Naipaul’s Book of the World

There are places on earth where, at certain moments in the cycle of day and night, the two are indistinguishable. It is impossible to know, without other referents, whether you are looking at dawn or dusk. And there are places at the margins of cities, or at the edges of the man-made sprawl of holiday islands, where at twilight growth and decay are indistinguishable; you can’t tell, at first glance, whether you are looking at a building site or a ruin. Is that earth-colored brick waiting for its glassy marble cladding, or is it crumbling back into the condition of soil? And that distant rumble, of traffic or marching feet: Have the entrepreneurs arrived, or is it the barbarians? Is it possible that they are the same?

Instances of crepuscular insight, coupled with the qualms of self-doubt, are for the privileged but disinterested eye; they come more readily to the artist than to the politician or the aid worker or the hard-hatted man driving a digger into the jungle. You have to pick your place to stand, and work by the light of informed intellect, before you can judge whether social institutions or indeed whole societies are accreting meaning or leaking it away. Over forty years of traveling and writing, V.S. Naipaul has made himself both a judge and an expert witness in the topography of “half-made societies.” Visiting India in 1962, he saw “towns which, even while they develop, have an air of decay.” Montevideo in 1973 is a “ghost city” mimicking European glories. It is populated by statues and the figures of historical tableaux cast in bronze, but their inscriptions, with individual letters fallen away, are becoming indecipherable. The shops are empty but street vendors crowd the sidewalks. The restaurants have no meat. Public clocks have stopped. In “A New King for the Congo,” he tells how when night comes to Kinshasa, the watchmen, who have nothing to watch, light their cooking fires on the pavements.

As colonizers pack their bags and dream cities dissolve, the bush is always waiting to creep back. Tenderness toward the bush is an emotion only the secure can feel. Only those who are free to leave them can be sentimental about the wild places of the earth. The bush is a recurrent conceit in Naipaul’s work. It has “its own logical life,” but it is a logic that leads nowhere, except into the self-serving thickets of irrationality. It is the place where the social contract breaks down; it represents not just the physical encroachment of nature but the proliferating undergrowth of the human psyche.

V.S. Naipaul’s own life is so central to his work that most readers will be familiar with its outline. He was born in Trinidad in 1932, into an Indian family whose forebears had come to the region as indentured laborers. Recently he described his homeland as “a little island, which has done almost nothing for me.” But he leapt out of this prickly cradle, and his dislike and fear of it gave impetus to his career. He moved from what he saw as the periphery of civilization to its center; by hard study, he won a coveted scholarship, and at eighteen left to take up a university place at Oxford. In England he experienced a loneliness and panic that brought him to the verge of mental breakdown. But he recovered and got his degree, went to London to work for the BBC World Service, and began writing. His high literary aspirations were inherited from his father, a journalist and short-story writer, who had taken Trinidad life as his subject. The son had to find his own place in the world.

His “land of lost content” was somewhere he had never known. It was ethereally situated, hovering between the Hindu and the European traditions. His departure for England was the beginning of a lifelong journey, during which Naipaul would be compelled to look back at the island he had left, or territories like it: poor and muddled societies left wounded by colonialism, healing themselves and destroying themselves simultaneously: “I go to places which, however alien, connect in some way with what I already know.” He has distilled his observations sometimes into brilliant and disturbing fiction, sometimes into reportage that has the depth and con- sidered quality of a good novel. The present volume contains essays—some out of print, some uncollected—whose subjects range from the Caribbean of his birth through his ancestral India, through Africa, South America, and the US.

Pankaj Mishra describes in his introduction how “six long years” passed before the scholarship boy’s first literary success. Pankaj Mishra is a man in a hurry; six years is not a long time to become a writer. After his breakthrough in 1957 with The Mystic Masseur, Naipaul published three more novels in four years; the last of them was his early masterpiece, A House for Mr. Biswas. Meanwhile, in his first nonfiction work, The Middle Passage (1962), he described his first trip back to the Caribbean. He portrayed Trinidad as a damaged society, feeding itself on deceit, fantasy, lame excuses; a colony that had been artificially created, maladministered, then abandoned. Above all, he found there no sense of history, no way of thinking about history. He found a blindness to the past: this is his grievance also, in the writing on the Caribbean and Central America included here.

In a short piece from 1969 on the politics of the three-island state of Nevis, St. Kitts, and Anguilla, he imaginatively conveys the dilemma of people caught between the demands of the old sugar economy and the new tourist economy. It is a model of clarity and crisp scene-setting. When Naipaul is your guide, a place where you have never been and of which you know nothing becomes deeply etched in your mind. In part this is because of the sensory precision of his writing, and in part it is because he gives the people he meets the vivacity and complexity of developed fictional characters. The reader will not easily forget the quizzical, self-deprecating governor of what is now Belize, then British Honduras; or its premier, a failed priest, rising after a night of prayer to go to his desk, retiring each day from the business of government at 5:30 sharp to read Thomas Mann under the red tin roof of his bungalow.

Naipaul has a genius for noticing, a genius for freezing the instant when meaning is born from the accidents of the everyday. In Belize City, where burials take place in the late afternoon, he sees the funeral attendants lounging among the tombstones, waving white handkerchiefs in the dusk; they are keeping the mosquitoes and sand flies away, but (until you know this) their elegant passes look like “a ceremony of bewildered farewell at the limits of the world.” The scattered bush communities of British Honduras hold “Maya Indians, who move among the mighty ruins of their civilization like any other degraded immigrant group; Black Caribs, transported from the West Indian island of St. Vincent, considered by Negroes to be very black and ugly, with a bad smell.”

Naipaul has a care for the marginal, an eye for the traces of those almost erased. The small town of Chaguanas, where he was born, was named after an extinct Indian tribe. Every day he and his fellow townsfolk walked, unknowingly, over the land of this dispossessed people. It was only in 1967 that he came across a reference to them, in a letter from the King of Spain to the governor of Trinidad. He was shocked not just because these people had been obliterated, but because he was ignorant of it. The culture into which he was born did not favor that kind of self-knowledge; it was not analytical, it was not inquiring. There was a vacuum in how the people of the Caribbean imagined themselves and—as he sees it—the crudest form of US influence rushed in to fill the space. The doctrines of Black Power were imported from a rich but discriminatory country to communities with few resources where, however, black power was already a fact. What resulted was a distortion: not the politics of hope, but a fretful quasi-religious expectation that could never be fulfilled.

There are phrases in these essays, such as “the deadly comic-strip humor of Negro politics,” that are not, in retrospect, endearing. But Naipaul must be read in context; at the time he was writing, “Negro” in British usage was old-fashioned and formal, but not necessarily a derogatory term. However, even those developing societies that are sharply self-critical do not like their failings and uncertainties held up to scrutiny by outsiders. From the first, Naipaul’s sardonic and fastidious approach distinguished him from those who write about the underdeveloped world in eggshell pieties. He has a sharp eye for the intellectually fraudulent, and is a scourge of self-delusion; he gives the underdog as bad a name as his master. Oppression, he notices, doesn’t make people saintly, it makes them potential killers; all victims are dangerous. On the one hand he has been accused of contempt for peoples of the third world; less liberal readers have embraced him as a sort of projection of themselves, more derogatory about developing countries than they would ever dare to be, his color and ethnic background excusing him from the obloquy they would attract if they expressed the same distaste and unease.

One reason to welcome the present volume is that a gap has opened, over the years, between what Naipaul has written, what people think he has written, and what they feel he ought to have written. His asides are often more pessimistic than the body of his work, and his dogmatic pronouncements in interviews—“Africa has no future”—contrast with the subtlety of thought and expression in his written pieces. He writes with delicacy and compassion about individual lives, and much of the work in this collection employs a calm perspective that his detractors often miss. And yet, there is no respite from the Naipaul personality, ferociously intelligent and permanently aggrieved.

Naipaul had to go to India to begin to understand himself. In Trinidad the Indian community was philistine, materialistic, its religion reduced to rites. The motherland remained a sentimental fixation, but lines of communication to its living people were closed. He was in his thirties when he first saw his ancestral country and produced his book An Area of Darkness. The four pieces of Indian writing included here show how any feelings of awe and reverence he may have entertained were dissipated by his contact with the facts. To identify with the homeland is one thing, but to merge is disconcerting. “To be one of four hundred and thirty-nine million Indians is terrifying.” He finds he is not the only one who is scared of being sucked into the mass of the populace. The attitude of the more wealthy people he meets is that of plunderers. They are anxious not to be identified with Indian poverty and superstition, and “live perpetually outraged by the country which gives them their livelihood.”

The vastness of India depresses and unnerves him—it is not a unified vastness, but fissiparous, forever splitting by region, village, caste. Where is India to be found? People he meets are eager to attest to the unreality of what lies about them—to proclaim it an illusion. “Neither this nor that, we are so often told, is the ‘real’ India.” India is an idea, he concludes. But whose idea? On his second visit in 1967, he finds that a famine in Bihar is discussed in Delhi and Bombay as if it were happening in a foreign country. Poverty, he says, does not explain the general shiftlessness and decrepitude of persons and institutions. He speaks of a “collapse of sensibility, of a people grown barbarous, indifferent and self-wounding,” and he is scathing about the way in which, during those years of the late Sixties, India was grateful to find a validation in the eyes of Western seekers of spiritual thrills. Once a nation starts to live on its mysteries, it abandons intellect, observation, and reason.

It angers him that Indian life is so derivative, that apart from its “pathetic spirituality” it has nothing of its own. “A scholar in Delhi reminded me that Macauley had said that all the learning of India was not worth one shelf of a European library…. His statement can be reaffirmed more brutally today.” His 1971 report on the election in Rajasthan lets the politicians convict themselves out of their own mouths. One complains about the extension of piped water to the villages. “In villages the healthy water from the well is good enough…. For our womenfolk this going to the well and drawing water was one of the ways in which their health was maintained. They now have got no substitute exercise for the women.” He makes a similar objection to electric mills for grain; it makes the women “sluggish.”

Despite the Swiftian contempt for most of what he sees, there is some evolving optimism in these early writings: “…Where before I would have sensed only despair, now I feel that the despair lies more with the observer than the people. I have learned to see beyond the dirt and the recumbent figures on string beds, and to look for the signs of improvement and hope, however faint….” When he returned to write his 1990 book India: A Million Mutinies Now, it was to a country which he believed he had in many ways misunderstood, and he was not afraid to say so. But of that first journey, he wrote, “It was a journey that ought not to have been made; it had broken my life in two.”

It is as if India exhausted his fund of expectation, and since then he has gone about the world equipped with the Devil’s Dictionary, redefining and challenging every received idea he encountered in his travels through Africa and the Caribbean, South America, the non-Arab Muslim world. As a travel writer he knows journeys are to be endured, not enjoyed. They look glamorous only in retrospect. Most people’s journeys, in the course of history, have not been voluntary. Transportation, slavery, and forced migration have taken more people away from their birthplace than has the desire for novelty. Naipaul is spiritually among them, as remote from the tourist mentality as he is from the mind-set of those travelers who get into trouble only to feel smug on getting out of it. He is at all times anxious about his own person—the witness, after all, must be preserved—and his faculty of physical disgust is highly developed.

Given the chance, he heads straight for the nearest international hotel. He knows that the unfamiliar need not be sought, for it comes to find you; for the nervous man, familiarity can be destroyed by a walk into the next room. The real undiscovered country is other people, human beings in all their singularity. He lets them speak and shape his narrative for him, and his respect for their stories is far removed from the misanthropy with which he is sometimes taxed. It is true that he has a dread of the flamboyant and the willfully eccentric: “I recognized her as a ‘character,’” he says, warily eyeing the manageress when checking into the only hotel in Anguilla that has electricity. “Characters lie on my spirit like lead.”

His objection is easy to understand. When “characters” burst onto the scene they demand that the writer rally some false enthusiasm, a flourish of overwriting. Fastidious in his person as in his intellect, Naipaul is a puritan in matters of style. It is the spareness of his effects, his exactness, which transfixes the reader. His 1979 essay “Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad” begins like this: “A corner file is a three-sided file, triangular in section, and it is used in Trinidad for sharpening cutlasses.” The reader asks at once: Who is sharpening? And to whose detriment? The simple sentence, factual but deeply alarming, strikes the true note of the chronicle of delusion and murder that is to follow. Naipaul’s contempt for “fine writing” is clear. He cultivates plainness, so that his actual words are seldom remembered by the reader; what lingers is their authoritative rhythm, an impression of discrimination and scruple, of wit and restraint. “I work with very strong emotions,” he has said, “and one’s writing is a refining of those emotions.” With Naipaul, style is substance. Each sentence pounces on its meaning, neat as a cat. Each paragraph has attack, dash, élan. There are no jokes, no whimsy; there is no descent to the demotic, no bravura display. The secretary of the Swedish Academy, in his Nobel presentation speech, described how Naipaul’s reader feels his effect, as if through the skin: “His text is permanently unrelenting, like a chill wind that will not stop blowing.”

In the essays in this book (many of them originally published in these pages), Naipaul brings the same calm, factual, almost literal quality to his descriptive prose: building, quietly, effects of great power. A river journey in the Congo makes him disinclined to romance about Conrad; when the writer made his approach to the heart of darkness there were, Naipaul reminds us, no fewer than eleven steamers thrashing through those waters. Here is the scene in 1975:

The river widens; islands appear; but there is no solitude in this heart of Africa. Always there are the little brown settlements in scraped brown yards, the little plantings of maize or banana or sugar-cane about huts, the trading dugouts arriving beside the steamer to shouts. In the heat mist the sun, an hour before sunset, can appear round and orange, reflected in an orange band in the water muddy with laterite, the orange reflection broken only by the ripples from the bows of the steamer and the barges. Sometimes at sunset the water will turn violet below a violet sky.

But it is a peopled wilderness. The land of this river basin is used in the African way. It is burned, cultivated, abandoned. It looks desolate, but its riches and fruits are known; it is a wilderness, but one of monkeys. Bush and blasted trees disappear only towards Kinshasa. It is only after nine hundred miles that earth and laterite give way to igneous rocks, and the land, becoming hilly, with sharp indentations, grows smooth and bare, dark with vegetation only in its hollows.

In his essay about the Ivory Coast, “The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro,” Naipaul sets himself to fathom the mystery of why man-eating crocodiles have been installed in the moat of the gleaming new presidential palace. It is an entertaining piece of reportage in which individuals are foregrounded, and the expatriates stand out most vividly; Naipaul seeks out not just the usual leathery relics of colonial rule, but strangers far from home. Andrée is a francophone divorcée from Guadeloupe, un peu nerveuse, delicately scraping at a piece of Camembert in a pretentious but second-rate restaurant, and unfolding to him the means by which foreign black women who marry Ivoirian men are frozen out by their husbands’ families. A curse is placed upon them, she suggests; Naipaul shivers.

His reportage is at its most fallible here, because he will take the views expressed by a single contact, and extrapolate from them. You suspect that some Africans are telling him what he wants to hear; that some expatriates, when they tell him lurid tales of Africa by night, are playing get-the-guest. The reader grows wary of his way of speaking about “Africans” as if there is a transnational culture; and he is too prone, as he himself admits, to read Africa backwards through his knowledge of slave history in the Caribbean plantations.

If he is too personal here—too much of a gossip, you would say, of anyone less a master of high seriousness—the opposite fault shows in the collection of essays that make up “Argentina and the Ghost of Eva Perón.” Here he examines “a simple materialist society, a simple colonial society created in the most rapacious and decadent phase of imperialism.” Argentina is a bogus society, an imposition on nature, a parasite culture, unreal to the people who inhabit it. “There is no history in Argentina. There are no archives; there are only graffiti and polemics and school lessons.” There is “legend and antiquarian romance” but no analysis. Over the years he hardly varies his complaint, and taken together, the Argentine essays are profoundly dispiriting; they are the hardest reading in the book, because he doesn’t seem to have met anyone who could convince him that the country was worth saving. Argentina remains a single Bad Idea, populated by spineless and decadent people who are tortured one day and torturers themselves the next.

Naipaul is at his bilious best when the going is rough and the temperatures high. The American essays here, though well-turned and sardonic, seem underpowered by comparison with his third-world writing, and he doesn’t try too hard to convince us that New York is “Calcutta, with money.” In his report on Norman Mailer’s 1969 mayoral bid he is exploring the writer’s role as much as the politics of the campaign. He notices to what grim single-minded effect the professional politicians use and abuse words; this preoccupation carries over into “The Air-Conditioned Bubble,” an essay on the 1984 Republican convention in Dallas. One of the incidental pleasures of this piece is a startling portrait of Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Muslim activist, in later life—bald and paunchy, a born-again Christian and a right-wing opponent of the welfare system. Naipaul does not mock him; he goes back and rereads his book, Soul on Ice.

What strikes him about this political convention is the actual absence of politics; instead of debate there is a repetitive delineation of anxieties, “schools, drugs, race, buggery, Russia,” and as a solution to these anxieties, “Americanism, the assertion of the American self.” Again he notes the abuse of language—how in the mouths of politicians a tongue as allusive and rich as English can be reduced to its mechanics “cleansed, sterile; nerveless and dead….”

What has been important to Naipaul throughout his career is to make a relationship with language that is clean, unflawed, fit for a man who has had to write himself into being. It is a common experience of expatriates and travelers that, when you meet someone from another culture, you begin to act out a part you feel you have been assigned in an earlier life. Your persona goes into action, and you deliver the lines provided by some mysterious central scripting unit. But there was no one to provide Naipaul with lines. He has had to write his own. He has represented no one but himself, spoken for no one but himself, and spoken in no one else’s language. He has not usually supported a party (until, perhaps, he made his recent contentious statements in favor of the Hindu nationalist party, the BJP), and he has flinched away from received ideas in a way that suggests he thinks them contaminating. There is an essay in this collection about Cheddi Jagan, sometime president of Guyana, whose family background is similar to Naipaul’s; his grandparents, of a lower caste than Naipaul’s family, were also indentured laborers from India. Jagan’s perplexities about his place in the world may have been resolved, Naipaul suggests, when he “went home” to Marxism. By contrast, Naipaul has avoided the solace of the “big idea.” He seems impervious to the influence of systems, just as he is unaltered by changing fashions in writing. You sense that the curve of evolution in his own work comes from within himself and is something he alone fully understands.

In his Nobel lecture in 2001 he said, “Everything of value about me is in my books…. I am the sum of my books…. I feel that at any stage of my literary career it could have been said that the last book contained all the others.” This is the mark of his seriousness, that he has been engaged for forty years in one great book, his book of the world. Scathing, defensive, discontented, he has still clung to the optimism that is expressed in the last piece in this volume. He has been influenced by “the beauty of the idea of the pursuit of happiness.” In this idea, he says, “so much is contained…the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea…. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist, and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.”

In his essay “Steinbeck in Monterey,” published here, he says, “A writer is in the end not his books, but his myth. And that myth is in the keeping of others.” What will we keep as Naipaul’s myth? The myth of the artist in exile wears a little thin. It is predicated on the idea of homeland. But Naipaul, settled for many years in England, has seemed in exile from himself, always finding new places in which to be ill at ease, places that will cast him off. The romance of exile is also predicated on the idea of renunciation. But what if there’s no homeland to renounce?

In his essay “My Brother and I,” Shiva Naipaul said that, even after he himself had left Trinidad for England, he and his brother remained strangers. “We had, after all, come out of different worlds. The Hindu Trinidad of his youth was not the Hindu Trinidad of my youth. We did not have a shared past; we did not have a shared pool of memory, ancestral or otherwise.” Is identity as fragile as that? Can it be that two brothers, divided by some twelve or thirteen years but not separated by war or natural calamity, have nothing in common? It may be that Shiva was overstating the case in his anxiety to distance himself from his brother and make his own writing career. But what he says reminds us that the homelands we leave change just as fast as the new terrain we move through; you never can go back, because “back” no longer exists.

Perhaps what we will say about Naipaul was that he was the self-made man who didn’t stop at weaving the cloth for his own garments but clothed his own bones in prose. We will say he was the rational man who was afraid to see night fall, because it falls within himself. His shining belief in order and progress is stained by an area of internal darkness: by a natural apprehension—though not a certainty—that the power of reason will be defeated. “The aim has always been to fill out my world picture, and the purpose comes from my childhood: to make me more at ease with myself.” To our profit, this is the one aim he has missed. His readers may complain that they are trapped in an enactment of his own psychodrama, but the point is that it is not simply his own; we are all afraid of the dark, and though Naipaul is an isolate, he is not a solipsist. The narrator of the novel The Enigma of Arrival writes, “To see the possibility, the certainty, of ruin, even at the moment of creation; it was my temperament.” Naipaul’s myth is that of the artist who has suffered more from his art than his life, more from his interpretations of reality than from reality itself. He is the person most haunted by what he has rejected, by the childhood he has cast off, by the private fear he has made into a universal condition. Wherever he goes, he is sailing the inland sea.