V.S. Naipaul (1932–2018)

Ian Berry/Magnum Photos
V.S. Naipaul, Salisbury, Wiltshire, England, 1981

V.S. Naipaul’s fastidiousness was legendary. I met him for the first time in Berlin in 1991, when he was being feted for the German edition of his latest book. A smiling young waitress offered him some decent white wine. Naipaul took the bottle from her hand, examined the label for some time, like a fine art dealer inspecting a dubious piece, handed the bottle back, and said with considerable disdain: “I think perhaps later, perhaps later.” (Naipaul often repeated phrases.) This kind of thing also found its way into his travel writing. He could work up a rage about the quality of the towels in his hotel bathroom, or the slack service on an airline, or the poor food at a restaurant, as though these were personal affronts to him, the impeccably turned-out traveler.

Naipaul was nothing if not self-aware. In his first travel account of India, An Area of Darkness, he describes a visit to his ancestral village in a poor, dusty part of Uttar Pradesh, where an old woman clutches his shiny English shoes. Naipaul feels overwhelmed, alienated, presumed upon. He wants to leave this remote place his grandfather left behind many years before. A young man asks for a ride to the nearest town. Naipaul says: “No. Let the idler walk.” And so, he adds, the visit “ended, in futility and impatience, a gratuitous act of cruelty, self-reproach and flight.”

It is tempting to see Naipaul as a blimpish figure, aping the manners of British bigots; or as a fussy Brahmin, unwilling to eat from the same plates as lower castes. Both views miss the mark. Naipaul’s fastidiousness had more to do with what he called the “raw nerves” of a displaced colonial, a man born in a provincial outpost of empire, who had struggled against the indignities of racial prejudice to make his mark, to be a writer, to add his voice to what he saw as a universal civilization. Dirty towels, bad service, and the wretchedness of his ancestral land were insults to his sense of dignity, of having overcome so much.

These raw nerves did not make him into an apologist for empire, let alone for the horrors inflicted by white Europeans. On the contrary, he blamed the abject state of so many former colonies on imperial conquest. In The Loss of El Dorado, a short history of his native Trinidad, he describes in great detail how waves of bloody conquest wiped out entire peoples and their cultures, leaving half-baked, dispossessed, rootless societies. Such societies have lost what Naipaul calls their “wholeness” and are prone to revolutionary fantasies and religious fanaticism.

Wholeness was an important idea to Naipaul. To him, it represented cultural memory, a settled sense of place and identity. History was important to him, as well as literary achievement upon…

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