Naipaul's truth Editorial
Stabroek News
November 13, 2001

Suppose one were to say that because of a general cultural and intellectual decline Guyana was no longer capable of sustaining a complex legal system based on the English common law. There is a kind of truth here, but it is dismissive, reductionist and ultimately stultifying. Wider, deeper truths are more complex than that. To examine this supposition properly, with intimate and nuanced description that would be much closer to the truth, one would need to know the English legal system and the nitty gritty of what goes on here and there in the practice of the law.

Put it another way. Let us posit a Platonic ideal of a perfect court with wise judges learned in the law and intellectually honest and capable lawyers, familiar with all the cases and striving for a kind of objective justice. An English court of appeal might approach that ideal more nearly than our own but no court achieves it. The reality is always much more complex than the ideal.

Post colonial Caribbean societies are easy targets. The legacies of the plantation system are all too obvious, the bullying, the philistinism, the lack of sophistication, the inadequate education, even the dishonesty about the society itself. These insights are neither new nor unique. Indeed these failings are not much different to human frailty everywhere, though the reality may be more complex and multi-layered in a developed class society or a society with long, historical traditions.

A Dickens will dissect his Scrooges or his Gradgrinds but will leave them with a kind of dignity. Their meanness will be redeemed by the author's tolerance or even love for them. They are all his people. They are archetypal figures in the enduring human comedy, perhaps a little closer to caricature and farce than in real life. For there is a Scrooge in every man, just as there is a Don Quixote. Human beings are both banal and heroic. They are obsessed by their fears and their needs and appetites but they also exist in the context of eternity. They are both ludicrous and tragic.

The Caribbean can be understood in its own tortured reality, the legacy of the masters and the slaves. It is harder to do this if one does not live in it; it can then easily become objectified and schematic. The truth is always more difficult and more complex than that. There is always some ongoing attempt in the society at understanding and reconciliation, a reaching out for human contact, however pusillanimous, however flawed.

Some Irish and Caribbean writers have found it very difficult to handle their own reality and have gone into exile. This has had both positive and negative results. It has led in the most evolved cases to a kind of universalistic, Joycean statement that soars above place and time and the crass realities of existence in Ireland or anywhere else. But in that very achievement there is a kind of loss, an intellectualising which, rejecting local roots, is both exhilarating and stultifying. You can get a glimpse of heaven but you lose touch with earth, in particular that earth or land in which the writer was nourished. Joyce's "silence, exile and cunning" may enable him to explore the heights but he ends up flying relatively unencumbered by his own native truth and pain. Yet perhaps that is a feature of all high culture, a sublimation and a transcendence.

That exile, rejection and search for truth is a part of our own Caribbean reality. We are, someone said, all in a kind of internal exile, dreaming foolishly of somewhere else. This is a symptom of a non-formed nation state. Understanding that reality does require the rejection of sham and falsehood that Naipaul courageously stands for but also something more, an identification with the pain and suffering.