Photo: Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipaul, speaking in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in November 2016. CC BY-SA 4.0 - Photo: 2018

A Nobel Laureate who was ‘the Most Homeless, Rootless Person’

By Lisa Vives, Global Information Network

NEW YORK | LONDON (IDN) – “V.S. Naipaul’s legacy is complex – but his writing must be celebrated,” writes essayist Amit Chaudhuri. “His comments about Islam, women and Africa were often unjustified, unpleasant and untrue – but that can be acknowledged alongside his gifts.”

Novelist Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, known as V.S. Naipaul, died on August 11, 2018 at his London home at the age of 85. Born in Chaguanas, Trinidad, in 1932, in a family with Indian roots, he wrote more than 30 books including A Bend in the River and his masterpiece, A House for Mr Biswas.

A pioneer of postcolonial literature, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001. In awarding the Prize, the Swedish Academy praised his work “for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories”.

The Committee added: “Naipaul is a modern philosophe carrying on the tradition that started originally with Lettres persanes and Candide. In a vigilant style, which has been deservedly admired, he transforms rage into precision and allows events to speak with their own inherent irony.”

The Committee also noted Naipaul’s affinity with the novelist Joseph Conrad: “Naipaul is Conrad’s heir as the annalist of the destinies of empires in the moral sense: what they do to human beings. His authority as a narrator is grounded in the memory of what others have forgotten, the history of the vanquished.”

For A House for Mr Biswas (1961) Naipaul took for inspiration childhood memories of his father (later he wrote that the novel “destroyed memory” in some respects). The book consumed Naipaul. In 1983, he wrote: “The book took three years to write. It felt like a career; and there was a short period, towards the end of the writing, when I do believe I knew all or much of the book by heart. The labour ended; the book began to recede. And I found that I was unwilling to re-enter the world I had created, unwilling to expose myself again to the emotions that lay below the comedy. I became nervous of the book. I haven’t read it since I passed the proofs in May 1961.”

Referring in particular to his travel writing, Christian Lorentzen in the online Vulture wrote: “He brought news of unexplored landscapes from a previously unseen point of view and was a trailblazer for those who followed him on this path.” He added: “But in his novels and books of journalism beginning in the mid-1960s, he entered a political phase that put him on the side of reaction.”

Edward Said, founder of the field of postcolonial studies, was less forgiving. “Naipaul gave ‘Third Worldism’ a bad name. He didn’t deny that terrible things had happened (under colonialism) in such places as the Congo, but he attributed it to an idealism of effort followed by monstrous post-colonial abuse. King Leopold was probably not much worse than Mobutu, or Idi Amin, or Mugabe, he suggested, and he allowed one to think it.”

Naipaul was a lightning rod for criticism, say his critics, particularly by those who read his portrayals of Third World disarray as apologies for colonialism. But others say he was unsparing, both of the arrogance and self-aggrandizement of the colonizers as well as the self-deception and ethical ambiguities of the liberation movements that swept across Africa and the Caribbean in their wake.

For his first nonfiction book, The Middle Passage (1962), Naipaul returned to the West Indies. He charted racial tensions in Trinidad; analyzed the cultural “mimicry” he saw as central to colonial identity; and observed that the smaller Caribbean islands “in the name of tourism, are selling themselves into a new slavery.”

Remembrances of the controversial author have been filling social media. Salman Rushdie tweeted: “We disagreed all our lives, about politics, about literature, and I feel as sad as if I just lost a beloved older brother.”

Eminent American travel writer Paul Theroux said: “He will go down as one of the greatest writers of our time.” Citing his mastery of writing about families and colonialism, Theroux told the Associated Press: “He also never wrote falsely. He was a scourge of anyone who used a cliché or an un-thought out sentence. He was very scrupulous about his writing, very severe, too.”

In an interview with National Public Radio (NPR), Theroux agreed that Naipaul “never seemed to be emotionally rooted in any one place”. But it wasn’t intentional, he said. “It was force of circumstances. He was – he kind of regretted being born in Trinidad, and he yearned to go to India. He finally went to India, and he said he felt rejected by India, or he – really kind of mutual rejection. But then he wrote – India was his obsessive subject, so he wrote An Area Of Darkness, India: A Wounded Civilization and then India: A Million Mutinies. He is the most able chronicler of India. So he was – he wasn’t a citizen of the world, but he really was the most homeless, rootless person you could ever find.”

Theroux further remarked: “He was extremely funny. He had a capacity for joy and for pleasure. He used to say that. And I think that what people need to remember – he’s a man that came from nowhere. He came from nowhere. He would say that. He went to Oxford. He said he wasted his time at Oxford. And he created out of despair, unhappiness, sadness, rootlessness, homelessness and unhappiness a lot of the time. He made great literature, and maybe that’s the source of great literature – that all of these difficulties that he met, triumphed over, defying the odds.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 15 August 2018]

Photo: Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipaul, speaking in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in November 2016. CC BY-SA 4.0

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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