Naipaul's acid comments may be part of his showmanship
Stabroek News
December 11, 2001

Dear Editor,

It has certainly been entertaining, as well as edifiying at times, to read in Stabroek News the various recent polemics on the awarding of the Nobel prize to Vidia Naipaul. In particular, the recent letter by Abu Bakr was an almost classic dissection and contained such truly finely constructed sentences as to gain the approval of even Derek Walcott.

However, the time has come to make the point that we are taking all of this far too seriously. We have simply lost sight of the fact that what we are dealing with here is show business. Don't be confused by these intimations of "high culture" discourse, and references to "literature" as if this is some holy condition before which we must prostrate ourselves. Naipaul, as Ryhaan Shah reminds, is not a scientist. It's not as if he won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry or Nuclear Physics; he won it for literature. As with anyone in the arts, Naipaul is an entertainer, in much the same way that David Rudder or Sparrow is, and we're all out there trying to sell albums, or movies, or nightclub shows, or magazines, or books, and most of the recriminations directed at him truly stem, not so much from his writings, but from these outrageous one-liners for which he is well known. Behind his well-known sneer Naipaul is probably having a good laugh as the flap generated by his comments creates a significant boost in his book royalties and his personal appearance fees.

This is conjecture, but it's entirely possible that, early in his career, the publicity resulting from a caustic comment, made tongue-in-cheek, could well have opened his eyes to the value of this vitriolic "sound bite" approach, and he's been doing it deliberately since. Indeed, there is more than a suspicion that his comment regarding the Nobel Prize with its pointed Caribbean snub, was another arrow from that quiver, and look at how effective it was; it created far more press than the actual award did, and the furor from that slight continues long after news of the honour has faded. Indeed, I can vouch for the fact that several people who know nothing of his work are now showing an interest in reading him solely because of that remark.

Of course, one of the conditions operating here is the tendency we all have to see our artists as authorities, based on this pronouncement or that, and consequently to take what they say as "the truth", as Ryhann says, when in fact it may be nothing of the kind. The man is out there trying to sell books, folks. Yes, the artistic endeavour has the potential to uplift, stimulate, propel, encourage, etc., but if the product does not "sell" (Naipaul has often complained about his books' sales)the process becomes difficult if not futile. Naipaul's opinions should be treated as what they are; Naipaul's opinions. Read his books for the elegance of his language and for perhaps gaining some understanding of cultures that is proving to be critical in today's world of increasingly vicious ethnic clashes, but those who take Naipaul's various pronouncements as doctrine are giving the man an authority I doubt he would claim.

Several of the SN letter writers are straining themselves purple to make Naipaul into an oracle, when in fact he's far more the entertainer. The man isn't wearing glitter, and he doesn't come on with a band, or fly in on wires, but he's "on stage" nonetheless. Being outrageous is a common and effective part of many successful arts careers as Salvador Dali, Norman Mailer, Ernest Hemingway, Elton John, Elvis Presley, among others, have shown. When Naipaul says "Africa has no future", or "Trinidad's only accomplishment is drum-beating", or "The dot on an Indian woman's head means it's empty", or "Nothing was ever created in the West Indies", he is on stage. He knows those are the things his audience will rise to, the press will carry them, you and I will repeat them. It is, in fact, an integral part of what is solemnly called his craft. If Naipaul truly believes the

things he posits in such denigrations as listed above, he is to be pitied, not vilified. More importantly, if we take them as the supposed truth, because Naipaul said them, then we are the ones who need to be pitied the


Yours faithfully,

Dave Martins