VS Naipaul was a word in himself, along writers like Coetzee, Murakami or Ishiguro. One of the most famous writers of his time, he was even referred to sometimes as the “greatest writer” alive and credited with writing some of the most important novels of the twentieth century – A Bend In The River and The House for Mr Biswas to name two. Pankaj Mishra called India: A Million Mutinies Now “the most influential book about modern India.”
Naipaul was awarded the Booker Prize in 1971 when he was 39, and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, when he was 69. He was the first non-European to win the Somerset Maugham Award in 1961. For years, Michiko Kakutani wrote favourable reviews of his books for the New York Times, cementing his reputation in literary circles. In public universities and private schools across India, his work has been taught for years.
But the legacy the writer leaves behind is complicated at the very least. What does it mean to bid farewell to a writer who said that no women writer could ever compare to him, who wrote one-dimensional portraits of Trinidad and India that influenced readers outside those countries for decades, who singled out Islam for criticism? The twentieth-century literary world demanded little in terms of accountability, and that in part explains why Naipaul continued to thrive despite growing criticism of both his writing and his actions. It was enough that he wrote clearly and controversially, and with authority.
His readers saw his certainty as clear-eyed rather than the consequence of troubling generalisations about the places and people he wrote about. Two biographies, by writers who were once close to Naipaul – Paul Theroux and Patrick French – became infamous for exposing Naipaul’s ill-treatment of people. Naipaul’s books and controversies seemed to stoke each other, with his fiction earning high praise, and his conduct and non-fiction justifiably inviting censure. How then do we look back at the prolific career of a literary giant at a moment in history when the world is in the process of re-thinking men like him and writing like his?
To remember Naipual, we revisited his books – more than thirty works of fiction and non-fiction – to pick five that best represent his literary contribution and influence on post-war and post-colonial literature.
Miguel Street (1959)
Though this was the first of Naipaul’s books to be written, two of his novels were published before Miguel Street as Naipaul’s publisher was wary of publishing a short story collection by an unknown writer. Miguel Street clearly reads like the writer’s first book – light, interconnected stories recall Naipaul’s childhood on the British colony of Trinidad. Miguel Street, in the Port of Spain, was a derelict, ethnically diverse neighbourhood in the 30s and 40s when Naipaul was growing up. The tropical heat, the slum-like dwellings, the Calypso songs, and intrigue between neighbours are immortalised in one of his most personal books.
A House for Mr Biswas (1961)
One of the best-loved of his novels, A House for Mr Biswas, was inspired by Naipaul’s father. Set in Trinidad, the story follows Mr Biswas, the son of a poor labourer, who is shunted from house to house as a guest and a burden, and who longs to have a house of his own. The gradual incline of his fortunes, chronicled in the collecting of objects in lieu of the ultimate, distant dream of a house makes this one of Naipaul’s most grounded works. Whether you have or have not read this book, this 2016 essay by Teju Cole will make you see Naipaul’s talents in a new way.
In A Free State (1971)
Two short stories, one novella, and two travel fragments make up Naipaul’s Booker Prize winning book, whose disparate pieces explore the freedoms people do and do not have with respect to the state and themselves. What lengths will modern institutions go to to maintain their power? Is freedom a benefit to be taken for granted in modern, decolonised times, or a privilege for a select few? Naipaul shows us the precarious nature of freedom – whether one takes a car trip through politically fraught terrain or one moves to an American city as an Indian student, one is faced head-first with a world shaped by racism and colonialism.
A Bend in The River (1979)
The novel opens with the lines, “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” A Muslim man of Indian-origin moves from East Africa to a town in the centre of the continent located at a bend in the river. Salim sets up a business sourcing and selling items the townspeople need. But the racial tensions he has escaped in East Africa are also present in his new home as white people, Africans and Indians jostle for limited wealth and power. A Bend in The River is considered seminal in the early arc of post-colonial literature that explored how countries re-built (or destroyed) themselves in the aftermath of independence.
India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990)
Twenty-six years after the problematic An Area of Darkness, Naipaul ended his India trilogy with a travelogue composed of conversations with and observations about Indians from various walks of life – politicians, priests, religious extremists, former terrorists, leader of the Dalit panthers, clerks, filmmakers, businessmen. The older, more curious Naipaul scours the country listening and questioning the changes on the horizon. His portrait of India as a country stirring with “a million mutinies” is memorable for the breadth and scope of the stories, and for the absence of authorial judgment.