I read with interest Abu Bakr’s letter on VS Naipaul captioned “Naipaul has re-invented himself as an upper class and unpredictably eccentric Englishman” (07.11.02). It made me recall a possible “practical” example of Bakr’s depiction, in so many words, of Mr Naipaul’s “insensitivity born of prejudice” and his “aristocratic recoil at the encounter with the uncouth in the third world”.
Naipaul was at the time in Guyana researching for his New York Review of Books piece Handful of Dust: Return to Guiana(1991) when he visited the WPA office, then located in Croal Street, to meet and interview the Buxton sage Eusi Kwayana. Kwayana, with his characteristically gregarious reflex invited Mr. Naipaul to shake hands with a few young party activists who happened to be in the office at the time. I recollect a hand or two being offered but to our shock, the celebrated Caribbean novelist looked away, emphatically refused to shake even one hand, and uttered words to the effect, “I came here only to talk with one person”. His brusqueness, to say the least, was a revelation.
Faced with such rudeness, we happily retreated from his presence and out of earshot gave vent to our feelings and “dissed” him in proportion to his reception to our friendly greeting.
Maybe we should not have been surprised by Naipaul’s deed. I was taught in one literature class to be aware of the potential disconnect between literary production and the personality of its owner/author. Perhaps we were spoilt by the accessibility and warmth of other Caribbean literary figures like George Lamming, Wilson Harris and Martin Carter.
No doubt, history will recall Naipaul as a great writer and one might suggest there are many examples where talent and celebrity coincide with crustiness. We were however far from impressed with the “uncouth” Naipaul that day and Bakr highlights some of the literary reasons why we felt this way.