Early in 1972, two corpses were found in graves dug in the garden of a house near Port of Spain, Trinidad. The house belonged to a hustler called Michael de Freitas, latterly known by his Black Muslim names, Michael X and Michael Abdul Malik. In London, where he spent a number of years, he had gained a reputation as a crook and as a threatener of whites and defender of the colored-immigrant population. One of the corpses was that of a local youth, the other that of an English girl, Gail Benson, who had come to the West Indies as the slavish lover of an American Negro, Hakim Jamal, “God” to his friends, who was eventually to be shot dead in Boston. It turned out that Gail Benson had been stabbed and buried alive. De Freitas was tried, with others, for the Trinidad killings. Kate Millet and William Kunstler went about the world protesting against the trial on the grounds that it was “political,” but very little attention was paid to them. In May this year, De Freitas was executed.
With these events in mind, V. S. Naipaul has written a novel. He is of Hindu stock, grew up amid the elaborate racial estrangements of Trinidad, and now lives in England. He is a writer of rare gifts, and among his gifts is a capacity to wound. He had previously written a journalistic piece about the killings, in which De Freitas figured as shabby and contemptible, and Gail Benson as a silly upper-class woman whose accessibility to the knife might almost have been construed as a last desperate act of Sixties modishness: an antic exported from Swinging London. In a second article on the killings, Naipaul’s wife Patricia used the word “antics” to characterize the behavior of the De Freitas set, which she firmly separated from the serious politics of the Caribbean.
I knew Gail Benson slightly when she was a schoolgirl, and remember a pretty moon face, big eyes, a freckled complexion deepening to russet, dark hair parted down the middle—a nut-brown maid and modern miss who must have wanted to be away from the French Lycée in South Kensington, shy, uneasy, wound-up. I was curious to see what Naipaul’s novel would make of her equivalent. Well, it can be said that he has not allowed his capacity for cruelty to wither on the bough. And yet the treatment of his characters is not exactly what that prefatory article of his might lead you to expect.
Guerrillas is set in an imaginary Caribbean country, whose capital city is by the sea. There are mountains nearby. Inland, a great plain. The landscape yields three centers of activity. First of all, outside the city, next to a growth of forest, there is Thrush-cross Grange. Named after the mansion in Wuthering Heights, this is a desolate agricultural commune run by Jimmy Ahmed, back from London, where he has been in some vague way a celebrity. He has extracted …