V. S. Naipaul
BORN: 1932, Chaguanas, Trinidad
NATIONALITY: British, Trinidadian
GENRE: Novels, essays, short stories
A House for Mr. Biswas (1961)
A Bend in the River (1979)
The Enigma of Arrival (1987)
A Way in the World (1994)
V. S. Naipaul. Naipaul, V. S., photograph. AP images.
V. S. Naipaul, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, is one of the world’s most accomplished authors. His work centers on the Third World, including countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, South America, and the Caribbean. He has spent much of his life traveling, and his work usually expresses the viewpoint of a rootless, stateless wanderer who observes his surroundings as an outsider. His detached stance and bleak, skeptical outlook have made Naipaul’s work controversial, but his lucid style, skillful use of dialect, and perceptive eye are highly praised.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
The Roots of Rootlessness. Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born August 17, 1932, on the island of Trinidad. His grandfather had come to the West indies as an indentured servant, as many indians did between 1880 and the 1930s, to work on sugar, tea, and rubber plantations. His father was an aspiring journalist who never gained the respect of his wife’s family, a prominent clan in the island’s high society. Naipaul later fictionalized this situation in his breakthrough novel, A House for Mr. Biswas.
Early in life, Naipaul experienced a profound alienation, both from his close-knit family life and from the social and political life of Trinidad. He attended one of the island’s best high schools and won a scholarship to attend Oxford University (University College) in 1950. England, more than Trinidad, became his home beginning in the 1950s, and in 1955 he married a political- science student, Patricia Hale. Nevertheless, studying English literature at Oxford was not the most suitable preparation for the literary career he was already planning. Naipaul worked as a broadcaster for the BBC during the late 1950s, but soon gave up this position to write full-time.
These youthful experiences set the terms for his entire literary career. Saddened by Trinidad’s material and cultural poverty, distanced from his ancestral India, and unable to relate to the heritage of his adopted home—both country’s former imperial ruler, England— Naipaul recognized that he was ‘‘content to be a colonial, without a past, without ancestors.’’ Most of his work deals with people who, like himself, feel estranged from their society and who desperately seek ways to belong. By the same token, many of Naipaul’s stories are set in Third World countries creating new national identities from the remnants of native and colonial cultures.
Emerging from Trinidad, in Fiction. In the late 1950s, the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, once colonies of the British Empire, began the process of becoming an independent nation. In his first four novels, culminating in A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), Naipaul drew on his Trinidadian background and current events for subject matter. The first three are short, gently satirical novels, emphasizing cultural misunderstandings and various ironies resulting from an illiterate society’s shift from colonial to independent status.
A House for Mr. Biswas marks a turning point for Naipaul. Set also in Trinidad, it echoes in some passages the light tone of the earlier pieces, but far surpasses them through the detailed, compassionate character study of Biswas, the ambitious writer of Hindu extraction, defeated in the struggle for a place of his own, the fictional representative of the author’s own father. Many critics regard A House for Mr. Biswas as Naipaul’s first masterpiece. In 1998, The Modern Library listed the work among the finest one hundred novels written in English.
A Global Canvas. After the success of A House for Mr. Biswas, Naipaul increasingly sought broader geographic and social contexts in which to explore his themes of drift and dislocation. He began to travel extensively, using London as a permanent return base. He wrote prolifically, alternating between journalism and autobiographical fiction, always from the persona of an alienated ex-colonial. His earlier lighthearted tone faded as he examined the more tragic consequences of rootless alienation through the eyes of various ‘‘universal wanderers.’’
The Middle Passage: Impressions of Five Societies—British, French, and Dutch—in the West Indies and South America (1962) was Naipaul’s first work in the journal- ism/travel genre for which he became famous. Naipaul is unsparing in his view of the Caribbean as blighted by the legacy of slavery and imperialism—indeed as a region with no real past or useful tradition to draw upon. An Area of Darkness (1964) describes Naipaul’s travels to India. His harsh portrayal of this country shocked many readers; some critics accused him of arriving in India with a rigid bias in favor of Western tradition and ideology. (His second book on the subcontinent, India: A Wounded Civilization , generated similar criticism.) With The Loss Of El Dorado (1969), a critical history of Trinidad since the Spanish conquest, Naipaul was widely hailed as an explainer of the Third World to the First.
Naipaul’s next novel, In a Free State (1971), was his first nontraditional work, consisting of five stories set in an unnamed developing country in sub-Saharan Africa. The work’s conception and execution won rich praise, but its author’s tragic outlook struck some readers as unduly bitter and pessimistic.
Portraits of Civil and Moral Disorder. Guerrillas (1975), Naipaul’s most sexually explicit novel, takes place on a Caribbean island recently liberated from colonial rule. Naipaul returned to an African setting four years later with his most acclaimed novel, A Bend in the River. In a setting of a small village, the writer further explores all of his important themes: the social and moral disorder left in the wake of imperialism; the problems of underdeveloped Third World nations caught between old tribal ways and the new technology of dangerous weaponry and flashy consumer goods; and the liberal white woman in the Third World landscape, a catalyst for volatile sexual and political emotions. Although Naipaul does not name the postcolonial state in which he lays his story, readers familiar with current events could recognize it as Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), during the early days of Mobutu Sese Seko’s brutal regime in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
A Bend in the River, like In a Free State and Guerrillas, contains elements of sexual and political violence within an atmosphere of impending chaos, causing some reviewers to conclude that Naipaul views Third World societies as essentially hopeless. The controversy surrounding his work intensified with the publication of Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1982), in which he examines the Islamic revival in Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Naipaul presents a scathing picture of the civil and social disorder in these countries and attributes this to the dominance of Islamic fanaticism. In the wake of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and the lengthy Iranian hostage crisis in 1980 (in which radical students stormed the American embassy in Tehran, seized American hostages, and held them for more than a year), some Americans antagonistic to radical Islam responded favorably to this argument. Others perceived Naipaul’s analysis as shallow, too negative, or even biased.
Fact and Fiction, Outer and Inner Landscapes. Naipaul’s next novel is also considered a masterpiece by many, although a highly unconventional one. The Enigma of Arrival: A Novel in Five Sections (1987) is a work of fiction, although the narrator writes autobiographically and much of the material is indistinguishable from Naipaul’s own life; for example, the novel explicitly mentions the death of Naipaul’s sister. Most of this book is set in the countryside of southern England around Salisbury. The Enigma of Arrival was Naipaul’s first book to sell well in England. Part of this success was attributable to his depiction of a specifically English landscape and of the rural working-class characters that populate it.
A Way in the World: A Sequence (1994) combines memoir, historical scholarship, and imaginative writing in a series of nine narratives of people whose lives have been altered by their encounters with Trinidad. The book mixes elements of Naipaul’s fiction and nonfiction, drawing on his Indian and West Indian heritage, along with British history and culture, to reveal the complex impact of British imperialism on the sensibilities and memories of individuals.
Snubs and Honors. In February 1996, Patricia Naipaul died. That April, Naipaul married Nadira Khannum Alvi, a Pakistani journalist whom he had met while on a speaking tour. Naipaul—who for some time had been associated with conservative politics in England and the United States—began to speak more aggressively on behalf of Hindu nationalism, generally taking the line of India’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party. India has long been marked by sectarian violence between its Hindu and Muslim citizens, and Naipaul’s siding with the Hindu faction stirred more controversy.
On October 11, 2001, it was announced that Naipaul had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Naipaul has continued to write prolifically since receiving the prize, despite advancing age. He has claimed, though, that Magic Seeds (2004) is his last novel.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Naipaul's famous contemporaries include:
Derek Walcott (1930-): Trinidadian poet and playwright, 1992 Nobel laureate in literature.
Nelson Mandela (1918-): former president of South Africa; imprisoned for twenty-seven years by the apartheid regime.
Julius Nyerere (1922-1999): First president of Tanzania (previously Tanganyika); served from 1964 to 1985.
Gore Vidal (1925-): American novelist and essayist.
Works in Literary Context
Influence of Conrad. One author Naipaul has publicly cited as an influence is Joseph Conrad, another British immigrant (from Poland) whose novels forced the British, and the world, to examine the disturbing implications of empire. Critics have noted that the dark, brooding atmosphere, tropical settings, and alienated perspective in Naipaul’s prose resemble similar qualities in Conrad’s writing, including the latter’s most famous work of fiction, Heart of Darkness (1899). As in that work, some of Naipaul’s European characters come emotionally undone as their pretensions are exposed in the alien African setting. A Bend in the River bears direct comparison with Heart of Darkness in the journey each work’s protagonist undertakes. However, some critics have interpreted Naipaul’s work as a defense of the colonial project rather than an indictment of its bitter consequences.
Literature of Displacement. Naipaul has contributed richly to the body of modern literature dealing with the theme of displacement, exile, and rootlessness, as dealt with by major authors such as James Joyce, Albert Camus, Ezra Pound, Vladimir Nabokov, Milan Kundera, and Conrad. This theme is embodied in characters such as Salim in A Bend in the River, an Indian Muslim living in Africa who is treated like an outsider during his country’s political upheaval. It is also shown in the story ‘‘One out of Many’’ from In a Free State, in which an Indian servant finds himself in New York and realizes he is utterly lost regarding matters of money and law in the strange land.
A Towering Figure. The extent of V. S. Naipaul’s influence is large. His carefully observed, forcefully worded assessments of social and political life in such geographically disparate locations as central Africa, the West Indies, the Americas, India, and the Islamic world are widely studied and cited. For example, scholars have asserted (ruefully) that since World War II, no single text has influenced popular views of the politics and culture of Argentina more than Naipaul’s The Return of Eva Peron. Indeed, the whole genre of contemporary travel journalism, of which Paul Theroux is a leading exponent, is substantially indebted to his work. Authors from all parts of the world have claimed him as an influence.
Works in Critical Context
Naipaul is widely acknowledged as one of the giants of contemporary literature. He is admired for his command of language and dialect, his acuity of observation and detail, and for his insights into the way human beings internalize and live out the effects of social and geopolitical conditions. Others have accused him of being unduly pessimistic. For example, the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott, another Nobel laureate, derided his fellow West Indian as ‘‘V. S. Nightfall’’ in his poem ‘‘The Spoiler’s Return.’’
A Bend in the River (1979). When A Bend in the River was published in 1979, Naipaul was already known for his bleak themes and subject matter. Irving Howe, in a New York Times review for the book, states, ‘‘Naipaul seems right now to be a writer beleaguered by his own truths, unable to get past them.... Perhaps we ought simply to be content that, in his austere and brilliant way, he holds fast to the bitterness before his eyes.’’ However, many critics saw in the novel a slightly refined and less bitter perspective than his previous works. Charles R. Larson, writing for the Chronicle Review, asserts that the book ‘‘shows us the mellowing of one of our greatest contemporary writers.’’ Benny Green, in a review for the Nation, notes that ‘‘while the book might be said to be deficient in the conventional tensions of fiction,’’ it is nonetheless ‘‘a book of wonderful authority and wisdom.’’
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Naipaul's celebrated novels In a Free State and A Bend in the River concern political turmoil in postcolonial Africa and the havoc caused by clashing cultures, European and African, tribal and modern. The following works of literature, all set in Africa, set in narrative motion a related set of forces:
Heart of Darkness (1899), a novel by Joseph Conrad. A major inspiration for Naipaul, this tale concerns an ambitious European who has fallen prey to delusions of grandeur in the Congo and the man who is sent to retrieve him.
The Sheltering Sky (1949), a novel by Paul Bowles. A married couple from New York travels into the North African desert, ignorant of the dangers surrounding them.
Things Fall Apart (1959), a novel by Chinua Achebe. The most celebrated African novel in English, this tale concerns British disruption of village life in Nigeria.
The Constant Gardener (2001), a novel by John Le Carre. A British diplomat, investigating his wife's murder in a remote region of Africa, discovers the corporate conspiracy that led to her death and which may doom him as well.
The Pick-Up (2002), a novel by Nadine Gordimer. This tale treats the issue of loving across the divides of class, race, religion, and immigrant status.
Responses to Literature
1. Discuss the depiction of women, and in particular Caucasian women, in the novels of V. S. Naipaul. Do these views conflict with or conform to the general view of women in North American society today?
2. Research the history of the immigrant community on the island of Trinidad, the social milieu in which Naipaul sets his novel A House for Mr. Biswas. Why do you think Naipaul grew disenchanted with his home at such an early age? Did this disenchantment remain a constant theme in his writings? Provide several examples.
3. How exactly is The Enigma of Arrival a work of fiction, and how exactly is it a memoir? Write an essay on the ways that Naipaul subverts, or transcends, the expectations of both genres in this book. You may want to look at A Way in the World as well.
Dissanayake, Wimal. Self and Colonial Desire: Travel Writings of V. S. Naipaul. New York: Peter Lang, 1993.
Gorra, Michael Edward. After Empire: Scott, Naipaul, Rushdie. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
Jussawalla, Feroza, ed. Conversations with V. S. Naipaul. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997.
Hamner, Robert D. V. S. Naipaul. Independence, Ky.: Twayne, 1973.
Kamra, Shashi. The Novels of V. S. Naipaul: A Study in Theme and Form. New Delhi: Prestige Books/ Indian Society for Commonwealth Studies, 1990.
Khan, Md. Akhtar Jamal. V. S. Naipaul: A Critical Study. New Delhi: Creative Books, 1998.
King, Bruce. V. S. Naipaul. New York: St. Martin’s, 1993. Mustafa, Fawzia. V. S. Naipaul. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Nixon, Rob. London Calling: V. S. Naipaul, Post-colonial Mandarin. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Theroux, Paul. Sir Vidia’s Shadow: A Friendship across Five Continents. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
Thieme, John. The Web of Tradition: Uses of Allusion in V. S. Naipaul’s Fiction. Hertford, U.K.: Hansib/ Dangaroo, 1987.
Thorpe, Michael. V. S. Naipaul. London: Longman, 1976.
‘‘V(idiadhar) S(urajprasad) Naipaul (1932-).’’ Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 18. Edited by Sharon R. Gunton. Detroit: Gale Research, 1981.
Weiss, Timothy. On the Margins: The Art of Exile in V. S. Naipaul. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.