Reviewed by Cyril Dabydeen
A curmudgeon, there’s no question. As far as rumours go about V. S. Naipaul, Nobel Laureate and Booker Prize winner, knighted by the Queen for being litterateur par excellence, he’s both celebrated and derided--all at the same time. But why? The recent Authorized Biography by Patrick French is still hotly discussed in literary circles. Mention the name V.S. Naipaul, and you’re bound to get a terse reaction, even with vitriol, often contrapuntal or just contrarious.
Many Caribbean intellectuals are fraught over him for his damning comments about race and Africa. At conferences I’ve heard the call for his books to be burned. His spat with the other Caribbean Nobel Laureate, Derek Walcott, is well-known (a la “V.S. Nighfall”). Yet Walcott has acknowledged Naipaul’s superb craftsmanship as a master stylist bent on changing the novel’s “bastardized form”--as Naipaul sees it.
Naipaul has said, “I became a writer to be free.” And maybe too free he is. His earliest books about India such as An Area of Darkness and A Wounded Civilization caused quite a stir. But Naipaul’s novels from the earliest, such as A House for Mr Biswas, to the later books like The Enigma of Arrival and A Bend in the River are classics, or near classics. Indeed the Nobel Prize Committee's citation of Naipaul's award was for his "incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories," and singling out The Enigma of Arrival (1987) for its "unrelenting image of the placid collapse of the old colonial ruling culture and the demise of European neighbourhoods."
Maybe therein lies the problem or dilemma--jaundiced as Naipaul’s view may be. The Muslim fundamentalist world has come in for much of his criticism in books such as Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey and Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples. Late distinguished post-colonial critic Edward Said would describe what he calls Naipaul’s “funny moments... at the expense of Muslims, who are ‘wogs’ after all as seen by Naipaul's British and American readers, potential fanatics and terrorists, who cannot spell, be coherent, sound right to a worldly-wise, somewhat jaded judge from the West."
However, Said acknowledged in his Reith Lectures Naipaul’s "extraordinary antennae as a novelist," of his "sifting through the debris of colonialism and post-colonialism, remorselessly judging the illusions and cruelties of independent states and the new true believers." This distilled view is juxtaposed with Naipaul’s earlier expression in Middle Passage (1962): "History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies,” which caused a furor among some West Indian intellectuals. Naipaul has gone on to speak of "the colonial smallness [of Trinidad] that didn't consort with the grandeur of my ambition."
Naipaul has influenced a whole slew of writers, including this writer, as well as many modern-day Indians like Amitav Ghosh. Indeed, Ghosh has said, “it was Naipaul who first made it possible for me to think of myself as a writer,” as he grew more comfortable with the indwelling life of the mind. The most well-known Chinese-American writer, Ha Jin, told us (when I was a juror of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature at the University of Oklahoma) how he would read Naipaul all the time on his train journeys in the US.
Recent book reviewers of the French Biography have commented on Naipaul’s treatment of his wife, Pat (he met her at Oxford), and perhaps she was his best editor and confidante. French quotes Naipaul as saying “I have killed her.” Pat died of breast cancer. His unsentimental self is what we have and being unequivocal about art as well as equally satirical about politics as Naipaul assesses old and new societies, often unsparing about the latter.
About himself and India, Naipaul has said: “I cannot belong to India for the simple reason that I don’t know the language.” Naipaul, of course, is of Indian forbears: the grandson of an indentured sugar cane worker--of Brahmin caste--brought from Uttar Pradesh by the British to the Chaguanas plantations in Trinidad. And you would think that Naipaul would hate the British for this. But he has said, in l979, perhaps too forthrightly: "I do not write for Indians, who in any case do not read. My work is only possible in a liberal, civilized western country"; and the enigma echoes: "The thing about being an Indian, and it remains true of Indian writing now, is that it seems to work without history, in a vacuum."
Misanthropic, if not satirical, Naipaul continues to excite or intrigue, perhaps for just being outrageous with trenchant utterances like his egregiously famous, "The dot means my head is empty,” referring to the bindi Hindu women wear; or, on Pakistan: "The Pakistani dream is one day there'll be a Muslim resurgence and they will lead the prayers in the mosques in Delhi"; and of Britain, “It’s a country of second-rate people--bum politicians, scruffy writers and crooked aristocrats."
In French’s Biography, there are touching elements, such as Naipaul’s obsession and praising of his writer-father Seepersad Naipaul, and about the family squabbles pitting the Capildeo clan (on his mother’s side) with the Naipauls (on his father’s), all which rivets the attention, as one is also acutely aware of Naipaul seeing “mimic men” in the colonial setting with all that’s banal or incongruous.
V.S. Naipaul keeps seeking out other meanings in a diasporic new world order by setting his gaze on more than imaginary homelands (as Salman Rushdie does), always with troubling enigmas and, on occasion, mutinies, if a million or more in India, which still beckons. Indeed, he is the sum of his books; the novels always tell more than the biography. Naipaul affirms Marcel Proust’s axiom of "the secretions of one's innermost self, written in solitude and for oneself alone that one gives to the public,” seen in his own imaginative outpouring. But maybe with Naipaul controversy never ends. The latest is about his Pakistani-journalist wife Nadira Naipaul’s spat with Winnie Mandela over an interview-article in the UK’s Evening Standard touching on Nelson Mandela’s patriarchal image. Read on!
Originally published: Monday, March 15, 2010 /SouthAsia Mail
About the author:
Cyril Dabydeen’s novel, Drums of My Flesh (TSAR Publications) won the Guyana Prize for Best Book of Fiction and had been nominated for the prestigious IMPAC/Dublin Prize for Literature. His latest poetry collection is Unanimous Night (Black Moss Press, Canada).