A WAY IN THE WORLD

A Novel

By V.S. Naipaul

Knopf. 388 pp. $23

"A SLIPPERY piece of work," writes V.S. Naipaul about Sir Walter Raleigh's account of his discovery of Guyana. "A deliberate mixture of old-fashioned fantasy and modern truth." That's not a bad description of Naipaul's own new book, a potent blend of fact and fiction, autobiography, history, imagination. In a series of nine narratives, Naipaul ranges over 400 years of Caribbean colonial and postcolonial history, with some yearning glances back at a vanished aboriginal past. The focus is on Trinidad, Naipaul's childhood home, and his search to understand its history and his ambiguous inheritance.

Born in the West Indies in 1932 into a third generation East Indian family, Naipaul the Hindu country boy was transported to the Christian city at a young age. In Port of Spain he was part of a brown minority, originally imported from India as indentured laborers, living among a black majority imported from Africa as slaves. Both groups were brought there to serve the needs of white colonial powers that had long since eradicated the island's Amerindian natives.

If Naipaul thus embodies many of colonialism's contradictions, he was also one of its beneficiaries. At 18, already determined to be a writer, he went to Oxford on a scholarship. Away from his little island, out in the larger world, he began to see Trinidad more clearly, and to find his subject matter in the ironies and anomalies of colonialism and its messy sequels -- in Africa and India as well as the New World.

Much of the autobiographical material in this book will be familiar to readers of earlier Naipaul titles, such as his Caribbean travel book, The Middle Passage (1962); the two autobiographical essays in Finding the Center (1984), and his elegant 1987 "novel," The Enigma of Arrival. A Way in the World, in fact, can be read as a rethinking of The Middle Passage, that often savage portrait of "West Indian futility." Both begin with Naipaul's first return to Trinidad after six years in Oxford and London. But the Trinidad of The Middle Passage is "unimportant, uncreative, cynical," a place whose provincialism and pettiness the fledgling writer deeply fears. Now, in A Way in the World, age has brought perspective, a wider vision. "I had arrived at a way of looking," Naipaul writes "that contained both the fabulous past and the smaller scale of what I had grown up with."

Naipaul moves back and forth in time, returning again and again to certain emblematic people, images and events. Some of the narratives are organized around an event or a character in the author's life; others focus on historical figures.

In "A Parcel of Papers, a Roll of Tobacco, a Tortoise," for example, the year is 1618. Sir Walter Raleigh, released from the Tower of London because he claims to know where to find the gold mines of El Dorado in Guyana, waits off the coast of Spanish-held Trinidad, at the mouth of the Orinoco, for a word or a sign from the gold-seekers he has sent upriver.

A humiliated old man on a last-chance expedition, Raleigh half-believes his own stories about his former greatness. One moment of that greatness: his rescue from a Spanish jail in 1595 of "five wasted kings, all on one chain, their bodies burnt in places with hot bacon fat." They are the last five chiefs of the aboriginal people of Trinidad, and Raleigh can still remember their fantastical names: "Wannawanare, Carroari, Maquarima, Tarroopanama, Aterima . . ."

Also portrayed as waiting to play a grand role in the drama of the New World is the Venezuelan revolutionary Francisco Miranda. Part visionary, part con man, Miranda has spent 35 years in European and North American exile, cultivating the right people, "touting around an idea of Spanish-American liberation." Now, in 1806, one disastrous attempt at an uprising behind him, he waits in Trinidad to try again.

These figures from a distant past are juxtaposed with others Naipaul himself knew, such as the brilliant Trinidadian-Panamanian communist of the '30s he calls Lebrun, whose career as an international Marxist "star" is oddly reminiscent of Miranda's -- "always on the run, a revolutionary without a base." In Naipaul's childhood, Lebrun is the name on the spine of an unread book. Many years later, in a Russian magazine, the old communist writes the first serious analysis of Naipaul's early fiction. In between he is one of the speakers at the moment of revelation Naipaul calls "the sacrament of the square."

This takes place in 1956, during Naipaul's first return to Trinidad. In his absence, as Trinidad moved toward independence, a new politics of black self-awareness and empowerment has emerged. In a Port of Spain square Naipaul has known since childhood as a gathering-place for Trinidad's homeless, he looks on at a political rally in which that newfound self-awareness inspires a "state of black exaltation," an almost religious fervor. Years later, when racial politics in Trinidad has turned ugly and violent, pitting blacks and Indians against each other, he comes to see that moment in the square as one of "an immense chain of events:

"You could start with the sacrament of the square and work back: to the black madmen on the benches, the Indian destitutes, the plantations, the wilderness, the aboriginal settlements, the discovery. And you could move forward from that exaltation and that mood of rejection to the nihilism of the moment."

Not all of Naipaul's narratives are of equal interest. The Miranda section (one of three he calls "unwritten stories") is long to the point of tedium. Another "unwritten story," "New Clothes," is an ambitious but only partly successful attempt to penetrate the mindset -- in particular the sense of time -- of the surviving Amerindians of the Guyana highlands. At times Naipaul seems to be using this volume as a catchall for material he's found no other place for. There are also minor annoyances: Why doesn't he give the titles of his books when referring to them? Or name the African country where he lived for a while in the '60s? Or tell us the other -- "real"? -- names of such characters as Lebrun?

But there are intricate patterns here that grow in the mind, making the whole much more than the sum of its parts. The parallels between distant and not-so-distant pasts, for example -- between Raleigh's wait at the mouth of the Orinoco in 1618 and Miranda's in 1806, between Miranda's career as revolutionary-in-waiting and that of the Marxist Lebrun.

In one of the best chapters in the book, Naipaul writes of the process of Trinidad's self-definition through foreign eyes, from the explorers' sometimes fabulous accounts, through the travel books of early tourists in which the Africans and Asians of Trinidad, "who had come in a variety of ways from many continents, were made to stand in for the aborigines and were held responsible for the nullity which had been created long before we had been transported to it."

One senses that Naipaul almost longs for that kind of historical burden. In a poignant comment on one of the effects of colonialism in the West Indies, he writes:

The "idea of a background -- and what it contained: order and values and the possibility of striving: perfectibility -- made sense only when people were more truly responsible for themselves. We weren't responsible in that way. Much had been taken out of our hands. We didn't have backgrounds. We didn't have a past. For most of us the past stopped with our grandparents; beyond that was a blank. If you could look down at us from the sky you could see us living in our little houses between the sea and the bush; and that was a kind of truth about us, who had been transported to that place. We were just there, floating."

Nina King is the editor of Book World.