Ian Bu­ruma

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V. S. Naipaul (1932–2018)

V. S. Naipaul’s fas­tid­i­ous­ness was leg­endary. I met him for the first time in Ber­lin in 1991, when he was be­ing feted for the Ger­man edi­tion of his lat­est book. A smil­ing young wait­ress of­fered him some de­cent white wine. Naipaul took the bot­tle from her hand, ex­am­ined the la­bel for some time, like a fine art dealer in­spect­ing a du­bi­ous piece, handed the bot­tle back, and said with con­sid­er­able dis­dain: “I think per­haps later, per­haps later.” (Naipaul of­ten re­peated phrases.) This kind of thing also found its way into his travel writ­ing. He could work up a rage about the qual­ity of the tow­els in his ho­tel bath­room, or the slack ser­vice on an air­line, or the poor food at a restau­rant, as though these were per­sonal af­fronts to him, the im­pec­ca­bly turned-out trav­eler. Naipaul was noth­ing if not self­aware. In his first travel ac­count of In­dia, An Area of Dark­ness, he de­scribes a visit to his an­ces­tral vil­lage in a poor, dusty part of Ut­tar Pradesh, where an old woman clutches his shiny English shoes. Naipaul feels over­whelmed, alien­ated, pre­sumed upon. He wants to leave this re­mote place his grand­fa­ther left be­hind many years be­fore. A young man asks for a ride to the near­est town. Naipaul says: “No. Let the idler walk.” And so, he adds, the visit “ended, in fu­til­ity and im­pa­tience, a gra­tu­itous act of cru­elty, self-re­proach and flight.”

It is tempt­ing to see Naipaul as a blimp­ish fig­ure, aping the man­ners of Bri­tish big­ots; or as a fussy Brah­min, un­will­ing to eat from the same plates as lower castes. Both views miss the mark. Naipaul’s fas­tid­i­ous­ness had more to do with what he called the “raw nerves” of a dis­placed colo­nial, a man born in a pro­vin­cial out­post of em­pire, who had strug­gled against the in­dig­ni­ties of racial prej­u­dice to make his mark, to be a writer, to add his voice to what he saw as a univer­sal civ­i­liza­tion. Dirty tow­els, bad ser­vice, and the wretched­ness of his an­ces­tral land were in­sults to his sense of dig­nity, of hav­ing over­come so much.

These raw nerves did not make him into an apol­o­gist for em­pire, let alone for the hor­rors in­flicted by white Euro­peans. On the con­trary, he blamed the ab­ject state of so many for­mer colonies on im­pe­rial con­quest. In The Loss of El Do­rado, a short his­tory of his na­tive Trinidad, he de­scribes in great de­tail how waves of bloody con­quest wiped out en­tire peo­ples and their cul­tures, leav­ing half-baked, dis­pos­sessed, root­less so­ci­eties. Such so­ci­eties have lost what Naipaul calls their “whole­ness” and are prone to rev­o­lu­tion­ary fan­tasies and re­li­gious fa­nati­cism. Whole­ness was an im­por­tant idea to Naipaul. To him, it rep­re­sented cul­tural mem­ory, a set­tled sense of place and iden­tity. His­tory was im­por­tant to him, as well as lit­er­ary achieve­ment upon which new gen­er­a­tions of writ­ers could build. It irked him that there was noth­ing for him to build on in Trinidad, apart from some vaguely re­called Brah­min rit­u­als and books about a far­away Euro­pean coun­try where it rained all the time, a place he could only imag­ine. Eng­land, to him, rep­re­sented a cul­ture that was whole. And from the dis­tance of his child­hood, so did In­dia. (In fact, he knew more about an­cient Rome, taught by a Latin teacher in Trinidad, than he did about ei­ther coun­try.) When he fi­nally man­aged to go to In­dia, he was dis­ap­pointed. In­dia was a “wounded civ­i­liza­tion,” maimed by Mus­lim con­quests and Euro­pean colo­nial­ism. He re­al­ized he didn’t be­long there, any more than in Trinidad or Eng­land. And so he sought to find his place in the world through words. Books would be his es­cape from feel­ing root­less and su­per­flu­ous. His fa­ther, Seep­er­sad Naipaul, had tried to lift him­self from his sur­round­ings by writ­ing jour­nal­ism and short sto­ries, which he hoped in vain to pub­lish in Eng­land. Writ­ing, to fa­ther and son, was more than a pro­fes­sion; it was a call­ing that con­ferred a kind of no­bil­ity.

Naipaul’s most fa­mous novel, A House for Mr. Biswas, drew on the fa­ther’s story of frus­trated am­bi­tion. By re­turn­ing to the world of his child­hood, Naipaul found the words to cre­ate his own link to that univer­sal lit­er­ary civ­i­liza­tion. He of­ten told in­ter­view­ers that he only ex­isted in his books. If raw nerves made him iras­ci­ble at times, they also sharp­ened his vi­sion. He un­der­stood peo­ple who were cul­tur­ally dis­lo­cated and tried to find so­lace in re­li­gious or po­lit­i­cal fan­tasies that were of­ten bor­rowed from other places and in­eptly mim­icked. He de­scribed such delu­sions pre­cisely and of­ten com­i­cally. His sense of hu­mor some­times bor­dered on cru­elty, and in in­ter­views with lib­eral jour­nal­ists could take the form of cal­cu­lated provo­ca­tion. But his re­fusal to sen­ti­men­tal­ize the wounds in post­colo­nial so­ci­eties pro­duced some of his most pen­e­trat­ing in­sights. My fa­vorite book by Naipaul is not A House for Mr. Biswas or A Bend in the River, his var­i­ous books on In­dia, or even his mas­ter­piece, The Enigma of Ar­rival, but a slen­der vol­ume en­ti­tled Find­ing the Cen­ter. It con­sists of two long es­says, one about how he learned to be­come a writer, how he found his voice, and the other about a trip to Ivory Coast in 1982. In the first piece, writ­ten out of un­flinch­ing self­knowl­edge, he gives a lu­cid ac­count of the way he sees the world and how he puts this into words. He trav­els to un­der­stand him­self, as well as the pol­i­tics and his­to­ries of the coun­tries he vis­its. Fol­low­ing ran­dom en­coun­ters with peo­ple who in­ter­est him, he tries to un­der­stand how they see them­selves in re­la­tion to the world they live in. But by do­ing so, he finds his own place too, in his own inim­itable words.

The sec­ond part of Find­ing the Cen­ter, called “Croc­o­diles of Ya­mous­soukro,” is a per­fect ex­am­ple of his meth­ods. It is a sur­pris­ingly sym­pa­thetic ac­count of a messedup African coun­try, filled with for­eign­ers as well as lo­cal peo­ple wrapped up in a va­ri­ety of self-told sto­ries, some of them fan­tas­ti­cal, of how they see them­selves fit­ting in. African-Amer­i­cans come in search of an imag­i­nary Africa. A black woman from Mar­tinique es­capes into a pri­vate world of quasi-French snob­bery. And the Africans them­selves, in Naipaul’s vi­sion, have held on to a “whole” cul­ture un­der a thin layer of false imi­ta­tion. This cul­ture of an­ces­tral spir­its comes alive at night, when the gim­crack moder­nity of daily ur­ban life is for­got­ten.

Be­ing in Africa re­minds him of his child­hood in Trinidad, when de­scen­dants of slaves turned the world up­side down in car­ni­vals, in which the op­pres­sive white world ceased to ex­ist and they reigned as African kings and queens. It is an oddly ro­man­tic vi­sion of African life, this idea that some­thing whole lurks un­der the sur­face of a half­made, bor­rowed civ­i­liza­tion. Per­haps it is more telling of Naipaul’s own long­ings than of the re­al­ity of most peo­ple’s lives. If he is al­ways clear-eyed about the pre­ten­sions of re­li­gious fa­nat­ics, third-world mimic men, and delu­sional po­lit­i­cal fig­ures, his idea of whole­ness can sound al­most sen­ti­men­tal. I re­mem­ber be­ing in a car with Naipaul one sum­mer day in Wilt­shire, near the cot­tage where he lived. He told me about his driver, a lo­cal man. The driver, he said, had a spe­cial bond with the rolling hills we were pass­ing through. He was aware of his an­ces­tors buried un­der our feet. He be­longed here. He felt the link with gen­er­a­tions that had been here be­fore him: “That is how he thinks, that is how he thinks.”

I was not con­vinced at all that this was the way Naipaul’s driver thought. But it was cer­tainly the way he thought in the writer’s imag­i­na­tion. Naipaul was our great­est poet of the half-baked and the dis­placed. It was the imag­i­nary whole­ness of civ­i­liza­tions that some­times led him astray. He be­came too sym­pa­thetic to the Hindu na­tion­al­ism that is now poi­son­ing In­dian pol­i­tics, as if a whole Hindu civ­i­liza­tion were on the rise af­ter cen­turies of alien Mus­lim or Western de­spo­li­a­tions.

There is no such thing as a whole civ­i­liza­tion. But some of Naipaul’s great­est lit­er­a­ture came out of his yearn­ing for it. Al­though he may, at times, have as­so­ci­ated this with Eng­land or In­dia, his imag­i­nary civ­i­liza­tion was not tied to any na­tion. It was a lit­er­ary idea, sec­u­lar, en­light­ened, passed on through writ­ing. That is where he made his home, and that is where, in his books, he will live on.

V.S. Naipaul, Sal­is­bury, Wilt­shire, Eng­land, 1981

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