Naipaul is speaking to us all and we must face the harsh truths
December 16, 2001
Naipaul is first and foremost a writer and the Nobel Prize he won was for Literature. He is an artist not a political scientist who shoulders an obligation to write about "the effect of imperialism on culture." When criticised for not being optimistic about the Third World he unequivocally pointed out that "he was not a spokesman for anything." When asked as to whether his book "India: A Wounded Civilization" offered a more sympathetic view of the Third World he retorted: "That's a political judgement. It's not a political piece. There is no interview with any politician. The writer is concerned with what came his way through people reconciling themselves to the darkness around them. But if you interpret the motifs of that society politically, you would be reduced to despair wouldn't you?" He declared once that what angers him the most is "parasitism, intellectual dishonesty, exaggerated chauvinism. People who don't pay tribute to freedoms which they enjoy; they take them for granted."
He is a passionate and emotional writer who has the uncanny ability to match a brilliant imagination and moving candour with prose. He once told the New York Times: "I have reactions, very strong reactions. I would say my reactions are unnaturally violent. And it is out of this extraordinary violence of reaction I've always written. The day I stop feeling very strongly I wouldn't be able to do any writing. And writing comes from working through that very strong emotion- not just recording it raw."
Naipaul in his quest for truth and the human experience has examined historical injustices and atrocities. He has always insisted that the most important questions are: "What is history? What is civilization? What is disaster?" In describing his travel writings in this regard he explained: "What takes all my time is understanding what happened during those days -to be true to one' s experience and to be true to what one's learned about it. Making it hold together." In this vein in 1984 he expressed a desire to go to some land connected with the Spanish conquest of South or Central America: "To me the Spanish conquest is one of those unavenged crimes."
In 1972, Naipaul was appalled when he visited Argentina because the people thought their problems were political but Naipaul saw it as "the nature of the country, the way the society was founded. They imagine that if you kill the right people everything will work. Genocide is their history."
Naipaul is a confirmed realist with philosophical content. He explained one of his pieces, "Finding the Centre" as having many meanings -"finding the centre of the narrative, the centre of the truth of every experience, the philosophical centre for one' s belief."
As to the oft misquoted comment about "the bush in Trinidad" Naipaul clearly explained this to Hardwick as "the breakdown of institutions, of the contract between man and man. It is theft, corruption, racist incitement." Further we see the acrimonious Naipaul and his disdain for the pretentiousness of society when he writes: "Certain subjects are so holy that it becomes an act of virtue to lie. Never say 'bush people,' never say 'backward country,' never say 'boring people,' never say 'uneducated.' But turn away from what is disagreeable and what happens in the end is that you encourage the chaps there to start lying about themselves too. So they lie because it's what is expected of them. Soon everyone begins to lie." Naipaul is so contemptuous in this regard that he once angrily commented: "And there's the calamity of Africa. There's the attitude that you must never say unkind things about Africa. The result is that it is sinking into famine and civil wars." Naipaul is speaking to us all and we must face the harsh truths. How often do we not slink away from the truth by being deceitful and pretentious? We are all guilty in this aspect!
On India, in an interview he said "How tired I am of the India lovers, those who go on about 'beautiful India'-the last gasp of a hideous, imperialistic vanity...No, they cannot rise, cannot pass by way of a meritocracy. It is a question of families, villages, and ancestors. No escape. It is slavery, maintained on one meal a day. One meal to be shared by the whole family."
Naipaul's impassioned Indian experiences gave him the inspiration to think and examine in prose: "Barbarism in India is very powerful because it has a religious side." On poverty he commented: "In India poverty isn't just a word. The poor are not just statistics. They are there, visible. Overwhelming. Poverty on the Indian scale and with its antiquity has created a deeply violent and cruel society." After the assassination of Indira Gandhi, Naipaul wrote: "Nobody knows what will follow Mrs. Gandhi's assassination. Great disasters have come to India before." He admired the Nehrus because under them India underwent an "industrial and intellectual revolution." However, there's "the dreadful irony of societies starting from a low economic or cultural base -the minute men' s lot improves at all and they have their eyes opened, then they learn anger. Self-awareness leads to self-assertion. Mingled with religion, it's a very explosive mixture -possibly suicidal." Here again we see the literary genius of a writer whose descriptive analysis is prophetic and foreboding.
I must say I find one writer's argument thought provoking in that Naipaul was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2001 in light of today' s war against terrorism and because he is a non white who has made "trenchant accusations against the Muslim world." When Naipaul began travelling among non-Arab Muslims he was trying to understand what had driven them to their rage. He started out on the premise that they would be like the people of his own community -the Trinidad Indian community. Further, they both had "a similar 19th century imperial or colonial history." However he soon discovered what vast differences there were. Naipaul had "travelled a different way" from his "ritualized Hindu background" in "colonial Trinidad" to Oxford and England where he went through "many stages of knowledge and self-knowledge" and "ideas of enquiry." His conclusion was that he found himself "among a colonized people who had been stripped by their faith of all that expanding cultural and historical knowledge of the world that I had been growing into on the other side of the world."
On the revolution in Iran he has devastatingly concluded that "all the awakening has to do with money-it does not have to do with any new spiritual development. Money has awakened people who have been on the margin a long time. Money has also opened their eyes to their deficiencies. Money has filled them with a kind of shame therefore. Take away the money and they'll become as quiet as mice again. The stirrings in the Islamic world stemmed not so much from a distrust of the West but from a kind of envy coupled with rage at their own incompetence, a delayed recognition of backwardness." Having read this I idly wondered if Mr. Bin Laden ever read these controversial statements by Naipaul.
However, in conclusion and controversy aside; does an author whose writings in the English language are as fine as Austen, whose characters are as rich as Dickens and whose style of "absorbing the atmosphere" is almost Jamesian, deserve the Nobel Prize for Literature? I think he deserved it twenty years ago when he was first nominated.
Gino Peter Persaud