The Magazine

Bleak House

The world of V.S. Naipaul.

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