V.S. Naipaul, the winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature, is, as the BBC website would describe it, a controversial figure in British literature. In vulgate, it means that there are many who would like nothing better than to feed his entrails to the hyenas. If you want to spit at Sir Vidia, then, as they say, you will have to join the queue where Derek Walcott, and Paul Theroux are jostling to be at the head.
In November 2010 Naipaul had to withdraw from the loftily titled European Writers’ Parliament (EWP)—the brain child of two other Nobel Laureates, Orhan Pamuk and Jose Saramago—in Turkey. Trouble began for the 78 year Naipaul soon after he was invited to give the opening speech. And this time, he hadn’t even said anything to upset people. A poet and philosopher by the name of Hilmi Yavyuz wrote in a widely circulated Turkish newspaper that invitation to Naipaul was disrespectful [to whom?] because he had insulted Islam in the past. Once the clarion call was made by the philosopher Yavuz, it seemed as if there was a competition amongst several Turkish writers (presumably with long beards) to see who was more outraged by the invitation to Naipaul (who also sports a beard these days, but not very long). Several Turkish writers declared that they could not, durst not, must not, and would not share the same postcode, let alone a podium, with the infidel who had been offensive to their great religion. Some came very close to suggesting that a fatwa be declared against Naipaul. (OK, I made it up, but doesn’t it seem like the next logical step, to the extent logistic has a place in orthodox Islam? If indeed a fatwa was taken out against Naipaul, who had described Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie as an extreme form of literary criticism, would it have been considered ironic by the British news papers? I should clarify that I am glad that no fatwa was taken out against Naipaul or, for that matter, no one was killed, which is always a worry when Muslim sentiments get hurt.) This was followed by a stirred up storm in the Turkish newspapers by selective quotes attributed to Naipaul about Islam which suggested that (how shall I put this delicately?) he took a less than positive view of Islam. Naipaul then withdrew from the event, claiming that the event had been politicised.
Two months prior to Naipaul getting the boot from the European Writers’ Parliament was published The Masque of Africa, Naipaul’s most recent work of non-fiction, in which he purports to examine the workings of African traditional belief, travelling on a theme, as it were. I have not read The Masque of Africa (I am waiting for it to come out in paperback), but the book, like its author, has generated extreme reviews. Robert Harris, writer of racy thrillers, hissed in the Times that the book was ‘toxic’, ‘racist’, and ‘repulsive’ (I haven’t read Harris’s review because I cannot, should not, must not, and will not pay £ 2 every week to Rupert Murdoch in order to have the online access to the Times), and compared Naipaul to Oswald Mosley, the British Fascist leader in the 1930s. (This from a man who petitioned that a certain seventy odd years old man, who is wanted in America for having sex with an underage girl and is on the run for more than three decades, should not be extradited to that country. Could it be because the old pervert has directed a film based on one of Harris’s novels?)
In Independent, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, that giant presence in the British literary scene, sneered at the ‘brown sir, with glittering prizes [who is] still afraid of the third world that made him.’ Albhai-Brown’s review, full of bile and prejudice and a basinful of clichéd observations, showed her for what she is: a bumptious, pompous, self-righteous, and not very bright woman with prissy littlie opinions.
Samir Rahim, in his review of The Masque of Africa, in The Telegraph, wondered what Naipaul sees when he looks in the mirror. Does he wonder (Naipaul, that is, not Rahim, although, strictly speaking, it is Rahim who is wondering what Naipaul wonders) whether he is the Nobel Prize winning sage who has written 30 acclaimed books over 50 years, or whether he is a fraud, pretending to be a country gentleman in Wiltshire [where Naipaul lives], when his true place is amongst the wretched of the world? Now I have never met Naipaul, but I am going to go out on a limb and guess that Sir Vidia has no doubt in his mind what he sees when he looks in the metaphorical mirror.
Naipaul is not unaccustomed to flak. Over the years he has attracted, either deservingly or undeservingly, more than fair share of hostile animadversion, the kind of over-the-top, ultra-righteous, over-dramatic twaddle boy Harris wrote in The Times, or the silly doggerel Derek Walcott read out in a literary festival in Jamaica, in 2008. The sneering and poisonous diatribe of Alibhai-Brown reveals perhaps more about the workings of her mind than the quality (or its lack) of Naipaul’s book: it is as if Alibhai-Brown is furious that Naipaul, of Indian descent like her, born ‘amongst the wretched’, had the temerity to rise above his lot, win the Nobel, and live in English countryside, when he ought to have done no better than work in the paddy fields of Trinidad, or, at best, become a clerk in Trinidad Public Transport.
Finally, I came across a review in the Guardian of Patrick French’s India: A Portrait, by Arvind Adiga, the 2008 Booker Prize winner. Adiga started his review thus:
‘A non-fiction book on India must aim to be either literature or journalism. If the book's goal is to be literature – to find a way through the stories of Indians to the heart of the human condition – then it competes with VS Naipaul's India: A Million Mutinies Now, the best thing written about the subcontinent in the past 30 years.’
Adiga then went on to observe that ‘the influence of Naipaul is obvious in French's new book, which relies on detailed character sketches of individual Indians – ranging from prime ministers such as Indira Gandhi to a guerrilla leader of India's Naxalite insurgents – to tell the story of how India became one of the world's fastest-growing economies and one of its most stable democracies.’
In the comments section on Adiga’s article, the first comment is by someone who calls himself (or herself) ‘kanchhedia’. I quote from the comment:
‘I am appalled to think that Mr. Adiga thinks that what V.S. Naipaul writes is literature. Nothing that that ass-kissing toady of Western imperialism ever wrote can be described as literature even in the loosest sense of the word. Awarding V.S. Naipaul the Nobel Prize for literature was a lot like awarding the Nobel Prize for peace to Henry Kissinger. Nothing like an original idea ever passed through the bilious vacuum that Sir Vidiot has for a mind. But then, what would Mr. Adiga know of literature? The only work of fiction he has written is based on what he learnt of rural India from his servants.’
Each, as they say, to his opinions. I do not know how many books of Naipaul ‘kanchhedia’ has read. Having read India: A Million Mutinies Now, the third book of the trilogy Naipaul wrote over more than two decades (also, the most balanced of the three books, in my view), I have no trouble agreeing with Adiga’s verdict. Of the books I have read about India, India: A Million Mutinies Now is one of the best. I should also say that the first book of the trilogy, An Area of Darkness, written in the 1960s, seems excessively pessimistic and very harshly critical of that country. Naipaul struggles in the book to see anything positive in or about India; the country, for him, as the title of the book suggests, was a basket case. It was also Naipaul’s first visit to the country from where his ancestors immigrated to the Caribbean in the nineteenth century. It was almost as if Naipaul had a beau ideal of India in his mind, and, when he encountered the grim reality, he was severely disappointed. India: A Million Mutinies Now is a much more balanced work, and, to me, shows Naipaul’s growing maturity as a writer. (As an aside, in White Tiger, the novel for which he won the Booker Prize, I thought Adiga depicted very convincingly the lives led by those in what he described (admittedly a tad ostentatiously) as the other India. It is a well-written novel, and there is nothing in the novel, or indeed in Adiga’s biography, to suggest that he ever had servants at his beck and call. In any case, fiction is ultimately a work of imagination; you do not have to have spied for MI5 in order to write an espionage thriller, as the success of Robert Harris’s novels shows.)
The ill-natured rant of ‘kanchchedia’ (I can’t believe it is a real name) and the prejudiced, dyspeptic and petty nonsense of the poseur Alibhai-Brown (who has no talent but tons of opinions) serve to show that V.S. Naipaul has a great ability to get under people’s skin. How does he manage it? Let’s have a look, shall we?
Firstly, there is Naipaul the person. A lot of Naipaul’s personal life has been laid bare in two books. The first of these is Paul Theroux’s vituperative and unforgiving memoir, Sir Vidia’s Shadow, in which the former disciple took an axe to his mentor’s reputation and accused him of racism, arrogance, misogyny (this is a partial list) and bullying. The book (very entertaining and readable, I have to say) seems to have been written out of pique: Theroux couldn’t quite understand why his mentor suddenly dropped him without any explanation. The second book is Patrick French’s ‘authorized’ biography of Naipaul, The World is what it is (the title taken from the opening sentence of one of Naipaul’s novels, my favourite: A Bend in the River). This book is on my ‘to read’ list, but I have read reviews of the book. French’s biography (which gives an account of Naipaul’s life up to the death of his first wife in 1996) echoes what Paul Theroux has written in his memoir: that the 2001 Nobel Laureate is probably not a very nice person; that he did not treat the women in his life well. The great Diana Athill, the legendary editor who supported many writers (including Philip Roth and Naipaul himself) in their struggling years, considered Vidia Naipaul to be the trickiest of the lot. In a recent interview Athill remarked that whenever she was going through difficult periods (personal and professional) in her life, she cheered herself up with the thought that at least she was not married to Vidia. Well, big deal! Is Naipaul the only writer who is not a ‘nice person’ in his private life? (Philip Roth has been described by his ex-wife as a ‘nasty piece of work’.) My neighbor Norman is one of the nicest blokes you will ever meet. Norman is kind, considerate, affectionate, and always willing to lend a helping hand. He is steady and reliable. He is also a very boring man. And he couldn’t write a book if his life depended on it. Great artists are great precisely because they deviate from the population mean in many respects. This is not something to be recommended, of course (and the reverse is not true either: many geniuses may be t**ts, but most t**ts are not geniuses), but that is how frequently it is. I am sure Somerset Maugham was not a very nice person; he was still a great writer.
Linked to the above is Naipaul’s public persona: the interviews he gives from time to time, the comments he makes about other writers, and the comments he has made over the years—at least the comments that are attributed to him in various magazines and blogs—about Islam and Africa, amongst other things.
In the interviews of Naipaul that I have read he does come across as intense, brooding, mournful, difficult, prickly, and (occasionally) contradictory with an insatiable penchant to call spade a spade. He is disdainful of the renowned English novelists of the yore, and seems to take delight in dismantling the reputations of the likes of E.M. Forster and Anthony Powell. You can’t help feeling, at times, as you read these interviews, that there is a mischievous child inside Naipaul when he makes these comments. And he is haughty. He does not like being compared to Orwell (but Conrad will do). He is also a perfectionist. Diana Athill, his editor at Andre Deutsch, remarked once that Naipaul didn’t even need a copy-editor; he had a very clear idea where he wanted a hyphen and where he wanted a comma, and all that she had to do was to see whether the type-setter had got it right. (Incidentally, Naipaul parted company with Andre Deutsch after Athill dared to criticize the manuscript of his novel Guerrillas.)
The problem (for me, anyway) regarding Naipaul’s comments about Islam and Africa is: it is difficult to be sure what exactly Naipaul is supposed to have said at different times.
In the August 2010, Times published an interview of Naipaul. The interviewer says to Naipaul that the tone of Masque of Africa (which was published the same month) is bleak, and tallies with his previous bleak pronouncements on Africa such as its people are ‘primitive’. In response Naipaul asks the interviewer, ‘Where did I say that? Can you tell me?’ It then turns out that the ‘primitive’ quote comes from a letter Naipaul wrote to Antonia Fraser. Naipaul then says, ‘I have no context of what you have just said. I have to say I am a bit lost.’ The interviewer is not willing to let go, however. He wants to make Naipaul accept that his view of Africa is essentially pessimistic as it is in his two fictional works on Africa, In A Free State (which won the 1971 Booker Prize), and A Bend in the River. What is Naipaul’s response? ‘To be pessimistic or
optimistic—that is one-dimensional. Everything is in a state of flux, everything changes; I wouldn’t want to take a side in that debate.’
Throughout the interview Naipaul refuses to say what the interviewer clearly wants him to; neither does he draw any clear conclusions about The Masque of Africa, and eventually concludes that many of the extreme views he has been associated over the years are not a reflection of his true opinions, but rather misquotations.
I think it is probable that Naipaul on many occasions has been quoted out of context or, as he believes, simply misquoted.
Nevertheless let’s assume that on the whole Naipaul’s views of Islam and Africa are not favourable.
If we look at Naipaul’s comments about Islam, two comments in particular seem to get circulated widely on the net (which is not the same as he actually said it, using exactly those words). In one of the comments Naipaul compares the spread of Islam to the colonization of Africa, Asia, and Latin America by the European powers, and concludes that on the whole it had a ‘calamitous effect’ on those who were converted. The comment attributed to him goes like this:
‘Islam 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 does not matter….’
Another comment on Islam, attributed to Naipaul, is:
‘Islam is in its origin an Arab religion. Everyone not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert. Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It makes imperial demands. A convert’s worldview alters. His holy places are in Arab lands. His sacred language is Arabic. His idea of history alters. He rejects his own: he becomes, whether he likes it or not, a part of the Arab story. The convert has to turn away from everything that is his.’
Both of the above comments are points of view. They suggest that the person holding these views probably does not see, from a socio-cultural viewpoint, Islam or its spread as necessarily a positive thing. Now I do not know enough about Islam or how it spread in different parts of the world, but they do seem like sweeping generalizations about the world’s fastest growing religion. Also, to regard someone whose family embraced (or was forced to convert to) Islam hundreds of years ago as a convert does not seem very logical to me. Some may also (rightly) point out that the same criticism could be made of the other great proselytizing religion, Christianity, and wonder why Naipaul chooses to remain silent about it. However, can one not make observations about religions in isolation? Why is it that you have to bring in another religion every time you speak about a religion? There are many who level similar accusations at Christianity and do not attract the hostility Naipaul does. In any case, these comments (if indeed Naipaul made them) hardly make him a racist (the last time I checked Islam was a religion, not a race).
Naipaul is branded as racist by some because of his views on Africa and the Caribbean. I have come across two quotes that are attributed to Naipaul in this regard. In one he gives his acerbic view on why his novels are not read in Trinidad, the country of his birth. He is supposed to have said that ‘these people’ [the Trinidadians] live a ‘purely physical lives’ which he found ‘contemptible’. It made them [the Trinidadians] interesting ‘only to chaps in universities who want to make compassionate studies about brutes.’ On another occasion, in one of the literary festivals, he is supposed to have given his reasons for not returning to Trinidad after he completed his studies in Oxford and decided to earn his living as a writer. The long and short of it is: Naipaul was dismissive of the intellectual life in Trinidad and did not think he could write in that atmosphere. He is supposed to have said ‘You can’t beat a novel out on a bongo drum’ or something like that. (It does sound like the kind of remark Naipaul would make. I might have come across it in Theroux’s Sir Vidia’s Shadow, but am not totally sure.) What these comments reveal is that Naipaul thought that the country of his birth was a cultural wasteland and had reasons why he, once he got out of it, did not want to return. (In one of his books, A Writer’s People, he has expounded more on his dislike for Trinidad and has attempted to analyze it.) From his point of view they were essential reasons. And who are we to take issues with it? I mean, if you have decided to earn a living as a writer (a very brave decision in itself) then you couldn’t possibly be blamed for taking the steps you think are necessary to make it easier. In any case, is it such a heinous crime to not have warm feelings towards the place where you were born? I have always believed that the two most important events that shape our lives are not under our control: we can’t choose where we are born, and we can’t choose our parents. Let’s face it, on the whole your chances in life are better if you are born in the West instead of in what Paul Theroux once poetically described as the turd world. And what has contributed to it? The accident of birth. To expect people to have feelings of loyalty towards a place and culture simply because they happened to have been born there is a bit like expecting everybody to enjoy boiled courgettes because they are supposed to be good for your health: some might like the taste and texture of boiled cellulose, others won’t. So Naipaul is not madly in love of Trinidad where he was born. Big deal! To insinuate that Naipaul has rejected his Caribbean heritage in order to get acceptance from the British literary establishment (as the poet Derek Walcott, another Nobel Laureate who hails from the neighbouring Caribbean island of St Lucia, has done) does Naipaul a disservice, and, given the kind of remarks he has made about many giants of British literature (E.M. Forster, Anthony Powell, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh to name just a few), is probably erroneous. (In his interview to theTimes in August 2010 he was dismissive of his Oxford years too: ‘The thing I regret the most about the past, really, is the Oxford business. Oxford fed me hardly at all. Oxford gave me nothing.’) Naipaul’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Enigma of Arrival, which I think is a masterpiece, goes some way to explain his attitude towards his adopted country. It is a story of a writer from the Caribbean, who finds the joy of homecoming in England. Why can’t we just take what Naipaul says at its face value? Why do we have to send search parties to ferret out ulterior motives? If there is one theme in Naipaul’s fiction that strikes me, it is the theme of alienation and displacement: many heroes of his fiction are outsiders. Naipaul considered himself to be an outsider in Trinidad where he was born, and he was obviously an outsider in England. Nevertheless if he felt himself to be more at peace in England than in Trinidad, could it not be simply because he felt more at home in England? Naipaul left Trinidad when he was 18 and, since then, has lived in England. In one of the essays about his childhood in Trinidad, Naipaul claims that while his family had lived in the Caribbean for more than one generation, they were completely embedded in an ‘Indian way of life’. He also writes that he hardly ever spoke to a black person as a child. Strange! But that’s how it was for him. It is hardly surprising, then, that he publicly acknowledged that the Nobel was a tribute to England, his adopted country, and India, the country of his ancestors, and failed to mention Trinidad. The point is: there is no need to jump to the conclusion that Naipaul’s antipathy towards the place of his birth makes him a racist. (What I also find interesting here is that when Naipaul makes these comments about Trinidad he does not actually specify whether he is talking about the Blacks or the Asians (Indians). I say this because when Naipaul was growing up (in the 1930s and 1940s) and up until the end of 1950s (possibly longer), more than 40% of Trinidad’s population consisted of Indians, who were brought to the island by the British as indentured labourers (including, presumably, Naipaul’s ancestors), and the Blacks formed just over 50%. It is interesting that it is the Blacks who have chosen to take offence at Naipaul’s comments about Trinidad even though, in theory, he could have been referring to Indians (there is no reason to believe that the Indians were not leading the ‘purely physical lives’ which he found contemptible) as well as the Blacks when he made those comments.)
Finally, there are the books Naipaul has written over the years. These can be divided into fiction and non-fiction. It’s Naipaul’s non-fiction work that has generated the wrath and self-righteous indignation of the champagne lefties like Harris and Alibhai-Brown.
I should state here that V.S. Naipaul is the writer I admire the most. I have read all of his novels save the last one, and I have no hesitation in including several of his novels as some of the greatest to have been written in the twentieth century. Writing on Naipaul’s fiction is beyond the scope of this post (that is for another post), so I will only say that the early Naipaul novels are some of the funniest novels I have read. The mood and theme in his later works become increasingly somber and dark. I like his later novels (in many ways) even more, but I do miss the humour of his early novels, which is totally absent from his later work.
I have not read much of Naipaul’s non-fiction. I have read his trilogy on India; I’ve read Among the Believers—his journeys in the Islamic nations; I’ve read Literary Occasions— a compilation of the essays he published in various magazines over the years; and finally, I’ve read Letters between a Father and Son—another compilation, of incredibly moving letters between Naipaul and his father during Naipaul’s early years in England. I have not read either The Middle Passage, Naipaul’s journey through the Caribbean (in the 1960s, at the invitation of the then prime-minister of Trinidad), or (as I have mentioned earlier) The Masque of Africa, Naipaul’s first non-fiction book on his travels through some of the African countries.
A word about Naipaul’s non-fiction travelogues. They are more than just travelogues, in the sense that they are not descriptions of must-visit places for the tourists. Almost always Naipaul has a theme in his mind which he pursues. Towards this end he goes about visiting and speaking to people from the different strata of the society of the country he happens to be visiting. These people are not chosen randomly. He records the experiences of his subjects faithfully, but then draws his own inferences, and generalizes them to the country or the peoples he is studying. Not the most methodologically robust way of going about things, I agree, and I am sure Naipaul’s essays and observations will be rejected by the British Journal of Anthropology or the American Journal of Cultural Studies or whatever. But then Naipaul is not claiming to be a scientist. He is a highly intelligent writer, with above average powers of observations, and a gift for capturing the foibles of human nature and societies; and he reveals them without mercy. (This is equally true, in my view, of his fiction. The reason I return to many of Naipaul’s novels again and again—he is the only writer whose fiction I have read more than once—is because his fictional characters so inerrantly echo universal human experiences.) It may make uncomfortable reading; you may squirm uneasily when you read it; you may wish Naipaul were more sparing when he makes his observations; but that is of little concern to him. He records things the way he sees them. It is, in my view, a very powerful way of capturing readers’ interest; the writing becomes much more credible in my eyes, the way Naipaul does it. His former follower Paul Theroux has mimicked this format effectively in many of his travelogues, as has Patrick French in his book on India (if Arvind Adiga’s review is anything to go by).
And it is undeniable that however disputable and contestable are Naipaul’s views; however unpalatable or unpleasant you may find the way he chooses to highlight things, there is a prescience to what he has written, exemplified by the uneasy relationship West and Islam have come to share in the 21st century. I read Among the Believers, first published in 1981, a few years ago and came to the inescapable conclusion that it was prophetic writing. Naipaul was accused by his critics of presenting a narrow and biased vision of Islam in this book, but I think his aim was very clear: he wanted to understand the ideological fury that he felt was gripping many in the Islamic nations; he wanted to understand the attempt of many to forge an identity for themselves through their version of Islam which was pure. He detected, in his travels through the Islamic world and talks to ordinary people, a desire by many to return to the glory days of Islam. And what he wrote:
(‘Islam sanctified rage—rage about faith, political rage, one could be like other . . I met sensitive men who were ready to contemplate great convulsions.’)
in 1981 makes even more sense in 2011, with the debacle in Iraq.You might say that what is happening now, Naipaul saw it coming three decades ago and warned about it. Herein also lies, I think, part of the problem Naipaul has faced in the last decade. In the aftermath of September 11, with the anti-Muslim paranoia gripping America and Europe, some of Naipaul’s views about Islam became fashionable amongst centre-right politicians and thinkers. Which meant that those who were centre-left felt that they had no choice but to come down heavily on Naipaul and discredit him. From what I have read about Naipaul (mainly some of the interviews he has given to broadsheets), I don’t think he gives a toss what people on
the right or on the left think about him. (A lot of pleasure of Naipaul’s writing, for me, is the style in which he delivers his prophecies of doom. Again, to quote from The Enigma of Arrival:
‘To see the possibility, the certainty, of ruin, even at the moment of creation: it was my temperament. Those nerves had been given me as a child in Trinidad partly by our family circumstances: the half-ruined or broken-down houses we lived in, our many moves, our general uncertainty.’
Naipaul has always maintained that he has allegiance to no one and writes the way he sees the world without a compromise, without caring to whom it might appeal and whom it might alienate. He is a stateless observer. He does not care to be liked. He does not feign. There is nothing sham about what he writes. He tells it as he sees it. And if you do not like what he says or what he shows, well, tough titty. It is for this reason he was said to be very surprised when he was awarded the Nobel. (Apparently when the phone call came, he refused to take it, believing it was a hoax.)
As for his writing on Africa, I shall make up my mind when I read The Masque of Africa (although you’d have discerned by now that I am hardly an unbiased reader of Naipaul). The book, as described earlier, has generated very hostile and lop-sided reviews. The only decent British reviews I came across were by Giles Foden and Aminatta Forna, both in the Guardian, and by William Boyd in the TLS. None of the reviews, I should point out, is laudatory, but the reviewers do not appear to have taken complete leave of their senses when they are critical of the book. Foden notes that Naipaul ‘never writes of Africa with anything remotely approaching love.’ Boyd remarks that Naipaul has become the Moosbrugger of our times and views the wide world through his narrow lens. Forna notes that Naipaul does himself a disservice when he fails to verify much of his information and seems to take some of the stories told him at face value. Forna concludes that The Masque of Africa is a book for the outsiders, those who may never visit Africa or may know it only superficially. But, she goes on to say, it is a book in which Africans themselves may find something to learn. Forna finishes her review by stating that despite his best efforts she has grown to like Naipaul.
That, in a nutshell, is the trouble with Naipaul. He remains a deeply polarizing figure in British literature. There are those who believe that he is the greatest living British write of prose whose consistently brilliant and mesmerizing fiction has enriched the world of literature, and a fearless, visionary seer who has the ability to go to the very heart of the matter and throw into sharp relief that which many would rather believe does not exist. (I belong to this group). And then there are those who are convinced that he is a self-important, self-aggrandizing, narrow-minded, arrogant, blinkered, and deeply flawed man, whose time has long gone and he will be sorely missed by no one.