Finding the Center: Two Narratives
Getting to Know the General: The Story of an Involvement
…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?
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 …