A Way in the World
Many of the twenty-two works of fiction and nonfiction published by V. S. Naipaul, long acknowledged as among the most gifted and accomplished writers in English, are unquestionably of lasting importance. His novels In a Free State (1971) and A Bend in the River (1979), depicting political and social disintegration in Africa, have remained eerily relevant. Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981) was a controversial contribution to the Western debate over the Muslim world; its publication in the wake of the 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis, and Naipaul’s subsequent appearance on the cover of Newsweek (November 16, 1981), did much to enhance his reputation in the United States as a commentator on the Third World. His early novel, A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), is an indisputable masterpiece. His 1964 travel book on India, An Area of Darkness, is a classic.
Naipaul has come in for much criticism for his controversial opinions and observations about Third World people and societies. His essays published in the 1970’s, some of them reprinted in India: A Wounded Civilization (1977) and The Return of Eva Peron (1980), were uncompromising and seemingly unsympathetic, and gained him many severe detractors. By the time his tone mellowed markedly and implausibly in the 1980’s, it was too late for him to win back many readers who had decided, quite wrongly, that he was a self-hating person of color and a racist whose work had little or no value—if, indeed, winning back such readers was any part of his intention.
Rather than as a novelist, travel writer, or commentator, Naipaul is most properly understood as an autobiographer. His work, fiction as well as nonfiction, can be read collectively as a very long autobiography in twenty-two volumes. His first attempt at relatively direct, retrospective autobiography was Finding the Center (1984). The Enigma of Arrival (1987) is a complex tour de force, an immense literary achievement that well illustrates the truth of a remark Naipaul made in 1971, perhaps little knowing—or perhaps knowing full well—that he was summarizing his own career: “An autobiography can distort; facts can be realigned. But fiction never lies: it re- veals the writer totally.” His next two books, A Turn in the South (1989) and India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990), were disappointing, relatively slight works of self- indulgent travel writing. Although both strove to portray what critic Rob Nixon has skeptically called “a kinder, gentler Naipaul,” both betrayed what Abdulrazak Gurnah calls “a larger meanness.” This is evident in Naipaul’s dismissive portrayal of the distinguished U.S. writer Albert Murray as “Al Murray” (see Arnold Rampersad’s superb essay in Raritan 10, Summer, 1990), and in his sloppily edited, sprawling third book on India.
Yet even Naipaul’s worst books have value if they are understood as installments in his autobiography. A Way in the World is not one of his worst books. It is one of his very best, perhaps even more accomplished in literary terms than The Enigma of Arrival; paradoxically, it also should be much more accessible to Naipaul neophytes than that strange book. Like The Enigma of Arrival, A Way in the World resounds with echoes of many of Naipaul’s earlier books and travels. Also like its 1987 precursor, A Way in the World features an unnamed first-person narrator who, for all intents and purposes, must be considered to be Naipaul himself.
The Enigma of Arrival was an intensely egocentric exercise in self-exculpation; its author seems to be proclaiming: “Behold, the writer!” A Way in the World is very much in the same vein, although it does try (and largely succeeds, through the mere effort of trying) to be more generous. Naipaul, in 1991, told Mel Gussow of The New York Times that he had begun making “returns, summing-up journeys, for the emotion—and for the feeling of completeness.” One might have expected him to follow India: A Million Mutinies Now with a similar late-career travel book about the Caribbean, responding to The Middle Passage (1962) in the way India: A Million Mutinies Now invokes An Area of Darkness. Tellingly, he has not done this. Quite evidently, there were people or places from his youth that he could not face so directly. In evading what Graham Greene once called “the personally impossible,” Naipaul has written a book that constitutes an honest and generous, if oblique, illustration of his own remark in A Turn in the South: “There is no landscape like the landscape of our childhood.” As he told Bharati Mukherjee and Robert Boyers in 1979 (in an interview published in Salmagundi, Fall, 1981): “The good person, if he is dedicated, always makes his limitations into virtues.” Naipaul’s limitations are severe; he has painted himself into tight...
(The entire section is 2059 words.)