V S Naipaul

Undoubtedly the most controversial of novelists from the Commonwealth is V S Naipaul. For many years he was deprived of the Nobel Prize, largely it was rumoured because of the opposition of the doyen of Commonwealth literary studies in India, Prof Narasimaiah. This hostility, which I have heard the great man himself express forcefully, arose from the perception that Naipaul replicated the white man’s view of India, replete with contempt as much as criticism.

This view was not based on his fiction, which had not dealt with India, but on his travel books, the first two of which had been unremittingly hostile. This approach changed in the third, A Million Mutinies Now, but by then Narasimaiah was not to be placated. Still, the Nobel Committee was, and in 2000, the centenary year of the prize, Naipaul received it, a fitting tribute in my view to the most impressive writer of English fiction in recent years.

Naipaul’s writing career has spanned over half a century, and it is only in his most recent books that his inspiration has seemed to flag. Before that, he wrote brilliantly, and also managed remarkably to reinvent the subject and the style of his writing twice.

He began as the chronicler of the hybrid society of his native Trinidad, and largely in the comic mode. A number of not especially memorable novels, and several short stories, notably the highly entertaining collection Miguel Street, preceded his first impressive work, A House for Mr Biswas. This richly comic work was also profoundly moving in depicting a man who, having married into a powerful family that was more prosperous than his, tried to assert his own identity, through establishing a household of his own. Reading later accounts of Naipaul’s father, a budding writer himself, who ensured that both his sons went to Oxford to gain the self-confident authority he never achieved himself, one appreciated even more Naipaul’s skill in capturing without maudlin sentiment urges he would have sensed throughout his childhood.

Naipaul began straightaway after he graduated to write and to publish. He settled down in England, provoking the comment from his College Secretary (and mine too) that his being called a Commonwealth writer was all bogus, since he was as British as the best of them. I think she meant this as a compliment, but it confirmed my view that it was better to come back home rather than begin working in England after my studies were over.

My own view about Naipaul’s negative view of India in his early travel books was that it arose from deep disappointment at the evaporation of an ideal, when he saw the place in actuality. I have never met Naipaul myself, but I did interview his younger brother Shiva, who visited Sri Lanka in 1983, and was remarkably perceptive about the ethnic crisis that he diagnosed, and which erupted just after his visit. I sensed then, in his description of himself, a sense of rootlessness, that seemed greater in the elder brother who was unwilling to admit it so openly.

Be that as it may, after his comic triumph, and his recording of critical feelings about India, Naipaul turned to politics, and produced a series of remarkably perceptive books about post-colonial societies. These include an illuminating collection of stories, In a Free State, as well as The Mimic Men and Guerillas, both based on the cynical nationalism and the cult violence that were engulfing the West Indies at the time. Finally there was A Bend in the River, a brilliant account of the militaristic regimes proliferating in Africa at the time.

Naipaul has no illusions about the corruption and cruelty of many native politicians, but what perhaps Narasimaiah missed was his equally trenchant criticism of the Westerners who played along with, and indeed encouraged, such behavior for their own venal ends. The Anglo-Saxon businessmen who control the politicians in The Mimic Men who think they are in charge, the white woman who condones and encourages violence in Guerillas in the romantic belief that this is about asserting freedoms (a type we have suffered from ourselves in Sri Lanka, in the adulatory coverage of terrorism and the Tigers), and the intellectuals who cater sycophantically to the grandiose pretensions of the Big Man in The Bend in the River are portraits of people who really exist, who continue to believe that their influence is essential for post-colonial societies. Whether the clearsighted, who assert forcefully their desire for profit, are worse than those who perpetuate domination for ostensibly idealistic motives is something I am never sure about.

Naipaul meanwhile achieved some sort of equilibrium about India, which he finally saw in the nineties ready to take the place he must, as an alienated youth in Trinidad, have felt it deserved, if only for his sense of his own worth. Thus he was better able himself to move to questions of identity in his fiction. He wrote in The Enigma of Arrival a extraordinarily evocative account of change in an English village, through which he described both his coming to terms with his own transitions, and the different layers of English society coping with their own changes. This was followed by A Way in the World, a vivid account of contemporary South American societies juxtaposed against glimpses of their origins, the culmination an account of Sir Walter Raleigh realizing he would never find Eldorado, and would therefore return to execution in England. The two books are different in tone and content, but alike in their juxtaposition of autobiography, historical description and analytical narratives about varied characters to create a vivid impression of societies and the individuals whose interactions constitute them.

During this period Naipaul was himself the subject of intense scrutiny, following the death of his first wife, whom he met as a student and married and seemed then to treat as a convenience. He had, before she died, had a torrid affair with a South American, which he himself described, and then had dropped her and married a much younger lady from Pakistan. More open discussion of a character that had always intrigued, given his aversion to publicity, flourished with the publication of Sir Vidia’s Shadow a no-holds-barred account by the American novelist Paul Theroux of their relationship.

On balance, though that book was harsh about Naipaul, it also revealed severe personal inadequacies in Theroux himself, and Naipaul seemed to benefit from the scrutiny in that he finally won the Nobel prize he had long deserved. His fame rested not only on his fiction, but on a range of travel books, the three about India, several about Africa and the West Indies, and two brilliant studies of emerging Islamic societies. The first, written shortly after the Iranian revolution, was prophetic in its discussion of emerging fundamentalism also in Pakistan and Malaysia and Indonesia. It is a mark of Naipaul’s perceptiveness that he met and assessed, thirty years ago, individuals such as Anwar Ibrahim and two future Presidents of Indonesia, Habibie and Wahid.

Shiva Naipaul, in the interview he gave me, described himself as one of a few ‘bad-tempered people wandering about the planet’. His elder brother has been even more successful in catching many more people on the raw, but there is no doubt that his perceptions, and the relentless framework of basic human values through which he assesses societies, have proved invaluable, for anyone trying to understand or to function productively in the post-colonial world.