Alert! BOOK SA may not have, as yet, been able to track down VS Naipaul on his current visit to South Africa, but we have received this article from Mail & Guardian journalist Percy Zvomuya – a review of Patrick French’s exhaustive biography of Naipaul, The World is What it Is, that expands into a wider treatment of the writer’s relationship with the post-colonial world.
BOOK SA is pleased to bring you the article complete:
VS: a review of The World is What it Is
by Percy Zvomuya
At the Calabash Literary Festival last year, Nobel Prize winner and St Lucia-born poet, Derek Walcott, stood up to read a poem with the title “The Mongoose”.
It was an attack on his rival and fellow Nobel laureate, Trinidadian-born VS Naipaul. “The plots are forced, the prose/ sedate and silly/ The anti-hero is a prick named Willie”. Making reference to Naipaul’s visits to prostitutes, Walcott charged, “He doesn’t like black men but he loves black cunt.”
Naipaul’s visits to prostitutes, his abuse of his wife and mistress and other details are contained in The World Is What It Is (Picador), Patrick French’s authorised biography of the writer, a book that came out last year. In what may be the most exhaustive account of the man, French looks at the evolution of Naipaul’s craft and books. French interviewed Naipaul over several years and had unrestricted access to papers, notes, letters and diaries belonging to Naipaul, his late wife Patricia and Margaret Murray, his mistress of two decades.
Perhaps there is no third world figure that excites as much hatred and scorn as Naipaul. He writes beautiful, clean prose that has won, not just the Nobel, but the Booker Prize too. But any adulation is always followed by a disclaimer. Literary scholar Terry Eagleton perhaps put it best: “great art, dreadful politics”. In post-colonial studies, he has become the “outsider obsessed by disgust for his colonial origins, the reductive wog with a taste for the high table”. One person quoted in French’s book even said: “I don’t think he has come to a solution about his own origin. He wanted to be white.”
The lecherous details are quite titillating, but it is the stories of his relationship with the third world and of how he learnt his craft that are most compelling. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize, he paid tribute to India, his ancestral home, England, his adopted home (he is a knight), and pointedly refused to acknowledge his native Trinidad and Tobago, as it would “encumber the tribute”.
One of the reasons why he is despised is the reckless, off-the-cuff remarks he routinely makes. A friend’s daughter was once described as “fat”, and “she did what fat girls do, she married a Zulu”.
After his studies at Oxford, living in poverty in England, Patricia, then his girlfriend, advised him to go back and “serve your country” – Trinidad. “What country? A plantation. How was one to serve it?” was his response. Naipaul argued that ever since he could decide things for himself all he ever wanted to do was to leave Trinidad, a place whose atmosphere was “far too philistine”.
After Trinidad and Tobago got independence, Naipaul lived in Trinidad for a while. He wrote that the country’s police force was “made up of the dregs of the noble nigger nation”. He would “prefer a hundred times to be ruled from London, as in the old days, than to be ruled by the present people”. He sneered at the grand nationalist impulses of his compatriots. “Trinidad is a funny place. It has a population less than Nottingham’s, yet while Churchill calls England an island, they call T’dad a country… Jamaica is even worse. Jamaica is the world for Jamaicans.”
Naipaul’s strength has always been his great powers of observation. He was aware of the damage that imperialism and colonialism did. “To be modern is to ignore local products and to use those advertised in American magazines.” He noted how few African names survived in the New World (in parts of Africa it wasn’t much different: from the 1940 to the 1980s successive generations of Zimbabweans were only named after saints) and how “until the other day African tribesmen on the [cinema] screen excited derisive West Indian laughter”.
Naipaul has argued that colonialism “taught self-contempt”. This manifested itself in what his biographer calls “competitive racial hostility”. Quoting The Middle Passage, French writes that “like monkeys pleading for evolution, each [claimed] to be whiter than the other, Indians and Negroes appeal to the unacknowledged white audience to see how much they despise each other.”
Sadly, no salvation was to be found in the political parties active in Naipaul’s nominal home. “Nationalism was impossible in Trinidad… There were no parties, only individuals. Corruption… aroused only amusement and even mild approval” as the “sharp character” who “survives and triumphs by his wits” is “admired”. When Naipaul made these points when Trinidad was about to get independence these words seemed “an insult… today they seem prophetic”.
But Africa was ahead of Naipaul on this score. When The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born came out in the 1960s, its author, Ayi Kweyi Armah, clashed with Chinua Achebe, who felt the book was too negative – that the Ghana he painted was unrecognisable. In an essay included in the epilogue of his novel, The Combat, written in the aftermath of Biafran war, Kole Omotoso wrote of the triumph of the “sharp character” in similar tones.
Omotoso calls it “the literary menace of the Trickster”. He notes how this trickster is much celebrated in the African diaspora. He survives as the hare, the tortoise and other small animals. His small victories against the larger animals through cunning and dishonesty are victories against a domineering system. “The confusion comes when Africans become the system… while continuing to combine these new victorious roles with the old trickster mode”.
When Naipaul went to his ancestral homeland, India, while researching a book, he was struck by the Indian indifference to suffering. “Porters are called coolies; they have no barrows, which would simplify their labour…” He couldn’t understand the ubiquitous destitution and begging that seemed to enjoy “religious sanction”. But what caught his attention most was the irrepressible need Indians felt to defecate. Anywhere. “They defecate, mostly, beside the railway tracks… on river banks… beaches… streets”. Of course these observations were not well received by the Indian leadership; one analyst pointed out that if the government were to build toilets for every family the state would go bankrupt.
Naipaul famously has harsh words for “Negroes” too. “The whole world knows why they must be prejudiced against Negroes. Negroes want to be integrated with whites. They want to sleep with white women; and they have immense sexual energy”. His attitudes hardened during a stint as the writer in residence at Makerere University, Uganda.
He found Africa “obscene,” peopled as it was with “primitive” natives. He had almost no kind words. On the military: the armies “are frightfully good against civilians”. On English ex-pats: “I am much more concerned with people who find liberation among their inferiors”; they are “second-rate whites with second-rate ambitions”. On white South Africans: they “indulge in the obscenity of disciplining Africans… you either stay away from the continent, or you go there and discipline the savages”.
All this is rather bewildering from a writer who earlier on his career encapsulated the meaning of being colonised. Writing about his father, who died in the ruins of his dreams, he said “he was ghettoed-in a sense more cruel than that in which Hitler ghettoed the Jews.” He described the approach of the free world as “infinitely subtler and more refined”, pointing out how he suffered from “an insidious spiritual persecution”. He said the system wanted “to break his spirit. “They want me to forget my dignity as a human being. They want me to know my place”.
There is a lot to excite and enrage in French’s exhaustive account. We may find it difficult to warm up to VS Naipaul in the same way some people react ambivalently to pop star Michael Jackson. But, as Flaubert wrote, “the man is nothing, the work is everything”.
- The World is What it Is: The Authorized Biography of VS Naipaul by Patrick French
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