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.
So I connect with this remark offered by Salim, the narrator of V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River (1979) and an East African of Indian descent:
We felt in our bones that we were a very old people; but we seemed to have no means of gauging the passing of time … the past was simply the past.
Naipaul knows this mentality well. His grandfather emigrated to Trinidad from northern India at some point in the 1880s or 1890s to work as an indentured servant. As a boy, Naipaul heard Hindi spoken by his grandmother, whose domestic arrangements were leftovers from the old country; but when her generation passed, his evidence of India consisted of little more than double hearsay: “I know my father and my mother, but beyond that I cannot go. My ancestry is blurred.” He experienced the colony as a place of “spiritual emptiness,” of cultural signposts, British and Indian and American, that led to nowhere real. The flimsiness of this inheritance still torments him. As recently as 2007, he wrote,
I don’t, properly speaking, have a past that is available to me, a past I can enter into and consider; and I grieve for that lack.
There is a danger of over-extrapolating from the grief particular to V. S. Naipaul in order to reach general conclusions about post-colonial societies and their deep psychic wounds. We should remember that, by Naipaul’s own account, the overwhelming majority of Trinidadians were and are okay with not having an intelligible family history, were able to live with being “mimic men”: that is, with the inauthenticity of the colonial situation. Of course, that particular situation no longer exists. Trinidad and Tobago achieved independence in 1962 and, whatever its problems, now form a country with a deep and vigorous sense of selfhood. The colony Naipaul grew up in is gone. This is a cause of suffering for him, this
scarcely bearable idea of the beginning of things now existing only in my heart, no longer existing physically in the ravaged, repopulated Trinidad of today.
V. S. Naipaul, then, is anomalous in his pain. This is hardly surprising, since he is a writer and therefore in the business of taking too personally the world’s shortcomings; but the anomaly must be reckoned with, not least by Naipaul. In the profoundly autobiographical The Enigma of Arrival, the protagonist moves to the Wiltshire countryside and into a fixed culture of great antiquity—or so he thinks. He soon recognizes that his “idea of an unchanging life was wrong,” and reflects,
I had thought that because of my insecure past—peasant India, colonial Trinidad, my own family circumstances, the colonial smallness that didn’t consort with the grandeur of my ambition, my uprooting of myself for a writing career, my coming to England with so little, and the very little I still had to fall back on—I had thought that because of this I had been given an especially tender or raw sense of an unaccommodating world.
This constitutes an acknowledgment that all of us are burdened with the impermanence of things, not just those of us deprived of enduring tradition and a stable identity. The latter group may not even be especially fraught. In my own deracination, for example, I make V. S. Naipaul look like one of those redwoods you can drive a car through. He was born into the same situation as hundreds of thousands of other Trinidadians. He subsequently left the island for good; but he could still write about Trinidad, as he did in Biswas, from the viewpoint of one who belongs. I have never belonged anywhere. I am half Irish, half Turkish-Syrian, partly Anglophone, and partly Francophone. My pre-school memories are of South Africa, Mozambique, Iran, Turkey; the rest of my boyhood was spent in Holland, where I had one foot in the multinational expatriate community and another among the Dutch. Aside from my siblings, I share this background with nobody. And yet I do not feel that I am at an existential disadvantage.
I was, however, eventually placed in artistic difficulty: that of finding, in Naipaul’s phrase (appropriated from Darwin), “a resting-place for the imagination.” I could not write an Irish, Dutch, English, or Turkish novel. Later I saw that I had no option but to try to write stuff of no nationality. Naipaul was way ahead of me and practically everyone else on this front, though starting from a different place. Very early on, he decided that Trinidad alone was not a viable creative territory for him—in his view, “small places with simple economies bred small people with simple destinies”—and he consciously decided, early in his career, “to withdraw completely from nationality and loyalties except to persons.” French’s biography explores Naipaul’s capacity for personal loyalty. But what could it mean to withdraw from nationality?
With the exception of a charming oddity, the thoroughly English Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion (1963), V. S. Naipaul’s early, comic novels are distinctly Trinidadian: The Mystic Masseur (1957), The Suffrage of Elvira (1958), Miguel Street (1959), Biswas (1961), and The Mimic Men (1967). The darker, global phase begins with the Booker Prize–winning multi-narrative In a Free State (1971), set in Washington, D.C., and England and, mostly, an unnamed East African state. Guerrillas (1975) unfolds on an unnamed Caribbean Island, A Bend in the River (1979) in an unnamed country in central Africa, The Enigma of Arrival (1987) in England. His third act comprises A Way in the World (1994), a quasi-fiction that imagines its way into a history of colonialism; Half a Life (2001), whose main action is in London and a Portuguese-speaking African country; and its sequel, Magic Seeds (2004), in which our hero finds himself in Germany and India.
Then there are the nonfiction books. These include three travel books about India (1964, 1977, 1990); two about non-Arab Islamic nations (1981, 1998); and two about Africa (1980, 2010). There are also four books about the Caribbean and the Americas (1962, 1969, 1980, 1989). Whether or not we assent to Naipaul’s impressions or theses, the intensity of his effort to see and understand must be acknowledged. Indisputably, he has devoted a large part of his life to talking with people very different from himself, gone to extraordinary lengths to meet them and listen to them and think carefully about them. This is someone who, deep into his 70s, went to Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Gabon, and South Africa to report The Masque of Africa.
An overview of the whole enterprise makes one wonder: Is there another writer of English literature who has paid so much attention to the foreign? Plenty of books—by Greene, Waugh, Forster, Hemingway, Lowry, the Bowleses—are set abroad, but their core drama concerns Britons or Americans: the far-off countries are merely host nations (the Olympic Games come to mind). Naipaul proceeds differently. He privileges the alien place and its people with his most passionate scrutiny, so that, for example, the Congo-like locale of A Bend in the River comes to function as that novel’s brooding, highly complex protagonist. That novel is clearly responsive to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But Conrad writes from the perspective of the riverboat. Naipaul writes from the perspective of the riverbank.
This is an extremely demanding task, and it leads even Naipaul into technical trouble. A revealing flaw mars Bend. The novel’s first half is the story of the arrival of Salim and his slave in the town by the river, of Salim setting up his little business, and of his encounters with the various people living in the town and the surrounding bush; it has a wonderful novelistic grip. But the second half consists significantly of formally dubious scenes in which characters offer Salim a succession of lengthy self-explaining monologues. In his determination to get to the bottom of things, Naipaul abandons the invented story in favor of a nonfictional method, the oral testimony.
This impatience with literary priorities even affects his nonfiction, so that later books can read like a series of well-organized witness statements. Naipaul is well aware of this and untroubled by it: his idea of prose has always been an instrumentalist one. In Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (1998), he disparages his earlier, more literary cultural explorations and suggests that in those books he “got away with autobiography and landscape.” Beyond Belief begins with a declaration: “This is a book about people. It is not a book of opinion.” He adds,
It was years before I saw that the most important thing about travel, for the writer, was the people he found himself among.
Note the key phrase: for the writer. Naipaul is not writing for the other. He is writing for V. S. Naipaul. His books, in their obsession with alterity, justice, and belief systems, may easily be understood as an imaginative exercise in descriptive ethics. But identifying him as an author driven by ethics or anthropology or indeed by some reactionary ideology is like mistaking a lawyer for a crusader for justice. Naipaul has strong feelings and definite ideas, but these are collateral to what actually pushes him, again and again, out into the difficult world and then back to the still more difficult page.
I think this push may be traced to two sources. The first is a private anguish that, as one of his fictional protagonists puts it, “the whole world is being washed away and that I am being washed away with it.” This feeling, endemic in his work, is inextricable from a phobia, or nausea, he shares with W. G. Sebald, namely a sense of history as a vertiginous, terrifying, expanding darkness before which human schemes of enlightenment are helpless. His voyages into the depths of civilizations around the world only nourish this fearful vision. The same applies to his voyages into his own depths. He has written,
Increasingly I understand that my Indian memories, the memories of that India which lived on into my childhood in Trinidad, are like trapdoors into a bottomless past.
The second impetus comes from the logic of his elective statelessness. Having neither a domestic territory nor a viable alternative (as Conrad had, with his ships), Naipaul is forced to travel. He is self-displaced, in effect, into a rare and valuable dimension of inquiry that, it turns out, prefigures the post-national realities of the 21st century. Chief among these are the transformations brought about by new technologies of communication and new ideas of doing business. People from different places live in a new situation of proximity with each other. Consequently, a nation-state is less than ever an impermeable container of a person’s culture and identity; is less than ever an adequate delimitation of his ethical or political or economic concerns; is less than ever, it follows, a sufficient artistic canvas.
In this way, Naipaul has made his own luck. The Trinidadian upbringing he considered to be an artistic short straw is turned by him into a long straw. We cannot trust V. S. Naipaul, or indeed anyone, to get the world right. But he has emancipated himself from the facility enjoyed by the writer securely accommodated by a national viewpoint, and we can trust him to be free from the price payable for such facility.