The Middle Passage
by V.S. Naipaul
Macmillan, 232 pp., $5.00
I had been travelling around for nearly seven months. I was getting tired. In Jamaica my diary entries grew shorter and shorter… There was nothing new to record. Every day I saw the same things—unemployment, ugliness, over-population, race—every day I heard the same circular arguments.
The Middle Passage is a book essentially about that perennial conjunction of historical misconduct with present and intrinsic human weakness: the colonial legacy. Mr. V. S. Naipaul describes and explains with controlled, one might say tolerant, despair the spiritual chaos and material shortcomings of modern life in some post-slaveholding societies. In form, the book is the account of what must have been on the whole a rather depressing Caribbean journey: Trinidad revisited, where the author, himself of Hindu descent, was born and bred; British Guiana, Surinam, Jamaica, Martinique. The Middle Passage is a travel book. If writing is inseparable from the writer’s quality of mind, travel writing is inseparable also from his tastes, his idiosyncrasies, his general temperament—it is what happens to him when confronted by a column, a bird, a sage, a cheat, a riot; wine, fruit, dirt; the delay in the dust, the failing aeroplane. Mr. Naipaul is a novelist (The House of Mr. Biswas); he is—undoubtedly—a good writer. His values are sane, his reactions kind; when he is repelled, as he often has cause to be, his weapons are ironical exposition and resigned analysis; in fact, he is very civilized. He writes well; he can be wonderfully visual; he has a nice sense of comedy which is at ease with the odd characters he meets on boats and trains, and he is brilliant nailing down cat’s-cradle conversations. He is not, on the evidence of this book, an inveterate traveler. As he puts it himself, “Traveling is often glamorous only in retrospect and at times would be insupportable without the many kindnesses encountered on the way.” True enough. But that exact sentence could not have been written by Norman Douglas or Patrick Leigh-Fermor; D. H. Lawrence (to whose travel writings Mr. Naipaul’s have also been compared) would not have so acknowledged the kindnesses encountered; and all three impart to their traveling a sense of vigor, discovery, pleasure, significance, sheer life, while V. S. Naipaul’s gently stoic progress hardly becomes lustrous even in retrospect. They are infectious travelers, he is not. He is adult though young, a little detached, fair and sad. He does not enjoy himself. He smokes too much and takes a little whiskey, mainly, one feels, to soothe his nerves; there is no fun in it. The reader is not exhilarated into longing to have been there; he is perfectly content to find himself at home reading such an intelligent book about it all.
The opening part, the voyage out, is full of pace and color, a joy to read and promising great things. The author arrives at Trinidad, Port of Spain, the noisiest city in the world, ablaze with neons, throbbing with a “slightly flawed modernity,”
…as soon as anyone starts to talk the radio is turned on. It must be loud, loud. If there are more than three, dancing will begin. Sweat-sweat-dance-dance-sweat. Loud, loud, louder. If the radio isn’t powerful enough, a passing steel band will be invited in. Jump-jump-sweat-sweat-jump.
Fear besets him, the fear of return. For years in England, falling asleep with the electric fire on, he used to be awakened by the nightmare that he was back in tropical Trinidad, back in the picaroon immigrant society with its ebullience and irresponsibility and tolerance, the tolerance “which is more than tolerance—an indifference to virtue as well as vice,” with its taste for corruption and violence, its lack of respect for the person, its brutality: where people watching Belsen camp scenes at the cinema “will roar with derisive laughter,” and the popular calypso sings The old-time Cat-o’-nine!, where contempt for the public lingers on in political administration, and “the public, obliged to beg favors, continues to hold authority in dread and contempt.”
…the most successful people were commission agents, bank managers and members of the distributive trades. Power was recognized, but dignity was allowed to no one. Every person of eminence was held to be crooked and contemptible …generosity—the admiration of equal for equal—was therefore unknown: it was a quality I only knew from books and found only in England…
There is the old West Indian craving for the new, the up-to-date, the imported. Trollope noted it in 1829: “They will give you ox-tail soup when turtle would be much cheaper…. When yams, avocado pears, the mountain cabbage, plantains, and twenty other delicious vegetables may be had for the gathering, people will insist on eating bad English potatoes.” Today it is not so much a matter of bad English potatoes as of mass-produced and magazine-advertised food, whiskey against local rum, Nescafé and Maxwell House against—excellent—home-grown coffee which is only touched by middle-class expatriates and the very poor.
Modernity, then, turns out to be the extreme susceptibility of people who are unsure of themselves and, having no taste or style of their own, are eager for instruction…in Trinidad instruction is now provided by advertising agencies…welcomed by the people…because the advertising agency is itself a modern thing…If curiosity is a characteristic of the cosmopolitan, the cosmopolitanism on which Trinidad prides itself is fraudulent. In the immigrant colonial society…subjected for years to the second-rate in newspapers, radio and cinema, minds are tightly closed and Trinidadians of all races and classes are remaking themselves in the image of the Hollywood B-man.
Political immaturity, destructive, aping modernity, wherever Mr. Naipaul went, in British Guiana, in Surinam, Jamaica, he was confronted by these and other elements of the colonial legacy: poverty, racial conflict, rootlessness. Here are some of his analyses. The prejudices of race which he found in nearly every West Indian were in his view generated by self-contempt, and self-contempt had first been taught by the missionaries:
It is the basis of the faith of the heathen convert: And in these…territories, Christianity must be regarded as part of the colonial conditioning. It was the religion of the slave-owners and at first an exclusive racial faith. It bestowed righteousness on its possessors. It enabled the Dutch in Guiana to divide their (colored) population into Christians and Negroes…
And from this division, this fostering of competing sectional interests, derived an absence of community sense, an absence of pride and ultimately cynicism. There is, for instance,
…little concern about the West Indian emigration to Britain. It was a lower-class thing: it was a black thing;…at another level, it was regarded with malicious pleasure as a means of embarrassing the British people, a form of revenge: and in this pleasure there was no thought for the emigrants or the dignity of the nation about which so much was being said and which was said to be “emergent.”
And Mr. Naipaul has this to say about the state of political judgment in British Guiana:
Wherever ministers go they are met with trivial complaints…surrounded by people who have favors to ask. That the government is elected does not matter, the people require it to be as paternalistic as before, if a little more benevolently; and a popular government must respond. “The people” have learnt their power, and the sensation is still so new that every new voter regards himself as a pressure group. In this way the people…beg. bribe and bully because this is the way they got things in the past…in this way the people are a threat to responsible government and a threat, finally, to their own leaders….
And this on the menace of the “protest” leader as contrasted with the “creative” leader in post-colonial societies:
For the uneducated masses, quick to respond to racial stirrings and childishly pleased with destructive gestures, the protest leader will always be a hero. The West Indies will never have a shortage of such leaders, and the danger of mob rule and authoritarianism will never cease to be real. The paternalism of colonial rule will have been replaced by the jungle politics of rewards and revenge, the text-book condition for chaos.
And a last note. While in Surinam Mr. Naipaul had gone in search of a legend: He wanted to see the Lazy Negroes of Coronie, the idlest people in the colony, who, when slavery was abolished and the planters abandoned their land, settled down to a remote, detached existence, chasing out all newcomers of other races whose energy might disturb their calm. He found no idyll. He found flatness, mosquitos, neglect, a few coconuts, children in the mud, an old man pleased to see a visitor.
A derelict man in a derelict land…lost in a landscape which had never ceased to be unreal because the the scene of an enforced and always temporary residence: the slaves kidnapped from one continent and abandoned on the unprofitable plantations of another, from which there could never more be escape. I was glad to leave Coronie, for, more than lazy Negroes, it held the full desolation that came to those who made the middle passage.