Before his long harangue of VS Naipaul was read at the Calabash literary festival in Jamaica, Derek Walcott spoke at length about film, music and the state of West Indian literature. Among his many thoughtful asides, he spoke about the difficulty of finding a voice in the relative obscurity of the modern Caribbean. “The new American empire,” he told the poet Kwame Dawes (to intermittent applause), “is the world empire, and whatever the tastes of the empire are, they’re inflicted on the colonies… we are the intellectual colonies of America; so is a lot of the world. So if people say in America… that you don’t tell stories, you don’t mould character, you don’t have a beginning, a middle, an end. That’s old fashioned. Well, it’s a great thing that the Caribbean art is old-fashioned, because you still tell stories, which is what the human heart craves.”
For many of us, Walcott included, the early novels of VS Naipaul answered this craving. They told our stories with a fond attention to the peculiarities of West Indian life, and a humorous truthfulness that has rarely, if ever, been equalled. Naipaul’s genius for evocative details caught the lilt and rhythm of West Indian speech perfectly, and his sense of what might be called the Caribbean Quixotic, framed a generation of political dreamers in unforgiving and unforgettable prose. His ascent into the highest rank of world literature refuted his now infamous jibe that “nothing was created in the West Indies.” Along the way, whatever his failings, he was still our misanthrope. Then, something changed. He refashioned himself as an exclusively British writer – in many ways he had always been British, just with West Indian roots – and his long leave-taking of the Caribbean ended with a tribute to “India, home of my ancestors” in his Nobel acceptance speech.
These sins of omission, and Naipaul’s innumerable slurs on the West Indies, are all confronted head-on in Walcott’s remarkably vituperative poem The Mongoose. (The title is explained in the lines “Imported from India and trained to ferret snakes and elude Africans, /The Mongoose takes its orders from the Raj”) The verses read more like doggerel (“puppyrel,” Martin Carter might have said) than poetry, and Walcott did warn his audience that he was going to be “nasty” – but who could have foreseen an attack on Naipaul’s “bushy beard/To cover features that have always sneered,” or a deliberately crude line about the novelist’s fear of black men doing nothing to dampen his sexual interest in negresses? The poem is uncharacteristically bad – perhaps intentionally so – but often amusing in its self-delighting excess. Its immediate notoriety in the Jamaican press, and beyond, almost guarantees that Naipaul will be stirred to further snideness about his great rival, even though both men are long past the age at which this sort of thing is usually indulged.
Naipaul’s biographer Patrick French recently warned The Observer that “he’ll say nothing and then at some point he will lash out. I remember him saying to me once: ‘I settle all my accounts, I settle all my accounts.’”
In Walcott’s case, there is much to be settled, for in many ways our Nobel laureates hold irreconcilable views of the Caribbean and the world. While Walcott has acknowledged the dark colonial past that begets so much of Naipaul’s pessimism, he has also dared to hope, epically, that we may somehow climb clear of our wrong beginnings. Naipaul, by contrast, has built a career around making our darkness visible. At different times the Caribbean itself seems to take different sides in the matter. Election season in Guyana is pure Naipaul, as is much of Trinidadian politics; but the West Indies team at its best, Marley’s prophetic lyricism or Minshall’s extravagant imagination all fit with Walcott’s vision. Who among us can confidently dismiss Naipaul, or dispense with Walcott’s hopes? And who, having read either man carefully, would wish to?
Luckily, this feud could not have boiled over at a better time. With Carifesta so close, partisan bickering over the merits of both writers will bring some much-needed intrigue and passion back to the West Indian literary scene. Was the poem too ad hominem, or did Naipaul have it coming? Why didn’t Walcott polish his rage into real poetry? Isn’t it refreshing to have such a vitriolic display of public disaffection from someone who isn’t a politician? We should all hope that this is the opening shot in a much longer campaign. So often in literature, as in life, mighty contests rise from trivial things.