Commentary Magazine

Naipaul's World

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.

Naipaul, too, has often expressed dismay at the mixing of things, and he too has fled from the world of Leonard Side. He “escaped” his native Trinidad—as he likes to say—when he was eighteen, in 1950, to study at Oxford on a scholarship, and he has made his home in England ever since. Returning time and again, in his writings and his travels, to the Caribbean, Africa, and India, he has brought an unsentimental eye and ear to bear on the post-colonial world of his inheritance.

His approach has been to sort out, rather than to celebrate, the third-world mixing and fragmentation of cultures, histories, religions, languages, castes, ideologies, and ethnicities. Against this confusion, Naipaul has posited his own rigorous discipline of dissecting the dissonant medley back into its essential elements so that it can be known and understood. For, despite his seemingly effortless prose, vivid descriptive powers, and deft mastery of narrative form, Naipaul has always been less interested in pursuing beauty than truth.

In A Way in the World, however, Naipaul chooses to identify as much with Leonard Side as with the woman. His project is simultaneously to construct his own literary inheritance and the legacy he will leave to the world. The book, which was published in England with the subtitle “A Sequence” (and in America, somewhat misleadingly, as “A Novel”), combines memoir, historical scholarship, and imaginative writing in a series of nine independent but thematically interlocking narratives. These narratives accumulate to form a dramatic portrait gallery of people—historical and fictionalized—whose lives have been formed and transformed by their encounters with Trinidad. And through the echo chamber of their stories there emerges a portrait of the artist, Naipaul himself, at the apex of his literary consciousness.

Taken by itself, the book is a compelling and informative compendium of contemplative storytelling about the struggle of men—there are scarcely any women—to enter and alter the history into which they are born. Yet A Way in the World is also clearly composed as a coda to Naipaul’s previous writings—and, at times, a corrective. To understand where the writer is going in its pages, it is worthwhile first to consider where he has come from.



Born in British colonial Trinidad in 1932, the grandson of an Uttar Pradesh Brahmin who had come to the island as an indentured servant, Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul began his career as a writer in exile, in London in the late 1950’s. His early novels, particularly A House for Mr. Biswas, the masterpiece which established his reputation in 1961, were dark but affectionately comic chronicles of the aspirations and humiliations of Trinidad’s East Indian community. A House for Mr. Biswas is invariably honored by the label “Dickensian,” and its application of the broad canvas and intimate descriptive detail of 19th-century realism to the new terrain of the Caribbean colonies won the author praise both as an up-and-comer on the old English scene and as a great novelty—the indisputably authentic voice of a previously unsung colonial experience.

The timing could not have been better: Trinidad had been granted provisional independence in 1957, and became fully independent in 1962. With the collapse of empire, Naipaul’s early writings seemed to confirm the liberal faith that the natives in the colonies would quickly blossom forth with vibrant, modern, Western-friendly cultures. What few of his fans seemed to notice at first was that Naipaul was himself deeply skeptical of such pious idealism.

Not that he was a critic of independence, or a booster of empire: he has always been a champion of autonomy and a chronicler of the corruption of conquerers. But while most writing on the third world continued to fight yesterday’s battles against imperialism, Naipaul soon moved on to the next stage of the drama, the predicament of people who sought to fill in the blanks left by the withdrawal of the old order. Throughout the rest of the 1960’s and the 1970’s, Naipaul became a tireless traveler through the third world, and in volume after volume he produced a harrowing portrait of the post-colonial scene.

In novels like The Mimic Men, In a Free State, Guerrillas, and A Bend in the River, and in works of nonfiction reportage like The Middle Passage, An Area of Darkness, The Return of Eva Peron, with The Killings in Trinidad, and India: A Wounded Civilization, Naipaul exposed the desperate unpreparedness for self-rule that haunted third-world nations. Imported corruption had given way to homegrown corruption, a debilitating cycle of revolutions and counterrevolutions, and Naipaul was merciless in his examination of the price paid by his characters for their mislaid hopes in tyrannical personality cults, terrorism, religious fundamentalism, and a half-baked pot-luck of Marxist and nationalist ideologies.

Unafraid of the politically-incorrect word “primitive,” Naipaul portrayed the post-colonials as people without a guiding sense of history, who had passed from millennia in the bush, through centuries of colonial humiliation, to emerge at the dawn of independence with barely a clue as to how to conduct themselves in the contemporary world. The resulting anarchy, as he described it most succinctly in his report on the Ivory Coast, “The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro,” bore less resemblance to any modern politics than to the ancient, and largely fragmented, spirit cultures of animistic, magic-driven, fetish religions.

Everywhere he looked, Naipaul saw the return of the “bush.” And as an Indian from predominantly black Trinidad, he evinced a special sensitivity to that most taboo of post-colonial topics, the racial injustices of the third world. By the 1970’s, liberal idealism among many Western intellectuals had given way to revolutionary, Africanist, and black-power politics; against such theorizing, Naipaul painted the new “race-men” as murderous charlatans.



It is hardly surprising, then, that there was a backlash against Naipaul from leftist critics. What is surprising is how long it took them to recognize that the great native voice of the West Indies was not exactly on their side. In 1967, when he published The Mimic Men, a chilling novel about fraudulent politics in a newly independent Caribbean country, he won England’s highly prestigious Booker Prize. It took twelve years and the novel that would prove to be his most famous to date, A Bend in the River—a tale of life in the hinterlands of an African country plagued by successively brutal revolutions—before it finally became clear that politics would probably prevent him from moving up the short list for the Nobel Prize which he so obviously deserved.

Ironically, of the two books, The Mimic Men is the more purely political, and its characters are more overtly corrupt and unsympathetic. Its brilliance, however, lies in Naipaul’s pursuit, through every nook and cranny of his characters’ lives, of the title concept—that the former colonials had made a hash of their dreams of autonomy by mimicking the colonists and seeking to take their place, rather than by establishing an original response to their original circumstances.

Naipaul’s lament was all the more poignant because, as a post-colonial himself engaged in a quest for autonomy, he took the weaknesses he saw personally. He was not, after all, writing theoretically but rather from the depths of his own struggles when he limned the difficulty of originality in this sentence from The Mimic Men: “Industrialization, in territories like ours, seems to be a process of filling imported tubes and tins with various imported substances.” Nor was he writing from on high when he opened A Bend in the River-with the sentence: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”

The threat of such nothingness haunts all Naipaul’s writings. And because the obstacles his characters face are also his own, he refuses to excuse them, any more than the harsh reality they inhabit will excuse them, for their sloppiness and failures. As he put it to the author of a recent profile of him in the New Yorker:

People are not intelligent enough in their analysis of what’s wrong with their societies. They only know about their enemies. My attitude has always been different: that one must look inward and understand why one is weak, why a culture like mine or like the one in India, from which I come ancestrally—why they are so without protection in the world. And this has taken me to a higher global understanding of things.

This unsentimental attitude, of course, only stokes the indignation of Naipaul’s critics, who point out that his characters do not enjoy his advantages and critical distance from the circumstances that defeat them.

Yet those who lash out at Naipaul as an Anglophile mandarin, and condemn him for judging his characters too severely, simply are not reading closely. To begin with, although he may live, as he speaks, with a heavy Oxford accent, Naipaul has always had a distinctly New World vision; he has been from the first a hybrid writer of the Americas. And perhaps for this very reason, he listens with passionate attention to the cacophony of the world he describes.

Whether or not he agrees with or admires his characters, Naipaul invests them all—from bit players to the narrators who carry his finest stories—with strong, highly individual, and articulate voices. His third worlders are never noble savages, a concept for which he has no sympathy, but complex, subtle personalities whom he renders capable of, and responsible for, mature consciousness. Although their souls may be shattered and their intellects misguided, that they possess both soul and intellect is never in doubt. Such respectful generosity is all too rare among writers who have something of their own to say.



After two decades of publishing superlative fiction at an average rate of one book every other year, with nearly as much nonfiction in between, an interval of eight years passed after A Bend in the River before Naipaul produced his next book, The Enigma of Arrival (1987). That book, as much a memoir as a work of fiction, marked a significant departure. Leaving behind the third-world dictatorships of his middle period, he now wrote from the vantage point of the quiet Wiltshire cottage which had become his home. The Enigma of Arrival is less a drama than a narrative meditation on what Naipaul repeatedly has called his “journey” through life, as a private man and particularly as a developing writer.

He had worked this territory before, in Finding the Center (1984), a deeply affecting brief memoir of his early years, and in crisp asides throughout the rest of his books, moments of self-declaration when he had exposed the narrative apparatus in order to integrate the process of investigating and assembling into the story he was telling. In the final chapter of The Enigma of Arrival, Naipaul describes how his original idea for the book evolved over time until

The story had become more personal: my journey, the writer’s journey, the writer defined by his writing discoveries, his ways of seeing, rather than by his personal adventures, writer and man separating at the beginning of the journey and coming together again in a second life just before the end.

Indeed, in the book’s concluding chapter, the author has reached back to the world of A House for Mr. Biswas to draw his most nuanced picture yet of post-colonial complexity. Naipaul recounts how, at his sister’s recent funeral in Trinidad, a distant in-law delivered a brief discourse on ancestral history, managing in just a few sentences to conflate events spanning four centuries. Instead of scolding the man for fabricating a “composite history,” Naipaul reflects that “Men need history; it helps them to have an idea of who they are. But history, like sanctity, can reside in the heart; it is enough that there is something there.”

Naipaul had hardly gone soft. Rather, he had identified in the words of his in-law a quality he shares—the power of the imagination to create a habitable reality. For it is not so much by Oxford and exile that Naipaul has removed himself from the mass of his fellow post-colonials, as by the ability to imagine himself—past, present, and future—complexly, exactingly, profoundly, and truly. In the absence of old orders, in a world of countless diasporas, individual imagination becomes for Naipaul the only instrument for forging the necessary original response to one’s fate.

“Our sacred world had vanished,” he writes in the final paragraph of The Enigma of Arrival:

But we remade the world for ourselves; every generation does that, as we found when we came together for the death of this sister and felt the need to honor and remember. It forced us to look on death. It forced me to face the death I had been contemplating at night, in my sleep. . . . It showed me life and man as the mystery, the true religion of men, the grief and the glory.



Now, seven years later, in A Way in the World, Naipaul has dug deeper still into the human mystery and has produced what is certainly the crowning work of his maturity. At sixty-two, he has arrived at a point of summing up. For a lesser writer that would mean repeating himself. But although Naipaul revisits the scenes and concerns of many of his previous books, A Way in the World significantly broadens and deepens his view of “the grief and the glory.”

It can be a dense and difficult book, and it is carefully constructed to resist easy classification or paraphrase. Each of the nine self-contained narratives feeds into the whole, not by plot but by thought and thematic echoes. Juxtaposing, in one volume, new versions of the sorts of stories he has told before, Naipaul retains his trademark clarity while achieving a resonant sense of the “shifting about of reality” and the “mixing of things” which he describes in the Prelude. In this way, the book’s form mirrors the new theory of history Naipaul develops in its pages—history as a constant remaking and renaming of the world and of individual lives through simultaneous processes of displacement and accumulation.

This notion of history expands upon the vision put forward in the opening pages of Joseph Conrad’s great novella “Heart of Darkness,” when the narrator, Marlow, sits aboard a yacht on the Thames, brooding aloud: “And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth.” Marlow explains that he is thinking of a time 1,900 years earlier, “when the Romans first came here,” and he paints a verbal portrait of the commander of a trireme sailing up the Thames of old:

Imagine him here—the very end of the world . . . cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile, and death—death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush . . . the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him—all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. . . .

They [the Romans] were no colonists. . . . They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force . . . your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. . . . The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. . . .

Naipaul has spent most of his life looking into this unlovely business of conquest, and 50 pages into A Way in the World he reprises Marlow’s vision, albeit with a complicating, late-20th-century twist. In a chapter entitled “New Clothes, An Unwritten Story,” Naipaul develops a “writing idea” he claims to have had for a long time, a story which reads more like notes for a story, about a character called “the narrator,” who is traveling by boat up “an unnamed river in a South American country.”

The narrator is described as “a carrier of mischief. A revolutionary of the 1970’s, say. A man seeking the help of upcountry Amerindians to overthrow the African government on the coast.” As he journeys into the interior, he munches a piece of the local staple, cassava bread, and he reflects that cassava

is a root, and it has a poison. It would have taken centuries for the remote ancestry of these forest people, after the crossing over of their ancestors from Asia, to have made their way down the continent to these forests and rivers. How many centuries more before the discovery of cassava? And how many centuries after that for the folk invention of the simple tools for getting rid of the poison?

Thinking like this, thinking of all the inventions of those isolated people, the narrator begins to think of the antiquity of the forest. Not new, not virgin. Those villages on the river would have been like the towns of the classical world, rising for millennia on the middens of their predecessors.

Naipaul has reached much farther back than Marlow’s 1,900 years—to a time before the last ice age—and, lunging forward again to the present, he has understood that even “aboriginal” peoples are infinitely removed from any truly original moment.

The message is plain: displacement, in space and in time, is the primal human experience. Under the circumstances, the quest for one’s place, which was a central concern in A Bend in the River, is doomed to prove illusory. As the title of this new book suggests, Naipaul now seems to believe that the best one can hope for—and in his estimation it remains a great deal—is to find one’s way.

Immediately after his cassava-bread reverie, Naipaul’s “narrator” arrives at his destination, where

[He] is startled to see two almost naked white boys with bows and the small Indian arrows hiding behind the grass and boulder at the water’s edge. Not the arrows of the craft shops on the coast: the real arrows, from the forest. . . . There is no mystery: the children are from the new settlement in the clearing. They are playing at being Indians. The narrator is expected.

In a few deft strokes, Naipaul has again jumped—from the opening of “Heart of Darkness,” with Marlow cogitating on the Thames, to the climax of that novella: Marlow’s encounter with the great white hunter, Kurtz, who has gone native. And he has jumped beyond Conrad’s early-20th-century view of the colonial world to the post-colonial inversions of century’s end. “They are playing at being Indians. The narrator is expected.” The horror Kurtz found in the premodern jungle has become a masquerade, and as Naipaul unravels it in each new chapter of A Way in the World, the confusion of identities wrought by that displacement proves a very complicated echo chamber indeed.



Naipaul’s account spokes out from the hub of Trinidad to take in an astonishingly expansive global compass. Having conceived his writing life as a determined effort to salvage himself and his perceptions from annihilation, Naipaul turns his attention to others, mostly nonwriters, who have sought, like him, to be the authors of their fates.

The range of portraits is dazzling: here is Sir Walter Raleigh, sick and dying as his fraudulent claims of discovering El Dorado are exposed and he is sent home in chains to be executed; here is Blair, a government clerk in Trinidad, a colleague of the teenage Naipaul, who comes to a bad end nearly a half-century later as a diplomatic emissary set upon by racial thugs in a despotic East African country; here is Lebrun, a Trinidadian revolutionary on the run, at once a rabble-rouser and a serious intellectual for whom Naipaul shows genuine warmth and respect, even as Lebrun devolves into a puppet of himself; here is a transplanted Trinidadian East Indian living in Venezuela, who denies his origins in order to pass as a “new man,” yet returns home when he has family troubles to observe the appropriate Hindu rituals; here is Foster Morris, an Englishman of the 30’s who wrote a book of earnest social reportage about the Trinidad oil strikes, and later, living in England as a sour literary has-been, seeks to attach himself as a mentor to Naipaul’s rising star; and here is Francisco Miranda, the ultimate mythomaniac, a failed 19th-century Venezuelan dreamer of South American revolution, who has worn so many false guises that his true self exists only in his long-lost journals.

Nobody is what at first he seems in Naipaul territory. Each of these men has fled his place of origin, shifted identities, and returned to find that he and the place are no longer what they were at parting. Yet if centuries of mixing have made the world Naipaul describes quite mad, his book is determinedly sane: he renders his characters in intimate realistic detail, charting their rises and falls with a detached but unmistakable sympathy. In A Way in the World, Naipaul has written a new kind of nonlinear history for a people who have not lived in a world of linear progressions.

At times, it is true, the burden of Naipaul’s self-appointed task leads to clunky narrative strategies. The chapters on Sir Walter Raleigh and Francisco Miranda suffer from the sort of long expository monologues that plague so much historical drama. The details come fast and thick, and the voices seem indistinguishable. But while Naipaul can write too densely, he is incapable of being dull. Although most of the action described in the book takes place offstage, the bloody legacy of Trinidad’s serial conquerors—a saga of slaughter, disease, false glory, and shame—is depicted as vividly as the drama of the mind.

Thus, when he describes how Raleigh and Miranda are unmasked in their conquistadorial deceits, and are in turn deceived as their ambitions unravel, we see that Naipaul is adding a new turn to the bitter farce of failed colonial mimicry that has been a leitmotif throughout his work. For, if the men whom the post-colonials sought to mimic are themselves “mimic men,” the only hope for individual authenticity resides in mimicking something that has only been imagined but never realized.

This may seem a more forgiving view of human folly than we have come to expect of Naipaul, but in fact it is also his bleakest. His pretenders’ ball of Trinidadian history occurs in a hall of mirrors where there are no heroes. Unless, of course, one counts Naipaul himself, who might be thought to stand alone in his account as the man who has successfully won the post-colonial struggle to become new, to have a new name (he is now a British knight, Sir Vidiadhar) and the Adamic power to be a new name-giver. Yet even now, as he sums up his life’s work, he is careful to include himself in the group portrait he is painting:

Most of us know the parents or grandparents we come from. But we go back and back, forever; we go back all of us to the very beginning; in our blood and bone and brain we carry the memories of thousands of beings. . . . We cannot understand all the traits we have inherited. Sometimes we can be strangers to ourselves.

Naipaul recognizes that he too will become an ancestral figure—that, however potently he renders his account, it is finally only a way in the world, not the way. Throughout this book, and especially in the first and final chapters, he leaves no room for doubt that what he calls “the mess”—the bloody cycle of racial, caste, and cultural conquest and revenge that has defined the history he writes—is far from spent, and will continue long after he is no longer at hand to sort it out.



But if the struggle cannot be won, the chronicle of the struggle may be victory enough. Naipaul has remarked that his career began with the terror that he might have nothing to say, and that if he did, he might never find the means to say it. By now he has more than laid that anxiety to rest, and is left to wonder whether he will be understood. When he is interviewed he always speaks of the extreme exhaustion that depletes him with the conclusion of a book, and lately he has said that he may not write another. It is possible that he fears becoming like his character, the black revolutionary Lebrun, who “in extreme old age” can remember the story he is expected to tell his interviewers but tends to forget the point.

Naipaul is far from reaching such a pass. Yet even if he writes no more, he has already done the rarest thing: he has described not only the depths of his knowledge but the boundaries of all that he understands to be unknowable. He has written his way in the world indelibly.


1 Knopf, 380 pp., $23.00.

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