Driving Sir Vidia
V S Naipaul’s reputation preceded him when Khadija Bradlow showed him Gauteng
IT was never going to be easy introducing VS Naipaul to Johannesburg’s culturati; the man’s reputation preceded him. The Nobel laureate and Booker prize-winning writer would be in town for two weeks researching what some have said would be his final work, on Africa — a continent about which he has been less than charitable about for most of his writing career.
“Naipaul’s fiction shows Africans as either nameless personalities or shady chance-takers eager to cash in on the goodwill of the mzungu,” author Rob Nixon has written. This, and his reported reference to Africans as, among other things, “bow and arrow men”, earned him labels such as “post-colonial mandarin”.
But admirers of Naipaul’s unflinching, politically incorrect reportage read him precisely because he is not caught up in romanticising “primitive” societies.
After the first round of calls and e-mails, it became evident nearly everyone had found a snippet on Google from some outrageously provocative sweeping statement Naipaul had once made, or read extracts from Patrick French’s biography portraying the writer as callous, sexist, violent and racist. One well-nourished lady, whose raison d’être in Johannesburg is her interracial marriage, blurted out a quote from French’s biography she had by-hearted, where Naipaul allegedly said of a friend’s daughter: “She’s fat . . . and she did what all fat girls do; she married a Zulu.”
Lining up the interesting people was easy. The first rule was: absolutely no politicians.
I was to procure “real people”, preferably in their homes, who would tell him about how they marry modern citizenship with their traditional beliefs. The first foray, to the home of a couple of “diversity trainers”, was a disaster. The woman enthused about Gandhi, and her white husband kept addressing our driver in Sotho in a bid to impress Naipaul.
Other excursions were judged successful, like his visit to the Voortrekker Monument, where he marvelled at the marble friezes. Naipaul was later to say of the monument: “I was fascinated by the scale of it; the impressiveness of it — I didn’t think such a thing could come out of a colonial territory.”
The first part of the journey had taken the Naipauls to the “real” Dark Continent, such as the forests of Gabon.
Of particular interest was the subject of sacrifice to the an- cestors, particularly if it involved human body parts. Stumped at the thought of finding ritual sacrifice in the shadow of the Ponte Tower, I arranged for copies of the Daily Sun to be delivered to his hotel every morning. We visited the traditional medicine markets at Faraday and Kwa Mai-Mai.
Stepping gingerly over the assortment of plant and animal products laid out on cloths or in hessian sacks, Naipaul appeared disappointed, either by the sight and smells of hundreds of dismembered animals (he is a vegetarian) or at the conclusion that what he was seeing was second-rate, and not really “Dark Continent” enough.
“I thought to myself, here are these people, hiding in the shadow of the city, this triumph of modern architecture, with their pieces of skins and animal parts . . . that this could give them no idea of a philosophy of the modern world . . . how sad.”
Then came the now infamous Winnie interview.
As the veteran politician entered the living room, Naipaul and his wife both began to cry. Holding out her hand to him, Madikizela-Mandela sat along- side him on the sofa, stroking his hand. I explained what we were here to do: to get her views on how her spirituality and traditional beliefs sustained her during the dark days of apartheid — a subject about which she said much. But she also said much about other things, such as her relationship with her former husband. Throughout, Naipaul sat, nodding quietly, as his wife took notes and asked all the questions.
Whether Madikizela-Mandela believed she was having an intimate chat with a Nobel prize-winning author, or a formal interview with a journalist (Nadira Naipaul), the substance of the discussion exploded into the public arena this year.
The Apartheid Museum, Origins Centre and Hector Pieterson Memorial were done in a day. So was the Cradle of Humankind. On the journey and at the destination, VS Naipaul remained the silent observer, leaving Nadira Naipaul to ask all the questions. Many of the interviewees afterwards told me they felt somehow judged by the weightiness of the writer’s silence.
And yet he was at times jocular, playful even. Driving back to the hotel one afternoon, he laughed good-naturedly at the famous kwaito star we had just met, who insisted throughout on addressing Naipaul as “Mr Patel”.
VS Naipaul is a man of contradictions. He praised the Voortrekker Monument. He wept at the Hector Pieterson Memorial.
“I think people haven’t read, or misunderstood, what I’ve written — I’ve never deliberately written provocatively about a place I’ve visited,” he said.
As for those who would call him racist: “It’s easier to simplify, isn’t it?”