Naipaul's truth is that we must take responsibility for getting out of the mess we're in
Stabroek News
November 20, 2001

Dear Editor,

We knew from the earlier editorial "Sir Vidia's Shadows" that SN had severe problems with V.S. Naipaul's tone; it appears from its recent, more elliptical critique, "Naipaul's Truth" [11-11-01], that it is also no admirer of Naipaul's style. After all, Naipaul has followed his father's simple but profound advice, that if a writer clearly says what he means he would have achieved style. But to each his own; I will merely address SN's newly formulated remonstrance on Naipaul's supposed weak methodology and compassionless stance.

SN proposes that Naipaul is "dismissive, reductionist and ultimately stultifying" of the Caribbean "truth" because he has not examined it "with intimate and nuanced description". We should first note that SN is making a political and not a literary judgement and secondly that SN presumes to have rectified Naipaul's transgressions when it declared that the "Caribbean...tortured reality (is) the legacy of the masters and slaves." To obliterate the Indians, Amerindians and other peoples of the Caribbean into an arrogant Black-White dichotomy is to be more "nuanced"! In the meanwhile, however, Naipaul had never stopped at merely criticizing our unwillingness to "be convinced of the value of reading the history of a place which was, as everyone said, only a dot on the map of the world"; he took time to unearth that history and acquaint us with it, as for instance in "A Way in the World". How can anyone claim that Naipaul's feet has lost "touch with earth" when he has even rejected the role of the omniscient author of the traditional novel and the totalizing premises of grand narratives.

As far back as 1962, Naipaul went against the canonical orthodoxy when he pointed out that "there was no community" but a plural society in the Caribbean. He was a decade ahead of the later, soi disant radicals when he noted that, "the greatest damage done to the Negro by slavery ...(was that) taught him self-contempt" and he "was, until recently, unwilling to look at his past." Has anything changed since he irked Africans then by pointing out that none of the models in the Trinidadian TV ads were "clamorously black"? Most forget that they now agree with what they had objected to then and others are only repeating, zombie-like, what they heard without reading Naipaul.

SN claims that, unlike Dickens, Naipaul does not "redeem" his characters' meanness by "tolerance or even love for them." Now, Naipaul has described us as a "picaroon society" - "an ugly world, a jungle, where the picaroon hero starved unless he stole, was beaten to death when found out, and had therefore to get his blows in first whenever possible; where the weak were humiliated; where the powerful never appeared and were beyond reach; where no one was allowed any dignity and everyone had to impose himself; an uncreative society...". But in considering one "smart-man" scam, Naipaul declares that, "at once analysis is made ridiculous. For here is a natural sophistication and tolerance which has been produced by the picaroon society. How could one wish it otherwise? To condemn the picaroon society out of hand is to ignore its important quality. And this is not its ability to beguile and enchant. For if such a society breeds cynicism, it also breeds tolerance, not the tolerance between castes and creeds and so on - but something more profound: tolerance for every human activity and affection for every demonstration of wit and style." Does that not bequeath "dignity"?

But it is when SN finally rejects Naipaul's "understanding" of Caribbean reality as fatally flawed because of a lack of "identification with the pain and suffering" that one grasps its conundrum, for Naipaul had seen it back in 1960. SN doesn't really want Naipaul to only "identify" but to "accept and celebrate" the Caribbean reality and Naipaul, rightfully, will have none of it. "Living in a borrowed culture, the West Indian, more than most, needs writers to tell him who he is and where he stands. Here the West Indian writer has failed. Most have so far only reflected and flattered the prejudices of their race or colour groups."

Naipaul has had the courage to point out that all men can be wolves to other men and we can't take the easy way out and only blame the White man for everything; the fault, dear fellow West Indian, may also lie in us. Naipaul has said what is politically incorrect - that because "the cultural involvement of the Negro was with the white world", Africans in Trinidad and Guyana have no real prejudice against Whites, and "the animosity that might have been directed against whites has been channeled against the Indians." "Matters are not helped," Naipaul further noted, "by the fierce rivalry between Indians and Negroes as to who despises the other more."

"Identification" does not ineluctably compel maudlin sentimentality: "The insecure, wish to be heroically portrayed. Irony and satire which might help more, are not acceptable..." Naipaul is not like Dickens who was writing in a society that was already "formed", nor is he like Joyce who had escaped to Trieste. He is more like Jonathan Swift, who in anger at the indifference of the English at the agonies of Ireland wrote the savage satire, "A modest Proposal". Naipaul has said, "I don't forget my peasant origin...and that we were unprotected, our family, people like us in Trinidad. We had no voice." Naipaul wants change.

Naipaul's truth is that we must be willing to take responsibility for getting out of the mess we're in; "Sentimentality and brutality," he warns us, "go together."

I have always been taught that, "We Guyanese are the most hospitable people on Earth." Yet we have descended into the most despicable violence against each other periodically over the last forty years. Quo Vadis?

Yours faithfully,

Ravi Dev, MP, Leader of ROAR