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Critical Essay by John L. Brown
SOURCE: "V. S. Naipaul: A Wager on the Triumph of Darkness," in World Literature Today, Vol. 57, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 223-27.
In the following essay, Brown praises Naipaul's skill as a novelist, focusing on his "dark" vision of the world.
V.S. Naipaul has traveled far since his Trinidad beginnings. He was born there in 1932, a third-generation West Indian of Hindu ancestry. His father, a reporter with literary ambitions, encouraged his son to study and write. Even as a very young man Naipaul was determined to get away from the narrow, neocolonial world of his birth. At eighteen he left for England, took an Oxford degree, worked for the BBC, began to write. With his early stories of West Indian life he received immediate recognition from British critics as the most talented of contemporary Caribbean writers. He was covered with prestigious English literary prizes, four of them in a little more than ten years. Lately he has begun to pick them up in the United States as well, winning in 1980 the Bennett Award, given to a "writer of literary achievement" who is considered to "have received insufficient attention"—which, to tell the truth, is not really Naipaul's case. In the opinion of some of his disgruntled West Indian colleagues he became a prize exhibit of the London intellectual establishment, living proof of the generous recognition of colonial talents in the capital. He has often been accused, in judgments motivated, it would seem, more by envy than by justice, of "looking down his long Oxonian nose" at the trivialities, the pretensions and the provincialism of the West Indies. One Trinidadian official indeed informed me that "Naipaul is certainly not our favorite native son"—something of an understatement. Naipaul seemed to have adapted swiftly to English life. He married a young English woman, acquired a prose style hailed as masterly. His eye was unerring in observing English scenes, as he demonstrated in The Mimic Men and in Mr Stone and the Knights Companion.
But it was clear that Britain wasn't "home" any more than Trinidad had been. Like every other place, it was a place to get out of. Naipaul early recognized in himself that sense of placelessness and of universal insecurity which afflicts the characters of his later novels. He began to travel, more perhaps to prove to himself that he didn't belong anywhere than to find a permanent haven. In 1960 he returned to the Caribbean, a sobering and bitter experience recounted in The Middle Passage (1962), which mingles history and sharp, personal observations. He visits Trinidad, British Guiana, Surinam, Martinique and Jamaica, all of them "borrowed cultures." He has few illusions about the future of the entire region, now largely freed from that colonialism which had been so often blamed for its misfortunes. Many of the issues discussed in this volume reappear in The Mimic Men. A close relation exists between Naipaul's travel books and his fiction, the travel books often serving as raw material for the novels.
He returns to the West Indies once again in The Loss of El Dorado (1969), a historical work in which he explores the origins of modern Trinidad. He highlights two key events: the founding of Port of Spain in 1592 by Antonio de Berrio, a belated conquistador obsessed by the legend of El Dorado and the capture of the island by the British in 1797. Berrio, quite out of his mind, spent the last years of his life in a mad search for the golden city. And the first British governor, a deranged sadist, reveled in hangings and floggings and was finally brought to trial for torturing a young mulatto girl. But by that time the West Indies were already rapidly becoming the backwaters of the empire. Naipaul handles these events with a novelist's skill and sense of drama, but he also exhibits that vital feeling for history which is apparent throughout his later work. Using unpublished archival material, he vividly evokes what Walter Allen has called "the contradictions and the tragic absurdities, the whole inheritance of cruelty and chaos" which marks the history of the Caribbean.
In 1962 Naipaul went to India for a year, traveling widely: south to Madras, east to Calcutta, north to Kashmir, where he spent several months. He accompanied a crowd of pilgrims to a holy cave high in the Himalayas and visited his grandfather's desolate native village in Uttar Pradesh. He records his impressions in An Area of Darkness (1964), which, on its appearance, provoked cries of protest from Indian intellectuals. H.B. Singh branded Naipaul as "a despicable lackey of neo-colonialism" who deserves "utter contempt." Another critic claimed that "the area of darkness" is within Naipaul himself. In 1977 came India: A Wounded Civilization. For Naipaul, India is "a difficult country." It isn't his home, but he cannot reject it because of his family background. On this second visit he wished to investigate the "Emergency" of 1976, when Indira Gandhi had in effect seized absolute power. He reaches the conclusion that with this suppression of democratic institutions and "with no foreign conqueror to impose a new order," India is now forced to face alone "the blankness of its decayed civilization."
The Return of Eva Perón (1980) contains four essays written between 1972 and 1975: "Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad," "The Return of Eva Perón," "A New King for the Congo: Mobutu and the Nihilism of Africa" and "Conrad's Darkness." These essays have close links with the novels. The "Author's Note" states: "These pieces … bridged a creative gap; from the end of 1970 to the end of 1973, no novel offered itself to me…. Out of these journeys and these writings, novels did in the end come to me." Many of Naipaul's articles and some of the more important of his numerous book reviews are included in The Overcrowded Barracoon (1972). They include "Cannery Row Revisited," a particularly interesting piece, since Steinbeck's book has sometimes been mentioned as a forerunner of Miguel Street.
Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey, the most recent (1981) and the least well-received of Naipaul's nonfiction books, contains observations on his seven-month trip to four countries—Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia—which are all undergoing Islamic revolutions. It has been pointed out that, curiously, the volume has nothing to say about any Arab state. Specialists have noted that Naipaul seems inadequately prepared to deal accurately with a complex phenomenon which varies from country to country. And his fondness for anecdote and personal narrative often leads him to pay relatively little attention to crucial events taking place in the Islamic world during his trip: the storming of the American Embassy in Teheran; the violent incidents in the Great Mosque in Mecca; the Russian invasion of Afghanistan; the reign of martial law in Pakistan. In the section on Pakistan there is a chapter titled "Killing History," deploring the violence with which Islam "tramples on the past." Islam's kind of "selective history" fuels the rage that Naipaul encountered wherever he went, the rage to kill and to destroy, a love of violence masquerading as faith ("Islam sanctified rage"). But sometimes he has the fleeting impression that Islam can give people a kind of serenity, a feeling of completeness—if only the world outside, the world of Western technology which the "Believers" hate but without which they cannot get along, could only be cast away.
But remarkable as Naipaul's travel books may be, he is essentially a novelist, and it is as a novelist that his achievement must be evaluated. In the field of fiction he is certainly no innovator. He has mastered the craft of traditional narrative and shows little interest in technical experiment. He is closer to Dickens or Balzac than he is to Joyce or le nouveau roman; his concern is to tell a story and also to discuss ideas. He would never subscribe to Flaubert's ideal to "write a book about nothing." Miguel Street—the first of his Trinidad stories to be written, although it was published in 1959, after The Mystic Masseur and The Suffrage of Elvira—consists of a series of sketches about a lower-class neighborhood in Port of Spain. There is the vivacious Laura, mother of eight children by as many fathers, "whose shouts and curses were the richest things I ever heard. She like Shakespeare when it comes to using words." There we also encounter B. Wordsworth, the poet who had never written poetry but who lived it; Man-man, who thought he was the Messiah and who sent out invitations for his crucifixion; Eddoes, "one of the aristocrats of the street" because he drove the garbage truck and only had to work mornings.
Miguel Street differs from most West Indian writing about the poor in that it expresses no overt social protest, but rather a humorous delight in these colorful characters, apparently happy in spite of their poverty. These vignettes, with their mix of sentimentality and irony (and perhaps with a dash of condescension as well), are always charming and occasionally even somewhat coy. The leading character of The Mystic Masseur (1957), Ganesh, already appears in Miguel Street no longer as a pundit in a dhoti but as a rising politician in "an expensive looking lounge suit." Pundit Ganesh Ramsurmmari, after having failed in a series of undertakings, finally gains a reputation as a learned man and a mystic. He then embarks on a political career, is elected to the Trinidad Legislative Council, becomes more and more British and finally assumes the name of G. Ramsay Muir, M.B.E.
The Suffrage of Elvira (1958) also treats of Trinidad politics. A rich Hindu, Harbans, is seeking election to the Legislative Council from the Elvira district. Democracy "had taken everybody by surprise" when it had come to Elvira after the war, and no one is very sure how it should work. So here, as elsewhere, Elvira apes the world outside. Harbans hires a truck with a loudspeaker and a brash young campaign manager to drive it and blat out the campaign slogans. He passes out free "rum vouchers" so that prospective supporters can get drunk free and democratically in the local rumshop. However, success finally depends on buying up the votes. Harbans wins the election, but it has cost him a lot of money. As he leaves Elvira, he shakes his first at the countryside he is now representing and shouts: "Elvira, you is a bitch." As usual in these Trinidad stories, Naipaul shows an enviable command of local language: "you talking arseness"; "you suckastic and insultive in my pussonal." These electoral antics in Elvira are marvelously entertaining. But Naipaul is also expressing concern about the degradation of democracy in many emerging countries. Only in the emerging countries? Harban's comment, as he is forced to bribe more and more, has an uncomfortably familiar ring: "'They should pass some sort of law to prevent candidates from spending so much money,…' But then he pulled out his wallet."
The last of the Trinidad novels, A House for Mr Biswas (1961), goes beyond local color to embrace a universal theme: the desire of a man to have a home of his own, to "be somebody" in his own right. Looking back on his early years, Naipaul has created a "remembrance of things past," a large-scale chronicle teeming with life and rich in feeling. It retraces the history of a tentacular Hindu family, the Tulsis, into which the poor orphan Mr Biswas marries nearly by accident, admitted only because he is a Brahmin and the Tulsis are of an inferior caste with many daughters to provide for. But they are prosperous. They own a store, a sugar plantation and a big house, where all the tribe live in stifling proximity. The sons-in-law are expected to work on the family properties. As a man who knows how to read, Biswas refuses to work in the fields; so he is assigned to manage a small grocery shop the family owns. But he has no business sense and is given another job as an assistant overseer on the sugar plantation, where he and his family are forced to live in one room in the barracks. Unable to stand it, he manages to build a cheap house on a nearby site. A house of his own! But a tropical storm wrecks it, and he is forced to return to tribal life with the Tulsis. He takes refuge in reading: "He discovered the solace of Dickens." He finds pleasure in transferring Dickens's characters and settings "to people and places that he knew," as perhaps Naipaul himself did in writing Mr Biswas. By a stroke of luck, Biswas gets a newspaper job, and although he is still under the roof (and the thumb!) of the Tulsis, his prestige as a journalist makes life more tolerable. He also derives comfort from his children, especially his only son, a bright boy who eventually wins a scholarship to study abroad.
Conventional, romantic love has little place in Naipaul's world. Biswas's relations with his wife seem without affection. Her deepest loyalties are to the tribe rather than to her husband. Only with his son does Biswas exhibit any real tenderness. Finally, he manages to borrow money to buy a rundown dwelling. After a heart attack he loses his job but is able to take refuge in "a home of his own," and soon afterward he dies there, under his own roof, content in spite of all the disappointments and frustrations of his life. Naipaul, so often lacking in emotional warmth, clearly has a special affection for Biswas. He succeeds admirably in communicating this affection to the reader. Of all his novels, this is perhaps the most appealingly human.
After Biswas the novelist's vision of the world grows darker. He will never be able to find his way back to the innocence of Miguel Street. The years in England had confirmed his feelings about the secondhand quality of his place of birth. Determined to avoid being categorized as a "West Indian writer," he set out in his next book, Mr Stone and the Knights Companion (1963), to write of British life and proved himself an expert craftsman who could do it extremely well. The protagonist, Mr Stone, has spent his obscure career as a clerk in a large London firm. On the eve of his retirement he dreams up a program by which the pensioned employees will get together to assist the less fortunate retirees. Management backs the scheme, and Stone hopes that it means he will acquire a prestige he never enjoyed before. But a brash public-relations man takes over, and Stone is once again relegated to obscurity.
The Mimic Men (1967) is set largely in Trinidad (here called "Isabella"), although the opening and closing sections take place in London, where the narrator Ralph Singh studied as a young man and to which he has now returned as an ex-minister in disgrace. He is only forty, but he knows that he is washed up: "The career of a colonial politician is short and ends brutally." Back home from England, he has embarked on a profitable real-estate operation and has become involved in politics. But the exercise of power cannot conceal from him the void of his "bastard world." He and others like him "in Isabella and in 20 other countries" are all "mimic men." Some readers branded the novel as reactionary, and many of Singh's opinions would seem to justify the accusation. He describes Isabella in the colonial period as "a benevolently administered dependency." He has a nostalgia for "the good old days" on the great cocoa plantations. But the old regime was not as benevolent as that and was marked, as The Loss of El Dorado makes clear, by horrifying brutality. Still, it would be an error to label Singh (or his creator) simplistically as neocolonialist. Both "write from both sides." Singh "hates oppression and fears the oppressed." He is aware, like many disillusioned liberals, that the oppressed, once delivered from oppression, are swift to become oppressors in their turn. Singh shares Naipaul's interest in history, deplores that "there is no such thing as history nowadays … only the pamphleteering of churls." In both of them there lurks more than a hint of snobbishness, of Brahmin superiority. (Naipaul has written an essay, "What's Wrong with Being a Snob?") And as the exiled Singh meditates on the history of Isabella, with "its hunters and hunted, rulers and ruled," he realizes that its message is cruelly clear: nothing is secure. So, alone in London, he settles down to accept "the final emptiness" which, it is implied, awaits us all.
The short stories in A Flag on the Island (1967) restate familiar themes: placelessness, alienation, meaninglessness, the illusion of "progress." The title novella deals with the return to a Caribbean island by an American soldier who had been there during the war and who is saddened at the devastation wrought by tourism and by the vulgarity of a gadget civilization.
In a Free State (1971) consists of the two journal entries "The Tramp at Piraeus" and "The Circus at Luxor," and two short stories—"One Out of Many," about an East Indian trying to adjust to life in Washington, D.C., and "Tell Me Who to Kill," an account of a West Indian and his brother adrift in London—as well as the novella "In a Free State," one of Naipaul's outstanding achievements. All the characters in this last-named work have in one fashion or another escaped the constraints of their own culture to live in a "free state," only to discover that they don't belong anywhere. Geographically, the "free state" is a recently independent African country, torn by civil war between the new president and the old tribal king, who is in flight before the government forces and who is finally murdered by them. The protagonist Bobby, a neurotic, homosexual Englishman, works for the government as a foreign expert. He longs to be a part of African society. He wears native-style shirts, attempts to speak the patois of the region, seeks friendship (and love) among the natives. During his stay in the capital for professional meetings he attempts to pick up a young Zulu, who disdainfully rejects him and spits in his face. The next morning he sets out to drive back to his work in "the Southern Collectorate," accompanied by Linda, the wife of one of his colleagues. During the long trip the two keep talking randomly away, but they have little to say to each other, since Linda does not share Bobby's enthusiasm for Africa.
Naipaul masterfully conveys the feel of the country they are driving through, in all its vastness, emptiness and menace. They stop for the night in a run-down inn, once a tourist attraction, now unfrequented because of civil disorder. The proprietor, a crusty old colonial, reveals in a confrontation with one of the black servants all the hatred that exists between the few whites remaining in the area and the natives bent on taking over. The next day Bobby and Linda press on through the empty land, occasionally surprised by bizarre sights: "Two men ran out into the road … they were naked and chalked white from head to toe, white as the rocks." When Bobby stops to inquire about a rumored curfew, he is seized and beaten (for no clear-cut reason) by a group of soldiers and is then permitted to go on his way. On their arrival in the compound, Luke, the houseboy, begins to laugh at the battered Bobby, and Bobby knows that he must "sack" him in order to preserve his own dignity. This unsettling narrative, for all its strangeness, gives an impression of a frightening authenticity, and as we read contemporary African history, we sense that Naipaul's view of things may be uncomfortably close to the unreal reality.
Before the appearance of Guerrillas (1975) Naipaul was relatively little known in the U.S. Of course his earlier fiction, even that dealing with revolutionary situations in newly independent countries, had avoided sensationalism, had appealed mostly to a literate minority. Guerrillas, on the other hand, struck a new note with its emphasis on brutality and on the explicit treatment of morbid sexuality. A deliberately bleak and nihilistic work, it made nevertheless a greater impact here than anything he had previously written, was extravagantly praised, even overpraised as "the masterpiece of the best novelist now writing." All the characters—from Jimmy Ahmed, the confused, self-dramatizing Black Power leader; to Jane, the Anglo-Canadian victim of his sadistic hate; to Roche, the South African dissident; to Bryant, Jimmy's slum-boy lover—are at once pitiful and repulsive, minimonsters smelling of "rotten meat" (one of Jimmy's frequently used expressions). The novel itself, however, is no more macabre than the events on which it is based, recounted in the essay "Michael X and the Black Power Killings."
Peter Roche, banned from South Africa after having suffered torture and imprisonment, arrives on a West Indian island as a public-relations man for a foreign company bent on improving its image and also on counteracting any incipient revolutionary disturbances. He is accompanied by his mistress Jane, who (like her real-life counterpart in "Michael X") is looking for thrills and for the excitement she identifies with Black Power. Roche becomes associated with Jimmy Ahmed, half black, half Chinese, who, after having been deported from England where he had achieved a certain notoriety in "radical chic" circles as "the black Pekinese" of salon revolutionaries, has founded an agricultural commune "for the land and for the Revolution." The enterprise is financed in part by Roche's company, who see in it a possible means of defusing certain potentially dangerous elements in the island's urban youth gangs. Jane, bored with Roche, no longer the heroic figure she imagined him to be, takes Jimmy to bed, although it is difficult to see what either one finds attractive in the other. Meanwhile, the slaying by the police of Stephens, a young black gang leader who had briefly belonged to Jimmy's commune, provokes an abortive popular uprising. Houses are burned, stores looted. But soon the government, with the support of "Americans" in helicopters, restores order of a sort. These events persuade Jane that it is time to get out, but, drawn by the odor of "rotten meat," she goes to pay a last visit to Jimmy. Their final sexual encounter, at once savage and absurd (in these matters Naipaul is at his least convincing), ends with Jimmy's offering Jane as a victim to his young lover ("Bryant, the rat, kill the rat"); the hysterical, hate-crazed boy hacks her gruesomely to death with his cutlass. Roche, probably aware that Jane has been done away with, destroys her papers so that there will be no evidence that she ever existed, and, fearful for his own life, prepares ingloriously to flee.
Africa evidently made a deep impression on Naipaul, as A Bend in the River (1979) testifies. One of his major achievements, much larger in scale than In a Free State and rich in Conradian resonances, it merits the comparison sometimes made to Heart of Darkness. Naipaul's characters, however, lack the tragic dimensions of Conrad's Kurtz, who had, at least in the beginning, nourished the hope that humane concern might bring light into the darkness. In Naipaul's work, on the contrary, the characters have long since renounced such an illusion—if indeed they ever had it at all. For its subject matter, A Bend in the River draws largely on the essay "A New King for the Congo: Mobutu and the Nihilism of Africa" but demonstrates once again how a novelist of Naipaul's gifts can convey a new density, a deeper significance to "facts," can absorb and transform the document.
Naipaul's preoccupation with history and with historical change is everywhere apparent. Early in the story the narrator Salim, the son of an Indian Moslem family installed for generations on the African coast, realizes that with the rise of revolutionary movements "another tide of history was coming to wash us away." He decides to strike out on his own and acquires a store in a small city in Zaire, on "a bend in the river." He finds the town in shambles after the disorders which followed the departure of the Belgians: "You were in a place where the future had come and gone." But soon the new president, backed up with tough white mercenaries, succeeds in imposing order of a sort, and the town comes to life again. The little foreign colony draws a breath of relief and settles down to make money. Naipaul hates the greed of the Europeans, but he is swift to point out that the Africans are just as greedy. The native officials, gathered in the newly opened Bigburger, "wore as much gold as possible—gold-rimmed glasses, gold rings, gold pen and pencil sets, gold watches."
On the outskirts of the town, the president ("the Big Man") creates a showy institute for the training of young officials and for international meetings to which Western experts on African affairs, picturesquely clad in native costumes, are invited. The director of the center, a middle-aged Belgian professor, had been "the Big Man's white man," but he is aware that he is on the skids, that his boss has no further need of him. Salim engages in a rather absentminded liaison with the director's young wife. Their couplings are marked by sadistic violence; on one occasion she falls to the floor under Salim's blows: "Then I used my feet on her." Soon conditions again grow worse for the foreign colony. The Big Man nationalizes all foreign property and distributes it to the "people." Salim becomes the manager of his own store, now the property of an illiterate native called Citoyen Théotime. Anxious to make money in order to get out, he engages in illegal traffic in ivory, is flung into jail and later gains release only through the intervention of Ferdinand, a young native whom he had befriended in the past and who had risen to be "a commissioner." But in spite of his official position, Ferdinand too is deathly afraid. He foresees mass killings when the Big Man arrives to conduct a purge: "They're going to kill and kill and kill." Salim manages to get on the steamer—perhaps the last one for some time—that is leaving the next morning. But we know as well as he does that there is nowhere for him to go.
These works of his maturity reveal that Naipaul is far more than "the most gifted West Indian novelist of his generation," more indeed than the most compelling and troubling of the writers who have confronted the tragic contradictions of the Third World. He implies that their problems—placelessness, disorder, violence, racial hatred, irrational frenzy, self-destroying greed—may be ours as well. We can certainly accept the validity of his grim premonitions. It is more difficult, however, to accept the bleak and intransigent hopelessness with which he views the human situation. Throughout his work he has always insisted that he refuses to take a position "for" or "against." But, on a deeper level, he is a partisan, indeed a fierce partisan of an apocalyptic conception of history whose dogmatic blackness betrays a romantic immaturity. His knowledge of the past should have shown him that every ending is also a beginning, that neither men or events are inexorably predestined, that the human adventure is an eternally disconcerting mixture of good and evil, of darkness and light—even though the light may often seem very faint and flickering indeed. But so far he has wagered consistently on the triumph of darkness, insufficiently aware that prophets announcing the end of the world have appeared in every generation in the past and that, in spite of their prophecies, new worlds have arisen to take the place of those which have passed away. But of course these past cultures were unprovided with nuclear playthings.
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