GOWANUS Winter 2002
VS Naipaul: A Life in Full
By Raymond Ramcharitar
In a review of VS Naipaul's latest novel, Half a Life, in the
London Guardian a few weeks ago, one-time Naipaul protégé,
Paul Theroux, concluded sardonically: "Without Naipaul's name on it,
Half a Life would be turned down in a flash. With his name on
it, of course, its trajectory is certain: great reviews, poor sales,
and a literary prize."
Well, even a stopped clock is
right twice a day, and Theroux must be decomposing atom by atom in
the horror of his prophecy right about now, and he'll have plenty
of company. With the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Sir
Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul will now have received every literary
award of importance open to him, from
The Nobel has been long seen as his Waterloo, given the conservatism of the judges in favour of political correctness and Naipaul's lifelong refusal to be politically correct. Not to mention that with the award to Dario Fo a few years ago (no one was more surprised than Fo himself was, the reports went), the prize lost some of its élan for some people.
But whether this signals a change in Nobel selection politics or is just a spike in the graph, this year's choice is one of the better ones the Academy has made for several years, and one of the more controversial. There is hardly a corn on the feet of the denizens of the brave new world of globalist political correctness that Naipaul hasn't stomped on. The feminists, the post-colonialists, the Afrocentrists, the Islamicists, the entire sub-continent of India, most of the Caribbean, and intellectuals of virtually every stripe and proclivity who do not relish having their theories blemished by mere fact. All have formed an extraordinary consensus in their hatred of him.
But several things make the Naipaul award particularly appropriate. As an observer of global consciousness, his prescience, and its precise translation into prose, is astounding. In his Islamic travel books, Naipaul presented the Islamic world as backward and isolationist, a view which earned him the disdain of critics like (Palestinian) Edward Said—until the September 11th attacks made those sentiments seem prophetic. His views on Africa ("Africa has no future") have been bitterly criticised, but not refuted. And the same can be said for his views on the West Indies—"unfinished societies" where "power was recognized, but dignity was allowed to no one".
As a writer of prose fiction, his mastery of and departure from the conventional novel might not have been entirely original, but they are certainly among the most successful attempts of the century to force the traditional nineteenth-century novel to evolve. This is something Joyce supposedly had the final word on with Ulysses, and which only a few other artists—Nabokov with Pale Fire, and Milan Kundera with his entire oeuvre—have seriously attempted to continue.
After the early picaresque works beginning with Miguel Street, Naipaul mastered the conventional novel form (linear narrative, stock characters, and the requisite social-political theme) with A House for Mr Biswas, and thereafter produced The Mimic Men, Guerillas, A Bend in the River and a few other autobio-historical fiction narratives like In a Free State, The Loss of Eldorado, and the travel works. But it wasn't until 1987 that he produced his most enduring masterpiece—The Enigma of Arrival which, apart from containing some of the most beautiful prose in English, blends pastoral fantasy, autobiography, essay, and social critique into a form that is, and is not, a novel. With its experimental narrative sequence A Way in the World, his next work, is an enigmatic book whose secrets are perhaps not for this age. And now with Half a Life, Naipaul has returned to the world of the conventional novel in triumph—or perhaps just in exhaustion.
But more fascinating than any particular artistic achievement is the place Naipaul holds in the intellectual world. He occupies several mutually exclusive positions: he has preeminence in the literary sphere, but he has denounced most contemporary literary activity as tripe; he's a former colonial who has trashed his place of birth because it is the home of stupidity, theft, and a region where nothing original is created; he's an emigrant who has denounced his adoptive British home, calling Prime Minister Tony Blair a cultural vandal. And as an artist he has always held his position to be one of dedication to the uncompromising truth—a Utopia if there ever was one in its literal meaning. These qualities—self-imposed exile, permanent dissatisfaction with the world's idea of itself, and impatience with those unable to keep up—perfectly illustrate the post-modern condition: living in a state of permanent uncertainty, a disdain for atavism, and an unquenchable urge for the future. Hence the crux of what it is to be Naipaul: the boundaries between Sir Vidia and his art are permeable and infinitely elastic.
In each of the novels there is the resurgence of autobiographical themes, what Caryl Phillips, reviewing Letters to a Father and Son in the New York Review of Books last year, called a "self-aggrandizing, and frankly embarrassing narrative into the literary conscience of the West".
But Naipaul may be just as hard on himself as he is on everyone else, and might even have a sense of humour about it—a very dark one, let it be said. His celebrated admission that he was a "great prostitute man" to the New Yorker 's Stephen Schiff in 1995 raised the matter of his poor treatment of his long-suffering wife, Pat. His unwillingness to pick up a check at restaurants (and many other petulant revelations) were revealed in Theroux's stinky tell-all last year. Naipaul is well-known for being a demon about money and reducing unprepared interviewers to tears, as he did a certain Trinidadian journalist who has happily since recovered.
Which brings us to Trinidad itself. Most bookstores here carry his books, and I believe the poor, Carnival-loving youth are even coerced to read them for exams. How much of them they (and their teachers) actually understand is another matter. How much of Naipaul any Trinidadian understands is an open question. The decadent classes, at least, know his work; but it's fashionable if not de rigeur, for black intellectuals to revile him. As for Indians, well, who knows if the average Indian businessman even owns a book that contains anything other than receipts.
Naipaul's lack of popularity in his homeland is not without cause. Throughout his career he has made harsh statements about Trinidad—"harsh" being a way of saying "the truth we don't want to hear". His most incisive work about the islands remains The Middle Passage. Written in the 1960s, Naipaul talks about Trinidadian "second rate newspapers", a cinema-going audience capable of responding only to a narrative that is projected onto a screen, television advertisements that feature either very light brown or white actors, and—most damningly— his statement that "the only convention the West Indian knows is his involvement with the white world". That he's still right forty years later has certainly not made him the darling of Trinidadians who talk the talk but walk the walk of racial subservience. But Naipual's criticisms are by no means unique. Many have been echoed with considerably more virulence by Derek Walcott in his autobiographical Another Life and in his essays "What the Twilight Says" and "The Muse of History", published back in the 1970s.
The award of the Nobel Prize at least may cause more Trinidadians, as well as people all over the world, to look again at the first Trinidadian (and we're claiming him, dammit) to win the planet's most prestigious literary honour.
(Raymond Ramcharitar earns
his living as a journalist in Trinidad