It is hard not to note a certain turning in the air when V. S. Naipaul is mentioned, a hint of taint, a suggestion of favor about to go moot. He has become a question, as in “the question of Naipaul.” One catches the construction “brilliant but”: brilliant but obsessive, brilliant but reductive, brilliant but so dazzled by the glare off his particular circumstance—the Indian not an Indian, the Trinidadian not a Trinidadian, the Englishman never an Englishman—that he stays blind to the exigencies of history. Increasingly now he is consigned to this role of the special case, the victim of a unique cultural warp, the outsider obsessed (notice the vogue for “obsessive” as a dismissive adjective) by disgust for his colonial origins, the reductive (ditto “reductive”) wog with a taste for the high table.
When writers are very celebrated they are of course more likely to elicit negative comment than when they are not, but the rush to categorize Naipaul is interesting, and seems to derive from more than just the predictable are of a reputation. I was struck recently by a piece in which Edward W. Said referred in passing to Naipaul’s A Bend in the River (along with John Updike’s The Coup) as reflecting a long tradition of “hostility to Islam, to the Arabs and the Orient in general…. Whether one looks in such recent highbrow fiction…or at grade-school textbooks, comic strips, television, or films, the iconography of Islam is uniformly the same: oil suppliers, terrorists, mobs.”1
This rather glamorous reading of “recent highbrow fiction” is instructive, and suggests that we have entered another of those eras in which all writing is seen to exist as “a public relations exercise, a form of applauded lie, fantasy.” (Actually that is Naipaul’s description of what writing was for Michael Abdul Malik, the Michael X of “Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad,” the long narrative piece with which The Return of Eva Perón begins.) Reading to a point is in the wind. Rhetoric prevails. In what looks to be a long season of hardening abstractions, of fixed hallucinations right and left, a season in which a figure like Said himself (celebrity scholar engagé: imagine this character in a Naipaul novel) strikes the new note, Naipaul dwells obdurately (obsessively, reductively) on a landscape that is presumed to comfort the forces of reaction. He renders societies in which the dynamic of change opens new frontiers only for opportunists, “half-made societies…doomed to remain half-made.” He insists that “the corruption of causes” is intrinsic, built in, the logical extension of the rhetoric itself. He persists in translating underdeveloped into underequipped, undereducated, undone by imported magic and borrowed images, metaphors, fantasies and applauded lies, fairy tales. He posits what has been the controlling historical trope of our time—the familiar image of the new world emerging from the rot of the old, the free state from the chrysalis of colonial decay—as a fairy tale, a rhetorical commodity, and his contempt for those who trade in it is almost total.
I say “almost” because Naipaul reserves a kind of tragic sympathy for the buyers of such rhetorical commodities, for the importers and ultimate victims. The students in Mobutu’s Zaire are for Naipaul the victims of “borrowed ideas—about colonialism and alienation, the consumer society and the decline of the West”: at the university outside Kinshasa, a city of two million with almost no transport and almost no industry but with cooking fires lit at night on the broken pavements, the students “have come from the bush, but already they can talk of Stendhal and Fanon; they have the enthusiasm of people to whom everything is new; and they feel, too, that with the economic collapse of the West (of which the newspapers talk every day) the tide is running Africa’s way.”
Argentina is a place where “jargon ends by competing with jargon,” where the guerrillas have imported Paris dreams of revolution and remain trapped in a sinister mimicry of “the social-intellectual diversions of the north.” Uruguay was wasted by a European idea, the dream of a welfare state imposed early in the century by José Batlle y Ordóñez “after a visit to Switzerland.” Even Michael Abdul Malik, the Trinidadian hustler deranged by the cons he worked in London, is or was a victim: “At every stage of his career he was supported by some kind of jargon and could refer his actions to some kind of revolutionary ideal.”
The story of Michael Abdul Malik, or Michael X, born Michael de Freitas in Trinidad in 1933, was for Naipaul one of those dense situations in which a writer finds his every concern refracted. Malik spent the years between 1957 and 1971 in London, first pimping and dealing and getting by as best he could and finally chancing into the Sixties role of black leader, black poet, black writer; “the authentic voice of black bitterness,” according to Colin McGlashan in The Observer in 1965. In 1967 he was jailed for an anti-white speech he made at Reading. In 1969 he was given money for a commune in Islington, which failed. In 1971 he came home to Trinidad and managed to float another such commune.
By early 1972, three people associated with the commune were dead, two of them Trinidadian lieutenants in Malik’s Black Liberation Army and one of them a twenty-seven-year-old English divorcee named Gale Benson, and, in May of 1975, Malik was hanged for murder in Port of Spain. He left incoherent fragments of a “novel” in which a romantic black hero wins the abject admiration of the narrator, a young English woman named Lena Boyd-Richardson. (Inspecting the hero’s bookshelf, Lena Boyd-Richardson is impressed at finding “Salammbo that masterpiece of Flaubert’s” free of dust. “I discover that he not only have the books but actually reads and understands them I was absolutely bowld, litteraly. I took a seat, and gazed upon this marvel, Mike.”) He also left the many interviews in which he had explained his political philosophy. “The only politics I ever understand is the politics of revolution,” as he had told the Trinidad Express. “The politics of change, the politics of a completely new system.”
In view of Malik’s derangement the words “revolution, change, system” are of course seen by Naipaul as “London words, London abstractions,” and in his account of the killings in Trinidad it is ultimately these London words that kill not only Gale Benson and the other casualties of Malik’s fantasy but Malik himself. “Malik thought he shared the security of his supporters,” Naipaul observes of Malik’s London career. “He failed to understand that section of the middle class that knows only that it is secure, has no views, only reflexes and scattered irritations, and sometimes indulges in play: the people who keep up with ‘revolution’ as with the theater…the people for whom Malik’s kind of Black Power was an exotic but safe brothel.”
It is toward precisely this section of the secure middle class, toward the exporters rather than the importers of the rhetoric, that Naipaul directs the profound disgust that he is sometimes accused of feeling for the victims of the words, for the casualties of the abstractions, for the Maliks of the “emerging” world. He keeps a kind of terrible track. He lets no one off. He does not forget Jill Tweedie, in The Guardian, quoting with approval the American Black Muslim whose lunacy came to fuel Malik’s own on the killing-ground that was the compound in Trinidad: ” ‘They call me a nigger but I’ve invented my own kind of nigger. My nigger is me, excruciatingly handsome, tantalizingly brown, fiercely articulate.’ ” He does not overlook John Lennon visiting the Trinidad commune as Malik’s guest in 1971. He details the literary advice Malik received from someone in England to whom he had shown a draft of his autobiography: “Use South Africa, Rhodesia, England, Portugal and America to speak of the heartlessness of white society. Use slavery, use the recent massacre of the Jews at Auschwitz and Belsen…. Chapter 15 You ought to close powerfully, frighteningly perhaps, on ‘This I Believe.’ Your own true statement of one displaced black man in this particular context of history….”
He will not exempt even Gale Benson, the English woman who got herself knifed and shoved in her shallow grave before she was completely dead: “Everything that is remembered of Benson in Trinidad suggests the great uneducated vanity of the middle-class dropout…. Perhaps the motive for the killing lay only in that: the surprise, a secure life ending in an extended moment of terror.” This entire narrative about the killings in Trinidad, the situation Naipaul later rendered into fiction as Guerrillas, exists as a way of wishing bad cess not to Malik but to “all those who helped to make Malik…those who continue to simplify the world and reduce other men—not only the Negro—to a cause, the people who substitute doctrine for knowledge and irritation for concern, the revolutionaries who visit centers of revolution with return air tickets, the hippies, the people who wish themselves on societies more fragile than their own, all those people who in the end do no more than celebrate their own security.”
There was a second white English-woman staying at the commune in Trinidad around the time Gale Benson and the others died, and Naipaul tells us that when Malik went on trial this young woman (who described one of the dead Trinidadians as “an excellent lover”) flew back down from England and gave the photographers a Black Power salute. The writer who recorded that salute is someone with a radical distrust of gestures.
And of words. In the reflection on Joseph Conrad which serves not only as the envoi to The Return of Eva Perón but as a quite direct exploration of what Naipaul has called his own political panic, his first vertiginous apprehension of “the curious reliance of men on institutions they were yet working to undermine, the simplicity of beliefs and the hideous simplicity of actions,” there are these lines quoted from Nostromo: “The wisdom of the heart having no concern with the erection or demolition of theories any more than with the defence of prejudices, has no random words at its command. The words it pronounces have the value of acts of integrity, tolerance and compassion.”
These lines are quoted for their relevance to Conrad, but they also define what Naipaul might wish for himself. To complain, as Edward W. Said recently did, that “there isn’t real analysis in his essays, only observation,” is to ignore Naipaul’s own point.2 He is a writer for whom the theoretical has no essential application, for whom a theory or an ideology is superficial to the phenomenon it attempts to describe, something no more than a scaffolding, something to be “erected” or “demolished”; something “imposed” (a word Naipaul often uses in relation to ideas) on the glitter of the sea, the Congo clogged with hyacinth, the actual world.
The actual world has for Naipaul a radiance that diminishes all ideas of it. The pink haze of the bauxite dust on the first page of Guerrillas tells us what we need to know about the history and social organization of the unnamed island on which the action takes place, tells us in one image who runs the island and for whose profit the island is run and at what cost to the life of the island this profit has historically been obtained, but all of this implicit information pales in the presence of the physical fact, the dust itself.
This stunning, even numbing, physical immediacy in Naipaul is hard to overlook, but many people do. In The New York Times Book Review not long ago, Jane Kramer referred to Naipaul’s work as “a topography of the void,”3 and I wonder if it has not become common to confuse a view of the world one does not find personally encouraging with “the void” itself,’ to imagine that the absence of at least token applause in the interests of social progress constitutes a kind of vacuum in nature. (Never underestimate the solace in a theory, or the falling-through-space many people of good will feel at the lack of one.) The world Naipaul sees is of course no void at all: it is a world dense with physical and social phenomena, brutally alive with the complications and contradictions of actual human endeavor. On one continent, the official Argentinian gunmen carry machine guns under their Burberrys and drive Ford Falcons, with no plates. Across the Atlantic, another continent, an arrest in Kinshasa ends badly, in deaths, when the number of people arrested will not fit into the cell, and a Land-Rover is used to close the door.
And all around these provisionally peopled continents there is the glitter of the sea, the strangler hyacinth, the bauxite dust. This world of Naipaul’s is in fact charged with what can only be described as a romantic view of reality, an almost unbearable tension between the idea and the physical fact, and it is this tension in himself that Naipaul acknowledges in reading Conrad. In the piece about Conrad that ends The Return of Eva Perón, he talks about a time when he began to “ponder the mystery—Conradian word—“ of his own Trinidadian background, his own relation to “that island in the mouth of a great South American river,” and he recalls having had the sense “that those of us who were born there were curiously naked, that we lived purely physically.” This was a sense he had trouble explaining, even to himself. And then, in this passage from a Conrad story, “Karain,” he found the feeling “exactly caught”:
And really, looking at that place, landlocked from the sea and shut off from the land by the precipitous slopes of mountains, it was difficult to believe in the existence of any neighborhood. It was still, complete, unknown, and full of a life that went on stealthily with a troubling effect of solitude; of a life that seemed unaccountably empty of anything that would stir the thought, touch the heart, give a hint of the ominous sequence of days. It appeared to us a land without memories, regrets, and hopes; a land where nothing could survive the coming of the night, and where each sunrise, like a dazzling act of special creation, was disconnected from the eve and the morrow.
This passage of Conrad’s and what Naipaul calls the “precision in its romanticism,” and the special meaning of that precision and that romanticism for Naipaul, are all hard to shake. The sense of a world as a physical fact without regret or hope, a place of intense radiance in which ideas may be fevers that pass, suggests a view of human experience that now seems less than comforting to many people, but the view is Naipaul’s, and I suspect it to be the long one.
June 12, 1980