The distinguished writer V.S. Naipaul opens his new book, A Way in the World1—it is his 22nd—with a brief “Prelude” (subtitled “An Inheritance”) in which he describes the constant “shifting about of reality” he experiences whenever he returns home to the island of Trinidad. Reencountering familiar places and people, he finds “everything strange and not strange,” and the dance of his perceptions gives him a feeling of “half-dream, knowing and not knowing, . . . a little like the sensations that came to me as a child when once in the rainy season, I had ‘fever.’”
Reflecting on this state, Naipaul recalls a story he has heard about a man named Leonard Side, a floral arranger who also works as a dresser of bodies in a Trinidad funeral home and a maker and decorator of pastries. Side is an eccentric, and his decorative tastes seem eccentric: although a Muslim, he keeps an image of “Christ in Majesty” over his bed. The woman who tells Naipaul this story confesses that each time she sees Side, she runs away from him. “It was his idea of beauty that upset me,” she explains: That idea of beauty—mixing roses and flowers and nice things to eat with the idea of making the dead human body beautiful too—was contrary to my own idea. The mixing of things upset me. . . . I felt his feeling for beauty was like an illness.
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