V.S. Naipaul’s passing at the age of 85 leaves behind a shelf of books that will, in equal measure, delight and provoke West Indian readers for generations. Few will dispute the pleasures of his early fictions, or the beauty of his style, particularly in his nonfiction writing, but what about his disdain (“nothing was created in the West Indies”), or his role, in later years, as a flatterer of neoliberal assumptions about the irremediable backwardness of the postcolonial world?
Ian Buruma, the current editor of the New York Review of Books, suggests that Naipaul’s notorious fastidiousness was less misanthropy than “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.”
Childhood in Trinidad, among what he felt were the cultural debris of the British empire, gave young Vidia a longing for wholeness, for societies and civilizations that had not been “wounded” or “fragmented”. Pursued, unforgivingly, across the decades this longing made Naipaul into what Buruma calls “our greatest poet of the half-baked and the displaced.”
Depending on your views of the Caribbean, and the postcolonial world in general, this either made him our most perceptive observer or a dreadfully dismissive and scornful critic.
Looking back at the period in which Naipaul came into the full possession of his genius, it is easy to see where he parted company with other major West Indian writers. Incurably skeptical of people who ‘use words to hide from reality’ he felt that too many of his peers, notably including Derek Walcott and CLR James, were too indulgent towards the postcolonial Caribbean. He prided himself on seeing our half-made societies for what they were: filled with dreamers and frauds, slouching towards further dissipation and chaos. Later on he discerned the same pattern in India and Africa, before retreating, bizarrely, into a version of English pastoral life, an experience recorded in the suitably named book “The Enigma of Arrival”.
In lesser hands these idiosyncrasies would have undermined any literary gift, but Naipaul – as his scandalous biography amply demonstrates – had an extraordinary capacity for self-lacerating candour. This drove the searingly vivid portraits in his nonfiction and often allowed him to reach deeper into the life of the postcolonial world than any of his contemporaries. Sadly his usual response was to retreat in horror from what he saw there. Over the years he seemed to tire of fiction altogether – “Plot is for those who already know the world; narrative is for those who want to discover it.” – and reserve his energies for unsparing travelogues.
Eventually his reflexive dismissal of whole peoples and countries became a vice of style, most notoriously in books like The Masque of Africa. Even so, his distaste for the world at large, coupled with his almost religious insistence that it needed to be both witnessed and confronted, lay at the heart of his achievement.
Writing about the “stereoscopic vision” of “A House for Mr Biswas” – its unique mix of “pride and shame, compassion and alienation” – the critic James Wood compared Naipaul’s insights into the postcolonial reality to those of Frantz Fanon. Wood sees Naipaul as “a writer who has a conservative vision but radical eyesight.” The radical eyes “burn with rage at the cramped, colonial horizon of his father’s life” and they seek “to defend his accomplishments against the colonist’s metropolitan sneers”; but the conservative aspect of Naipaul knows that he himself has escaped “the little prison of Trinidad, and now sees, with the colonist’s eyes and no longer the colonial’s, the littleness of that imprisonment.” Forever alternating between these perspectives, Wood concludes that Naipaul wrote as both Wounder and Wounded, out of a “productive shame.” The intensity of that shame was matched by his remarkable perseverance as a writer and it yielded, in his better moments, one of the most significant literary voices of the twentieth century. Setting aside all of his curmudgeonly qualities and contradictions we should remember that as with eminent forebear, Joseph Conrad, Naipaul’s literary power is inseparable from his willingness to probe the wounds of empire.