The Writer and the World: Essays

by V.S. Naipaul, Edited by Pankaj Mishra
524 pages,
ISBN: 0676975194

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Writer in the World
by T.F. Rigelhof

"I am exhausted. My work is complete," V.S. Naipaul told friends at his seventieth birthday party this past summer. There will be no new books, no more journeys. "I travel to discover other states of mind. And if for this intellectual adventure I go to places where people lead restricted lives, it is because my curiosity is still dictated in part by my colonial Trinidad background," Naipaul wrote in his 1967 essay of his visit to the Ivory Coast, "The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukra", one of twenty-two shorter pieces of reportage and reflection gathered together in The Writer and the World. "I go to places which, however alien, connect in some way with what I already know. When my curiosity has been satisfied, when there are no more surprises, the intellectual adventure is over and I become anxious to leave."
V.S.Naipaul went from Trinidad to England as a scholarship student in 1949. In 1960 with three comic novels in print and his fourth, A House for Mr. Biswas, months from publication, Naipaul travelled to the French, Dutch, and British colonies of Martinique, Surinam, Guyana, Jamaica, and Trinidad. Back then, he was suffering from a different kind of exhaustion. His early fiction had left him feeling written out with nothing humourous remaining unsaid about the Hindu community in which he had grown up. Mr. Biswas, his comic masterpiece, is about a man oppressed by his own artifices and mimickries as he paints Santa Clauses, holly and berries, snow and other Christmas decorations on shop signs that will blister under the tropical sun. Mohun Biswas feels himself incomplete (he tries one trade after another before finding some success as a journalist) but his "angst" and "inauthenticity" (to use terms that were fashionable among those who first praised Naipaul's work for its existentialism) have more to do with historical rather than personal humiliations, his Indian past more than his Trinidadian present.
As Naipaul journeyed through the Caribbean and assembled the travel reports, the cultural criticisms, the capsule biographies, the colonial experiences he'd combine to produce his first work of non-fiction, The Middle Passage (1962), he began to develop his notion of "the beauty of the idea of the pursuit of happiness" and its "elasticity." What he calls "Our Universal Civilization" implies "a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit" that contains "the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement."
This idea of civilization is, as he says, "an immense human idea" that "cannot be reduced to a fixed system" and "cannot generate fanaticism." As a traveller, no matter how much Naipaul shared the anxieties of the decolonized peoples who have fed his curiosity, he has resisted all fixities, even the "sentimental camaraderie of skin." Because of his contempt for the rhetoric of skin colour, the racialism it promotes ("The pursuit of black identity and the community of black distress is a dead end, frenzy for the sake of frenzy, the self-scourging of people who cannot see what they will have to do tomorrow.") and the fanaticisms it breeds, Naipaul has been frequently denounced in predictable ways by those who cannot grasp that he is never predictable because, unlike themselves, he responds to the individual in highly particularized circumstances. This is what makes his writings so rich, so difficult to summarize. He is forever scratching away at the surfaces of odd people in odder places until he breaks through the plastic of picture-postcard exoticism to reveal "suppressed histories."
Naipaul is tense, fruitful reading but most quotable when he takes a break from the hard work of penetrating masks and disguises and offers quick, sharp slaps at the false facesłNew York is "like Calcutta, with money," "California is where Americans go when they've been weakened by America," "Money is revered everywhere but in Dallas it is holy; something like graceła reward for faith in God's landłattaches to real-estate success." Of Argentina he writes, "Machismo makes no man stand out, because every man is assumed to be a macho." And of India, "Each Indian, looking into himself and discovering his own inadequacy, attributes inadequacy to every other Indian; and he is usually right."
The Writer and the World is divided by its editor Pankaj Mishra into three sections: "India" which contains four pieces published between 1962 and 1971 on the land of Naipaul's ancestors; "Africa and the Diaspora" with eight essays from 1969 to 1983 that range from the Caribbean of Michael X's Trinidad to Africa through Mauritius, the Ivory Coast and Mobutu's Zaire; and "American Occasions", another set of eight pieces that begin in the sixties and chronicle such small matters as Norman Mailer's New York mayoral candidacy, the appropriation of the Steinbeck mystique by the city of Monterey, to a major revaluation of Peronism in Argentina before ending in "Postscript: Our Universal Civilization" an address delivered in New York in 1992. Taken together, they add up to a profoundly moving meditation on all the things colonialism has left behind, a very mixed legacy. Although there is always something informative and insightful to be gained from even the slightest of Naipaul's pieces, this latest collection isn't a choice introduction to his work. (In a Free State, which places essays alongside short fictions, is a better starting point after A House for Mr. Biswas.) The Writer and the World seems to have been compiled as a seventieth birthday present from Naipaul's publisher and to cash in on the larger audience that comes from winning the Nobel Prize for Literature: the title doesn't really fit (A Writer in the World would be a more accurate advertisement of the contents), the editor provides a generally unhelpful introduction, fails to list the original places of publication and previous appearances in other books, and buries the handful of African pieces that flawlessly represent Naipaul's workł"The Overcrowded Barracoon", "A New King for the Congo: Mobutu and the Nihilism of Africa", "The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro"łamong lesser pieces from the Caribbean. For those who have already acquired a taste for what he offers, this compendium does encapsulate Naipaul's travels through the world quite handily in one volume.
Spiritually, Naipaul takes his place on the sterner side of Samuel Johnson's dinner table ("A book should teach us to enjoy life, or endure it.") alongside Mordecai Richler with whom he shared editor and publisher, and remarkably, converging of points of view during their early years in London. Living as they did in a good society (Naipaul's novel The Enigma of Arrival best represents the England missing from his travel books) that had been so utterly gutted by the end of empire and two world wars that Soviet communism seemed a reasonable alternative to otherwise sentient human beings, Richler and Naipaul both accepted Dr. Johnson's diagnosis that life is an arduous struggle. And his therapy: there's no cure for the world's ills but digging out the truth and facing it does provide an honest pursuit that brings a little freedom and a clearer idea of where happiness lies amid small comedies and larger tragedies. The first lesson they both absorbed from Johnson is that the use and abuse of language is the key to understanding moral sobriety and uncloaking intellectual intoxication. Life, as language rightly used tells us, is neither as simple, pure and dependent on faith as religions teach nor as abstruse, brutish and dialectical as modern political philosophers preach. When language fails, all hell breaks loose and lives are lost:
Big new words were discovered for old attitudes: Grenadian workers, it was discovered, were riddled with 'economism'łthey just wanted money and saw no 'conceptual link' between that and work. There was at times in the meeting of the central committee the atmosphere of the classroom: linguistic skill, a new way with words, seeming to be an end in itself. . . Central committee members were often tired at meetings, unprepared; at one meeting some members actually fell asleep. There were sessions of criticism and self-criticism; this socialist rite seemed to give much pleasure. . . It was this kind of attitude, this wish for pure dispassionate, classless revolutionary action, that led to the final, sudden madness: the placing of the leader under arrest, the sending of the army against the crowd, the execution of the leader and other ministers (all members of the central committee). The Revolutionary Military Council thought they had done the right thing. They were shocked by the attitude of Fidel Castro, who refused to offer any help against an American attack. According to a hand-written note found afterwards, the Revolutionary Council thought the Cubans had taken 'a personal and not a class approach to events...'"
And all that is left is "words . . .as an illumination, a short-cut to dignity, to newly educated men who had nothing in the community to measure themselves against, and who, finally, valued little in their own community. But the words were mimicry. They were too big; they didn't fit; they remained words. The revolution blew away; and what was left . . . was a murder story."
This was in Grenada ("Heavy Manners in Grenada") in the early eighties, some small events in world history that have slipped below the threshold of memory of anyone who isn't a devoted student of American interventions, but Argentina and the legacy of Peronism is never quite out of the news for any of us. "Argentina and the Ghost of Eva Peron, 1972ū 1991" is the soundest reason for owning this collection. That's because, as Brian Fawcett says, "it may be the best single essay written in the twentieth century. The remark about there being three kinds of countries in the worldłJapan, Argentina, and the rest of usłpermanently changed the way I see the world, and it still resonates." As the title indicates, Naipaul extends his earlier essay "The Ghost of Eva Peron"łthe one where Fawcett first encountered resonance twenty-two years agołwith further travels and reflections. Like Fawcett's own Cambodia: a Book for People who Find Television Too Slow (which is ripe for rediscovery in this country now that a new translation is gaining considerable attention in Italy), Naipaul's look at Argentina is thoroughly in the spirit of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness". The words of Conrad, Naipaul writes, "fit the Argentine frenzy [to eradicate the vanished pampa Indian]; they contain the mood and the moral nullity of that Argentine enterprise which have worked down the generations of failure to today." As with Conrad, nothing is rigged in Naipaul: he chooses incidents from real life and meditates on them (including Eva Peron's red lips and her ascendency to power through expertise at fellatio) and gives readers more of the real Argentina than any of us can take in at one sitting.
Stories cannot make us believe in God (despite what Yann Martel's Pi attempts) but writers like V.S. Naipaul can define the disasters men do make for themselves when wanton language takes over." Argentina had made people dream too much, Ricardo had said; and now the country wasn't viable. But this kind of despair was as much of an abstraction as Father Mujica's revolutionary wish to undo the enemies of the people and develop the human spirit. In Argentina people needed simpler gestures, a simpler morality." Simpler not simple. Without them, Argentinians (and all like them) are incapable of living more than half-lives, lives where the spirit sleeps, responsibilities are not taken up, choices aren't made, the intellect doesn't have a life of its own and there's never real achievement.

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