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 …