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Naipaul Writes Home

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A travel book by Naipaul not larded with his opinions? It seemed too good to be true. And the very next paragraph of Beyond Belief proceeded to show it was:

About the Author

S. Shankar
S. Shankar is author of the novel A Map of Where I Live (Heinemann) and the forthcoming volume of criticism Textual...

Everyone not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert. Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It makes imperial demands. A convert's worldview alters.... The convert has to turn away from everything that is his. The disturbance for societies is immense, and even after a thousand years can remain unresolved.... People develop fantasies about who and what they are; and in the Islam of converted countries there is an element of neurosis and nihilism.

This is the kind of breathtakingly generalized and opinionated commentary with which we were already familiar. If Naipaul recedes somewhat into the background in the rest of the book, it is not because he now has no opinions to offer but rather because he has found a new way to offer them, with a posture of self-effacement that made his views seem more palatable and less strident.

It is true, however, that Naipaul's opinions on the Third World have evolved from earlier days. The clearest expression of this change is to be seen in a talk titled "Our Universal Civilization," given at the Manhattan Institute in 1991 and later published in The New York Review of Books. Naipaul propounds in it that a universal civilization beginning in Europe has now spread all over the world. "So much is contained in it," the author declares: "the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away." If the Third World was earlier "limited," "restricted," "half-formed" (his preferred terms), now it is "fixed" and "rigid." If it was beyond hope before, it generates hope now only because it might--hope against hope!--acquire the "universal civilization," become more like the West. This is the dismal prospect that Naipaul has held out for the Third World in more recent years, in the midst of the ubiquitous "globalization": Emulate the West in every respect and be saved, or prepare to "blow away." In all too many ways, this assurance does not seem substantively different from the compact made by the colonial masters in Naipaul's "time of a great peace."

It is in this context--the context of the life and work of this singular but dubious chronicler of the Third World--that the publication of Between Father and Son, a collection of the correspondence between the young V.S. Naipaul and, mostly, his father, acquires its main significance. The letters begin in 1949, a few months before Naipaul's departure for England on a scholarship--the very departure that would give him a chance at that vocation of writing he deemed impossible in the colonial society of Trinidad. They end in 1957, a few years after the death of his father. Aside from the correspondence between father (Seepersad) and son, there are letters from and to an elder sister, Kamla, in college in India during the early part of this period; other siblings; and Naipaul's mother. The letters have been edited by Gillon Aitken, Naipaul's literary agent.

Naipaul is still in Trinidad, a 17-year-old student, when the letters begin. When they end, he is securely ensconced in England, a writer and married to Pat, his English wife. The letters chronicle the transformation of the former into the latter. One of the commendable aspects of the book is its narrative force, surprising in a volume that is, after all, a collection of letters. Naipaul's metamorphosis is not without its drama, and though the letters are arranged chronologically, some of the credit for this must surely go to Aitken. A crucial contribution is the decision to include a "postscript" of letters, which take us past the death of Seepersad to the successful publication of Naipaul's first book (The Mystic Masseur). The postscript redeems what would have been otherwise a story of defeat and failure. Between Father and Son is a revelation when it comes to the narrative possibilities in the compilation of letters.

Another engaging aspect of the collection is its depiction of lives led in a time of cataclysmic change in the colonial world. Nineteen forty-nine is only two years after the independence of India, and 1957 only one year before the Federation of the British West Indies came into existence. The letters resolutely ignore such political events--events that will be the flesh and bone of Naipaul's future works--but perhaps precisely because of this they serve to remind us of the ordinary lives that were led in the midst of these extraordinary events. Seepersad was not a wealthy man, and the collection's chronicle of the movement of hopeful members of the family, pleading letters, much-needed money and parcels of shirts, books and food between Trinidad, England and India will be easily recognized by immigrants in similar straits now. At the same time, these details--ships, not planes; letters, not e-mail!--serve to remind us how much indeed the colonial world and the experience of immigration has changed in fifty years.

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