The ignoble politics of Naipaul's Nobel

Print edition : November 10, 2001

How a writer's vision, and his worldview, are inseparable from the writing itself.

ON receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, V.S. Naipaul has responded by paying tribute to England, "(his) home", and India, "the home of (his) ancestors". Oddly enough, Trinidad does not merit a mention in Naipaul's tribute - though he was born and grew up in Trinidad, and though it is the home of his most admired early works such as The Mystic Masseur, A House for Mr Biswas and Miguel Street. Or perhaps it is not so odd, considering that Naipaul has written, "I knew Trinidad to be unimportant, uncreative, cynical... (with)... an indifference to virtue as well as vice."

Naipaul has travelled quite a distance from his origins. He has also moved away from the penetrating, humorous, rooted world of his early work. His earlier novels and stories indicated, to an entire generation of non-Western writers, a way in which to use the English language while dealing with non-English material; and more important, a way in which to view themselves as post-colonials. Naipaul's work did not shy away from either the oddities or the painful contradictions of these societies - and people - struggling to create a coherent, viable narrative of their new lives, often in a hit-or-miss fashion.

V.S. Naipaul.-ALASTAIR GRANT/ AP

But Naipaul himself did not stay long with his "natural" audience. His later "novels", and particularly his considerable body of non-fiction, took his acute eye, and his undoubted mastery over the graceful sentence and the telling detail, elsewhere. This elsewhere is a bleak, unhappy place. Darkness rules. If there is light, it only exposes wounds. Mutinies abound (mutinies, revolts, insurgencies; not dissent or movement or struggle). In short, there is chaos; no spark, no ember of hope. And where are these chaotic "half-worlds" Naipaul travels in with so much writerly pain and fear? All of them are, without exception, non-Western countries; many of them yet to recover from their hefty colonial legacies; many in the midst of grappling with either chauvinist or opportunist rulers, appropriate successors to their colonial masters. Naipaul places himself outside these struggling, developing worlds. He dissects them with his (now legendary) fastidiousness, and his diagnosis is as uncompromising as it is strongly worded. Uncreative, hero-less Trinidad. Wounded India. Dark, future-less Africa. And, almost inevitably, calamitous Islam.

These caricatured societies, so dirty, so anarchic, so full of people lost as soon as they step out of their societies into one "with more complex criteria", do serve one purpose. These areas of darkness serve as a perennial foil to the refined, cultivated European ethos.

In an earlier time, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness - which went on to become a modern classic - firmly established this tradition of postulating "the other world", a world antithetical to the European one. Chinua Achebe defines Conrad's view of Africa as "the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilisation, a place where man's vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality". In this antithetical heart of darkness Conrad creates, Africans inhabit "an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet". It is a place where the representatives of Europe, "wanderers on a prehistoric earth", struggle down a bend to encounter suddenly the other - dark, prehistoric men and women. "They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity - like yours - the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly."

Conrad's vision is complex enough to accommodate self-awareness about creating a paradigm necessary for the imperialist enterprise. His imaginative representation of the West's encounter with the other world is coloured, to put it crudely, by conscience. But a 20th-21st century heir to Conrad's legacy, a brown heir, seems an especially cruel anachronism. Just as Conrad's European travellers "glide like phantoms" in Africa, "cut off from the comprehension of (their) surroundings", Naipaul too glides like a nervous, unhappy phantom across the prehistoric world from the Congo to Bombay, all generally places where "the moist heat saps energy and will." In the West Indies of 1960, he discovers that "the history of the islands can never be satisfactorily told. Brutality is not the only difficulty. History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies." In the Congo of 1965, Naipaul is accosted by "native people camping in the ruins of civilisation". In Naipaul's Africa, the bush creeps back as he stands there.

India is equally threatening. It reduces him to facelessness in the crowd. Indeed part of his discomfort is that everyone in the crowd looks like him, in which case how is he to be distinctive from them? (Conrad echoes from the past: "What thrilled you was the thought of their humanity - like yours...") Though the individuals Naipaul meets and writes about so sharply may or may not be the "types" they stand for, Naipaul has judgments to hand out to every spectrum of Indian society. The clerk: in India "the clerk will not bring you a glass of water even if you faint". The inferior colonial: speaks English and may even appreciate art, but hangs a Jamini Roy beside a Picasso. The population at large: full of "smugness, ... imperviousness to criticism, refusal to see, ... double-talk and double-think". Whether it is India's perverse tendency not to "need" pavements or the "background of swarming Bombay slum", it is clear there is nothing left in India of the dream-world Naipaul had constructed as "the home of his ancestors". In modern India, "Shiva has ceased to dance."

What Naipaul apparently finds lacking in India is a pure, well-lit place. Both purity and homogeneity are, thank goodness, in reasonably short supply in India, despite the efforts of our own purity mongers. But by the time Naipaul wrote India: A Million Mutinies Now, he found some redeeming signs of change. Earlier, in A Wounded Civilization, Naipaul had written, "An enquiry about India - even an inquiry about the Emergency - has quickly to go beyond the political. It has to be an inquiry about Indian attitudes; it has to be an inquiry about the civilisation itself, as it is." And the verdict on this "civilisation beyond the political": "No civilisation was so little equipped to cope with the outside world; no country was so easily raided and plundered, and learned so little from its disasters." But later, travelling in India to write A Million Mutinies (published 1990), Naipaul is able to see that "what (he) hadn't understood in 1962, or had taken too much for granted, was the extent to which the country had been remade; and even the extent to which India had been restored to itself, after its own equivalent of the Dark Ages - after the Muslim invasions and the detailed, repeated vandalising of the North, the shifting empires, the wars, the 18th century anarchy..." The million mutinies are "part of India's growth, part of its restoration". Shiva, it seems, has almost begun to dance again: the country is "full of the signs of growth", all the signs of an "Indian, and more specifically, Hindu awakening". Where India's hope lies, where it must go (so Shiva can dance uninterrupted), is a place where Hindu civilisation can be restored. India did travel to such a place on December 6, 1992. What happened in Ayodhya that day, and what has happened in other parts of the country since, have not seemed like any sort of civilisation to most of us. But Naipaul saw the destruction of the Babri Masjid as a welcome sign that "Hindu pride" was at last reasserting itself.

It is logical then - and it should not have embarrassed and pained so many of Naipaul's admirers - that in 2001, after the terrorists struck in New York and Washington, Naipaul should describe Islam, (not terrorists of any or no religious persuasion), as "calamitous" and comparable with colonialism. He does not, of course, say a word about "civilizations" that have systematically piled up weapons of mass destruction; perhaps these are less calamitous than bearded men shouting on the streets of CNN.

The Nobel Prize citation praises Naipaul for "having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories". Naipaul, with his talent and eminence, is perceived by reputation-making critics and prize-givers as the writer of "suppressed histories". As far as we know, Naipaul has made no such claim. But surely he cannot be unaware that with each book, he has received confirmation that he is practically a semi-official guide to the societies he finds so repulsively brutal or strangely empty? The American critic Elizabeth Hardwick wrote of A Bend in the River: "Naipaul's work is a creative reflection upon a devastating lack of historical preparation, upon the anguish of whole countries and peoples unable to cope." Joseph Lelyveld wrote of A Million Mutinies: "The most notable commitment of intelligence that post-colonial India has evoked... He is indispensable for anyone who wants seriously to come to grips with the experience of India." James Wood summed it up: Naipaul is "the greatest living analyst of the colonial and post-colonial dilemma". In short, Naipaul is considered an expert not only on the craft of writing, but on India, on Islam, on Africa, on the Hindu way of life, on whole countries and peoples, their dilemmas and "suppressed histories". Writers and readers, as well as regular non-writing, non-reading people in the places Naipaul writes of, may struggle to move beyond easy dichotomies - black and white, Hindu and Muslim, Western and non-Western. But Naipaul, with his formidable talent and scorn, and his formidable reputation as an interpreter for the power-centres, pushes all such exercises back to square one.

There have, of course, been other voices that have responded to Naipaul's worldview, the one that bursts into full-blown glory in his statements on civilisations. Fellow Caribbean Ivan Van Sertima wrote: "His brilliancy of wit I do not deny but, in my opinion, he has been overrated by English critics whose sensibilities he insidiously flatters by his stock-in-trade: self-contempt." Caribbean poet Derek Walcott qualified his praise of Naipaul as "our finest writer of an English sentence" with the comment that his prose is "scarred by scrofula and a repulsion towards Negroes". (Derek Walcott, incidentally, has been known to refer to Naipaul as V.S. Nightfall.) Edward Said is just as cutting in his contrast of how Naipaul's work is viewed in different parts of the world. While the West regards Naipaul as "a master novelist and an important witness to the disintegration and hypocrisy of the Third World... in the post-colonial world, he's a marked man as a purveyor of stereotypes and disgust for the world that produced him". And closer home, Nissim Ezekiel wrote a fine essay that should be attached as an afterword to Naipaul's books on India. In "Naipaul's India and Mine", Ezekiel wrote: "(Criticism) must attack, even denounce, but it must not deny human beings their humanity... In An Area of Darkness Mr. Naipaul comes dangerously close to doing that."

WHY pull out these quotations now, like so much evidence of "the other side"? Why be so churlish when a writer - who everyone agrees can write brilliantly - has been awarded a prize for literature?

One: Naipaul has been given the Nobel this year of all years. He has been given the Nobel in the midst of hawkish cacophony on the "clash of civilisations" and growing prejudice against Muslims, indeed anyone of "Middle Eastern appearance". Naipaul has been given the Nobel soon after he has reacted to the September 11 tragedy, in myth-affirming terms, of Islam's calamitous effect on civilisation.

Two: there is a theme that recurs in the reaction to Naipaul's Nobel, a theme that needs a closer look. Some admirers of Naipaul have acknowledged that he has made embarrassing, unpleasant, contentious, wrongheaded - and even ignorant - statements on a range of subjects from Africa to Islam. They have acknowledged that his writing has made liberals in both Western and non-Western countries "deeply uneasy". But the conclusion - the recurring theme - is that writers must be judged by their "writing alone".

How exactly this is to be done is not clear. Do you, for instance, read the sentence "Generosity - the admiration of equal for equal - was therefore unknown; it was a quality I knew only from books and found only in England", and admire the neat definition of generosity, the well-placed dashes and semicolon, without paying attention to what the sentence says? Without taking note of the negative vision, the sense of elegant prose enclosed in breakable glass? An artificial separation of what the writer says and how he says it only serves to sanitise the writing and make it toothless. It is difficult to believe that this is what the writer himself intends.

It would make better sense to acknowledge that the writer intends criticism, and hopefully delivers criticism via good sentences. It is best to admit that this criticism, whether expressed through fiction or non-fiction, is part of the business of a writer.

No one wants an official writer, except perhaps the group that is using him as a mouthpiece. No one wants a timorous writer either, constantly worrying about being in fashion, or being politically correct, or in demand in the marketplace. No one would be absurd enough to insist that a writer's politics should ooze out of every written word, or scream the rhetorical or the banal.

But it is a different thing altogether to ask for writers to transcend politics as so much petty baggage. To believe that good writing overrides bad politics to create literature is just as romantic as viewing the writer as a precocious child with a knack. Both beliefs want to keep literature and politics safely apart. The implication is: But what does literature have to do with it? In which case, Naipaul's politics can be dismissed (indulgently) as "famously bad-tempered", especially since famous bad tempers make good media copy. And in which case, Arundhati Roy can be called to attention by any of the real intellectuals equipped to take on politics. They can suggest that she go back to writing novels - small things - rather than meddle with big things like bombs and dams and globalisation.

A writer's vision, worldview - safe classroom words for a writer's politics - are inseparable from the writing. A writer offers the reader (and herself) a second grip on the reality being written about. Though Naipaul has unkindly cast aspersions on Indian intellectual life, we can at least recall these simple axioms while debating Naipaul's Nobel and the politics of rewarding literature.

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