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A review of: Selwyn Cudjoe. V.S. Naipaul: A Materialist Reading. Amherst: U of Mass. Press, 1988.

Few figures in contemporary letters have managed to generate as much varied response as V.S. Naipaul. Reactions to Naipaul often seem easily divided along political and/or geographic lines; conservatives from the Western world love him; and leftists from the rest of the world hate him. When Selwyn Cudjoe subtitles his study of Naipaul "A Materialist Reading," another way of saying "A Marxist Reading," his stance towards Naipaul should be easy to predict.

In some ways, Cudjoe's evaluation of Naipaul turns out to be fairly predictable; the statement towards the end of his book that "Naipaul has clearly aligned himself and his writing on the side of the dominant class" (226) is precisely the type of conclusion that we expect Cudjoe to reach. How he gets there is somewhat surprising, but that this is where he arrives satisfies all of our expectations. Yet the book does not end with that judgement. It ends with these sentences: "Later, rather than sooner, [Naipaul's] work will be given the measured treatment it deserves, and that which is socially and morally uplifting will be treasured and retained. I hope that this analysis is the beginning of such a process" (229). That Cudjoe values Naipaul's work is not entirely astonishing; but that he imagines himself to be giving a sympathetic reading is altogether shocking. How Cudjoe manages to hold these two antithetical opinions of Naipaul's writing, and to work through them towards some sort of synthesis, gives his book its energy and makes it an important contribution to Naipaul criticism.

Cudjoe frequently manages quite brilliant transitions from one text to another, by showing how each new text builds from the omissions and limitations, which the previous text revealed. For example:

Naipaul's inability to effect a closure in The Mimic Men led him to look for a more 'informed' rationale to explain the colonial subject and resulted in his use of what can be called colonial discourse...Thus the nature of his examination, particularly after The Mimic Men, led him back again to the origins of the colonial enterprise to seek to describe the behavior and nature of the colonized person...The Loss of El Dorado, then, emerges as Naipaul's attempt to understand the colonial subject in his or her historical specificity (111-112).
The limitations which Naipaul comes up against in one work are explored in the subsequent work. For another example, after The Middle Passage, Naipaul has realized that his West Indian background cannot fully explain who he has become; he thus turns to India to search for answers. After the travels of An Area of Darkness, Naipaul finds himself unable to deal with what he has discovered, and sublimates this experience into Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion. These transitions convince the reader that Naipaul's career forms a coherent whole, held together by an ideological development that moves further away from sympathy for the Third World and becomes more and more difficult to distinguish from a strictly European perspective.

By calling his method "materialist," Cudjoe automatically invokes a number of assumptions about the type of study he will be conducting. He positions himself in direct opposition to what he will call "idealist" studies, of which Bruce King would be a prime example. In contrast to King's method, "this book will be an examination of Naipaul's work rather than an attempt to understand him as a person. The texts rather than the author will be the center of the study" (4). Cudjoe (to some extent) keeps to his second promise: biographical details of Naipaul's life are subordinated to textual analysis. Yet calling this study "materialist" also masks many of the theoretical apparatuses which Cudjoe will employ, especially psychoanalysis. Through psychoanalytic readings of Naipaul's work, Cudjoe does draw conclusions about Naipaul the person, and does attempt to understand him. As a materialist, Cudjoe assumes a direct correspondence between Naipaul's psyche and Naipaul's writing, so that, like an analyst analyzing a patient's dream, Cudjoe uses the texts to diagnose the neuroses and psychoses which plague Naipaul. Such a method, while questionable, corresponds to Naipaul's own logic. Cudjoe's argument is in many ways analogous to Naipaul's reading of the stories and memoirs of Michael X. As Naipaul puts it, "facts can be realigned. But fiction never lies; it reveals the writer totally" (Return of Eva Perón 67).

The more rigorous psychoanalytic segments of the book, especially the chapters treating The Mimic Men and the Indian travel books, are extremely suggestive, though something of a mixed bag. Cudjoe's reading of The Mimic Men charts Ralph Singh's failed journey to independence from the mother country, England, through a number of incidents that reveal his arrested development and inability to proceed past a narcissistic stage. After giving a convincing reading of Ralph's psyche, Cudjoe then makes the questionable leap to equating Ralph's psychoses with Naipaul's: "[Naipaul's] inability to move fully out of the mirror stage of development and assume a social identity separate and distinct from that of the mother (country) results in his feelings of fragmentation and loss, disorder and helplessness, isolation and unease" (111). The argument is intriguing, but sometimes over-reaches: writing of India: A Wounded Civilization, Cudjoe calls Naipaul's work of the late seventies "his psychotic response to his ancestral home" (179). Just how scholarly it is to call Naipaul "psychotic" remains an open question.

Each chapter begins with epigraphs, often as many as three, sometimes from Naipaul's work or from critics of Naipaul, such as Gordon Rohlehr, but more frequently from the body of what has been called "European high theory": Foucault, Bakhtin, Heidegger, and others. These epigraphs map Cudjoe's theoretical affiliations. Cudjoe twice cites Pierre Macherey to explain what might be meant by a materialist analysis. For example, Macherey writes: "Ideology is a false totality because it has not appointed its own limits, because it is unable to reflect the limitations of its own limits...Like a planet revolving around an absent sun, an ideology is made up of what it does not mention; it exists because there are things which must not be spoken about" (120). As we can see from both this passage, and from the readings which I have already discussed, Cudjoe's materialism is actually an analysis of ideology in the vein of Althusser or Macherey. Cudjoe borrows heavily from psychoanalysis and concentrates especially on the text's assumptions and lacunae (what is left unsaid) to get at what might be called the underlying logic of each text, and Naipaul's career as a whole.

At its best, Cudjoe's ideological analysis, when it leaves behind psychoanalyzing Naipaul, can be quite perspicuous. For example, in the chapter for which the above citation serves as epigraph, Cudjoe's discussion of The Loss of El Dorado uncovers the absences and assumptions of Naipaul's version of history. In particular, Naipaul's reliance on Western documents and therefore Western ways of seeing short-circuits his ability to say about the substantial African population anything more than "the slave is silent, faceless...he has no story" (Loss of El Dorado 376) This version of history reveals the "limitations of colonial discourse" (V.S. Naipaul 118) for describing colonial history: "He was unable to penetrate deeply into the Negro culture and psyche and for that reason the African remained unreal, residing only within Naipaul's imagination. Because Naipaul was unable to locate the African in his 'real social world,' he was unable to reveal him as a fully constituted colonial subject. As a consequence, his work, particularly as it relates to the African person, is of limited value" (119). This reading relies less on judgements about Naipaul's psyche than his work. Cudjoe has no trouble arguing that his depictions of Blacks are unsympathetic and unconvincing; whatever Naipaul himself thinks of Africans, his acceptance of a Western vision of history limits his ability to write history any other way.

Whatever reservations I have expressed about Cudjoe's methodology, he seems to have gotten so deeply inside Naipaul's psyche that he anticipates the title of A Way in the World by six years: he sees Naipaul's latest phase of writing as driven by "his impulse to find an orientation in the world" (210). (See endnote #1) Unfortunately, V.S. Naipaul: A Materialist Reading was published in the midst of this latest phase, and so cannot fully account for what many see as Naipaul's overtures towards reconciliation with Trinidad, Africa, the Islamic world, and India. Cudjoe makes the important observation that in this latest phase, begun in Finding the Centre and The Enigma of Arrival, "reality must always be confused with fiction (perhaps in Naipaul's case they are one and the same)" (223). For a materalist view of the world, the subordination of reality to textuality is a symptom of post- modern obfuscation. Substituting a coherent system such as writing for reality serves to mask the contradictions of a real world filled with suffering and struggle. Naipaul has come to "fetishize writing" (209) because he has realized that he no longer can understand the world, or say anything meaningful about it.

All of this is not to say that Naipaul's contribution to West Indian letters, or European letters for that matter, should be dismissed. As I noted at the beginning of this review, Cudjoe could not have written this book if he thought Naipaul's work to be worthless. He especially likes the early novels, up to The Mimic Men. These novels, which describe the situation of an East Indian in the Caribbean. But Naipaul never can go beyond these surface desriptions. As a result, some of the later work is finally judged as close to worthless: of the novels and travelogues of the late seventies and early eighties, Cudjoe writes "at that point of his career, his dynamism, his creative insights, and his quasi-philosophical observations all seemed to have dried up. His themes repeat, his prose becomes transparent, and he strains after effect...As he loses contact with his society and his self-contestation ceases, so too do the validity of his insights" (209). Yet all of his work remains valuable as part of "recording and chronicling this extraordinary period of ours [the social transformation from colonialism to post-colonialism]" (229). To this end, Cudjoe's reading of Naipaul makes a significant companion to Naipaul's fiction and non-fiction, continually reminding the reader of the assumptions and limitations of Naipaul's perspective, and of the presence of other orientations in the world.

1. This is not the first time which Cudjoe has been so prescient. In 1980, four years before the publication of Finding the Centre, while interviewing Gordon Rohlehr, Cudjoe asks: "What is the reason for [Naipaul's] wanting to scrape together these odds and ends of experience? Has he lost some sort of centre?" See Rohlehr, Gordon. "The Space Between Negations: Gordon Rohlehr interviewed by Selwyn Cudjoe, 6 May 1980." The Shape of That Hurt and Other Essays. Port of Spain: Longman Trinidad, 1992. Page 106.

Submitted by Rafe Dalleo

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