By V. S. NaipaulKnopf
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.
The trajectory of V. S. Naipaul’s life is as familiar as that of any living writer. The biographical note that prefaces his books invariably begins,
V. S. Naipaul was born in Trinidad in 1932. He went to England on a scholarship in 1950. After four years at Oxford he began to write, and since then he has followed no other profession.
The rest of the story is equally well known: his self-establishment as a writer in, but not of, England; the early masterpiece, A House for Mr. Biswas (1961); the retreat to the Wiltshire countryside in 1970; the second great novel, The Enigma of Arrival (1987); the years of eminence (knighthood, Nobel); and, after the biography, the years in or around the doghouse. All the while, from about 1960 onward, he has traveled and traveled and written and written—15 books of fiction, 19 of nonfiction. But however far he journeys, he returns again and again, with never-ending distress and wonder, to himself and to the circumstances of his youth in colonial Trinidad.
What follows, then, is a Naipauline story—Naipauline because it is about displacement and disorientation, but also because it is about me, the writer: My mother is Turkish, but she belongs to a tiny minority of Syrian Christians that established itself in Mersin, a Mediterranean port, in the second half of the 19th century and in the early 20th century. (Naipaul knows about scattered Syrians, some of whom washed up in Port of Spain and prospered.) My mother’s great-grandfather moved to Mersin to set up a business shipping juniper logs to the builders of the Suez Canal. He, his brother, and other Syrians formed a community that was both insular and mutable. My grandmother spoke Arabic as a first language, her children French, and her children’s children, depending on where they have lived, Turkish or English or French. When I eventually began to think about this group of people to which I half-belonged, I understood that we were almost inexplicable to ourselves. We were unanalytically who we were, ourselves almost by virtue of who we were not—not Armenians or Greeks, not Chaldeans, not Assyrians, not Maronites, not totally Turks, not really Arabs, not French. (Because of France’s old colonial influence on the region’s Christians, some had a feeling that they were almost French, even though France was a faraway, mostly imaginary country where their existence was completely unknown.) There was almost no dwelling on the old days and little historical perspective or information on our identity. Our languages and Christian religions and food and distinctiveness pointed in directions—Greater Syria, the Ottoman Empire, the ancient Eastern churches, the Arab world—that did not compel attention. We were rooted, without unusual trauma, in the here and now.