Panel takes advocacy position on Naipaul
Stabroek News
December 16, 2001

Four panellists on Friday evening took advocacy positions on the works and literary craftsmanship of Nobel literature laureate, V.S. Naipaul, during a two-hour symposium held at the Cheddi Jagan Research Centre (CJRC), High Street, Kingston.

Dr David Dabydeen, Al Creighton, Dr Ian McDonald and Ryhaan Shah presented statements analysing and celebrating 'The Literary Genius of V.S.Naipaul', the title of the symposium and the fourth in this year's lecture series at the centre.

There is an ongoing spirited debate on Naipaul and his works in the letter columns of Stabroek News, and according to Dr Dabydeen, the full house audience at the symposium showed further that "we put some value on literary values."

Among the audience were former president of Guyana, Mrs Janet Jagan; Chairman of the Elections Commission, Dr Steve Surujbally; and members of the diplomatic corps. Chairman of the symposium was Director of CJRC, Dudley Kissoore.

Dabydeen, noted Guyanese-born writer and literary critic, described Naipaul's work as being typified by a "relentless and ruthless hunting after prey - the prey being humanity in its folly.

"There is a cruel, and at times spiteful depiction of the human character, and in this Naipaul can be recognised as a classical satirist working in the same vein as Alexander Pope, but especially Jonathan Swift."

In Dabydeen's view, Naipaul belonged to the great tradition of English satire. However, Dabydeen noted that Naipaul did not reserve his anger and satire for the Third World only.

Noting that Naipaul was "consciously provocative by what he writes," Dabydeen pointed to his demolition of the pretentiousness of small societies, as well as his genuine distress at the loss of the native presence and loss of knowledge about where we live. In that sense, being ignorant of the historical landscape made it an 'area of darkness'.

Dabydeen remarked that the Indian was conceived as having a cutlass in his hand rather than a pen but one of the achievements of Naipaul was in breaking out of that stereotype. Dabydeen posited that while Indian Arrival Day has been celebrated as May 5, December 7 when Naipaul received the Nobel prize was also Indian Arrival Day.

Creighton observed that Naipaul has been so highly satirical of West Indian society that many readers found it distasteful, no wonder there has been the flood of letters in the press. But Creighton emphasised that Naipaul was "too important a writer to be dismissed."

In that light, Creighton noted that the Caribbean had been central to a host of Caribbean writers in exile who found it more productive and advantageous to be living elsewhere.

According to Creighton, Naipaul had taken a lonely road, defending his "individual, independent, creative spirit," and he should be judged in that light in his choice of exile rather than someone who has embraced a First World culture.

Naipaul's criticism of the West Indies has been levelled at the world, at civilisation, at humanity, Creighton asserted.

However, he disagreed with Naipaul's portrayal of the West Indies as not being sufficiently powerful economically to impose its culture and civilisation on the world. Elements of Caribbean culture have already done that, Creighton argued, identifying among other aspects "even cricket up to 1995," and reggae.

Creighton said that some of Naipaul's works have been misunderstood. Turning to criticisms that Naipaul was anti-Islamic, he said that the Trinidad-born writer who has escaped a fatwah was actually critical of the brand of Islam in which officialdom comes through.

Dr McDonald, who admitted to not reading many of Naipaul's books, praised A House for Mr Biswas as a masterpiece and one of the great books of the twentieth century, which by itself deserved the Nobel prize.

McDonald said that he did not think that Naipaul hated Trinidad as it was so much a part of him that if he did, he would hate himself. Deflecting another area of criticism of Naipaul, McDonald disclosed that Naipaul had instructed his agent to always say he was Trinidad-born.

McDonald regretted that, in his view, Naipaul had lost a certain lightness after A House for Mr Biswas, but he saluted him as one of the great prose stylists.

In Shah's view, however, Naipaul's prose style has developed over the years, since A House for Mr Biswas, which was published in 1961.

Further, Shah praised Naipaul's use of dialogue and his drawing of characters that allow a person to discover himself. "Naipaul helps you on your journey of self-discovery," Shah said.

In his later works, she observed, Naipaul had crafted a Naipaulian style, fusing fiction and fact, autobiography and social inquiry.

The Naipaulian worldview fills out his own areas of darkness, Shaw said.

Acknowledging that some persons felt a sense of betrayal that someone from among us would "beat up on us," she stressed that Naipaul has had great courage to write what he did and he has never tried to be a popular writer and "we should commend him for that."

She took issue with a Stabroek News editorial on Naipaul claiming it was without balance and that the newspaper missed the moment, "the time to say congrats." But a member of the audience expressed a different view, describing the editorial as "balanced."

Referring to Naipaul's immense writing talent, Shah said that one area of his genius was "helping us to see ourselves in new ways, to discover ourselves."

In terms of criticisms about Naipaul, Shah asserted that "it's not that we don't agree, or at least recognize his point of view; but we feel uneasy that he's showing us up to other people."

There was that feeling of betrayal, Shaw observed, in that Naipaul was "writing for Western readers and holding us up as contemptible people."

According to Creighton, Naipaul was not contemptuous of West Indians but felt a certain disappointment in the two major races in them not seizing opportunity for creative development and the colonial society for not helping their cause either. Naipaul actually expressed disappointment in what they have not been doing for themselves.

Shaw also dismissed the racist view of Naipaul, questioning what he had written that was racist. According to her, his talent was greater than the sum of all the criticism and he had a "genius for seducing his harshest critics." And among the audience, it seemed that all were also seduced.