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Footsteps

V S Naipaul (1932-2018)

Volume 15, Issue 2  | 
Published 18/11/2018
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That V S Naipaul was a literary giant whose name will go down in the annals of English literature as an iconic, even controversial, figure is not in doubt. Born in Trinidad of Indian ancestry as a child of the British Empire, he received an English form of education there and then at Oxford University. After graduation, he moved to London in 1954 to embark on a writing career that became firmly established with the publication of his novel, `A House for Mr Biswas`, in 1961.

As a student in London at the time, and as a colonial subject of Indian descent, one became aware of him making waves in metropolitan Britain.  But it was only after I returned to Kenya, on the cusp of independence, when his `Area of Darkness` (Area) was published that his real impact was felt by me and others of my generation of Kenya Asian literati, also children of the empire schooled in the British tradition, who were struggling to come to terms with who we were in the wider scheme of things.

Area dispelled such confusion. It gave us a sense of being part of a global Indian diaspora, but distinct from real desi Indians. In Area`s opening chapter, Naipaul encapsulated the essence of India as a resting place in the imagination of its overseas progeny, likening it to a shifting shadow, `a country ... never real ... out in the void ... suspended in time`. Area was a damning indictment of the land of his ancestors, of its teeming millions and abject poverty, its dysfunctional bureaucracy, its ramshackle infrastructure and neglected monuments, and a lot besides.  What he described, with a Churchillian flourish, as the ugly sight of Indians defecating everywhere publically was to mark him as an unsympathetic critic of India, but it with much of the rest of Area was to resonate with us when my wife and I made our first visit to India - the grand tour - in the winter of 1968/69. His other two major works on India, `A Wounded Civilisation` (1977) and `A Million Mutinies` (1990), also critically examined the state of the country as he saw it then, though the latter ended on a positive note.

In his fictional `In a Free State` (1971) and `A Bend in the River` (1979), he drew on his experience of East Africa where they were set during a time of massive change; these too made a lasting impression. But of course he travelled and wrote extensively, in a fearlessly expressive style and with a penetrating eye on the politics, culture, history and people of varied places across the Caribbean, South America, the Southern USA, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, South East Asia, Central Africa as well as Britain (`The Enigma of Arrival`). His whole body of work, including other fiction, and the Nobel Prize for Literature awarded in 2001, are a testament to his enduring legacy.  He will always remain one of my favourite authors.

Ramnik Shah

Copyright


Tribute By Gloria Mwaniga

Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, Nobel laureate and acclaimed novelist, died on 11 August 2018 aged 85. Naipaul was born of Indian ancestry in Trinidad in August 1932 and influenced to become a writer by his father’s reverence for writers and the writing life. At 18 years of age, he won a scholarship at University College, Oxford and moved permanently to England. Naipaul then started writing at the young age of 22 and interestingly, never pursued any other profession his whole life.

His Fictional Works

Naipaul has written well over thirty books in a career that span over 50 years. His works of fiction include the much acclaimed A House for Mr Biswas, The mystic Masseur, The Suffrage of Elvira, Miguel Street, The Mimic Men, In a Free State, A Bend in the River, A way in the world, Half a Life and many more.

Nonfiction and Travel Writing

In September 1960, Naipaul’s travel writing began when he was invited by Dr Eric Williams, the first Prime minister of Independent Trinidad and Tobago - the country to which his grandparents had migrated from India to work as indentured labourers on the sugar plantation. If his funders expected a non-judgemental yet humorous and wonderful retelling like the one in Miguel Street, they were in for an unpleasant surprise for in the book that came of this travel, titled The Middle Passage, Naipaul bluntly records his impressions of colonial society in both the West Indies and South America. In the chapter on Trinidad, he described the place as a society which denied itself heroes and only has two professions, law and medicine. He even spoke of how while in fourth form he wrote a vow on his paper to leave Trinidad and how years later while in England, he would be awakened by the nightmare that he was back in tropical Trinidad. As luck would have it, it was this examination of the impact of colonialism and nationalism and ‘suppressed histories’ in the very  far-off places he didn’t fancy that seemingly, earned him the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001.

The Middle Passage was followed by his much acclaimed Indian Trilogy which consisted of An Area of Darkness, India: A Wounded Civilization and India: A Million Mutinies Now. Naipaul then travelled further to Argentina, Trinidad and the Congo and penned the Return of Eva Peron and more books of nonfiction.

Having shown an innate ability to glide easily across genres and topics, Naipaul even tried his hand at religious writings after several months travel in Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia. He penned Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey and years later, its sequel Beyond Belief which focused on the theme of Islamic conversion. Later on, he travelled extensively across Africa and wrote The Masque of Africa, a book which explores indigenous religious beliefs and rituals but which many critics complained he wrote in a condescending manner.

Awards and recognition.

Naipaul’s prose though controversial, was quite excellent and earned him numerous awards among them the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize, Somerset Maugham Award, Hawthornden Prize,  Booker Prize and in 2001, the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature. He was also knighted for services to literature. So good was his writing that even the hard-to-please critic Evelyne Waugh once admitted that Naipaul’s prose ‘put to shame his British contemporaries’. Caribbean politicians also praised the images in Mimic Men and admitted that the West Indian descriptions were harsh but true.

Controversies

Great novelist as he was, VS Naipaul was no stranger to controversy. Throughout his life, he seemed to court attention at all costs chiefly by making lots of blunt and offensive statements. He infamously stated that ‘nothing was created in the West Indies’ and even declared at a Royal Geographic Society meeting in 2011 that he didn’t think any female writer was his equal, not even Jane Austen. Naipaul then went ahead to say that within a paragraph of a piece of writing, he could tell whether it is by a man or a woman and faulted this on women’s ‘sentimentality, the narrow view of the world.’ Perhaps Naipaul, who much admired Joseph Conrad, wrote with a prejudice about the third world which he might have gotten from Conrad. So fiercely tempered and difficult was he as a person that Diana Anthill, the editor who launched his career and published nineteen of his books, admitted that she felt relieved when they parted ways because she didn’t have to work with the writer who she confessed was ‘easily the most difficult writer she’d ever worked with’.

The broad spectrum of topics and themes, moods and genres that surround his colourful literary career must mean that we will never fully agree on, or even be able to classify him as a writer of this or that genre. This matter, it seems, shall remain an area of darkness to us readers, just like the Himalayan passes he wrote of. And yet, unlike Naipaul to whom the darkness meant his separateness from his ancestors, our inability to classify him must mean that readers will continue to enjoy his writings regardless of whether they are fiction or non-fiction.

Last modified on Sunday, 18 November 2018 22:42
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