Many years ago, when I was about the age that V.S. Naipaul was when he departed Trinidad for England, I would borrow books by him from the library of an erstwhile colonial club in Kuala Lumpur. In a building constructed during the time of the British, A House for Mr. Biswas sat on a shelf whose other books were mostly by writers like Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling. Thinking back now, it seems to me both incongruous and fitting that Naipaul–to the best of my recollection pretty much the only writer not European or North American–should be in such company in such a place. Naipaul’s most recent book, Between Father and Son, a collection of family letters from the years leading up to the time of his earliest published works, continues to add to this paradox of his life’s work.
Reflecting on the time in which these letters were written, Naipaul wrote many years ago in “Prologue to an Autobiography” that the “career” of a writer wasn’t possible in Trinidad. So he had to leave where he was born and travel to England, to Oxford University, to pursue the vocation of writing. All this was a good half-century ago. In the intervening period, Naipaul has succeeded in making a career for himself. Indeed, his prodigious talent has been so repeatedly on display, and so celebrated, that it might be inadequate to call it, anymore, a career. It has long since grown to something of canonical proportions. Naipaul’s works–the novels as well as the travel books–have by now attained one pinnacle of contemporary literary success: a regular and uncontested place on college syllabuses around the world.
Were this all, it would be much. But Naipaul’s highbrow reputation has been complemented by a reach extending well into the middlebrow. In 1981 he was featured on the cover of Newsweek–and not because he had embroiled himself in some tawdry public scandal or had found himself under the death sentence of a powerful Muslim cleric. It was the aftermath of the Iranian revolution. Naipaul had just published an account of his travels through four non-Arabic Islamic countries, including Iran, titled Among the Believers. With great alacrity, he ascended to the level of an expert on Islam, indeed, on all matters Third World. “If any person is qualified to judge among cultures,” declared James Michaels in an editorial in no less a publication than Forbes, “Naipaul is. He was born in Trinidad in 1932, the grandson of Hindu immigrants from India, lives in England and has probed the Muslim, Latin and African worlds…. And for entertaining and enlightening reading, get any Naipaul book.”
One would be wise, however, to tarry a moment before succumbing to Michaels’s hustle and rushing to the closest bookstore. Entertaining? Perhaps. Enlightening? The matter needs serious consideration, for Naipaul has faced his most severe criticism from much farther-flung quarters for his abrasive commentary on the countries that he has written about.
It is customary to make a distinction between Naipaul’s early, comic novels–epitomized by his one indisputable masterpiece, A House for Mr. Biswas–and the novels and travel books that succeeded them. In novels like A Bend in the River and Guerrillas and travel books like An Area of Darkness and India: A Wounded Civilization, the comedy is replaced by a far more somber sensibility. And where his disparagement of Caribbean society is blunted somewhat by humor in the earlier works, his discontent with colonial and postcolonial societies later appears without relief.
About India, Naipaul wrote breezily in A Wounded Civilization that “the poverty of the land is reflected in the poverty of the mind; it would be calamitous if it were otherwise.” And then he made the astounding declaration in the essay “Conrad’s Darkness” that “Conrad–sixty years before, in the time of a great peace–had been everywhere before me.” In voicing such opinions, Naipaul shows himself–there is no other way to put it–to be willfully contrarian. What else could lead a man of his background and pretensions to assert that Conrad had traveled–for example, in the Congo of the disastrous Belgian colonial rule–“in the time of a great peace”?! Not surprisingly, these views have not endeared Naipaul to many of his fellow postcolonials, and such different writers and critics as George Lamming, Salman Rushdie and A. Sivanandan have voiced their disapproval in the past. In this context, Naipaul’s opinions also offer a telling contrast to those of peers like Wole Soyinka and Nadine Gordimer.