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The muzak was irritating Sir Vidia. He sat in a hotel coffee shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on the last stop of his American book tour. We asked a server if the soft rock could be turned down. She explained that it was a "requirement" to play it just so. "It's a requirement," Sir Vidia echoed after she had gone, half asking, half judging—and considering, always considering.
Naipaul's longtime editor, George Andreou, sought to explain to Sir Vidia that a hotel coffee shop is a total concept: "If they violate the terms of the concept, everything falls apart." Naipaul considered this carefully. "Oh, I see," he said. "It becomes another kind of place."
This is how V.S. Naipaul lives: from observation to observation, sentence to sentence: life as the constant act of "working things out," as he calls it. He was in town to promote The Masque of Africa, a travelogue about the encounter between traditional African belief systems and the pressures of modernity. Our conversation in the hotel began with the most striking thing about the book for a longtime reader of Naipaul: the display of a sudden and unlikely sensitivity in the author. The Masque unmasks Naipaul—whose reputation for callousness toward humans is legendary—as a besotted, almost tender, lover of animals.
Substantial passages of animal sympathy occur, by my tally, on pages 8, 58, 77, 104, 108, 129, 144, 150, 158, 159, 199, and 224, with more passing accounts of animals sprinkled throughout. What strikes one about these passages is a plainly enunciated, uncomplicated compassion that Naipaul rarely allows himself with humans. Learning of the ill treatment of horses in Lagos, he says, "It was shocking to me that such a big animal, which needed constant attention, could be subject to such bad treatment. The unpleasant fact stayed with me." In Ghana, at the home of its former president Jerry Rawlings, Sir Vidia is taken with the sight of the family dogs being fed: "I could have looked at the feeding scene for a long time." In Ivory Coast, he writes of the local practice of placing a cat in a sack and submerging it in boiling water for eventual eating: "The thought of this everyday kitchen cruelty made everything else in the Ivory Coast seem unimportant."
V.S. Naipaul is not Anderson Cooper; in his narratives, he rarely intervenes to right a wrong or stand up for the little guy. But he does, in The Masque, when the little guy is an animal. At a hotel in Uganda, he writes, "a pretty little kitten, three or four months old, wailed piteously for food." Under the prompting of his questions, a saucer of milk is brought for the cat. At a party in Gabon, Naipaul is bothered by the sight of a feeble stray dog much weaker than the house dog. He asks someone "whether it would be bad manners to give him some of the food from my plate." He is freed to do so. At a palace in Kano, Nigeria, when he is unable to do anything for a small white kitten, he writes, "This little tragedy, and my own helplessness, cast a shadow over the rest of my visit to the palace."
In our conversation, Sir Vidia explained this new expression of feeling for animals as a product of overcoming his past. Growing up in Trinidad, he was surrounded by human cruelty and had felt, and done, nothing about it. A case that lingers in his mind is of a mentally ill neighbor who carried a stick in hand and beat someone up every day. Young Vidia knew because he heard the screaming. But he suppressed his reactions to what seemed routine.
As he has aged, that blockage has opened, he told me. Cruelty has come to stir him as it did not before. He described the animal passages in the book as an "acknowledging" of his own deepening reactions to a certain kind of cruelty. But the back story, offered at first only by his wife, traced this change to a gift on his 63rd birthday.
Around the time of that birthday, Nadira Naipaul, a charismatic Pakistani journalist who has been married to Sir Vidia since 1996, had gone with some friends to an animal shelter. She returned with a cat as a gift for her husband. The moment of his first contact with it was a revelation. "The cat was very frightened," he told me. "It's a little animal. It only has itself. It's very frightened, and it tried to run away, but of course it couldn't. It climbed up a screen door, the way animals can do, but then I touched it and something remarkable happened—happened with my touch. The cat recognized this is a friendly hand. He recognized it immediately and became easy. And, within an hour or two, he was walking all over. So it became a friend."
Lady Naipaul's theory is that the cat awakened in her husband emotional responses that had lacked in him before. He is coy about that idea: "That's her view, her view." But he allows that having the cat, feeling for it, sensing its fragility "has made me understand the brutality of people."
And, more than once, he repeated this idea: "A cat only has itself."
The difficulty of talking to V.S. Naipaul is that he seems to prefer not to. To converse with him is to be struck now and then by a blazing insight or fresh way of seeing, but also, and more often, to be brushed off, scolded and refused. How have his convictions changed over the years? "That's writing my books all over again. It's too big a question." Recalibrating and narrowing: has he come to love England, where he settled after leaving Trinidad? "That's a provocative question. I wouldn't answer it." What does he make of the talk of the decline of the West? "I haven't thought of that idea." Surely this will work: what questions does he most urgently wish to work out? "I will know later. I can't tell you now."