A man searching for identity to the Editor
Guyana Chronicle
November 11, 2001

It was refreshing to read Ravi Dev's letter in the press today, on Naipaul and his work, especially after the tirade a few days ago from Frederick Kissoon [ please note: links provided by LOSP web site ]. Mr. Dev has presented V.S. Naipaul in the way I have always seen the writer - a man searching for identity, place, home. What is remarkable about Naipaul is his willingness to not take things at face value, not paint the Third World the way their intellectuals want it to be painted, and his boldness in saying it the way he sees it. But much of the criticism of this man raises the question, who should write about whom?

His book, India a Wounded Civilization drew much criticism because there was the feeling that he painted Indians in an unflattering light. His works about Africa and Africans continue to draw intense hostile criticism because, like Ravi Dev rightfully pointed out, Naipaul being non-African makes him suspect. There is a part of me that questions the authenticity of an outsider writing about a culture different from his own - how clearly does he see, how much of a particular experience is used to generalize a people. But does this make the writer's work invalid?

I think of Forster's A Passage To India and how much his work reflected the stereotypes propagated by the Orientalist school, mainly in France and England. These stereotypes were widely used by the likes of Flaubert, Valery, Orwell and Forster among many others. But Naipaul is local. He knows what the logie life was like, knows of the tensions between the different ethnic groups in the colonies, knows how fractured the colonized people are - dreaming of a homeland before colonialism, trying to adjust to colonial realities and still make some sense of identity. One can see how difficult this could be.

What is astounding about Naipaul is that he is not afraid of creating characters caught in this place and giving voice to their inner thoughts, frustrations and yearnings. In "The Enigma of Arrival" he says:

"I have lived with the idea of change, had seen it as a constant, had seen a world in flux, had seen human life as a series of cycles that sometimes ran together. But philosophy failed me now. Land is not land alone ...Land partakes of what we breathe into it, is touched by our moods and memories. And this end of a cycle, in my life, and in the life of the manor, mixed up with the feeling of age which my illness was forcing on me, caused me grief."

One can feel the inferiority of this voice talking of change and land (place), of memories. There is a definite pathos, one concerned with the human condition. And in "A Bend in the River: -

"We're all going to hell, and every man knows this in his bones... Everyone wants to make his money and run away. But where? That is what is driving people mad. They feel they're losing the place they can run back to."

Again, the continuation of the theme of place, or lack of it, of being caught between places and not being able to make sense of it of having no place to run to.

And Naipaul does a splendid job of capturing that "mood". And so Naipaul, being a person of Indian descent outside of India, born in a British colony comprised of different ethnic peoples, and now residing in England, has seen the different faces of these three worlds, has experienced what it means to be who he is, or isn't, in these separate worlds. And this experience adds validity and insight to his work because these worlds are his and, at the same time, not his and so he surmounts the limits inherent in a writer trying to write about a culture not his own.
Rohan Sooklall