In the Empire of Islam

1.

Humility is perhaps not the first thing most people associate with V.S. Naipaul. Fools are not indulged in his books, and even less in interviews; stories abound of tearful reporters sent home for not having read the master’s complete works. Naipaul’s writing voice can sound like that of a peevish (and sometimes enraged) traveler in a world of fools. And yet his latest book is the product of a profound humility. Few writers, let alone writers as grand as Naipaul, would have the patience, the curiosity, or the energy to immerse themselves in the lives of so many people in far-flung and not always hospitable places.

Naipaul was in Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, and Malaysia before, in 1979, to find out about fundamentalist Islam. His book Among the Believers came out of that trip. Beyond Belief is a second look at the same countries, inhabited by non-Arab peoples, whose spiritual center lies in Mecca. It is not a conventional travel book. And thank goodness for that. Travel writers too often use “abroad” as a showcase for literary style, or, especially if they are British, a source of comedy—foreigners, as Evelyn Waugh demonstrated, are inherently comical. Few writers, however, stop to listen to what people actually have to say about themselves. Naipaul asks, and listens, and takes notes, and asks and listens again, over and over, until he is satisfied that he has figured out what makes a person tick. This is what I mean by humility.

In earlier books, about India, Africa, or the Caribbean, Naipaul did most of the talking himself. Here he lets others speak, but not to the exclusion of his own voice. He started this mixture of travel and oral history in his book about the southern United States, A Turn in the South, and continued in the same vein in his last book on India, A Million Mutinies Now. There are risks involved. Voices taken down verbatim, often in translation, can become wearisome. Sometimes you wish the speaker would shut up, especially since Naipaul’s own voice is so incisive. In Beyond Belief, I think he has got the balance about right. Even so, the passages that stay with me still tend to be those written in Naipaul’s own prose. He is a master of the telling detail: the sinister blue gates of the prison in Tehran, through which the bodies of executed prisoners are carted out; the “choking, wide-throated laugh” of an Iranian hanging judge, jesting about killing animals and men.

Naipaul explains his technique in the beginning. His aim is not to offer his theories or political opinions. He is a “discoverer of people, a finder-out of stories.” Naipaul wrote much the same thing in his masterly little book Finding the Center, published in 1984. He said his task as a traveler and writer was to expose himself to new people. “But the people I found, the people I was attracted to, were not unlike myself.” Again there is humility here. Far from…


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