For a writer of “obvious greatness”—as Dwight Garner termed him in The New York Times—it is remarkable that V.S. Naipaul is so well known, in life and now in death, for his many flaws. His catalog of sins has been well established: He was an ogre in real life, especially to the women closest to him; he was an ogre in his writing, especially in his unfeeling portrayal of women (again) and Africans, Indians, Muslims, Trinidadians, and other subjects of the post-colonial world; he was a reactionary, a misanthrope, and a narcissist, all of which suffused his work. The famous opening sentence of his novel A Bend in the River (1979), set in an unnamed Central African country, has often been taken as his brutal credo: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”
The theme of Naipaul’s greatness—the great writer who stands in contrast to those men who are nothing, who will slip into a vast nothingness as if they had never existed in the first place—runs through his work. In India: A Wounded Civilization (1976), the second in Naipaul’s trilogy on his ancestral homeland, he describes a group of laborers in a typically pitiless and racial fashion: “around us the serfs, underfed, landless, less than people, dark wasted faces and dark rags fading into the dusk.” It was out of this darkness that Naipaul himself emerged, almost miraculously, transcending the impoverished background of his family, who had migrated to Trinidad in the late 19th century to work in indentured servitude on a plantation. It was there that Naipaul was born in 1932, to a poor but upper-caste father who aspired to be a writer and toiled in the shadow of his wife’s large extended family.
Naipaul’s rise from such meager, benighted circumstances astonished him more than anyone, and he returned to his unlikely coming-of-age story again and again, in essays, speeches, non-fiction books, and novels that ranged from his 1961 breakthrough A House for Mr. Biswas to 2001’s Half a Life. The self-centered tilt of his writing, however, is also chalked up as a flaw. While memoir is a pillar of post-colonial literature, the repeated emphasis on his own story struck some as evidence of a monstrous egoism. As the editors of n+1 quipped, the “persistent implication” of Naipaul’s work is “that the only legitimate escape from ‘half-made’ post-colonial countries is to become V. S. Naipaul.”
It’s a clever line, with the bite of truth. (It stings doubly so because the sentiment is attributed to Salman Rushdie, who was once considered Naipaul’s competitor as the laureate of the post-colonial condition.) But is it really so far-fetched to connect Naipaul’s project of self-discovery—a lifelong effort to invent and re-invent himself—to the broader project of creating a post-colonial world? Underlying Naipaul’s work is a philosophy that, if anything, is even more relevant now than it was at the dawn of the post-colonial era. The world is harsh and unloving, but for Naipaul this is not an occasion for despair or resignation. Rather, it makes for a wisdom grounded in the hard truths: the world as it is, not the way we would like it to be.
Pankaj Mishra has observed that Naipaul’s work represents the “ironic reversal of the Conradian journey to the heart of darkness.” He sails out of a remote existence, clouded by myth and ignorance, into a clearer understanding of his life, his country, the world. “Each book is a new beginning, which dismantles what has gone before it,” Mishra writes. “This explains the endlessly replayed drama of arrival, and what seems an obsession with writerly beginnings, in Naipaul’s writings.”
A perfect example can be found in his 1987 masterpiece The Enigma of Arrival, a meditative work of autobiographical fiction set in Wiltshire in the English countryside (which, along with London, was to become his home). Among other things, it tells the story of his journey from Trinidad to Oxford, which is bound up with his ambition to become a writer. Here is the description of his first plane flight:
There had, first, been an airplane, a small one of the period, narrow, with a narrow aisle, and flying low. This had given me my first revelation: the landscape of my childhood seen from the air, and from not too high up. At ground level so poor to me, so messy, so full of huts and gutters and bare front yards and straggly hibiscus hedges and shabby backyards: views from the roadside. From the air, though, a landscape of logic and larger pattern; the straight lines and regularity and woven, carpet-like texture of sugarcane fields … a landscape of clear pattern and contours, absorbing all the roadside messiness, a pattern of dark green and dark brown, like camouflage, like a landscape in a book, like the landscape of a real country. So that at the moment of takeoff almost, the moment of departure, the landscape of my childhood was like something which I had missed, something I had never seen.
The moment of departure, then the enigma of arrival: these are the bookends of the central event in Naipaul’s life. Though it is a single journey—a plane to New York, a boat to England—a whole life will be defined by this rupture, splitting the emigrant in two: the person he once was and the person he will become. In Naipaul’s case it comes in the form of a revelation, a sweeping view of the homeland that he belatedly realizes, poor colonial that he is, may be a “real country.” There are more revelations to come and they are all just as painful, exposing the true extent of his unworldliness. In a strange hotel room in New York City he hunches over a trash can to eat, with his bare hands, a chicken he has brought from Trinidad, too scared to ask the hotel staff for utensils, too scared to eat other food for the caste fear of contamination. He then worries the room stinks of his chicken, of his Hindu peasant origins.
His budding writing career is also afflicted by his ignorance. His conception of the writer is pure posture, one who dabbles in higher things, not in the muck of what, in his view, has been an entirely backwards existence: the huts and gutters and bare front yards. It is only when he turns to Trinidad for material that a real writer emerges. It is a moment crucial to Naipaul’s self-created lore, when the young correspondent of the BBC’s Caribbean Service begins a story—on BBC “non-rustle” script paper, in the “Victorian-Edwardian gloom” of the freelancers’ room in London’s Langham Hotel—with what would become the first line of 1959’s Miguel Street: “Every morning when he got up Hat would sit on the banister of his back verandah and shout across, ‘What happening there, Bogart?’” As he describes it in the essay “Prologue to an Autobiography,” that was when he found his subject—himself—which radiated outward in ever-larger circles: his family, his people, the post-colonial universe. It was a blow against what fate had doled out to his father, the inspiration for Mr. Biswas, and the long line of anonymous ancestors who receded into the fog of the past: “To be a writer … to die in mid-sentence, was to triumph over darkness.”
Naipaul’s trajectory toward enlightenment, and hence toward salvation, is a complicated one. The understanding he achieves is European in nature—he obtains it by winning a scholarship to Oxford, by entering the gloomy halls of the BBC, by gaining an aerial view of history that emphasizes logic and pattern. He has the colonial’s stubborn appreciation for the colonizer, which sometimes led him to the problematic, ahistorical view that colonizers gifted their subjects a cultural memory. As the narrator of A Bend in the River posits, “Without Europeans, I feel, all our past would have been washed away, like the scuff marks of fishermen on the beach outside our town.”
But his understanding is also rooted in direct experience of life in the Caribbean. Direct experience is the basis for his pessimistic view of the kinds of economic aid programs and good governance schemes that long characterized the developing world’s push to modernity, old certainties embodied by organizations like the International Monetary Fund. He allowed himself to be appalled by what he saw in India, for example—the poverty, the filth, the lowness of life—perhaps because he sensed that, in a parallel universe, it was his life that barely cast a glimmer in the encroaching dusk. And he dared to suggest that the obstacle wasn’t a lack of decent plumbing or a new irrigation system, but something spiritual, psychological, borne of centuries of subjugation—wounds with which he was intimately familiar.
He was not always right in his diagnosis, not by a long shot. But it was the spirit of the endeavor that mattered, animated by the idea that we are capable of seeing ourselves with clear eyes; that the former subjects of empire can become mature, confident citizens if they keep their gaze honest and steady; that who we are is created, not destined.