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A literary Brown Sahib

Print edition : Oct 27, 2001 T+T-

IT is typical of the man that when the head of the Swedish Academy Horace Engdahl called V.S. Naipaul to inform him that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize he would not come to the phone, and thus arguably the most important news of his literary career - a news he had privately awaited for years - was kept on hold while his wife Nadira dragged him to receive it. And as journalists rooted for his reaction, he fobbed them off with a sparse statement issued through his publishers who made it clear that except "perhaps the BBC" he did not wish to speak to anyone.

And barely 24 hours after he had Indians jump with joy by dedicating the prize to "India, the home of my ancestors", he spoiled the party when he told a British audience that 40 years ago - about the time he wrote An Area of Darkness Indians were not intellectual enough to read his books. "Forty years ago in India people were living in ritual. This is one of the things I have helped India with," he said patronisingly.

Meanwhile, the British media highlighted his Islamophobic remarks in which, soon after the September 11 outrage in the U.S., he denounced Islam saying it had had the same sort of "calamitous effect" on the world as colonialism. It has been suggested that the Nobel committee, notorious for making political judgments, picked him to "legitimise" the anti-Islamic sentiment sweeping the Western world after September 11. But such is his literary reputation that even those who suspect the Committee's motives insist that it could not have made a better choice.

"So, is the award political?" asked Jason Cowley, literary editor of New Statesman, only to dismiss his own question saying: "Though the Nobel Committee is renowned for making political decisions, such as awarding the prize to Nadine Gordimer shortly after the fall of apartheid in South Africa, it is safe to say that had Naipaul espoused liberal sentiments, he would have won the prize much sooner. His honour is overdue, and purely on literary terms." Naipaul, he wrote, was a writer "without peer" in contemporary British writing: "a scourge on sentimentality, irrationalism and lazy left-liberal prejudices."

Naipaul has been controversial all the way. Paul Theroux's devastating account in Sir Vidia's Shadow of his one-time friend and mentor has been vouchsafed by others who have known him, but while Theroux's story focussed on the man - self-centred, pompous, snobbish and tight-fisted - it is his writing which has provoked some sharp reaction, and from some of the world's most authentic literary voices. While he is universally recognised as the finest prose writer of his time - even his worst critics grudgingly acknowledge the precision and economy with which he handles the English language (Evelyn Waugh, a fastidious critic at the best of times, once remarked that Naipaul's mastery of the English language should "put to shame his British contemporaries") - the problem is with his view of post-colonial societies and their people.

Derek Walcott, a fellow West Indian Nobel laureate, called him "V.S. Nightfall" because of his dark, Conradian vision of Africa which, according to Sir Vidia, "has no future". Walcott acknowledged him as "our finest writer of the English sentence" but said his otherwise compelling prose was "scarred by scrofula" and his "repulsion towards Negroes". Naipaul has mocked "half-made societies" produced by colonialism, and made fun of those who have written with greater empathy for their country. Wole Soyinka, one of the greatest living Nigerian writers, is a "marvellously Establishment figure" in Naipaul's estimation.

A critic recalled his remark at a literary gathering in Trinidad in 1980, in which he described the Trinidadian reading public as "monkey". "I can't see a Monkey - you can use a capital M, that's an affectionate word for the generality - reading my work." "As it turned out, this was just so much throat-clearing for the now-famous assault on Islam-Muslim fundamentalism expressed in Among the Believers (1981) and Beyond Belief (1998), books that have engendered apoplexy in the Arab world," said Robert McCrum, literary editor of The Independent and a one-time judge for the Booker Prize.

Another commentator pointed to the opening sentence of Naipaul's travel book The Middle Passage as an example of his "dyspeptic snobbery". "There was such a crowd of immigrant-type West Indians on the boat train platform at Waterloo that I was glad I was travelling first class to the West Indies," is how the book began, affecting a tone that was to find an echo in An Area of Darkness two years later.

There is a view that it is Naipaul's demonisation, as it were, of the Third World - Africa, India, Latin America - that has made him such a favourite with the West. No other non-Western writer has been acclaimed so uncritically by Western critics as Naipaul. As Maya Jaggi argued in The Guardian, of all his contemporaries - Chinua Achebe, George Lamming and R.K. Narayan, among others - he was "anointed as the West's post-colonial mandarin for, many would argue, reasons other than literary merit."

Critics find it significant that Britain's literary establishment continues to indulge him despite his constant carping of contemporary British culture ("an aggressively plebian culture that celebrates itself for being plebian") and the very public lashing he gave to some of the country's most cherished icons, including Charles Dickens, James Joyce, E.M. Forster and John Maynard Keynes.

Salman Rushdie, on the other hand, has been hounded out of the "club" for not being half as arrogant or critical. The reason, according to critics, is that while Naipaul defines the Third World in Western terms - gives them the view they want, even if inadvertently - Rushdie writes about India and the expat's "imaginary homelands" with sympathy.

Edward Said, known for his seminal work Orientalism, has described Naipaul's books on Islam - Among the Believers and Beyond Belief - as "intellectual catastrophe". Said, who is Professor of English at Columbia University, observed: "In the post-colonial world he's marked as a purveyor of stereotypes and disgust for the world that produced him - although that doesn't exclude people thinking he's a gifted writer." In the West, he said, Naipaul was "considered a master novelist and an important witness to the disintegration and hypocrisy of the Third World".

Rushdie too has commented on Naipaul's view - a view which says people in the Third World do not have a sense of history, there is no intellectual life out there ("the trouble with people like me writing about societies where there is no intellectual life is that if you write about it, people are angry") and there is no literature (asked to comment on African literature, he asked: "Does it exist?"). Of Africa, Naipaul once said it "has no future", and of his native island: "Nothing is made in Trinidad." Theroux recalled his comment after judging a literary competition in which Naipaul found nobody good enough to get the first prize: "You are trying to give the African an importance he does not deserve."

Western critics, hailing Naipaul's achievement, have not pretended what makes him tick with them - "his devastating critique of the chaos into which many societies have fallen in the aftermath of European rule", as The Daily Telegraph put it; and his portrayal of the "inevitable failure" of the liberated ''to remake their societies (and) the inexorable slide into ruin", to quote The Times, which hailed him as "brilliant - even if he says so himself." For all his eccentric self-absorption, his reputation as a great writer is undiminished. Novelist Martin Amis, not an easy man to please, said: "His level of perception is of the highest, and his prose has become the perfect instrument for realising those perceptions on the page."

A.S. Byatt who like Naipaul lost the race for this year's Booker Prize (neither made it even to the shortlist after figuring in a chaotic longlist) hailed him as "one of the best, if not the best, novelist in this country". "His work is very substantial and very varied and his prose is very beautiful," she said. One wonders if Naipaul would be as generous in acknowledging his peers.