Naipaul, V. S. (17 August 1932 - )
V. S. Naipaul (17 August 1932 - )
New School University
See also the Naipaul entries in DLB 125: Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers, Second Series; DLB 204: British Travel Writers, 1940-1997; DLB 207: British Novelists Since 1960, Third Series; DLB 326: Booker Prize Novels, 1969-2005; DLB Yearbook: 1985; and DLB Yearbook: 2001.
BOOKS: The Mystic Masseur (London: Deutsch, 1957; New York: Vanguard, 1959);
The Suffrage of Elvira (London: Deutsch, 1958);
Miguel Street (London: Deutsch, 1959; New York: Vanguard, 1960);
A House for Mr. Biswas (London: Deutsch, 1961; New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961); republished with a foreword by Naipaul (New York: Knopf, 1983; London: Deutsch, 1984);
Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion (London: Deutsch, 1963; New York: Macmillan, 1964);
An Area of Darkness (London: Deutsch, 1964; New York: Macmillan, 1965);
A Flag on the Island (London: Deutsch, 1967; New York: Macmillan, 1967);
The Mimic Men (London: Deutsch, 1967; New York: Macmillan, 1967);
The Loss of El Dorado: A History (London: Deutsch, 1969; New York: Knopf, 1970; revised edition, Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1973); revised as The Loss of El Dorado: A Colonial History (London: Picador, 2001);
In a Free State (London: Deutsch, 1971; New York: Knopf, 1971);
The Overcrowded Barracoon and Other Articles (London: Deutsch, 1972; New York: Knopf, 1973);
Guerrillas (London: Deutsch, 1975; New York: Knopf, 1975);
India: A Wounded Civilization (London: Deutsch, 1977; New York: Knopf, 1977);
The Perfect Tenants; and, The Mourners, edited by Francis Curtis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977);
A Bend in the River (London: Deutsch, 1979; New York: Knopf, 1979);
The Return of Eva Perón; with The Killings in Trinidad (London: Deutsch, 1980; New York: Knopf, 1980);
A Congo Diary (Los Angeles: Sylvester & Orphanos, 1980);
Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (London: Deutsch, 1981; New York: Knopf, 1981);
Three Novels (New York: Knopf, 1982)—comprises The Mystic Masseur, The Suffrage of Elvira, and Miguel Street;
Finding the Centre (London: Deutsch, 1984); published as Finding the Center: Two Narratives (New York: Knopf, 1984);
The Enigma of Arrival: A Novel in Five Sections (London: Viking, 1987; New York: Knopf, 1987);
A Turn in the South (London: Viking, 1989; New York: Knopf, 1989);
India: A Million Mutinies Now (London: Heinemann, 1990; New York: Viking, 1991);
A Way in the World: A Sequence (London: Heinemann, 1994); published as A Way in the World: A Novel (New York: Knopf, 1994);
Bombay: Gateway of India, photographs by Raghubir Singh, conversation with Naipaul (New York: Aperture, 1994);
Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples (London: Little, Brown, 1998; New York: Random House, 1998);
Reading & Writing: A Personal Account (New York: New York Review of Books, 2000);
Half a Life (London: Picador, 2001; New York: Knopf, 2001);
The Writer and the World: Essays, edited by Pankaj Mishra (London: Picador, 2002; New York: Knopf, 2002);
The NightWatchman’s Occurrence Book and Other Comic Inventions (London: Picador, 2002; New York: Vintage, 2002)—comprises The Suffrage Of Elvira, Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion, and A Flag on the Island;
Two Worlds: Nobel Lecture, December 7, 2001 (London: Rees & O’Neill, 2002);
Literary Occasions, edited by Mishra (London: Picador, 2003; New York, Knopf, 2003);
Magic Seeds (London: Picador, 2004; New York: Knopf, 2004).
Collection: Vintage Naipaul (New York: Vintage, 2004).
OTHER: Seepersad Naipaul, The Adventures Of Gurudeva, and Other Stories, introduction by Naipaul (London: Deutsch, 1976).
SELECTED PERIODICAL PUBLICATIONS-UNCOLLECTED: “Liza of Lambeth,” Queen’s Royal College Chronicle (Port of Spain), 23 (1948): 42–43;
“Seven Ages of Humour: Young Men Forget,” Punch, 234 (1958): 734–736;
“Critics and Criticism,” Bim, 10 (1964): 74–77;
“Tehran Winter,” New York Review of Books, 28 (8 October 1981): 22–27;
“Reflections of a Reluctant Gardener,” House and Garden, 158 (1986): 118–119;
“Some Thoughts on Being a Writer,” Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, 11, no. 5 (1987): 13–15;
“Acceptance Speech of the First David Cohen British Literature Prize,” London Times, 16 March 1993;
“To a Young Writer,” New Yorker, 71 (26 June-3 July 1995): 144–153;
“Suckers,” New Yorker, 80 (7 June 2004): 76-85.
V.S. Naipaul, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001, achieved his literary standing in a strikingly original way. His subject-the experience of those whose lives take them to and from the former colonial nations of Asia, Africa, and the Americas—is one now indelibly associated with him. But it was not a subject at all associated with accepted models of literary production when Naipaul began his career. Before Naipaul, few people in New York or London even knew that there was an Asian Indian community on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, much less that it would produce a world-famous writer who would encourage readers worldwide to see reflections of their own lives in his subjects. Despite his often sardonic realism, there is, in what John C. Hawley in the Encyclopedia of Post-colonial Studies (2001) called his “appreciative portraits of the man in the street,” a compassion for the vulnerable people who are so often his subjects. As Fawzia Mustafa has noted, Naipaul has been praised for the “integrity and lucidity” of his perspective.
Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born in the small rural town of Chaguanas, Trinidad, on 17 August 1932. He was the third-generation descendant of Indian laborers who had gone to Trinidad as indentured servants, as many Indians did between 1880 and the 1930s to work as laborers, often on sugar, tea, and rubber plantations in the Caribbean, South Africa, eastern Africa, Mauritius, and Fiji. His mother, Droapatie Capildeo, belonged to a prominent local clan who still maintain a noted place in Trinidadian society. But his father, Seepersad Naipaul, did not fit easily into the Capildeo clan, who tended to slight his interest in becoming a successful writer. (Naipaul later fictionalized this situation in his 1961 novel, A House For Mr. Biswas.) Though the senior Naipaul descended from a high-caste Brahmin Indian family, this distinction counted for little in Trinidad, which preserved the religious traditions of the homeland among the Indian community while quickly becoming more egalitarian with regards to caste. Naipaul had an elder sister, Sati (whose son, Neil Bissoondath, became a successful author in Canada), and a younger brother, Shiva, who became a travel writer, as well as three other sisters, Kamla, Niri, and Nalini, the last of whom was born in 1952, when Naipaul was twenty. Naipaul spent most of his childhood in Trinidad’s capital, Port of Spain, where he attended the Tranquility Boys’ School from 1938 to 1943 and then won an exhibition scholarship to Queen’s Royal College, a prominent local secondary school.
Having received a Trinidad government scholarship, Naipaul matriculated at Oxford University (University College) in 1950. Despite meeting Patricia Hale, a political science student whom he married on 10 January 1955, Naipaul was unhappy at Oxford. At one point, he later related to Maya Jaggi, he considered committing suicide, not doing so only because the gas meter in his rooms had run too low for him to kill himself by turning on the gas. Naipaul was depressed by the distance from his home and by the burden placed on him to fulfill the literary ambitions of his father, who died while Naipaul was at Oxford. In addition, Naipaul found his undergraduate course of study (the standard English literature syllabus including Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, and John Milton) uninspiring and unhelpful for the literary career he was already planning. Naipaul received a second-class degree from Oxford in 1954.
Naipaul had written a novel as early as 1950, but he did not consider it worthy of being submitted for publication. His first published work was The Mystic Masseur (1957). This novel, narrated in both the first and the third person, concerns a Hindu pundit in Trinidad, Ganesh Ramsumair. After disliking a mundane teaching job in his twenties, Ganesh becomes first a masseur and then, more successfully, a mystic. The phrase “Mystic Masseur” is a seemingly oxymoronic combination, since a mystic deals with the soul while a masseur deals with the body. Yet, “The Mystic Masseur” becomes Ganesh’s identifying sobriquet as he becomes famous throughout the Trinidad Indian community and is urged to run for political office. Once encouraged by the shifty Ramlogan to marry his daughter, Leela, Ganesh excites Ramlogan’s scorn (at one point Ramlogan calls his son-in-law “Little Piss-On- Tail boy”) after he putters about fitfully as a writer of unread pamphlets, but then becomes the great favorite of his father-in-law after his success as a pundit means he can support Leela in style. In the Hindu world of Trinidad, a certain amount of chicanery is acceptable on the part of a mystic, and Ganesh soon generates a good deal of publicity through his pamphlets, which are underwritten by the money he gets from being a pundit. Ganesh becomes the best-known Indian on the island and is eventually elected to the Legislative Council, which is elected by native Trinidadians even though the island is still under a British colonial governor. However, the Hindus are not the majority in Trinidad, and Ganesh has to bargain with whites and people of African descent to get anything done. Furthermore, his presence in the capital isolates him from his own people. Eventually, he becomes co-opted by the establishment, is not reelected, and is only kept in government by being appointed to the Executive Council by the colonial regime.
The ending of this novel is one of the best-known episodes in Naipaul’s fiction. The narrator, now grown up and attending university in England, is assigned to escort a “statesman” from his homeland. The young man finds it is none other than Ganesh, who is now styling himself “G. Ramsay Muir.” This name is not just a European-sounding one but a Scottish one, and Naipaul’s joke here is double. Not only has the pundit attempted to cover his Indian origins, but he has taken a Scottish name that, though European, would still have a slight “ethnic” connotation in metropolitan England, though one of unimpeachable respectability. But the humor the reader derives from this name is more than counterbalanced by the brutality of G. Ramsay Muir’s dismissal of the student. G. Ramsay Muir coldly wards off the student, partially to distance himself from his past, partially because the compromises the pundit has made have endowed him with a kind of primal pain that buckles from any demands made by actual human relationships. He has achieved success with in the system; but in doing so he has boxed himself into a corner.
Though The Mystic Masseur did not sell spectacularly, it was well received, and Naipaul became accepted into the English literary scene. He was asked to write reviews for prominent periodicals such as The New Statesman and Punch and to participate in various cultural broadcasts and symposia. He made friends with such British authors as Anthony Powell, who partially modeled the character of Delavacquerie in his A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-1975) on Naipaul. The Mystic Masseur was favorably reviewed in London, being described in The Daily Telegraph (23 May 1957) as full of “homegrown rumbustiousness.” The novel received the 1958 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize.
Naipaul’s next novel, The Suffrage of Elvira (1958), concerns a contested political election. The neighborhood of Elvira in Trinidad, a nation just emerging from colonialism, faces a choice, in the vote for their member of the Legislative Council, between Preacher Thomas, a black man, and Surujpat “Pat” Harbans, an East Indian. With Elvira’s mix of people of African descent, people of Hispanic background, Indian Hindus, and Indian Muslims, neither candidate is assured of a majority. When the Hindu Lorkhoor endorses the Preacher out of crass self-interest, Harbans is convinced that he will lose. Lorkhoor, however, is induced to switch sides, and Harbans wins by a landslide. But he has become disillusioned with the dishonesty, manipulative relationships, and moral corruption required by the political process. Once Harbans takes up his seat in the capital of Port of Spain, he never revisits Elvira and openly announces that he does not choose to run for reelection.
The comic energy of the novel is especially evident in scenes involving a dead chicken and five dead puppies. A dog who does not die, Tiger, is a rogue element in the work who eventually causes the accidental burning of Harbans’s Jaguar, which causes Harbans to become disillusioned with Elvira. This anecdote illustrates how elements in this diverse community interact with each other in ways that one person’s rational plans simply cannot control. Lorkhoor writes up the burning of the Jaguar for a local newspaper, with “The Suffrage of Elvira” as part of his title. In this way, Lorkhoor becomes something of an authorial surrogate, which is interesting, as his portrait—that of an opportunist and a turncoat—is hardly a flattering one. Cameo portraits, such as that of Tawning, the Chinese undertaker who is also a local disk jockey, attest to the variety of Elvira’s denizens. The mood of good cheer, though, is laced with cynicism about human motives in general as well as about the future of Elvira, even after the introduction of suffrage. The book is also an indication of Naipaul’s early interest in politics. The jockeying for position and mutual intrigue of the two candidates is described with zest and a slight overtone of repulsion. The reader understands, though, that Harbans, the Preacher, and their various supporters and campaign managers see politics as an outlet for their talents in a society where they are otherwise restricted to either menial, subordinate occupations or to traditional religious positions. The interplay of different religions is also a theme in The Suffrage of Elvira: “Everybody, Hindus and Muslims, and Christian, owned a Bible; the Hindus and Muslims looking upon it, if anything, with greater awe. Hindus and Muslims celebrated Christmas and Easter. The Standards and some of the Negroes celebrated the Hindu festival of lights.”
Pundit Ganesh from The Mystic Masseur is mentioned at least twice in the novel, with a wistful sense that he has fallen from grace. Also, Ramlogan, Ganesh’s father-in-law, is a prominent figure in Harbans’s campaign. This crossover indicates that Naipaul, at this early point in his career, saw his novels as potentially intertwined, in the manner of Thomas Hardy, William Faulkner, or Honoré de Balzac. The Suffrage of Elvira was well received in England. Kingsley Amis commented in The Spectator (2 May 1958) that Naipaul “has a substantial claim as a comic writer about the West Indian social scene.”
Naipaul worked as a broadcaster for the BBC during the late 1950s, but he soon gave up this position in order to write full-time. His next book, Miguel Street (1959), also mentions Pundit Ganesh. Set earlier than The Suffrage of Elvira, the novel begins in the early 1940s. It is an urban novel, capturing the rhythms of urban life. Even though the tranquil and peripheral Caribbean is not part of any military action in World War II, the war precipitates changes, albeit indirectly. The Americans establish a base on Trinidad, leading a local calypso singer to lament: “I was living with my decent and contented wife / Until the soldiers came and broke up my life.” A man at first nicknamed Patience for his frequent playing at cards is renamed “Bogart” after Humphrey Bogart’s performance in the wartime movie Casablanca (1942). The cinema is a symbol of new ideas revealing to Trinidadians that life can be other than it is currently, even though their concrete circumstances are unchanged. Bogart, who seeks more gratifying work abroad and rebels at the constraints of marriage and domesticity, is trying to find new roles in a world whose moorings have suddenly been shaken loose. His friends, the spirited Hat and the polished Eddoes, a smooth ladies’ man, are ideals of adult, self-sufficient masculinity for the community. Yet, Eddoes and Hat, along with Morgan the fireworks man, Titus Hoty the would-be town philosopher, and Bolo, the man who thinks World War II is still being fought in 1947, find that the status they gain through their swaggering style and rambunctious hijinks only lasts so long. It is the men’s “unkind fate” that the community is unprepared or unable to offer them any concrete station that would give their momentary leadership roles some permanence. Rather than achieve a settled position, the people in the book come and go like the snatches of calypso lyrics that occasionally appear.
Miguel Street differs from Naipaul’s first two novels in not having a strong narrative line. The book is narrated by an unnamed young man who tells the stories of others, providing a composite portrait of the neighborhood where he grew up. At the end of the book, the narrator leaves (with the help of Pundit Ganesh) on scholarship for an English university, feeling as though he is leaving the shadow of his past behind him like a “dancing dwarf on the tarmac.” Miguel Street, as its name implies, is about a community, not the coming-ofage narrative of a single hero. Nor is the narrator’s departure a simple triumph. If the narrator is destined to surpass Eddoes, Hat, Bogart, and Titus Hoyt, it is partially because, in their own eccentric way, they have been role models for him. Miguel Street won the 1961 Somerset Maugham Award.
The first phase of Naipaul’s career culminated in A House For Mr. Biswas. Based more or less explicitly on the life of Naipaul’s father, A House For Mr. Biswas, at more than five hundred pages in most editions, is considerably longer than Naipaul’s first three novels. This length signifies both a more serious and ample engagement with the material and a greater demand upon the reader. The novel chronicles Mohun Biswas’s entire life, not just a stage or episode in it, as had been true of the characters in Naipaul’s first three books. The length is all the more striking because the novel is not intensely plotted (plot was never Naipaul’s strong suit or particular interest) and because much of the suspense is broken in the prologue, which reveals Mr. Biswas’s death and also adumbrates the nature and significance of his house. Neither is A House For Mr. Biswas particularly more elaborate in language than the first three books. Indeed, it is rather low-key, and its pace is leisurely. Critics often mention that Naipaul, unlike many writers from former European colonies, does not write in a magic-realist style. In the opening pages of this book, Mohun Biswas is born with six fingers on one hand. In a magic-realist novel, this fact would become a token of Biswas’s extraordinariness; but here the finger is quickly removed, a sign that the ordinary is being chosen over the exotic. The burial of the finger also represents the burial of a part of Mr. Biswas’s potential. In a way the realistic genre of the novel in which he is a character dooms Biswas to an inconspicious life.
One of Biswas’s disappointments is that his life develops so little. It is symptomatic that the narrative begins referring to him as “Mr. Biswas” when he is still a child and refers to him thusly throughout the book. Biswas is prematurely defined as someone whose hopes are never achieved. Biswas lives in several houses before he finally dwells in one he can call his own. His most traumatic encounter is with Hanuman House in Arwacas (modeled on the actual Lion House, in Chaguanas), the home of the Tulsis, the family of Biswas’s wife, Shama. The Tulsis are a locally prominent family who wish to absorb Biswas into their fold. They insist on having Shama and the Biswas children around, but always tacitly allot them a subordinate role to themselves and their own children. For instance, after Biswas has moved to Green Vale after having been unable to endure actually living at Hanuman House any longer, one Christmas he is dragooned into having his family stay at Hanuman House. Wanting to give his daughter Savi a nice present, he spends a month’s worth of his own salary to buy her a beautiful dollhouse. The envy of Savi’s Tulsi cousins, though, is aroused to such an extent that Shama, Savi’s mother, feels she has to destroy the dollhouse in order for comity in the family to be restored. Biswas is devastated not just at the destruction of his generous gift to his daughter to satisfy the ego of the Tulsi family, but at the symbolic negativity Shama’s deed manifests toward his own ambition. Biswas wants to make something of himself, and the Tulsis will not let him do this, will not even let him dream. Biswas passes through various houses—the Chase, Green Vale, Shorthills—all places where he seems to establish his independence of the Tulsis, but is in fact confirmed in his reliance on them. (Many commentators have seen Biswas’s relationship with the Tulsis as an allegory for the colonial subject’s dependence on empire.)
Biswas petitions for a job as headline writer for The Sentinel, a local sensationalist newspaper. He becomes successful in a small way but feels himself to be doing something silly. Biswas wishes to be a successful writer but remains at a standstill in this quest because of his personal situation and also his dependence upon British colonial models.
Biswas’s son, Anand, is clearly a figure for Naipaul himself. (Naipaul makes a self-referential gesture in having Anand’s cousin, Vidiadhar, born close to Anand’s own birth.) When a Tulsi favorite son returns from Europe as a communist, Anand is at first entranced with his progressive positions. But soon he realizes that the core truth is that, despite the modern rhetoric, the Tulsi son is still locked within a colonial paradigm that will continue to prosecute the subordination of Biswas and his son. This realization heightens Anand’s determination to escape this paradigm. Biswas realizes that Anand, bound for study in England, will become the success that he himself never was. But he shows no resentment about that, and in general his stance toward his own life near the end becomes one of calm acceptance. To pity Biswas for not attaining his dreams is to overly condescend to what he has managed to attain: “But bigger than them all was the house, his house. How terrible it would have been, at this time to be without it.... to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one’s own portion of the earth: to have lived and died as one had been born, unnecessary and unaccommodated.”
Even the most rudimentary house is still a house. But note that it is a house, not a home. Biswas achieves shelter, but not a sense of permanently belonging. With A House For Mr. Biswas, Naipaul became a novelist of drift and dislocation who yet affirmed the small triumphs of people, real or imagined, living utterly ordinary lives.
The Middle Passage: Impressions of Five Societies—British, French, and Dutch—in the West Indies and South America (1962) was Naipaul’s first work in the vein of hybrid journalism/travel writing for which he became famous. The title refers to the slave trade between Africa and the Caribbean, which was the middle portion of the triangle trade by which, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, African slaves were traded by their fellow Africans for guns, ammunition, and other goods from Europe and transported across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, where sugar was obtained for delivery back to Europe. The Middle Passage begins in Guyana, a newly independent state on the mainland of South America that had been a British colony and had a similar ethnic mix to Trinidad, where it was often referred to as “the mainland.” Guyana’s two principal postindependence leaders were Forbes Burnham, a man of African descent who was leader of the People’s National Congress, and Cheddi Jagan, an Indian, chief minister from 1957 to 1964, leader of the People’s Progressive Party. Both Burnham and Jagan were socialists. Both initially took an anti-American line. Both promised rapid development for Guyana as it took its place on the world stage. But racial tensions and Burnham’s increasing authoritarianism had split the two men by the time of Naipaul’s visit. Naipaul praises Burnham’s eloquence but sees that it tends to fan the flames of racial hatred.
Naipaul had a potential stake in Trinidad’s politics. His uncle, Simbhoonath Capildeo, was leader of the opposition during the 1960s. Yet, The Middle Passage was commissioned by Capildeo’s opponent, the prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Sir Eric Williams, a forward-looking black nationalist who, like Naipaul, was a graduate of Queen’s Royal College and Oxford. Naipaul did not flatter his native land, highlighting the squalor of its living conditions and its lack of a deep past. But he still evoked Trinidad’s hopes and contradictions in its first years of independence. Naipaul also visited, and wrote about, Guyana’s eastern neighbor, Surinam, then still a colony of the Dutch, and the French island of Martinique, where he is exuberantly scathing about the island’s pretensions to be just as much a part of metropolitan France as, say, Bordeaux is. Naipaul sees the Caribbean as blighted by the legacy of slavery and imperialism—indeed as a region with no real past or tradition to draw upon, since its original indigenous inhabitants were nearly wiped out, recalled by white colonizers, black slaves, and Indian indentured servants.
Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion (1963) is a short novel that is generally seen as unsuccessful. But it is Naipaul’s first attempt to write a novel removed from his usual Trinidadian setting. It also has allegorical elements that contribute to Naipaul’s later work. Richard Stone is an ordinary older Englishman who thinks up a scheme whereby retired employees of his corporation, Excal (a play on Excalibur, the sword of King Arthur), can be enrolled in an altruistic endeavor, visiting pensioners of Excal’s clients. Mr. Stone presents this “Knights Companion” idea to the corporation, and they enthusiastically take it up. But Stone soon finds the Knights Companion program co-opted by the more conventionally entrepreneurial Whymper, who embodies the negative side of the corporate mentality, with “socialist-Fascist political views.”
The novel also has a leitmotiv of Stone’s interaction with a cat. At first, he is fearful of the cat; at the end of the book, after many encounters, he confronts the attitude with a sense of engaged but wary negotiation, though the cat quickly walks away. The cat serves as an emblem for Stone’s small progress. Despite his reverses, the structure of the novel is not totally palindromic; Stone is not back at the end where he was at the beginning. For instance, he has met a woman named Margaret and has found that “step by step they became married.” This first novel that Naipaul set entirely in England was actually written while he traveled, in 1962, in the northwestern Indian region of Kashmir. Generally, reviewers upbraided Naipaul for straying from his accustomed Caribbean territory. Walter Allen, in The New York Review of Books (19 March 1964), remarked that the book was “very much an interim novel.”
In 1964 Naipaul published An Area Of Darkness, a travel book on India. Naipaul had looked forward to his first visit to his ancestral homeland with great anticipation, but his first impressions were extremely negative. He found the country overpopulated, barbarous, and unsightly. Indians have traditionally been almost totally uncurious about the Indian diaspora, especially to such far-flung places as Trinidad, and Naipaul felt no more at home in Indian society than he had anywhere else: “I felt my separateness from India.” Because of India’s positive image abroad, though, fostered by the media attention accorded such visionary leaders as Mohandas K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, Naipaul’s view of India was shocking not only to Indians but to Western readers.
In 1966 Naipaul received a fellowship to teach at Makerere University in the Ugandan capital of Kampala. During the next few years he traveled extensively through Africa and South America. Naipaul’s next novel, The Mimic Men (1967), was his most complex thus far in terms of structure. Ralph Singh, the protagonist, is an adult migrant from the Caribbean, living in London and remembering his various past attempts to find an authentic place for himself. Despite his previous achievements—he has actually been foreign minister of a Caribbean island—Ralph feels uncertain, unfulfilled. He cultivates various ideological myths of origin, the most dangerous of which is his sense of himself as a pure Aryan, superior to other half-caste Hindus. Ralph attempts to perform an asvamedha, an ancient horse sacrifice performed to legitimate kingly power, by killing a modern racehorse. This ludicrous attempt to reconstitute the past backfires and shows that any modern attempt to capture authenticity can only be inauthentic, that people who think they search for an absolute truth are in fact mimic men. Ralph Singh shares a background, and often has similar views, to his creator. But he is often an object of virulent scorn by the narrative, as his attempts to retrieve wholeness leave him more fragmented than ever. Ralph is more introspective than Biswas but does not come to grips with himself any more successfully. The Mimic Men is generally considered to have introduced the term “mimicry” to post-colonial discourse and paved the way for its later elaboration by the Indian-born critic Homi K. Bhabha.
The Mimic Men won the 1968 W. H. Smith Award and was in general widely acclaimed. But there was no consensus yet about Naipaul’s work. Although V. S. Pritchett, in The New York Review of Books (11 April 1968), called Naipaul “A brilliant chameleon from the Caribbean” who “has grown into the English novel with more lasting assurance than almost all contemporaries in the West Indies or Africa who are in the same case,” there were also dissenters, such as Martin Seymour-Smith, who stated in Funk and Wagnalls Guide to Modern World Literature (1973) that Naipaul’s work, after a promising start, “had fallen off in the Sixties.”
Naipaul continued to travel widely in the Americas, Asia, and Africa from 1968 to 1971. In 1969 he published The Loss of El Dorado: A History. This work dealt with the various disappointments that had characterized the history of Trinidad since the Spaniards came there in the early modern era looking for the fabled land of gold. Naipaul is particularly interested in the utter extirpation of the indigenous population and forces the reader to see that everyone in the Caribbean is an immigrant—that the only people who truly own the land, the indigenous people, have left no trace. Much of what Naipaul sees as the later futility of the region can be traced to this essential vacancy. With this book, Naipaul was widely hailed as explainer of the periphery to the center.
Naipaul’s next novel was In a Free State (1971). This book was a milestone for Naipaul in several ways. It won him the 1971 Booker Prize, thus providing the crucial fillip to his growing worldwide reputation. Also, it was the first work of Naipaul’s to be deliberately nontraditional in form. Previously, Naipaul had seemed, as a novelist, to work within traditional genres. The same was true of his journalism, even though, like his fiction, it dealt with areas of the world not often written about in an informed and comprehensive way. But In a Free State is unprecedented in its loose structure. All of the five stories are about colonialism and migration; yet, in each one except the first and the last, the characters are independent of each other. The three major stories are “One Out Of Many,” the story of Santosh, an Indian immigrant who arrives bewildered in Washington, D.C., but eventually settles down and marries a hubshi (black American) woman; “Tell Me Who To Kill,” in which an Indian immigrant to London is betrayed by his family and, arguably, goes mad; and the title novella, which describes the car ride taken by a homosexual Englishman and a white district officer’s wife through a turmoil-ridden East African country. What the reader takes from the book is not so much the individual narratives but the overall sense of the postcolonial world as being a “free state” where anything is possible in terms of movement, yet love, personal satisfaction, and a just social order are as, or more, elusive than they have ever been. In the Booker Prize citation for In a Free State, veteran British literary journalist John Gross observed that it was “a work of great distinction, beautifully written, deeply felt, addressing itself with an often disturbing irony to the problems of the postcolonial world—a book which reverberates long after one has finished reading it, and is in every way worthy of the prize.”
Most of the reviews of In a Free State concentrated on the title novella, set in postindependence Africa. In fact, it was his depiction of Africa, in this book and in later works, that made Naipaul a world literary figure. Naipaul’s writing on Africa brought him an audience in the United States that was not especially used to reading contemporary fiction but who appreciated Naipaul as an “intrepid and brutally honest chronicler of the Third World,” as Mustafa called him, who wrote of what Alfred Kazin called the “endless moving about of contemporary life.”
Whites who wished to see African independence discredited, or who assumed a paternalistic posture that Africans could not really rule themselves, felt vindicated by Naipaul’s descriptions of tyranny, violence, and anarchy in newly independent African states. Others accused him of being unduly pessimistic, as in the satirical styling of him by the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott (winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature) as “V. S. Nightfall” in his poem “The Spoiler’s Return” (in Walcott’s Collected Poems, 1948-1984, 1987), or in David Hare’s satirical portrait of a Naipaul-like character in his 1983 play A Map of the World. But Naipaul, who had grown up in close proximity to people of African descent in Trinidad, was writing from within the matrix of postcolonialism. In the England where he had resided since 1951, someone of his background and skin color would themselves often be described as “black.” By the late 1970s, Naipaul had been championed by the neoconservative movement in American culture. But despite this fact, Naipaul published his journalism and travel writing primarily in The New York Review of Books and also in The New Yorker-two publications that were generally well on the Left of the political spectrum. This tendency meant that much of his American reading public was precisely the element he outraged (and enjoyed outraging). But it also means that Naipaul was not a right-wing polemicist. Naipaul’s vision of Africa, politically inflected at the most immediate levels, in its larger dimensions were unconstrained by precise political allegiances.
The Overcrowded Barracoon and Other Articles (1972) was a volume of occasional journalism, mostly short pieces and all previously published in newspapers or magazines. It featured two of Naipaul’s journeys to island nations: the multicultural, multilingual Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean ripe, in Naipaul’s opinion, for instability; and Anguilla, a small Caribbean island to which Britain had wanted to give independence as part of a larger island group but which had refused that status. The volume attested to the vigor and frequency of Naipaul’s travels and to his grasp of the international scene.
Guerrillas (1975) is Naipaul’s most sexually explicit novel. Drawing upon, but considerably expanding, the character of Linda from In a Free State, Naipaul’s portrait of Jane, the mistress of the white radical Peter Roche, is “perhaps Naipaul’s most fully sustained female voice,” according to Mustafa. Whereas in the earlier book there is only a threat of violence, in this book Jane becomes involved in a violent sexual relationship with Jimmy Ahmed, the black revolutionary (whose ancestry is actually mixed-race, though he conceals this fact) who later orders her killed. Jane’s masochistic degradation, Peter’s ineffectual altruism, and Jimmy’s ideology-motivated psychosis are intensely delineated. Though the exposure of the illusions of both white do-gooders and the Black Power movement were appreciated, many reviewers found the sexual episodes in the book disturbing and unattractive.
India: A Wounded Civilization (1977) was the first travel book in which Naipaul retraced his steps from an earlier journey. Understandably, readers assumed (if not with this book, then by the time of his third book about India, India: A Million Mutinies Now, 1990) that he was simply repeating himself, or rehashing old precipitance. But Naipaul seems to have seen these exercises as deliberately gravitating back to a place visited earlier to measure how both place and writer had changed in the interim. With India, for instance, his 1977 book is considerably less pessimistic about the country, and by 1991 he is downright optimistic. There also is an increasing objectivity: the 1964 book is written from a personal perspective; the 1977 book focuses on how Islamic and later British occupation have “wounded” the country; and the 1990 book looks forward to a new era in Indian history. Rather than turn to an area where he had no previous history or emotional involvement, Naipaul sticks to those areas–India, the Islamic world, Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America–that touch in some ways upon his life experience. In India: A Wounded Civilization, he notes how the country in a way seems to celebrate its own inadequacies, as “the poor are almost fashionable.”
By this time, Naipaul, who had lived in the South London neighborhood of Stockwell during the 1960s, had moved to rural southern England, renting a cottage on the grounds of Wilsford Manor, an estate in Wiltshire owned by an eccentric aristocrat, Stephen Tennant. By the early 1980s, Naipaul had moved to his own house, the Dairy Cottage, Salterton, also in Wiltshire.
Naipaul returned to an African setting in his next novel, A Bend in the River (1979). Progatonist Salim is a Muslim of largely Indian ancestry, but his family has lived in Africa for so long that he considers himself as much African as Indian. Naipaul makes the point that East Africa, whose coast had been under the suzerainty of the sultanate of Oman in Arabia, was originally a polyglot region where many peoples made contact on the coast. But, under pressure from new African-nationalist regimes, Salim has fled to the interior, to an unnamed city resembing the Congolese (then Zairean) city of Kisangani, where he is a scorekeeper. Salim meets a Belgian priest, Pierre Huismans, who collects African objects in a way that does not ultimately respect their intrinsic cultural importance. Huismans, who embodies a transitional phase in which the old colonial mentality is still present even after the colony has been given independence, is killed by rebels against the African country’s government. The country is governed by the Big Man, a dictator who embarks on an ambitious program of building and modernization, designed to reflect his own grandiosity and vainglory. The local tribal peoples, used to their traditional existence, are suddenly asked to be citizens of a modern nation, one that is governed corruptly. Salim himself, despite his humble origins, is not immune to the temptation of power. He has an affair with Yvette, wife of the Big Man’s white court historian, Raymond, an affair motivated by social ambition and racial envy. At the end of the book, Salim decides to live in London and marry a Muslim woman. This choice at once represents a flight from Africa and a renewed embrace of his own background.
As noted by many reviewers and critics, Naipaul consciously refers to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), a novella that evokes the breakdown of an ambitious European in the Congo. Naipaul’s novel was seen as embodying a sage, Conradian pessimism, chiding overly optimistic visions of the African future. A Bend in the River rebuts radical leftists who saw in Africa “the wave of the future,” as Bruce King points out. The sardonic indignation of A Bend in the River was clearly, to any reader with a knowledge of African politics, directed at Mobutu Sese Seko, then the president of Zaire, about whom Naipaul had written a searing nonfiction article in 1975 (later collected in The Return of Eva Perón; with The Killings in Trinidad, 1980). Mobutu was a key ally of the United States in Africa, a position that became heightened after the Communist takeovers of neighboring Angola and Mozambique in the late 1970s (events referred to in Naipaul’s later novels Half a Life  and Magic Seeds ). Indeed, some reviewers in 1979 concluded that A Bend in the River was an exposé of Mobutu alone, not, as others argued, a general commentary on the “radicalization” endemic to postcolonial African regimes. A Bend in the River received good reviews across the board, from leftist as well as rightwing or centrist journals. A Bend in the River was shortlisted for the 1979 Booker Prize, which went to Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore.
Naipaul’s next book, The Return of Eva Perón, continued with the political concerns of A Bend in the River. The title of the volume refers to former Argentine president Juan Perón’s celebrated wife, who had recently been the subject of a successful Andrew Lloyd Webber/ Tim Rice musical, Evita (1978). Yet, the book is largely concerned with Trinidad. In fact, most of its contents are supplied by “The Killings in Trinidad,” two articles originally published as newspaper supplements in London in 1974, which deal with the Black Power leader Michael X, a model for the character of Jimmy Ahmed in Guerrillas. The title essay is a priori ironic as the Eva Perón that returns to Argentina is the woman’s embalmed body, reclaimed twenty years after her death. Even absent, Eva Perón is still “of the people and the land,” and “no other idea of the land has been found to take her place.” Eva Perón, though dead, has greater charisma than her by-now elderly husband or anyone else in Argentina, which Naipaul sees as an artificial society, a European phantasm unsuccessfully grafted to the South American continent. Throughout the book, Naipaul delights in exposing the cocktail-party leftist pieties that have so consistently outraged him through his career. As Joan Didion said in The New York Review of Books (12 June 1980), “It is toward precisely this section of the secure middle class, toward the exporters rather than the importers of the rhetoric, that Naipaul directs the profound disgust that he is sometimes accused of feeling for the victims of the words, for the casualties of the abstractions, for the Maliks of the ‘emerging’ world.” Despite being a compilation of potentially time-bound articles written more than five years before the book was published, The Return of Eva Perón was widely reviewed.
By the time of the publication of The Return of Eva Perón, Naipaul was as much a household name as any highbrow literary writer can ever hope to be. Often, Naipaul’s opinions and general profile were known, but few of his fictional characters or his specifically literary achievements were. This situation is partially attributable to Naipaul being known for his nonfiction as much as his fiction. But Naipaul’s currency in the political world also told against him, as the academic Left more or less declared him anathema because of his perceived anti-Third World views. This opprobrium was not total. With the rise, in the 1980s, of college courses on world literature in English, Naipaul’s works were frequently taught in these courses. His insights into the mimicry, inauthenticity, and rootlessness entailed in the postcolonial condition became general currency among scholars who, for the most part, held diametrically opposed political views.
Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981) was Naipaul’s first book set in the Islamic world. This nonfiction travel book had chapters covering Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia, the first two of which had experienced dramatic political turbulence in the preceding few years. Among the Believers was thus reviewed as a political tract: sometimes criticized for being too anti-Islamic, sometimes approved for its sense of the danger posed to the democratic West by the turmoil in these lands. Naipaul speaks of the certainty of Islamic fundamentalists that “Islam was pure and perfect; the secular, dying West was to be rejected.” In this mentality of certitude, “inquiry and analysis were for internal matters, not for faith itself.” As someone of Hindu descent, Naipaul is aware that Islam had arrived in these countries only in the past millennium. This perspective is different from that of the average Western commentator on Islam. Naipaul, though, assumes a Western audience, defining a pappadom as “crisp, fried Indian bread” in a way he would not have had to do for Indians, nor for that matter Westerners two decades later. Also, Naipaul’s ethnic background made him somewhat of a mystery to the Muslims he met. Not obviously of the West, he was sometimes mistaken for an “Indian Shia” in Iran. The book, in general, was praised by those who saw themselves as antagonistic to radical Islam, scorned by those (such as the Columbia University professor Edward Said) who saw the West’s perspective of the Islamic world as fundamentally biased.
Reviewers found a new mood of acceptance in Finding the Centre (1984). The first section describes Naipaul’s arrival in London in the 1950s to begin his literary career and details his work at the BBC. The second section describes a visit to the Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire), where President Félix Houphouèt-Boigny had dedicated his birthplace at Yamoussoukro as the new capital, replacing the commercial center of Abidjan. In other contexts Naipaul might have excoriated this act as megalomania. But he seems more benign toward Houphouèt-Boigny, saying “he has ruled well” and that Yamoussoukro is “one of the wonders of the African world,” to reconstruct the center in Africa whose absence he had tacitly decried in A Bend in the River. Some critics suggested that Naipaul was assuming this posture because Houphouèt-Boigny was a pro-Western, pro-free market leader who received considerable praise in the U.S. media.
Naipaul’s scorn, however, could at times be directed toward the Right of the Western world. In 1984 Naipaul visited the Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas, to cover it for The New York Review of Books (in an essay later reprinted as “The Air-Conditioned Bubble: The Republicans in Dallas,” in The Writer and the World: Essays, 2002). Naipaul has links with the Conservative Party in British politics. He accepted several dinner invitations from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (from whom he received a knighthood in 1989, becoming “Sir Vidia Naipaul”) and spoke positively of her successor, John Major, also a Conservative. But Naipaul clearly does not identify with the U.S. Republican Party. He spoke of the “intellectual vacancy” to be found at the convention and stated that “power was the theme of the convention, and this power seemed too easy–national power, personal power, the power of the New Right.” Naipaul’s nonadmiring stance toward the Republican Party can be seen as indicating a desire not to swing too far to the Right. Even when Naipaul accepted the T. S. Eliot Award in 1986 from the Ingersoll Foundation, a conservative U.S. group, he spoke not on his political views but on his identity as a writer.
In the 1980s Naipaul lost both his younger brother, Shiva, and his elder sister, Sati, in quick succession. The death of his sister is explicitly mentioned in Naipaul’s next book, The Enigma of Arrival: A. Novel in Five Sections (1987). Most of this book is set in the countryside of southern England around Salisbury. Naipaul’s lush, detail-studded depiction of the English landscape was unprecedented in his career. Similarly, his prose–previously spare, matter-of-fact, almost minimal–becomes sprawling and luxurious. Naipaul himself is a gardener, and the descriptions of the countryside are done with knowledge and care.
The Enigma of Arrival is divided into five parts. The first part is a description of Jack, a tenant on the landlord’s estate who maintains a garden, and the other locals who interact with him.
The narrator had imagined, from his peripheral island youth, a successful, confident England; he arrives there only to find the nation in decline. There is no permanence; what he had sought was a delusion. Nor do people’s lives unfold in predictable patterns; nor are they defined by categorical trajectories. The narrator makes mistakes about people as well. He is fascinated by the gardeners and servants on the estate. Indeed, The Enigma of Arrival is perhaps one of the most incisive portraits of the rural English working class in its era. The cast of characters includes Jack, who rents one of the cottages on the estate; Pitton, the gardener for the estate landlord; Bray, the driver of the rental car that takes people to and from the estate into Salisbury; and Mr. and Mrs. Phillips, the couple who take care of the landlord.
The narrator becomes aware that England, if one looks back to ancient times, has had its own series of discontinuities and impositions of new identities, as Trinidad has. Jack is “not a remnant” of a rural past but as much a part of the present time as the narrator himself. Everybody’s pattern unfolds independent of each other, an insight fortified by the cycles of nature itself, how seasons both incarnate and, through repetition, interrupt the patterns by which humans organize their lives: “One cycle for me in my cottage, in the grounds of the manor, another cycle on the farms, among the farm buildings, another cycle in the life of Jack’s wife.”
The Giorgio de Chirico painting from which the book draws its title is mentioned at the beginning of the second section. Its donnée had been with Naipaul for twenty years previous: a traveler arrives, by sea, in a distant city and plunges into its crowded life. After a while he seeks to get back to his ship, but he finds himself detained by people conducting a kind of religious celebration, and soon the narrator realizes that he is to be its centerpiece–the human sacrifice. He escapes, but his ship is gone. There is no way out, and his story is at an end. The second section continues with a reminiscence of the narrator’s days at a boardinghouse for various migrants and displaced people in Earls Court, London, in the 1950s.
The third section of the book presents a sustained portrait of the narrator’s landlord. This figure is modeled on Tennant, an interior designer and occasional poet, Naipaul’s own landlord in Wiltshire who came from a distinguished English aristocratic family and, in his youth, had a correspondence with Willa Cather and edited Cather’s critical essays. In his old age, Tennant is willfully eccentric; he sends his tenant gifts and poems but is only seen twice by him. Some of the poems sent by the landlord to the narrator include references to Krishna and Shiva–Indian gods, one a force of love, the other of destruction, whose very mention in this English context seems incongruous to the narrator. “Krishna and Shiva! There, beside that river (Constable and Shepard) in these grounds! There was nothing of contemporary cult or fashion in my landlord’s use of these divinities. His Indian romance was in fact older, even antiquated.” The landlord thinks he is reaching out to his tenant, but in fact his perfumed, fustian rendition of Hindu deities is a world away from anything the rootless narrator has ever experienced. Mention is also made of Alan, widely conceded to have been based on Julian Jebb, a mercurial writer and broadcaster who committed suicide in 1984. Alan, with “no book to his name,” is somewhat like Mr. Biswas, one of those individuals who has been let down by the inability of society to give him a mold in which to constructively channel his talents.
In the fourth section, the placidity of the estate is disrupted by the unexpected death of Mr. Phillips, at a relatively young age, when his father, in his mid seventies, was still alive. The landlord has absorbed the death of Alan without disturbance, but the death of Mr. Phillips makes him even more vulnerable. Change and death are rampant; Mrs. Phillips quickly remarries, as the narrator realizes that the permanence he had posited on the estate is as absent there as everywhere else.
The fifth section is brief, describing how the book came to be written. The narrator mentions a commission to write about the 1984 Republican Convention which, in exposing him to a totally new scene, sets his mind on how to connect the long-dormant de Chirico fantasy with themes of change in Trinidad and England. He then finds out his sister has died, and he goes to the funeral in Trinidad. The religious aspects of the funeral, on the face of it not really spiritual, tally toward an odd reverence about the fact of death. The presiding pundit attends to “the physical side of business.” The narrator reflects on his family’s decline of religious certitude, which the traditional rites of the funeral only momentarily stay. This recognition of change drives the narrator to write the book. (The subsequent death of Naipaul’s brother, who passed away in 1985, is not mentioned in the book, although several reviews took note of it.)
The Enigma of Arrival was widely praised; particularly influential was a review by Frank Kermode in The New York Times Book Review (22 March 1987) that emphasized Naipaul’s evocation of the Wiltshire countryside. The Enigma of Arrival was Naipaul’s first book to sell well in England. Part of this success was attributable to his depiction of a specifically English landscape; another factor was that Naipaul’s new publisher, Viking (to which he had moved on the advice of his agent), was a considerably larger concern that André Deutsch, his London publisher for the first thirty years of his career, to whom Naipaul had remained loyal despite its lack of resources when compared to the multinational conglomerates.
Naipaul’s next book took him to a new, yet familiar, part of the world. Naipaul had already written about the slave trade in The Middle Passage. A travel book about the American South, the third side of the “triangle trade” area with the greatest numbers of black slaves in the nineteenth century, seemed a natural follow-up. A Turn in the South (1989) is a surprisingly mellow book. As Nina King commented in The Washington Post Book World (5 February 1989), “Naipaul is unexpectedly gentle, even tender, in his portrayal of the Southerners he meets.” Unlike Naipaul’s previous travel writing, the fiery indignation and overt agenda are absent. Yet, one aspect is important: Naipaul’s book is not a paean to old Dixie but an exploration of how peace and property overlie “a more desperate kind of New World history” reminiscent of Naipaul’s own experience in Trinidad. A Turn in the South also represents Naipaul’s most sustained engagement with Christianity. He regards Southern Protestantism with occasional condescension but also with a distanced fascination. Indeed, the emphasis on Christianity in A Turn in the South flows naturally from the prominence of Christianity, Hinduism, and pre-Christian religious symbols such as Stonehenge in The Enigma of Arrival.
Naipaul’s third travel book about India, India: A Million Mutinies Now, was his first published by Heinemann (later Random House England). India: A Million Mutinies Now caught India on the verge of transition from the state socialism of the era of Prime Minister Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi to the entrepreneurial capitalism encouraged by Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao and his successors. Naipaul, no friend of the Nehru-Gandhi family dynasty, likes India now that the family is out of power. But rather than presenting his own point of view, Naipaul traveled across the country, listening to people from all walks of life.
In 1993 Naipaul won the David Cohen Prize for British literature. In his acceptance speech he paid tribute to two contemporaries, Harold Pinter and Powell, and then, after having traced the influence of the nineteenth-century social critic John Ruskin on two Indians, the independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi and the aesthete Ananda Coomaraswamy, he remarked: “This was just one chain of ideas and influence in our mingled civilisation. There must be hundreds, thousands, more. They will multiply as the English language spreads, and the various literatures of English grow. The connections will become more subtle; sometimes they will be hidden. It is with a consciousness of some of these connections that I welcome the luck of the prize.”
These sorts of connections were extensively explored in Naipaul’s next book, A Way in the World: A Sequence (1994), which was billed as a novel. But, as Madison Smartt Bell pointed out in the Chicago Tribune (29 May 1994), “A Way in the World is divided into nine sections, which are discontinuous in the conventional sense, although there is much repetition of themes and motifs among them. It is difficult to understand their relationship as parts of a sequential narrative flow, easier to comprehend them as a composition of different elements arranged like panels in a painting.” Bell also stated that “Naipaul’s book is not something less than a novel but something quite different, perhaps something more.” With this book, Naipaul’s work as a journalist begins to thoroughly inflect his fiction. Naipaul has spo ken about how he feels the novel is an exhausted form, with its elaborate machinery of plot. Naipaul has used his journalism not as a substitute for fiction, or as a base on which to construct his novels, but as a way to interfuse fiction with a new freedom. However factual its basis, A Way in the World possesses what John David Russell, speaking of the nonfiction novel, describes as a “page-by-page feeling of immanence.” Naipaul’s writing is deeply experiential. Even when he is clearly opinionated, he is not being prescriptive from above but operating out of a specific experiential conjunction, with combined felt moral and social contexts.
These contexts are captured vividly in two characters in A Way in the World, featured briefly in different vignettes, who become absorbed into totally different identities—Leonard Side, a Trinidadian cake arranger and undertaker who has almost totally forgotten his Muslim origins, and Manuel Sorzano, a Hindu who becomes almost entirely Venezuelan. The way meaning is lost or transferred across cultures is also seen in the insightful but blinkered account of the Caribbean provided by the 1930s British travel writer Foster Morris (a fictional character, something that many reviewers missed because Naipaul so skillfully grafted him onto real contemporaries of that generation) and Blair, a Caribbean radical who becomes a government official in East Africa and is abruptly murdered. Lebrun, an activist originally from Panama who is largely perceived by critics to be modeled on the Caribbean intellectual C. L. R. James, though without the breadth of James’s intellect, has his optimistic theories about Marxism in the Third World disproved by events, but he is still lionized by the leftist intelligentsia. The fullest portrait is of Francisco de Miranda, the early-nineteenth-century Venezuelan revolutionary leader whom Naipaul depicts in exile in Trinidad in the 1800s, in his fifties, his aims not yet having been achieved, poised on the knife-edge between ineffectuality and national leadership. Miranda is today honored as a revolutionary hero in Venezuela, but he easily could have been a footnote to history, a personification of a road not taken, like Blair or Lebrun. The exceedingly positive reception for A Way in the World from reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic testified to Naipaul’s success in his portraits of these different characters.
On 3 February 1996 Patricia Naipaul died. The following April, Naipaul married Nadira Khannum Alvi, a Pakistani journalist whom he had met while on a speaking tour in Lahore, Pakistan. As had been the case with Patricia Naipaul, Naipaul’s new wife is known publicly as Lady Naipaul. After his marriage to Alvi, Naipaul began speaking more aggressively on behalf of Hindu nationalism, generally taking the line of the more nationalistic elements of the Bharatiya Janata Party and even seeming to endorse ideas of “Hindutva,” which call for a resurgent, militant Hinduism, display an intolerance of the Islamic aspect of Indian life and history, and define India as a Hindu nation rather than a secular one. Naipaul, though, is not a Hindu in a religious sense. In an appearance at the 92nd Street Y in New York City in November 1999 he stated, when asked if he was a religious believer, “I have no faith.”
Naipaul continued, however, to manifest an interest in the psychology of belief. His next published book, Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples (1998), was a second account of journeys among the converted (non-Arab) peoples of Islam, again in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia. As compared to Among the Believers, where Naipaul was seen as controlling the narrative through an explicitly anti-Islamic agenda, Beyond Belief is much more focused on the lives and even the words of the people Naipaul meets. Ian Buruma, writing in The New York Review of Books (16 July 1998), wondered at the absence of Naipaul’s own voice from the text: “There are risks involved. Voices taken down verbatim, often in translation, can become wearisome. Sometimes you wish the speaker would shut up, especially since Naipaul’s own voice is so incisive.” It also was surprising that a writer of Naipaul’s stature and talent would efface his own perspective from the text in a reportorial way associated more with routine journalism than with belles lettres. Naipaul’s presence in the book is less as a pundit (in the non-Hindu sense of the term) than as a listener. Richard Bernstein, writing in The New York Times (8 July 1998), stated that “Mr. Naipaul himself is less present on the scene than he was in his earlier work. He writes almost entirely through the eyes of the numerous people in the four countries whose stories he tells.”
Beyond Belief was no sooner published than Naipaul found his name in the book pages of world newspapers in a different context. Fellow novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux had been Naipaul’s longtime friend since the two taught together at Uganda’s Makerere University in 1966. In 1998 Theroux published Sir Vidia ś Shadow: A Friendship across Five Continents, an account of the course and the dramatic rupture (after Naipaul’s second marriage), of the two men’s friendship. Theroux draws a portrait of Naipaul as being racist, petulant, willfully eccentric, self-centered, and hostile toward women. But Theroux also gives Naipaul enormous credit toward Theroux’s own development as a writer and emphasizes his high regard for Naipaul’s early and middle work, as evident in the monograph he had written on Naipaul in 1972. (Theroux said, in conversation with Nicholas Birns at a reception at the 92nd Street Y in New York in May 2000, that he could understand why a reader could still admire Naipaul after finishing Sir Vidia ś Shadow.) Naipaul made no comment on Sir Vidia ś Shadow, and despite the gossip and controversy it provoked, the book did not appreciably damage his reputation.
In 1999 Letters Between a Father and Son appeared. Despite its title, the book is composed not only of letters between young “Vido” Naipaul and his father, Seepersad Naipaul, but also from his sister Kamla, who was studying at a women’s college in India, as well as several other family members, in the years leading up to the publication of Naipaul’s first novel and the elder Naipaul’s premature death. Naipaul had no role in compiling the book; the necessary work was done by his longtime agent, Gillon Aitken. The book presents a portrait of the Naipauls as an unusually intelligent family that treated each other with warmth and compassion.
Though Naipaul wrote only one novel during the 1990s, his role as fiction writer was kept visible by the appearance in the summer of 1998 of two of his books, A House For Mr. Biswas and A Bend in the River, on the vastly influential Modern Library list of the best one hundred novels in English. On 11 October 2001 it was announced that Naipaul had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. He had been mentioned prominently in speculation about the prize for many years, somewhat to the surprise of observers who ascribed a left-wing political agenda to the Swedish Academy. In the wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., however, one of the many stumbling blocks to Naipaul’s getting the prize—his perceived hostility to Islam—was temporarily removed by the specter of Islamic terrorism. Naipaul’s Nobel Prize heightened his public visibility, and many of his earlier novels were republished in paperback. His Nobel lecture, given in December 2001, touched on his background (“at once exceedingly simple and exceedingly confused”) and stated that his writing, despite the way it might “appear to be going in many directions,” in fact emanates from his lived experience; he wrote about India and Africa because of his own connections with those places, but not about Germany or China because he had no special tie there. Of his work, Naipaul stated: “Because of the intuitive way in which I have written, and also because of the baffling nature of my material, every book has come as a blessing.”
Also in 2001 Naipaul published his first novel in seven years, Half a Life. The novel appeared just after the Nobel announcement, which gave it greater exposure, although in the wake of the 11 September attacks, literature was receiving less news coverage than usual. In this novel, Willie Chandran is named after the British writer William Somerset Maugham, who (fictionally) had been helped by Willie’s Brahmin father with the mystical elements in his novel The Razor’s Edge (1944), much in the way that in real life Maugham was helped by Sri Ramana Maharishi. In an act of rebellion, the senior Chandran marries a woman of a lower caste, leaving his son, Willie, in a divided state—bearing a white man’s name, with an ancestry that put him in no secure classification in Indian society. The book chronicles the first half of Willie’s life, but it is also about how his life is only half a life as he has no secure identity, a condition that becomes endemic to a “half and half world.” Willie’s father has little aspiration for his son but has hopes that his daughter, Sarojini, will contract an “international marriage,” which she does, to a left-wing moviemaker, and ends up living in West Berlin. In the last half of the book (recounted retrospectively to Sarojini by Willie in Berlin) Willie describes his relationship with Ana, a half-African, half-Portuguese woman with whom he goes to a portion of Portuguese Africa in its last years as a colony. Willie and Ana become involved with the Correias, a wealthy, aristocratic family, and insert themselves into a society in languorous decline, waiting for the delayed but inevitable end of decolonization. Willie and Ana have “half and half” friends, light-skinned Africans who want to be Portuguese. Despite the sexual gratification of his relationship with Ana, Willie begins an affair with a married woman, Graça. The situation in Africa implodes, from Willie’s point of view, as a Marxist government replaces the colonial one, and Willie goes to Berlin to find respite with his sister, half of his life being elapsed, with nothing concrete having been accomplished.
J. M. Coetzee, writing in The New York Review of Books (1 November 2001), asked: “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?” But Naipaul has specialized throughout his carver in portraying alternate versions of himself. Naipaul, as Coetzee also pointed out, did not see himself as a born writer, but one whose talent was honed over decades of effort. Accordingly, he does not see his identity as a writer as the crowning fulfillment of an immanent creative growth. Thus, he is interested in people like Willie Chandran who started out in situations similar to Naipaul’s but whose lives took decisively different paths.
The Writer and the World is an omnibus collection of Naipaul’s political nonfiction, including mostly pieces previously published in books but including two important newly collected articles: his piece on the 1984 Republican National Convention and his second portrait, thirty years after the first in The Middle Passage, of Guyanese leader Jagan. As polemical as his perspective can be, Naipaul’s interest in people transcends his political views. In The Middle Passage, Naipaul manifested an equivocal view of Jagan, seeing him as wanting to be “all things to all men.” Yet, in the 1990s, when Jagan was back in office after spending nearly twenty years as a dissident and opposition leader under Burnham and his successor, Naipaul’s tone is changed. Jagan, and his American-born wife, Janet Rosenberg-Jagan, are seen as people who helped the Guyanese take “their destinies in their own hands,” and Jagan’s return to office was to be welcomed after the corrupt governance of the Burnham years. The Jagan essay bears out Daphne Merkin’s observation in The New York Times Book Review (1 September 2002) that Naipaul presents “a complex, many-angled way of seeing.”
In 2003 Naipaul published Literary Occasions, another omnibus volume, this one including his literary essays and book reviews. Although the book includes discussions of Conrad and Nirad C. Chaudhuri, much of the spotlight is on Naipaul himself-his own life and art, including a 1983 introduction to an edition of A House for Mr. Biswas. Writing in The New rrk T mes Book Review (11 January 2004), Lynn Freed said this volume is “a complex testament not only to the struggle of one man against great odds to be ‘;that noble thing,’ but also to their place and purpose of the writer in the world: the ‘;triumph over darkness..”’
In 2004 Naipaul published Magic Seeds, a sequel to Haifa Life that takes Willie Chandran back to India at Sarojini’s urging, which is the planting of the “magic seeds” from which the title derives. Willie thinks he is joining a people’s revolution, but in fact he finds himself among mediocre intellectuals, one of whom is ironically nicknamed Einstein. This section represents Naipaul’s most explicit portrait of communism and of the maleficence of communist ideology. Willie is imprisoned in India for killing a wealthy farmer but is released when the Indian government is convinced by Roger, an old friend from an earlier stint in London who is now a prominent lawyer, that Willie is a famous writer in England. Willie returns to England, where he stays with Roger and has an affair with Roger’s wife, Perdita, about which his friend is apparently unconcerned. Roger states that he has “low sexual energy” and places himself in a special sexual category including such figures as John Ruskin and Henry James, saying “We should be allowed our freedom.” Roger feels that England is deteriorating under the pressure of contemporary mediocrity, heightening Willie’s feeling that even late in life he has not achieved a sanctuary.
Reviewers were mostly impressed by Naipaul’s portrait of Willie Chandran, a man (unlike his previous narrators) quite different from himself. James Atlas observed in The New York Times Book Review (28 November 2004) that “Willie is the latest exemplar of a type familiar to Naipaul’s readers: the fanatical idealist drawn to what he somewhere calls ‘;pseudo-revolutions..”’ In The Palm Beach Post (27 March 2005), Greg Stefanich stated that “what Naipaul has created is the emblematic Everyman of his art: an Indian man trying on different postcolonial identities, all of them unsatisfactory, and wandering in a stateless, restless quest to determine who he really is.” Yet, other reviewers felt that Willie’s character was indistinct and unlikeable, and that the adaptability Stefanich mentions is but a cover for his essential vacancy.
Naipaul has stated that Magic Seeds is his last novel. Whether this declaration is true or not (Naipaul has warned before of the end of his career as a writer, yet kept on writing), Magic Seeds is unquestionably a kind of summing-up. Therefore, the final image of the book may bear particular weight. Willie reflects on his misadventures in Africa, which has not lived up to what he expected it to be. But at the end of the book, after attending a mixed-race wedding, he hears Surinamese music, notable because Naipaul, by having Willie be Indian, not Indo-Trinidadian, has excised the Caribbean element from his biography: “All night Willie heard the music. It invaded his sleep and mingled with other memories. Africa, with the conical gray stone hills and Africans walking on red paths beside the asphalt road.” However bad his experiences there, Africa can never be wholly “other” to Willie.
In Naipaul’s essay on Jagan in The Writer and the World, Janet Rosenberg-Jagan is quoted as saying that “the world is made up of people who have migrated.” V. S. Naipaul has brought the truth of this world of migration to the page more than any other contemporary writer.
Letters Between a Father and Son, edited by Gillon Aitken (London: Little, Brown, 1999); published as Between Father and Son: Family Letters (New York: Knopf, 2000).
Ulric Mentus, “Is There Something Called Black Art?” Caribbean Contact, 3, no. 11 (1976): 7, 17;
Alfred Kazin,“V. S. Naipaul: Novelist As Thinker,” New york Times Book Review, 1 May 1977, pp. 7, 20–22;
Bharati Mukherjee and Robert Boyers, “A Conversation with V. S. Naipaul,” Salmagundi, 54 (1981):
Mel Gussow, “V. S. Naipaul in Search of Himself: A Conversation,” New York Times Book Review, 24 April 1994, pp. 3, 29–30;
Feroza Jusawalla, Conversations with V S. Naipaul (Oxford: University of Mississippi Press, 1996);
Maya Jaggi, “A Singular Writer,” Guardian, 8 September 2001.
Kelvin Jarvis, V S. Naipaul: A Selective Bibliography with Annotations, 1957-1987 (Metuchen, NJ.: Scarecrow Press, 1989);
Jeffrey Meyers, “V. S. Naipaul: Essays, Stories, Reviews and Interviews, 1948-1992,” Bulletin of Bibliography, 50 (1993): 317–323;
Jarvis, “V. S. Naipaul: A Bibliographical Update,” Ariel, 26 (1995): 71-85.
Joseph Epstein, “A Cottage for Mr. Naipaul,” New Criterion, 6 (February 1987): 6–15;
Michael Gorra, After Empire: Scott, Naipaul, Rushdie (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997);
Philip Gourevitch, “Naipaul’s World,” Commentary, 98 (February 1994): 27–31;
Jack J. Healy, “Fiction, Voice, and the Rough Ground of Feeling: V. S. Naipaul After Twenty-Five Years,” University of Toronto Quarterly, 55 (1985): 45–63;
Alfred Kazin,“Displaced Person,” New York Review of books, 17, no. 11 (1971): 187–192;
Bruce King, V. S. Naipaul (Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan, 2003);
Fawzia Mustafa, V. S. Naipaul (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995);
William H. Pritchard, “Naipaul’s Written World,” Hudson Review, 47, no. 4 (1995): 587–597;
Victor J. Ramraj, “V. S. Naipaul: The Irrelevance of Nationalism,” World Literature Written in English, 23, no. 1 (1984): 187–196;
John David Russell, “No Guides Need Apply’: Locating the Nonfiction Novel,” University of Toronto Quarterly, 59 (Spring 1990): 413–432;
Louis Simpson, “Disorder and Escape in the Fiction of V. S. Naipaul,” Hudson Review, 37, no. 4 (1984): 571–577;
Sara Suleri, “Naipaul’s Arrival,” Yale Journal of Criticism: Interpretation in the Humanities, 2, no. 1 (1988): 25–50;
Paul Theroux, Sir Vidia’s Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents (London: Hamilton, 1998);
John Thieme, The Web of T adition: Uses of Allusion in V. S. Naipaul’s Fiction (Hertford, U.K.: Hansib Dangaroo, 1987);
Bernard Weinraub, “Indian Author Wins British Book Prize,” New york Times, 26 December 1971, p. 40;
Christopher Wise, “The Garden Trampled; or, The Liquidation of African Culture in V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River,” College Literature, 23, no. 3 (1996): 58-72.
The V. S. Naipaul Archive was established at the University of Tulsa in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1994. The Archive is comprised of more than fifty thousand items, including manuscripts, correspondence, and objects associated with Naipaul’s family. As he continues to write, Naipaul donates his papers from more than ten years previous to the Archive.