Jan/Feb 2003 Book Reviews

The Writer and the World

V.S. Naipaul
Pan Macmillan (November 2002) 524 pages
ISBN: 0333 041290 6

reviewed by Ann Skea

As a man whose Brahmin Indian grandparents migrated to Trinidad to work as indentured labourers in the sugar plantations, and whose father learned English, aspired to be a writer and fostered the same ambition in his son, Naipaul's background was full of poverty, change, adaptation and the urge to succeed. He was already doubly displaced from his family's cultural origins when he arrived at Oxford University on a Trinidad government scholarship. This was yet another cultural displacement, yet another adjustment, but Naipaul rose through all these challenges to become so successful as a writer that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001.

In an address which he gave to the Manhattan Institute of New York in 1992, Naipaul spoke little of these challenges but much about something he called "our universal civilization" and the benefits he, personally, has derived from it. He does not define this term but makes it clear that it has to do with freedom, equality, responsibility, choice, "the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement." It is, he writes, "an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system." And he believes that others have experienced and benefit from this universal civilization, but for various reasons they reject it and retreat into narrow, rule-bound systems. It is an attractive, idealistic idea which may or may not be true, but Naipaul believes that it has shaped his life.

Coming to Europe as a Trinidad Indian from a small, remote island, and learning to write and live as part of a much larger civilization, was not easy. It did, however, give Naipaul a unique perspective as an outsider which, together with his intelligence and his curiosity, he has kept in all his travels to other countries. "I travel," he tells us, "to discover other states of mind." By which he means not just that travel broadens the mind, but that people in different places seem to think in different ways. This is what he has observed and this is what fascinates him, and what makes the essays and reports in this book so interesting.

At first, he says, he was an "artless traveller," "uncertain and diffident," and he soon discovered that "whatever the excitements of new landscapes and of being on the move, a journey didn't necessarily result in a narrative on the page." It is interesting to see the development of his style over the twenty-five years which separate the first and last pieces in this book and to see the increasing maturity and confidence with which he expresses his opinions. But what prompts him to write "is a writer's curiosity rather than an ethnographer's or journalist's."

Naipaul's writing is full of ideas. He is very aware of the colonial and post-colonial histories of the places he visits and very aware of power structures and politics. He is open and clear in his opinions and judgements but acknowledges, too, that they are coloured by his own background and experiences. Always his perspective is uniquely his own, and he has an eye for the bizarre and a delightfully dry wit. Seeing urban neglect in New York, he comments that "New York in places is like Calcutta, with money." And at a Republican Party Rally in Dallas in 1984, "the scale, the mood, the surreal setting" remind him of a Muslim missionary gathering he had seen five years before in the Pakistan Punjab.

Naipaul has travelled widely but generally to places with which, for a variety of reasons, he feels some connection. The pieces in this book are presented in chronological order, beginning in 1962, and they record his reactions to India, Argentina, St.Kits-Nuevis-Anguilla, British Honduras, The Ivory Coast, The Congo, Trinidad, Grenada, Guyana, Mauritius and parts of North America. Always, there is a thoughtful element to his appraisal of situations and people. His report on the growing theme-park trend in Steinbeck's Monterey is balanced by an exploration of what remains in fact and in memory of the sardine canneries which were the setting for Cannery Row. His travels on the campaign trail with Norman Mailer, whose plan was to inject "interest" into a "boring and dull world," leaves him noting how Mailer's writer's way with words could sway an audience, but also that if Mailer "had a political base it was his glamour as a writer."

Another essay traces the con-man like rise of pimp, drug-pusher and racketeer, Michael Malik (Michael X): the way in which he was given legitimacy by the press, and the way in which this brought him the money and power which eventually resulted in him committing several murders in Trinidad. Certain aspects of Malik's story cause Naipaul to be outspoken in his contempt for "the revolutionaries who visit countries of revolution with return air tickets, the hippies, the people who wish themselves on societies more fragile than their own"—all those outsiders who for their own reasons dabble in the politics of another country.

This book has an excellent Introduction by Pankaj Mishra, but for an appreciation of Naipaul's overall view on life it is also worth reading the Postscript (the address to the Manhattan Institute) before starting to read the essays. This is not a book for light reading, but it is a satisfying book. Once or twice I found a piece over-long and repetitive, as if it had been patched together from shorter essays written on different occasions, but maybe that was the result of travelling and writing at the same time. Naipaul's prose, however, is always beautifully clear, simple, strong and a pleasure to read. He may well put his success down to the opportunities provided by "our universal civilization," but it is equally the result of his own hard work, determination and talent. It is a remarkable achievement.


Previous Piece Next Piece