Sir Vidia's Shadow
caused quite the commotion this past summer when excerpts appeared in The New Yorker
. Paul Theroux's then unpublished memoir of his friendship with V.S. Naipaul quickly became one of the year's hottest literary topics. There was not much in the way of actual controversy, but it did seem that everyone was eager to condemn the book-on moral grounds.
Sir Vidia's Shadow was written in the ashes of a thirty-year friendship that had suddenly and quietly crumbled. The two future acclaimed writers of prose fiction and literary journalism first met in Kampala, Uganda where Theroux was teaching at the university. This was just as Naipaul was starting his stellar rise as the author of A House for Mr. Biswas, Booker prizewinning In a Free State, and A Bend in the River, and before Theroux had penned his account of his long trans-Asian rail journey in The Great Railway Bazaar, the classic The Mosquito Coast, and novels like My Secret History, My Other Life, and Kowloon Tong. Between them, nearly all the inhabited world would fall within their literary ken for their global orient took them far beyond the closed Anglo-American vision of most contemporary writers. The two quickly formed a close and quite exclusive friendship that would weather extensive travels, long silences, and dire personal crises.
Well before its publication, Sir Vidia's Shadow had been widely dismissed as little more than a petty act of literary violence-a "poison pen" biography and a betrayal of intimacy. Most critics construed it as Theroux's revenge for the failure of the friendship. The selection that appeared in The New Yorker exacerbated this impression by focusing on the memoir's juicier bits: the writers' meeting and falling out. With the bulk of the friendship excised, the result was a seriously unbalanced piece. And while the work does contain assaults on Naipaul's character and talent, it is not, however, the tract of unthinking invective that it has been made out to be.
The bulk of the book is actually a rather non-judgmental memoir that is told with all of the narrative apparatus of a decent novel. Theroux's portrait of Naipaul is unavoidably subjective, but most of it is far from being mean-spirited or one-sided. Naipaul appears as a fascinating, contradictory, and all too human personality: outspoken, occasionally racist, sometimes overly class conscious, and cheap (he never picks up the dinner tab). An example of just how disturbing his views can be is the official visit he makes to Indian and American diplomats in Kenya in an attempt to stave off further racial violence against the local Indian population. His solution: that the Indian government send its navy to shell Mombasa. This distressing suggestion is the extreme result of his deep concern for the fate of Africa's Indian population: he can see the ethnic violence coming and attempts to ensure that his fellow Indians are able to escape.
Although this is a story of a literary friendship, it reveals very little about the genesis of the literary works of either Theroux or Naipaul. A detail or two sometimes slips through, but these are generally well-known facts that will be news only to a casual reader. Theroux presents the effects of the books on the authors' lives, rather than the biographical details that are submerged in their works. When Theroux does quote one of Naipaul's remarks on the practice of writing, it is used invariably to comment on the memoir itself. A couple of these encapsulate the reasons for this book's existence:
"Don't prettify it," Vidia said. "The greatest writing is a disturbing vision offered from a position of strength-aspire to that, and tell the truth."
"Literature is not for the young. Literature is for the old, the experienced, the wounded, the damaged, who read literature to find echoes of their own experience and balm of a certain sort."
Theroux writes as though he were fulfilling Naipaul's request. At times, he even tries to convince the reader that he has done his former friend a favour by publishing Sir Vidia's Shadow.
This is hardly the case. The final chapters, concerning the death of Naipaul's first wife and his subsequent marriage to a Pakistani journalist, begin to pour on the vitriol. The last half of "Exchanges" reads like an anatomy of Naipaul's character flaws: it is a cruel passage that is further marred by a total lack of self-consciousness on the part of Theroux. Up until this point, the biographer had two subjects: V.S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux. This works beautifully until the moment of judgment when Theroux scuttles away under the cover of his authorial advantage, leaving Naipaul to be assessed alone. The dissolution of the friendship is a terribly sad thing, but we can do without Theroux's need to share his hurt. A depiction of the jilting without the angry commentary would have sufficed. His novelist's gift for controlling a narrative should have allowed him to retain the reader's sympathy without resorting to these smear tactics.
All the moral criticisms that have been aimed at Sir Vidia's Shadow have successfully obscured the fact that this is an honest, beautifully written, cleverly structured, and fascinating memoir, hardly deserving of the "poison pen" tag that has been too eagerly affixed to it. Theroux has much to say about friendship, and the strengths that it can develop and follies that it can provoke. The novelistic construction of the book works aesthetically, but makes the reader somewhat suspicious. It is frequently difficult to see where fact and fiction meet, how memory, invention, embellishment, and forgetfulness combine to create the almost too-perfect story that we are given.
Sir Vidia's Shadow is a portrait, not a biography. Even its flaws reveal truths about the friendship: Theroux's anxieties speak volumes about his own experience. It is a violent book, but the consequences of this violence must be left to the affected parties. While a skeptical reading is necessary, it would be foolish to dismiss this fine book out of hand.
Jack Illingworth writes poetry, edits and publishes Pivot, and studies literature.