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Looking for the Center

In a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, a medical student leaves Buenos Aires for the pampas. There he stays with a family of peasants. The peasants are ignorant people, with no knowledge of their own history. Instead of conversation, which is difficult, the man from the city reads them the Gospel according to Saint Mark. He is not a religious man—though he habitually says his prayers, the way his mother taught him as a child—but there happens to be a Bible at hand, left behind by the Scottish pioneers, from whom the peasants, unknown to themselves, are partly descended. The Gospel, to the young man from the capital, is but a story. It keeps him amused. But it appears to cast a spell on his hosts.

The peasants, who were indifferent to the city dweller at first, begin to pay him more respect. They ask him to read the Gospel again and again. They follow him around, pick up his crumbs from the table, and speak of him in hushed voices. They ask him whether the death of Jesus saved all other men on earth, even the Roman soldiers who nailed him to the cross. The medical student, whose knowledge of theology is shaky, tells them that it did. The peasants ask his blessing. Then they spit at him and mock him and take him to the back of the house, where they had lowered the roof beams in the crude shape of a cross.

It is a curiously Naipaulian story. This is not because of the language, or the style, which are unmistakably those of Borges. No, the similarity lies in the theme, which might be described as Naipaul’s main theme in reverse. Borges the urban man of letters from Buenos Aires, that most European of capital cities, is fascinated, like Conrad, by the collapse of civilization when stories become, in the minds of primitive men, myths to be taken literally. Among the peasants, ritual regains its magic, wholeness is achieved, but at the price of human sacrifice.

Naipaul, the man from Trinidad, where, as he often tells us, history is dark and vague, where few things are made, where ambitions run into the sand, is interested in men who want to escape from Fate. Fate belongs to a world of magic and myths and ritual, a world with a past but without history. Naipaul’s heroes don’t always succeed in stripping rituals of their magic; their quest for freedom is sometimes pathetic, confused, even hopeless, but at least they put up a fight.

Take Salim, for example, the Indian in an African country, in A Bend in the River. To him a break for freedom, away from family, community, the ritual life, was not just desirable, it was his only way to survive, with pride, with a history. As an individual, his wish was “not to be good, in the way of our tradition, but to make good.” This was given greater urgency by the precariousness of his community itself, a community brought to Africa by “one tide of history—forgotten by us, living only in books by Europeans that I was yet to read,…” and about to be swept away by another, that of black African nationalism. The real danger, then, to both Salim and his people, was to disappear without a trace. To leave no history is to be extinct.

One has the impression, from many of his books, that Naipaul is rather like Salim. He has written of his own fear of extinction and his desire to leave traces, in words. Very often, of course, Naipaul is his own main character. His personal story, or parts of it that matter to his theme, is repeated over and over. How he escaped from Trinidad by going to England on a scholarship; how he first became a writer; how he traced the darkness of his ancestral stories in the darkness of India; how he wrote a history of Trinidad; how he came to terms with change and death. Naipaul’s writing, his stories—or perhaps one should say his story—are his way of making sense of his life, of trying to find order in his world, of “looking for the center.”

V.S. Naipaul is a writer. His writing is, as he often says, a vocation. Words, stories, not only provide meaning and understanding, but as he writes of his father, who was a journalist, the word offers protection; protection from chaos, from oblivion, from darkness and humiliation.

Vocation has a religious ring. It is a word one associates with the clergy. Naipaul’s intense seriousness about being a writer might suggest that he shares Carlyle’s idea of writers as a kind of secular clergy, as prophets and moral teachers, elevated by their vocation high above other men. Perhaps he does believe this, but if so, I don’t think he believes, as Carlyle did, that writers have a duty to chart our common destiny in a political or moral sense. My impression from Naipaul’s writing is something rather different: his message, if one can call it that, is that writers have a duty toward themselves, to chart and thus find meaning in their own lives.

It is a common complaint among writers and intellectuals in liberal, capitalist countries, that their works have become commodities on the market place, as though books were another brand of soap suds. This has even led to a degree of envy among writers in the West of colleagues living under authoritarian regimes, especially Communist ones; there, at least, despite the harassment of censors and commissars (or perhaps because of it), a writer’s word carried weight; there, literature still had a deep meaning; there, the writer was still a prophet of a kind. This idea, it seems to me, is radically different from Naipaul’s approach to literature. Naipaul does not pretend to tell us how to live, or think, or vote; his work contains politics, but no political messages.

If Naipaul is a moralist, his moral is a general one, that man must be “a doer,” must have ambition, must “throw himself consciously into the bigger, harder world” (A Bend in the River). It is the refusal to do this that irritates him. He has expressed his annoyance, or stronger, his “colonial rage” at both people and the societies they live in: the inertia and pointless chaos of India, the self-serving delusions of Islamic fundamentalists. But he has also written with empathy about Indians and others who have revolted against the magic spells of ritual and the spiritual lassitude of dead tradition and become doers—doers who do dangerous and destructive things; perhaps, but doers nonetheless. These people are no longer enslaved by myths; they are people with stories, histories.

These stories are secular and Naipaul is a writer, not a prophet or a pseudo-priest. Yet the religious connotation of what he calls his vocation is not entirely spurious. The story of Naipaul’s father, a journalist, and the model for Mr. Biswas, has a faint religious echo. Naipaul tells the story several times, in different books, as if he were holding up the same events to different shades of light. In A House for Mr. Biswas, he gives a fictional account of a man who was educated to be a pundit for his small community in Trinidad, but who failed at this calling, and then learned the craft of journalism. This gave him a sense of accomplishment and pride, which, in the end, he is unable to sustain. He loses his job. His vocation has come and gone without being fulfilled.

Mr. Biswas, the failed pundit, is not a wholly admirable character. He is prone to fits of lethargy, falling back on the strength of others, expressing his humiliation in cantankerous behavior. But his colonial rage, his yearning for more, for a house, for a story, cannot be suppressed. He keeps on fighting the abject embrace of his wife’s family. He acquires houses, rickety, unsatisfactory, badly made houses. But they are his own houses, and there he is, however temporarily, unassailable.

Like many colonials, whose intelligence is insulted by the secondhand shoddiness and cramped hopes of his surroundings, he yearns for a larger world, a world “where ambitions could be pursued and had a meaning.” Through Mr. Biswas, Naipaul expresses his own rage at jobs left undone, bad workmanship, the lack of will to do things right:

Mr. Biswas ordered a bookcase. The doors of Mr. Biswas’s bookcase sloped at the top and would have formed a peak if they could meet: Théophile said it was a style. By this time the planks on the oval table had shrunk, the joints were loose and the wax had dropped out, and the wardrobe doors could never close.

What might appear as a trivial detail to many—a badly made bookcase—means much to Naipaul. It separates the world of doers and makers from a passive world of secondhand and second best. It is why Naipaul is such a fastidious observer of details in other people’s lives: the food they eat, the clothes they wear, the pictures on their walls, the chairs they sit on, these all speak of provenance and attitudes. Slovenliness shows lack of pride. Perhaps one has to come from a slovenly colony to take what is slipshod as an insult.

Mr. Biswas feels insulted but never gets away; instead he reads Marcus Aurelius, Samuel Smiles, Somerset Maugham, and “How to Write a Book” by Cecil Hunt. He submits articles to the Ideal Writing School of Journalism, Edgware Road, London, articles such as “Guy Fawkes Night,” or “Characters at the Local.” And he treats his wife with more respect when he finds that she once had a pen pal in Northumberland.

Naipaul has a sharp and often unforgiving eye for people’s weaknesses, but he never sneers at the colonial longing for the metropole, for the bigger and harder world, known only from books. To do so would be to sneer at himself. It is, rather, some of his readers in former colonies who sneer at the writer for trying so hard to live up to the highest metropolitan standards, as though this were a betrayal of the native soil. Naipaul has been accused of being reactionary, even of being an apologist for colonialism, especially by those who are given to nativist dreams. In fact, Naipaul is quite the opposite of a reactionary. His insistence on metropolitan standards and his anger at the colonial acceptance of the second rate is not a way of showing off in front of the old colonial masters. On the contrary, it is his way of asserting the pride of a free man. It was what Biswas had wanted, but never quite attained.

Naipaul briefly retells the story of his father in Finding the Center. The book begins with an account of how he himself became a writer. His first story was not about his father, but about Bogart, a local figure who, like so many of Naipaul’s characters, wanted to be free, without quite knowing how to manage it. Naipaul had long wished to be a writer, but… “the wish to be a writer didn’t go with a wish or a need actually to write. It went only with the idea I had been given of the writer, a fantasy of nobility. It was something that lay ahead, and outside the life I knew—far from family and clan, city, colony, Trinidad Guardian, negroes.”

(If this sounds like Trinidad-Indian snobbery, one should read C.L.R. James, the literary, cricket-loving, Marxist, Trinidad “negro”; he, too, like Naipaul, like Naipaul’s father, read voraciously—Thackeray, Dickens, Marx, etc.; he, too, found words to lift him from his native surroundings; and he, too, spoke often about pride and nobility; it was, perhaps, at the root of his Marxism.)

Naipaul then describes his father—his ambition, the books he read, his first job at the Trinidad Guardian, the framed photograph of O. Henry in his bedroom: “Poverty, cheated hopes, and death: those were the associations of the framed picture beside my father’s bed.” He describes how the Naipaul family lived, the surroundings from which the son, through his ambition, managed to escape: “Disorder within, disorder without. Only my school life was ordered; anything that happened there I could date at once. But my family life—my life at home or my life in the house, in the street—was jumbled, without sequence. The sequence I have given it here has come to me only with the writing of this piece. And that is why I am not sure whether it was before the upheaval of our move or after our return to Port of Spain that I became aware of my father’s writing stories.”

Here we have Naipaul’s perspective on the world: the writing which creates order and meaning, the sifting of memory to find dates, to find a way through the darkness toward the light. The search for illumination might explain not just the extraordinary preoccupation with detail in Naipaul’s style, but also, perhaps, the painterly quality of his writing: he has to see what he writes.

Mr. Biswas, tired of failure, looks for a job. He enters the Trinidad Sentinel newspaper office and sees the editor, Mr. Burnett. He turns in his first story, a fantastic tale about children burning to death. Mr. Burnett asks whether he invented it. Biswas nods. “Pity,” says Mr. Burnett, who goes on to teach Biswas, slowly, patiently, how to find stories, dates, histories in daily life, which are quite as remarkable as anything one might make up.

The story is retold partly in Finding the Center. Here Naipaul explains what in the fiction is only hinted at: “The Hindu who wants to be a pundit has first to find a guru. My father, wanting to learn to write, found MacGowan. It was MacGowan, my father said, who had taught him how to write; and all his life my father had for MacGowan the special devotion the Hindu has for his guru.” MacGowan was of course Mr. Biswas’s Burnett.

In The Enigma of Arrival, which I think is Naipaul’s greatest book, we are told the story again, once more from a slightly different angle: “I had discovered through the adventure of writing—curiosity and knowledge feeding off one another, committing one not only to travel but also to different explorations of the past—I had discovered that my father had been intended by his grandmother and mother to be a pundit. My father hadn’t become a pundit. He had instead become a journalist; and his literary ambitions had seeded the literary ambitions had of his two sons.”

A House for Mr. Biswas, then, was, as Naipaul explains in Finding the Center, “very much my father’s book. It was written out of his journalism and stories, out of his knowledge, knowledge he had got from the way of looking MacGowan had trained him in. It was written out of his writing.”

Something remarkable has taken place here. What started with a failed pundit’s education was transmitted to the next generation, the generation that got away. Naipaul managed what most of his characters—Bogart, Biswas, or Salim—could not achieve. He left behind the disorder of his childhood home and the clinging grasp of family and clan; he does not feel the magic spell of ritual. Like Anand, the son of Mr. Biswas, he might still be called upon to share in family rites, but like Anand, he is “Untutored in the prayers, [and] could only go through the motions of the ritual.” Instead, he has words, dates, stories, histories. And in them he has achieved excellence.

But that is not quite the end of the story. At the end of The Enigma of Arrival, Naipaul describes the rite after his sister’s funeral in Trinidad, the pundit reading from Hindu scriptures in English translation, mixing of milk, earth, and rice. Her death came at a time when Naipaul was exercised by his own fear of mortality. It is part of the pundit’s task to conduct the rituals of death. But ritual could not lift Naipaul’s melancholy. Only words, words that would last, could defy his fear of death, but the words, apparently, wouldn’t come. And so he stood there, at the ceremony after his sister’s funeral, watching the pundit go through the motions of ritual, and he reflected on the price of self-awareness, the price of having managed to get away, to be free. His ancestors clung to their rites, because not to have done so would have “cut us off from the past, the sacred earth, the gods.” But it is too late now. There was no way back: “We had become self-aware. Forty years before, we would not have been so self-aware. We would have accepted; we would have felt ourselves to be more whole, more in tune with the land and the spirit of the earth.”

It is this consciousness of what has been won and what lost that gives Naipaul’s writing such resonance and tension. It is, in his travels in India, as well as in his other stories, as though he longs for that wholeness, that spirit of the earth, while realizing full well the futility of nostalgia: “There is no ship of antique shape now to take us back. We had come out of the nightmare; and there was nowhere else to go” (The Enigma of Arrival). And so he keeps on traveling, to India, to Africa, to South America, to new places and old places, to stir his memories, to find new stories, and to reevaluate his own. It is this same tension, between the dark world of wholeness and myth and the new one of self-awareness and change, between the world that is handed down to us by ancestors and the one we make up ourselves, that has shaped Naipaul’s style. It is why he tells the same stories, from different perspectives; as fiction, as history, as fact, as myth.

And it is when the two worlds come together, when the two ways of thinking of life merge, that Naipaul’s writing soars. This happens when he describes the visit to his ancestral village in India in An Area of Darkness, and it happens when he writes about his sister’s funeral in Trinidad. He writes about the sacred, the area of darkness, in a way only highly civilized, highly self-aware men, such as Borges, such as Conrad, such as Naipaul, can. On this level, arguments whether some of Naipaul’s books should be called fiction or nonfiction become trivial in the extreme. He has written literature, of the very highest order. It took much ambition to achieve it. And Mr. Biswas struck the first blow.

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