In Scorn and Pity


by V.S. Naipaul
Knopf, 248 pp., $7.95

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 land and money from business interests, but his revolutionary experiment has foundered from the start. Nathaniel Hawthorne spoke of the “phantasmagorical antics” he had played in describing the socialist community which appears in The Blithedale Romance: the antics played in the commune conceived by Ahmed could also be called phantasmagorical. A nut-brown man by South Kensington standards, he is light-skinned in the West Indies: he is a Chinese Negro, who thinks of himself as a hakwai Chinee—hakwai, he explains, being “Chinese for nigger”—and who has not failed to notice that Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff is rumored to be the Emperor of China. He is also a self-styled haji, or Muslim holy man. He has gathered about him a defecting company of slum boys, with one of whom, Bryant, of the distorted face, his hair done up in small Medusa pigtails, he sometimes makes love.

The polluted landscape, and the heat in which it languishes, are important to the novel. To drive out to the Grange is to experience the following:

The sea smelled of swamp; it barely rippled, had glitter rather than color; and the heat seemed trapped below the pink haze of bauxite dust from the bauxite loading station. After the market, where refrigerated trailers were unloading; after the rubbish dump burning in the remnant of mangrove swamp, with black carrion corbeaux squatting hunched on fence posts or hopping about on the ground; after the built-up hillsides; after the new housing estates, rows of unpainted boxes of concrete and corrugated iron already returning to the shanty-towns that had been knocked down for this development; after the naked children playing in the red dust of the straight new avenues, the clothes hanging like rags from back yard lines; after this, the land cleared a little. And it was possible to see over what the city had spread: on one side, the swamp, drying out to a great plain; on the other side, a chain of hills, rising directly from the plain.

The heat, and the drought, have set this country on fire. The hills smoke, mounds of rubbish smolder, the verges of the roads are charred. All this is felt to testify, not just to a general rankness and decay, but to a conflagration of another kind—to what will happen if the political and racial tensions of the island can no longer be contained. Gangs and guerrillas are talked of. Wealthy people are talking of escape from a Caribbean version of James Baldwin’s “the fire next time.”

A white woman named Jane has come here from London, drawn by the glamour of the Third World, supposing herself to have arrived where the action is, where the “doers” are. She is, as she acknowledges, “playing with fire.” For a while she believes that Peter Roche is a doer. Tortured by the regime in South Africa, Roche has written a book about it, and now, in the Caribbean, has joined the firm of Sablich’s as a welfare worker, whose job is to define and to publicize the firm’s good intentions toward the community. It does not take long, however, for Jane to become disillusioned. She “knew” that “she had come to a place at the end of the world,” a backwater where there was no action at all. She lives with Roche above the city in a “Californian” company house on the Ridge: this suburb, barricaded, fireproof perhaps, but lived in by prospective quitters of the country, supplies a further scene for the events of the novel. Every so often, wild disordered men, with matted hair and “unseeing red eyes,” are glimpsed “tramping along old paths, across gardens, between houses, and through what remained of woodland, like aborigines recognizing only an ancestral landscape and insisting on some ancient right of way.” One of them has taken up residence in a hut in Roche’s garden. When Jane has Roche inspect the hut, the wild man, with his black face and his pigtails, has gone, leaving behind him “only a vague warm smell of old clothes, dead animals, grease and marijuana.” Perhaps he will be back—next time.

The novel’s third scene or zone is the city itself. The automobile has turned the city inside out, ranging new communities around the periphery and letting the center rot: not far from the center is an old slum district where the gangs operate. They are a reality, whereas the guerrillas are only a dream—phantasmagorical. But they are a reality which Naipaul treats in a somewhat specialized way, so that they, too, can at times seem phantasmagorical. Everywhere, transistors give off the Reggae beat, making the place a party that never stops, and that might catch fire.

A sense of mystery and futility is imparted by events at the Grange and on the Ridge, and that sense is heightened by what takes place in the city when the party catches fire and rioting breaks out. Politicians rush to the airport with their loot. Then American military helicopters drift about the sky: a show of strength which is meant to secure American interests on the island, to make it safe for the bauxite investment. Ahmed does not lead this revolution. No one does. It is not a revolution. It is a mystery. A journalist politician, Meredith Herbert, is made a Minister—perhaps in order that he should be damaged by having to deal with the people on the streets; he is, perhaps, physically beaten up. His role in relation to the disturbances is never really clarified, nor is that of Stephens, an intelligent boy who deserts the Grange, is in touch with the gangs, and is murdered. The gangs exist as intimations of a power which cancels Ahmed’s claim to be a revolutionary leader. That power is located in the slums, in the kinship and solidarity which prevail there, in sanctions which welfare workers will not be able to comprehend.

The angle from which the riots are studied makes them appear distant and unimportant, while also worrying. The same angle was conspicuous in the title story of Naipaul’s previous book, In a Free State, where a coup in a new African country was studied, as it were, out of the corner of an eye, and it also occurs elsewhere in his work. The vision in question can seem like that expressed in the Auden poem in which the fall of Icarus is scarcely apparent, or important, to bystanders who have their own lives to lead. By Naipaul’s “bystanders,” the riots are seen as through a glass darkly, the glass usually consisting of the picture windows which embellish the company houses of the Ridge.

On these occasions, his eye discerns a kind of visibility in “an area of darkness”: this, in fact, is the title of a book which records his “experience of India.” Enthusiasts for explanation might want to explain that Naipaul’s areas of darkness tend to obscure and diminish what deserves to be understood and esteemed, and that, for him, there are important countries and unimportant countries, and that the coups and riots of the latter are infinitely diminishable. Here, he surrounds the politics of his imaginary country with darkness, distinguishes between its politics and what might be seen as the antics of bystanders, and concentrates on these bystanders. At the same time, the reader can be made to feel that, on closer inspection, the country’s politics might prove to be antics too.

Naipaul may in consequence be charged with trying to diminish both the Michael X murders and the politics of the Caribbean. It can be said in his favor that the Michael X set, whose behavior received more attention from the British press than did the recent State of Emergency in Trinidad, seemed very like a fraud and a circus, and that these people had no deep connection with the politics of Trinidad. In that last respect, however, they were like practically everyone else on the island, which may in itself be a reason why we should not be quick to decide that their behavior lacked political significance, and consisted of antics.

Guerrillas, then, is shaped in order to accommodate its three zones, and in accordance with a distinction between the political and the phantasmagorical, though there are moments when phantasmagoria, futility, threatens to envelop the island—Grange, Ridge, gangs, government, politics, and all. It is shaped, besides, in accordance with a dramatic momentum which reaches successive peaks with the two sexual encounters between Jane and Jimmy Ahmed. The encounters are separated by the riots, and the second is followed by Jane’s death.

Jane is a disgruntled, mean, and worldly woman who presents herself as the victim of the men she sets out to attract and soon sees through and rejects. For all her action-seeking, caring cosmopolitanism, she is imperial-insular in outlook, and soon sees through the Third World. When she goes to bed with Ahmed, it is a fiasco. He looks at her in fear: “the cleft was like a dumb, stupid mouth.” Her kiss is hard and wild; it goes with her “screaming” eyes. The later encounter is prefaced by advice from Jimmy, whose leadership pretensions are by now in ashes: “Be calm. You’re too greedy. You give yourself away when you kiss like that. A woman’s whole life is in her kiss.” Whereupon he calmly buggers her. In Argentina, according to Naipaul’s journalism, such an act belongs to the fantasies of machismo: here, at the end of the world, and of Ahmed’s tether, it bears the mark of defeat. Sodomy is then compounded by a somnambulistic, almost involuntary murder, in which Bryant deals the blows.

The novel breathes a certain animus against Jane. In contrast, the portrait of Ahmed has none of the disdain which could be observed in the writer’s article about Michael X. Ahmed’s bluffs are called, but they are understood, and carefully related to his earlier life on the island. His words about kissing are worth hearing. The air-mail letters which he exchanges with his liberal friends in England tell a worse story of them than they do of him, and hark back in fine style to that golden time when such friends used to kneel in London mosques with Michael X and other celebrities, squinting up at the Heavyweight Champion of the World’s effulgent arse. Jane is unlikely to earn much sympathy by virtue of the attention given to the environment which produced her dabbling in eventfulness and her poor kiss, and yet the two environments have more in common than would once have been thought possible. It is a quite Caribbean Britain that has made her: a Britain at the end of the world which it used to rule.

Ahmed’s revulsion from Jane sometimes seems to be shared by the writer. It is possible to think that this plebeian has been lent some part of Naipaul’s aristocratic fastidiousness, some part of his hostility, while also suffering the consequences of an exposure to these qualities, and to recall that both Ahmed and the author of An Area of Darkness are preoccupied by the hanks of human shit that litter certain landscapes. Ahmed’s revenge is too bad to be condemned by the writer, who condemns his taste in furniture, and who condemns Jane. She is sexually punished or insulted by Ahmed in a manner that might suggest the behavior of a light-skinned man rather than a dark, and we are told that he is hardly more a black than he is a Muslim. It is as if he were both black and white: just as he is both a reason for punishing her and the person who punishes. Perhaps this is another area of darkness. Real or imaginary, the tragedies of miscegenation have never been simple—ever since Othello did what he had to do to Desdemona.

Naipaul’s Caribbean country has been looted and exploited in the past, and it is still being looted and exploited. Together with its stultifying racial enmities, this seems to have brought it to a halt, and placed it beyond history. The behavior of Naipaul’s hustler-hero, his greedy white woman, his pseudo-guerrillas and mysterious gangs, his grafting emergent politicians with their State of Emergency, can be divided into the phantasma-gorical and the political. But these dimensions, as I have said, often appear to coincide. His leading characters are seen to be, in some sense, petty and peripheral: but peripheral to what? To standards of conduct attained in other countries, metropolitan standards, or to something on the island? The island’s public affairs and significant politics can occasionally be seen, out of the corner of an eye, to be no less invaded by contingency and incomprehensibility and futility than the life and times of Jimmy Ahmed, to have the status of rumor, to be little more than a remote and indecipherable response to a random outbreak of violence. There may be readers who will object that the novel makes a mystique of darkness and futility in the course of saying that the whole island is peripheral, arrested. This is a possibility to which an admirer of the novel keeps having to revert.

Times have changed since V. S. Naipaul began to write about the societies of the Caribbean: these are now less apt to seem, to the outsider, petty and remote. His early comedies might have been taken to represent an unheard-of civility from the back of beyond. Then, in 1961, came A House for Mr. Biswas: a huge, rich, spacious novel of emergence, of emergence from backwardness, indeed from slavery, an emergence which is invested with irony. Since then, he has written, among other things, The Mimic Men: while relatively unsuccessful, this is the novel which most resembles the new one, and it undoubtedly “diminishes” the politics of emergent countries by raising doubts about the character of their independence and the motives of their leaders. During these last fifteen years, however, the West may be thought to have let him down by declining, diminishing, to the condition of the West Indies: by becoming a backwater, with its Watergate and Ulster, its economic arrests and somnambulistic states of emergency. Naipaul’s readers may now be led to ask why it is that his novels seem to say that there is nothing to be done in, or with, the countries of their concern. What are other countries doing?

Naipaul has long been a reader of Conrad, and Guerrillas can make you think of Nostromo. The geographies are very similar. Conrad’s novel is about a fire-prone seaside South American republic, with foreign investors and their concessions: its silver may be weighed against Naipaul’s bauxite. And what could be described as the characteristic Conrad cry of “Inconceivable!” may be weighed against Naipaul’s insistence upon areas of darkness. Compared with what we find in Naipaul’s novel, however, Conrad’s Costaguana is a country of the mind: it has the air of having been built to accommodate his meanings, including his inconceivables and unfathomables. What we find in Guerrillas is a narrative of unfailing fascination which delivers to the senses of the reader a country very like the countries he knows in the real world: equally, his experience of that country is very like his experience of Naipaul’s India, in being rarely subdued by an awareness of the writer’s meanings. It is characteristic of the novel that climate and vegetation should count for no less than its comedy of manners, in which the Jewish businessman Harry de Tunja plays an exquisite part, and that neither of these two elements, in so far as they can be distinguished from the rest of the novel, should count for less than the opinions which they help to convey.

I have spent too long on the difficulties raised by the book, and I have not done justice to it. It is a very different work from Biswas. It is brief and fast: it moves to the rhythms of a single drama, and the pace is perfectly judged. Either book could be considered the masterpiece of someone whom I think of as the best novelist now writing in England. It might appear that the whole life of the new novel is in its sting, but there is more to it than sting. Conrad said of The Secret Agent, another book about revolutionaries, cranks, crooks, somnambulists, peripherals, and phantasmagoricals, that it was written “in scorn as well as in pity,” and the same could be said of Guerrillas. The scorn, which causes the difficulties I have been discussing, seems to thrust the characters into an outer darkness, but there is a pity which fetches them back—into an area inhabited by the reader of the book, and by the writer of the book.

This does not mean that the novel sets its author among the characters he is imagining: Guerrillas will not be praised for embodying one or other of the more time-honored “experimental” approaches, nor will it signal to struc-turalists. In England, the criticism of fiction may occasionally apply itself to fashionable theories, but it has lost the power of recognition. It is a sure sign of its defeated state that Naipaul’s novel has been received as nothing extraordinary.