Naipaul has become the stubborn incarnation of the worst of a past generation - the abiding sense of racial inferiority, the affected British accent
Stabroek News
December 2, 2001

Dear Editor,

The attribution of this year's nobel prize for literature to V S Naipaul has raised debate as to his worth as a novelist and his competence as a social commentator. It has interrogated our own reactions to his work and the aesthetics that subtend our responses.

Literature, among all the arts, is essentially both form and content. And it is admissible, even morally imperative, that we disengage from work that is offensive to the sensibility and intellect, or, in the treatment of its subject, eminently false. Hence the disgust with which the news of Naipaul's consecration is greeted.

As a novelist Naipaul's forte is a sort of comedy, in which the inadequate, fixed in their universe of deprivation and distress, scheme and toil to escape from where they are or from who they are.

Pervading his non-fiction is the same theme of flight. The third world, the vineyard in which he has been sent to labour, is inhabited by these caricatures, in full retreat from themselves, from their own mediocrities and contradictions, or from the caravan of misfortunes that camps at their door. And the flight is through cultural space to contemporary London, through cultural time to an imperial Islam, to a romanticised Afri-can past or again to the fantasy of an absurdly imagined future.

In this, the actors in a Naipaulian universe, fictional or re-painted from the real, share the author's ontological unease.

For Naipaul, the West Indies was a place to escape and West Indianness a condition to be eschewed. In his autobiographical work this is expressed and elaborated.

He has his reasons.

In the lines often quoted from The Middle Passage, the Caribbean Islands become these clots of insignificance, with their thrown together communities. "Achievement here" he concludes "will always be small". In another passage, the Trinidadian coloured child dreaming of the future as an astronaut, is perceived as a perpetuation of the general delirium, while his white comrade prepares a more mundane and attainable future. Naipaul sighs, "With-out the calm of the white response..."

(Was Naipaul himself among the "deluded", daring to dream of the Nobel prize?)

"Miguel St", "The Suffrage of Elvira" or "The Mystic Masseur" are animated by characters who in the bizarre aridity of their inner lives function best as caricature. As a writer of comedy Naipaul invites us to mock. But looming behind the laughter is this sense of the horror, of the futility, of the somber, boundless and sterile void.

As a social commentator Naipaul has made of sterility, and of delirium and flight, his single theme. But let us not forget that in his sixties criticisms of West Indian life... the psychic disorder, the inevitable philistinism of the under-educated crippled by their complexes... Naipaul was not offering original insights. They formed part of the discourse of his time. Naipaul came after Garvey, or CLR James or Jean Price Mars and Aime Cesaire who all remarked the distress. Somewhere in their prescriptions we were offered hope and redemption. For Naipaul deliverance lay in flight.

And ultimately the measure of the writer is taken not only by the quality of his witness and transcription of this desolation, but in how he sees himself interrogated by it, and in the nature of his response. In Naipaul the response has been hopelessness and derision.

But to have perceived those poor and their world as the single dimension of their poverty, material or mental, was to blind oneself to what must also have been noble, creative and redeeming in their existence. To deprive them of hope was to connive at their destitution. It was to affirm a lie. And that is Mr Naipaul's transgression.

The wilful blindness, the pitilessness of "the percipient observer" as Naipaul would see himself, is finally only another register of this spiritual and intellectual poverty that the writer, by a comprehensible sort of projection, casts upon all he encounters as he sojourns among the savages.

The novels of the sixties and seventies enjoyed interest and a generally, good reception in England, as in the Caribbean. But for different reasons.

In England the need to redefine the emotional relationship with the former colonies was an element of weight in the appreciation of Commonwealth Literature. The British were battling the colonised abroad, and at home, the spectre of decline. The empire on which sun never set, so comforting to the English sense of superiority, was being unmade by insistent revolt, as in India, Kenya, the Suez or British Guiana the native had become the enemy. And a common reaction to conflict is the reduction of the enemy to his caricature. Antipathetic, risible, and essentially subhuman.

A readership that saw itself rejected by the colonial reciprocated by applauding the grotesqueries that Naipaul offered as glimpses of native life. A reminder that the native, abandoned to his self-destruction, would never amount to anything, made the imperial diminution somehow more bearable.

Naipaul, as a vehicle for the despair and self-doubt that was an element of the West Indian mentality of his time, had found his audience and his theme. A good minor talent, a promising literary caricaturist, finds himself thrust to the center of the stage and hailed as a major discovery. A sort of "native telling the real truth about the natives," Naipaul is granted a patent to continue his good work in the rest of the old colonies, and lights out on his several expeditions to India, Africa and the muslim world.

Like the picaroon he described in the West Indian, Naipaul had found his hustle.

But by accepting this mandate Naipaul engaged himself in an enterprise for which he was temperamentally prepared, but intellectually inadequate.

For a novelist and sometime historian and essayist Naipaul brings to his craft neither the disciplines necessary to the task nor a compensating acuity of perception.

There is clearly little understanding or curiosity about the economic or cultural forces that create the destitution he so gleefully describes. There is no philsophy of history, or psychology or metaphysics, and thus the work founders for its lack of explanatory power. The reader departs the encounter with Naipaul's world no better equipped to comprehend the reality he has explored than when he entered it.

In the writer's case the obvious pandering did not impose any special effort at comprehension, he was required only to scoff. He thus declares, in the commencement of "Beyond Belief" that in writing about the muslim world he starts from an ignorance of the faith. In the pact he has with those he sees as his readers, the ignorance was not a handicap, and he goes on to state that he thinks it is best to proceed in this way.

But as we said Naipaul also enjoyed a generally good reception in the Caribbean.

In the sixties, the leap (or limp) towards sovereignty had its own emotional exigencies, among which was also this re-examination and redefinition of the self. (Note that the other, the coloniser is almost absent from the center of Naipaul's work). In his books, and in many cases for the first time, the West Indian saw himself not as an extra in an exotic landscape but in many cases for the first time, as the center of the writer's preoccupations.

For the Caribbean political and intellectual elite of the sixties the presence of the new writers was seen as positive and welcome in the context of the revalorisation of Caribbean identity that featured in their manifestoes .The region was to generate a great deal of activity at a level that was institutional (Carifesta, or the Pan and reggae festivals, the start of a film industry, the recording studios) as well as individual. Naipaul would be supported by Eric Williams, would be received by the Jagans, would be put on the book lists by the new Ministries of Education.

For the first time people from among us were depicitng our own realities, in poetry, fiction or song. In Naipaul we also had, for the first time, a writer from among us reporting from the third world and our ancestral lands. We were eager to accompany him on his journey. This is his importance as a pioneer.

Then we took some time to realise that we were not to be considered by Naipaul as his audience. It dawned upon us, but only after a time, that in Naipaul we were back playing the old role, required of us by the colonisers....poor,backward, risible, eternally reduced to consuming the cultural goods of others.

This was to many a grievous wound, perhaps even more puzzling or hurtful as we had begun to produce and to purvey cultural goods of our own, even though not yet in abundance, but at least sufficient to silence the homebound naysayers.

In fact no region of similar size and population has had a comparable impact on international culture through its music, its writings and the quality of its trained minds.

Caribbean people have won two Nobel prizes (without counting Naipaul's), the most prestigious French prix Goncourt for Martiniquan writer Patrick Chamoiseau, another important French prize for Haitian Rene Depestre, the Oscar for Bahamian Sidney Poitier....

Our writers and intellectuals - Drs Eric Williams and Walter Rodney etc in history, Sir Arthur Lewis, Sir Alistair McIntyre, Prof Norman Girvan etc in economics, diplomats and international civil servants Sir Shridath Ramphal, Dr Mohammed Shahabuddeen, and scholars and experts in all disciplines- have been produced in the region.

The culture of the "masses", in its most original of forms, in its musical expression - Emmy awards for reggae, the international appeal of Cuban son or French Antillean zouk- has also flourished and found a larger market.

In the meantime, the writer, still in flight, finally withers into a caricature of himself. The sneering face of the irascible Brahmin becomes his mask. His one effort at the societies in which he has long lived "A turn in the (American) South" is a failure of nerve, insipid, diffident and embarrassed. We feared we had become his chosen objects of predation.

As a writer of prose, Naipual is an elegant and intelligent pen, and as a composer of comedies he is often original and very funny. The dust jacket compliment "Best living writer in the English language" has got to be taken for what it is - hyperbole. As an essayist, he cannot be ranked with Lloyd Best or George Odlum or Wayne Jones and the Caribbean is full of writers, many not professional authors, who evoke the realities of our existence with greater power, poetry and insight. Naipaul is nonetheless a talented writer.

As soothsayer and social critic he however fails.

Of late he has not had much to say.

A quarter of a century later, England is not the same. A new generation, forgetful of empire, has come of age. Better educated, the laughter at the native, no longer correct, is timid, feeble, and somehow, low rent. His latest novel was reviewed there and dismissed as unpublishable except for the fact that it bore his name.

Nor is the Caribbean the same. A people that is more confident of itself is coming of age. Naipaul's maledictions appear irrelevant and even amusing or absurd.

We cannot deny the pioneering role that Naipaul and his generation of West Indian writers have played. But our fidelity to history cannot permit us either to dismiss the politicians, artists and the Caribbean people who, in the face of doubt and difficulty have put our culture on the map.

We cannot all share in Naipaul's Nobel which he must experience as a final vindication, for he is unrepentant and his is the triumph of a thing from which we wish to disembarrass ourselves. He has become the stubborn incarnation of the worst of a past generation...the abiding sense of racial inferiority, the affected British accent, the obligatory white wife, the supercilious dismissal of all that was Caribbean and familiar.

In the ineluctable dialectic that is our life, we engage Naipaul only in the act of mutual rejection.

And he does not wish us to share his triumph either. His response to the news of the Nobel, as reported in the Trinidad Express, was to strike a pose:

"This is a wonderful surprise; This is a tribute to India from which my ancestors came and to Britain.." No mention of Trinidad or the West Indies.

Naipaul is now too far away in his illusion of flight, from us and from himself.

But by a sad revenge of fate, few have remained as fixed in the mentality and complexes and roles of the Caribbean past as has this East Indian, now become the caricature of a certain kind of West Indian.

We wish to move on. Naipaul for all his years has gone nowhere. His has been the illusion of flight, for the world he constructed in his mind then thought to escape lives on in him. He has been given the Nobel prize. We are expected to offer our felicitations and to consider it another tribute to West Indian literature, or as another trophy for the East Indian West Indians.

Just as we pause to say "Good riddance" we realise that the man is not alone.

Ravi Dev in Wednesday's edition of SN leaks news of a worldwide network of Caribbean Indians, all comfortable in the certitude of their victimhood and in psychic harmony with Mr Naipaul whom they congratulate as this epiphany, quintessentially IndoCaribbean.

And all in full delusional flight to a fantasy world in which the sacred Indian has no commerce with the other but through the mediation of his Indianness. And what is more, there is no miscegenation. A political party has been created, with the Naipaulesque name of ROAR...

There are others among us.

Yours faithfully,

Abu Bakr