The Bend in Their Rivers
This difference--between Naipaul and Rushdie, rather than between Rushdie and Bono--is worth fighting over. In contrast to Rushdie, the older, conservative Naipaul can be relied upon to make appalling public statements. Most recently, he has fulminated against delinquent youth in England: "I see that several generations of free milk and orange juice have led to an army of thugs." In some of his writings, particularly on Islam, Naipaul can also be awfully misleading. Indeed, many have conjectured that the Nobel for the Islamophobic Naipaul is a fallout of the events of September 11. If the eminences in Stockholm were searching for anything to condemn Osama bin Laden in Naipaul's fiction, they would have found little to console them. This is because, as Pankaj Mishra wrote in The New Statesman, Naipaul, unlike Rushdie, has "alchemized the trauma of early poverty and unbelonging into a bristly but always accessible humanism." With the younger writer, you get a politically correct but often hollow, and fleshless, postmodernism.
The opposition between Rushdie and Naipaul presents us with a lesson in great, unexpected irony. But the irony goes beyond just telling us something about the two writers. The paradox actually becomes a parable about mistaken identity, that wonderful, abiding theme of postcolonial writing. We learn that our lives find narrative form neither in the tired, familiar slogans of our captains nor in the symmetries of ideological camps, but in the differences that thrive behind settled, more clear-cut divisions.
Clear lines of opposition blur, for instance, when there is mimicry. Naipaul's new novel, Half a Life, begins with the words, "Willie Chandran asked his father one day, 'Why is my middle name Somerset? The boys at school have just found out, and they are mocking me.'" In response, the father, a small man in a small town in southern India, begins to tell the story of how the son was named after a famous writer who had been on a visit to India in the years before independence. We see the outlines of a story about Somerset Maugham and The Razor's Edge. But the story is also about the father's desire to mimic another man. That man is Gandhi. And the narrative, with the distant, pedagogical economy of a fable, draws us into a tale, touched with farce, about how love and writing and politics are born through imitation. The son rebels against the knowledge his father gives him. And, in what is also a mimicry of his father, but laced with his own difference, he begins to write stories that mock his father and their shared, pitiable condition.
In doing all this, the writer Naipaul is also mimicking himself. The story he is telling here echoes what we have read in his earlier books. His account of the agitations of people belonging to the untouchable caste borrows its energy from what Naipaul wrote in the opening chapter of his travel book India: A Million Mutinies Now. The pattern is repeated in what follows in Half a Life. The second part of the book follows young Willie Chandran's arrival in England on a scholarship. Willie's fumbling attempts at sex, the lack of money compounded by the poverty of his experience, are subjects that Naipaul also wrote about with some feeling in The Mimic Men. ("Intimacy: it was violation and self-violation. These scenes in the book-shaped room didn't always end well; they could end in tears, sometimes in anger, a breast grown useless being buttoned up, a door closed on a room that seemed to require instant purification.")
In Half a Life, we also accompany Willie on his path to self-discovery as a writer in London. This is Naipaul's turf. Again, as in his fragmentary memoir Finding the Center, Naipaul prepares us not only for the excitement of writing or its difficulties but for the discovery, touched with belittlement, of the colonial life as a subject of metropolitan consumption. Willie is told by a friend, "India isn't really a subject. The only people who are going to read about India are people who have lived or worked there, and they are not going to be interested in the India you write about." Today, when postcolonial fiction is all the rage, Naipaul's restaging of this account of his past--the men wanting Bhowani Junction and the women, Black Narcissus--allows us to place his own writing, and the shape that immigrant fiction has taken in the West, into a historical context of Western desires and demands.
The third and final part of Half a Life is set in Africa, where Willie goes after he meets Ana in London, a woman who is from a country that resembles Mozambique. This happens after Willie has married Ana, who was attracted to him because she finds in his book a story of her own past. It is Willie, insecure and without money, who asks Ana to return with him to her home in Africa. This travel to Africa, which for Naipaul has always been beset by Conradian tropes, returns us to a landscape of ruins and grim omens. At the same time, the tale is enlivened by a writer's sense of inquiry: "But I felt that the overseer had a larger appreciation of the life of the place; his surrender was more than the simple sexual thing it seemed. And when I next saw the mildewed white staff bungalows I looked at them with a new respect. So bit by bit I learned. Not only about cotton and sisal and cashew, but also about the people."
Rob Nixon, in London Calling, described Naipaul's first book of travel, The Middle Passage, as "a journey of rage into the terra incognita of the self." Naipaul's latest novel, in its final section, journeys into the darkness of the sexual self. It is a journey into a form of awakening and even grace--a new theme within the pattern of repetition I am tracing here--but it is also touched with a tender recoil from cruelty. Adulterous lovers copulate, literally, among snakes. Love is poisoned by the landscape of failure. Africa, then, no less than India in this story, plays a part in a fable, even if the fable is made up expertly from details of a well-recorded life.
This Africa, it would not be a stretch to say, is not very different from Rushdie's New York: Both are imagined by outsiders; both are places animated by fury. The difference lies in how the two novelists imagine the figure of the writer traversing the alien landscape that is so caught up in their fantasy and fear. And that is where, while absorbing all the stories in the news after the events of September 11, I came to an understanding that what Rushdie's Fury relentlessly offered was a species of the writer as exceptional, while what Naipaul's Half a Life returned us to was a sense of the writer as the opposite. In the circumstances of our times, I found resonant Willie Chandran's apperception of life on the streets of London after that social disaster called a race riot:
The newspapers and the radio were full of the riots.... It seemed to him that everyone was reading the newspapers. They were black with photographs and headlines. He heard a small old working man, years of deprivation on his face, say casually, as he might have done at home, "Those blacks are going to be a menace." It was a casual remark, not at all reflecting what was in the papers, and Willie felt at once threatened and ashamed. He felt people were looking at him. He felt the newspapers were about him.
This is a literature about us. Here and There. Willie Chandran, fearful that the papers are about him, teaches us that there is getting attention, and then there is getting attention.