This essay was written in 2001, when V.S. Naipaul won the Nobel Prize for Literature
I was in my teens when I read Naipaul’s essay on how, in the Trinidad of his youth, the flowers of the Caribbean were rendered invisible by the unseen daffodils of text-book English poets. That essay sparked so powerful a jolt of recognition that the moment has stayed with me ever since. As a child, while reading ‘The Mutiny on the Bounty’ I’d been fascinated by the word ‘frangipani’ which seemed to me to be redolent of all that was mysterious, desirable and secret. Then one day I discovered that the gnarled old branches by my window belonged to none other than a ‘frangipani’ tree: I’d been staring at them for years. My response was neither shock nor disappointment: it was rather a sudden awareness of the anomalousness of my own place in the world. This was not an awareness I had ever seen reflected in anything I’d read – until I came across Naipaul’s essay.
This was the magic of reading Naipaul in those years. His views and opinions I almost always disagreed with: some because they were founded in truths that were too painful to acknowledge; some because they were misanthropic or objectionable; and some because they came uncomfortably close to being racist or just plain ignorant (the last, particularly, in his writings on the Islamic world). Yet he was writing of matters that no one else thought worth noticing; he had found words to excavate new dimensions of experience.
Today, decades later, that essay about language has become so intimate a part of my own experience that I cannot be certain where my own memory ends and Naipaul’s narrative begins: was the frangipani mine or his, or was it instead a jacaranda that I was thinking of? From time to time other such Naipaul moments still surface in my memory, like aching wisdom teeth. Some years ago I was writing an essay about an experience of my own, in the Delhi riots of 1984. Obscurely, I recalled a passage from a Naipaul travelogue; this is how I described it: “in his incomparable prose Naipaul describes a demonstration. He is in a hotel room, somewhere in Africa or South America; he looks down and sees people marching past. To his surprise the sight fills him with an obscure longing, a kind of melancholy: he is aware of a wish to go out, to join, to merge his concerns in theirs. Yet he knows he never will: it is simply not in his nature to join crowds. .. It was Naipaul who first made it possible for me to think of myself as a writer, working in English… I read him with that intimate, appalled attention which one reserves for one’s most skilful interlocutors. I remembered that essay because I too was not by nature a joiner: reading that account I thought I had seen, once again, an aspect of myself rendered visible in Naipaul’s pitiless mirror.” The word ‘influence’ seems inadequate for a circumstance like this: it is as though Naipaul’s work were a whetstone against which to sharpen my own awareness of the world.
Through my formative years, in India, Naipaul summoned in me an intensity and absorption that no other writer could evoke. I read everything he wrote, with a close and often combative attention: Miguel Street, The Suffrage of Elvira, The Mystic Masseur, A House for Mr. Biswas, The Mimic Men, Mr Stone and the Knight’s Companion and In a Free State. I still love these early novels; in my view Naipaul deserves the Nobel for these alone. But it was his non-fiction rather than his fiction, that first brought V.S.Naipaul to public attention in the West, particularly his two books on India, An Area of Darkness and India: A Wounded Civilization. An Area of Darkness created a sensation because of its tone of derision and outrage. Yet, on careful reading I think it is not hard to see that the target of Naipaul’s rage is none other than himself and his own past. His derision stems not from what he sees in India but rather from his disillusionment with the myths of his uprooted ancestors. But these books did indeed mark a decisive turn in his work. After this he would never again look at life outside the West on its own terms: India, the Caribbean and Africa would become faded backdrops on which to project a vision of the West, England in particular. After this, the richly textured islands of his early work would disappear, to be replaced by a series of largely interchangeable caricatures of societies depicted as ‘half-made’ in comparison with Europe. In this phantom contrast, the non-Western could never be anything other than insubstantial – a world defined by what it lacked. Predictably, this turn in Naipaul’s work proved immensely popular in the West and he was quickly canonised for his indictment of the ‘Third World’. It is a measure of his influence that in the West today, travel writers are taken seriously only to the degree to which they are able to replicate the familiar Naipaulian tone of derision.
It is a moot question whether or not Naipaul will be pleased by the Nobel: it is not long, after all, since he accused this very committee of befouling literature from a great altitude. In any event it is not surprising that Naipaul has expressed a wish to consecrate his Prize to England, his adopted home, rather than to India. In typical Naipaulian fashion this leaves unnamed the places to which he owes his true literary debts: Trinidad and the Caribbean. It was Trinidad, with its fecund cultural intersections, that gave Naipaul his literary ambitions, his distinctive voice and the setting for the novels for which he will be best remembered. Sir Vidia’s Nobel is a tribute not just to his own prodigious, if sometimes wayward, gifts, but also to the island of his birth.
This article on Naipaul, written by Amitav Ghosh in 2001 on the occasion of V.S. Naipaul’s Nobel Prize in Literature, has been republished with permission from the author’s blog.