Stoic Traveler

The Middle Passage

by V.S. Naipaul
Macmillan, 232 pp., $5.00

I had been travelling around for nearly seven months. I was getting tired. In Jamaica my diary entries grew shorter and shorter… There was nothing new to record. Every day I saw the same things—unemployment, ugliness, over-population, race—every day I heard the same circular arguments.

The Middle Passage is a book essentially about that perennial conjunction of historical misconduct with present and intrinsic human weakness: the colonial legacy. Mr. V. S. Naipaul describes and explains with controlled, one might say tolerant, despair the spiritual chaos and material shortcomings of modern life in some post-slaveholding societies. In form, the book is the account of what must have been on the whole a rather depressing Caribbean journey: Trinidad revisited, where the author, himself of Hindu descent, was born and bred; British Guiana, Surinam, Jamaica, Martinique. The Middle Passage is a travel book. If writing is inseparable from the writer’s quality of mind, travel writing is inseparable also from his tastes, his idiosyncrasies, his general temperament—it is what happens to him when confronted by a column, a bird, a sage, a cheat, a riot; wine, fruit, dirt; the delay in the dust, the failing aeroplane. Mr. Naipaul is a novelist (The House of Mr. Biswas); he is—undoubtedly—a good writer. His values are sane, his reactions kind; when he is repelled, as he often has cause to be, his weapons are ironical exposition and resigned analysis; in fact, he is very civilized. He writes well; he can be wonderfully visual; he has a nice sense of comedy which is at ease with the odd characters he meets on boats and trains, and he is brilliant nailing down cat’s-cradle conversations. He is not, on the evidence of this book, an inveterate traveler. As he puts it himself, “Traveling is often glamorous only in retrospect and at times would be insupportable without the many kindnesses encountered on the way.” True enough. But that exact sentence could not have been written by Norman Douglas or Patrick Leigh-Fermor; D. H. Lawrence (to whose travel writings Mr. Naipaul’s have also been compared) would not have so acknowledged the kindnesses encountered; and all three impart to their traveling a sense of vigor, discovery, pleasure, significance, sheer life, while V. S. Naipaul’s gently stoic progress hardly becomes lustrous even in retrospect. They are infectious travelers, he is not. He is adult though young, a little detached, fair and sad. He does not enjoy himself. He smokes too much and takes a little whiskey, mainly, one feels, to soothe his nerves; there is no fun in it. The reader is not exhilarated into longing to have been there; he is perfectly content to find himself at home reading such an intelligent book about it all.

The opening part, the voyage out, is full of pace and color, a joy to read and promising great things. The author arrives at Trinidad, Port of Spain, the noisiest city in the world, ablaze with neons, throbbing with a “slightly flawed modernity,”

…as…


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