V S Naipaul: The enigma of his arrival Arts On Sunday

With Al Creighton
Stabroek News
October 21, 2001

The continuing text of the arrival of Caribbean literature as a major force in the world has been punctuated by another important achievement: the announcement of V S Naipaul as the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature 2001, the world's richest award for one's lifetime achievement in the field. Although there was no prediction that it would have happened this year, the announcement came as no surprise, because ever since Derek Walcott's triumph in 1992, there has been speculation that Naipaul, after repeated nominations, would soon follow. That speculation now turns to Wilson Harris, around whom, it has been said, quite a critical industry has developed. His rejection of the conventional form of the twentieth century novel has made an impact on English fiction.

True to familiar trends throughout Naipaul's entire career, the announcement was not without controversy in the Caribbean. Already his remarks on being told that he had won the Prize have sent ripples that might well grow into seismic waves around the Caribbean. The "accolade," he said, "is a great tribute to both England, my home, and India, the home of my ancestors." This identification is in direct contrast to Walcott, whose "either I'm nobody, or I'm a nation," asserts his West Indianness, while in his Nobel address in Stockholm, he glorified the West Indies in his speech about "visual surprise." But Naipaul's remark causes some West Indians to feel slighted by his apparent snub of Trinidad, island of his birth. The problem is, he continues to be enigmatic, since, despite that statement, he had never before adopted either Britain or India as 'home.'

Yet, controversy has worked positively for Sir Vidia, who, although knighted by the Queen, has never used that title. His books have been outspoken, and he declared in an interview (with Al Creighton, SN, December 23, 30, 1990) that his books never grow stale because "I stick my neck out." Even now, his failure to acknowledge Trinidad is an echo of the rejection of his homeland that enraged readers in 1962 when The Middle Passage was published. That controversial book will again be well remembered with its most infamous declaration that "nothing was created in the West Indies." Among the responses to that were ironic verses from Walcott, the avowed Caribbeanist, who, after painting the region as a pristine new world yet rich in history, landscape and heritage, remarks "there is too much nothing here." Naipaul's subjects have been effectively selected and his critical judgements sufficiently forthright to attract that kind of attention. For example, another travel book, Among the Believers - an Islamic journey, (1981) also provoked anger from the Muslim world at the time of its release and will no doubt be remembered today because of the issues surrounding Afghanistan.

Even long before that, in 1960, fellow West Indian writer, George Lamming, was condemning the early Naipaul novels as "castrated satires" and their author as a man who found fault with the Caribbean in order to establish his belonging to a superior English culture. True enough, by his own admission, Vidiadhar

Surujprasad Naipaul has never embraced Trinidad culture and has always withdrawn himself from his own Indian and Hindu roots. He confesses this in Among the Believers and, to the great horror of readers in 1962, articulated his own horror of his local, parochial society in The Middle Passage. (Interestingly, in that book, he is very kind to Guyana in contrast to the lambasting unleashed upon the rest of the region.) But is it true that he believes in British superiority?

The local society that he criticizes in the travel book is fictionalized in the satirical, humorous and thoroughly analytical A House for Mr. Biswas, probably his best known novel. It is semi-autobiographical, interrogating the wrongs of both the Hindu and Creole societies, their acculturation, escapism and mimicry of the metropolis. It ennobles the struggles of his father, Seepersad Naipaul, to find a place and make a dent in the world, while highlighting the growth of his own sense of individualism and the reasons for his isolation from the community into which he was born and against which his father battled.

His first visit to India failed to impress him with any feeling of a return to an ancestral home. Instead, it evoked a work as scathing as The Middle Passage in its scorn and disaffection with Mother India. His findings are summed up in the title of that first book about India, which he pronounced An Area of Darkness. He is equally critical of the Africa he saw in A Bend in the River, a prize-winning novel provoked by the Idi Amin dictatorship and the expulsion of Asians from Uganda, and In A Free State, another work of fiction reflecting crumbling societies, more dictatorship and corruption. Neither are his novels set in England particularly complimentary. Another very highly acclaimed autobiographical work, The Enigma of Arrival, echoes the disintegration of a great civilization with its Conradian heart of darkness. Its treatment is compassionate but contains Naipaul's strongest and most positive intimation of a return to the Caribbean. It is a masterpiece, mixing fiction, autobiography and travel in a form for which he is credited, like Harris and Salman Rushdie, with achieving a transformation of the English novel.

However, despite this fictionalized suggestion of a return and the acknowledgement of his English home, Naipaul really never left the West Indies, and, moreover, has made several returns. As a writer, however universal, the influence of his Caribbean roots is indelible, and continues to be a source of inspiration and subject as in The Return of Eva Peron and Killings in Trinidad, events which are fictionalized in Guerrillas. As his world vision grew more patient and understanding, he became kinder to India, seen as A Wounded Civilization. In the Stabroek News interview, he comments on the anger that his earlier writings evoked among Indians who, he says, have now come to accept him as a true son of India, even belatedly accepting his harsh criticisms. His latest book on that country promotes a better understanding of the sub-continent's peculiar culture of rebellions. India : A Million Mutinies Now traces and examines the nation's long history of violent conflicts, ethnic rifts, religion and colonialism.

Books like these have won the author overwhelming respect internationally, in addition to the accolades for his fiction. A Bend in the River won the prestigious and highly competitive Booker Prize; his life's work in fiction earned him the Cohen Award in England in 1993; and A Way in the World (1994) was shortlisted for the lucrative IMPAC-Dublin Prize for a book of fiction. Among his recognitions, there is no evidence of any enthusiasm from Sir Vidia about his knighthood, a title he was never heard to use. He remains "V S Naipaul" which is helpful for publicity but which is also symbolic of his alienation from all that "Vidiadhar Surujprasad" stands for.

His is a reluctance to belong to conformist traditions including the Trinidadian brand of Hinduism and Indianness. In Among the Believers he is critical of official versions of Islam in Pakistan, Malaysia, Iran and Indonesia, preferring an honest, committed individual belief. His admiration is for one who is non-conformist, an independent, creative individual rather than a mere follower. He describes such a person in Behzad , his Iranian guide who, though a free-thinking individual, "was made by Islam more than he knew." In this individual, Naipaul, who was made by the Caribbean more than he knows, must have recognized himself.