Naipaul’s Book of the World

Hilary Mantel has contributed over forty reviews and works of fiction to The New York Review since 1989. The following is an extract from “Naipaul’s Book of the World,” a review of V.S. Naipaul’s The Writer and the World. It appeared in the October 24, 2002, issue and may be read in full at nybooks.test/50/Mantel.

There are places on earth where, at certain moments in the cycle of day and night, the two are indistinguishable. It is impossible to know, without other referents, whether you are looking at dawn or dusk. And there are places at the margins of cities, or at the edges of the man-made sprawl of holiday islands, where at twilight growth and decay are indistinguishable; you can’t tell, at first glance, whether you are looking at a building site or a ruin. Is that earth-colored brick waiting for its glassy marble cladding, or is it crumbling back into the condition of soil? And that distant rumble, of traffic or marching feet: Have the entrepreneurs arrived, or is it the barbarians? Is it possible that they are the same?

Instances of crepuscular insight, coupled with the qualms of self-doubt, are for the privileged but disinterested eye; they come more readily to the artist than to the politician or the aid worker or the hard-hatted man driving a digger into the jungle. You have to pick your place to stand, and work by the light of informed intellect, before you can judge whether social institutions or indeed whole societies are accreting meaning or leaking it away.

Over forty years of traveling and writing, V.S. Naipaul has made himself both a judge and an expert witness in the topography of “half-made societies.” Visiting India in 1962, he saw “towns which, even while they develop, have an air of decay.” Montevideo in 1973 is a “ghost city” mimicking European glories. It is populated by statues and the figures of historical tableaux cast in bronze, but their inscriptions, with individual letters fallen away, are becoming indecipherable. The shops are empty but street vendors crowd the sidewalks. The restaurants have no meat. Public clocks have stopped.

As colonizers pack their bags and dream cities dissolve, the bush is always waiting to creep back. Tenderness toward the bush is an emotion only the secure can feel. Only those who are free to leave them can be sentimental about the wild places of the earth. The bush is a recurrent conceit in Naipaul’s work. It has “its own logical life,” but it is a logic that leads nowhere, except into the self-serving thickets of irrationality. It is the place where the social contract breaks down; it represents not just the physical encroachment of nature but the proliferating undergrowth of the human psyche.

From the first, Naipaul’s sardonic and fastidious approach distinguished him from those who write about the underdeveloped world in eggshell pieties. He has a sharp eye for the intellectually fraudulent, and is a scourge of self-delusion; he gives the underdog as bad a name as his master. Oppression, he notices, doesn’t make people saintly, it makes them potential killers; all victims are dangerous. On the one hand he has been accused of contempt for peoples of the third world; less liberal readers have embraced him as a sort of projection of themselves, more derogatory about developing countries…

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