The Magazine

Bleak House

The world of V.S. Naipaul.

Aug 5, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 45 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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The Writer and the World
by V.S. Naipaul
Knopf, 517 pp., $30

Half a Life
by V.S. Naipaul
Knopf, 211 pp., $24

WE MIGHT CONSTRUCT a scale for writers: on one end, heated authors like Dickens and Hugo, filled with what George Orwell called generous anger at social injustice; on the other end, cool authors like Goethe, whose works show mostly a calm indifference. Indeed, Saul Bellow once suggested that Goethe did not much care what the world might be, so long as he could write about it.

If these are the moral poles of the modern writer's vocation, then where do we place one of our finest living writers, V.S. Naipaul? The neighborhood has changed since Dickens and Hugo depicted the threadbare and shivering masses. The formerly wretched of the earth, the Stephen Blackpools and Fantines, now take holidays on the Costa del Sol. The moral cachet for angry novelists has been transferred from the swarming proletariat of the dingy European factory towns to the destitute of the post-colonial world that is Naipaul's perennial subject.

And yet Naipaul--an Indian born and reared in Trinidad, educated at Oxford, and established in England ever since--generally does not find the distinguishing features that writers of good will are supposed to discover in the Third World. He is the author, since 1957, of twenty-five books, all solid, some brilliant, thirteen of them novels and the other twelve nonfiction, mostly travel books of acute perception and unusual meditative power. In his best-known novel, "A Bend in the River," the narrator, Salim, observes of the soldiers of the new African army, "With their guns and jeeps, these men were poachers of ivory and thieves of gold. Ivory, gold--add slaves, and it would have been like being back in oldest Africa. And these men would have dealt in slaves, if there was still a market." Plunder, oppression, and brutality are simply immemorial customs, and one either adapts or withers away. As the cagey and unscrupulous Mahesh, who does business with the thieving soldiers, tells Salim, "It isn't that there's no right and wrong here. There's no right."

To think like this takes some getting used to. Naipaul has made the necessary adjustments, but it cost him something--and you can see that cost in his writing. An unconcealed disgust pervades the literary domain he has made his own. It is a cruel and meaningless place Naipaul inhabits, and no cure exists for the world's ills. He does imagine, however, that a palliative exists: work, which for a writer means confronting the truth straight on, without illusions or flinching. Work is good in itself, maybe the only thing in Naipaul of which that can be said. Done well, work can win one worldly success, which Naipaul understands is not nothing. And at its best, work may even allow a certain nobility.

BUT NOT EVEN WORK seems capable of creating happiness. A very cold eye is required to take in and render a world as hard and bitter as this one, and Naipaul has spent a lifetime cultivating the icy perspicacity for which his vocation calls. You can observe it in his new collection of nonfiction, "The Writer and the World," which gathers witheringly astute essays on India, St. Kitts, Anguilla, British Honduras, Mauritius, Trinidad, Zaire, the Ivory Coast, Argentina, Uruguay, Grenada, Guyana, Monterey (where the locals are trying to turn a buck from the John Steinbeck legend), New York (where Norman Mailer is running for mayor), and Dallas (where the Republican party is nominating Ronald Reagan for a second term as president).

Naipaul is a stern moralist, seeking a freedom, singularity, and seriousness that he finds strikingly absent in modern places--First World and Third World alike. The lessons he draws bear repeating, and one is not sorry to hear him repeating them. The foremost lesson is that intellectual fatuity breeds moral fiasco. Whether it is Caribbean islanders trying to remake their societies in accordance with the best Marxist-Leninist teaching, or rich Argentines preening themselves on being as civilized as Europeans when wealth is all they actually have, Naipaul sees that colonial and post-colonial peoples' aping of metropolitan ways allows them to evade awareness of their true condition and deepens their predicament.