Frontline Volume 18 - Issue 24, Nov. 24 - Dec. 07, 2001
India's National Magazine
from the publishers of THE HINDU

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The critical eye


Half a life by V.S. Naipaul, Alfred A. Knopf; pages 211, $24.

THERE is a feature that has often marked the dust jackets of V.S. Naipaul's books. After some perfunctory details about his birth in Trinidad and education at University College, Oxford, the biographical note tells us that Naipaul began to write, in London, in 1954. And then, like a card being put on the table with a quiet confidence, comes the statement: "He has pursued no other profession." If this were not a fact, delivered with seriousness and also utterly credible, one would have taken it for a boast. Regardless, to understand the Nobel Committee's decision to award the Prize for Literature to Naipaul, we must ask what that statement means to us and also, of course, to Naipaul himself.

This steely sense of vocation did not come easily to the writer, however. Naipaul has himself related how he was unable to enter, in his youth, the world that the books presented to him: "I didn't have the imaginative key. Such social knowledge as I had - a faint remembered village India and a mixed colonial world seen from the outside - didn't help with the literature of the metropolis. I was two worlds away."

In fact, instead of books, it was cinema that absorbed the young Naipaul. "Nearly all my imaginative life was in the cinema," he recalls. At various times, when speaking of the decline of fiction, Naipaul has argued that the creative energies that went into novels in the 19th century shaped the new art form of film in the first half of the century that followed. There lies a clue to his art. Cinema is the closest I can come to an idea of an alternative profession for Naipaul. His entire oeuvre is obsessed with seeing.

To see is to admit light; it is the opposite of existing in an area of darkness. Naipaul has always believed that Indians have turned their eyes away from the history and the geography that was present to them as evidence. This conviction was there even when he was describing his ancestors who had migrated as indentured labourers from a village near Gorakhpur to the plantations of Trinidad: "My grandfather had made a difficult and courageous journey. It must have brought him into collision with startling sights, even like the sea, several hundred miles from his village; yet I cannot help feeling that as soon as he had left his village he ceased to see." Naipaul's acclaimed interest in clear prose has its profound grounding in the Enlightenment tradition where rationality is exercised precisely in a visual field. There is no thought if there isn't, in a literal sense, perspective and the centrality of the distant observer. And while seeing is also an inward act, it begins with the act of examining and documenting the outside world.

To see, and to record, is to perform the task of the writer. This is Naipaul's principal tenet. It is a tenet also of 19th-century realism, which accorded the world a solidity that it perhaps no longer has. But, within the terms of that worldview, the writer is less an artist than a craftsman, who is carefully, and skilfully, recreating the world in a meaningful, recognisable way. Nineteenth-century thinkers like Karl Marx would have easily known this writer. In this writer, Marx would have recognised a materialist. Why, then, is Naipaul's name anathema to the Left? A more difficult question lurks behind this one. Is the Left so parochial, so utterly bound to a programmatic philistinism, that it can only usefully read a novelist whose partisanship is secured in an a priori manner?

EQBAL AHMAD, who was among the most prominent Left intellectuals to emerge from the Indian subcontinent in the past several decades, in an interview recorded before his death in 1999, had declared that V.S. Naipaul should stop writing. "He should be selling sausages," Ahmad said. In the West, especially in the United States where Ahmad was also a Professor of Politics for several years, he was seen as an equal of those who were his comrades, Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, and Howard Zinn. In the early 1960s, Ahmad had served with Frantz Fanon in the cause of the Algerian liberation; in 1971, along with the Berrigan brothers, two anti-war Catholic priests, Ahmad was indicted on charges of conspiracy to kidnap Henry Kissinger. The case was later dismissed. With Said, Ahmad also played an advisory role in the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), and the Palestinian writer called him "a genius at sympathy". Speaking at a memorial after his death, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that Ahmad "was a shining example of what a true internationalist should be".

I mention all this in order to point out the contrast with Naipaul, who once told a friend that he never signed any petitions - he could not bear to see his name on anything he had not written himself. This smacks of a narrow, cranky individualism and it reminds us that, unlike Ahmad, Naipaul's excursions into countries of the Third World were not marked by solidarity but a more distant disinterestedness and even contempt. At the same time, it also draws attention to the stubborn autonomy of the writer. We are required to ask whether a writer should not actually be judged on grounds of his or her persistent themes or obsessions rather than historical affiliations and party memberships.

Ahmad's dismissal of Naipaul, it should be pointed out, was on reasonable grounds. Ahmad was opposed to the depiction of Pakistan, in Among the Believers, under Zia-ul-Haq as devoid of all the marks of thoughtfulness and dissent. In the interview from which I have quoted above, Ahmad reports on a conversation in which he had said to Naipaul: "It was your responsibility to at least report, mention, that the regime was being opposed at great risk to themselves by hundreds of thousands of people, including almost all the known poets, writers, and artists of Pakistan. Our best writers of that time were in prison or in exile. Numerous people had been flogged in public. Nearly 30,000 or 40,000 went into prisons, and you don't make one mention of it. You describe that regime as Islamic. The least that you could have done was to say that this was a contested space."

Why did Naipaul not see what is being pointed out by Ahmad? Whatever answer we give to this question, including a recognition on our part of the rage against Islam that has characterised many pronouncements that Naipaul has made, what we must finally address is the attraction as well as the limits of the paradigm of seeing that Naipaul has perfected. Many readers, myself included, are drawn by the sharp eye and the limpid prose. Where such writing runs into a dead end is when it relies most on the model of the imperial, 19th-century travelogue. Naipaul's reliance on that model, and his use of Conradian tropes of travel into colonial darkness, call for a certain scepticism. Clarity in writing by itself suddenly begins to appear like a dubious, archaic quality, cloaking questions about power and ideology.

Most vitally, we are reminded that, standing as we are in the mess of history, we cannot have plain or easy responses to the world, Naipaul included. Each of us shares a divided world; even our judgments are no longer indivisible. It is not only that we can no longer innocently claim the viewpoint of the disinterested observer. Rather, we cannot even easily claim purchase on the whole reality any more. In some important ways, Naipaul succeeds as a writer because in his themes he struggles against this condition, and, at the same time, also expresses most eloquently, this broken, radical incompleteness of the new world.

THE dream of wholeness, or of return to one's origins, is a pervasive psychical preoccupation among diasporic peoples. Displacement often carries the pathos of misaddressed letters. The pathos comes from the knowledge that completeness is a myth. Origins lie in the irrecoverable, damaged past. If there is no wholeness, you cannot claim originality. There is only mimicry. An investigation into this condition, and the gift of its contradictions, has been a part of Naipaul's lifework. It is a theme that finds surprising form in his latest novel, Half a Life. In a sense, this novel, at the level of form, mimics its own theme.

Half a Life begins with the words, "Willie Chandran asked his father one day, 'Why is my middle name Somerset? The boys at school have just found out, and they are mocking me." In response, the father, a small man in a small town in southern India, begins to tell the story of how the son had been named after a famous writer who had been on a visit to their town in the years before Independence. We see the outlines of a story about Somerset Maugham and The Razor's Edge. But the story is also about the father's desire to mimic another man. That man is Gandhi. And the narrative, with the distant, pedagogical economy of a fable, draws us into a tale, touched with farce, about how love and writing and politics are born through imitation. The son rebels against the knowledge his father gives him. And, in what is also a mimicry of his father, but laced with his own difference, he begins to write stories that mock his father and their shared, pitiable condition.

In doing all this, the writer Naipaul is also mimicking himself. The story he is telling here echoes what we have read in his earlier books. His account of the agitations of people belonging to the untouchable caste borrows its energy from what Naipaul had written in the opening chapter of his travel book, India: A Million Mutinies Now. The pattern is repeated in what follows in Half a Life. The second part of the book follows young Willie Chandran's arrival in England on a scholarship. Willie's fumbling attempts at sex, the lack of money compounded by the poverty of his experience, are subjects that Naipaul had broached with some feeling in The Mimic Men. ("Intimacy: it was violation and self-violation. These scenes in the book-shaped room didn't always end well; they could end in tears, sometimes in anger, a breast grown useless being buttoned up, a door closed on a room that seemed to require instant purification.")

In Half a Life, we also accompany Willie on his path to self-discovery as a writer in London. This is Naipaul's turf. Again, as in his fragmentary memoir, Finding the Centre, Naipaul prepares us here not only for the excitement of writing, or its difficulties, but the discovery, touched with belittlement, of the colonial life as a subject of metropolitan consumption. Willie is told by a friend, "India isn't really a subject. The only people who are going to read about India are people who have lived or worked there, and they are not going to be interested in the India you write about." Today, when post-colonial fiction is all the rage, Naipaul's re-staging of this account of his past - the men wanting Bhowani Junction and the women, Black Narcissus - allows us to place his own writing and the shape that immigrant fiction has taken in the West in a history of struggle against Western desires and demands.

The third and final part of Half a Life is set in Africa, where Willie attempts to make his home, after his marriage in London to Ana who is from a country that resembles Mozambique. Ana is attracted to Willie because she finds in his book a story of her own past. It is Willie, insecure and without money, who asks Ana to return with him to her decrepit plantation-home in Africa. This journey to Africa, which for Naipaul has always been beset by colonial tropes, returns us to a landscape of ruins and grim omens. At the same time, the tale is enlivened by a writer's sense of inquiry: "But I felt that the overseer had a larger appreciation of the life of the place; his surrender was more than the simple sexual thing it seemed. And when I next saw the mildewed white staff bungalows I looked at them with a new respect. So bit by bit I learned. Not only about cotton and sisal and cashew, but also about the people."

Half a Life, in its final section, journeys into the darkness of the sexual self. It is a journey into a form of awakening and even grace - a new theme within the pattern of repetition I am tracing here - but it is also touched with a tender recoil from cruelty. Adulterous cavorting, literally, among snakes. Love is poisoned by the landscape of failure. Africa then, no less than India in this story, plays a part what is only a fable, even if the fable is made up expertly from details of a well-recorded life.

Often, the three parts of Half a Life have, pinned to the skin of their narratives, those small details that convey so well the author's ability for observation. The more abstract vision that places these details in a fable belongs to a writer who has learned that his world is never whole except in his writings. This particular view might be, in the opinion of some, a misreading of life and of art, but it cannot be said that the body of Naipaul's work represents anything less than an enormously dignified response to the pain of a world found grievously lacking and incomplete.

Amitava Kumar teaches at Pennsylvania State University, United States, and is the author of Passport Photos (University of California Press and Penguin-India).

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