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 …

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