Evaluating an enigma
This special issue of the South Asian Review represents a cross-section of the global Naipaulian scholarship.
V.S. Naipaul: His Idea, Work and Art, special issue of South Asian Review, Volume 26, No. 1, edited by P.S. Chauhan, South Asian Literary Association, University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, PA, 2005, p.427.
I have always moved by intuition alone. I have no system, literary or political. I have no guiding political idea.
V.S. Naipaul, Two Worlds
FROM B.B.C. freelancing to Nobel Laureateship: that is V.S. Naipaul. No other writer, in recent times, has generated more controversy than this British-educated, West Indian-born writer of Indian descent. The nearest parallel in living memory is, of course, the Milton controversy fuelled by T.S. Eliot in the 1940s. Naipaul's critical reception remains divided between his determined apologists on the one hand, and his equally determined detractors on the other.
Postcolonial critics indict him for his alienated vision in his supercilious representation of the Third World, particularly the Islamic world. In the words of Caryl Phillips, "Naipaul's undisguised contempt for the people of the third world has been the most problematic of his career". Edward Said denounced him as a "native informer" who sanctifies the metropolitan stereotypes of the countries which constitute the periphery. These are what Naipaul scornfully calls "half-made societies". There are those who dismiss Naipaul as a colonial stooge, a cynic, a snob and an ill-tempered gadfly.
And there are those who admire his seductive prose, his detached observations and intellectual judgments. His journalistic travel reportage, innumerable interviews and inflammatory public statements about the role of the artist in a developing society and, more importantly, his works that defy any generic classification all these make his oeuvre vast in scope and variegated in design. One major difficulty posed by Naipaul is that his fictional writings make sense only when they are read vis-à-vis his non-fiction. Naipaul's life and vision form a seamless whole.
The sum of his books
In his Nobel acceptance speech, he maintains, "Everything of value about me is in my books. I will go further now. I will say that I am the sum of my books." It is hard to come by a wholly inclusive reading of his works. This is probably the reason that prompted South Asian Review to devote a special issue, V.S. Naipaul: His Ideas, Work and Art, that will help his readers formulate an impartial assessment of the man and his writings, safeguarding him against any likely reductive misreading.
The special issue of South Asian Review is packed with 25 articles by Naipaul scholars, 11 book reviews besides an abstract of the articles. Of these, 11 are on his novels and the rest on travelogues, shorter-fiction and non-fictional writings. Now is the right time for taking stock of his contribution to the world of letters, the dust having settled down four years after he won his Nobel award and two years after what appears to be his last work of fiction, Magic Seeds (2004).
The special issue, in the words of its guest editor P.S. Chauhan, represents "a cross-section of the global Naipaulian scholarship". The articles are in the nature of revisionary studies on Naipaul. Uncorrupted by prejudices, these articles place Naipaul in the present context. They serve as a salutary corrective to ideologically based interpretations. Essays like "Naipaul after 9/11", "Deterritorializing Trinidad and India", "Writing for the West", "Naipaul and the Language of Return", "The Global View of Naipaul" are evidences to show that the journal does not recycle previously received notions but presents the shifts and changes that have taken place in recent Naipaul scholarship. "Naipaul's Women" corrects the normally held view that Naipaul was a misogynist and the women in his fiction were belligerent and obnoxious creatures. "Writing for the West" is meant to correct the view that Naipaul, being influenced by "Western literary, aesthetic and political ideas", always had the Western audience in mind. The articles in this special number are meant to "inundate" (borrowing the term from Masood Raja's essay "Reading the Postcolony in the Center") his writings with critical and historical data. Despite all these attempts to offer to us the most balanced view possible of Naipaul's writings, the one thought that finally lingers in the mind after reading all these revaluations is what Jasbir Jain asserts in her article, "Out of the Colonial Cocoon": Naipaul has not transcended the colonial self.
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