10/11/84 A house for Mr. Naipaul
|Saturday, November 10,1984
The Straits Times: Section Two Page 1
A house for Mr. Naipaul
Shafi - that was thc name of the youth leader- could not have asked a more pertinent question.
Naipaul's response, as recorded in the book, was: "Yes. I would say for comprehension."
The London-based writer could have added that it was to tell people what the emerging neu world was all about, and to make sense of its great upheavals, that he had journeyed to- and written about- the Caribbean, where he was born and South America Africa and Asia in the last two decades.
"It was my hope to give expression to the restlessness, the deep disorder which the over throw in three continents of established social institutions... has brought about", his narrator says in the 1967 novel, The Mimic Men.
We may take that as a Naipaul statement.
The writer journeyed to those post-colonial a nd colonial societiec in the three continents where disorder and chaos ruled; where, as he tells his reader in his narratives published over the years, ignorant and confused men floundered in corrupted causes, in mimicry of their past masters, and in their retreat into simple beliefs.
His narratives, intensely personal but honest and often startingly insightful, hold nothing back. Naipaul tells it like it is.
Here, for instance, is what he says of Malaysia in Among the Believers:
"Money magnified the limitations of places like Malaysia, small, uneducated and coming late to everything.
"Money- from oil, rubber, tin, palm oil changed old ways.
'But money only turned people into buyers of imported goods, fixed the country in a dependent relationship with the developed world kept all men colonial."
But if he is harsh, Naipaul is also never patronising or unsympathetic. His evocation in the book of Shafi the youth leader, as an example is tender and sad - an idealistic young man, displaced in a new society, groping for a sense of self through a maze of confused values .
Lost and adrift
NAIPAUL can of course, understand the plight of someone like Shafi only too well. For he was himself once lost, adrift in Oxford where he had gone on a Trinidad government scholarship to study English.
Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul had gone on to the English institution at the age of 18 from a traditional Hindu family in Trinidad's Port-of-Spain.
He was a third-generation Trinidadian; 30 years hefore he was born, his grandfather had left Uttar Pradesh in India to work as an indentured labourer on the island's sugar cane plantations.
Growing up as he had in the Indian community in Trinidad, which he would later describe as "a peasant-minded, money-minded community, spiritually static because cut off from its roots, its religion reduced to rites without philosophy", the writer as a young man found himself dislocated in a soeiety where there was a long tradition, where men as young as he held views and beliefs.
But if he was lost, he knew at least that he wanted to write. In a largely illiterate community, his father had taught himself English had become a journalist, and he had passed on to Naipaul the idea of writing as a vocation and a noble calling. (They were, after all, Brahmins.)
So a year after he had left Oxford, in a British Broadcasting Corporation freelancers' room where he worked part-time, the 23 year-old Naipaul sat down to write.
In six weeks, he finished his first book, Miguel Street, based on a motley group of street characters he remembered from his childhood days in Port-of-Spain.
Over the next four years, he wrote three novels, all of them set in the Trinidad of his childhood.
These are: The Mystic Masseur (1957), The Suffrage of Elvira (1558) both wry social comedies like Miguel Street, and A House for Mr Biswas, his 1961 masterpiece about a man's struggle to rise above being "unnecessary and unaccommodated " .
Mr Biswas was inspired by his father who, failing to establish a sense of identity, had gone mad with & "a fear of extinction".
And it was this very fear, transmitted from father to son, along with the sense of a vocation, that drove Naipaul to write .
Becoming a pundit
IF THE four early books are all about his home, then his next book, The Middle Passage (1962), a non-fictional acount of his tour of the Caribbean, marks V S Naipaul's actual return to it.
Although the trip was suggested and sponsored by the then Trinidadian Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams, the resulting book was not an advertisement.
It was, instead, a devastating indictment of what the author saw as "half-societies"
Of Trinidad, he says: "Yet there was no community. We were of various races, religions, sets and cliques; and we had somehow found ourselves on the same small island.
"Nothing bound us together except this common residence. There was no nationalist feeiing; there could be none."
With the book, Naipaul's apprenticeship was over. "In writing my first four or five books," he says, "I was simply recording my reactions to the world; I hadn't come to any concluslons about it."
And now, he would begin to analyse it, to comprehend it and, yes Shafi, to tell people what it was all about. He would become a pundit.
First, he had to discover his roots. He journeyed to India twice and produced two highly controversial books, An Area of Darkness (1964) and India: A Wounded Civilisation (1977).
In An Area of Darkness it is the brutally honest depiction of his collision with aspects of himself he didn't know existed before that makes the book unforgettable ñ more so than his incisive if very subjective appraisal of India.
The second hook, more a polemical exercise, reinforces the conclusions he had arrived at in the first.
Naipaul the overseas lndian saw an India still in the throes of the false romance created by the British Raj, he saw a passive people, divided by an antiquated caste system, who carried their villages with them wherever they went, unseeing and undemanding of themselves and of others.
In between the two visits, Naipaul travelled to Africa and to South America and he wrote prodigiously- more novels, narratives, short stories, magazine articles.
His books swept all the literary prizes that England offered, and his reputation grew.
But he wrote still as an exile, as a free man whose freedom, as it goes in the Kris Kristofferson song, ":is just another word for having nothing left to lose".
For he was neither of the new world, which he rejected, nor of the old, which, he believed, did not accept him, even if it didn't reject him. And always, there must have been that panic fear of extinction .
To read his narrativenovel In A Free State (1971), is to understand that state of "placelessness", of not belonging anywhere, which characterises almost all of his fictional characters and those people encountered randomly in his narratives.
It is a condition the man of today can identify, because it is precisely his own.
A secure foothold
NAIPAUL's latest book, Finding The Centre (1984), which is a combination of two narratives, one about the beginnings of his craft and the other about how he went about doing it, radiates the assurance and even contentment of a 52-year-old man who, on looking back, finds that he has actually secured for himself a firm foothold on this ever shifting, ever changing earth.
In A Bend in the River, the 1979 novel set in Africa, he has summed up his one central vision in the very first paragraph:
"The world is what it is, men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it."
Because he wanted a place in the world, because he did not want to become nothing, VS Naipaul had, over the last 30 years, built himself a house.
He built it with books, each book a brick sturdier than the one before it.