Swans Commentary » swans.com October 20, 2008  



Mimic Man


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



French, Patrick: The World Is What It Is, The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul, Picador, London, 2008, ISBN 978-0-330-43350-1 HB, illustrated, 555 pages.


(Swans - October 20, 2008)   The world may be as it is, according to V.S. Naipaul's mantra, but what that writer has always given us is his own angle on the world, which isn't at all the same thing. His take is often penetrating and embedded in an imposing literary form, but remains very much the view of one writer, one man. What kind of man? Patrick French tells us in this absorbing biography that shows its protagonist -- never so calm and detached as his style would suggest -- busily adjusting his authorial persona to the events of the second half of the 20th century.

The book stands out not only because Patrick French is himself an accomplished literary craftsman and has been handed a wealth of material to work through. He was also given a free hand to say what he pleased about a still living author, the same who had let him into his archives and granted probing interviews. Naipaul believed a censored biography wasn't worth having and left French to his task. Of course it was Naipaul who chose French in the first place.

And there has been lip-smacking speculation about why an author in reasonable health had spilled the beans about himself and put in an order for his tombstone. The documents opened to French show Naipaul's knack of latching on to masochistic women and exploiting them to the full. The unpublished diaries of his wife Pat are shocking in this respect. Her reference to her husband throughout as "the genius" is only half humorous. Ian Jack commented in The Guardian April 5, 2008:

French writes that Naipaul's willingness to have the book published in his lifetime was "at once an act of narcissism and humility," but perhaps there was also another motive -- to have all this disseminated so that the public's curiosity is sated, pre-empting posthumous biographies and allowing his readers, in the years before he dies, to return to the importance of his work.

The leading character of Naipaul's 1967 The Mimic Men summed the story up as, "Hate oppression; fear the oppressed." The novel depicts "colonial emptiness," which for the author inclines former colonials to take on façade personalities that are unreal and on occasion murderous. Naipaul, who felt himself open to this temptation, built his life as a writer on observing the reaction at work in others and putting it to dramatic use. He too was a mimic man, though his mimicking would have another model than those his derided characters tried to embody. John Richardson, the homosexual art critic who lived in New York, lent Naipaul his apartment in 1979. He understood his guest: "I felt he enjoyed the unorthodoxy of gay men; he was at ease with them because he was self-invented. He had some identification with the gay man as an outsider." The excitement of French's biography is in watching the outsider's self-invention step by step and seeing how it shaped what the writer put forward as the world as it is.

It began in Trinidad as a child. Naipaul grasped the first rung of the scholarship ladder that would get him off the island. In his college years till seventeen he adopted a front of adolescent sophistication and phony cynicism. Acquaintances agree that he was his own man from the beginning. But where did this own man come from except the boy's determination to be different and similar to people he read about in books from abroad? Being part of a Hindu minority with Brahmin pretensions encouraged his myth of superiority. But his family would also be a difficult anchor to cut loose from when he would want to aim higher. The Trinidad East Indian clan knit him in tightly to a system of mutual support and responsibility. He jibbed all his life against it. There were exasperated and inexplicable breaks with family members. But mainly he relied on distance to escape seeing his family in the mirror when he dressed up in his new self.

At Oxford, the scholarship student suffered from poverty, but also from the itch to be different. He wouldn't have minded taking on an English identity, but his colonial origin and black face stood in the way. 1950s Britain was very far from being a multiracial society. His prospective father-in-law objected to him as an Indian. He'd singled himself out as "the writer" since childhood. However, selling short stories to the BBC, he found himself lumped together with other West Indian writers. The only acceptable job he could find after university was as literary presenter on the BBC radio's Caribbean Voices, where he was swamped by West Indians. The self-inventor was in a fix. He would give his short stories a corrosive turn to set them apart. But that wasn't enough. He spewed venom against the islanders in letters to Pat. The West Indians were provincial and bumptious. He looked with horror at being reabsorbed in their world after his interlude at Oxford. "Ever since I was twelve I swore to get away from Trinidad." He wanted to exist in the center, he said, not on the periphery. But the center, England, only found a niche for him in a colonial role.

Patrick French found that when interviewed a half-century later about his time at Caribbean Voices Naipaul played down having worked with others. His self-invention rewrote the past: "Vidia's subsequent claim to have had no literary influences bar his father was a deliberate blanking of the role of his colleagues at Caribbean Voices, who were crucial in forming his idea of what did and did not work on the page." Try as he might he couldn't eliminate the threat to his uniqueness posed by the West Indies. He was the kind of writer who could only work from personal experience and his had been in Trinidad. Right up until his success with A House for Mr Biswas of 1961, he may have been edging toward the center by living in London but he was still writing about the periphery. Invited to do a book on Trinidad by the prime minister, Eric Williams, Naipaul did his best, with the sour and score-settling The Middle Passage, 1962, to sever the association. As it happened the English postwar vogue for West Indian writers was passing. Naipaul met one of them in London and announced "he was going to become English." He was twenty-nine and planning a trip to India.

Thereafter Naipaul would use the distance he'd put between himself and Trinidad to take up the role of a traveling British-based observer of the international scene. His truculent judgments would regularly annoy progressive and liberal readers. They were views that might overlap with those of the Colonel Blimp conservatives but were rooted, paradoxically, in Trinidad. Thus his elitism that some called snobbery. As French shows, Naipaul's parents had only a loose connection with India and an even vaguer one with the Brahmin tradition there. But they considered themselves big fish in the local pond and understood that education was the only way out of poverty. Young Naipaul attended a school of some prestige that was noted for its old fashioned colonial rigor. In England he let his personal squeamishness pass for a Brahmin inheritance. As mass education diluted the old standards in Britain, he became a martinet of the sort that draws blood over semicolons. Austerity not refinement had marked his childhood home. In later life his ideas of what was "proper" in the way of attire or social protocol were as stiff as any social climber's. He reports indignantly on being served on "stained tablecloths" from Nairobi to Delhi to South Kensington. His wine talk seems to come out of an encyclopedia.

Working hard at it, Naipaul assumed an old-style British gentleman's persona that seemed a parody of Evelyn Waugh. (Waugh was not amused. He wrote Nancy Mitford: "That clever little nigger Naipaul has won another literary prize. Oh for a black face.") But once in the club Naipaul saw with dismay that other members were deserting it for a "swinging London" laissez-aller. He pushed on regardless, hardening his attitudes. He decried decolonization and spoke of "Negro" inferiority in interviews and statements. This idée fixe also had roots in Trinidad. The Hindu minority there was only part of a larger East Indian minority, outnumbered by the black population. With the arrival of independence in 1962 the black majority made its weight felt. As the old equilibrium crashed there was violence and, among Naipaul's community, great fear. He began to cultivate a horror of lawlessness.

Naipaul couldn't let alone the subject of black mishandling of independence and traced it around Africa. In Uganda he saw Milton Obote's coup that would lead to the rule of Idi Amin. In Kenya he watched African nationalism drive out the Indian residents en masse. He portrayed his Africa in a remarkable novel of 1971, In A Free State. The bulk of the population cared little for a nation based on law. It cowered in immemorial ignorance while one brutal leader after another had his turn in the killing fields. The author's especial interest was in the white outsiders who in the confusion of their idealism and guilt thought they could help.

The writer was again chiding the new regimes in the West Indies with a novel, Guerrillas, 1975. He took another swipe a post-colonial Africa (Mobutu's Zaire) with the novel A Bend in the River, 1979. In 1982 his wife Pat noted in her diary, "He doesn't want to write about black people but he hasn't anything else to write about." Naipaul's bigotry may not have been politically correct but neither did it make him a pariah. There were many who delighted to hear it. Blacks, though, could not be expected to relish what Derek Walcott called his "nasty little sneers" and "Naipaul's repulsion toward Negroes." Walcott, West Indian Nobel poet to be in 1992, was astonished -- "What a little shit!" -- when insulted by the future Sir Vidia Naipaul and thenceforth dubbed him V.S. Nightfall.

Naipaul's father, whose experience was limited to Trinidad, told his son he could marry outside the Hindu community if he wished. He could even marry a Christian. What he absolutely couldn't do was to take a Muslim bride. The writer would shoulder this hereditary prejudice all his life, bloating it to geopolitical dimensions. Islam became another obsessive subject. It inevitably intruded in his three books about India. In An Area of Darkness, 1964, the emotional impact of India drained him of all hope for the country. In 1977 in India: A Wounded Civilization, he found an explanation for decay in centuries of foreign rule. But the culprits are less the British than the Muslim invaders. By 1990, in India: A Million Mutinies Now, he saw some hope because of economic development and the rise of Hindu political movement whose anti-Muslim impetus he found encouraging.

But it was in Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey, 1981, that he took on Muslims, if not Islam, head on. He visited Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia and wove his book out of conversations with people. His skill made them meaningful characters who revealed a way of life. It was a pity that a simplistic thesis kept breaking through: Islam was a religion based upon an Arabic text, a fact that made it essentially imperialist and forced its believers to relinquish their native cultures. Edward Hoagland in The Washington Post rightly noted "a naked, contentious bias against Islam."

Naipaul's views hadn't really changed in the mid-1990s when he repeated the voyage and wrote Beyond Belief, 1998. The book had the same attractive interwoven texture of meetings and recounted experience. But the familiar thesis would intrude in various forms to make the point that fanaticism was at the heart of Islam. Edward Said was harsh: "His obsession with Islam caused him somehow to stop thinking, to become instead a kind of mental suicide compelled to repeat the same formula over and over." The subtitle pointed to the problem, Excursions Among the Converted Peoples. If converts to Islam who changed faith between the seventh and eleventh centuries hadn't made the new religion indigenous yet, wouldn't that leave Ireland, for instance, given its conversion in the fifth century, still an isle impoverished culturally by the supplanting of the Druids? Naipaul's Nobel Prize came in 2001. His fixation on Muslim fanaticism put him in the post 9/11 swim.

Patrick French has tried hard to keep a critical distance. But it wasn't easy with this immense writer whose work is fissured by some narrow ideas and who in his personal life often proved a disgruntled tyrant. French can come down hard on personal foibles, but on larger issues too often pleads the complexity of Naipaul's views. Thus on page 212, "Waugh was the first of a parade of reactionaries who would seek to appropriate Naipaul's writings, stripping them of their ambiguities in order to make a political point." On another level, though, French is never overpowered by his subject to the point of ignoring his fragility:

Naipaul's dismissal of his homeland became part of his persona, a persona he invented in order to realize his early ambition to escape the periphery for the centre, to leave the powerless for the powerful, and to make himself a great writer. I sometime thought of him as a man running up a beach with the advancing tide behind him, managing to stay a bare step ahead of the water. In order to become what he wanted to be, he had to make himself someone else. (Page xv)

This picture of a man on the run helps to define V.S. Naipaul. He tends to portray his contemporaries as unfulfilled, as belonging nowhere, caught between cultures that are crumbling or unable to take shape, in a word, as men possessing, as the title of his recent novel has it, only Half a Life. The authority of his prose gives weight to this distinctly partial view. But in fact it's the view and prose of a frantic running man. The lapidary style is often grinding one of the axes he brought with him from Trinidad. However it is much too simple to reduce Naipaul to Edward Said's "a third worlder denouncing his own people." Better to thank Naipaul for his indelible picture of how he sees the world and to demur respectfully that the world isn't like that. He's an anecdotal and descriptive writer, a creator of character. It's for that we should prize him, as Joan Didion did when she wrote: "The actual world has for Naipaul a radiance that diminishes all ideas of it."


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Published October 20, 2008