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Finding the Center: Two Narratives

by V.S. Naipaul
Knopf, 176 pp., $13.95

Getting to Know the General: The Story of an Involvement

by Graham Greene
Simon and Schuster, 192 pp., $14.95

…the anthropologist must get up at first light and remain alert until the last of the natives has gone to sleep (even then he sometimes has to watch over their slumber). He must try to pass unnoticed, and yet always be at hand. He must see everything, remember everything, take note of everything. He must be ready to make the most of a humiliating indiscretion, to go to some snottynosed urchin and beg for information, and keep himself ever in readiness to profit by a moment of complaisance or free-and-easiness…. he hangs about endlessly, marks time, turns aimlessly round and round, rereading his old notes, making a fair copy of them, attempting an “interpretation.” Or else he sets himself some pointless and minutely detailed task, a caricature of his professional activity; measuring, for instance, the distance between one fire-site and the next, or counting, one by one, the branches which make up the now deserted shelters. It is, above all, a time of self-interrogation. Why did he come to such a place? With what hopes? And to what end?

—Claude Lévi-Strauss
Tristes Tropiques

The amount of time writers spend measuring fire sites and hanging about with snotty-nosed urchins is an aspect of the literary life increasingly obscured. Writers themselves tend to be made uneasy by any suggestion of fieldwork, and to discourage the drawing of parallels between, say, their travel and their work; the direct connection carries the stigma of “research,” of “working something up,” and seems to imply not only a failure of the imagination but a certain mingy opportunism. Outside the life the process is misapprehended altogether: it is generally understood that writers “write what they know,” or “write from experience,” but this “experience” is construed as discrete, finished, a fullblown narrative presenting itself to be typed. In this view the process takes place exclusively in the act of placing the words on the page: the writer has a “past,” and he writes about it well or badly, the writer has a “story,” and, with what may seem to the reader admirable directness or needless complication, he tells it.

That the heart of the process lies not in the simple telling of the story but in its very discovery is what V.S. Naipaul tells us in the two long pieces, one an apparent fragment of autobiography, the other an account of a trip to the Ivory Coast, that make up Finding the Center. The two pieces were written, one after the other, between July of 1982 and July of 1983. “They are offered as a book principally for that reason,” Naipaul notes in the foreword to Finding the Center, “and also because, over and above their story content, both pieces are about the process of writing. Both pieces seek in different ways to admit the reader to that process.”

The process described is as familiar to the writer as breathing, and begins, typically, with a fleeting and inchoate impulse, entertained and immediately set aside. In the instance of the autobiographical piece, “Prologue to an Autobiography,” Naipaul can recall precisely the moment when the impulse to write something about his “literary beginnings” took hold: “early one morning in 1967 in a second-class Bombay hotel.” For a poet, he allows, the moment might have produced a poem. “To a prose writer, though, the impulse by itself was nothing. It needed a story, and I could think of none for some years.”

In 1972, on a visit to his mother in Trinidad, he learned for the first time about an incident in which his father’s literary ambitions—so inextricably bound up not only with his own but with a more radical ambition, that of entering the world beyond Trinidad—had come into conflict with the traditional culture of the family, and the family had prevailed. In this paradigmatic incident, which had to do with his father’s public humiliation at being forced to perform a sacrificial ritual, Naipaul believed that he had found what writers variously call the thread, the line, the frame, the structure, the movement, the thing that carries it through, the something to hang it on. He began to write, and, after three months, stopped: “…my narrative ran into the sands. It had no center. I hadn’t found the story that would do the narrative binding—gather together all the strands of my background—and achieve the particular truth I had in mind.”

The project was set aside. In 1977, with no apparent thought of this abandoned autobiographical piece, Naipaul paid a visit in Venezuela to the man who had inspired his first work of fiction, a story written when he was twenty-two and alone in London and only marginally employed. “I was moved,” Naipaul tells us about this 1977 encounter in Venezuela, “but the note I wanted to make about the visit refused to be written. I didn’t get to the end of the first sentence.” That this visit might provide the frame for the piece he wanted to write seems not to have occurred to him for another four years. “In 1981, under the goading of an American editor, Richard Locke,…the Venezuelan experience came back to me, and I saw it as the center of the narrative I had set aside more than eight years before. I saw—and, after all the thought, it seemed so obvious—that an account of my literary beginnings could begin, quite directly, with the writing of my first story….” It seemed so obvious. After the fact it always does, which is why those who do not write have so little patience with the evasions and equivocations and tricks and talismans of those who do.

No wonder writers travel: the place one does not know remains the classic exercise in finding the center. Why did you come, what do you expect to find, someone always asks the traveler. Did you come with a preexisting idea. The answer is always no, I don’t know, je ne sais pas, yo no se. Any pretext will do, any free ticket; in this sense the USIA has made a more significant contribution to American letters than the National Endowment ever could. The impulse that led Graham Greene to accept an invitation from General Omar Torrijos to come to Panama in 1976, the first of the visits described in Getting to Know the General, was amorphous: “a certain sense of adventure,” heightened by an apprehension that “fun is hard to come by in old age.” The impulse that took Naipaul to the Ivory Coast for the visit that resulted in “The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro,” the second and longer of the two pieces in Finding the Center, was less offhand but still general: “I wanted to be in West Africa, where I had never been; I wanted to be in a former French territory in Africa; and I wanted to be in an African country which, in the mess of black Africa, was generally held to be a political and economic success. African success, France in Africa—those were the glamorous ideas that took me out.”

Adventure in Panama, France in West Africa: both are glamorous and neither matters, for the only real “preexisting idea” for the literary traveler is to do it, to assign oneself the task, to set down for a finite period on unfamiliar ground and know that one must find the narrative, make sense of the place, interest oneself and someone else, get it fast and get it right. The point of the thing, the very edge of the exercise, lies in overcoming what Naipaul calls “the blankness and anxiety of arrival,” those first hours in the hotel when the traveler wonders what brought him to this place, that first day when telephone calls go unreturned and airline schedules are surreptitiously studied for plausible ways out.

No notes get taken in this mood. A reconnaissance of the neighborhood offers nothing. Dinner plans fail to materialize. “As it was only breakfast time in Panama and I had already lunched on the plane, I tried to sleep,” Greene says of his first empty hours in Panama. “Diederich [Bernard Diederich of Time, an acquaintance from Haiti and the Dominican Republic], I had been informed at the airport, was due back from Mexico at one…. The chauffeur came promptly back at two-thirty, but still there was no Diederich…. At three-thirty I went downstairs and ordered what I thought to be a rum punch under a slowly revolving fan, but there was no alcohol in it at all…. At four o’clock there was still no Diederich….” His room seemed oppressively large, and he paced it off: sixty feet. He had forty years before, on twenty Berlitz lessons, learned enough Spanish to get around Mexico in the present tense: all gone.

I was always wound up,” Naipaul tells us about this kind of travel. “Always, at the beginning, there was the possibility of failure—of not finding anything, not getting started on the chain of accidents and encounters.” The call to the embassy must be made. The most casual encounter—the clerk who has a cousin at the defense ministry, the acquaintance of an acquaintance with connections at the university—must be encouraged, cultivated, followed up. The inconclusive interview must be made to yield a larger point, the missed connection turned to advantage. In Getting to Know the General, Greene fails to see certain local sights, is advised that he can see them “on the way back,” and a novel, called just that, springs to mind:

Captain Wong, the miraculous Christ, the Haunted House, all were promised on the way back…. In my book the projected return would never be fulfilled—there would be no going back for my chief character…with On the Way Back everything seemed possible: my writing days, I thought, were not over after all. The main elements of the story and the characters were already assembling—the dangerous situation between Panama and the United States; Chuchu [the guardia who was Greene’s companion] himself; the bomb in his car; the expression he had used in the motel—“A revolver is no defense”; his proof of the Devil’s existence; the Dean of Guatemala University and the fourteen homosexuals; impressions were clustering….

What interests a writer like Greene or Naipaul is only rarely what interests, in the same situation, a reporter. For one thing, whether the project at hand is fiction or reportage, the novelist’s interest in the situation wanes at that precise point when the reporter begins to consider himself competent: when the place is understood, when it begins to come clear, when the remarkable becomes common-place and the course of a day can be predicted. “I had stayed too long, so that I took too much for granted,” Greene observed, in In Search of a Character, of the wartime years he had spent in Freetown and the difficulty he had, five years later, bringing the place sufficiently alive to write The Heart of the Matter. “When my curiosity has been satisfied, when there are no more surprises,” Naipaul says in Finding the Center, “the intellectual adventure is over and I become anxious to leave.”

There could scarcely be two travelers more at odds than Greene and Naipaul, the one proceeding from an Edwardian sense of his place in England and of England’s place in the world, a perspective that lends his view of Central American politics an imperial geniality; the other moving through the world with the wary eye of a displaced colonial. All they share is this writer’s instinct for the possibilities in the apparently peripheral, this professional thrift. In “The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro” Naipaul gets a dozen pages and the exact sense of Abidjan from a negotiation and subsequent misunderstanding with an Ivorian guide. A professor he wants to see turns out to be lecturing in the United States, and Naipaul salvages the moment by taking the professor’s secretary to lunch (five pages on this alone), and interviewing her. “I don’t force anything,” he observes of this method. “There is no spokesman I have to see, no one I absolutely must interview. The kind of understanding I am looking for comes best through people I get to like.” An item in the newspaper about mysterious fires at a village known as Kilometre 17 provides one thread of his narrative; a perfunctory suggestion that he visit the president’s ancestral village of Yamoussoukro provides another. “These projects began to mature and come together,” he notes. “My days became full and varied. After the random impressions and semiofficial meetings and courtesies of the first days, I began to discover themes and people. I began to live my little novel.”

It is in fact Naipaul’s “little novel”—by which he means not fiction at all but the narrative of travel itself, the “moving from not knowing to knowing”—that provides the frame for “The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro,” which has to do with the author’s changing focus on the people he met and got to like; his constant turning and reinterpretation of their chance remarks; his gradual realization that the African night world—the world of the totemic crocodiles and the mysterious fires, the world in which time and space did not apply and one could appear simultaneously in Abidjan and Paris—existed for many of these people not as a metaphor but as a literal reality; that a woman who worked at the university and had lived in France and could be exacting and fussy, even petit français, about the service of the Camembert could also believe, quite matter-of-factly, that the electrification of Abidjan had interfered with the powers of the night.

In Yamoussoukro Naipaul had seen the golf course and the swimming pool and the glossy French brochures of the Hotel President (“Find the traces of the native village of President Houphouët-Boigny,” the brochures read, “and discover the ultra-modern prefiguration of the Africa of tomorrow”), and he had also seen the crocodiles, to which a ritual live offering—in this instance only a chicken, but there had been talk in Abidjan of other rituals, other sacrifices—was made each afternoon at five. In Abidjan he had heard about cocoa prices and coffee prices and oil exploration and he had also heard about Africans who were in touch with the star Sirius, and about one African who had saved himself from a whipping by converting himself into pure energy. “It was a story that might have come from a Caribbean slave plantation two hundred years before. White men, creatures of the day, were phantoms, with absurd, illusory goals. Power, earth magic, was African and enduring; triumph was African. But only Africans knew.”

There was for Naipaul something profoundly unsettling in this: what the European might have interpreted—what Naipaul himself might have interpreted—as a mythology of power invented by people who had no power, the illusion of triumph as an accommodation to slavery, persisted here on the west coast of Africa among people who were no longer powerless, people who had moved out of their colonial period into an approximate social miracle and who seemed to be living without noticeable cost in both the tribal and modern worlds. It was impossible to discount the presence of the modern; it was equally impossible to ignore the presence of the magical. What could be seen and heard in Abidjan and Yamoussoukro was, Naipaul seemed finally to suggest, something that could be described but not finally interpreted, not judged, and this was for him a different way of looking, a narrative in itself.

It seemed so obvious. The first time Naipaul heard of Yamoussoukro it was as an example of progress, a place in the interior now miraculously accessible by autoroute; the crocodiles were mentioned only later. That it is never obvious at all is what Greene finally tells us: during the years he spent visiting the general and retreating to Antibes he made many notes for his Panama novel, wrote the opening pages (“He was tall and lean and he would have had an air of almost over-powering distinction if his grey hair had not been quite so well waved over his ears…”), decided against that opening and wrote another, located an epigraph in Heart of Darkness (“It seems I am trying to tell you a dream,” was how the Conrad passage began), decided that the setting should be not Panama but an imaginary country based as well on Nicaragua and Belize; wrote several chapters and rewrote those, worried them, reconceived them, and, finally, abandoned them. Instead he wrote Getting to Know the General. What writers do is go with what they have, find the story in the breakage, even when they are eighty years old and have already measured the available fire sites.

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