Why did the Nobel Committee give Naipaul the prize so late? by Frank Birbalsingh, Associate Professor of English at York Univeristy, Toronto
Stabroek News
November 15, 2001

There is no doubt that the award of this year's Nobel prize for literature has brought great honour to the winner V.S. Naipaul, to Trinidad his native land, to the wider Caribbean, and to literature from all countries that were once colonies of Great Britain. One wonders, all the same, why the award was made so late, at the age of 69, at the virtual end of Naipaul's career. Naipaul is not the first post-colonial writer to win the prize: Patrick White of Australia won it as far back as 1973. Nor is Naipaul the first post-colonial writer from the Third World to win it: Wole Soyinka of Nigeria was a winner in 1989, and Naipaul's fellow West Indian Derek Walcott in 1992. The late award to Naipaul is all the more curious when we consider that he has been in the running for the prize since the 1960s.

Perhaps the lateness is explained by the fact that the prize is most often awarded for a lifetime's achievement, which is likely to be recognised only toward the end of a writer's career. Even so, other writers won the prize

earlier: Patrick White at the age of 57, Soyinka at 55, and Walcott at 62. But Nadine Gordimer of South Africa, the only other Nobel laureate of post-colonial literature, was 68 years old when she won in 1991. At any rate, according to the Nobel committee's citation, Naipaul's award was for his "incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories". The citation also singled out Naipaul's novel The Enigma of Arrival (1987) for its "unrelenting image of the placid collapse of the old colonial ruling culture and the demise of European neighbourhoods."

Such criteria make it appear all the more puzzling why Naipaul was not awarded the prize earlier; for his incorruptible scrutiny was nowhere more evident, nor his unrelenting image of colonial collapse more striking than in the 1970s, after he had completed his best novels A House for Mr Biswas (1961) and The Mimic Men (1967), his best travel book The Middle Passage (1963), his first two books on India, and his collections of stories and essays. It was then that Naipaul most deserved the prize; for it was then that he courageously stood alone, seemingly taking on the whole Third World, by soberly revealing that his countrymen belonged mainly to islands that were the discarded remnants of an Empire to which they had already served their usefulness.

But no one was then disposed to pay heed to this bleak and unconsoling vision of post-colonial dereliction, decline and destruction. Naipaul's countrymen were too bemused by the illusion of Independence and too deluded by the false euphoria of post-colonial freedom to realise that what he was saying was that Empire was not dead. So, instead of praising him, they responded with howls of indignation, accusing Naipaul of condescension, contempt and racism, of treacherously taking the side of former imperial rulers against his own people in the Third World. In these circumstances, it was no wonder that the Nobel committee held off from offering the prize to someone accused of racism toward poor, victimized Third World people.

But why have members of the Nobel committee now changed their minds?

The tone of Naipaul's writing has not changed since the 1970s. Nor has his stern and unrelenting vision of the Third World. The fact is that, after 1980, the most notable difference in Naipaul's work is one of subject as seen in two travel books on the non-Arabic, Islamic world: Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981) and Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (1998). Not only do these two books introduce the new topic of Islam, but they betray such strident condemnation of Islamic fundamentalism that one is tempted to believe it was a factor, and probably a decisive one, in influencing the decision of the Nobel committee. This probability increases when we consider the need for Western solidarity in the current war waged principally by the US and Britain, ostensibly against terrorism, and specifically against Islamic fundamentalists as represented by the Al-Qaeda network, Osama bin Laden and the Taliban regime.

What this means is that the Nobel committee rejected Naipaul's claim to the prize when he detected fraudulent political motives, bogus spirituality and destructive tendencies in African and Caribbean people in the 1960s and 70s, but later accepted his claim when he detected the same flaws in Muslim fundamentalists. The political implications of such inconsistency are obvious. The pity is that the committee's decision may now encourage his countrymen to honour Naipaul as a hero for entirely wrong reasons. Seduced by its authority and international prestige some of Naipaul's countrymen may even see the prize as validation of their own deep-seated suspicion of Muslims and their alleged penchant for terror. Nothing could be more dangerous.

The truth is that Naipaul's unsparing insights into the troubling consequences of imperial withdrawal, his moral integrity as an incorruptible truth-teller, and his technical distinction as perhaps the finest living stylist in the English language were never in doubt since the 1960s. These qualities should have been recognised long ago both by Naipaul's countrymen and the Nobel committee. Yet, as himself a master of irony, how Naipaul must relish their belated recognition now largely for wrong or less than honourable reasons! Naipaul's countrymen and the Nobel committee might wish to consider the following reflections of Archibishop Thomas Becket in T.S Eliot's play Murder in the Cathedral: 'The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right thing for the wrong reason.'