Naipaul's purism can be chilling, almost nihilistic . . . . Could there even be a hint of revenge in these relentlessly diminishing vistas . . . . Might not Naipaul's expanding fame have been riding a muted bitterness at the demise of the colonial power? -- Paul Zweig in Harper's
I've been writing 27 years. One doesn't spend a whole life just writing out of hate . . . it's a work of love and compassion, a work of brotherhood, of comedy and concern." -- V. S. Naipaul
Lionized and vilified. A man who can, in the same review, be praised as "one of a handful of master writers alive" and rebuked for "naked, contentious bias." And who better to bridge such gulfs of judgment than this man who defeats definition, this walking anomaly: An Indian by race and a Hindu by upbringing, he was born in Trinidad, lives in England and has come to New York to talk about the Islamic nations which are the subject of his controversial new book, "Among the Believers."
A citizen, truly, of the world. "I would like to be free to be anything," Naipaul says in his rich Oxford vibrato, "to take anything I wanted from anybody or any place culturally." At 49, he has had ample opportunity. In a quarter of a century and tens of thousands of miles of travel, he has "risen to the challenge of a great subject . . . the wreckage of empire and the emergence of the third world," as the Hudson Review said last year in giving him its prestigious $12,500 Bennett Award.
The recurring theme of his 17 books -- 10 of them fiction -- is "cultural confusion," the self-delusions and psychic birth-pangs of folk who have thrown off the colonial yoke and found nothing with which to replace it, who are tortured by incompatible urges: a dream of independence, a horror of insignificance and a need to imitate the imperial society, to become "mimic men."
He has portrayed the vain aspirations of Trinidadian colonials in "The Mystic Masseur" and "A House for Mr. Biswas"; the "intellectual failure" of his ancestral nation in "India: A Wounded Civilization" and "An Area of Darkness"; the "communal sense of helplessness and self-disgust" among the poor of Mauritius and the European pretensions of Argentine aristocrats in his essays; the impotent fury of Caribbean revolutionaries in "Guerrillas."
Here, from the new book, is Naipaul on Ayatollah Khalkhali, the hanging judge of the revolution who was killed recently in a bomb blast.
"He went silent. Crossing his legs neatly below him, fixing me with his eyes, becoming grave, appearing to look up at me through his glasses, he said, in the silence he had created, 'I killed Hoveida, you know.'
"The straightness of his face was part of the joke for the Iranians. They -- squatting on the carpet -- threw themselves about with laughter.
"It was what was closest to him, his work as revolutionary judge. He had given many interviews about his sentencing of the Shah's prime minister; and he wanted to tell the story again.
"I said, 'You killed him yourself?'
"Behzad the guide said, 'No, he only gave the order. Hoveida was killed by the son of a famous ayatollah.'
" 'But I have the gun,' Khalkhali said, as though it was the next-best thing.
"Again the Iranians rolled about the carpet with laughter. And even the African, never taking his glittering eyes off Khalkhali, began to smile."
His genius is to catch a society at the phoenix-point of self-destruction and self-creation. In his 1979 novel, "A Bend in the River," an Indian merchant fleeing the rule of an upstart African dictator whose rage has turned the nation to rubble, observes: "The ruins, spreading over so many acres, seemed to speak of the final catastrophe. But the civilization wasn't dead . . . . And that could make for an odd feeling: to be among the ruins was to have your time-sense unsettled. You felt like a ghost, not from the past, but from the future. You felt that your life and ambition had already been lived out for you and you were looking at the relics of that life. You were in a place where the future had come and gone."
As he says, his "themes repeat." And so it appears in "Among the Believers," which limns the rise of radical Islamic fundamentalism in Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia, where Western civilization "couldn't be mastered. It was to be rejected; at the same time, it was to be depended upon." He avoided politicians -- "they're passing people" -- and talked instead with scores of people whose lives were wrenched in the religious spasm. And he concluded that, for all its zeal and bloody optimism, "the Islamic state is a fantasy," he says now. "It's like saying, 'Let's work out utopia from the sayings of King Alfred, or let us recreate Camelot.' "
Rejection and dependence, the lure of freedom and the pull of the past, the agony of transmuting a peasant identity into a modern mind. The same themes haunt the life of this small, fussy man in gray pin stripes and powder-blue sweater-vest. Paul Theroux once said, "With Naipaul, his tradition begins with him."
And it is hard to find a familiar pattern in his eclectic melange of mannerisms. He is a self-styled vegetarian who eats fish, who does an elaborate backward-bending yoga for his chronic asthma, who sits here in a hotel-room armchair, methodically spooning Fribourg and Treyer Special Blend snuff onto the back of his left hand, gingerly taking a pinch to his nostril, and elaborately excusing himself to go blow his nose.
He pulled himself from the squalor of Trinidad with its rum shops ("the smell of rum is something that still nauseates me") and its society ("incomplete in every way. Everything was imported. Every book, every machine, every idea came from abroad. I felt I was lost, very far away") to the tweeded cloisters of Oxford and the highest ranks of contemporary letters, in which he is invariably mentioned for a Nobel Prize.
Self-created. "I never had a model that I wanted to become," Naipaul says. "And I think many people who come from backgrounds as raw as myself probably can become like this. A lot of countries do have it in their power to pull themselves up. But the road is intellectual and scientific -- it requires learning, study, planning, institutions, will." He dismisses the current arguments for a global redistribution of wealth. "The whole argument might be false -- people should really be talking about a transfer of intellect. That is the only way truly in the end. The hard way. Oddly enough, it's the way India is doing it, with its own industrial and scientific revolution, slow and painful."
But surely the grinding poverty of the third world argues for a faster remedy? "No continent has had a more devastated history in this century than Europe. Yet Europe remains so inventive and creative, although utterly wrecked at the end of the war. Much more wrecked than any West African country."
But if people are starving, isn't intellectual life a secondary consideration? "No, I think that's an utter, gross simplification. It's used very often by crooked politicians in backward countries. They will say, 'Let us get a chicken in the belly of every African and then we will talk about culture.' " Naipaul believes that "people are responsible more than they would admit for their destinies," and says, "I'm not concerned in preserving the backward races. I find them very boring. I'm not an anthropologist . . . I'm interested in people with interesting minds."
No wonder even his most vocal admirers speak of his "dark vision," and his critics call him a heartless misanthrope, a success obsessed with failure. That reputation is "a myth," he says, "entirely outside the writer's control." Attacking with dextrous relish his blue-point oysters and sole ve'ronique, he says, "I'm the only one who has attempted to analyze those countries in my own way, without trying to say that there's an external enemy. I always try to understand why certain countries have invited conquest, or have built-in cruelties. I don't hate them. To try to analyze clearly failed societies is not to deal in hatred." The myth arises because "according to the current way of thinking, only an American or European or Russian writer can be critical of his own society. Should an Asiatic try to do that, he's 'letting the side down.' That is why people say, 'This man hates us.' Because they're used to lies."
Naipaul insists that his work is "full of comedy and concern," and regards himself as a humorist. "One doesn't underline the joke. But if you want to see the joke, it's there." Also there, however, is his trademark mode of perception: finding the contradiction in the logic, the incongruous element in the tableau. He writes of a Malaysian Moslem that beneath "the garb of Islamic modesty, the symbol of her aggression -- her pretty little high-heeled shoes showed," and is persistently at pains to emphasize the imported objects in a native scene. To the liberal Western ear, this may sound hostile. But Naipaul insists that it's essential: "A writer has to make people look at things afresh," to see the absurd juxtaposition of religious purism and 20th-century technology. "Qaddafi falls into a similar error when he says, 'We will not have American planes landing in Mecca.' You might think that his airplanes were made by pious Moslems in Medina." If the Islamic radicals saw the absurdity, "it might give them another sense of where they stand in the world."
Where they stand, he says, is square in the way of the inexorable march of "universal civilization," that amalgam of Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian, Indian-Arabic philosophy, law and technology "which about 100 years ago people spoke of as the white man's civilization." It spreads "by attraction everywhere. American dollar imperialism is one agent," as is "the export of mass education." It is "no longer exclusively possessed by Europe and the United States," and "all the trouble in the world is caused by adapting to this civilization. Not adapting to its tools -- but trying to fit in with its ideas."
It is also the civilization that provided Naipaul with a sense of identity. "A lot of my knowledge of my ancestral culture and art has been given me by European scholars." And he is no harder on the third world than he has been on himself: "What people say is my harshness, my hatred, is really my looking, my self-analysis and self-discovery."
The Face on the Cover
For Naipaul, that quest has meant the reconciliation of internal opposites in abundance. His deep-creased Indian features seem beset by an ancient and irremedial woe, yet he is a prodigious laugher, principally at himself, shuttling between certitude and humility.
As he looks at his picture on the cover of Newsweek, he asks "Do I really look that bad?" but picks up five copies. An extraordinary situation, to be waiting in line at a newsstand holding the image of oneself which is suddenly familiar to millions. But at this historic moment, what really excites Naipaul is an American nail clipper, which he purchases with Christmas-day delight. The 70-cent Trim unit is "marvelous! In England, they have only German models costing $10. That's too much, don't you think?"
Not that the picture is unimportant. Back at his hotel, he says, "I've always been profoundly interested in reading a face, looking at a body, at the posture . . . for what it says about character." What does his own face reveal? Naipaul obligingly rises and scowls into the mirror. "There are two sides. I see someone who is at times very austere. And I also see someone who is sensually very gross."
Not wholly unlike the polarities at work in the cultures of which he writes. "I'm shocked sometimes when I look at my face. For a long time, I had no mirror in my house. Because I love beauty, you see, and I didn't like what I was confronting." The perception of failed beauty gave him an early sense of uniqueness. "Like all children, I suppose, I loved my body. I thought I was beautifully made." His voice thickens with memory and a dreamy cast softens his eyes. Often when this happens in talking of his life, his mind will snag on a phrase and he will repeat it six or seven times in identical cadences, like a stuck record, before his thought shakes free. "I loved my limbs, you know, especially my, uh, legs from the knee down. I thought they were very elegant. And then one day at school, when I was about 13 or 14 -- it was racially mixed in Trinidad, you understand -- the boys began talking about who was the most good-looking boy, and no one even thought of mentioning me. I was greatly shattered by that."
Passage to England
There were many other senses of difference. His ancestors were brought from India to the West Indies as indentured laborers. By the '30s, his father, Seepersad Naipaul, a journalist for the Trinidad Guardian, headed a modestly respectable Hindu family in the village of Chaguanas. Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul grew up among five sisters ("beauties"), a younger brother Shiva, also a writer ("very handsome" and "much taller than I"), and a vast network of aunts, uncles and 50 cousins. "A microcosm," he has said, "of the authoritarian state." There were "considerable prejudices against Indians, but I wasn't aware of it." And his heritage is still "a source of enormous solace. It gives you a place in the world, links you to history." Nonetheless, he began early to realize that "I had to find a bigger world, a freer world, a more generous world."
He made his "first observation about man" when he was 5 or 6. "Teachers were very badly paid in Trinidad, but we looked up to them. One day I was walking with my father and we came across this teacher who was moving his belongings in a simple box cart, pushing it. He said that he didn't hold with those people who made a big fuss and hired people to do their moving, that he preferred doing it like this. And I thought then, 'That is how the poor behave. That is how the poor start lying.' "
Yet he also inherited a comic vision -- "It's a family gift: my father was a great humorist" -- and the two blended into satire. He discusses the subject in his 1961 novel, "A House for Mr. Biswas." In that story of a Trinidad journalist's failed quest for self-respect, which was autobiographical "up to a point," Biswas' son, Anand, reflects that, "Though no one recognized his strength, Anand was among the strong. His satirical sense kept him aloof. . . . But satire led to contempt . . . to inadequacies, to self-awareness and a lasting loneliness. But it made him unassailable."
His father, who suffered from mental illness and died young, was a lasting model. (In 1975 Naipaul obliged his British publisher to bring out a collection of his father's stories.) "I consider much of my work as an offering to my father. In the drawer of my desk is the first book he gave me when I was just under 4 years old. He made an inscription in the expectant hope that I would 'live up to the estate of man, speak the truth, be gentle and kind,' and, I've got to add, also 'trust god.' " His father's stories, he says, "were dreadfully true. He never made anything prettier than it was. And I never found him to tell me a lie."
During his childhood, "the small size of Trinidad gave me an immense yearning to take journeys," and the now-avid walker has spoken of "my fear of being swallowed up by the bush." But the island seemed inescapable until he was "amazed" to discover, at age 11, "that I was quite bright." Suddenly he found himself at the head of the class, made a vow to leave, and fulfilled it six years later when he arrived at Oxford on a colonial government scholarship. "I was lonely and disappointed," he says. "It wasn't the high intellectual place I had expected," the decision to study English literature was "a very silly thing," and in retrospect he feels he should have traveled or worked on a newspaper.
He was writing, but "childishly -- a young writer doesn't have much to say." The act of composition then, as now, was a matter of intense "despair, desperation, panic," and with no family or outside life to engage him ("holidays especially were bad") he fell prey to the demon of solitude. This led to a paralyzing two-year depression which suddenly atacked him while he was watching Humphrey Bogart in "The African Queen."
"I saw the end of the movie only the other day," Naipaul says, laughing now. "I couldn't bear the idea of watching it again. It is very hard to describe mental pain, but I just had to get away. For a long time I used to feel that just magically I'd wake up in the morning and this dreadful specter, this horrible animal that had possessed my head would have gone away. I still don't want to talk about the fears," which he dispelled through "intellect and will," forcing himself to concentrate on work. Now, "I'm all right. I celebrate the soundness of mind. I regard this as one of the great blessings."
After Oxford, he married Patricia Hale, whom he had met at the university, took a part-time job as a writer/editor for a BBC radio series and worked briefly as a writer for the cement and concrete association. He only lasted 10 weeks on Concrete Quarterly. "I couldn't take it. My detestation of being employed is so great that I might contemplate suicide if it came to that." This aversion is partly "a remnant of a peasant independence" and mostly "fear. I remember riding on the top of a London bus and looking down into the offices, seeing people at their desks, and thinking, 'Next week, I'll be like one of those people.' " And although times were hard for the next 10 years, "I have never considered myself poor because I have been a free man."
By then, having found the "distance between yourself and your experience," which he still requires, he began writing the satirical works about Trinidad. He has been compared to the Joseph Conrad he admires, to Evelyn Waugh and Somerset Maugham, but "a kind of incantation and magic for me was to read Thomas Mann's 'Death in Venice'." The techniques he learned there and elsewhere furthered his stylistic aim of "transparent prose . . . stripped-down simple sentences, each one charged, each one adding a little fact."
He was frequently dispirited by his small audience, "but there are two sides to one's character. There is the side that yields to despair and becomes frantic and frenzied. And then there is the rock-hard bit at the bottom, that knows that it's going to be all right."
It was. By 1961, when "A House for Mr. Biswas" confirmed his literary reputation, he was "getting by quite nicely on 5,000 pounds a year." His acclaim -- and his market -- expanded to America with "Guerrillas" in 1975 and "India" in 1977. Nowadays, "it saddens me a little bit that as I've grown older, I now need a number of things. I need silence and privacy, and these things are expensive." But he still likes the feeling of furnished rooms: "To think that nothing is mine, that I have chosen nothing. It gave me a perverse pleasure. The point is, I wasn't responsible. If I were truly rich enough, I would like to have two rooms in a hotel suite."
A House for Mr. Naipaul
Instead, he is building a new house in Wiltshire, two hours from the London apartment where he and Patricia live, and near the cottage he rents for his writing. It's a considerable stake in a nation he has called "the least educated country in Europe," where many people "have allowed their minds to go slack."
Nonetheless, "there was no other place to go if you wanted to be a writer in English." And the cold weather palliates his asthma, which is the reason he quit smoking a pipe and took up snuff. "I'd like to kick this one, too. It's very dirty." So "if my health holds, and if people don't ask me to leave, and if inflation doesn't make paupers of us all, I'll probably stay there." Asked to leave? "There are movements," he says darkly. "One never can tell. . . ." But "I'm seldom interested in contemporary politics," and until a few months ago he seldom read a paper.
He writes in the mornings, by hand, having long ago given up the typewriter he used for his early work ("when I was in a terrible rush") and reads everything aloud twice to his wife, who provides editorial comments. He sees very few people, and keeps his address secret.
He has recently been reading Proust, but his consistent companion is Shakespeare. "Sometimes the need overpowers me, even in Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur." He also likes "the cheapest 16th-century pamphleteers I can find, just to be in touch with the language at the moment it is being shaped and words are being used newly." No contemporary authors? "I'm so ashamed, no I don't."
In the contemporary climate, when the writer "no longer recognizes his interpretative function," Naipaul has written, "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." And a fair definition of the obligation he feels when he says now that "civilization has to be made afresh every day. It must never be taken for granted." Made afresh: a grand aim for nations; a human necessity for Naipaul, who with every revolution of the globe finds new wonder, new selves to explore.
He is uncertain of his next project. In the meantime, "one's work is long," he sighs, and there is plenty to examine. With care, please. "You must read me a little more slowly," he says. "Read all the words and laugh at all the jokes. It would be a great help."