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Sunday, Nov 27, 2022
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Finally

The Nobel Prize for Literature, the world's most prestigious and -- with a value of $ 943,000 -- richest literary award goes to Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Napaul. Also See: Intervie

Finally
Finally
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Napaul -- in his own words, "an Indian from India could look no more Indian than I do" -- has finally been granted what many have said was better deserved by none: The Nobel Prize for Literature, the world's most prestigious and -- with a value of $943,000 -- richest literary award. The announcement was made at noon today in Stockholm.

"I am utterly delighted, this is an unexpected accolade. It is a great tribute to both England, my home, and to India, home of my ancestors, and to the dedication and support of my agent Gillon Aitken," Naipaul said in a brief statement after receiving news of the award.

The academy said Naipaul was chosen for his "incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories". They singled out for particular praise The Enigma of Arrival (1987), calling it "an unrelenting image of the placid collapse of the old colonial ruling culture and the decline of European neighbourhoods".

Horace Engdahl, the head of the academy, who told Naipaul of the award by phone, said "He was very surprised and I don't think he was pretending. He was surprised because he feels that as a writer he doesn't represent anything but himself."

Naipaul was chosen by secret ballot from a shortlist of five. The rest of the shortlist remains shrouded in secrecy - nominees are not publicly revealed until 50 years after the prize is awarded - but others rumoured to be in the reckoning included Israel's Amos Oz, South Africa's JM Coetzee, Canada's Margaret Atwood and America's Philip Roth.

There had been some talk of suspending the award in the wake of the terrorist attacks on America and the retaliatory strikes on Afghanistan, but Engdahl said the academy had quickly dismissed any such suggestion. "Literature is the basis of a worldwide community, which is obviously not based on violence or hatred but which paves the way of mutual understanding between cultures and people. If any prizes at all should be distributed on a year like this, it ought to be the literature prize and the peace prize - just to show the world that this patient process of bringing the nations together mustn't cease."

Political controversy has always dogged the award. Last year's winner, the little-known exiled Chinese novelist and playwright Gao Xingjian, now a French citizen, drew anger from China. Naipaul, though undeniably a giant on literary merit alone, is no stranger to political controversy, particularly for his non-fiction. Be it his three India books (An Area of Darkness, 1964, India: A Wounded Civilization, 1977, or India: A Million Mutinies Now, 1990) or the two "Islamic" ones ("travels among converted people" as he calls them: Among The Believers: An Islamic Journey, 1981, and the more recent, much panned by the likes of Edward Said & co., Beyond Belief, 1998)

Not to mention his inimitable interviews (for example, do see some of those on the right) that never fail to make the headlines (and at least amuse, apart from offering an incisive insight into the mind of the man). As the recent one, about a month or so ago, when without any noticeable provocation, he launched into the work and reputations of E M Forster ("a nasty homosexual . .. He encouraged people to lie. He was somebody who didn't know Indian people"), James Joyce ("unreadable" "blind writer"), Charles Dickens ("a self-parodist"), Henri Stendhal ("that flawed writer"), J M Keynes (He "didn't exploit poor people, he exploited people in the university; he sodomised them and they were too frightened to do anything about it"), Wole Soyinka ("a marvellously establishment figure, actually") and the recently deceased R K Narayan ("his India is a ruin, he's writing about a ruin"), among many others, not even sparing Tony Blair (a pirate at the head of a socialist revolution "destroying the idea of civilisation in this country) and his New Labour ("it is terrible, this plebeian culture that celebrates itself").

But old Naipaulites, like Paul Theroux, explain that "gratuitous outbursts such as this nearly always precede the appearance of a Naipaul work. In spirit, it is like a boxer's frenzy of boasting and threats before an important match: in part a species of self- promotion in the form of chest-thumping and shouted abuse, in part a suggestion of tactics." Whatever the motivation, grist supplied to the gossip mills keeps them churning for days and weeks.

Barely had that controversy died down (and to be fair, one has to read the full interview to get the context rather than judge him by the rather sensationalist parenthetical projection I -- and those of my profession -- provide because it, well, makes for good copy) that last week, he ended up causing yet another outcry by (yet again) comparing the "calamitous effect" of Islam on the world with colonialism after a reading of his new book, Half a Life, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London.

Islam, he claimed, once again, had both enslaved and attempted to wipe out other cultures. "It has had a calamitous effect on converted peoples. To be converted you have to destroy your past, destroy your history. You have to stamp on it, you have to say 'my ancestral culture does not exist, it doesn't matter'." He claimed what he called "this abolition of the self demanded by Muslims was worse than the similar colonial abolition of identity. It is much, much worse in fact... You cannot just say you came out of nothing." And as usual, Pakistan, he offered, was the living proof of the damage Islam could wreak.

"The story of Pakistan is a terror story actually. It started with a poet who thought that Muslims were so highly evolved that they should have a special place in India for themselves. This wish to sift countries of unnecessary and irrelevant populations is terrible and this is exactly what happened in Pakistan."

Prompting many, including Ahmed Versi, editor of the Muslim News, to point out that Naipaul's outbursts show just how deep his ignorance of Islam is. "What he says may shock many people here, but it comes as no surprise to those of us who have read his books. He is basically a Hindu nationalist, who has a deep dislike of Muslims, and that is where he is coming from." One recalls Salman Rushdie's old snipe that he was beginning to sound like a poster boy for the BJP.

I am not sure that readers of his India books, the first two in particular, who still start frothing at the mouth at his snide remarks about Hinduism, will necessarily agree, but perhaps they feel compensated for all the derision heaped on Pakistan in particular since his travels in the Islamic world.

(Aside: at the same reading, when asked about the WTC attacks, a friend reports, he said he felt very pained, and added: "They publish my books in America." When the audience laughed, he chided them: "They don't publish my books in Saudi Arabia or Egypt!" Needless to say, he was serious. Another friend commented: one must give him credit for clarity of value systems.)

To be fair, Engdahl conceded that Naipaul might be seen as a political winner, but added: "I don't think we will have violent protests from the Islamic countries and if they take the care to read his travel books from that part of the world they will realise that his view of Islam is a lot more nuanced. What he's really attacking in Islam is a particular trait that it has in common with all cultures that conquerors bring along, that it tends to obliterate the preceding culture," he said. All those who actually read his books (rather than just the book reviews or what Paul Theroux has to say, not about his books, but about the man) will agree, for sure.

But then Naipaul is critical of all religions, as the Academy board member Per Wastberg told Reuters: "He considers religion as the scourge of humanity, which dampens down our fantasies and our lust to think and experiment". 

Perhaps we can all say Amen to that one. Richard Dawkins would be pleased for sure, among millions of his other fans who have grown up reading and hearing more about his fabled idiosyncrasies than actually reading his books. The best tribute to the man would have to be to read him and to judge him by his own words, using his own methodology: "to look and to look again, to re-look and rethink."

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