Sunday, 6 July 2008

Book of the Month: A Hot Country (Shiva Naipaul)

Shiva Naipaul died in 1985, when he was only forty. If he is remembered at all these days, it is as the younger brother of Sir V.S. Naipaul, the Nobel Laureate. He was one of the most accomplished writers of his time. His first novel, Fireflies, was published, when he was twenty five, to great acclaim, and won a number of awards. The second, Chip-Chip Gatherers, followed three years later, and was very well received critically. Martin Amis wrote that it was exhilrating to be alive at the same time as someone who could write like Shiva Naipaul. There then followed a long silence of seven years which Paul Theroux (in his reproachful, rancourous memoir, Sir Vidia's Shadow) attributed to the Writer's Block. This was not strictly true, as Naipaul, during this period wrote the brilliant travelogue, North of South, ; Black and White , the grim story of the mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana; as well as a collection of short stories. Then came, in 1980, A Hot Country.

Shiva Naipaul once said in an interview that he regarded his fiction and non-fiction work as one body of work as his non-fiction research yielded experiences and information that he developed into novels. One can easily see the common motif betwwen North of South and A Hot Country, Naipaul’s last and the shortest novel to be published in his life) set in the fictional, politically volatile country of Cuyama, apparently a disguised version of Guyana.

The novel tells the story of the crumbling marriage of Aubrey St Piers and his wife Dina as the country is descending into a chaos around them and is heading towards totalitarianism. The author tackles serious themes such as the decline and corruptions afflicting many African countries post-colonialism, and the tensions between different communities and races in these countries, originally deracinated by the colonial masters and who have been co-existing harbouring deep suspicions and prejudices against each other for decades. The author’s take on the situation is relentlessly pessimistic (not unlike that of V.S. Naipaul in his African novel A Bend In The River), which, by the time you finish the novel, fills you with gloom. It has to be said, though, that in light of what is going on in many of these countries, Naipaul’s novel, written more than two decades ago, seems very prophetic. The story of the protagonists and the supporting characters take a subservient position to these grander themes that are clearly very close to Naipaul’s heart; indeed some of the charaters such as the English journalist Alex seem to have been introduced only so as to allow the author to make the point that what goes on in these colonies hold very little interest for their ex-masters, although they have, from the historical perspective, sowed the seeds of the discord.

What makes this novel a joy to read is Naipaul’s language which is precise, elegant, acutely observant and brilliantly evocative. This is a literary book which strives to make serious points, and offers (as the author has done in his other non-fiction work) explanations which may be frowned upon by the politically correct.

In Sir Vidia's Shadow, Paul Theroux dismissed Shiva Naipaul as a poseur who aped his much more gifted elder brother. There are undoubtedly many similarities between Shiva Naipaul’s thematic concerns and attitudes, as reflected in his work of fiction and non-fiction, and those of V.S. Naipaul: the social and political conditions in the African third world countries, especially the former colonies. Both tend to take a rather stark view of life (V.S. Naipaul more so in his later works) and are not overly indulgent towards mediocrity. Neither of them is shy of telling unpalatable truths, and, unsurprisingly, not everyone likes what they write.

A Hot Country is a fine novel. And when one considers it with the rest of Shiva Naipaul's (slim but very impressive) oeuvre, it is impossible not to wonder how he would have developed had he lived longer.