The death of Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul reminds us of the self-righteousness that removes him entirely from the achievements of his early fiction depicting the history of the indentured labourers from East India.
The death of Vidiadhar (Vidia) Surajprasad Naipaul, at 85, on 11 August 2018 has made ripples in the literary waters but no major splash. Salman Rushdie’s farewell tweet was circumscribed:
“We disagreed all our lives, about politics, about literature, and I feel as sad as if I just lost a beloved older brother. RIP Vidia.”
Paul Theroux, who had reconciled with Naipaul after a famous 15-year lit break-up of a spectacularly successful master-protegee relationship, was aping those who praised Naipaul’s brilliance.
Patrick French’s riveting 2008 authorised Naipaul biography, The World is What it Is, reveals in shocking detail how Naipaul’s racism and bigotry found completion in the cruelty and violence he visited on both his wife, Patricia, and his mistress Margaret Murray. The descriptions are now an ineradicable part of his legacy. The biography also endorses Naipaul’s disdain for Africa.
“My books stand one on the other, I am the sum of my books,” said Naipaul in his 2001 Nobel acceptance speech, “Two Worlds” and spoke of “those areas of darkness around me as a child (in Trinidad), which became my subjects, the land; the aborigines; the New World; the colony; the history; India; the Muslim world, Africa and then England, where I was doing my writing.”
Naipaul also said he was nearing the end of his work, having pushed himself creatively as far as he could go. His last work, The Masque of Africa; Glimpses of African Belief (2011), a travel book, which continues the themes of his fiction located in the dark continent, shows him still capable of extracting from Africa the ugliest of its visions.
The novella, which is the title story in In a Free State, in the eponymous Booker prize-winning collection (1971), depicts a seething danger inherent in a newly independent, unnamed East African state, where plump 20-something Africans can read and write, and where civil servants wear clothes that they have not paid for. Bobby and Linda, two British expats, themselves in a state of disharmony and dislocation, untethered and untogether, experience no freedom in this place, rather, further dislocation and humiliation. Bobby, a stereotyped gay man, clad in a saffron cotton “native shirt”, tries for an easy pick-up in a bar; “a small young African man”, who it turns out is a Zulu refugee and who says he would not be seen dead in such a shirt as Bobby’s, leads Bobby on before deftly spitting in his face.
A Bend in the River (1979) also located in an unspecified African state, which resembles Zaire, its sense of hopelessness underlined in its first damning sentence:
“The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”
In South Africa, the publication of The Masque of Africa was eagerly awaited after a controversial meeting between Naipaul and his wife Nadira with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, in 2010. Writing in the Evening Standard, Nadira used material from what Madikizela-Mandela later said was a private conversation, condemning her husband Nelson Mandela’s perceived selling out.
Religious, not political, belief is the theme of The Masque of Africa, but Naipaul writes that, having travelled to Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Gabon, in South Africa, he understands that the role of politics in this place cannot be underestimated and that in fact, race is “the all in all”. His experience of revulsion at what he describes as a kind of simplified primitivism is enhanced by “the realm of awfulness” he experienced in Johannesburg’s municipal muti-market.
Here Naipaul selects from a cornucopia of images including a line-up of body parts, including horse heads still covered in hair. These contrast with his own sentimentality about the “poor” animals sacrificed to the beliefs that he had came to Africa to ridicule.
“I thought it all awful, a great disappointment. The people of South Africa had had a big struggle. I expected that a big struggle would have created bigger people, people whose magical practices may point the way ahead to something profounder.”
Then, as if realising the absurdity of his denouncement, he continues:
“It was impossible later to feel that any succour the local diviners offered could put right the great hurt that the big city and its ancillary too-stringent townships inflicted on the people who lived in them.”
Riding alongside the horror of this travelogue is the beauty of which Naipaul in his mastery is the purveyor. Empire has left its mark on nature by constructing parks of enduring loveliness. British explorers, such as John Hanning Speke and Henry Morton Stanley and their books belong in this realm of the beautiful and Africans in their practices of witchcraft are dark and odorous.
This deliberately simplistic depiction concludes that the magic Naipaul finds in muti markets is “the simplest kind, from which nothing could grow”. He writes that before visiting the muti-market, he witnessed a different kind of African pain at the Apartheid Museum.
“The two Africas were separate; I could not bring them together. Moving from one set of ideas to another, you came to feel that its politics and history had conspired to make the people of South Africa simple.”
The continent’s horribleness is evident everywhere. Both colonised and coloniser are at fault.
Naipaul is hugely impressed by Rian Malan’s autobiographical My Traitor’s Heart. Malan gives him a copy of Herman Charles Bosman’s Mafeking Road. Naipaul compares Bosman’s stories to the Voortrekker Monument, “a work of art” which “aims high, yet it is brought low by its subject”.
“Bosman’s stories are beautifully done, but their underlying subject is unstated,” he writes. “These people (in the stories) are not only simple country people, but out of their simplicity; their lack of imagination, they will bring untold pain on the Afrikaner people.”
This reductionist approach finds a handy metaphor in the garbage that Naipaul sees everywhere and in its inadequate disposal on the continent.
Waste feeds the marabou storks in the grounds of Makerere, the Kampala university where in 1966, Naipaul was a writer in residence. Taunting the locals may well be compensation for enduring the hellish limitations and stupidity of the colonised he perceives.
Relating a tale of war, waged by Mutesa’s army in Uganda against the Wavuma, told in a book authored by Stanley, dated 1875, Naipaul writes:
“The British colonial period, with laws and without local wars, has to be seen as an interlude. How do Africans live with their African history? Perhaps the absence of a script and written records blurs the past; perhaps the oral story gives them only myths.”
The world of mythology is so broad that he can swim inside of it.
“Africans eat everything that nature provides,” except their token animals, we learn. It would be fair to label sadistic his delight in exposing readers to cat-killing, bat-killing, animal-smoking, ostensibly for culinary purposes by the Africans he disdains.
The death of Naipaul, considered by many to have been one of the world’s greatest post-colonial writers, reminds us again of both his achievements in his vast body of work and of his revulsion for the shards of empire.
It reminds us too of the self-righteousness that removes him entirely from the achievements of his early fiction depicting the history of the indentured labourers from East India, and especially the displacement and cruelty experienced by an Indian Trinidadian, apparently based on his own father captured so brilliantly in A House for Mister Biswas (1961) which Teju Cole has called an ecstatic evocation of Caribbean life.
The Swedish academy rewarded Naipaul for “having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories”.
It is his interpretation of such histories that during his long and fruitful career served to consolidate the opinion that Naipaul was a self-hating bigot and which continue to raise the dilemma of how to reward and remember ugly people for writing beautiful prose. DM
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