New Delhi: He once famously said that “the only lies for which we are truly punished are those we tell ourselves”. He has been compared to Joseph Conrad, widely regarded as one of the greatest novelists to write in the English language. He has been accused of being unsympathetic to the Third World and “allowing “himself quite consciously to be turned into a witness for the Western prosecution”. One thing is for sure: Unlike many of his contemporaries, V.S. Naipaul, who died on August 11, 2018, six days short of his 86th birthday, was an unmatched literary maestro whose works will live for a long time to come.
He visited India thrice and penned his penetrating observations in three books about the country from which his grandparents had emigrated to Trinidad in the 1880s. “An Area of Darkness”, “India: A Wounded Civilization” and “India: A Million Mutinies Now” were debated with much fervour when they released and continue to be discussed for their critical yet relevant views about the development of India as a nation. These books have been brought together in “The Indian Trilogy”.
Naipaul wrote some of his finest pieces of reflection and reportage in the form of six essays “India: Essays”, where he approaches India through the residue of Indian culture and the scattered memories of 19th-century emigrants, eventually leading to a special understanding of Mahatma Gandhi. Through these writings, he offers an exceptional and sustained meditation on the country that never was his.
His last public appearance in India was in January 2015 at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), where he spoke at length and was even moved to tears at the overwhelming reception he was accorded.
His last words on stage were in reply to a question from veteran lawyer Ram Jethmalani, who asked him why he called India “An Area of Darkness” and suggested that it was instead an area of light.
“Ram is a friend and he left a very friendly comment,” Naipaul riposted. That was the measure of the man.
Naipaul’s first critical success was his fourth novel, “A House for Mr Biswas” that is generally thought to be autobiographical in nature — Mr Biswas representing Naipaul’s father and Biswas’ son, Anand, representing Naipaul.
It gained acclaim as #72 on Modern Library’s list of 100 best English- language novels of the 20th century, and it was featured on Time’s list of 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.
This was, in fact, the first of numerous honours that came Naipaul’s way and which included the Nobel Prize for Literature (2001) and the Booker Prize for “In a Free State” (1971). He was awarded the Trinity Cross, Trinidad and Tobago’s highest national honour in 1989 and was knighted by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II in 1990.
In awarding him the Nobel Prize, the Swedish Academy noted: “Naipaul is Conrad’s heir as the annalist of the destinies of empires in the moral sense: what they do to human beings. His authority as a narrator is grounded in the memory of what others have forgotten, the history of the vanquished.”
It also praised his work “for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories…
“Naipaul is a modern philosopher carrying on the tradition that started originally with Lettres persanes and Candide. In a vigilant style, which has been deservedly admired, he transforms rage into precision and allows events to speak with their own inherent irony.”
Not surprisingly, for a man of his stature, Naipaul had his share of critics.
Novelist Robert Harris has called Naipaul’s portrayal of Africa racist and “repulsive”, reminiscent of the fascism of Oswald Mosley, a
British parliamentarian of the 1920s who became the leader of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in the 1930s.
Edward Said, a professor of literature at Columbia University, maintained that Naipaul “allowed himself quite consciously to be turned into a witness for the Western prosecution”, promoting “colonial mythologies about wogs and darkies”. Naipaul’s worldview,
according to Said, was most noticeable in his book-length essay “The Middle Passage”, written following Naipaul’s return to the Caribbean after 10 years of exile in England, and “An Area of Darkness”.
Naipaul was also accused of misogyny and of “chronic physical abuse” against his mistress of 25 years, Margaret Murray, who wrote in a letter to The New York Review of Books: “Vidia says I didn’t mind the abuse. I certainly did mind.” But then, as Joan Didion, an American essayist known for conveying her moral sensibility through a highly accomplished use of syntax, wrote about Naipaul in The New York Review of Books in 1980:”The actual world has for Naipaul a radiance that diminishes all ideas of it. The pink haze of the bauxite dust on the first page of Guerrillas tells us what we need to know about the history and social organization of the unnamed island on which the action takes place, tells us in one image who runs the island and for whose profit the island is run and at what cost to the life of the island this profit has historically been obtained, but all of this implicit information pales in the presence of the physical fact, the dust itself… The world Naipaul sees is, of course, no void at all: it is a world dense with physical and social phenomena, brutally alive with the complications and contradictions of actual human endeavour… This world of Naipaul’s is in fact charged with what can only be described as a romantic view of reality, an almost unbearable tension between the idea and the physical fact.”
The last word undoubtedly belongs to Dwight Garner, who wrote in The New York Times on August 12, 2018:
“V.S. Naipaul… had so many gifts as a writer – suppleness, wit, an unsparing eye for detail – that he could seemingly do whatever he wanted. What he did want, it became apparent, was to rarely please anyone but himself. The world’s readers flocked to his many novels and books of reportage for ‘his fastidious scorn’, as the critic Clive James wrote, ‘not for his large heart’. In his obvious greatness, in the hard truths he dealt, Naipaul attracted and repelled.
“He was a walking sack of contradictions, in some ways the archetypal writer of the shifting and migratory 20th century. His life was a series of journeys between the old world and the new. He was a cool and sometimes snappish mediator between continents. Indian by descent, Trinidadian by birth, Naipaul attended Oxford and lived in London, where he came to wear elegant suits and move in elite social circles. ‘When I talk about being an exile or a refugee I’m not just using a metaphor.’ he said. ‘I’m speaking literally’.”
BY VISHNU MAKHIJANI