August 17, 2006

Happy Birthday, VS Naipaul

VS Naipaul still remains the best novelist of his generation and this reputation is based firmly on his talent for telling a good story. From his earliest work such as Miguel Street where he examined the stunted lives of his elders; A House for Mr. Biswas with the comic failure of Mohun Biswas whose goal is to own a house, and Mimic Men, Ralph Singh’s tale of disillusionment related during the waning years of his life, Naipaul’s gift has been to reveal the truths about postcolonial life that many are still not willing to face. His ability to understand characters such as Mister Popo, B. Wordsworth, and Harbans demonstrates a quality one hardly associates with Naipaul—empathy. Yet how could he have created such memorable characters such as Leela, Biswas, and Man-Man without this gift?

Naipaul has his detractors and this is due mainly to most of his work since In a Free State which signaled his growing pessimism with countries that were still in the throes of post colonialism. Many of the characters in the absence of indigenous values that were not cultivated nor encouraged under British rule, succumb to cowardice, inconstancy and vice. Indeed, many of Naipaul’s’ comedies of manners and his social criticism may be due to his disappointment with the results of how the struggle for national independence in the Caribbean has turned out. But as Sean Penn’s character in The Interpreter says about disappointment: “That’s a lover’s word.” But I may be wrong.

The one thing that I’m sure of is that even now when I pick up my battered copies of Miguel Street, The Suffrage of Elvira, Mimic Men, Biswas and The Mystic Masseur with Ganesh's improbable ambitions and Leela’s outlandish devotion, I can still laugh because—flawed and outrageous as they are— I can identify these characters. I see them not as deserving of scorn, but as worthy of honor. For despite having nothing or “lowly” ambitions and many times not knowing what they really want, they still struggle, like Biswas, to have a semblance of self-worth.

Give thanks, Sir Vidia.

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