Naipaul’s compassion and understanding To the Editor
Guyana Chronicle
November 16, 2001

The use of Naipaul's name in the headline and in the last sentence of Stabroek News' November 13, 2001 editorial, "Naipaul's Truth", [ please note: link provided by LOSP web site ] brackets a spurious argument full of pretentious pronouncements - "...they also exist in the context of eternity"! - that fails to make any constructive case so that coming upon the final statement that Naipaul does not identify with our pain and suffering makes for surprise and puzzlement.

No one who reads Naipaul can fail to miss his compassion and understanding. When he writes about his own dislocation and loss, he is writing about all of us. This from the last paragraph from the Enigma of arrival: ".... the sacred places of our childhood, sacred to me because we had seen them as children and had filled them with wonder, places doubly and trebly sacred to me because far away in England I had lived in them imaginatively over many books and had in my fantasy set in those places the very beginning of things...."

Can anyone read that and find there a lack of empathy, tenderness, even love as the writer recalls his childhood home, Trinidad?

To judge Naipaul from a swallow and narrow perspective is to do a great disservice to one of the best minds to have come from the Caribbean. It is astonishing that anyone can suggest that his writing is shallow, that he is unaware of the complexities of Caribbean societies, given Naipaul's body of work, the depth and range of it.

To say that he cannot understand our "tortured reality" because he does not live in it, displays a very dim view of the fine intelligence of our writers - not only of Naipaul but of Derek Walcott, Fred D'Aguiar, Wilson Harris and Caryl Phillips, to name a few. In fact, Phillips who has lived all his life, since babyhood, in Britain is writing the screenplay of the Merchant Ivory film of Naipaul's novel, The Mystic Masseur.

Should he not? Can he only be "Objectified and schematic?"

Living as they all do elsewhere, gives these writers no less an understanding of the nuances, the nitty-gritty of our post colonial condition. Often, distance can improve the sharpness of one's vision and these writers provide us with their singular view and perceptions from their homes outside the Caribbean, knowing full well that location is location - a place to eat, sleep, work, live and that their perceptions depend on a clear discernment of their history and their knowledge of themselves.

In his rush to advance his hollow argument against Naipaul, however, the editor takes a swipe and in doing so, swipes to all our `exiled' writers. Judging from his ruminations, he seems to believe that having lived here all his life gives him a superior understanding of the complexities of our reality, an understanding that Naipaul could not possibly have!

Naipaull has never reconciled himself to the legacies of the plantation system as Stabroek News’ editor has done. The editor dismisses the `bullying, the philistinism, the lack of sophistication, the inadequate education, even the dishonesty about the society itself', all created by the plantation system, as failings that are "not much different to human frailty everywhere". He, thus, reduces us to accepting complacently our post colonial lot: it makes us one with the world. Naipaul, however, never accepted these failings as his lot, has never been reconciled to this way of thinking and he writes from his position.

Walcott, our other Noble laureate, also criticizes and fiercely so, as in his Nobel lecture, The Antilles, in which he states: "A culture based on joy is bound to be shallow. Sadly, to tell itself, the Caribbean encourages the delights of mindlessness, of brilliant vacuity, as a place to flee not only in winter but that seriousness that comes only out of a culture with four seasons. So how can there be a people there, in the true sense of the word?"

He continues for pages in this vein but tempers his criticism with a romantic view of our emptiness and deprivation, which excuses for our torpor and lethargy. Then, he presents us with the ultimate patronage of acceptance: "Photogenic poverty! Postcard sadness!.... This is the visible poetry of the Antilles, then. Survival." So we go on with our mindlessness and vacuity and we survive! This, then, is all that is possible for us.

Walcott accepts his colonial legacy, that of which the editor writes, and gives us half truths and evasions, hands us our failings as achievement, and makes us comfortable with complacency. For this and more, he was praised unconditionally when he was awarded the Noble prize.

Walcott is one of Naipaul's harshest critics though he is always quick to concede the brilliance of his writing, thus, vilifying Naipaul, the man, while praising his work. Let us hope that when all the dust has settled that it is Naipaul's work, his writing, his perceptions that will be judged, away and apart from the man. That is, after all, how it should be.

As far back as 35 years ago, Naipaul wrote in one of his earlier novels: "we lack order. Above all, we lack power and we do not understand that we lack power. We mistake words and the acclamation of words for power; as soon as our bluff is called we are lost...For those who lose and nearly everyone in the end loses, there is only one course: flight. Flight to the greater disorder, the final emptiness: London and the Home Counties".

The words still hold true after all these years and the answer as to why lies, perhaps in the novel's title:" The Mimic Men.” Like the exiled colonial politician, the book's central character, we are still pretending to be real, to be learning and to be preparing ourselves for life. And we shall continue to do so until and unless we face the truths about ourselves and our post colonial reality. When we do, one of those truths will be Naipaul's truth.