The house that Naipaul built

August 13, 2018 12:00 am | Updated 03:35 am IST

It is not his travel writing that makes him one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, it is his fiction

The joke, considered by some to be factual, runs like this. An Englishman, an admirer of the descriptive writing of the blind Ved Mehta, goes to a literary party in London in the 1980s because he has heard that Mehta would be there. The Englishman suspects that any writer who is so good at description cannot be truly blind. On arriving, he asks the hostess if Mr. Mehta is in the room. She says, yes, I think he is sitting on a sofa at the back of the hall. The Englishman navigates his way through the crowd and reaches the back. He spots an Asian sitting alone on a sofa. Sneaking up, the Englishman waves his hands in front of the Asian’s face. No response. The Englishman pulls faces. No response. Just then the hostess passes by, so the Englishman turns to her and whispers, “You know, Mr. Mehta there is really blind”. “But that is not Mr. Mehta,” she replies. “That is V.S. Naipaul.”

Like all good jokes, there are elements of truth in this one. V.S. Naipaul, or Sir Vidia as he was called after receiving his knighthood, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, was a man who did his own stuff, and seemed to be blind to those who pulled faces at him. This was misleading: he could see them and was often highly conscious of what they were doing. But he would not condescend to respond to them, except indirectly in his writing. This was an indication of his greatness as a writer.

Naipaul’s hurt

Born on a small Caribbean island to a family of Indian origin, Naipaul made himself a major writer with a rare single-mindedness of purpose. He also brought this concentration, this ability to observe without seeming to be moved, to the best of his works. Of course, this ability was misleading. “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry,” W.H. Auden wrote of W.B. Yeats. The madness of the world was also essential to Naipaul’s oeuvre. But while Yeats, the poet influenced by a Romantic sensibility, wore his hurt on his literary sleeve, Naipaul kept it deeply hidden. That is why Yeats’s hurt translates into beautiful, lyrical poetry with little humour in it, and Naipaul’s hurt translates into humorous, ironic or satirical fiction at its best.

Despite the fact that Western critics focus inordinately on it, it is not Naipaul’s travel writing that makes him one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, it is his fiction. His travel writing comes across as hasty at times. I suspect the reason so many Western journalists do not see this is that, at a far higher level of accomplishment, Naipaul’s travel books move through the non-West with something of the burden of received opinions and impatience that Western journalists often display in their incursions.

But even here, there is a difference. Naipaul’s highly accomplished non-fiction was flawed not as much by what he saw critically and impatiently in other cultures, for these insights were often acute despite being politically unsavoury, but what he chose not to see in them — and in himself. This had to do with his hurt; his, at times, desperate trajectory from the margins to the centre, and its consequences.

The hurt that Naipaul does not easily show — or shows only as criticism, humour, satire — is revealed in the nature of the two of his greatest books, which are among the greatest ‘novels’ of the 20th century: A House for Mr Biswas (1961) and The Enigma of Arrival (1987). In very different ways, both occupy that particularly fruitful space between fiction and memoir. A House for Mr Biswas , with a story inspired by Naipaul’s father’s warped intellectual struggles in a discouraging postcolonial environment, is one of those rare recent novels in which the protagonist is basically conservative and yet gains the reader’s sympathy. The Enigma of Arrival is the story of the writer V.S. Naipaul, told by the writer V.S. Naipaul: a memoir dressed up as a novel, or a novel dressed up as a memoir, depending on how you choose to look at it. Selecting deceptively from actual autobiographical facts, this ‘novel’ (which is what Naipaul chose to call it) is correctly read by critics as examining the ambiguities of leaving or arriving ‘home’.

But what also needs to be recalled is that the place where Naipaul arrives, or fails to arrive, in this novel is next to Stonehenge, the very heart of England, so to say. This trajectory remains central to any understanding of Naipaul as a person and a writer. It relates to the hurt I have mentioned, which is primarily that of a great artist seeking to escape — and all artists seek this, consciously or not — the whirlwind of time. This might also mean escaping the lesser storms of ugliness, pettiness, disorder. For writers who feel, as the younger Naipaul obviously did, caught on the margins of history, to be ‘post’ not just the colonial but also at times the sensible, this hurt assumes compulsive force. It is an index of Naipaul’s artistic greatness that he shaped it into highly honed creativity and did not allow it to seep, as it often does in postcolonial circles, into insistence, rhetoric, bitterness and resentment.

Contested politics

Naipaul’s politics, especially but not only in his non-fiction, has been often indigestible to many, including, at times, me. This does not detract from his stature as a writer, especially a writer of fiction. But it cannot be ignored. In Naipaul’s defence, one has to add that he often seemed to operate with a basic assumption that was anathema to the Left but that is largely justified. The Left (much more so in the past) operates on the assumption that if only the poor and the deprived could assume power, we would overcome the problem of power being abused. In all his writing, indirectly but clearly, Naipaul scoffs at this idea. For him, the fact that you are poor is no guarantee that you will be just if you assume power; the fact that you were deprived does not mean that, given a chance, you won’t deprive others.

Hence, while acutely aware of the abuse of power within any conservative status quo, finally Naipaul prefers a coherent status quo to radical or revolutionary change. This explains his sympathy for extant English and (to a certain extent) Brahminical-centric tendencies over radical religious, social and political ideologies. Perhaps like Mr Biswas in his long-sought and finally half-achieved house, Naipaul knew that our house is not perfect and that it is ludicrously incomplete, but he preferred living ironically in it to pulling it down. Who, honestly speaking, can claim that he was entirely wrong? Who, in any case, with a roof over his head?

Tabish Khair is a novelist and academic who works in Denmark

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