eat up the excrement.

These and similarly insulting fatuities are the language of a writer who detests political generalities, works by innocent intuition alone, and is celebrated by Barnouw, among others, for the delicate particularity of his perceptions. The portrayal of the Muslim world in Among the Believers would make the book enjoyable bedtime reading for Richard Perle. With their Jamesian sense of nuanced judgment and fine discrimination, novels such as Guerrillas and In a Free State appear to view all colonial emancipation as self-interested, self-deluding fantasy. Naipaul has only to sniff an ideal to detect in it the stirrings of self-aggrandizement. He complains of his people having been stripped of history, but does just the same himself in order to avoid the discomforting truth that colonialism may have had a hand in their present plight.

Few writers have a shrewder understanding of what has been called colonial cringe, and few are more adept at analyzing the self-serving myths of the powerless. In my own country of Ireland, it has not been unknown for some dejected soul to down one pint of Guinness too many out of sheer depression over the Gaelic defeat at the battle of Kinsale in 1601, or for the odd nationalist, outraged by the injustice of the eighteenth-century Penal Laws, to find it hard to struggle out of bed in the morning. Colonial peoples can indeed be marked by shame and fantasy, self-loathing and self-deception, pious rhetoric and sentimental bluster. But some of them can also laugh about the fact; and there is a difference between recognizing this syndrome and asserting, as some in Ireland have, that the Irish themselves were largely responsible for the Great Famine. This is just another version of the self-odium for which the natives are being castigated.

The colonial who rebukes his compatriots had better be careful that his complaints are not just another symptom of the whining he condemns in them. Naipaul sees with brutal realism how the dispossessed can sometimes collude in their own subjugation, but he does not dwell at length on the moral obscenity of the subjugation itself. Instead, he believes that all causes, including the idea of justice, are corrupting, that every man is an island, and that pity and compassion for a colonial people will not do because they baselessly encourage hope.

Rare is the writer as exquisitely talented as he who is so long on observation and so short on sympathy. Naipaul does not seem to know the meaning of geniality, which may well be the ultimate judgment of the colonial system under which he grew up. In An Area of Darkness, we learn at one point that Naipaul's female companion has suddenly fainted at his side—a surprising revelation, since he had not previously bothered to mention her presence at all. What champions like Barnouw would no doubt call steelily disenchanted realism is in fact the lopsided antirealism of one who can hardly bring himself to acknowledge the realities of love and courage. When he writes of how the powerless lie about themselves and to themselves, he cannot resist ruining the point by adding “since it is their only resource,” which is itself a sort of lie.

Literary Occasions gathers together some of Naipaul's essays about writing, mixing autobiographical pieces, prefaces to his own novels, and his Nobel Prize speech with articles on Conrad, Kipling, Nirad Chaudhuri, and other Indian writers. The volume charts the extraordinary spiral of displacements that make up Naipaul's career. It is a life in which one fantasy gives way to another, one fiction is concealed within a second, one potential homecoming turns out to be yet another assignation with strangeness.

Born into an Indian community in Trinidad, the grandchild of indentured immigrant laborers, Naipaul came from an island that was geographically ambiguous—marooned between the Caribbean and South America—and an ethnic background that was even more so. Trinidadian Indians still had a smattering of their indigenous culture but one that was already on the wane, so Naipaul claims, when he was a child. He could understand Hindi but not speak it. His community, at home neither in the West nor in the East, held itself aloof from the racially mixed life of the street and knew nothing of Muslims. Naipaul would eventually come to see his own detached, passive, observer-like status as a kind of Hindu trait; it certainly proved easily translatable later on into the sardonic, de haut en bas judgments of the English gentleman. In both cases, there is an apartness, a quick sense of caste, and a horror of uncleanness.

This insider/outsider status within Trinidad, which the colonial relation to Britain simply wrote large, was a social one too: the Naipaul family was lower middle class, furnished with some rudimentary culture but socially impoverished. Naipaul senior, an odd-job man turned journalist and short-story writer, tried to raise himself a little by writing, only to look in the mirror one morning and fail to see his face reflected there. He had merged back into the anonymous masses and suffered a mental breakdown.

Along with the émigré, the lower middle class occupies an honorable niche among the architects of English literature. It was from this Janus-faced social stratum (“contradiction incarnate,” Marx called it) that the major realist novel of the nineteenth century was produced. The Brontë sisters were the children of a poor Anglican parson; George Eliot was the daughter of a provincial farm bailiff; Charles Dickens was the son of an impecunious civil-service clerk; Thomas Hardy's father was a small-time West Country builder. Squeezed precariously between the social establishment and the impoverished plebs, this group lived out the conflict between aspiration and frustration, individual ambition and communal loyalty, which also marks the work of so many colonial authors.

If the émigré is literally foreign, the lower middle class are internal migrants. They are inside and outside conventional society at the same time, peevish, resentful, and pathologically insecure, yet powered by a formidable drive for cultivation and respectability. The impulse to belong, and the urge to break away, fight it out in the Brontës as they do in Naipaul's Mr. Biswas, a portrait of his self-divided father. The colonial writer's talent, which allows him to portray his own people, is also what cuts him adrift from them. To write about your people is already to write your way out of them. The act of portraying from the inside is also inescapably one of alienation; in possessing yourself in the act of authorship, you come to dispossess yourself of your place.

Childhood for most of us is a time when one has no idea what on earth is going on, but for the young Naipaul this state of ignorance was painfully compounded. His own experience was profoundly strange to him, as though the usual human faculties for orienting and identifying had simply crumbled. Not knowing others, in a fractured, unstable society cobbled provisionally together and cut loose from history, he could know nothing of himself. Trinidad was a “borrowed culture,” a belated society with “that feeling of having entered the cinema long after the film has started.” Racism permeated the place like an invisible gas. The novels he devoured as a boy were an imported product, the fruit of an organized metropolitan knowledge that Naipaul lacked.

Bereft of this coveted knowledge, his early efforts at fiction were thrown back on pure impressions. He knew nothing of his own Hindu community except for what he learned from his father's stories, so that even experience close to hand had to be mediated through art. As for historical memory, that fizzled out around the time of his grandparents. The past, like the idea of India, was a dream. Within the official, “real-life” India of Nehru and Gandhi there was a more elusive, semi-fictional India from which his family obscurely stemmed. He hailed from a half-remembered subcontinent, and when he later visited the place it turned out to be not, as he had expected, the whole of which his childhood community was a fragment but a solitary, separate, derelict nation, just like life at home.

Later, in a repetition of Trinidad, the England he knew would be mainly Oxford and literary London. (He was an undergraduate at Oxford's University College, whose tradition of distinguished overseas visitors has since dwindled to encompass Chelsea Clinton.) The Oxford of his day could give him little help with writing: it was the 1950s, when Tennyson and Thackeray were considered by the English faculty rather too recent to be adequately assessed. But it was through writing that Naipaul would explore who he was, reclaiming in such works as The Middle Passage and Among the Believers the areas of darkness around him; it was by investigating other “half-made” societies that he would be able at last to get a grip on his own.

The Indians, Naipaul considers with his usual withering contempt, are botched parodies of the English; but England was a fantasy as well, encountered as a child only in the pages of Dickens and a few other literary imports, on which he then modeled the real-life Trinidad around him. Eventually, in The Enigma of Arrival, he reverses the relation and speaks of projecting an African landscape onto a Wiltshire one, in order to write about Africa from the only spot where he has felt truly at home. Yet even the English rural landscape is portrayed here as one in decline, marked by that sense of decay, fragility, and impending chaos that inspires so deep-seated a fear in his novels.

The young Naipaul had to translate the English classics into his own Trinidadian terms in order to make them work—though he would later come to realize that writing is a kind of translation anyway, distilling and distorting the actual world into aesthetic shape. When he came to England in 1950, the nation that had previously figured only as a fantasy became one in another sense, full of English people pretending to be English. If the Indians and the Trinidadians were mimic men, the English were mimics of themselves, self-consciously performing their Englishness like a second-rate drawing-room comedy; men like Evelyn Waugh and the later Kingsley Amis really were irascible old reactionaries, but they also reveled in acting the part. At the same time, the social reality of England served to dispel the literary fantasy: the more Naipaul knew of English culture, the less he felt in possession of its literature. A country of the mind was forced to yield to the reality.

Knowledge was thus inseparable from loss, as it was in Naipaul's relationship to his small-time journalist father. It was his father's unpublished writings about Trinidadian street life that inspired Naipaul to begin writing himself, so that the son's text became an extension of the father's. What Naipaul did not know at the time, however, was that his father had suffered disgrace and humiliation: he was caught sacrificing a goat to ward off a curse placed upon him by some farmers whose cavalier way with government regulations he had exposed in the press. To this extent, Naipaul's knowledge of him was mixed with a saving ignorance, a salutary blankness that lies somewhere at the origin of his art.

Literary Occasions, like most of Naipaul's writing about himself, is remarkable for its honest lucidity and stringent self-criticism. If he is hard on others, he is quite as ungenial about himself. He admits, for example, that his early narrators in novels such as Miguel Street are a good deal more streetwise than he ever was; that he did not feel competent as a reader until his mid-twenties; and that “the ambition to be a writer was for many years a kind of sham.” He is not in the least given to posturing or self-dramatizing. The collection is the work of an artist who nevertheless exemplifies one of the minor catastrophes of the twentieth century: the fact that the conflicts and instabilities that issued in so much superb writing led also, all too often, to a harsh, unforgiving elitism. Great art, dreadful politics: it is the link between the two that needs to be noted.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 251


Athill, Diana. “Editing Vidia.” Granta 69 (spring 2000): 179-204.

Athill recalls her experiences as Naipaul's literary editor from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s.

Foster, Kevin. “‘A Country Dying on Its Feet’: Argentina and Britain.” Modern Fiction Studies 48, no. 1 (spring 2002): 169-93.

Judges the influence of Naipaul's essays on Argentina on British and American perceptions of that country.

Gorra, Michael. “V. S. Naipaul: In His Father's House.” In After Empire: Scott, Naipaul, Rushdie, pp. 62-110. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Analyzes themes of colonialism and postcolonialism in Naipaul's writing.

Wheatcroft, Geoffrey. “A Terrifying Honesty.” Atlantic Monthly 289, no. 2 (February 2002): 88-92.

Considers the political implications of Naipaul's 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Additional coverage of Naipaul's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 2; British Writers Supplement, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1960 to Present; Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 1, 33, 51, 91, 126; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 4, 7, 9, 13, 18, 37, 105; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 125, 204, 207; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1985, 2001; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Ed. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 38; Twayne's World Authors; World Literature and Its Times, Ed. 4; and World Writers in English, Vol. 1.

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Naipaul, V. S. (Vol. 105)

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