Of all the letters that have appeared in response to your Editorial, “A Grouse for Mr. Naipaul” (Tuesday, October 30, 2007), Thomas Singh’s letter is worthy of note.
Analysts seeking to understand society tend to rely on the statistical reports of sociologists and finance experts. The majority of them fail to notice that works of art (fiction, poetry, drama or a painting) speak to the complexity of the society and have a finger on its pulse and that valuable insight can be gained from such works of the creative imagination.
Whilst other letters engage in ad hominem attacks on V.S. Naipaul, Singh has submitted an article by economist, Robert E. Lucas, that seeks to corroborate his findings about society by throwing light on Naipaul’s classic fictional work, A House for Mr. Biswas. His is only one possible reading of the work (and a work can be illuminated from many valid perspectives).
It is commendable that Singh who is not in the literary field can see the relevance of Lucas’s review to the critical dialogue opened up once again on Naipaul. We thank him for making the article available to us through SN.
In Lectures on Economic Growth, Lucas considers A House for Mr. Biswas “a great novel of economic development”. The chief protagonist of the work, Mohun Biswas, rejects traditional models of social development as well as stereotypical models of human relationships and, in his quest for a house of his own, embraces the possibilities the world has to offer (meagre as they are in the poverty-stricken West Indies at the time the novel seeks to depict).
Naipaul’s four seminal novels have initially caused him to be branded pessimistic. The verdict in some quarters has been that this writer is condemnatory of the West Indies in general, contemptuous of its peoples in particular and can do nothing to redeem himself from the court of public opinion. Those four novels are: The Mystic Masseur (1957); The Suffrage of Elvira (1958); Miguel Street (1959) and A House for Mr. Biswas (1961).
Other notable novels follow which we can only mention in passing. These include The Mimic Men (1967); A Flag on the Island (1967); In a Free State (1971); A Bend in the River (1979); The Enigma of Arrival ((1987).
Naipaul is not condemnatory of society but brutally frank with his audience, presenting society in its stark reality; his acerbic style can only serve to jolt readers into critical awareness of self and society. It is only by self-criticism, self-discovery and self-knowledge that a people can grow spiritually and contribute to tangible growth in society. Maybe this stark reality, this truth to be gained by peering into the recreated horror of man’s deeds, is too much for us to digest and so we baulk and condemn the writer.
One of Naipaul’s chief concerns about the West Indies is the spiritual capacity of the people to be part of a society that coheres. His novels expose the frailties of man and the flaws of society and, ultimately, have the power to lift the level of awareness of individuals from a state of apathy. So that when he depicts such dispossessed, self-absorbed characters as Bogart (the bigamist), Popo (the carpenter who wasn’t), mad Man-Man, Wordsworth (the would-be poet) and the desperate Laura who swims out to sea one final time in Miguel Street, Naipaul does so, not to show them as degenerate, washed-up colonials, but as poor souls worth saving before many more are lost- lives that can be salvaged by bringing them to awareness of life’s possibilities.
His second chief concern is the quality of leadership in our midst. For example, when Naipaul depicts the ruthless social climber, bogus pundit and government toady in the person of Pandit Ramsumair (later self-promoted to G. Ramsay Muir) in The Mystic Masseur, we are alerted to the phenomenon of the confidence trickster at the levels of power and authority. Fundamental issues are raised in many novels about leadership and we ponder how society can rise above the plantation culture so deeply entrenched in our consciousness.
No democracy can survive without critical examination of self and society and Naipaul provides food for thought and in fine style.
Our own Martin Carter has also left us harsh words to ponder on. At the Eighth Convocation Ceremony of the University of Guyana (1974), Carter said:
Something seems to have gone awry with that process of metamorphosis, which if we are to accept what our leaders tell us, should transform us from what we [now] function as-an aggregation of begging, tricking, bluffing, cheating subsistence seekers and assorted hustlers-into a free community of valid persons