Without Regret or Hope

The Return of Eva Perón with The Killings in Trinidad

by V.S. Naipaul
Knopf, 228 pp., $10.00

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…

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