THERE IS a small Joseph Conrad boom in bookstores these days. Two recent biographies of the great English novelist are selling well. Five of his novels were reissued last year in one volume. One tale, Heart of Darkness, provided the structure for Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola's monumental film on Vietnam. With news bulletins flickering in from the other hearts of darkness of today's world, from Jonestown and Cambodia and foundering ships in the South China Sea, Conrad's fiction seems newly pertinent.
Conrad is a constant presence in the essays in this new book by V. S. Naipaul, a contemporary writer who works similar territory -- the outposts of civilization, the outcasts who wash up there, their fleeting victories, their mad actions -- with one major difference however. For Naipaul, men are not maddened, as they were for Conrad, by contact with the primitive wilderness. It is civilization that drives men mad, not the bush.
These four essays were written several years ago, during "a creative gap," says Naipaul, when "no novel offered itself." He left England, an adopted home for him as it was for Conrad, and went wandering, to Argentina, to Trinidad (his birthplace) and to Zaire. He wrote a long essay about each country, and out of that work, novels again offered themselves. Guerrillas is based on the incidents described in the essay on Trinidad; A Bend in the River on his perceptions of Zaire. Only Argentina has not led to fiction. "To write realistically about this society has peculiar difficulties" he observes; "to render it accurately in fiction might be impossible."
A final essay deals with Naipaul's growing appreciation of Conrad over the years. He discovered, Naipaul writes, that "the new politics, the curious reliance of men on institutions they were yet working to undermine, the simplicity of beliefs and the hideous simplicity of actions, the corruption of causes, half-made societies that seemed doomed to remain half-made: these were the things that began to preoccupy me. . . . And I found that Conrad . . . had been everywhere before me."
But Naipaul is too sure-footed a writer merely to follow along in Conrad's tracks. Born in the Caribbean, of a family from India, he explores a world more his than Conrad's. His perceptions are original and remarkably prescient. If the events he describes have since faded in the three countries he visited, they may yet appear, indeed they already have, in other societies.
Thus, aspects of the tragedy of Jonestown are prefigured in Naipaul's dissection of the bizarre career of a Port of Spain hustler who, as Michael X and Michael Abdul Malik, became the murderous ruler of a handful of bewildered followers, a rented house, and a one-and-a-half acre "commune" in Trinidad.
Malik is Naipaul's quintessential "new man" -- a figure without history, confused over racial identity, his mind a swirl of half-baked ideas, his hustler's instinct for the easy score masquerading as leadership. He found patrons in England, modern versions of Conrad's aristocrat in The Secret Agent with a token anarchist in her drawing room. They lionized Malik, and he changed into what they expected of him. He became a black power man, talked of revolution. His patrons financed his back-to-the-land movement, the rented farm in Trinidad. John Lennon came to visit.
Finally, the farce became tragedy. Malik postured until successive postures trapped him in the "hideous simplicity" of murder. The "commune" became a killing ground; Malik ran away, was caught, eventually hanged.
In Zaire, Naipaul examines a "new man" on a grander scale -- Joseph Mobutu, up-from-the-ranks ruler holding together a new and already decaying state with brutality, fear and slogans on billboards. Naipaul watches westerners in Kinshasa avid for quick fortunes, flaunting their fast bucks and prostitutes, imitated by the men of Zaire hustling for the same things. But among those new men, Naipaul detects a lurking resentment, "a wish to wipe out and undo, an African nihilism, the rage of primitive men coming to themselves and finding that they have been fooled and affronted." In a passage eerily prophetic of Khmer Rouge horrors in Cambodia, Naipaul describes a rebellion shortly after Zaire's independence in which "everyone who could read and write had been taken out to the little park and shot; everyone who wore a tie had been shot." Its leader "was against everything. He wanted to start again from the beginning."
In the title essay, on Argentina, Naipaul confronts another kind of colonialism in mental attitudes lingering on a century and a half after independence. Argentina's fatal flaw, Naipaul believes, was the rejection by its dominant classes of their South American identity. They wanted to be European, fled to Europe whenever possible. "The land that was the source of their wealth became no more than their base." They were like colonial agents rather than citizens, parasitic, second-rate.
Even in Argentina's greatest writer, Jorge Luis Borges, Naipaul detects those destructive colonial attitudes; not in his writings, but in his posturing. Borges has become an obligatory stop, sort of a pontificating Machu Picchu, on every writer's tour through South America. Most approach him in awe. Naipaul sees through him, sees that while his work is original and important, the interviews he gives are always the same, filled with disdain for fellow Argentines and with lamentations over the fate that sentenced him to write in Spanish rather than English, as if Cervantes' language were too narrow for his genius.
In the final essay, Naipaul, who lacking inspiration for new novels, went out to look at the world, comes round to his view of the novel. He reflects that "the novelist, like the painter, no longer recognizes his interpretive function; he seeks to go beyond it; and his audience diminishes. And so the world we inhabit, which is always new, goes by unexamined, made ordinary by the camera, unmeditated on; and there is no one to awaken the sense of true wonder. That is perhaps a fair definition of the novelist's purpose, in all ages." The words sum up Naipaul's work as well as they do Conrad's.