|Apr/May 2003 Book Reviews|
Picador, Macmillan (March 2003) 307 pages
ISBN: 0 330 48718 3
Every once in a while you read a book which alters your view of the world. A Turn in the South, V.S. Naipaul's record of his exploration of the Southern States of America was, for me, such a book.
Quite early in the book I began to be surprised by the continuing close presence of slave history and the American Civil War in the psyche of Southerners. I suppose I was surprised that things which I had always thought of as part of the distant past were still so much part of the everyday lives of the people Naipaul met and talked to. Clearly my view of America has been distorted by the books I have read, the films I have seen, and by other media presentations. And my few brief visits to the US of A have never been long enough to get below the glossy, air-conditioned, modern-day surface. It is easy for an outsider to think that The Big Apple, Silicon Valley and Hawaii are representative of the whole, which of course, if you think about it at all, can't possibly be true.
So, I began this book by being surprised. And I finished it full of admiration for Naipaul's ability to get below the surface, to really listen to what people were saying, and to let their input change and guide his journey so that, as he puts it, "the chapter in hand was continually changed by accidents on the way." This in no way led to a rambling, unfocussed peregrination around the country, rather, it refined Naipaul's focus and offered greater insight into the lives of people in the various States he visited.
Naipaul rightly describes himself as a discoverer, not a traveller. He wants to do more than say "This is me here," and "This is me doing this; this is me doing that." He is not interested in presenting amusing incidents, amusing characters or (as is more often the case in popular travel-writing) caricatures. He is not interested, in short, in amusing the reader. He wants to understand the people and the society, and he want to pass on to the reader some of that understanding. In no way does this mean that his writing is dull and boring. Quite the contrary. But it does mean that this book is not for readers who want travel-writing which is focused on the author and his or her funny encounters with the strange customs of an alien society.
Naipaul's approach, as he says, is to define a theme and to allow it to develop. And his theme in this case began with a book he knew from his own Trinidad childhood, Up from Slavery, by Booker T Washington. His discoveries began with him accompanying two friends to the home of one of them in a small town called Bowen. "Home"—the identification of "one patch of the earth" as home—is something Naipaul says he does not have, although he frequently refers in this book to the Trinidad of his early life, and to its customs and history.
In Bowen, Hetty, his friend's mother, daughter of a black sharecropper, surprised Naipaul with her way of seeing her town: "Her special way of looking: her chant, as we had driven through the countryside had been, "Black people, black people, white people, black people. All this side white people, all that side black people." Hers was one kind of past, a sharecropper's past, the gloom of which made her cry. And her son, with quite a different present, working as a designer and lettering artist in New York, also remembered a past in which he'd had black resin-stained hands from picking tobacco in the school holidays.
Others, like the poet James Applewhite (whose poetry I am glad to have been introduced to by this book) knew the tobacco culture of North Carolina from the growers' side. He grew up in an old tobacco family, and his home had been a wooden house in a patch of woodland in a vast area of countryside which, for his grandfather, had been a ten mile buggy ride from the nearest county centre: a day's journey. He knew the labour the crop required, the narcotic dangers of it, but he also knew that it had given his childhood and the region in which he grew up its special character.
Naipaul meets and listens to people from all parts of the community, old and young, radical and liberal, religious and atheistic, black and white. His voyage of discovery takes him (to quote chapter headings) to Atlanta, Charleston, Tallahassee, Tuskegee, Jackson, Nashville and Chapel Hill.
He is delighted by the description of rednecks given to him by a man named Campbell. "It might have been an updated version of something from Elizabethan low-life writing," he notes, "or John Earle's Microcosmography, or something from Sir Thomas Overbury." It was a comprehensive, lyrical, detailed description of a group ("a tribe," as it seems to Naipaul) and he reproduces it for the reader from his notes. "Art hallows, creates, makes one see," Naipaul writes at this point, and Campbell's description made him see and understand something about a group with its own special code of thought, dress and customs, people he came to think of as "unlikely descendants of the frontiersman."
In other encounters, Naipaul hears from Eudora Welty about the sense of richness and continuity which she feels comes from living in a frontier state like Mississippi, where origins are important, change is slow, and you get to know the generations. He is intrigued by the artistic methods of country-music songwriter Bob McDill, and by the insight into the Memphis music business which he gets from producer Allen Reynolds. He visits Elvis Presley's birthplace and is prompted to muse on the power of "a man of the people" who makes good: it is something which he recognizes from the success of local politicians in Trinidad.
But A Turn in the South is not all about music and writing. The Civil War and its lingering effects on loyalties and ways of thinking; the importance of religion and the sense of community it fosters; the Civil Rights movement, its results and its continuing struggles; and the pervasive awareness of colour, race, and family history; all these are an important part of Naipaul's book. He seems to tap into a pervasive sense of loss for the old community values, but this is not, perhaps, as peculiar to the Southern States of America as his encounters suggest. Rather, it seems to be common to most societies where the rapidity of change in the past fifty years has meant that new patterns of living and working have broken up the old, close-knit families and communities.
Often Naipaul finds links between the Southern States and the West Indies. And he discovers parallels between their histories and notes the differences which slavery and eventual freedom from slavery have made in the two areas. Naipaul's memories of his own culture and its history add footnotes to the stories he is told but, more than anything, it is the people Naipaul meets and their thoughts and ideas which make this book so interesting and valuable. One hears just a little of Naipaul's own trials with his health, with pollen-pollution and air-conditioning, but for him these things serve mostly as reminders of the harsh conditions in which the early settlers, sharecroppers and slaves, lived and worked. His focus, almost constantly, is on others and on the events and ideas which shaped, and still shape, the Southern States of America.
Altogether, this is a rich, absorbing and penetrating book, written by a remarkably open-minded, humane man who well deserves his Nobel Prize for Literature.