NAIPAUL THE GREAT

The Star (St. Lucia) - - COMMENT - By Wayne Kublals­ingh

If VS Naipaul had re­mained in Trinidad and Tobago, which he left at 18 in 1950, no one would have both­ered. No one would have dis­cov­ered him. No one would have hailed his genius: his writ­ing style, voice. There would be no skil­ful ed­i­tors to value his works. No one would have pub­lished him. No one would have bought any of his lo­cal self-pub­lished books. He would have been ig­nored, with an in­dif­fer­ence akin to sadism. He would have lived and died, as Mr Biswas would have if he had not built his house, a tragic man, aban­doned and un­known; un­ac­com­mo­dated.

Eng­land gave Naipaul what he needed. Eng­land dis­cov­ered him, gave him his first open­ing, as a voice on the BBC. Eng­land gave him ed­i­tors and pub­lish­ers, hailed his writ­ing style. One blurb called him: “The great­est liv­ing writer in English.” It gave him a wife who cared for his works. Eng­land awarded him prizes for his works. It made him into a writ­ing icon, and gave him, even­tu­ally through nom­i­na­tion, the No­bel Prize and salu­ta­tion, and a knight­hood. Here are im­pres­sions of his first four books, fic­tional works on Trinidad (1955-1961).

Miguel Street. In Lon­don, work­ing at the BBC, af­ter leav­ing Ox­ford Uni­ver­sity in 1953, Naipaul was wait­ing. He was wait­ing on a line. This is not un­usual for some writ­ers. Such writ­ers wait on a line, an image, a mo­tif which opens the gates to their muse, their in­spi­ra­tion, the line upon which all sub­se­quent lines are built. In tone, mood, tempo, it acts as a cat­a­lyst for all the work. And this line was a Trinidad line, end­ing: “What hap­pen­ing there, Bog­art?” This was an im­por­tant dis­cov­ery by Naipaul. This line car­ried the id­iomatic sensibility of Trinidad lan­guage, with­out be­ing ‘im­proper' English. It was not dif­fi­cult for the Bri­tish or Com­mon­wealth English reader to un­der­stand. The book prof­fered an archetype: a vir­tual stage, a Trinidad street laden with Trinidad char­ac­ters, Trinidad speech. It was a tran­scen­den­tal mo­ment for Naipaul, that he, striv­ing so ea­gerly to be a writer, en­cour­aged by his father and sis­ters, of­ten de­pressed about pos­si­ble fail­ure, should dis­cover his voice, in this Trinidad line.

The Mys­tic Masseur.

Here, Naipaul is still solidly in Trinidad. Char­ac­ter, theme, mood, lan­guage, tone. The novel de­scribes the life of a mys­tic masseur. The tale is told through Naipaul's ironic voice. It is his only voice, now. We have to look sharp to grasp tone, mean­ing, and there­fore in­ten­tion­al­ity. As in Jane Austen. There, al­ways, the sub­tle un­der­cut­ting of en­deav­our, sub­lime, pro­fane or nor­mal. The very word ‘mys­tic' might be mock­ing. Through the dif­fer­ent in­car­na­tions of Ganesh, from masseur, to writer, to pro­fes­sional and politi­cian, we are never sure if he is a crook, or if he is gen­uine. He is the ar­che­typal Trinida­dian hus­tler, sur­vivor, ‘smart­man'. The na­tion is still try­ing to cope with, sur­vive, this seem­ingly im­mor­tal char­ac­ter.

The Suf­frage of Elvira.

Here the archetype is the mar­ket, the po­lit­i­cal mar­ket. It de­scribes the amaz­ing scenes of a Trinidad elec­tion: the trade in su­per­sti­tion, in­sult, bac­cha­nal, tricks, chi­canery, comesse, ku­choor typ­i­cal of the demo­cratic suf­frage. This is patho­log­i­cal group be­hav­iour at its tragi­comic best. The sub­ject is uni­ver­sal. US Elec­tions, from Civil War Amer­ica to the present, for ex­am­ple, have been, some­times more than less, suf­frages of Elvira. But again here, in char­ac­ter, tone, set­ting, speech id­iom, the dra­matic rich­ness is of Trinidad. Trinidad is Naipaul's wealth. He is at home here, de­scrib­ing the wealth of Trinida­dian cul­tural and lin­guis­tic pique.

A House For Mr Biswas.

Here Naipaul is writ­ing of his Trinidad roots. His his­tory. His mother. His father. The pun­dits. The peo­ple whom he knew grow­ing up. It de­scribes an ar­che­typ­i­cal Caribbean jour­ney; a fam­ily's search for, with its myr­iad tri­als, a house. The novel is at once poignant and macabre. The comic el­e­ments, in­volv­ing this im­me­di­ate fam­ily, father, mother, sib­lings are poignant, are for­giv­ing. The tragic parts, about the sadisms of the pun­dits, the fam­ily clan, are macabre, un­for­giv­ing. Naipaul's chap­ter on Shorthills, in this finest novel of the English Caribbean, is pre­scient. We wit­ness the Tulsi fam­ily's butch­ery of land, scape, her­itage, Naipaul's an­gry de­nun­ci­a­tion of its de­prav­ity, stu­pid­ity.

Then Naipaul did some­thing very heroic, mam­moth, myth­i­cal. Go­ing past the broad brush of post-Colo­nial polemics, he trav­elled to all parts of the world, af­flicted by the wound of Em­pire, its grand ti­dal with­drawal, to see for him­self how the peo­ple were do­ing. To record their speech, their views, their phan­tasies about them­selves and the so­ci­eties they lived in. He in­serted him­self, of­ten alone, not only in the Caribbean but Africa, In­dia, South Amer­ica, Iran, the Amer­i­can South; chron­i­cling with filmic de­tail the im­pres­sions of his mind, as it panned or zoomed into the speech and lives of or­di­nary and of­fi­cial in­hab­i­tants, which the wake of Em­pire and sub­or­di­na­tion had left be­hind It's all over now; fi­nis. The cam­era, the lens, the light is out. Only his works re­main. His nov­els, es­says, bi­o­graph­i­cal sketches, his chronolo­gies. It is all recorded, done and dusted. He was the man who dis­dained the broad brush of polemics. He went to dis­cover for him­self, the scale, the scope, the patholo­gies of Em­pire. He needed to do his own syn­op­sis, dis­sec­tions. He was Alexan­drine. Some el­e­gance. Some bru­tal­ity. Some rank dis­fig­u­ra­tions. And there­after, leav­ing many of his sub­jects weep­ing in his wake.

The au­thor is a grad­u­ate of UWI and Ox­ford Uni­ver­sity. He taught for 17 years at UWI St. Au­gus­tine, is an ar­chiv­ist for ‘ital’ de­vel­op­ment, and has writ­ten sev­eral chil­dren’s books as well as on eco­nom­ics. He lives in Trinidad.

VS Naipaul passed away last Satur­day at his home in the UK. He was 85 years old.

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