The Magazine

Bleak House

The world of V.S. Naipaul.

Aug 5, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 45 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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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.