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.

Language is an unfailing marker of moral seriousness, and Naipaul believes verbal incontinence offends against clarity and precision of mind. At the same time, he has no patience with those who make things simpler than they really are. The words "simple," "pure," and "faith," often in lethal combination, are his favored terms of abuse, wielded against dogmatic blindness. Naipaul prefers life untheoretical and unholy, turbid with complication. One suspects that his prose style and general cast of mind owe a filial debt to George Orwell. Naipaul's is a crystalline, no-nonsense style, and you can watch that style pitted against its natural enemy, neo-Marxist boilerplate, in his account of revolutionary passion in Grenada, where the debasement of language borrowed, the ache for purity, and the eruption of lunatic savagery are terribly clear:

"Big new words were discovered for old attitudes: Grenadian workers, it was discovered, were riddled with 'economism'--they just wanted money, and saw no "conceptual link" between that and work. There was at times in the meeting of the central committee the atmosphere of the classroom: linguistic skill, a new way with words, seeming to be an end in itself. . . . It was this kind of attitude, this wish for pure, dispassionate, classless revolutionary action, that led to the final, sudden madness: the placing of the leader under arrest, the sending of the army against the crowd, the execution of the leader and other ministers (all members of the central committee). The Revolutionary Military Council thought they had done the right thing."

Naipaul has been working this desolate moral territory a long time. His 1959 collection of stories, "Miguel Street"--a book simultaneously of comic verve and inconsolable melancholy--reveals both the grand scope of Naipaul's ambition and the limitations of the world that is his chosen subject. The black and brown residents of Miguel Street in Port of Spain, Trinidad, are obsessed with proving their own manhood in a colonial world that has made them something less than complete men. The title character of the opening story, "Bogart," finds his vision of manhood in the movie hero, whom he imitates right down to the American accent. In another story, a character called Man-man insists he is the new Messiah, has himself tied to a cross, and orders the assembled onlookers to stone him--only to become furious when they do. He proves in the end not a god-man, but just pure man through and through, as his double name suggests.

NONE OF THIS could be called sentimental uplift for the downtrodden. It is, rather, an unsparing depiction, after the manner of Joyce's "Dubliners," of men who live lives painfully bound by their time and place, and who really don't have a clue about what they ought to be doing on this earth. A fundamental question Naipaul's work raises is whether his subjects have it in them to become something better than they are. "Where the spiritual problem is largely that of self-contempt," he asks in "The Middle Passage: The Caribbean Revisited" (1962), how are people supposed to discern some finer possibility in themselves?

The great majority never do so, and that is a tragic loss of monumental proportions. Yet the tragedy of wasted human promise is inevitable, wherever men happen to be planted. Naipaul seems to have come around from a youthful anger at this waste--"The Middle Passage" stands out among his works for its fury at the human ruin caused by imperialism and slavery--to a tempered acceptance of it as just another of life's unavoidable casualties. Unavoidable but not insuperable: Somewhere between his first travel book about India, "An Area of Darkness" (1964), and his most recent, "India: A Million Mutinies Now" (1990), Naipaul has gone from hopeless revulsion at the debacle of everyday Indian life to a wary hope that the general lot there will improve through the diffusion of the Western idea of freedom.

SUCH AN ATTITUDE marks Naipaul as defender of the metropolitan civilization, the world's predominant culture, against the assaults of the intellectual fakirs--in both the First World and the Third--who claim to speak for the immiserated multitudes. Naipaul returns again and again to the theme of once-subject peoples chipped and dented by their colonial past. But he insists on their complicity in, even their primary responsibility for, their current predicaments. Never scanting the rapacity of the imperial enterprise, Naipaul is nonetheless unwilling to define that empire as purely rapacious, and he bemoans the failure of newly freed peoples to profit from their sometime masters' valuable knowledge.

Thus, in essays like "A New King for the Congo," he flays the Africans who now have the chance to feed their own rapacity and want the gaudy trappings of civilization--"the Mercedes, the fatter prostitutes, the sharp suit with matching handkerchief and cravat, the gold-rimmed glasses, the gold pen-and-pencil set, the big gold wristwatch on one hand and the gold bracelet on the other, the big belly that in a land of puny men speaks of wealth"--but who insanely reject the genuine benefits of the West. "The newspapers carry articles about science and medicine. But a doctor, who now feels he can say that he cures 'when god and the ancestors wish,' tells a newspaper that sterility is either hereditary or caused by a curse. . . . Agriculture must be modernized, the people must be fed better; but, in the name of authenticity, a doctor warns that babies should on no account be fed on imported foods; traditional foods, like caterpillars and green leaves, are best."

One Western idea that former colonials gladly embrace is the notion of the decline of the West, especially of bourgeois civilization. This is perhaps the West's most beguiling and destructive export. In "Beyond Belief" (1998), Naipaul relates the tale of a Pakistani man besotted with Marxism who spent ten years spreading the revolutionary word in Baluchistan and Afghanistan. Shahbaz's account of his life is almost pure agitprop, as though he had taken a razor to the inconvenient aspects of humanity, his own included, which must be ruthlessly cut down to the correct ideological size. It is a turn of mind that Naipaul cannot bear.

Such single-minded ruthlessness has become the hallmark of Islamic fundamentalism, which shares the Marxist contempt for liberal democracy and human complication. Of their fellow men the fundamentalists make the simplest request, which proves to be a murderously uncompromising demand: "The fundamentalists wanted people to be transparent, pure, to be empty vessels for the faith. It was an impossibility: human beings could never be blanks in that way. But the various fundamentalist groups offered themselves as the pattern of goodness and purity. . . . [All] they asked of people was to be like them and, since there was no absolute agreement about the rules, to follow the rules they followed."

Probing the Islamist movement, Naipaul detects a motive that most true believers could not admit to themselves: It is self-regard of an entirely worldly sort they are really after. Resentment and the hope of beating the fortunate at their own game power this vast engine. "Out of this purity there was going to come power, and accounts would be settled with the world."

BUT NAIPAUL also recognizes the benefit the Islamic faith can have when it is joined to a sensible modern outlook on the goods of this world, which in his view are the only goods available. He becomes fascinated by a Malaysian businessman named Nasar, who in his youth was ardent for the purity of simple village life, has acquired an English education in international relations and law, and at the age of forty-one runs a large holding company in Kuala Lumpur. Naipaul notes the sheen of confidence that success has given the man: "Simple power, simple authority" have blessed Nasar as he had hoped, twenty years before, his religious zealotry would do. Nasar is as complete a man as Naipaul finds in his travels, and Naipaul gives a fair share of the credit to Islam: "Power and authority might have brought out his latent qualities and made him what he was; but it had also to be said that religion had given him the important first push."

ONE NEVER really expected V.S. Naipaul to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, as he did last year. Edward Said has pronounced Naipaul's writing effectively worthless. Paul Theroux has accused Naipaul of being able to hear an eyewitness account of Hutu torture of Tutsi prisoners in Rwanda--and respond by breaking into a rendition of "Toot, toot, Tutsi, goodbye." The playwright David Hare is said to have based the protagonist of his "A Map of the World," an intellectual of repellent serpentine coldness, with a savage contempt for the dark-skinned races to which he belongs, on Naipaul. Even those appreciative of Naipaul's art and sympathetic to his politics find him so forbiddingly dour that conversation is a near-death experience: After spending an afternoon with Naipaul, Saul Bellow declared that he would never have to observe Yom Kippur again.

Still, it is not his personality but his mild praise of Western business civilization that galls his detractors. The idea of security, that great bourgeois virtue, is at the core of Naipaul's moral understanding, and it is everywhere in his work. Some characters desperately seek it, while they stand little chance of ever attaining it. Others who have never known anything else treat life as though it poses no fatal danger, and they are lured into preposterously ill-considered adventures, generally fatuous sexual and political gambols, which teach them too late just how ruthless the world can be. These unfortunate characters are ordinary bourgeois men and women, whom most modern writers despise for the moral and emotional confinement of their dispiritingly tidy lives. But Naipaul savages them for not knowing how good they have it in their safely domesticated existence, and for the moral slovenliness and intellectual failure that prompt their extravagant divagations.

Sex, quite apart from love, has always been a staple of the novel of colonial encounter. In Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," "the fascination of the abomination" that makes Kurtz go native in the Congo emphatically includes sexual pleasure of a wild heat that isn't found in Europe. In George Orwell's "Burmese Days," an expatriate businessman who hopes to marry a very respectable English rose loses her when his cast-aside native mistress bursts into church, demanding money and tearing off her clothes. In Evelyn Waugh's "Black Mischief," General Connoly calls his woman "Black Bitch," frank racial contempt remaining the keynote of the transaction. And in E.M. Forster's "A Passage to India," an accusation of sexual trespass that an Englishwoman makes against an Indian man sets off a conflagration of racial hatred, nearly consuming a peaceful colonial outpost.

Naipaul goes all these authors one better by showing the fascination of the abomination at its monstrous worst. In "Guerrillas" (1975), the vacuous English political and sexual dilettante Jane has an affair with the mulatto Caribbean revolutionary Jimmy Ahmed--but when she tells him she is going back to England, he rapes her anally and then murders her with the help of his half-witted minion Bryant, over whom he also exercises a sinister sexual proprietorship. In "A Bend in the River" Naipaul revisits this erotic preserve. This time the insulted man who lashes out is the jealous Salim, an Indian shopkeeper in Zaire who is enraged at the treachery of Yvette, who claims to love him but continues to live with her lover Raymond, a French intellectual advising the new African regime. "Her body had a softness, a pliability, and a great warmth. . . . I held her legs apart. She raised them slightly--smooth concavities of flesh on either side of the inner ridge--and I spat on her between the legs until I had no more spit."

When Yvette protests, Salim knocks the stuffing out of her. One would be hard pressed to name a more repulsive sexual episode this side of the Marquis de Sade, but Naipaul's point is that the preposterous erotic hopes of dark-skinned men who envision a fairer life with their blonde lovelies collides fatally with the carelessness of white girls out for some Third World sport. It is the women who are the imperial predators here, and Naipaul shows that their toying with men of color unleashes a monstrous anger.

AT THE SAME TIME, Naipaul has always possessed a vigorous comic touch, which he exercised in such early books as "Miguel Street, The Mystic Masseur" (1957), and "Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion" (1963). Naipaul's finest comic creation is "A House for Mr. Biswas" (1961)--and it is also his finest tragic creation. Mohun Biswas--a Trinidadian of Indian descent who tries one trade after another before finding a certain success as a journalist--is a small and comically literal version of the Shakespearean "unaccommodated man." All he wants is a decent house of his own, and the story of his failed dream shows that even men of limited dimensions, pinched hopes, and flimsy attainments suffer fates as tragic as those of kings and heroes. Naipaul quietly renders the pain of living no better than half a life; that is about all that any of his characters ever does live, or appears to deserve, although the matter of just deserts is never entirely clarified, and this deliberate irresolution gives Naipaul's best work the quality of tragic loss and not merely farcical mischance or dismal moralizing.

There is thus a sense in which the book Naipaul published this year, his first novel since 1994, is a defining work. Called "Half a Life," it is a triumph of a Flaubertian sort, a gem made of compacted moral refuse, full of contempt for nearly every human activity. As the years have gone by, Naipaul has found less and less to laugh about. Religion is bunk, love is delusion or lower abdominal spasm, literature is mostly warmed-over Hollywood fantasy, and politics is the unleashing of the worst people's worst impulses.

The sole vocation left to a serious man is to tell the truth about the world in which he is unfortunate enough to find himself serving a life sentence. Naipaul has dedicated himself to writing of people who manage to live only half a life, and the achievement of his grim honesty is that it does make readers question whether their own lives are any better than that.

The deficiency of such bleakness is that it forecloses nearly every chance of happiness for those who do not have it in them to write books like this. But truth takes precedence over happiness. Naipaul is merciless without being pitiless. He spares no one the thorough accounting of failures, but he doesn't fail to weigh the forces, so often overwhelming, that bent or broke these woeful men and women.

Whether or not things could have gone otherwise, he doesn't really indicate--which is what makes him so hard to place on the literary scale that runs from the outrage of Dickens to the indifference of Goethe. The heartbreaking subjunctive "if only" hovers over the people in his books, and the feeling that some grave historical injustice--imperialism, slavery--continues to work in the lives of free men never quite vanishes. Yet Naipaul deplores the vulgar claims of post-colonial leftists, for he sees that every "if only" really means "if only the world were other than it is," and that to consume any vital energy in complaint about ineluctable arrangements is softness of mind and will.

In the essay "Conrad's Darkness," collected in "The Return of Eva Peron" (1980), Naipaul writes that Joseph Conrad, despite a tendency to metaphysical abstraction, possesses a regard for truth that enables him to render the real modern world. "Nothing is rigged in Conrad. He doesn't remake countries. He chose, as we now know, incidents from real life; and he meditated on them." With that encomium, Naipaul tacitly recognizes his own strength: He, too, gives you the real world, perhaps more of it than you might wish to take in.

Algis Valiunas, a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard, is the author of "Churchill's Military Histories" (Rowman & Littlefield).