Naipaul in 1982. Photo: Stefan Lindblom/TT/TT News Agency/Press Association Images

For all his flaws, VS Naipaul was a pioneering genius

The Nobel Prize-winning British author invented post-colonial literature
August 13, 2018

In December 1950, a young Vidia Naipaul wrote a letter from Oxford back to his family in Trinidad. “I want to come top of my group,” he said, “I have got to show these people that I can beat them at their own language.” By all measures of formal public commendation, VS Naipaul, who died on Saturday at the age of 85, came out top of his group. He won the Booker and the Nobel Prize among many other accolades; in 1990 he was knighted. Along with Chinua Achebe, he inaugurated what is now called post-colonial fiction. Through his own talent and sheer hard work—starting with winning the highly competitive island scholarship to study in England—Naipaul leaves us 30 books written over 50 years, evenly split between fiction and non-fiction. He mastered every genre, from the pungently witty stories of Trinidad street life in Miguel Street (1959) and his tragi-comic masterpiece A House for Mr Biswas (1961), to the Conradian darkness of A Bend in the River (1979). He invented a fair few genres as well—most notably the auto-fiction of The Enigma of Arrival (1987), an unclassifiable work in which his beautifully controlled prose is married to a piercing self-analysis.

But despite his astonishing achievements, he is still under-appreciated, or only grudgingly given his due. Unlike Philip Roth, another giant of post-war letters who died earlier this year, there was no late flowering. His last book, the 2010 travel narrative The Masque of Africa, was a forgettable effort that rehashed old stereotypes about the continent. Patrick French’s 2008 authorised biography, while an admiring portrait, drew attention to Naipaul’s troubled relations with women, especially his first wife Patricia whom he repeatedly cheated on with prostitutes.

He was always ready to trash an old friend (Anthony Powell, Paul Theroux) or dismiss a canonical writer (especially if they were a woman.) That in making such comments he was often practising what West Indians called “Picong” or provocative banter, testing his audience to see if they could come up with a counter-argument or joke, was usually missed when his comments were set down in bald print.

The papers didn’t know how to place him. “Trinidad-born author” was what the Observer called a writer who had lived in England for nearly 70 years. Naipaul, not one to let a slight go unnoticed, would have thought this the final insult: the London centre putting the writer from the margins back in his place. It’s true that Trinidad provided some of his richest material, but he had to escape the Caribbean in order to turn that material into literature.

Most notably in his greatest work Biswas. Written between the ages of 25 and 28—an astonishingly precocious achievement—the novel follows a character very much like his own father, Seepersad Naipaul, an aspiring writer perpetually short of cash and stuck with in-laws he detests. Though it starts slowly, the novel soon delivers brilliant comic sequence after comic sequence: Mr Biswas escaping his training under a Hindu priest; Mr Biswas trapped into marrying the first girl he takes a fancy to; Mr Biswas happily bringing home a doll’s house for his daughter, only for it to be chopped up by his callous in-laws. Most memorable, for me, is Mr Biswas trying his hand at sensational journalism (“FAMOUS NOVELIST SAYS PORT OF SPAIN WORLD’S THIRD WICKEDEST CITY.”) Amid his adventures, our flawed hero is always searching for a home to call his own—a search which has a wider political resonance for a descendant of Indian indentured labourers.

Biswas’s fear of failure is overwhelming. “How terrible it would have been,” Naipaul writes, “to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one’s portion of the earth; to have lived and died as one had been born, unnecessary and unaccommodated.” In The Enigma of Arrival, written 26 years later, Naipaul is a successful author apparently settled in rural Wiltshire. But he still shares his father’s immigrant insecurity, and envies his English neighbour Jack’s “genuine, rooted, fitting” life.

“To dismiss Naipaul as a mere Islamophobe is too easy”
That dislocation caused the author immense pain and rage—feelings he could only contain within the contours of his controlled, balanced prose. In his travel books he sought out others similarly wounded by colonialism and doomed, as he thought, to an inauthentic mimicry of western manners. They had fewer intellectual resources than the author or were simply less lucky; many turned to nativism or religious fundamentalism to hide their shame. About such men Naipaul could be harsh, and he makes generalisations, especially about Muslims and black Africans, that will make many readers wince.

But to dismiss him as a mere Islamophobe is too easy. Among the Believers, his 1979 account of travelling in four Muslim countries, was published soon after the Iranian Revolution. In this prescient work, Naipaul was already ruthlessly identifying the contradictions inherent in Islamism: religious men were ready to embrace western technology, but not the thought that allowed it to develop; they looked to an idealised Islamic past for comfort, but comparing their present weakness with the west’s strength only brought rage and ultimately violence. It is uncomfortable reading but genuinely provocative. It is important to remember, also, that he was not writing as a superior westerner. In his Nobel speech in 2001 (awarded soon after 9/11), he wrote of “the Muslim world” as a place “to which I also felt myself related.” He saw in countries like Iran and Pakistan the symptoms of a desperate search for home that he knew all too well. Ever contradictory, even as he railed against Islamic imperialism in India, he regarded Mughal miniatures as a model of artistic accomplishment.

It is often forgotten that the narrator of his most haunting novel, A Bend in the River, is a Muslim called Salim. He journeys into the African interior towards a country that resembles the Congo, ruled by a Big Man who resembles Mobutu. It is a feverish novel, full of sexual obsession and self-loathing. But it is also a withering account of the self-deceptions of both the coloniser and the once-colonised. On western imperialists: “The Europeans wanted gold and slaves, like everybody else; but at the same time they wanted statues put up to themselves as people who had done good things for the slaves.” On the post-colonial renaming of streets: “The wish had only been to get rid of the old, to wipe away the memory of the intruder. It was unnerving, the depth of that African rage, the wish to destroy, regardless of the consequences.” If the phrase “African rage” sticks in your throat, as it does in mine, then it is balanced by the portrayal of Salim’s assistant Metty, a descendant of slaves: he is an angry man, yes, but one who has much to be angry about.

By now something had hardened in Naipaul. The sympathetic portrait of the “unnecessary and unaccommodated” Mr Biswas had curdled into the aphoristic certainty of A Bend in the River’s famous opening, admired, among others, by Barack Obama: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”
“The scars he suffered along the way were plain for all to see—more often than not he was the one who exposed them”
The mid-1980s brought more trouble. First, the death of his sister, Sati, whose funeral is described with tender melancholy in The Enigma of Arrival; and then the death of his talented, troubled, younger brother Shiva, to whom he dedicated that book. Remarkably, Vidia was not the only literary genius in the Naipaul family: in Shiva’s two novels, Fireflies, which is his version of Biswas, and The Chip-Chip Gatherers, the comic tone of his brother is matched with an even more unillusioned worldview. These are terribly funny books and also terribly sad. Lacking the self-absorption of his brother—Vidia’s only two real characters are his father and versions of himself—they are more open to multiple points-of-view. He does women far better than Vidia, as well, whose novels are masculine to a fault. (Although, in my edition of Biswas there is a touching “late dedication” to Patricia Naipaul, who did so much to support him during their marriage.)

But Shiva, in addition to also trying to make it from a remote Caribbean island to literary London, also had to deal with Vidia’s shadow. It wasn’t easy: VSN liked to pretend he was one of a kind, a man with no rivals, let alone one that shared his surname. As we mourn Naipaul, we should also remember Shiva too—and indeed their inspiration, their father Seepersad, whose stories Vidia helped to get published in London after his death. There are now academic conferences on the Naipauls held in Trinidad, where you can pay homage to the family home.

Though he was claimed as a reactionary in right-wing circles, and was perhaps too willing to play up to their prejudices, we must look at the man and the work in full. Every writer emerging from the periphery—especially from the former colonies—owes him an immense debt of gratitude. In a time when there were no clamours for “inclusivity” or “diversity,” he and his brother clawed their way to the centre. When there were no models for how to write literary novels about an Indian Trinidad community, Naipaul, along with his onetime friend and fellow Trinidadian Sam Selvon, had to invent a style. The scars he suffered along the way were plain for all to see—more often than not he was the one who exposed them, applying the same forensic honesty to himself that he expected of others.

Last month, I was at a party at Buckingham Palace to mark the Man Booker Prize’s 50th birthday. Naipaul was there, enthroned on a wheelchair, staring straight ahead. I bent down and told him how much his work meant to me. I tried to shake his hand but it was curled into a tight fist. I assumed he could no longer speak; but no, I was told, he could speak, but on this occasion he was choosing not to. It was a piquant—or picong—comic moment, a last piece of playfulness from a man who had lived so long and seen so much.

Throughout his life, though, there was one constant: his uncompromising love of literature, reading it and creating it. According to reports, he requested a reading of Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” on his deathbed. When I heard the news, I opened Miguel Street, and found the page where the Trinidad boy Elias is vowing to do better in his Cambridge exams. “Is the English and litritcher that does beat me,” he says. To which our narrator responds: “In Elias’s mouth litritcher was the most beautiful word I heard. It sounded like something to eat, something rich like chocolate.”