Man Without a Country

V. S. Naipaul and the artistic rewards of statelessness
Abbas /Magnum Photos

From time to time I fantasize about commissioning nonfiction books. Two writers—no others—figure in these fantasies: Janet Malcolm and V. S. Naipaul. Currently I dream of sending Naipaul to Ireland. From the tearoom at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin (in Room 112 of which, he wryly reminds us, the Irish constitution was allegedly drafted), he extracts from a series of interlocutors detailed, thoughtful life stories illuminative of the condition of Ireland, currently in its post-post-colonial Shit Creek period. Propelled by his abnormal curiosity and diligence into various outings (I see Belfast, Roger Casement’s grave, the ruins of Clonmacnoise), overcoming the difficulties created by his advanced age, Naipaul hyper-notices random mundane stuff (a new road, an unsatisfactory sandwich) and productively examines local newspapers, all of which results in a picture of the Irish national malaise that, in its subtle grasp of lingering primitivities, its alertness to suffering and self-deception, and its firm overruling of local sensitivities, religious ones especially, knocks into a cocked hat Tocqueville’s Journey to Ireland (1835) and Böll’s Irish Journal (1957). If you’re going to fantasize, fantasize.

Perhaps the most basic wishful element of this scenario is that Naipaul still has it in him to travel. Last year saw the publication of The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief and the statement by Naipaul to the effect that he is too physically frail to write another book involving travel (the book comes out in paperback next month). It would seem that, unfortunately, a complete panorama of his wanderings is now available. What exactly has he been up to? I confess that one purpose of my Irish fantasy is to get a clearer sense of this. I know something about Ireland; I know very little about Pakistan, India, Iran, Malaysia, Indonesia, Mauritius, Argentina, or most of the other places from which, for half a century, he has brought us his distinctive version of news. I don’t for a moment suspect Naipaul of the surreptitious if ultimately valuable falsifications committed by Bruce Chatwin and Ryzsard Kapuscinski. But readers of travel literature have always been in a relatively weak position. They have few means of verifying what is offered by the traveler, who as a consequence is a kind of trustee of his truth.

Of course, some have never found Naipaul trustworthy. I’m particularly fond of this explosion from his old adversary Edward Said:

Naipaul’s account of the Islamic, Latin American, African, Indian and Caribbean worlds totally ignores a massive infusion of critical scholarship about those regions in favor of the tritest, cheapest and the easiest of colonial mythologies about wogs and darkies, myths that even Lord Cromer and Forster’s Turtons and Burtons would have been embarrassed to trade in outside their private clubs.

There are two criticisms here. First, the reportage is methodologically flawed. A response might be: it is what it is. Naipaul is not an ethnologist or a professional historian and does not hold himself out as one. He obviously writes in the tradition of the attentive visitor, and his work is an assertion of the continuing importance of that tradition: seeing for yourself, talking to people, embracing the randomness of experience, putting faith in your perceptiveness and your hobbyistic research, drawing your own conclusions. This is an imperfect modus operandi but a transparent one. The reader is not duped and can decide for herself what weight, if any, she will give to what she reads.

The other criticism is that his work evinces racist neo-colonialism. Naipaul certainly does not shrink from asserting that the imperial project had some constructive consequences. Thus he credits the British with introducing to India ideas of human association that had the effect of disturbing India’s ancient, paralyzing ways of seeing itself, thereby stimulating the growth of a new national self-consciousness. Is this neo-colonialism? Either way, Naipaul’s references to the horrors and failings of colonization are extensive, and it’s hard to see how the criticism, which these days feels anachronistic, can be made to stick; at least, not without recourse to the either/or fallacy very powerful 20 years ago and before, when it was difficult to draw attention to the infirmities of post-colonial societies, or indeed of pre-colonial societies, without being categorized, by serious people, as an apologist for the imperial era.

However, Said’s hyperbolic accusation of racism turns out to be substantive: the publication, in 2008, of Patrick French’s hair-raising authorized biography, The World Is What It Is, revealed that nigger is a venomously active word in Naipaul’s vocabulary. Other deplorable personal traits were revealed as well. Paul Theroux—author of the inimical memoir Sir Vidia’s Shadow (1998) and, according to Naipaul, writer of “tourist books for the lower classes”—thought that French’s book would

probably destroy Naipaul’s reputation for ever, this chronicle of his pretensions, his whoremongering, his treatment of a sad, sick wife and disposable mistress, his evasions, his meanness, his cruelty amounting to sadism, his race baiting.

I think Theroux was being optimistic. It’s true that the mess of the life can sully the work and its reception. However, most of us are able to hold an opinion of a book that is at odds with our opinion of its author (if we care to form one), and most of us are aware that writing carefully and at length is almost necessarily an act of self-transcendence. A deep formal rationale for going to the enormous trouble of committing words to paper over time is to find respite from the intellectually and morally chaotic buffoon who goes through the world minute by minute, and to bring into being that better, more coherent human entity known as the author. There is a remarkable difference, for instance, between the grandiose, reckless, and occasionally offensive Sir Vidia of the interviews, and the vigilant, empathetic, and impressive V. S. Naipaul of the writing. Once we have acknowledged Sir Vidia’s racism—it would be hard not to—there remains the question of V. S. Naipaul and of the kind of trust we may place in him.

Presented by

Joseph O'Neil

Joseph O’Neill’s books include Netherland and Blood-Dark Track.

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