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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.”

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