It may have been an overstatement when Paul Theroux, remarking upon the rootlessness and restlessness of V.S. Naipaul, characterized him as being among the homeless, former colonials who “travel because they belong nowhere.” “They cannot settle,” he continues, “they are constantly moving – in a sense they never arrive – and much of their travel is flight.”
In short, Naipaul exists not only amid “transplanted people who can claim no country as their own,” but, as Theroux maintains elsewhere, “It is evidence of the uniqueness of his vision, but a demonstration of the odds against him, that no country can claim him.”
Naipaul himself, as an Indian in the West Indies and a West Indian in London, may not see himself quite as this ever-floating bundle of free-floating anxiety. Perhaps, then, it is emblematic fight more than nomadic flight that sees him belonging everywhere, claimed by everyone. And, far from rudderless, Naipaul responds in kind, guided by an empathetic aim to, as noted in the presentation speech with which he was awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature, “understand the principle of every person’s life, the decisive thing that makes him what he is.”
Moreover, enticement and ambition early on drove a single-minded Naipaul to seek out the writing life he craved by leading him to move to England from his home in Trinidad, and to travel “from the periphery, the margin, to what was to me the centre; and it was my hope, that, at the centre, room would be made for me.”
And so it was, as an unassuming but insistent Naipaul insinuated himself through four decades of distinguished and at times controversial fiction and nonfiction, in works such as A Bend in the River, A House for Mr. Biswas, Half a Life and An Area of Darkness, largely marked by prose of elegance and fluid, matter-of- fact clarity. The simple but not simple-minded humanism of an exilic writer of diverse yet discriminating tastes, illustrating the idea that God and the God-awful is in the details, constitutes the hallmark of The Writer and the World, a collection of 20 wide-ranging essays, some long out-of-print, introduced and selected by Pankaj Mishra. Spanning the 1960s through the 1980s, The Writer and the World covers ground with journeys into India, Africa and the Americas, and makes the rounds politically, socially and artistically – everything from Steinbeck in Cannery Row to King Mobutu in the Congo, and anything to illuminate problems and conditions centering around colonialism, race, religion, war, modernity and the Third World.
The details dictate, though. Naipaul may ultimately be a big-picture man, but hearts and minds follow if you grab ’em with feeling and thought-provoking miniatures and minutiae. “I have no unifying theory of things,” he writes. “To me situations and people are always specific, always of themselves.”
And so Norman Mailer, in his 1969 New York mayoral campaign, in his resemblance to “boxer, sheriff, bad man, mobster, even politician,” may evoke “every type of American myth-figure,” but a fuller portrait emerges when Mailer is depicted more as American Everyman, bemoaning his lack of sleep, and giving bent to freak-flag-half-mast compromise when he makes his campaign manager and other staff shave off their beards and cut their hair.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum from liberal smugness, “the ‘new right’ of 1968 had become the ‘New Right’ of 1984,” and the events surrounding Reagan and the Republican Convention, filled to the brimstone with fundamentalism and self- righteousness, are balanced with a not-to-scale, informal discussion of conservatism with an adherent who, far from the scene where “Texan whoops followed the ‘amens,’ ” spoke with coherence and quiet passion about struggle, poverty and principle as motivating factors in his and in many party followers’ decisions.
From snake handling to the “snake-charm vote” may not be such a stretch. In “The Election in Ajmer,” the vicissitudes of politics in Naipaul’s ancestral India are depicted, but the full-stakes propaganda wars, haunted by the ghost of Ghandi, are understood more fully with such American-style campaign stops as, of all things, a debate at a Rotary Club in Beawar where plans fall through, causing little pomp and permitting circumstances for candor and reflection. Similarly, in “Argentina and the Ghost of Eva Peron,” a complex history of politics, social instability and a protracted revolution of ever-diminishing returns is put into poignant perspective by a concluding revisit with a disenchanted guerrilla sympathizer trying to “accept the idea that this country is not viable.”
“The young people I meet,” he goes on, “take it for granted that Argentina will become a nation in the near future, and that might lead them to new adventures and false conclusions.”
Naipaul may seem unobtrusive in tracing the social subtleties and in realizing his belief that “the politics of a country can only be an extension of its idea of human relationships,” but the knowledge and interpretive skills he brings to his subject lends expressive weight to his writing. It also belies the “strange kind of innocence” in his early career assumption, as recalled in his literary autobiography Reading and Writing, that “in our world all knowledge was available, that all history was stored somewhere and could be retrieved according to need.”
Naipaul, finding that local history of an area may be lost to apathy as well as ignorance, would have to be more resourceful and discerning. These essays are illustrative of the evolution and education of an “artless traveller” from the memory of his first trip, to Guyana, where, allowing himself to see it as it was presented to him, he “suppressed my fears about its glibness and sentimentality, and its element of viciousness” to his latter-day appreciation of his innate inquisitiveness and the tools of scholarship, and the “many stages of knowledge and of self- knowledge” he had to undertake.
In between times – no matter what validity there may be to claims that Naipaul is a condemnatory misanthrope who harbors politically incorrect ideas about “half-made societies”- there exists these perceptive essays of, at least, an inspired, provocative and independent-minded grouch who has lived to tell the tale, and tell it better than most. We get, then, in the midst of a time of a mystical India plagued within-you-and-without-you by Beatles and meditative seekers, Naipaul’s assessment of a “pathetic spirituality” that “complements a shallow perception of the world, the Indian intellectual failure.” We get a coherent and considered examination of the differences in the black power movement between the Caribbean islands and the United States. We find Naipaul offering an examination of the “double adjustment” of the non-Arab Muslim world in coming to terms with the European empires and with the Arab faith, and tracing how being “doubly removed from themselves” has altered a sense of the past, and has had consequences worldwide. And we discover that John Steinbeck was all for tearing down Cannery Row.
Despite his passion for ideas, however, and the capacity to convey them, Naipaul employs a style that is occasionally too deadpan arid and inconsistent. It would be easy to dismiss the disparity between the repetitive and lurching “Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad” and the following sinuously cohesive essay “A New King for the Congo,” chalking it off to evolved skills, but only a few years separate the writing of the two.
Nevertheless, V.S. Naipaul, in his expressed goal for “Our Universal Civilization,” has succeeded in richly articulating a writer’s engagement with, and exploration of, the world. In keeping with his claim that the role of the writer is “to look and look again, to re-look and rethink,” The Writer and the World is all over the map with opportunity and insight.
And the physical drabness itself, answering the drabness of mind: that also held the Indian deficiency. Poverty alone did not explain it. Poverty did not explain the worn carpets of the five-star Ashoka Hotel in New Delhi, the grimy armchairs in the serviceless lounge, the long-handled broom abandoned there by the menial in khaki who had been cleaning the ventilation grilles. Poverty did not explain the general badness of expensive, over-staffed hotels, the dirt of first-class railway carriages and the shantytown horror of their meals. Poverty did not explain the absence of trees: even the Himalayan foothills near the resort of Naini Tal stripped to brown, heat-reflecting desert. Poverty did not explain the open stinking sewers of the middle-class Lake Gardens suburb in Calcutta. This was at the level of security, the rupees regularly drawn. It did not speak only of an ascetic denial of the senses or of the sands blowing in from the encroaching desert. It spoke of a more general collapse of sensibility, of a people grown barbarous, indifferent and self-wounding, who, out of a shallow perception of the world, have no sense of tragedy.
It is what appalls about India. The palace crumbles into the dust of the countryside. But prince has always been peasant; there is no loss. The palaces might rise again; but, without a revolution in the mind, that would not be renewal.