Sir Vidia's Shadows Editorial
Stabroek News
October 25, 2001

V.S. Naipaul has won this year's Nobel Prize for Literature, long after the Academy seemed to have passed him over for good. Now, the Caribbean will have to revisit the bitter, contrarian qualities at the heart of his great talent, to make up its mind about his mean-spirited descriptions of the region ("a white man's nigger [always] looking down" says the literary critic Edward Said); to decide whether to celebrate or mark him down as a turncoat who now speaks of England and India as his "homes".

His ability is beyond question. From the very start Naipaul sounded like a major writer. His early comic novels and the remarkable A House for Mr Biswas remains at the very front of our literature. Later travelogues, novelistic memoirs, essays, historical and cultural analyses, although not dealing directly with the Caribbean, can often be read as extensions of his thesis that "nothing was created in the West Indies." In Reading and Writing: A Personal Account he says, "As a child trying to read, I had felt that two worlds separated me from the books that were offered to me at school and in the libraries; the childhood world of our remembered India, and the more colonial world of our city ... What I didn't know, even after I had written my early books of fiction, concerned only with story and people and getting to the end and mounting the jokes well, was that these two spheres of darkness had become my subject." In The Enigma of Arrival, he speaks of "the colonial smallness [of Trinidad] that didn't consort with the grandeur of my ambition...." After Biswas, and his establishment as a serious writer in England, everywhere he went he found internalised colonialism, darkness, emptiness, and stupidity.

What can and has been questioned is his claim to the cultural high ground, his deliverance from this darkness. "Here is a man," wrote the novelist Caryl Phillips, "who can visit the Ivory Coast, or Iran, or Pakistan, or his native Trinidad, and make the most outlandish, racist, unscholarly and inaccurate statements, in books and interviews, and still be taken seriously." A man whose literary fame has allowed him to get away with a great deal of shameful nonsense. One example will suffice: when Elizabeth Hardwick of The New York Review of Books asked him about the dot on the forehead of Indian women, Naipaul replied, "the dot means: my head is empty."

For the Caribbean, the early novels and Biswas are Naipaul's most rewarding work, for they show his considerable gifts as a storyteller: a whole cast of finely drawn characters, their pretensions and foibles depicted with a graceful humour and sympathy. Nobody has written more vividly about the region since. What makes these early works so charming is that Naipaul withholds much of the later condescension, he allows his characters a life outside of his dystopic worldview.

Success, particularly in England, changed this, to the point where - if we can believe his backstabbing former friend Paul Theroux - Naipaul became one of his own changeling colonials and genuinely began to think of his background as a nightmare from which he had heroically awoken; dressing, speaking and behaving as though he were a minor aristocrat. "If you are from Trinidad you want to get away," he told Vanity Fair magazine in 1987, "You can't write if you're from the bush." Long gone the young Vidia who had written, at the end of his first term at University College Oxford, "I have got to show these people that I can beat them at their own language." Well, he has beaten them and he is now British; no longer "from the bush." His reinvention is complete.

And yet, for all the negative things one wants to say about Naipaul, it is impossible to live in the Caribbean without acknowledging the truth of many of his observations, even some of the bitterest. It is this doubleness that makes him so interesting and relevant; he has dared to say, arrogantly, flippantly and offensively several home truths that West Indians spend a lifetime suppressing in themselves. Much of his impishness has been our self-contempt set free. For more than two decades he has been the dominant voice in West Indian prose, the man to refute, but apart from Derek Walcott, no Caribbean writer has developed a voice strong enough to dispel Sir Vidia's gloom. His prose has outlasted his critics'; his offenses have been forgotten. Let us hope, as we grudgingly toast his Nobel prize, that our next Naipaul will not feel so estranged, will not need the comforts of elsewhere so badly, will capture more of our humanity and be less selfish with his own.