Renowned West Indian author Vidya S. Naipaul drew his last breath on Saturday, 11th August 2018, just a week shy of his 86th birthday.
Naipaul was perhaps the most controversial contemporary literary figure, vilified and criticized as a man, but as a writer, he drew unparalleled admiration from the literate world.
Naipaul not only wrote in a lucid, unambiguous style but he playfully exposed men and women for their falsity. V.S. was just 18 years of age when he entered Oxford University in the United Kingdom in 1950. By 1957, he had published The Mystic Masseur which lovingly poked fun at the Trinidad he grew up to and remembered from every angle but which also exposed false gods, men who were mimics and who had no sense of identity. His characters, like G. R. Muir, M.B.E., are emblematic of the wider society.
We in fact came to that delightful book of short stories, simply titled Miguel Street (1959; Somerset Maugham Award), before we came to The Mystic Masseur, and those stories made us realize that ordinary people were the characters in fiction, that the purpose of fiction is to hold up a mirror to the society and who stared back was yourself (and many of us did not like what we saw in the mirror). Characters such as Hat, Bolo, Man-Man, B. Wordsworth, Bogart, and the unforgettable Laura became immortal for us of that age. Those characters are timeless. Novel after novel by V S Naipaul revealed the dilemma of being a colonial, the complex matters of dispossession, placelessness, and identity, the emptiness of the post-colonial world, the quest for self-knowledge and freedom.
Among the fictional works Naipaul wrote are The Suffrage of Elvira (1958); A House for Biswas (1961); The Mimic Men (1967; W.H. Smith Award); In a Free State (1971; Booker Prize); A Bend in the River (1979); The Enigma of Arrival (1987). Naipaul embarked on travel in 1960, and produced writings too many to list in this letter; in one of them, Finding the Centre (1984) is a perceptive discussion of his emergence as a writer. His travel writings were a way of questioning the imperialist form of the novel that we had inherited. He even ventured into the Muslim world in his pursuit of truth and said things which angered Muslims. He angered Africans, women, and West Indians by saying, “History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies….”, but Naipaul did not care what people thought of him; he was a man with a mission even if he was accused of transferring his own neuroses onto his characters. A writer does not need philosophical training to write; he is the philosopher.
Naipaul richly deserved the Nobel Prize (2001) and his Honour of Knighthood bestowed by Queen Elizabeth 11 in 1989.
In 2007, on a visit to Trinidad, V S Naipaul appeared on a public platform, a few of us from Guyana (including Bernadette Persaud, Ryhaan Shah and myself) travelled to Trinidad to celebrate Naipaul week with the hope of catching a glimpse of the man who had done us all proud. At question time, a man from the audience ventured a question whereupon, Naipaul, as gentle as a lamb, like a father to a four-year-old child, replied, “Please find another question, you asked me that one already.” That is the writer who people vilified as being “strange” and “cold”. At that meeting, I presented the writer with copies of The Arts Journal. I doubt he gave them a second glance, and I don’t fault him for that because I appreciate that he spent this life educating us, giving us a clear sense of who we are and our place in the scheme of things.
V.S.’s younger brother, Shiva, was also a prolific writer whose Fireflies (1970; winner of three awards including the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize, the Jock Campbell New Statesman Award, and the Winifred Holtby Prize) and The Chip-Chip Gatherers (1973; Whitbread literary Award) are also profound statements on the complicated questions of culture and place of Indians in Trinidad. Shiva died in 1985 at age forty but not before he had written four more works: North of South (1978); Black and White (1980); A Hot Country (1983); and Beyond the Dragon’s Mouth (1984). In fact, it was their father, Seepersaud Naipaul, a journalist, who was first bitten by the writing bug; by example, he led the family into a scalding awareness of the post-colonial world. His Gurudeva and Other Stories was ultimately published (1976) by Andre Deutsch long after his death. Now, the news has it that their sister Savi has just released a book about her brother. Perhaps in her book we shall discover the reason her brother, so critical of the imperialist world, chose to spend his entire life in England. Trinidad and the English-speaking Caribbean owe much to this family and Hanuman House has a place in history.
The Arts Journal records its condolences to family and admirers. V.S.’s passing has left a lamentable void; it would be decades before the West Indies produces a writer as fearless as Naipaul to tell us bluntly about ourselves.
Founder and Secretary, The Arts
Founding Editor, The Arts Journal.