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.