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VS Naipaul: Writing the World

Durba Chattaraj teaches anthropology and writing at Ashoka University, Sonipat
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With his shifting way of seeing, VS Naipaul articulated a new configuration of all that we know

The ability to stride across the globe, making pronouncements, both nasty and nice (but let’s face it, mostly nasty) about the people and places encountered, with little knowledge about local conditions and contexts, is perhaps the greatest privilege of all. Once the realm of the few travellers who made it to places far and wide and also wrote accounts of these travels, this ability went viral in the age of empire, where every viceroy and gazetteer and colonel and visiting aunt and traveling missionary had something to say about the natives, and was given a wide platform to say it. This imperious genre of writing reached its apotheosis in the work of Favell Lee Mortimer, a bestselling Victorian-era children’s writer who was made comfortable enough by the bigotry of empire to write “educational” books about the entire world, while rarely ever leaving her own little island. She said horrible, laughably inaccurate things about everyone, except, of course the British upper classes (I must say here, that it is in this thick soup of all manner of people saying all manner of things about the natives, that, as a hasty corrective, my discipline of anthropology was born).

Here are a choice few morsels from Mortimer, and I won’t name the countries she was referring to, though you can be sure that none of them are in Europe: about Country X, “When their hands are idle, their thoughts are still busy in planning new robberies and murders”; about Country Y, “The men are terrible-looking creatures, tall, large, dark and grim”; about Country Z, “it is a common thing to stumble over the bodies of dead babies in the streets.”

Mortimer, even as a woman, but crucially as a British woman at the height of empire, was able to cash in (she sold over a million copies of her books) on empire’s hubris to take a God’s eye view of the world, to narrate the globe. Around the time that she was writing, the popular worldview comes into being, and it is from its inception a colonial and racist one. Only those from the metropole are allowed to narrate it, at times masterfully, at others, clumsily. Others are condemned to forever being natives.

Of course this narrative was challenged along the way by many, natives and colonials both, perhaps most powerfully by Joseph Conrad. But for all his outsider status as a Polish man writing of empire in a language that was not his own, he was still white, still European, still not a native. We can say that the first native to reshape the popular worldview, in a way that made the world stand up and listen, was Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul.

V.S. Naipaul — scholarship boy from Trinidad, grandson of indentured labourers — was one of the first non-White men who got to stride across the globe, making pronouncements, both nasty and nice (but let’s face it, mostly nasty) about the people and places encountered, with little knowledge about local conditions or contexts. In this role he wrote about a staggering range of questions, places, people, and events. A random Naipaul mashup would bring together a piece on Norman Mailer’s New York election campaign with an exploration of Islam in Indonesia with a novel about exile and the writing life in England with a reflection on machismo in Argentina (one that inspired a hilarious counter-reflection from Roberto Bolano) with a fictionalised account of the last expedition of Sir Walter Raleigh with trenchant observations on caste in India with a fine-grained description of everyday life in the Congo under Mobutu. It is hard to think of another writer possessed of this range.

But even as Naipaul roamed the world, working as a freelancer for different papers and publishers, practising a kind of global literary journalism that isn't really supported anymore, his work differed from previous writing in this genre in crucial ways. First, as a native who was daring to write the world, he had what critic James Wood calls a “double vision” — the ability to move between “colonial rim and colonial centre, between empathy and shame, between pride and humiliation.” Naipaul himself writes poignantly about how he had to forge a new genre as he made the shift from fiction about two islands to non-fiction about the world:

I had the idea that the travel book was a glamorous interlude in the life of a serious writer. But the writers I had had in mind — and there could have been no other — were metropolitan people, Huxley, Lawrence, Waugh. I was not like them. They wrote at a time of empire; whatever their character at home, they inevitably in their travel became semi-imperial, using the accidents of travel to define their metropolitan personalities against a foreign background.

 My travel was not like that. I was a colonial travelling in New World plantation colonies which were like the one I had grown up in…For all its faults, the book, like the fiction books that had gone before, was for me an extension of knowledge and feeling.”

             A lot has been written about this aspect of Naipaul’s work. I’m most interested in a second and third way in which Naipaul differs from previous popular worldview writers — his very particular position, as not just a general-category native, but a writer from the Caribbean; and his astonishingly self-aware approach to knowledge, and its lack, in his writing.

Naipaul once said, “Ever since I was twelve I swore to get away from Trinidad.” His relationship to the island where he was born, and to the Caribbean in general, was fraught and painful, and it darkened over the course of his life. But even as he progressively disavowed (and was progressively rejected by) the place he was from, he was ever aware of the global historical currents that had shaped it. Patrick French, in his masterful biography of Naipaul draws our attention to a letter that he wrote to his wife Pat, where Naipaul says:

           You tell me I talk a lot of rot about history. But I wonder whether you ever consider that my position has been caused by several complex historical factors: the slave trade, its abolition; British imperialism, and the subjugation of Indian peoples; the need for cheap labour on Caribbean sugar plantations; Indian indentured immigration…”

From early on Naipaul characterised the Caribbean as a plantation society, and Jamaica as a plantation rather than a country, but it was this plantation society that allowed him, perhaps more than anything else, to dare to take on the world, and nothing less, as a writer.

Thinkers and writers from both metropole and the islands have argued that a global world was violently created in the Caribbean, before anyplace else, and the brutal horrors and unfulfilled promises of this world were played out there, before anyplace else. The Caribbean partly inspired what many hail as the first English-language novel ever written, Robinson Crusoe — its titular character the original crush of what would become the discipline of economics. Include Surinam in the Caribbean mix, and you find the country where what is arguably an even earlier iteration of the English-language novel (written by a woman, therefore written out of history), Oronooko, a dark, strange, passionate tale of slave rebellion, is set. All of this makes the Caribbean a powerful place from which to launch a career as a writer of the world. For in an islands’ view, your street, no matter how sleepy or how seemingly provincial, is also always global, as the characters in Miguel Street, one of Naipaul’s early collections of stories, demonstrate. He writes of the street itself (in a passage that I often use in anthropology classes when I teach about slums, and ways of seeing them):

           A stranger could drive through Miguel Street and just say ‘Slum!’ because he could see no more. But we, who lived there, saw our street as a world, where everybody was quite different from everybody else. Man-Man was mad; George was stupid; Big Foot was a bully; Hat was an adventurer; Popo was a philosopher; and Morgan was our comedian.

From Trinidad Naipaul learnt to see the street as a world, because the world, transplanted from all over, was on your street. While a colonial eye allows you to write the world because you own it, a Caribbean eye allows you to write the world because you, however painfully, inhabit it. 

Launched from those early worlds he inhabited, Naipaul spun ever outwards. Years later, looking back on Miguel Street, he writes:

  “It was a ‘flat’ view of the street: in what I had written I went right up close to it, as close as I had been as a child, shutting out what lay outside. I knew even then that there were other ways of looking…And if, in a greater complication, I wished to explore who I was and who the people in the street were (we were a small immigrant island, culturally and racially varied), that would require yet another kind of writing. It was to that complication that my writing, in fact, took me…All my life I have had to think about ways of looking and how they alter the configuration of the world.”

Between his birth on one island and his death on another, Naipaul did no less than articulate a new configuration of the world, guided by his supple ways of looking at it. As described above, his way of seeing was forever shifting — God’s eye view and a child’s eye view alternating, coming together, to create art. When it came to the top-down picture, Naipaul was often surprisingly frank about what he didn’t know. He makes a distinction between writing “from knowledge” and without it; in the preface to Among the Believers, a book about his travels through Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia, he writes, “the book doesn’t begin with knowledge.”

When he wrote about unfamiliar places, Naipaul really did a great deal to make up for this lack of knowledge, perhaps more than most who wrote in similar genres. He read widely about the place, traveled through it (not just sticking to hotels in cities), met as many people as he could, and, legend has it, assiduously wrote up his notes every single evening. This type of rigour of practise in the creation of non-fiction is something that is very recognisable to an anthropologist, and it can produce something lasting and beautiful. If we think of Naipaul’s non-fiction work, and the role he played as a collector of oral histories, life stories, and everyday narratives from a very wide range of places and peoples, yet another way to read him emerges.

It is because of Naipaul that we can still hear the voice of Michele Gibbs, a transplant from Chicago who landed up in Grenada in the 1970s, to participate in a then-unfolding coup (or possibly to work as a spy for the CIA). Michele wrote revolutionary poetry and made revolutionary paintings and composed the following poem after she heard of her mother’s death by gunshot in the U.S.

So livid were police to see
we three:
Ted, black
Paula, white
and me
together and at liberty.

It is because of Naipaul that I can understand what the town of Chapel Hill — where I lived, loved and studied between the ages of 17 to 20 — felt like in the 1980s, when it was being reshaped as part of an industrial and pharmaceutical hub. It is because of Naipaul that we can still continue to see many faraway people, places, and times with striking immediacy.

Anyone who makes a living off of conducting and writing and presenting the knowledge that is contained in interviews and everyday observation can appreciate the uniqueness of Naipaul’s ear in collecting his stories. Decades later, many still reverberate, full of particularities, nuances. The jokes, conflicts, wounds, joys and ideas presented within them seem fresh. Naipaul’s interviews and observations have an aliveness that exceeds the biological life of the writer and his many interviewees. They have a life that will extend beyond the racist, Islamophobic, misogynistic and often very wrong-headed theories that he concocts, using them as his base materials.

When writing ethnography, anthropologists are often trained to make a distinction between observation and analysis, between what one sees and hears in the field, and what one thinks about it. While this distinction has been extensively questioned within the discipline itself, thinking with it suggests new ways of reading Naipaul, in a manner similar to how classic ethnographic texts are continually read, re-read and re-interpreted. For if we read all of the interviews and detailed observations provided in Among the Believers, or The Masque of Africa, it is possible to come up with an account of these societies that differs quite significantly from Naipaul’s.

For example, in Among the Believers, we meet Prasojo, a young Indonesian college student, funny, articulate and warm, who makes for pretty good company. His views, on Indonesia, America (where he lived for a year), colonialism, politics, friendship, and life, are interesting, but they do not appear to support Naipaul’s abrupt claim that:

            “Prasojo was Muslim; he had friends among the new Muslims. But he was as yet far removed from the new Muslim wish to purify, to create abstract men of faith, men who would be nothing more than the rules. Prasojo possessed his Javanese civilisation too completely for that: it was his civilisation that he had been talking about during the drive.”

 The split that Naipaul, in his analysis, posits between the “Javanese” and “Muslim” parts of Prasojo don’t seem to be borne out by what we hear Prasojo saying. Naipaul’s interviews are so good that they resist the analytical lenses that he himself applies to them, and repeatedly. In this, his non-fiction writing can loosely be seen in the genre of other master popular oral historians such as James Agee, Studs Terkel, or more recently Svetlana Alexievich, only few other writers in this ever-developing genre have attempted to write as boldly across national and societal boundaries, roving across, as we have noted repeatedly, the world.

Naipaul’s boldness in attempting to write non-fiction about everywhere, and his striving to acquire knowledge where he lacked it, allowed him to craft a genre where he wrote the world as neither dilettante nor expert, but from a deeply human place that lies in-between. From this in-between place he made many mistakes, glaring errors in method, interpretation, analysis. Naipaul once said of Joseph Conrad, “A multiplicity of Conrads, and they all seemed to me to be flawed.”

We must say the same of Naipaul. We can’t hide from the writer of whom Teju Cole says, “this benevolent rheumy-eyed old soul: so fond of the word “nigger,” so aggressive in his lack of sympathy toward Africa, so brutal in his treatment of women.” We can’t avoid the fact that The Mongoose, perhaps the most vicious poem ever written (penned by Derek Walcott, another great, flawed, misogynistic man of letters) is at times spot-on when it comes to Naipaul’s bigotry. We can’t un-see what Patrick French made us see about Naipaul’s treatment of the women in his life and in his fiction. Yet even Naipaul’s flaws generated many things. Most obviously they pushed and gave a platform to the many who opposed him intellectually, artistically, and politically, to speak up in the public sphere in defence of their own worldviews. Without Naipaul, would the Guardian in 2004 have devoted so much space to debates surrounding the kingdom of Vijayanagar? Without Naipaul, would a generation of younger, mainly male writers (writers who all seem to have shared a fascination with the deterioration of the great man’s body) have had a sufficiently infuriating and inspiring figure to write in conversation with, and up against?

Less obviously, Naipaul’s flaws show us the importance of taking risks as we attempt to see the world around us in new ways. I wanted to write this piece on Naipaul (as neither an expert nor a dilettante) because as an anthropologist I use Naipaul all the time when I teach, and what I teach is one of his most obvious errors.

In field methods classes, I have my students read the prelude to An Area of Darkness, where a smuggler comes aboard Naipaul’s ship, that is docking in Bombay, and asks him “You have any cheej?” Naipaul most likely mistakes the Hindi/Urdu word “cheej” (thing) for the English word “cheese,” and then goes on to say “He required cheese. It was a delicacy in India. Imports were restricted, and the Indians had not yet learned how to make cheese, just as they had not yet learnt how to bleach newsprint.”  

As far as mistakes of content and context go, this one is a howler. My students and I have a laugh, but then we talk about both the dangers, as well as the importance, of looking at things that are strange to us. Even if we are going to be wrong, we can still try to see, because in postcolonial societies we live cheek-by-jowl with many things we don’t know, or rather are not meant to know. Naipaul crafts a method that shows us how to leave the coddling embrace of the known. He shows us that it is okay to know some things, but not everything; he shows us how to speak without expertise and without ignorance; he shows us how to connect places on a map that don’t seem to connect; he shows us how to be epic in vision where capital is the only epic.

The question emerges as to whether we really need this type of popular worldview writing anymore, at a time when it seems that so much great literature is focused on the particular, the specific, the neighbourhood, rather than the world. I think we do. At a moment when capital careens across the globe, erecting a Norman Foster building here, a university there, a 50-lane highway anywhere, we need other narratives of the global. Otherwise, most stories of capital come to be written by those who are consulting it on how best to move, even as politics becomes a game of walls and borders. We need more writers who travel widely, who can write across these borders, and who can show us new ways to see, at a planetary level. While they will necessarily be animated by different questions — maybe climate change, maybe immanent wars, maybe unforeseen utopias, maybe Mars — these writers will find in Naipaul both nourishment and bile, as we readers do in these days of rushed and slightly ghoulish remembrance.

And we can only hope that in order for there to be something truly new in these new planetary narratives, that most of these writers will be other than men.

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