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A Man of Universal Letters

By: Jeremy Carl
October 25, 2018

 friend of mine once semi-seriously proposed I publicly debate a prominent scholar with whom I strongly differed on virtually every issue—the purpose being to see if we could find any point of agreement. Upon Sir V.S. Naipaul’s death in August, my proposed interlocutor wrote that Naipaul was “one of the most brilliant writers of the 20th century—and someone who had greater insight about issues of poverty, race, and colonialism than all the hot takes of the past years combined.”

On this issue, at least, we are in complete agreement.

When Naipaul was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2001, it merely confirmed what many in the political and literary spectrum had long acknowledged: he was one of the greatest writers of our age. His death occasioned articles in both the U.K.’s left-wing Guardian and the conservative Telegraph, both which proclaimed him the greatest English writer of the last half-century. He was lauded by world leaders such as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and major writers from the developing world, who, despite his often excoriating critiques of their governments and culture, praised Naipaul’s uncompromising admonition that they should confront their own responsibilities for their nation’s future rather than simply blaming colonialism for their shortcomings.

And yet, while the encomiums for Naipaul were generous around his death, they always carried an element (sometimes a dominant element) of “yes, but” from liberal critics, who found Naipaul’s complex, unashamedly elitist, and reactionary politics hard to stomach. Naipaul, who was never politically fashionable, often seemed sympathetic to colonialism, even as he often wrote from the perspective of the colonized.

Naipaul’s complex politics ensured that he was both under-read and under-appreciated. Scorned for his politics by the left, Naipaul’s reluctance to wade into American political debates (perhaps unsurprising given that he was a British citizen), to write on the current issue du jour, or even to do much overtly “political” writing at all meant that he lacked the overt champions on the right that, say, Tom Wolfe had.

Naipaul was often compared to Joseph Conrad in his explorations into the “heart of darkness,” but he also shared many themes with his fellow Briton Graham Greene, whose cynical yet penetrating takes in his post-colonial world travels prefigured Naipaul’s writing.

Naipaul, like Greene, was also a famously difficult personality, who, though capable of generosity, also treated many of those closest to him terribly, as detailed in his authorized biography. But as Naipaul himself wrote, “an autobiography can distort...but fiction never lies. It reveals the writer totally.”

And in all of his work, whether essays, travelogues, or fiction, Naipaul revealed himself to be a master. Even before he achieved popular success, he found an appreciative audience among his fellow writers.

“Mr. Naipaul is an 'East' Indian Trinidadian with an exquisite mastery of the English language which should put to shame his British contemporaries," wrote the famously cantankerous Evelyn Waugh in 1962. He made his initial reputation with his fourth novel, A House for Mr. Biswas (1961). Drawn heavily from the life story of his father, it details the petty struggles of a young man attempting to make something of himself in colonial Trinidad. Naipaul, an Indo-Trinidadian, grew up doubly colonized—a colonial who even in his colonial state was already displaced from the land of his ancestry. This dislocation was a lifelong theme of Naipaul’s, re-appearing frequently in his work under different guises.

His first-written (though not first-published) work was Miguel Street (1959), an interlinked series of stories that captured the unique, eccentric, and down-and-out culture of Naipaul’s childhood home in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad’s capital.  A somewhat lighthearted “local color” book, when compared to his later, world-spanning efforts, Naipaul’s literary journey from a tiny street on an insignificant island colony to the center of the cosmopolitan literary universe surely represents one of the largest peregrinations, both literal and aesthetic, of any major global writer.

The mature Naipaul was not a racist (as his harsher critics occasionally accused him of being) but he was a cultural chauvinist, and a champion, though far from an uncritical one, of Western culture. In a rare appearance before an overtly conservative group, the Manhattan Institute, in 1990, he delivered a memorable lecture entitled Our Universal Civilization, that in many ways was the summa of Naipaul’s philosophy.

Naipaul’s speech championed freedom, tolerance, and the pursuit of happiness as goals within themselves, and argued that these concepts were uniquely Western in their origin. Naipaul also noted both the ideological and material success of Western culture created the critical antecedents necessary for his development as a writer.

He acknowledged the “‘Racial taint’ which still causes pain” as Western civilization had developed, but also noted that this taint had receded. This lead him to praise “the extraordinary attempt of this civilization to accommodate the rest of the world, and all the currents of that world’s thought,” including those of men such as Naipaul who had first come to it as outsiders. He contrasted Western civilization directly with that of Islam, which he saw as ultimately colonialist when practiced outside the Arab world.

To Naipaul, “No colonization had been so thorough as the colonization that had come with the Arab faith.” Islam had erased traditional non-Arab identities, cultures, and histories in countries ranging from Pakistan to Indonesia. This perspective was nurtured during his six months of travels in the non-Arab Muslim world in the wake of the Iranian revolution, which became the travelogue Among the Believers (1981) and a theme he would revisit in its 1998 sequel Beyond Belief.

I never formulated the idea of the universal civilization until quite recently—until eleven years ago, when I traveled for many months in a number of non-Arab Muslim countries to try to understand what had driven them to their rage,” Naipaul remarked. His unsparing critique of Islam probably assured that Naipaul would have been too politically radioactive to win the literature Nobel at any time other than in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th  attacks, which seemed to vindicate many of the intellectual themes about which he had warned.

But the West and Islam were hardly the only group identities that concerned Naipaul. He was fascinated with tribalism, cultural homelessness, and the thin veneer of civilization over humanity’s inherent savagery, a subject he explored in depth in arguably his greatest novel, A Bend in the River (1979) which follows the experiences of a young African of Indian origin set amidst the disintegration and violence that characterized many countries in post-colonial Africa. The novel was inspired by a trip Naipaul took, echoing Conrad, into Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in 1975, and the novel’s “Big Man,” always lurking just off the page, offers more than an echo of Zaire’s kleptocratic personality cult leader Mobutu Sese Seko.

But contrary to his leftist critics such as the late Edward Said—who accused Naipaul of pandering to “the easiest of colonial mythologies about wogs and darkies” —Naipaul never ceased to look at the world with fresh eyes from the perspective of both the colonizer and the colonized. Ian Buruma, then editor of the New York Review of Books, perceptively commented that “Naipaul’s rage is not the result of being unable to feel the native’s plight; on the contrary, he is angry because he feels it so keenly.” Or as Naipaul himself put it more pithily, “Hate the oppressor—but fear the oppressed.”

Echoing Buruma, Naipaul perhaps felt all of these complexities most keenly in India, the land of his ancestors.

That Naipaul would be so lauded in India upon his death was indicative of his undisputed greatness as a writer and chronicler, which ultimately overcame political wounds inflicted by his sometimes savage prose. The initial volume of what became his informal “India Trilogy,” An Area of Darkness (1964), is a perceptive yet bracingly critical view of the country in its early days of independence as it struggled between independent and colonial identity. It was banned in India upon publication. India: A Wounded Civilization (1975), written during Indira Gandhi’s declaration of emergency, is scarcely more complimentary. Only in India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990), written just as India was beginning to truly modernize socially and politically under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and his successors, does Naipaul’s appraisal, while still mixed, turn more positive.

Subsequently, Naipaul’s championing of the Hindu community in India, and in particular his soi-distant sympathy for the Ayodhya movement to remove a mosque that had been built on Hinduism’s most important site, turned him into an unlikely hero of Hindu nationalists and other supporters of Hinduism in India. Such was his stature there that when he died India’s President, Prime Minister, and Defense Minister all weighted in, with Prime Minister Modi declaring that “his passing away is a major loss to the world of literature.”

But Naipaul’s view of tribalism was far too sophisticated to simply distill down to a virus infecting “brown” people in poor countries. He was equally capable of turning his keen eye on the tribes of the developed world.

His travelogue A Turn in the South (1989), his only work set in America, is a sympathetic and perceptive portrayal of the folkways of that part of the country in the 1980s, when it was still considered a hopeless backwater by the Eastern intelligentsia. And the “Air Conditioned Bubble,” his essay on his journalistic trip to cover the 1984 Republican National Convention, noted the gaudy mix of consumerism, power, and religion that were beginning to dominate that era’s GOP. Naipaul’s essay shows a trenchant understanding of the forces that led evangelical Christianity to assume such a large role in GOP politics.

Aside from praise for Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s speech, it is not an overall positive portrait of the 1980s GOP and shows again why Naipaul was ultimately too iconoclastic to be embraced by movement conservatism. Yet just as in his travels to Africa, there is still insight and sympathy in this study of America’s Republicans of what Naipaul called a “White tribe in the United States.” In his portrayal of the GOP’s luminaries at work, Naipaul reveals one of the fundamental drivers of the GOP’s appeal to middle America, decades before the election of Donald Trump made the explicit ethnic and cultural divisions between the Democrats and GOP much more noticeable.

It is a great indicator of Naipaul’s breadth and influence that President Obama has acknowledged that he had read and admired Naipaul’s writing since his college days. How many overtly political novelists could be deeply mourned by both Barack Obama and Michelle Malkin? A year before Naipaul’s death, Obama explained the writer’s influence on him:

I think that there are writers who I don’t necessarily agree with in terms of their politics, but whose writings are sort of a baseline for how to think about certain things—V. S. Naipaul, for example.

His A Bend in the River, which starts with the line, “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”

And I always think about that line, and I think about his novels when I’m thinking about the hardness of the world sometimes, particularly in foreign policy, and I resist and fight against sometimes that very cynical, more realistic view of the world.

And yet, there are times where it feels as if that may be true.