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In the Empire of Islam


Humility is perhaps not the first thing most people associate with V.S. Naipaul. Fools are not indulged in his books, and even less in interviews; stories abound of tearful reporters sent home for not having read the master’s complete works. Naipaul’s writing voice can sound like that of a peevish (and sometimes enraged) traveler in a world of fools. And yet his latest book is the product of a profound humility. Few writers, let alone writers as grand as Naipaul, would have the patience, the curiosity, or the energy to immerse themselves in the lives of so many people in far-flung and not always hospitable places.

Naipaul was in Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, and Malaysia before, in 1979, to find out about fundamentalist Islam. His book Among the Believers came out of that trip. Beyond Belief is a second look at the same countries, inhabited by non-Arab peoples, whose spiritual center lies in Mecca. It is not a conventional travel book. And thank goodness for that. Travel writers too often use “abroad” as a showcase for literary style, or, especially if they are British, a source of comedy—foreigners, as Evelyn Waugh demonstrated, are inherently comical. Few writers, however, stop to listen to what people actually have to say about themselves. Naipaul asks, and listens, and takes notes, and asks and listens again, over and over, until he is satisfied that he has figured out what makes a person tick. This is what I mean by humility.

In earlier books, about India, Africa, or the Caribbean, Naipaul did most of the talking himself. Here he lets others speak, but not to the exclusion of his own voice. He started this mixture of travel and oral history in his book about the southern United States, A Turn in the South, and continued in the same vein in his last book on India, A Million Mutinies Now. There are risks involved. Voices taken down verbatim, often in translation, can become wearisome. Sometimes you wish the speaker would shut up, especially since Naipaul’s own voice is so incisive. In Beyond Belief, I think he has got the balance about right. Even so, the passages that stay with me still tend to be those written in Naipaul’s own prose. He is a master of the telling detail: the sinister blue gates of the prison in Tehran, through which the bodies of executed prisoners are carted out; the “choking, wide-throated laugh” of an Iranian hanging judge, jesting about killing animals and men.

Naipaul explains his technique in the beginning. His aim is not to offer his theories or political opinions. He is a “discoverer of people, a finder-out of stories.” Naipaul wrote much the same thing in his masterly little book Finding the Center, published in 1984. He said his task as a traveler and writer was to expose himself to new people. “But the people I found, the people I was attracted to, were not unlike myself.” Again there is humility here. Far from being the blustering brown sahib or the colonial “Orientalist” he is sometimes made out to be, Naipaul finds common ground between himself and others everywhere, in a Malaysian village, on the Ivory Coast, or on the Pakistani northwest frontier.

It is of course untrue that Naipaul has no opinions. He does, and they affect his narrative. For a man who dislikes abstractions, his opinions tend to be daubed with a fat brush. In the case of his latest book, he is convinced that Islamic fundamentalism is the cruelest and “most uncompromising kind of imperialism,” because it strips converted peoples of their past, their sacred places, and their attachments to their native land. Only Arabs are allowed, so to speak, to be at home. This was also the premise of Naipaul’s previous book on Islam. The truth is of course complex, and imperialism is never complete. Mecca and Medina (and Jerusalem) are the holiest places of Islam, but Persians also worship at the shrine in Mashad, and Naipaul himself talks to Muslims who are, in fact, deeply attached to their native land.

The imperialism of Islam is indeed destructive: it deadens the human mind. But I’m not sure it is the worst we have seen. The cult of sacred places and native soil has been at the core of other forms of pseudoreligious political fundamentalism. State Shinto in pre-war Japan turned the entire nation into a sacred shrine. Nazism was built on worship of the German “race.” The results were every bit as murderous and cruel as any Islamic revolution has been so far—indeed more so. The same is true of Communist imperialism, which is in some ways more comparable to Islamic fundamentalism.

But there is something else that guides Naipaul in his task as a “manager of narrative,” something more interesting than his opinions. Naipaul has a set of particular preoccupations which crop up in all his writings. It is these preoccupations which lead him to certain kinds of people, and certain kinds of questions. They have to do with growing up in Trinidad, as a Hindu son of a frustrated writer. For a Hindu in Trinidad, the sacred soil, the spiritual center, the ancestral land lies elsewhere. But so does the metropole, where ambition can be fulfilled, where a writer can be published, and read, and not feel frustrated. Naipaul has created a body of work from these preoccupations. There is a kind of myth here, an echo of older stories: the son leaving the village, breaking free from tribal beliefs, and spending a lifetime filling the void, trying to find the center.

In Finding the Center, Naipaul tells the story of a British journalist named Gault MacGowan, who came to Trinidad from London in 1929 to modernize the Trinidad Guardian. It was MacGowan who taught Naipaul’s father, Seepersad, how to write. He told him that everybody had a story, and that a writer should elicit these stories with sympathy. MacGowan, an honest man, upset his bosses by running stories that harmed their business interests, and was denounced. He left. Seepersad languished in frustration. He was to become Mr. Biswas in his son’s most famous novel. Naipaul: “…The book that came out was 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.”

Another story, at the end of The Enigma of Arrival. Naipaul has gone back to Trinidad for his sister’s funeral. It is the 1980s now. He is a famous author. He watches the pundit—a relative—go about the business of funeral rites. He realizes that he and the rest of his family had “made ourselves anew.” The rites of village India, transplanted in Trinidad, had become part of another world, beyond their grasp. They were, in the true sense of the word, disenchanted. But there was no way back: “We had come out of the nightmare; and there was nowhere else to go.” And then comes one of the most moving passages in Naipaul’s writing:

Our sacred world—the sanctities that had been handed down to us as children by our families, the sacred places of our childhood, sacred because we had seen them as children and had filled them with wonder, places doubly and trebly sacred to me because far away in England I had lived in them imaginatively over many books and had in my fantasy set in those places the very beginning of things, had constructed out of them a fantasy of home, though I was to learn that the ground was bloody, that there had been aboriginal people there once, who had been killed or made to die away—our sacred world had vanished.

The father, the village, the house. They return in the last, and to me most affecting, chapter of Beyond Belief. The subject is a Malaysian playwright named Syed Alwi. I happen to know Syed Alwi. He is a humorous, intelligent, melancholy figure, whose stories about Malaysian life are a mixture of love and despair. (Writing serious plays in Malay is not a thankful task; there is not much of an audience for them.) I recognize Naipaul’s physical description of Syed Alwi. But the rest of his story is new to me. Somehow, without inventing anything, Naipaul has turned Syed Alwi into a Naipaul character. And he does so by telling the story of Syed Alwi’s father.

But first he describes Syed Alwi’s half-finished house. After a life of writing in Kuala Lumpur, Syed Alwi wanted to return to village life. He had a Malay vision of rivers and trees. But the man he asked to build his house in a kampong was incompetent, and Syed Alwi was left with a “mere dangerous outline, wall-less and floorless….” The house, as in many Naipaul stories, serves a symbolic function: the return to the village was incomplete; ambition was thwarted.

Syed Alwi was born in his father’s house. His father was a schizophrenic. He had built the house in a period of lucidity. But he lacked enough money to finish the house, so it remained without an upper story. In this house, Syed Alwi’s father drifted in and out of two mental worlds. In his public world, he refused to speak English and wrote little. In his private world, he spoke nothing but English and wrote incessantly. His breakdown began when he was twenty-two, a successful civil servant with big questions on his mind, about life and religion and the nature of God. But he was alone with these questions. There was no place for them in his constrained, colonial, Muslim, village world. Syed Alwi’s writing might have been born from this sad father’s experience. Or so Naipaul suggests.

It is as though Naipaul is telling his own story through that of Syed Alwi and his father. This is the remarkable thing about the book, indeed most of Naipaul’s books: even while doggedly recording the facts of other people’s lives, he keeps on coming back to his own. Without saying much about himself, Naipaul has written a kind of autobiography out of the lives of strangers. I’m not sure humility is the best word to describe this, unless it is the humility of a writer toward his art.


Why Islam? Why did Naipaul feel the urge to return to the Muslim believers? He offers some reasons. Peoples converted to Islam, he says, become part of the Arab story; they reject their own histories, turn away from nearly everything that is theirs. As a result, he writes, people “develop fantasies about who and what they are; and in the Islam of converted countries there is an element of neurosis and nihilism. These countries can easily be set on the boil.” There is another, more sweeping reason. Conversion, Naipaul argues, “can be seen as a kind of crossover from old beliefs, earth religions, the cults of rulers and local deities, to the revealed religions—Christianity and Islam principally—with their larger philosophical and humanitarian and social concerns.” The crossover to Islam, which still goes on, is “like a cultural big bang, the steady grinding down of the old world.”

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