V. S. Naipaul was born into a world where books made little mention of life as he knew it. The books Naipaul read during his Trinidadian youth—fairytales, works of Moliere, de Bergerac, the English canon—depicted places and peoples imaginary and far away. Such books were a release from the poverty and cramped houses of Port of Spain, but as staples of his “forced education,” they were also imposing and humbling. The things worth writing about in books were apparently things outside Naipaul’s own life.
Born in 1932, Naipaul was the grandson of Indian immigrant laborers. Despite his close generational ties to India, however, his Hindi identity was easily lost in Trinidad’s bursting scene of Afro-Caribbean, Spanish, English, and Chinese cultures, languages, and faces. His connection to India was limited to what stories and sayings his grandparents passed down. Meanwhile the English language became equally if not more important to his identity. Naipaul’s father was a journalist, and he instilled in Naipaul a reverence for books and the “high civilization connected with the language.” English literature, then, was both a foreign presence and a familiar obsession in Naipaul’s youth. By the time he left home for England at 18, Naipaul’s connection to England was, in a way, as well-founded as his Indian roots. These phantom identities made him capable of a simultaneous nostalgia for and curiosity about two countries he had never been to.
No wonder the young Naipaul could not find a book that spoke his mind. The Victorian novel could hardly encompass the cross of nationalities, the din of languages, or the blur of colors that were facts of Naipaul’s youth. His “exceedingly simple and exceedingly complex” background—as he referred to it in his 2001 Nobel lecture—required its own literature to make it comprehensible and legitimate. The recreation of his world in words is what Naipaul set out to do.
In his Nobel lecture Naipaul said that he is the sum of his books and that each new book he writes contains all the books that precede it. This can surely be said for The Writer and the World: it is a collection of essays Naipaul wrote over the past four decades (some previously published). Its scope includes India, South America, the United States, Africa and the Caribbean Diaspora. It introduces the reader to politicians, farmers, writers, priests, and the leaders of cults and causes. Naipaul’s analytic essays have the intimacy of fiction. And his precision as a writer is as impressive as his versatility as a traveler. Everywhere he goes, Naipaul’s talents for observation and expression allow him the removed perspective of a foreigner but also the intimate understanding of a native. “To me situations and people are always specific,” he writes, “always of themselves. That is why one travels and writes: to find out. To work in the other way would be to know the answers before one knew the problems.”
What Naipaul found out, at least on his terms, is that the world is full of tragedies that are invisible to the people who experience them. He sees invisible tragedies mostly in the Third World; many of his essays tell the story of what happens to colonized people after their colonizers leave. There is always poverty, there is always corruption, and there is often death. This storyline is not itself surprising. But Naipaul adds to the post-colonial narrative a unique and tragic observation: the lack of self-awareness and self-analysis of these peoples perpetuates the crises of their countries. Laziness is not the problem; most of Naipaul’s subjects are engaged in “causes” and politics. But in a re-wording of Marx’s famous line, Naipaul writes that “politics are the opium of the people.” Marx thought religion encouraged the self-delusion of the working class; Naipaul believes politics can be similarly illusory and stagnating.
For instance, in “The Ultimate Colony,” Naipaul exemplifies how politics can be a dead-end by examining the Governor, Sir John Paul, and the Premier, George Price, of 1969 British Honduras. If the Governor uses what little power he has, the colony could become more self-sufficient; independence, though, is a threat to him because it would put him out of a job back in England. The Premier is a priest-turned-politician, a white man with a good tan plugging Black Power; he wants more power to gain Honduras’ independence, but would probably hand the country over to Guatemala, and meanwhile does not want much to do with earthly possessions. Naipaul makes his characters seem absurd and fictional, but always reminds us of their tragic reality.
In “The Election in Ajmer” and “In the Middle of the Journey,” Naipaul presents an India suffering from colonization withdrawal. What political infrastructure existed at Independence has, fifteen years later, deteriorated into village tribalism; political merit during famine is based on moral resemblance to Gandhi, on service and sacrifice, not on any attempt to pipeline water to starving villages; nothing can be pointed at and called the “real” India, for India is apparently more conceptual than concrete. This hallucination, however, does not stop politicians from politicking.
When the same vain struggles pop up all over the world, it becomes hard to believe that Naipaul sees only in specifics, that he has no grander agenda. His cynicism about the Third World makes one desperate for redeeming moments, and he offers few. But if he seems ruthless, it is at least in part because so few people—writers included—are willing to be. And indeed Naipaul picks a literary bone with a few writers in these essays: he entrusts writers with the responsibility to see the world for those who cannot—literally, in the case of Columbus writing for his Old World audience.
In “Argentina and the Ghost of Eva Peron,” Naipaul offers a fascinating understanding of Borges as a metaphor for his country. If Columbus was guilty of creating the world as he wanted it to be, Borges (and Argentina) was guilty of avoiding the world altogether. It has always been the claim of Argentina that it is more European than South American; by racial account, it is indeed the whitest country on the continent. But that is largely because its past included purging natives and then forgetting about it. Naipaul likens Argentina to India for being most adored by its people as an idea rather than a reality. It is no coincidence, then, that “Borges is Argentina’s greatest man.” Borges’ famous labyrinths were perfections of the mind, abstractions and absurdities, and they permit the nation to get lost in them for the sake of something more beautiful than reality.
The only writer that Naipaul considers a literary ancestor is, appropriately, British, and in fact a foreigner-turned-British: Joseph Conrad. At the other end of the twentieth century, Polish-born Conrad was attracted to England’s authority as a “civilized” country just as Naipaul was. It was in England that Conrad, like Naipaul, could “become a writer,” and it was from there that he embarked on his journeys at sea and through the Congo, most famously fictionalized in Heart of Darkness. Conrad’s themes were similar to Naipaul’s, too: the corruption of the colonizer and the colonized, the challenge and necessity of understanding the world without illusions, and yet our inevitable dependence on them.
But while Conrad blurred the distinction between “civilized” and “uncivilized,” suggesting that humanity bears a common heart of darkness, Naipaul upholds the distinction. He uses the terms “periphery” and “center” as the coordinates of his journey to England at age eighteen, for even at home, Trinidad felt peripheral. The Writer and the World, like all of Naipaul’s work, insists relentlessly that the countries of the Third World are uncivilized and that imitation is their doom, without ever suggesting that their continuing struggles might be the fault of their colonizers rather than their own.
Naipaul is not a politician, however, and placing blame is not his object. Rather, The Writer and the World shows us the writer’s power to take readers places they have never been, and to make them see afresh places they have. Naipaul’s prose resonates with a respect for language and an astuteness of observation. If his youth lacked literature that told him what life was like in the dusty streets of Trinidad or India, he has since created it. And as for England, Naipaul’s silent respect for it would make Borges proud.