There are no rose-colored glasses when reading a V.S. Naipaul book. It’s a yellowed, sere world he looks upon, and once you sink into a Naipaul novel or nonfiction account (they are similar in construction), you begin to suspect that this is the way the world actually is at full F-stop with all the filters off. Life is tough and dusty, and often what seems to be good fortune is just bad luck in disguise. You can’t even trust your own motives, which seem to rebel against you at inconvenient moments.
Despite it all, in Naipaul’s works, we are the hero of our own stories. Power is to be found in small moments of stubbornness and inspiration brought on by suffering and irritation, not in grand gestures. Education is crucial. In almost every Naipaul story, it is the difference between a character who gives in to victimhood, and one who gains a personal victory, however humble. Equally important is courage, but courage for Naipaul is not brash. It’s doggedness, even ingrained stubbornness — the determination to go down swinging.
I first encountered Naipaul when I was asked to teach “A Bend in the River” as part of my first freshman comp class in graduate school. (It goes without saying that such a book, with its jaundiced and horrified look at post-colonial Africa, would never be assigned at universities in our current age of Western masochistic self-abnegation.)
“A Bend in the River,” along with “Darkness at Noon” — which I read around the same time — more than the treatises of all the right-thinking philosophers, determined the course of my thinking life thereafter. I would aspire to experience the world as it actually was, not as I wished it to be. And, as with many a Naipaul character, in some ways I was able to do so, and in some ways not so much.
From the Periphery to the Center of Civilization
Certain scenes and settings in “A Bend in the River” stay with you permanently. The brutal beating of Salim at a checkpoint in the jungle. The decrepit Domain, the community housing project where hopeful socialism met the African bush and was overwhelmed and subsumed like a two-year-old who rushes into an ocean wave, and became, as all failed socialist project seem to, a university in name, but really a center for indoctrination and, eventually, torture.
Colonialism has brought political subjugation, and introduced unnecessary status distinctions that lead to personal misery and humiliation. But colonialism also brought civilization, a means to escape eons of barbaric violence and millennia of grinding poverty.
It also becomes a means of development, a way to jump off the repetitive cycle of prehistory that inevitably crushes the individual in everyone and subjugates the soul, the only true thing of value in humans, to the needs of the tribe. Civilization brings books and learning.
And when civilization retreats, it is not replaced by a utopia peopled by Rousseau’s Noble Savages. Life slowly descends into chaos. Sadistic power grabs masquerade as ideological movements, neo-tribalism and Big Man cults begin to flourish. Most of all, a miasma of brutality and bloodshed arises that is almost impossible to escape.
In “A Bend in the River,” our very flawed hero Salim manages to get away only because he is an outsider to begin with, a coastal Muslim trader immigrated to the heart of Africa, and with the withdrawal of Europe from the region, and the unleashing of local resentment, a town that becomes the heart of darkness itself.
Of course Naipaul has been accused of having a neo-colonialist mentality himself, which is ridiculous under the slightest consideration. Born and raised in lower middle-class conditions in Trinidad, he might easily have become the detritus, rather than the prime product, of the British empire.
But he got an education, and a scholarship. He traveled, as Naipaul puts it, from the periphery to the center of civilization, where it was possible to become a novelist. But it was Trinidad and his later experience as a traveler and observer that would become his subjects. He didn’t plan it. There is no theory behind Naipaul’s writing, just a determination to see the world as it is. To observe. To call it like he sees it. As he said in his 1990 Walter B. Wriston Manhattan Institute lecture:
I have no unifying theory of things. To me, situations and people are always specific, always of themselves. That is why one travels and writes: to find out. To work in the other way would be to know the answers before one knew the problems; that is a recognized way of working, I know, especially if one is a political or religious or racial missionary. But I would have found it hard.
Naipaul researched. He visited places and talked to people of all sorts. He did not depend on sheer invention, but supplemented his narrative facility with fact and experience. This enhanced his writing by an order of magnitude. Of course, this kind of attention to reality is a staple of the great realistic and social novels of the eighteenth century. The late Tom Wolfe returned to it with his reinvigoration of the American novel in the 1980s. Naipaul never left it.
“A Bend in the River” is tough stuff. A lot of Naipaul is. But the Naipaul novel that I’ve gone back to again and again for inspiration and cautionary advice is not so hard-edged. It is his weird, twisted, and wonderful tribute to the Trinidad of his childhood, “A House for Mr. Biswas.”
Biswas is a biographical novel, the story Mohan Biswas, who grew up the son of a dirt-poor Hindu laborer, the grandson of immigrants, on a sugar cane plantation, and eventually became a reporter and feature writer for the Port of Spain Sentinel, an island newspaper, a father of four, and after much angst, self-defeating behavior, and genuine travail, the owner of a beloved ramshackle family home. The story parallels Naipaul’s father’s life in many particulars.
In Biswas, Naipaul portrays the intricate interaction of the fantastic stew of races, social classes, Indian castes, and family types to be found on this crumbling edge of the British Empire. Nobody is much concerned with colonial oppression here.
They are too busy with status shuffling, business shenanigans, and family feuds to worry about it. Into this rough world is born the sensitive Mr. Biswas. Naipaul affords Mr. Biswas the dignity (and lathes on the gentle satire) of calling him “mister” throughout the novel, even while he’s a child.
A Hindu pundit called in to bless him declares from the start that Mr. Biswas is cursed, a bringer of death by water, and the possessor of “an unlucky sneeze.” This seems to be borne out when Mr. Biswas neglects of a calf he is supposed to be watching, which leads to the death of his own father who thinks the calf, which has drowned at the bottom of a lake, is his son. He dies trying to rescue the boy, while young Mr. Biswas is actually at home hiding in shame.
The destitute family must move in with relatives, but this takes Biswas into town where he goes to school and gets the diffident but effective education that eventually proves his salvation. He becomes an itinerate sign painter and eventually marries into a sprawling Hindu household. The Tulsi family, led by domineering matriarch Mai Tulsi and her crony brother-in-law, Seth, tries to sucker Biswas in to becoming yet another appendage of the family enterprises — as they have all the other husbands.
Biswas is having none of it. After much contention, even his wife Shama begins to understand that she has gotten a husband who may be far from perfect, but is also a man who in his niggling, argumentative way, stands up for himself and will not let others determine the course of his existence.
Where Biswas does find satisfaction in is writing sensationalistic newspaper stories, where his mantra is “Amazing scenes were witnessed yesterday … Passers-by stopped and stared yesterday when …” Those are the tales he read in fascination as a young man and always wished he could have witnessed firsthand.
Now as a reporter, he understands that they are not so amazing on the face of it, but that his job is to make them so, to find the bit of wonder and macabre oddness in the mundane. His first piece? “WHITE BABY FOUND IN RUBBISH DUMP IN BROWN PAPER PARCEL.”
Last week, the Sentinel Bonny Baby Competition was held at Prince’s Building. And late last night the body of a dead male baby was found, neatly wrapped in a brown paper parcel, on the rubbish dump at Cocorite.
I have seen the baby and I am in a position to say that it did not win a prize in our Bonny Baby Competition.
Honed to Reality
Life may have given Biswas a jaundiced eye, but his readers needed that daily moment of surprise, irony, and sense of “there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I” to lighten their loads, and Biswas provided it to them. After all, he was one of them, and knew what they needed. In the end, Mohan Biswas gets perhaps not what he wants, but what he needs, as well.
But bigger than them all was the house, his house.
How terrible it would have been, at this time, to be without it: to have died among the Tulsis, amid the squalor of that large, disintegrating and indifferent family; to have left Shama and the children among them, in one room, worse, to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one’s portion of the earth; to have lived and died as one had been born, unnecessary and unaccommodated.
Biswas finds his calling as a reporter, and gets the house he has dreamed of all those years. His children are educated, and two of them go off to England on scholarships. He dies not happy, but not in squalor and disappointment, either.
We also get a portrait of the young V.S. Naipaul in Biswas’s son Anand. Anand is ashamed of his father and his yellow-journalism, and does not give him the respect he deserves until it is too late. “A House for Mr. Biswas” is in many ways a droll apology from son to father for an upbringing that he only later realizes is what made him who he is.
Let us, too, remember to give V.S. Naipaul the respect he deserves. Despite his Nobel Prize for Literature and British knighthood, which are often signatures of mediocrity, Naipaul was a genuine world-class talent. Reading Naipaul will entertain you — and subtly change you for the better while you are not looking.
You might feel a bit jaded after delving into Naipaul’s work, but your vision will be truer, and your observations more honed to reality. You will also laugh at lot — or at least chuckle. Naipaul’s wit is utterly dry, always steeped in the story he is telling, but omnipresent throughout his works.
With the passing of V.S. Naipaul we have lost a brilliant defender of humane values and civilization, a writer who spoke with wisdom and dry humor born from experience and realistic judgement. He understood the fragility of the conditions that allow individual freedom and art to flourish.
We are all born “unnecessary and unaccommodated.” Civilization is the only path out of that condition. Civilization is not an unfortunate condition that separates us from our true nature. It is the only condition in which our true nature stands a chance to thrive.
Naipaul made himself necessary. He did his part to hold barbarism at bay. We can only hope enough thinkers and artists like Naipaul remain to carry on the task.