The Mimic Men
A Flag on the Island
Among the younger English novelists Mr. V. S. Naipaul is a virtuoso. A brilliant chameleon from the Caribbean, the descendant of Hindu immigrants, he 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. This has not been achieved by intelligence and education alone; nor by the fact that the West Indies were, in many respects, a very fertilizing Victorian enclave. His advantage is that he shares with many English novelists natural and serious feeling for the fantasy life of his characters. This was obvious in the rich comi-tragedy of Mr. Biswas; also in his one purely English novel, Mr. Stone and the Knight’s Companion, in which he made a careful study of the “little man” and pushed forward the tradition of Pooter, Polly, and the Napoleon of Notting Hill into regions that were more exposed and dangerous, without falling into pastiche or charm. There are poor dogged little clerks all over the world, and Mr. Naipaul, who is above all a diagnostician in his comedy, brought a piercing West Indian eye to what was either a Russian or a London subject. After their first success with their native scene, most African, Indian, or West Indian novelists who have made the emotionally and politically disrupting journey to Oxford or London run aground on the shallows of journalistic writing: assertion and loneliness coarsen them. Everything becomes, crudely, a problem. Mr. Naipaul has had the sensibility and the stamina to avoid this. He feels his pain, but he is in command. His latest novel is a resourceful, compassionate, intensely critical and imaginative statement of a colonial crack-up, but not a bald and impersonal one. It is put together ingeniously as a mosaic of recurring themes.
In Mr. Biswas one saw the comedy of the frenzied “little man” in a stagnant society. In the new novel the colonial volcano erupts and the “little man” becomes the mimic man of his title. We are indeed all “mimic men,” whether we are in London, New Jersey, Chile, and with a certain desperation and absurdity that link us with the inhabitants of the pathetic island of Isabella. We are simply not so exotic. That is to say in our precarious present, we appear to be mimicking some private and imagined projection of ourselves, some half-born ego. The book has a strong autobiographical note. We find young Ralph Singh in lodgings during a miserable, sunless London winter, living in the shabby Bohemianism which a boarding house of London has always had. He is a student and has a certain amount of money; a handsome, dandyish, swanking, yet sensitive young man who experiments in his personality and who has married a strong-minded English girl. He has not told his West Indian mother of his English marriage and he has evaded telling his wife that his mother does not know. The thing has been beyond him. So that when the couple arrive in Isabella there is consternation: the marriage is an instance of what the disabused Isabellan islanders called “whitey-pokey.” The English girl deals with the situation in a cheerfully ruthless way. She is working class and—to the astonishment of the disapproving relatives, indeed of all the islanders however poor—she makes no bones about talking of her early poverty. She is free now and pays no attention to the racial snobberies of the place. Ralph Singh lives with his wife in passive, admiring, but helpless wonder.
WE NOW GO BACK to Singh’s boyhood, his schooldays, his family situation. This is the most vivid and felt part of the novel. Singh’s father had married above him. A Hindu, he has married into the Bella Bella Bottling family, agents for Coca Cola. A toiling schoolteacher, really married to his bicycle, he has advanced into the Ministry of Education and written a life of the local missionary. This energetic, injured, and hysterical “little man” has a violent hatred of the financial and political and social implications of bottling Coca Cola. He is on the verge of some half-atavistic mimicry. There is an ominous incident. The son has a schoolboy row with his father about a cricket bat, a considerable status-symbol.
He [the father] went to his room and I heard him talking to himself. Late in the evening he went out. He stopped at the parlour at the corner for a soft drink. Something must have happened to irritate him, because without provocation he began to break the place up. It was a simple breaking at first, but soon my father began to concentrate on Coca Cola. He broke bottle after bottle, and, being continually armed with jagged Coca Cola necks, he terrified the poor shop keeper. He broke ninety six bottles in all, four full cases, breaking one bottle after another, methodically, as though he had been paid to do it; he didn’t just lift a Coca Cola case and smash it on the floor.
This episode gave him some prestige. He took the hint. He behaved afterward as if he had been hallowed by madness. He wandered about displaying his cuts and bandages:
He began to presume on the affections of people on the street. He, who, before, had kept himself to himself, now had no hesitation in asking a street idler to help him mend a bicycle puncture or dig the garden. It was astonishing how readily he got the help.
The growing lure of popular attention was to lead to a bizarre sense of personal dignity. He made heavy jokes. He philosophized about civilization. He talked about the history of India. He bought a small car which he drove recklessly.
“O God, Pa” one of my sisters cried “You knock that lady’s bucket out of her hand.”
The drives in the car showed Ralph Singh the confused faces of the island:
We went through purely mulatto villages where the people were a baked copper colour, much disfigured by disease. They had big light eyes and kinky red hair. My father described them as Spaniards. They were a small community, exceedingly poor, separate even in slave days and now inbred to degeneracy, yet still distinguished by an almost superstitious fear and hatred of full-blooded Africans and indeed of all who were not like themselves. They permitted no Negroes to settle among them; sometimes they even stoned Negro visitors. We drove through Carib areas where the people were more Negro than Carib. Ex-slaves, fleeing the plantations, had settled here and intermarried with the very people who, in the days of slavery their great tormentors, expert trackers of forest runaways, had by this intermarriage become their depressed serfs…. We drove through abandoned, blighted cocoa estates and my father showed us the beauty of cocoa trees. We came out into the Indian areas, the flat lands where rice and sugarcane grew. My father spoke of the voyage, so recent but already in our strange hemisphere so remote, which the fathers and indeed some of the people we saw had made from another continent, to complete our own little bastard world.
Suddenly, the elder Singh brought his family into disrepute by breaking the standoffish conventions of self-respect and mixing with everyone. He did worse. He left his family. He made a mad speech to some striking dockers, poured out the agonies of his personal life to them, and told them their salvation lay in leaving the city and retiring to the forest en masse to meditate. He had become a preacher. It was a religious revival. The crowd followed him. He put on the robes of a Hindu mendicant and preached a mixture of Christianity and Hinduism, revolt and despair. He changed his name to Gurudeva and sugar cane fields were burned and riots followed, Gurudeva become the leader of the poor. The son’s prestige grew in the school because the masters mocked him; the boy enjoyed the prestige but found it ominous and fatiguing. His secret desire was to get out of Isabella, away from its “tainted” imprisoning sea. He could see that political forces were likely to trap him.
What a school of boys and masters who had two minds! There was the private racial mind and the conventional one, somehow knocked together out of English and French memories. The incident of Hok and his mother indicates the pulse of unbearable sensibility that Mr. Naipaul is always able to discern. Hok had some Chinese in him and in class Singh and Hok went in for eating paper, whole pages at a time, went on to eating their ties and even their collars, to show their distinction from the rest of the class. But one day when the school was in procession in the street, a boy shouted to the master:
“Sir, Hok went past his mother just now and he didn’t say anything at all.”
“Is this true, Hok? Your mother boy!”
She was a Negro “woman of the people,” fat and waddling along, and had brushed past her son, on her way to the market, indifferent herself to the boy. Hok is forced to run after her and speak to her in front of the staring lads. He comes back, his purple face swollen, and crying.
It was for this betrayal into ordinariness that I knew he was crying. It was at this betrayal that the brave among us were tittering. It wasn’t only that the mother was black, though that was a point, it was that he had been expelled from that private hemisphere of fantasy where lay his true life.
Singh’s school days are made up of these torturing incidents. As the boys grew older fantasy became reckless and violent. Singh’s contemporary, the swaggering rich young relative from the Bella Bella works, had a diabolical gift for driving his friends to violence while he sadistically looked on. He plays about with guns. There is a savage incident in which he tries to get Singh and his illegitimate brother to murder each other, having made them drunk on rum on a lonely beach.
We now go back to Singh’s return from London with his wife. She is ambitious and so is he. He has the chance to become a property owner, and with inborn Indian cleverness soon becomes one of the richest young men on the island. He builds himself a luxurious house, gives wild parties, and has love affairs. His young English wife goes in for even bigger game than he. Into this the politics of independence comes, and Singh, though a divided man, is forced into leadership of the successful independence movement. We get an amazing and intimate picture of an ecstatic, muddled, jealous, intoxicating revolutionary caucus. Astonished and suddenly brazen figures become Ministers with large cars and bodyguards. A sort of mad, solemn, hard-drinking court is established at the house. The young live in a glare of money and sudden sophistication. This final part of the book is a brilliant description, though perhaps over-generalized in its tone, of a political mess. With zest an established order has been abolished, but without a future purpose.
We didn’t know whether we had created the movement or whether the movement was creating us…. We were, of course, to the left. We were socialist…. We stood for the dignity of distress. We stood for the dignity of our island, the dignity of our indignity…. We used borrowed phrases which were part of the escape from thought, from that reality we wanted people to see but could ourselves now scarcely face…. I am not sure that the wild men of our party did not speak more honestly than we did. They promised to abolish poverty in twelve months. They promised to abolish bicycle licenses. They promised to discipline the police. They promised intermarriage. They promised higher prices for sugar and copra and cocoa. They promised to negotiate the bauxite royalties and to nationalise every foreign estate. They promised to kick the whites into the sea and send the Asiatics back to Asia….they generated the frenzy of the street corner preacher who thrills his hearers with his vision of the unattainable rich world going up in a ball of fire. But what could we do? We were awed, I say. We were helpless with awe.
In their success, lay their disorder. And something else: an ex-colonial politico’s life is short. There are a dozen cliques pushing one another off, claiming their brief term of power and spoils. Singh himself is dished when his English wife leaves him for a richer. American and when he is accused of betraying the island at a London conference.
MR. NAIPAUL puts the island and the people on the page with a physical clarity, whether the scene is violent or serene. He is excellent on character. He is wracked by the tragedy and wryly notes how the grotesque breaks in at the unbearable moment. The island is both dream and reality; and to him, as for Singh, the searing irony is that in their struggle with the mimic-man nightmare, all they have succeeded in creating is a tourist spot in which the natives are now actors for the tourists who themselves are mimics of God knows what. Tourism has added the final touch of fraudulence. Singh’s wretchedness has gone beyond the suicidal. Even in his love affairs he may climb high, but he is outmatched either by the appetites of a white aristocrat or by the squalor of some pick-up in a London pub. We leave him, the most faithful resident, one of the old-timers, in an English South Coast hotel, alone at his table, affectionately yet distantly regarded, like an old retired Colonel of the ancien régime. He is writing this book in exile, identified to all appearance with the Residents Lounge, but unnourished by what keeps the Residents stolidly alive, as insensitive to others as they are to themselves.
It can be argued that a first-person singular such as Mr. Singh is too sweeping, too apt to be essayish and generalized, to be quite accountable all the time. Those love affairs, for example, seem either too easy, vague, and ideal when they succeed; too gross when they fail. One has no clear picture of his marriage or of the character of his English wife. Is the feeling excessively imagined and the circumstance—and how much of love is circumstance—so neglected as to make us feel that the writer has not made them happen, as he makes the rest of the book happen? But this apart, Mr. Naipaul’s book gets down to the entrails of a colonial agony and is as exciting as it is penetrating.
A Flag on the Island is a collection of shorter pieces. They have his mark. It contains a film script—I believe not used—by a company who saw the West Indies as the ideal spot for dishing out the usual barbecue of sex and violence. In other words, Mr. Naipaul without his mind.