"There is a way currently in vogue of writing about degraded and corrupt countries. This is the way of fantasy and extravagance. It dodges all issues; it is safe. I find the way empty, morally and intellectually; it makes writing, literature, the opposite of what it should be; it makes writing an aspect of the corruption of the countries out of which it issues".
(V. S. Naipaul, The Spectator, January 24, 1987)
V.S. Naipaul has carved up and commands a unique niche in the literary world. A fastidious, irascible man, he has fashioned his very own literary terrain: factual, normative, dismissive of fantasy and make-believe. His books continue to evoke superlatives and fury because he is never neutral or insipid: praised by the literati in the West, he has typically been damned by his brown and black readers. Alfred Kazin and Elizabeth Hardwick discern literary genius and analytic acumen in him; literary intellectuals like Edward Said and Derek Walcott see "emptiness" and rank "prejudice", respectively, in his novels and non-fiction.
This cultural divide is more or less synonymous with the boundary Euro-America has drawn between itself and the world beyond. For the latter, Naipaul writes for and in the interest of the white world: he thrives on their patronage, he flatters them by holding up the colonials to ridicule. As Said once put it, "Naipaul has allowed himself quite consciously to be turned into a witness for the Western prosecution", and thus an advocate of liberal western imperialism.
In his account of their 30 year friendship in Sir Vidia’s Shadow, Paul Theroux adduces no reminiscences that would justify such a tag. Undoubtedly, Naipaul’s trenchant literary and moral criticisms of the South and its people often read like a colonial indictment; his prejudices against them are patent and deep: he is usually scathing, merciless, corrosive but his assessments have nothing to do with desiring white re-conquest or resettlement of this world. Far from it: Naipaul’s is the classic diasporic sensibility of the children of transplanted immigrants, specifically of their erudite, schooled scions. Disinherited by both motherlands, the ancestral and the imperial, they are truly alienated spiritually and culturally, and yet shaped and sustained by their colonial western upbringing. Not so paradoxically, this breed of colonials feels at home nowhere: the West afford fleeting respite on the margins of metropolitan life.
In The Enigma of Arrival(1987), Naipaul records the depth of his sense of being an alien, an outsider in his own and in the eyes of the English. Trinidad, India, Africa, the Muslim world, beckon constantly and simultaneously repel him. He is finally outraged by this world’s intellectual and material weakness, its shabby modernity, its being at the mercy of the West and thus useless for colonials like him. In Africa he finds decrepitude, in India shoddy mimicry in the midst of squalor, among the Muslims he encounters medievalism living off the products of modernity. None of this is ennobling, all of it enrages him because he is "desperately concerned about the countries I’m in". (Newsweek, Nov. 1981)
Fanon, Gandhi partially, and in a more complex way Marx, have traveled this path long before Naipaul, and in these impassioned men rage and expectation were entwined with the need to truthfully describe and assess what lay before their very eyes. Naipaul’s candor, nevertheless, is offensive because he rarely inquires beneath the literal and literary appearance. Sociology and history in any depth do not interest him, nor is he inclined to subject the whites and West to the kind of scrutiny that he lavishes on the South. In A Bend in the River (1979), the native-born Hindu, Indar, eloquently sums up Naipaul’s disaffection:
My rage wasn’t only with the Africans. It was also with our community and our civilization, which gave us energy but in every other way left us at the mercy of others ... We have no means of understanding a fraction of the thought and science and philosophy and law that have gone to make (the) outside world. We simply accept it ...It never occurs to us that we might make some contribution to it ourselves.
Failure and betrayal by India, its unwillingness to see and imagine its own pathway to modernity is incomprehensible. Naipaul is humiliated by India’s refusal to fix itself socially and morally, to be the motherland that can protect him and count politically in this world but there is no hint in his anger of the impact and imprint of imperial rule, the economic and intellectual price paid by India and Africa.. Naipaul glosses that immense, zealous, destructive legacy by dismissing it as another attempt to avoid responsibility by blaming the West.
His is a cultivated ignorance and innocence about the new and old imperialisms and their global power which he concedes only obliquely and occasionally. For Naipaul, the third world is at fault in sustaining and advancing its own degradation in the aftermath of independence: its conduct and choices are now its own, colonials have lost the right to keep blaming their European conquerors, that epoch of mastery and domination is over. To his mind, the future is theirs to mold in a modern way, harping on the imperial past promises only regress.
His high reputation, unsurprisingly, is a quintessentially Western one: he writes in English and candidly, infrequently with sympathy, about third world places and peoples with the eye of an insider and with an attitude that feeds into the postcolonial, metropolitan consensus that failure is the numbing, prosaic and encompassing reality in the third world -- order, stability, literary achievements are uncommon exceptions, tenuous happenings. Naipaul’s constituency, his audience, is mainly in the West and white, though not exclusively so. Fellow-West Indians C.L.R. James and Derek Walcott, have bestowed high praise on him, though Walcott has also severely criticized him for his anti-black prejudices. His third world readers are not enamored as a rule with Naipaul the man or the literary phenomenon.
In May 1994 in a New Yorker interview, Naipaul bluntly avowed what has long troubled many of his "native" readers: "I am not a simple man. I have an interesting mind, a very analytical mind. And what I say tends to be interesting. And also very true". Such bluster is rare and offensive in a demotic, leveling age and especially so when the bulk of his analysis and truth-telling are focused on unprivileged, poor, darker inhabitants of our world.Naipaul’s strictures and lack of empathy are unusual in a literary figure but not new: he has been honing this contrary, cutting sensibility since the start of his writerly life. In the same interview Naipaul also asserts that his attitude has always been "that one must look inward and understand why one is weak, why a culture like mine or like the one in India from which I come ancestrally – why they are so without protection in the world". The liberal assumptions that enable and legitimize such views cast doubt on the facile commonplace that Naipaul is a racist and a self-hating one to boot: a very tempting but insupportable appraisal.
Trashing him takes up only a couple of chapters in Theroux’s touching, evocative memoir of Naipaul, Sir Vidia’s Shadow. In the remainder of the book Theroux unpacks the many events, incidents and opinions that found their way into his mentor’s writings: he recollects for us much of their shared experience and context that led Naipaul to his notorious views. In this sense, Theroux’s textured re-imagining of their common past confirms much of what we have known or suspected about Naipaul.
In a fascinating, solicitous rendering of his long friendship with Naipaul, Theroux fluently, patiently, often delicately and engagingly, details their unusual literary and personal relationship that began at Makerere University accidentally in 1966 (Uganda), his prodigious debt to Naipaul in becoming a writer at all, his many willing favors for him, the travails of the writing life, the constant worries about money, their travels together by car in Kenya and Rwanda, their socializing in the Naipaul home in Wiltshire, their countless lunches and dinners together (he insists that Naipaul never paid for them).
For Naipaul’s first wife, Theroux had much pity, he liked her and marveled at her strength in putting up with her husband and he resented Naipaul’s advice on treating his servants in Kampala. Still, Naipaul was capable of compassion and concern: he commiserated with Theroux when his marriage fell apart, he empathized when latter’s Nigerian lover turned out to be pregnant by another man.
Apparently, Naipaul was a charming, warm friend, all too human after all, in the by and large flattering portrait that Theroux paints of him. But his narrative is also about his encountering Naipaul’s pungent, harsh political and cultural judgements that Theroux found mildly disturbing and that he never challenged. In fact, little in what Theroux reports about his friend’s opinions is radically new or shocking: these scabrous, imperious valuations and interpretations have long been available in his own books and essays. To Naipaul, the world is suffused with INFIES of all stripes: inferior, common, low class, vulgar, uncultivated, deluded and destructive folks. Dark people in dark, lush places appear to be the worst offenders, but whites in the third world and Britain are no less inferior and no less culpable in Naipaul’s eyes, though he has much less to say about their flaws.
For his own brown kind, Hindu and Muslim, and the blacks, he reserves the best of his vituperation: for the Arabs who "piss" in public places in London, Indians "who defecate everywhere", for Africans who "smell" and beat "bongo drums" all the time, inferior whites teaching even more inferior blacks in African universities and so on and so forth. This is the fruit of Naipaul’s tutored literary eye: he records what he sees as the truth but it is a visual, superficial truth that suggests to him deeper, perhaps intractable, limitations. Such settled habits and practices convey the lineaments of an inferior, execrable, indefensible pattern of living, and they bespeak collective defects in vision, of the humanly tolerable and acceptable. For Naipaul, nothing, it seems, can really explain or excuse these limitations in the modern epoch.
As Theroux effectively documents, Africans bear the brunt of Naipaul’s disaffection: bush and bongo people from beginning to end, they "have no future". Whatever the colonizers left behind, will return to the "bush" literally and mentally: he predicted that Uganda and Zaire would return to and once again become "bush". Naipaul’s critique of caste-bound, superstitious, symbol-drenched Indians mired in filth and squalor, refusing "to see", in An Area of Darkness (1964) and his contemptuous depiction of "India’s intellectual second-rateness" and "its poverty of mind" in India: A Wounded Civilization (1977), is indisputably tough and insulting.
Still, the Indian situation is not hopeless or beyond remedy: Africa is "done", the bush and nothing but the bush is the black destiny. For Arabs and Muslims, the possibilities for improvement are faint but discernable: Africans alone lack the requisite intellectual resources to redeem themselves. An irrational animus infects tone and the syntax of Naipaul’s dismissal of Africa to irrelevance, in part a legacy of his memory of Trinidad’s racial politics where "oppressors and oppressed change so quickly" ("London", 1958) and the expulsion of the native-born Indians from Uganda. His idiom is structured to cause terrible pain, to put blacks in mind of the disposition of their enslavers and killers of old. But Naipaul does not yield to the temptation of white racism and its nostalgia for bestial regime of white mastery, even if his tone may seem to imply such a remedy.
Naipaul’s gut response to the racial scene in his English home is instructive. Theroux’s memoir sheds some illuminating light on Naipaul’s full cognizance of British racism. He is anxious about it and it affects where and how rapidly he walks when he is out by himself. He is afraid of traveling by the Underground (subway) because the "louts and racists" are usually there to harass and beat up brown skinned people like him.
As Theroux recounts, Naipaul was acutely conscious of the accusation that he fancied himself an Englishman: "People who see one as a little brown Englishman are making the biggest mistake of all. One reads it. One hears it. One is somewhat appalled". Naipaul saw this as a denial of his difference, his freedom to write and have opinions, an attack on his identity as a writer and observer of the human condition: this was nothing more than a gross political judgement of a literary figure with a mind of his own. Even worse, it was a racial evaluation intended to put the "Trinidadian writer" in his place, back into his sterile island prison.
To celebrate the liberal West and the "pursuit of happiness" as "our universal civilization" without registering its dark underside in any detail, is to invite exactly the kind of response that Naipaul rejects. His critics have a point: his literary paean to western modernity is supercilious, unleavened by critical analysis or historical scholarship. His detractors are entitled to discern bias and ignorance, to wonder why Naipaul’s pronouncements on the darker races, their character, their nations, on their intellectual "mimicry", "parasitism", "half-made societies", sound so much like the tropes of the racist consensus in the West ? White political and scholarly elites habitually depict the third world in Naipaulian terms. The affiliations are undeniable but Naipaul is too intelligent, too savvy to serve as dupe of the West.
As I read him, Naipaul’s scabrous critiques are driven by his palpable disgust at the spectacle of two venerable civilizations like the Indian and the Islamic dazed and paralyzed by inner inertia, and incapable of mastering the modern political, cultural and scientific regime human imposed by the West on them. No escape route is available from this universalized order, from its technological embrace and many of its values, there is no other world available now. For Naipaul, the choice is between slavish subservience or creative appropriation for their own purposes, including the field of literature. Infantile mimicry and parasitic dependency of the kind on display in these regions is both useless and embarrassing to Naipaul: he has no real understanding and appreciation of the culture and values of these old civilizations and their dilemmas, though he appears to be more receptive to their claims in India: A Million Mutinies Now (1992). For Africa and Negroes, however, he can summon little sympathy or interest: his contempt is highly prejudicial and deplorable.
Writing for Naipaul is both a kind of mental torture and physically exhausting, and deeply fulfilling. To judge by the caliber of his work, this is not hard to believe: his fine sentences and tough judgements are evidently the product of much thought as is his penchant for tackling big subjects like ethics, culture, literacy, manners, ideas and so on. In Theroux’s memoir, this side of Naipaul is pithily revealed and serves to show up Theroux’s own literary and moral lightness: Theroux surfaces as unbearably petty, crassly American. For him writing is very easy, fornicating "howling" women seems to be an obsession: he was "aroused" by Pat Naipaul’s breasts and itching to have sex with Antonia Fraser. Naturally he is kind to poor Africans (especially servants), fashionably feminist and very concerned about how men like Naipaul treat women. Indeed he is so incensed by a particular sexual scene in Naipaul’s A Bend in the River (1979) (Salim spits between Yvette’s legs) that he casts the deciding vote denying his "friend" the Booker Prize (he was one of the judges that year). ( Naipaul, one presumes, must have learned of this). In this book, Theroux repeatedly makes fun of the accents of his black students and his lovers like Yomo, he never objects to Naipaul’s racial comments (that he reports Naipaul uttered) but he is much troubled by Naipaul’s posture towards women (white ones especially).
Too often Theroux lapses into pathetic, tired cliches of American popular culture. Following the sudden death of Naipaul’s brother Shiva, Theroux realized "how precious life was, how brief, how each day mattered". Whereas Naipaul laments the pressure sexual desire puts on a man, Theroux asserts that sex for him is both "knowledge" and "mind-expanding". (One can hear Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey nodding and stamping their feet with approval). But Theroux truly comes into his own towards the end of his story: in his bitter anger he resorts casually to racial slurs against Naipaul and his new wife from Pakistan, Nadira Alvi: now he is "an Indian performing an authentic rope trick", his face is almost "ugly", he is "an excitable Asiatic" reminding Theroux of "hooded eyes" and Asian hordes. And Nadira the "very dark" femme fatale who swept Naipaul off his feet so soon after Pat’s death, and whom Theroux blames for his shunning by Naipaul and the termination of their friendship (sans explanation), is "crazy ... nuts", writes "babu English", ungrammatical and incoherent, and she is from a "shitty little town" in Pakistan.
Theroux no longer "admires" Naipaul, he now wonders if the man has any "talent": still, he has in his own mind at least become Naipaul’s "equal". Naipaul’s cutting him off, one suspects, tells Theroux what he cannot abide and cannot accept: that he is after all just another INFIE and equally dispensable. As for Naipaul, his literary achievement and his insights are indisputably substantial. But his truth is partial, selective, and marred by his failure to recognize the liberal West’s rampant sexual primitivism, its gutting of Asian economies through the IMF and the World Bank, its terrible crimes of war and crimes against humanity in the third world since 1946.
In Naipaul this willful failure is all the more striking because though he lives and writes in the West, he is not of the West. For all the accolades and prizes Europe has conferred on him, Naipaul will always be an alien, an outsider, and he knows it. His second marriage to the Muslim Nadira, and not to his longtime companion the Anglo-Argentinian Margaret, is not without significance. No radical mellowing is yet apparent in Naipaul’s still mordant, unsentimental stance towards the non-west. In the narrator’s opening sentence in A Bend in the River, it seems to me, lies the conviction that succinctly captures and partially explains Naipaul’s attitude: