The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, October 21, 2001

V.S. Naipaulís Genius, and its Limitations
Darshan Singh Maini

Vidiadhar Surajprasad NaipaulTHERE'S a saying in Persian that when an award or a prized object comes to one late in life, thatís just the right time for it. The Nobel Prize to Naipaul could be interpreted that way perhaps. Short-listed earlier, he wasnít quite ripe for it till his book The Enigma of Arrival (1987) which had airs of nostalgia and elegic about it. He, of course, continued to write to retain the authenticity of his art and vision, but as the Nobel citation confirms, his work which spans several genres ó the novel, travelogue, autobiography, colonial history etc ó needed to be in a frame where the intellectual space was available to the critics and readers. There was also a considered view that his work lacked poetry i.e. a sentiment for, and a vision of, the realities beyond the ground level. Naipaul remained stubbornly wedded to his own colonial experience in Trinidad, and to his education at Oxford to acquire the image of "the Brown Sahib" whose colonial ethos had deeply affected him. Also, his Islamic studies had alienated a number of intellectuals, and today, Naipaul must be ruefully acknowledging the ironies of history. The Great American tragedy of September 11 showed a kind of prescience in the travelogues of Naipaul. The Jehadi world, from Iran to Indonesia, which he covered therein is now a witness to some of his grim observations.


The fact is that Naipaulís own "complex fute" ó Indian forefathers, White colonial teachers, Black mimic ways, all three remained unsettled presences in his conscious and subconscious mind. "The buffoonery" of emotions, as in Shakespeareís Hamlet, could become a rage for the skies, but his cold razor-sharp mind, remained hesitant, diffident, affecting even an air of hauteur. Thus, his own inner alienation was one of the causes; his recognition came late, and reluctantly, as it were.

To be sure, his endowments and guiddities are singular enough to warrant a construction in keeping with the urgencies of his own art, but somewhere en route, there has been a spiritual leak and confusion of causes, effecting a shadow over his discourse. Itís this spiritual dislocation that we find so disconcerting, for his relentless attacks on the Third World countries too were often misplaced, off-centre. The triumph of his art thus tends to obscure a radical failure of vision, and is, indeed, perversely related to it.

Generally, when the heat, fatigue and pressure of a long journey in countries he considered adversary bored him, often way-side, wholly vague and unwarranted remarks are seen. Observations (as in his Islamic books) thus make his story puzzling. The satirical vein is light here and there and even touched by whimsy and fantasy in the manner of his earlier Dickensian comedies up to The House for Mr Biswas, his magnum opus, which won him the Booker Prize for fiction. A chronicler of transitory cultures, his muses began to become more and more strident and abrasive.

The African novels, Guerillas and A Bend in the River, finally drew him compulsively into what Conrad had called "Heart of Darkness", the Jungles lurking inside the colonial White rulers also. The bastardised world of the West Indies, though ugly and bizarre, still submitted to the comic imagination, people were human enough to be laughed at, and wept over. On the other hand, it is seen as atavistic, pre-historic, a world beyond ken or control. Here all the moral qualities are naught, and a politics of tooth and claw and the drum is back in business. It is a long peep into the interiors of life which nothing holds, save a savagery of intent and purpose.

In some of the essays of The Overcrowded Barracoon (1958), Naipaulís repudiation of the Indian and Hindu heritage is already there, though the full force of his lethal argument against the land of his ancestors is reserved for his two major books., An Area of Darkness (1973) and India: A Wounded Civilisation and later A Million Mutinies (1977) bring into open all his allergies and antipathies, his fears and fixations. The books were admired hugely in the West, for Naipaul had missed the Eternal India, and written only on what he saw of the country colonialism had reduced to. Another mimic country, and another "client culture". The fierce intellectual flame in Naipaul appeared not to permit him to understand the eternal mystery and muddlement of India which novelists like E.M. Forster and L.M.H. Myers had divined so clearly. That the fallen civilisations tend to produce a debased culture is not a new discovery, but not even then, peoples continued to live authentically, laugh and survive, dream and draw upon their hidden reservoirs for their day-to-day life. These are the reservoirs of folklores, carnivals and festivals, myths etc., something that Naipaulís sharp, antiseptic mind is not really equipped to deal with. Itís because of his well-honed prose style, his subdued rhetoric, aphorisms and witty observations that his narrative seems to carry the day for the uncritical readers and turn them into self-mockers. But the lack of compassion leaves such books brilliant batches in the end, as most Indian critics observed then. His Islamic books are even more prone to ruthless, and often heedless attacks.

Naipaul was an Englishman manque, and luxuriates in his Wiltshire Cottage, perhaps, he still remains an admirer of the Englishmen who conquered his countries, and gave him Shakespeareís language and the English world-view. Sir Vidyadhar thus "arrived" with the award of knighthood indeed: The Nobel Prize caps it all.