From the Other World
October 22, 2001
By Selwyn R. Cudjoe
When the Nobel Prize Committee conferred the Nobel Prize for Literature on V. S Naipaul, they lauded him for "having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compels us to see the presence of suppressed histories." In honoring him as a Briton, they acted as though Trinidad was merely one of the literary locations about which Naipaul had written. Little did they understand that Trinidad is the place in which Naipaul was made and to which he returns, ever so often, for his spiritual sustenance and literary inspiration.
Without Trinidad, indentureship, Seepersad Naipaul, Gault MacGowan, editor of the Trinidad Guardian and the Trinidad Guardian, there would be no Naipaul. These were the enabling elements and social contexts of Naipaul's art. In 1975, in his foreword to his father's book, The Adventures of Gurudeva and Other Stories, Naipaul acknowledged that it was through his father's journalism "on McGowan's Guardian that my father arrived at that vision of the countryside and its people which he later transferred to his stories . . . This is part of the distinctiveness of the stories.
I stress it because this way of looking, from being my father's, became mine: my father's early stories created my background for me." Against this testimony, no selective citation of sources and other homes can change these literary facts of life, whether Naipaul or the Nobel Prize Committee wills it or not. Whether he wishes to acknowledge it or not, Naipaul's literary inspiration remains Trinidad, West Indies. Like so many things in life, these facts exist independent of Naipaul's acknowledgment of them.
From the inception of his career, the source of Naipaul's art was Trinidad. "Two Thirty A.M." (1950), a poem, and "This is Home" (1951), a short story, deal with the nostalgia he felt for his home as he experienced a sense of fear and trepidation when he encountered Britain in 1949. Thereafter, all of his early novels, The Mystic Masseur (1957), Miguel Street (1958) and A House for Mr. Biswas (1961) were set in Trinidad. In them, he attempts to understand his people's position in Trinidadian society. His Hinduism and his outsider status color everything he does thereafter. Even in Half a Life, his most recent novel, he returns to his Hinduism to retrace many of the themes he raised in his earlier works, albeit in a much more tender manner. The Middle Passage (1962), An Area of Darkness (1964), Mimic Men (1967), The Loss of El Dorado (1969), all respond to the Trinidad condition and are shaped by the social realities of this society. In many instances, they are brilliant insights into our people's behavior, the animating principles of his art.
It is in Among the Believers (1981) and Beyond Belief (1998) that Naipaul really began to explore the Muslim dimension of his experience of which his people felt a certain discomfort. These explorations of the Muslim world, at a time of tremendous antagonism between the West and Islam, propelled his career to new heights. No doubt, this status was heightened by the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York and the West's new curiosity about Islam. After September 11, the urgency of the relationship between the West and the East; Christianity and Islam; empire and former colonial societies cried out for exploration. Into the breach fell Naipaul's work that justified the fears many in West felt about Islam.
In its citation, the Swedish Academy cites The Enigma of Arrival (1987) as Naipaul's masterpiece and argues that Naipaul visits "the reality of England like an anthropologist studying some hitherto unexplored native tribe deep in the jungle. With apparently short-sighted and random observations he creates an unrelenting image of the placid collapse of the old colonial ruling culture and the demise of European neighbourhoods." Little does the Academy realize that many persons in the Third World consider the word "tribe" to be as offensive as the "n" word? Nonetheless, nothing surpasses A House for Mr. Biswas in terms of sheer imaginative depth and insight into the demise of the Trinidad Indian/Hindu world of the thirties and the forties. A New World epic, A House of Mr. Biswas, is a splendid re-creation of the Ramayana, the Hindu epic, in the new world of the Americas in which the Hindus settled.
Necessarily, the Nobel Committee did not mention Naipaul's negative depiction of Third World peoples. Derek Walcott called it "Naipaul's prejudice" which he defined as follows: "The myth of Naipaul as a phenomenon, as a singular, contradictory genius who survived the cane fields and the bush at great cost, has long been a farce. It is a myth he chooses to encourage-though he alone knows why, since the existence of other writers in no way diminishes his gifts." Although Naipaul softens his prejudices in A Turn in the South he still remained scornful of the aspirations of non-white people. Even in Half a Life, he has no problems in having one of his characters describe Marcus Garvey as "the black crook who founded the [Back to Africa] movement."
Saint-John Perse (1887-1975), the first West Indian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, was listed as a citizen of France although he was born in Ilet-a-feuilles, an island near to Guadeloupe. Although he left the Caribbean at the age of 12, much of his poetry is influenced by his early life in the Caribbean and the theme of exile. In 1903, at the Prize Day of his French lycee, he listed Pointe-a-Pitre as his hometown. Roger Little sums up his achievement as follows: "His birth in the French West Indies allowed him a greater measure of objectivity, and his keen sense of observation coupled with a probing curiosity over a wide spectrum of human and natural activities gave him an unusually perceptive grasp of man's present condition." Naipaul may even have agreed with the sentiment that Perse expressed in his Nobel Acceptance Speech: "It was enough for the poet to be the bad conscience of his age."
Naipaul deserved to win the Nobel Prize. According to the Nobel Committee, he remains one of our most brilliant "philosophe." Although many of our citizens resent the harsh things he says about our people, he remains one of our most cherished possessions. Walcott puts it best when he acknowledged: "Despite his horror of being claimed, we West Indians are proud of Naipaul, and that is his enigmatic fate as well."
Whether he likes it or not, Naipaul's work is marked indelibly with the uniqueness of the Caribbean experience. In spite of his contradictory tendencies, he remains very much a Tricki-dadian. His work proclaims his true literary identity and that should be good enough for us. In honoring and accepting him, we honor and accept the best in ourselves.
Cudjoe's book, V. S. Naipaul, was published in 1988. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org
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