A Terrifying Honesty

V. S. Naipaul is certainly no liberal—and herein lies his importance

A group of eminent American writers appointed by the Librarian of Congress—including W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, and Robert Lowell—awarded the 1948 Bollingen Prize to Ezra Pound, for The Pisan Cantos. Because Pound had spent the war broadcasting propaganda for Mussolini, and was at the time in a mental hospital, having been judged unfit to stand trial for treason, the award not surprisingly caused a storm of protest, even though the judges insisted that they had taken as their guiding principle only "that objective perception of value on which any civilized society must rest," and denied that their decision had any political significance. Dwight Macdonald disagreed: the award was political, not to say "the brightest political act in a dark period," precisely because the judges had rebuked totalitarianism, whose worst horror is that it "reduces the individual to one aspect, the political ... and I think we can take some pride as Americans in having as yet preserved a society free and 'open' enough for it to happen."

That came to my mind in October, when the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to V. S. Naipaul. Like the Bollingen judges, the Swedish prize committee would have liked it to be known that their award was nonpolitical; and some critics praised them for precisely that, in a back-handed way. Too often it has felt as though extra-literary factors weighed with the Nobel, if only in the form of a geographical balancing act (last year it was Eastern Europe, this year it must be Latin America). In the shadow of September 11, the award to Naipaul seemed, as it were, willfully politically incorrect. As Philip Hensher wrote in the course of a subtle encomium, "If ever there was a moment when external considerations might have discouraged the Nobel committee from rewarding the author of Among the Believers, that magnificently disdainful journey through Islam, this is it."

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Maybe so. And yet I believe that this Nobel Prize does indeed have a political significance, and is even, in its way, a bright political act in a dark period. "As is well known," Macdonald wrote, "Pound's situation is disreputable and hopeless to a dramatic degree." As is well known, Naipaul's reputation is checkered and increasingly uneasy. He has been called a reactionary and an Islamophobe; Derek Walcott has accused him, more in sorrow than in anger, of racism; Edward W. Said has accused him, more in anger than in sorrow, of intellectual neo-colonialism. Rather than nervously ignoring these charges, I should like to address them head on, and to say that Naipaul is a political figure—indeed, a profoundly important one.

Of course, he is in the first place a great imaginative writer, as certainly as we can ever know that of a contemporary. There is a case for saying that all literary prizes are foolishness (except when you win one, as more than one writer has observed), and that the only judgment that matters, apart from the commercial judgment of the market, is the critical judgment of the happy few who know how to read. And this prize has an awfully patchy record: is there anyone alive, even among French Department Ph.D.s, who has read Sully Prudhomme, the winner of the first Nobel in literature? Or who can tell us much about Karl Adolp Gjellerup, awarded the 1917 prize "for his varied and rich poetry, which is inspired by lofty ideals"?

This time they got it right. Naipaul is a magnificent novelist, who would have deserved the prize if he had written nothing apart from A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), A Bend in the River (1979), and The Enigma of Arrival (1987). A very long disquisition could be written on his achievement in fiction, from the comedic brilliance of the early works set in his native Trinidad to the growing formal mastery displayed by his later novels, demonstrating a fecundity, an originality, and an extraordinary technical daring that have been insufficiently recognized, partly because Naipaul is (to use what for academic critics is a damning word) so readable. His work exemplifies the art that conceals art, and he is one of the greatest living craftsmen of English prose, perhaps the very greatest—something that was spotted early on. "Mr Naipaul is an 'East' Indian Trinidadian with an exquisite mastery of the English language which should put to shame his British contemporaries," Evelyn Waugh wrote of The Middle Passage in 1962.

But Naipaul is more than merely a great stylist and storyteller. Waugh also said that every writer must at some stage in his life decide whether he is going to be an aesthete or a prophet. He meant that too many gifted writers set themselves up as purveyors of an overt message, political, moral, sexual as it might be, with gravely deleterious results; examples over the past century are too many and obvious to list. Naipaul is both: a true aesthete and a true prophet. Or, it might be better to say, a true seer, not less so—maybe all the more so—for being such an unpopular one.

To take the charges on the rap sheet: Walcott has said that Naipaul "does not like Negroes," and I don't think that this can be easily dismissed. Naipaul's family origins lie in the great nineteenth-century diaspora from Gangetic India, which distributed Indians around the British Empire—to Natal and Fiji, Kenya and Guyana, Malaya and Trinidad—as indentured laborers. There has been recurrent social and political tension between Trinidad's two largest communities, the Indian and the black, or Afro-Caribbean. Naipaul grew up with one community calling the other "niggers" and being called "coolies" in return, and he is infected by an ancestral communal resentment such as can be found among even educated Catholics and Protestants in Ulster, or enlightened Israelis and Palestinians.

It would have been nice if, at least for public purposes, he could have shed that atavistic distaste, but Vidia Naipaul doesn't do nice. Perhaps one should emphasize here that he has gone out of his way, from time to time and far beyond the call of duty, to burnish his reputation as a cantankerous curmudgeon—truly the Evelyn Waugh of our age, right down to his squirearchal residence in the west of England—or even as a bigoted old barroom kvetch. Not long ago Naipaul anathematized Tony Blair as a "pirate" at the head of "a socialist revolution" (something that has escaped many on the left in England), a man who was "destroying the idea of civilization in this country" and had created "a plebeian culture."

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Nor is he ever going to be offered a job in the gay-studies faculty. Last year he pronounced E. M. Forster an odious fraud and A Passage to India "a pretense" and "utter rubbish," adding that he particularly dislikes both Forster and his friend John Maynard Keynes because of their homosexuality. In his bizarre view, Forster went to India to exploit the poor sexually, and Keynes "exploited people in the university; he sodomized them and they were too frightened to do anything about it." Naipaul said, "I know it ought to be liberally wonderful to say it's okay, but I think it's awful." Oh, well. We should by now have gotten over the adolescent idea that great creative artists are necessarily lovable people with heartwarming opinions, and I mention those obnoxious outbursts to make it clear that this is not an attempt at whitewashing. Nadine Gordimer said to me once in Johannesburg, "Vidia's trouble is that he's got one skin too few," which is almost a charitable way of describing his prickliness.

The accusation that he is hostile to Islam, which is the most sensitive at present, may funnily enough be the least fair—or may say more about those who make it than about Naipaul. It's true that the charge has stuck to the point where, after his award, he felt obliged to submit himself to formal interrogation in The New York Times over allegations of "insensitivity and pandering to Western prejudices in your writings about Islam." The interview includes a wondrous vaudeville exchange—"You have described the Taliban as vermin." "No, that's my wife!"—before Naipaul goes on, with what may be thought some intellectual courage, to say of September 11, "Religious hate, religious motivation was the primary thing. I don't think it was because of American foreign policy."

And yet to re-read his magisterial sequence of nonfiction narratives—which so grandly complement his novels, and for which the limp phrase "travel writing" is so completely inadequate—is to be struck by Naipaul's ceaseless and open-minded curiosity about other people, Muslims not least. "I travel to discover other states of mind," he wrote in "The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro," a sharp little slice of reportage in Finding the Centre (1984), and it's true. As one who writes intermittently for popular newspapers, I've sometimes thought that Naipaul could have been a great tabloid journalist, with his love of anecdote, color, and "human interest."

Things started to go wrong when Naipaul embarked on those superb nonfiction narratives with An Area of Darkness (1964) and India: A Wounded Civilization (1977), and then the magnificently bleak fictional treatment of Africa in A Bend in the River. His early Trinidadian novels had delighted English booklovers (I use the old-fashioned term deliberately) and had been showered with prizes. He could have stuck to that vein, with books that not only were exquisitely funny but also, conveniently enough, could later have been appropriated by campus exponents of what wasn't then called colonial discourse. And then came the book that really marked the turnabout in Naipaul's reputation, Among the Believers (1981).

It was this development—this great journey of global exploration and self-exploration—that so bitterly disappointed Said, who had much approved of "the early Naipaul" (my emphasis). But then his "compromised colonial situation" made him ideal to address "an implied audience of disenchanted Western liberals," so that he could be cited "as an exemplary figure from the Third World who can always be relied on to tell the truth about it." In still more venomous words Said called Naipaul a "scavenger" and a "native informer." Naipaul ended by producing work that "successfully dramatizes an ideological position in the West from which it is possible to indict the post-colonial states for having succeeded unconditionally in gaining independence." As often with Said, I think I can just about decrypt that sentence, and will add only this: you don't have to be a neo-conservative, or a paleo-imperialist, to see that decolonization over the past forty years has been a tragic failure in many lands; that the victims of that tragedy have been those who live there, rather than complacent Western academics; and that the first step away from the wreckage, and toward true liberation, is to abandon evasion and denial. Naipaul is a good place to start.

Needless to say, Among the Believers makes Said shudder. But isn't he being obtuse? That amazing book might perhaps be called "magnificently disdainful," and it is certainly quizzical and sardonic—but it is not contemptuous. To re-read it is also to wonder about Naipaul's reputation as a Muslim-basher and, more generally, as a misanthrope. "The longer I live the more convinced I become that one of the greatest honors we can confer on other people is to see them as they are, to recognize not only that they exist, but that they exist in specific ways and have specific realities." Those were the words not of Vidia but of Shiva Naipaul, his younger brother by thirteen years, who followed Vidia's path to Oxford, London, fiction, and travel narrative before his miserably untimely death. (I should say that it's impossible for me to write the name Naipaul with detachment. Although I have met Sir Vidia, I would never claim to know him. But Shiva was one of my dearest friends; I miss him still, and I cannot read the dedication of The Enigma of Arrival—"In loving memory of my brother Shiva Naipaul 25 February 1945, Port of Spain-13 August 1985, London"—without emotion.) And yet those words—"they exist in specific ways and have specific realities"—could have been the elder brother's motto also. V. S. Naipaul says that he travels out of a need for intellectual adventure partly dictated by his colonial background, and that his is "a writer's curiosity rather than an ethnographer's or journalist's." That is almost too modest: Among the Believers also shows what a wonderful reporter Naipaul is when it comes to specific realities. On second thought, never mind the tabs; he could have been a great serious journalist. Take the passage in which he described the origins and subsequent fate of Pakistan.

The idea was put forward in 1930 by a revered poet, Sir Mohammed Iqbal ...

Iqbal's argument was like this. Islam is not only an ethical ideal; it is also a "certain kind of polity." Religion for a Muslim is not a matter of private conscience or private practice, as Christianity can be for the man in Europe. There never was, Iqbal says, a specifically Christian polity; and in Europe after Luther the "universal ethics of Jesus" was "displaced by national systems of ethics and polity." There cannot be a Luther in Islam because there is no Islamic church-order for a Muslim to revolt against ...

To accept Islam is to accept certain "legal concepts" ... "The religious ideal of Islam, therefore, is organically related to the social order which it has created. The rejection of the one will eventually involve the rejection of the other. Therefore, the construction of a polity on national lines, if it means a displacement of the Islamic principle of solidarity, is simply unthinkable to a Muslim."

Iqbal, in fact, is saying in a philosophical way that in an undivided India Islam will be in danger, will go the way of Christianity in Europe and cease to be itself. Muslims, to be true to Islam, need a Muslim polity, a Muslim state ...

Seventeen years later (and nine years after Iqbal's death) it happened—and to the Muslim-majority northwest was added the Muslim-majority eastern half of Bengal, a thousand miles away. But that Muslim state came with a communal holocaust on both sides of the new borders. Millions were killed and many millions uprooted.

But then, having given this lucid and completely fair exposition of the rationale for Pakistan, Naipaul went on to point out that it "had a simple, terrible flaw." Even with the frightful communal flight, and the massacres of 1947, a great number of Muslims remained in India (today around 120 million, making it the world's second largest Muslim country), and they included the most experienced politically. Without them, the new state languished—or, rather, "only the armed forces flourished," becoming "masters, a country within a country." It was the military that drove the eastern, Bengali fraction of the original two-part Pakistan into secession as Bangladesh, after which "calamity was added to calamity."

The state withered. But faith didn't. Failure only led back to the faith ... If the state failed, it wasn't because the dream was flawed, or the faith flawed; it could only be because men had failed the faith. A purer and purer faith began to be called for.

But wasn't the original theocratic vision, Naipaul asked, where the failure began?

Wouldn't it have been better if the creation of Pakistan had been seen as a political achievement, something to build on, rather than as a victory of the faith, something complete in itself? ... Wouldn't it have been better for Muslims to trust less to the saving faith and to sit down hard-headedly to work out institutions?

I cite this passage at length because it is one of the best "op-eds" I have ever read, political and historical analysis of a very high order that leaves the rest of us workaday commentators looking puny. If you had read nothing written since September 11 and only Naipaul's books, you would surely be the wiser. Failure only led back to the faith. That is the constant theme of his writings on Islam—informed by the intense affinity for defeat and disappointment that runs through all his books, whether embodied by an individual like Mr. Biswas or by the poor of India experiencing "the old internal cruelty of that poverty: people at the bottom, full of emotion, with no politics at that moment, just rejecting rejection." Striving as we all piously are to view our fellow beings in the "House of Islam," and elsewhere in the Third World, with comprehension and sympathy, can anyone doubt that this is the key? %%callout%%From Atlantic Unbound:

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That leads to the larger and graver political charge: Naipaul is not just a Muslim-basher and a neo-colonialist, he might even be right-wing. His devotees shy away at this point. Ian Buruma is one of the best literary (as well as political) writers around today, and he has written admirably about Naipaul, who, he insists in a palpably defensive way, is not a reactionary. Well, maybe not, though it's curious how difficult it is to say of a great writer "Yes, he's a reactionary, and what of it?" even when that is obviously true, for example of Conrad, to whom Naipaul is inevitably and rightly compared. Perhaps Naipaul isn't a reactionary—but he is certainly no liberal, and herein lies his importance.

"Liberal" has more than one sense, the first really rather trivial. In American parlance the word has come to mean "progressive," or "leftish," and also what we now call politically correct and multi-cultural. Plainly, Naipaul has done everything he can to make himself unpopular in the circles where those definitions apply, and his reflections on Forster and Keynes are never going to be reprinted enthusiastically by The Nation. But the word has another, much deeper and more interesting sense: the sense in which almost all Americans are liberals, even those neo-cons who use the very name as a curse.

That's to say, Americans believe in an open society, in material progress, in individual fulfillment, in the pursuit of happiness. You believe in that. So do I. A large part of mankind does not, and it takes an event like September 11 to remind us of this. Or it takes a certain kind of literary genius, who sees through the shallowness of our optimistic-hedonistic-liberal outlook. Naipaul is not the Osama bin Laden of letters, but he understands profoundly that life is an arduous and tragic struggle with more to endure than to enjoy, as Samuel Johnson said. He understands profoundly Rudyard Kipling's kind of conservatism, as brilliantly summarized by Waugh.

He believed civilization to be something laboriously achieved which was only precariously defended. He wanted to see the defenses fully manned and he hated the liberals because he thought them gullible and feeble, believing in the easy perfectibility of man and ready to abandon the work of centuries for sentimental qualms.

It has been said that the real purpose of conservatism is to keep liberals honest, and the purpose of pessimistic anti-liberal writers is to tell us that life is not so simple and so benign as we would like to assume.

An illustrious line of such writers—Conrad, Kipling, Waugh—have Naipaul as their great heir. And I would add another, unlikely name to the list. George Orwell was in his own eyes a man of the left, but he used to point out that conservative pessimists had more opportunities than others to say "I told you so," because most schemes for human betterment do in fact go wrong. And he saw something else. In 1940 Orwell wrote a passage that flashed into my mind after September 11, about Hitler and his "pathetic, doglike face, of a man suffering under intolerable wrongs." In still more extraordinary words he went on to say that Hitler had "grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life."

All "progressive" thought has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain ... Hitler, because in his joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don't only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades. However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life.

Bin Laden may not have a pathetic, doglike face, but hasn't he—because in his joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength—grasped the same thing Hitler did? Doesn't he laugh in the face of the pursuit of happiness? And isn't that understood by Naipaul, who could almost, mutatis mutandis, have written that passage of Orwell's?

He did write several other frighteningly acute passages in India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990), his third and in many ways mellowest book about his ancestral land. He cast his cool eye on the Dravidian Progressive Movement; on the Hindu fundamentalism of Shiv Sena, which is scarcely less alarming to Western eyes than the Muslim variety and which he views no less sharply; on a Bengali Communist who said grimly that "of the many ideals of Gandhi which the Indians didn't accept, ahimsa, non-violence stands out." And yet, although Naipaul may not love these people, he does not despise them. And for all his fastidiousness, which made him initially recoil from "the India of poverty and an abjectness too fearful to imagine," from a place "where the threat was of chaos and the void," I do not think he despises, as opposed to pities, the post-colonial world. After all, one other advantage the anti-liberal pessimist has is that he accepts the world as it is rather than as it might be.

Whether that will do Naipaul any good is another matter. By recognizing that objective perception of value on which any civilized society must rest, the Nobel Prize committee honored itself last October as much as it honored V. S. Naipaul. By recognizing truths the rest of us would prefer to avoid, Naipaul has put himself at an angle to that civilized society. He continues to walk alone, anything but "liberally wonderful," and yet wonderfully, terrifyingly honest.