Literature: The Humor and the Pity

There is a feature that has often marked the dust jackets of V.S. Naipaul's books. We are first given some perfunctory details about the writer's birth in Trinidad, his education at University College, Oxford, and the year, 1954, when he began to write in London. And then, like a card being put on the table with a quiet confidence, comes the statement: "He has pursued no other profession." If this were not a fact, delivered with seriousness and utterly credible, one would have taken it as a boast. Regardless, to understand the Nobel Committee's decision to award the 2001 prize for literature to Naipaul, we must ask what that statement means to us and also, of course, to Naipaul himself.

Naipaul's father, Seepersad, worked as a journalist for a Trinidad newspaper. In 1943, when V.S. Naipaul was 11 years old, his father published a volume of short stories called "The Adventures of Gurudeva" and Other Indian Tales. The book was about 70 pages long; for the younger Naipaul, this modest, self-published collection of his father's stories was his "introduction to book-printing." But along with a sense of books as artifacts, the father also gave the son a theme. The Indian community in Trinidad, descendants of indentured laborers brought in to serve on the sugar plantations after the abolition of slavery, had not been written about before. The stories penned by the elder Naipaul were about a community emerging from a past embedded in its country of origin and finding its footing in a new country of toil. This theme entered the young Vidia Naipaul's earliest writings and then found more complex form. Today we can say that V.S. Naipaul's obsessions have been the discovery of a newness--born out of displacement and loss, as well the distortions following decolonization--and an idea of identity birthed from a reworking of memory.

This mature sense of literature as a record of a damaged life could not have been arrived at easily. Naipaul has related how, in his youth, he was unable to enter the world that the books presented to him: "I didn't have the imaginative key. Such social knowledge as I had--a faint remembered village India and a mixed colonial world seen from the outside--didn't help with the literature of the metropolis. I was two worlds away." In fact, instead of books, film was what absorbed the young Naipaul. "Nearly all my imaginative life was in the cinema," he recalls. At various times, when speaking of the decline of fiction, Naipaul has argued that the creative energies that went into novels in the nineteenth century shaped the new art-form of film in the first half of the century that followed. There lies a clue to his art. Cinema is the closest I can come to an idea of an alternative profession for the latest Nobel laureate in literature.

Naipaul's entire oeuvre is obsessed with seeing. To see is to admit light; it is the opposite of existing in an area of darkness. Naipaul has always believed that Indians have turned their eyes away from the history and the geography that was present to them as evidence. This conviction was there in the writer even when he was describing his ancestors who had migrated as indentured laborers from a village near Gorakhpur in eastern India to the plantations of Trinidad: "My grandfather had made a difficult and courageous journey. It must have brought him into collision with startling sights, even like the sea, several hundred miles from his village; yet I cannot help feeling that as soon as he had left his village he ceased to see."

Even Naipaul's declared interest in clear prose has its profound grounding in a way of seeing--more specifically, in the Enlightenment tradition where rationality is exercised precisely in a visual field. Rational thought is located, literally, in perspective. And while seeing is also an inward act, it begins with the act of examining and documenting the outside world. To see, and to record, is to perform the task of the writer. This is Naipaul's principal tenet. It is also a tenet of nineteenth-century realism, which accorded the world a solidity that it perhaps no longer has. But within the terms of that worldview, the writer is less an artist than a craftsperson who is carefully, and skillfully, re-creating the world in a meaningful, recognizable way. Therefore, for Naipaul to declare that he has followed no profession other than writing is only to declare his vocation as a craft of perfecting a practice of seeing.

Sometimes, in a manner that is uniquely his, Naipaul makes a statement about a way of seeing in a particular setting that becomes a way of rendering judgment about an entire society. In a 1994 interview, he had remarked that, as he had grown older, women had ceased to be objects of desire for him: "I'm no longer blinded by this way of looking at them." Naipaul described this change as a loss, and then he added: "And probably one could say this about Muslim countries and other countries--that since old men make the laws, the laws tend to be rather harsh about women, because the blinding has faded away." The shift from the personal to the social is bold and dramatic: The statement is like a view revealed when there is a flash of lightning in the dark. One is momentarily blinded to the prejudice--aren't the laws almost anywhere made mostly by old men?

During his Nobel acceptance speech, delivered on December 7, V.S. Naipaul began by saying that he had no lecture to give. Everything of value about him, he said, was in what he had written. The writer was only the sum of his books.

The mystery of writing, Naipaul was saying, exceeded the persona of the writer. But in claiming that he had written by intuition alone, Naipaul was also deflecting the controversy that had attended the announcement of the Nobel Prize in October. Many commentators had raised the question of whether the prize had gone to Naipaul because in Among the Believers and Beyond Belief he had poured vitriol over the people of the Islamic faith. After the cataclysmic events of September 11, his writings seemed to have prophetically anticipated the prejudices of the West against the Muslim world.

This criticism of Naipaul wasn't new. Eqbal Ahmad, who was among the most prominent left-intellectuals to emerge from the Indian subcontinent in the past several decades, had declared in an interview some years ago that Naipaul should stop writing. "He should be selling sausages," Ahmad said.

In the West, especially in the United States, where he was also a professor of politics for several years, Ahmad was seen as an equal of his comrades Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, and Howard Zinn. In the early sixties, Ahmad had served with Frantz Fanon in the cause of Algerian liberation; in 1971, Ahmad was indicted, along with Father Philip Berrigan and other antiwar Catholic clerics, on charges of conspiracy to kidnap Henry Kissinger and bomb the Pentagon, but he was never convicted. With Said, Ahmad also played an advisory role in the Palestine Liberation Authority, and the Palestinian writer called him "a genius at sympathy." Speaking at a memorial after Ahmad's death, Kofi Annan, who also picked up a Nobel this year, said that Ahmad "was a shining example of what a true internationalist should be."

I mention all this in order to point out the contrast with Naipaul, who once told a friend that he never signed any petitions--he could not bear to see his name on anything he had not written himself. This smacks of a narrow, cranky individualism and it reminds us that, unlike Ahmad's, Naipaul's excursions into countries of the third world were not marked by solidarity but by a more distant disinterestedness and even contempt. At the same time, it also draws attention to the stubborn autonomy of the writer. We are required to ask whether a writer shouldn't actually be judged on grounds of his or her persistent themes or obsessions rather than historical affiliations and party memberships.

Ahmad dismissed Naipaul on reasonable grounds. Ahmad was opposed to the depiction of Pakistan, in Among the Believers, as a country devoid of all the marks of thoughtfulness and dissent. "It was your responsibility to at least report, mention, that the ... [regime] was being opposed at great risk to themselves by hundreds of thousands of people, including almost all the known poets, writers, and artists of Pakistan," Ahmad told Naipaul. "Our best writers of that time were in prison or in exile. [Many] ... people had been flogged in public. Nearly 30,000 or 40,000 went into prisons, and you don't make one mention of it. You describe that regime as Islamic. The least you could have done was to say that this was a contested space."

Why did Naipaul not see what is being pointed out by Ahmad? Whatever answer we give to this question, including a recognition of the rage against Islam that has characterized many pronouncements that Naipaul has made, what we must finally address is the attraction as well as the limits of the paradigm of seeing that Naipaul has perfected. Many readers, including me, are drawn by the sharp eye and the limpid prose. Such writing runs into a dead end when it relies most on the model of the imperial, nineteenth-century travelogue. Naipaul's reliance on that model, and his use of Conradian tropes of travel into colonial darkness, call for a certain skepticism. Clarity in writing by itself suddenly begins to appear to be a dubious, archaic quality, cloaking questions about power and ideology.

Most vitally, we are reminded that, standing as we are in the mess of history, we cannot have plain or easy responses to the world or, indeed, to Naipaul himself. Every one of us shares a divided world; even our judgments are no longer indivisible. It is not only that we can no longer innocently claim the viewpoint of the disinterested observer. Rather, we cannot even easily claim purchase on the whole reality anymore. In important ways, Naipaul succeeds as a writer because so much of his work, despite the writer's espousal of aloofness, is also a record of writing from the periphery. This awareness gives Naipaul a foundation for the claim that he has written without serving a literary or political system. In his Stockholm address, Naipaul said: "My father, who wrote his stories in a very dark time, and for no reward, had no political idea. Perhaps it is because we have been far from authority for many centuries. It gives us a special point of view. I feel we are more inclined to see the humor and pity of things."

The dream of wholeness, or of return to one's origins, is a pervasive psychical preoccupation among diasporic peoples. Displacement often carries the pathos of misaddressed letters. The pathos comes from the knowledge that completeness is a myth. Origins lie in the irrecoverable, damaged past.

If there is no wholeness, you cannot claim originality. There is only mimicry. An investigation into this condition and the savoring of the gift of its contradictions has been a part of Naipaul's lifework. The theme finds a surprising presence in his latest novel, Half a Life.

Half a Life begins with the words "Willie Chandran asked his father one day, åWhy is my middle name Somerset? The boys at school have just found out, and they are mocking me.'" In response, the father, a small man in a small town in southern India, begins to tell the story of how the son had been named after a famous writer, Somerset Maugham, who had been on a visit to their town in the years before independence.

In Half a Life, we also accompany Willie on his own path to self-discovery as a writer in London. This is Naipaul's turf. Again, as in his fragmentary memoir Finding the Center, Naipaul prepares us here not only for the excitement of writing, or its difficulties, but the discovery, touched with belittlement, of the colonial life as a subject of metropolitan consumption. A friend tells Willie: "India isn't really a subject. The only people who are going to read about India are people who have lived or worked there, and they are not going to be interested in the India you write about." Today, when postcolonial fiction is all the rage, Naipaul's restaging of this account of his past--the men wanting Bhowani Junction and the women, Black Narcissus--allows us to place his own writing and the shape that immigrant fiction has taken in the West in a history of struggle against Western desires and demands.

The final part of Half a Life is set in Africa, where Willie attempts to make his home after his marriage in London to Ana, who is from a country that resembles Mozambique. Ana is attracted to Willie because she finds in his book a story of her own past. It is Willie, insecure and without money, who asks Ana to return with him to her decrepit plantation-home in Africa. This journey to Africa, which for Naipaul has always been beset by colonial tropes, returns us to a landscape of ruins and grim omens. At the same time, the tale is enlivened by a writer's sense of inquiry: "But I felt that the overseer had a larger appreciation of the life of the place; his surrender was more than the simple sexual thing it seemed. And when I next saw the mildewed white staff bungalows I looked at them with a new respect. So bit by bit I learned. Not only about cotton and sisal and cashew, but also about the people."

In its final section, Half a Life journeys into the darkness of the sexual self. It is a journey into a form of awakening and even grace--a new theme within the pattern of repetition I am tracing here--but it is also touched with a tender recoil from cruelty. Adulterous lovers copulate, literally, among snakes. Love is poisoned by the landscape of failure. Africa then, no less than India in this story, plays a part of what is only a fable, even if the fable is made up expertly from details of a well-recorded life.

Often, the three parts of Half a Life have, pinned to the skin of their narratives, those small details that convey so well the author's ability for observation. The more abstract vision that places these details in a fable belongs to a writer who has learned that his world is never whole except in his writings. This particular view might be, in the opinion of some, a misreading of life and of art, but it cannot be said that the body of Naipaul's work represents anything less than an enormously dignified response to the pain of a world found grievously incomplete.