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The Man Without a Country

New Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul and His Critics

By Mahinder Kingra | Posted 10/17/2001

The Swedish Academy's decision to award the 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature to V.S. Naipaul was both long overdue and genuinely unexpected; it certainly stands as the most controversial choice in years. Since the mid-1980s, the trustees of the world's most respected and richest literary prize have tended to recognize either liberal or leftist social critics (South Africa's Nadine Gordimer, Italy's Marxist playwright Dario Fo) or defiant humanists (Ireland's Seamus Heaney, Poland's Wislawa Szymborska). In Naipaul, they have chosen neither. Indeed, they have honored someone whom, only a few years ago, was considered by Nobel insiders to be too politically charged to ever win the award.

In announcing its decision, the Academy described the Trinidadian-born writer of Indian descent as "a literary circumnavigator, only ever really at home in himself, in his inimitable voice." Even Naipaul's most implacable foes recognize the truth of this characterization. His writing--whether fiction, reportage on his restless travels, or such unclassifiable works as 1994's A Way in the World, which blends history, autobiography, and fiction--is unrivaled in its precision, its ironic detachment, and its restraint.

But Naipul's critics believe he is an unrepentant reactionary who has used his considerable literary talents to deprecate the peoples and beliefs of the Third World. In "At Last," a scathing poem about Naipaul published in the 1976 collection Sea Grapes, fellow Nobel laureate Derek Walcott wrote, "You spit on your people,/ your people applaud,/ your former oppressors laurel you./ The thorns biting your forehead / are contempt/ disguised as concern."

More recently, in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, Edward Said reviewed Naipaul's second book about Islam, Beyond Belief, and dismissed the writer as "a man of the Third World who sends back dispatches from the Third World to an implied audience of disenchanted Western liberals who can never hear bad enough things about all the Third World myths--national liberation movements, revolutionary goals, the evils of colonialism--which in Naipaul's opinion do nothing to explain the sorry state of African and Asian countries who are sinking under poverty, native impotence, badly learned, unabsorbed Western ideas like industrialization and modernization."

Is Naipaul a West Uncle Tom, telling the industrial powers what they want to hear about the ignorance and incompetence of the developing world? A literary Gunga Din foolishly fighting on the side of his people's oppressors? He would, I think, answer this charge with a question of his own: Who are my people?

Naipaul's family, like thousands of others, was forced by poverty to migrate from India to the West Indies as indentured servants, a journey for which they suffered a loss of caste, became forever disconnected from India, and yet discovered that they would never feel at home in the colonies either. "We were in a kind of limbo," he recalls in Reading & Writing: A Personal Account (2000). "There were few Indians there, and no one like us on the street. Though everything was very close, and houses were open to every kind of noise, and no one could really be private in his yard, we continued to live in our old enclosed way."

Around the world, these communities found themselves torn between half-remembered stories about their ancestors ("mangled bits of old India") and independence movements that increasingly defined themselves along racial lines. Idi Amin's expulsion of 60,000 South Asians from Uganda in 1972--six years after Naipaul had lived there--served as a brutal reminder of this diaspora community's impermanence.

The accusation that Naipaul is insensitive to the legacy of imperialism, therefore, seems particularly hollow. On the contrary, no writer today is more aware of how colonialism has shaped the world. History made Naipaul an exile, depriving him of a past, of an identity, of rootedness, and he has spent his career as a writer and an inveterate traveler attempting to understand this phenomenon on a personal and a global scale. His first novels--The Mystic Masseur (1957) and his masterpiece, A House for Mr. Biswas (1961)--describe this predicament among Trinidad's Indian community with a knowing humor that is at once cutting and affectionate. In later books, Naipaul investigates the consequences of colonialism and independence in India (1964's An Area of Darkness), in Africa ('79's A Bend in the River), in England ('87's The Enigma of Arrival), and in the Caribbean ('94's A Way in the World). This quest also informs his two books on the non-Arabic Muslim world (Among the Believers and Beyond Belief), in which he equates the cultural upheaval resulting from conversion to Islam with the havoc wrecked by imperialism.

What emerges from Naipaul's books, both individually and as a body of work, is a profound chronicle of dislocation. He has achieved what one of his most memorable characters, The Mimic Men's Ralph Singh, envisioned: "It was my hope to give expression to the restlessness, the deep disorder, which the great explorations, the overthrow in three continents of established social organizations, the unnatural bringing together of peoples who could achieve fulfillment only within the security of their own societies and the landscapes hymned by their ancestors." We are all adrift, Naipaul contends, cut off from any sense of an authentic past and forced to reinvent ourselves. It is a proposition at once frightening and liberating. What makes Naipaul so vital an artist, and so deserving of the Nobel Prize, are his unrelenting efforts to come to terms with the weight--and weightlessness--of history, in flawless prose that tempers anger with irony.

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