The Mimic Men
A Flag on the Island
Among the younger English novelists Mr. V. S. Naipaul is a virtuoso. A brilliant chameleon from the Caribbean, the descendant of Hindu immigrants, he has grown into the English novel with more lasting assurance than almost all contemporaries in the West Indies or Africa who are in the same case. This has not been achieved by intelligence and education alone; nor by the fact that the West Indies were, in many respects, a very fertilizing Victorian enclave. His advantage is that he shares with many English novelists natural and serious feeling for the fantasy life of his characters. This was obvious in the rich comi-tragedy of Mr. Biswas; also in his one purely English novel, Mr. Stone and the Knight’s Companion, in which he made a careful study of the “little man” and pushed forward the tradition of Pooter, Polly, and the Napoleon of Notting Hill into regions that were more exposed and dangerous, without falling into pastiche or charm. There are poor dogged little clerks all over the world, and Mr. Naipaul, who is above all a diagnostician in his comedy, brought a piercing West Indian eye to what was either a Russian or a London subject. After their first success with their native scene, most African, Indian, or West Indian novelists who have made the emotionally and politically disrupting journey to Oxford or London run aground on the shallows of journalistic writing: assertion and loneliness coarsen them. Everything becomes, crudely, a problem. Mr. Naipaul has had the sensibility and the stamina to avoid this. He feels his pain, but he is in command. His latest novel is a resourceful, compassionate, intensely critical and imaginative statement of a colonial crack-up, but not a bald and impersonal one. It is put together ingeniously as a mosaic of recurring themes.
In Mr. Biswas one saw the comedy of the frenzied “little man” in a stagnant society. In the new novel the colonial volcano erupts and the “little man” becomes the mimic man of his title. We are indeed all “mimic men,” whether we are in London, New Jersey, Chile, and with a certain desperation and absurdity that link us with the inhabitants of the pathetic island of Isabella. We are simply not so exotic. That is to say in our precarious present, we appear to be mimicking some private and imagined projection of ourselves, some half-born ego. The book has a strong autobiographical note. We find young Ralph Singh in lodgings during a miserable, sunless London winter, living in the shabby Bohemianism which a boarding house of London has always had. He is a student and has a certain amount of money; a handsome, dandyish, swanking, yet sensitive young man who experiments in his personality and who has married a strong-minded English girl. He has not told his West Indian mother of his English marriage and he has evaded telling his wife that his mother does not know. The thing has been beyond him. So that when the couple arrive in…
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