In an early letter written by VS Naipaul to his sister Kamla, one can find the concerns that would animate his writing career up to the very end.
It was 1949, and a precocious, 17-year-old Naipaul was spending his last few months in Trinidad before leaving for Oxford on a government scholarship. After informing Kamla, who was studying at Benaras Hindu University, that he was finishing filling out his application forms, he went on to write about Beverley Nichols, author of the unflattering and largely-forgotten Verdict on India: “He went to India in 1945, and saw a wretched country, full of pompous mediocrity, with no future. He saw the filth; refused to mention the ‘spiritualness’ that impresses another kind of visitor. Of course the Indians did not like the book, but I think he was telling the truth.” Revealingly, he warned his sister: “Please don’t get contaminated”.
Here, one sees in embryo the prickly fixation on “half-made societies” that was to inform so much of Naipaul’s work. And the word “contaminated” is, of course, a loaded one. In the same letter, he criticised 19th century novels, in particular Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh (“the construction is clumsy”) and Jane Austen’s Emma (“Her work really bored me. It is mere gossip.”) Already, at 17, he was forming his own opinions, looking at novelistic forms with a critical eye, unafraid of going against the grain.
From Trinidad to the world
Naipaul first garnered attention as the author of charming, droll sagas based on childhood memories of Trinidad: The Mystic Masseur (1957) and Miguel Street (1959). In 1961 came the extraordinary A House for Mr Biswas, in which he used components of his father’s life to create the hapless, winsome Mohun Biswas, his run-ins with in-laws, and his struggles to create an identity of his own.
It was at this point that Naipaul reached a crossroads. As he said in his 2001 Nobel Prize lecture, “I felt I had done all that I could do with my island material. No matter how much I meditated on it, no further fiction would come.” From this arose, as he put it in an introduction to India: A Million Mutinies Now, “a wish to understand the currents of history that had created the fluidity of which I found myself a part.”
In pursuit of this goal, perhaps trying to outdo Joseph Conrad himself, Naipaul began to travel: first, to the West Indies, for The Middle Passage (1962), and then to India, for An Area of Darkness (1964). In both these works, his first books of non-fiction, he raised hackles by his unabashed dismissal of what he called “a borrowed culture”. Famously, he wrote: “History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies.”
In An Area of Darkness, he asserted that Indians had no sense of history, going on to highlight all the instances of incompetence and insalubriousness that he came across: “It is well that Indians are unable to look at their country directly, for the distress they would see would drive them mad.” He drove home the point in India: A Wounded Civilisation, published in 1977: “The larger crisis is of a wounded old civilisation that has at last become aware of its inadequacies and is without the intellectual means to move ahead.”
Temperamental and alienated
Indian poet and critic Nissim Ezekiel’s response to the influential An Area of Darkness was instructive. While not entirely brushing aside the book’s trenchant observations, he wrote that his “quarrel is that Mr Naipaul is so often uninvolved and unconcerned. He writes exclusively from the point of view of his own dilemma, his temperamental alienation from his own mixed background, his choice and his escape.” Naipaul’s manner, then, was “aloof, sullen, aggressive”. (It could also be alarming, such as when he said, years later, that the destruction of the Babri Masjid “would be a historical statement of India striving to regain her soul”.)
Naipaul was to face similar criticism for his later works on other societies, notably Among the Believers (1981) and Beyond Belief (1998). For the first, he travelled to and wrote about Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia to examine the influence of Islam after the Iranian Revolution. For the second, a sequel, he retraced his steps seventeen years later, and also went further afield.
His pitiless pronouncements on the ossified nature of theocratic societies drew the ire of many. In the words of Edward Said, “He is a man of the Third World who sends back dispatches from the Third World to an implied audience of disenchanted Western liberals who can never hear bad enough things about all the Third World myths – national liberation movements, revolutionary goals, the evils of colonialism.”
His writings on Africa, too, would have come as no surprise to those who had read his earlier books. “Africa has no future,” he loftily asserted in a 1979 interview, and in his last work of non-fiction, The Masque of Africa, published in 2010, he wrote, in a statement clearly intended to shock, “It was hard to arrive at a human understanding of the pigmies, to see them as individuals. Perhaps they weren’t.” It was in response to such declarations that American critic and journalist Vivian Gornick made the compelling observation that “to read Naipaul steadily is to experience something of the dilemma of an attraction that does not generate love...the lack of tenderness wears on the nerves.”
A transformation in fiction
Naipaul’s novels, meanwhile, after his earlier stories set in Trinidad, also began to reflect his uncompromising view of the non-Western world. Moving on from his much-praised The Mimic Men (1967), a study of the marooned postcolonial subject that introduced the concept of mimicry, an important theme in his work, there was the impactful, savage Guerrillas (1975), set on a Caribbean island roiled by revolutionary ideas; and the forceful A Bend in the River (1979), which similarly depicted characters caught up in and wrecked by postcolonial ineptitude in east Africa.
Others such as In A Free State and A Way in the World (1994), made clear his restlessness with the traditional form of the novel. The former, which won the Booker Prize in 1971, is an artfully-linked collection of narratives set in America, England and Africa, revolving around autonomy and the lack of it; the latter, though promoted as a novel, is a sequence of essays, autobiographical musings and historical reconstructions. JM Coetzee, in what may well be a back-handed compliment, said that this mode of writing “in which historical reportage and social analysis flow into and out of autobiographically coloured fiction and travel memoir...may turn out to be Naipaul’s principal legacy to English letters.”
Almost from the start, Naipaul’s prose was praised as being precise and particular. VS Pritchett once called him “the greatest living writer in the English language”, and his gemlike clarity of expression as well as insistence on pointing out hypocrisies and inconsistencies were hugely influential. Along with this, however, it can be said that in his work there are almost always oppositions, not accommodations; clashes, not confluences, be they between people or between civilisations. As literary theorist Terry Eagleton put it: “Great art; terrible politics”.
It’s intriguing to muse on the ways his talent could have expressed itself had Naipaul turned his unforgiving gaze on the colonisers instead of the colonised; or tried to work out ways of how he fit into their world. A wonderful and rare example of the latter can be found in the quiet yet vivid descriptions of the changing English countryside and his place in it in the haunting The Enigma of Arrival.
Intriguing to ponder on such untrodden paths, yes, but also fruitless. The world is what it is, and Sir Vidia was what he was.