V.S. Naipaul wins Nobel literature prize By Jonathan Lynn
Guyana Chronicle
October 12, 2001

`I am utterly delighted. This is an unexpected accolade. It is a great tribute to both England, my home, and India, the home of my ancestors and to the dedication and support of my agents Gillon Aitken' - V.S. Naipaul
STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Trinidad-born writer V.S. Naipaul, whose critical views on major world religions including Islam have attracted protests, won the 2001 Nobel literature prize yesterday.

Naipaul won the $1 million prize for combining existing genres into a style of his own, blurring the distinction between fiction and non-fiction, and reporting the forgotten histories of the vanquished, the Swedish Academy said in its citation.

Naipaul, who has engaged in a bitter and highly publicised literary feud with former protege Paul Theroux, has lived in England since 1950 but it is hard to say where he is at home.

A master of English prose style, Naipaul's studies of exile have taken him from the Caribbean and his adopted country to India, Africa and the Islamic countries of Asia.

``Naipaul's prose is the finest being written in English today,'' Swedish writer and academician Kjell Espmark told Reuters.

Naipaul's themes of immigration, the impact of colonialism and nationalism on developing countries, and the negative side of religion are among the great issues dominating the young century.

But in recognising Naipaul, often nominated for the award, the Swedish Academy embraced the controversy, which has marked recent choices of laureate, such as Chinese exile Gao Xingjian last year or Italian leftist writer Dario Fo in 1997.

Naipaul's non-fiction includes ``Among the Believers: an Islamic Journey,'' published in 1981, which was criticised by some Muslim readers who said it had a narrow and selective vision of Islam.

``If you follow the whole oeuvre of Naipaul, he is very critical of all religions,'' Swedish writer and academic Per Wastberg told Reuters.

``He considers religion as the scourge of humanity, which dampens down our fantasies and our lust to think and experiment.''

``I am utterly delighted. This is an unexpected accolade. It is a great tribute to both England, my home, and India, the home of my ancestors and to the dedication and support of my agents Gillon Aitken,'' Naipaul said in a statement.

In his pessimistic portrayal of human nature and the themes of exile and alienation -- an individual's sense of being on the outside of society -- Naipaul has been compared with Joseph Conrad, another writer who chose a life of exile.

Naipaul's works range from short stories, through the novel, to travel writing.

His earliest books take place in the West Indies. In his first major success, ``A House for Mr. Biswas,'' published in 1961, he describes the search for independence and identity of an Indian living in Trinidad, partly based on his father.

In his semi-autobiographical novel ``The Enigma of Arrival'' (1987), considered by many his masterpiece, Naipaul describes how a landed estate in southern England and its proprietor, with a colonial background and suffering from a degenerative disease, decline and perish.

Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born in 1932, near Port of Spain in Trinidad, in a family descended from Hindu immigrants from northern India.

His father was a journalist and writer, and his grandfather worked on a sugar-cane plantation.

He went to England in his late teens to study at Oxford University, and has lived in England since then, devoting himself to writing.

Naipaul's latest book, published this year, is ``Half a Life,'' a semi-autobiographical novel about a man who grows up in India, moves to London to be a writer and after a Bohemian existence settles in Africa.

Copies vanished from the shelves of Stockholm bookstores within minutes of the announcement.

The Caribbean Media Corporation (CMC) in a report on Naipaul's award yesterday said the writer hailed from Chaguanas. His parents descended from Hindu immigrants from Northern India and his inability to form spiritual connections with his heritage, be it Trinidadian, Indian, or even British, dominates his thought as it appears in his work.

At the age of 18, Naipaul, who was educated in Port of Spain and won a scholarship to Oxford in 1950, had written his first novel which was rejected by the a publisher.

In 1949, after having some pictures of himself taken for his application to the university, Naipaul wrote to his elder sister: "I never knew my face was fat. The picture said so. I looked at the Asiatic on the paper and thought that an Indian from India could look no more Indian than I did...I had hoped to send up a striking intellectual pose to the University people, but look what they have got."

Like Jamaica Kincaid, Naipaul has turned to his own life for material, writing of his exodus from Trinidad to England (where he took a B.A. at Oxford) in such works as "The Enigma of Arrival".

Perhaps due to his status as rootless wanderer, as a man without a heritage to hold sway over him, Naipaul consistently knocks down idealised views of the places he journeys to, be they England, Trinidad, or Africa, in favour of a more complex, bitter, sometimes even contradictory truth.

"Among the Believers: an Islamic Journey", provides intimate portraits from his journeys to the non-Arab Islamic countries of Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, and Malaysia.

Naipaul tries to understand the fundamentalist fervour that has marked the Western image of the region.

"There probably has been no imperialism like that of Islam and the Arabs," he writes.

In Iran he meets war veterans, who express their disillusionment and their sense of being manipulated by the mullahs, and in Indonesia he meets his former friend, who opposed the Suharto regime, and later became an establishment figure, an advocate of an Islamicist future.

Following this, he published in 1998, "Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples".

His first of more than 25 literary works was "The Mystic Masseur", written in 1957. Others include "The Suffrage of Elvira" in 1958; "Miguel Street" (1960); and "A Way In The World" (1994).

In his career, Naipaul has endured harsh criticism from the Third World for his often scathing portrayals of India or the Caribbean.

Particularly in the case of the West Indies, Naipaul's airing of dirty laundry seems not motivated out of vindication but out of an effort to work through the scarring memories he holds of his time there.

Be it via the humour of his earlier books or the dark cynical psychology of later efforts, V.S. Naipaul has time and again used his honest and penetrating vision, coupled with an extraordinary command of the English language and its traditions, to paint portraits of the outcast roaming through civilisations of the world.