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The ignoble politics of Naipaul's Nobel
by Saima Alvi
12 April 2002 18:15 UTC
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Naipaul has been given the Nobel soon after he has reacted to the September 
11 tragedy, in myth-affirming terms, of Islam's calamitous effect on 

Even some admirers of Naipaul have acknowledged that he has made 
embarrassing, unpleasant, contentious, wrongheaded - and even ignorant - 
statements on a range of subjects from Africa to Islam. They have 
acknowledged that his writing has made liberals in both Western and non-
Western countries "deeply uneasy".

But their conclusion is that writers must be judged by their "writing 

How exactly this is to be done is not clear. 


ON receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, V.S. Naipaul has 
responded by paying tribute to England, "(his) home", and India, "the home 
of (his) ancestors". Oddly enough, Trinidad does not merit a mention in 
Naipaul's tribute - though he was born and grew up in Trinidad, and though 
it is the home of his most admired early works such as The Mystic Masseur, 
A House for Mr Biswas and Miguel Street. Or perhaps it is not so odd, 
considering that Naipaul has written, "I knew Trinidad to be unimportant, 
uncreative, cynical... (with)... an indifference to virtue as well as 

Naipaul has travelled quite a distance from his origins. He has also moved 
away from the penetrating, humorous, rooted world of his early work. His 
earlier novels and stories indicated, to an entire generation of non-
Western writers, a way in which to use the English language while dealing 
with non-English material; and more important, a way in which to view 
themselves as post-colonials. Naipaul's work did not shy away from either 
the oddities or the painful contradictions of these societies - and people -
 struggling to create a coherent, viable narrative of their new lives, 
often in a hit-or-miss fashion. 

 V.S. Naipaul. 

But Naipaul himself did not stay long with his "natural" audience. His 
later "novels", and particularly his considerable body of non-fiction, took 
his acute eye, and his undoubted mastery over the graceful sentence and the 
telling detail, elsewhere. This elsewhere is a bleak, unhappy place. 
Darkness rules. If there is light, it only exposes wounds. Mutinies abound 
(mutinies, revolts, insurgencies; not dissent or movement or struggle). In 
short, there is chaos; no spark, no ember of hope. And where are these 
chaotic "half-worlds" Naipaul travels in with so much writerly pain and 
fear? All of them are, without exception, non-Western countries; many of 
them yet to recover from their hefty colonial legacies; many in the midst 
of grappling with either chauvinist or opportunist rulers, appropriate 
successors to their colonial masters. Naipaul places himself outside these 
struggling, developing worlds. He dissects them with his (now legendary) 
fastidiousness, and his diagnosis is as uncompromising as it is strongly 
worded. Uncreative, hero-less Trinidad. Wounded India. Dark, future-less 
Africa. And, almost inevitably, calamitous Islam. 

These caricatured societies, so dirty, so anarchic, so full of people lost 
as soon as they step out of their societies into one "with more complex 
criteria", do serve one purpose. These areas of darkness serve as a 
perennial foil to the refined, cultivated European ethos. 

In an earlier time, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness - which went on to 
become a modern classic - firmly established this tradition of 
postulating "the other world", a world antithetical to the European one. 
Chinua Achebe defines Conrad's view of Africa as "the antithesis of Europe 
and therefore of civilisation, a place where man's vaunted intelligence and 
refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality". In this 
antithetical heart of darkness Conrad creates, Africans inhabit "an earth 
that wore the aspect of an unknown planet". It is a place where the 
representatives of Europe, "wanderers on a prehistoric earth", struggle 
down a bend to encounter suddenly the other - dark, prehistoric men and 
women. "They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what 
thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity - like yours - the 
thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly." 

Conrad's vision is complex enough to accommodate self-awareness about 
creating a paradigm necessary for the imperialist enterprise. His 
imaginative representation of the West's encounter with the other world is 
coloured, to put it crudely, by conscience. But a 20th-21st century heir to 
Conrad's legacy, a brown heir, seems an especially cruel anachronism. Just 
as Conrad's European travellers "glide like phantoms" in Africa, "cut off 
from the comprehension of (their) surroundings", Naipaul too glides like a 
nervous, unhappy phantom across the prehistoric world from the Congo to 
Bombay, all generally places where "the moist heat saps energy and will." 
In the West Indies of 1960, he discovers that "the history of the islands 
can never be satisfactorily told. Brutality is not the only difficulty. 
History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created 
in the West Indies." In the Congo of 1965, Naipaul is accosted by "native 
people camping in the ruins of civilisation". In Naipaul's Africa, the bush 
creeps back as he stands there. 

India is equally threatening. It reduces him to facelessness in the crowd. 
Indeed part of his discomfort is that everyone in the crowd looks like him, 
in which case how is he to be distinctive from them? (Conrad echoes from 
the past: "What thrilled you was the thought of their humanity - like 
yours...") Though the individuals Naipaul meets and writes about so sharply 
may or may not be the "types" they stand for, Naipaul has judgments to hand 
out to every spectrum of Indian society. The clerk: in India "the clerk 
will not bring you a glass of water even if you faint". The inferior 
colonial: speaks English and may even appreciate art, but hangs a Jamini 
Roy beside a Picasso. The population at large: full of "smugness, ... 
imperviousness to criticism, refusal to see, ... double-talk and double-
think". Whether it is India's perverse tendency not to "need" pavements or 
the "background of swarming Bombay slum", it is clear there is nothing left 
in India of the dream-world Naipaul had constructed as "the home of his 
ancestors". In modern India, "Shiva has ceased to dance." 

What Naipaul apparently finds lacking in India is a pure, well-lit place. 
Both purity and homogeneity are, thank goodness, in reasonably short supply 
in India, despite the efforts of our own purity mongers. But by the time 
Naipaul wrote India: A Million Mutinies Now, he found some redeeming signs 
of change. Earlier, in A Wounded Civilization, Naipaul had written, "An 
enquiry about India - even an inquiry about the Emergency - has quickly to 
go beyond the political. It has to be an inquiry about Indian attitudes; it 
has to be an inquiry about the civilisation itself, as it is." And the 
verdict on this "civilisation beyond the political": "No civilisation was 
so little equipped to cope with the outside world; no country was so easily 
raided and plundered, and learned so little from its disasters." But later, 
travelling in India to write A Million Mutinies (published 1990), Naipaul 
is able to see that "what (he) hadn't understood in 1962, or had taken too 
much for granted, was the extent to which the country had been remade; and 
even the extent to which India had been restored to itself, after its own 
equivalent of the Dark Ages - after the Muslim invasions and the detailed, 
repeated vandalising of the North, the shifting empires, the wars, the 18th 
century anarchy..." The million mutinies are "part of India's growth, part 
of its restoration". Shiva, it seems, has almost begun to dance again: the 
country is "full of the signs of growth", all the signs of an "Indian, and 
more specifically, Hindu awakening". Where India's hope lies, where it must 
go (so Shiva can dance uninterrupted), is a place where Hindu civilisation 
can be restored. India did travel to such a place on December 6, 1992. What 
happened in Ayodhya that day, and what has happened in other parts of the 
country since, have not seemed like any sort of civilisation to most of us. 
But Naipaul saw the destruction of the Babri Masjid as a welcome sign 
that "Hindu pride" was at last reasserting itself. 

It is logical then - and it should not have embarrassed and pained so many 
of Naipaul's admirers - that in 2001, after the terrorists struck in New 
York and Washington, Naipaul should describe Islam, (not terrorists of any 
or no religious persuasion), as "calamitous" and comparable with 
colonialism. He does not, of course, say a word about "civilizations" that 
have systematically piled up weapons of mass destruction; perhaps these are 
less calamitous than bearded men shouting on the streets of CNN. 

The Nobel Prize citation praises Naipaul for "having united perceptive 
narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the 
presence of suppressed histories". Naipaul, with his talent and eminence, 
is perceived by reputation-making critics and prize-givers as the writer 
of "suppressed histories". As far as we know, Naipaul has made no such 
claim. But surely he cannot be unaware that with each book, he has received 
confirmation that he is practically a semi-official guide to the societies 
he finds so repulsively brutal or strangely empty? The American critic 
Elizabeth Hardwick wrote of A Bend in the River: "Naipaul's work is a 
creative reflection upon a devastating lack of historical preparation, upon 
the anguish of whole countries and peoples unable to cope." Joseph Lelyveld 
wrote of A Million Mutinies: "The most notable commitment of intelligence 
that post-colonial India has evoked... He is indispensable for anyone who 
wants seriously to come to grips with the experience of India." James Wood 
summed it up: Naipaul is "the greatest living analyst of the colonial and 
post-colonial dilemma". In short, Naipaul is considered an expert not only 
on the craft of writing, but on India, on Islam, on Africa, on the Hindu 
way of life, on whole countries and peoples, their dilemmas and "suppressed 
histories". Writers and readers, as well as regular non-writing, non-
reading people in the places Naipaul writes of, may struggle to move beyond 
easy dichotomies - black and white, Hindu and Muslim, Western and non-
Western. But Naipaul, with his formidable talent and scorn, and his 
formidable reputation as an interpreter for the power-centres, pushes all 
such exercises back to square one. 

There have, of course, been other voices that have responded to Naipaul's 
worldview, the one that bursts into full-blown glory in his statements on 
civilisations. Fellow Caribbean Ivan Van Sertima wrote: "His brilliancy of 
wit I do not deny but, in my opinion, he has been overrated by English 
critics whose sensibilities he insidiously flatters by his stock-in-trade: 
self-contempt." Caribbean poet Derek Walcott qualified his praise of 
Naipaul as "our finest writer of an English sentence" with the comment that 
his prose is "scarred by scrofula and a repulsion towards Negroes". (Derek 
Walcott, incidentally, has been known to refer to Naipaul as V.S. 
Nightfall.) Edward Said is just as cutting in his contrast of how Naipaul's 
work is viewed in different parts of the world. While the West regards 
Naipaul as "a master novelist and an important witness to the 
disintegration and hypocrisy of the Third World... in the post-colonial 
world, he's a marked man as a purveyor of stereotypes and disgust for the 
world that produced him". And closer home, Nissim Ezekiel wrote a fine 
essay that should be attached as an afterword to Naipaul's books on India. 
In "Naipaul's India and Mine", Ezekiel wrote: "(Criticism) must attack, 
even denounce, but it must not deny human beings their humanity... In An 
Area of Darkness Mr. Naipaul comes dangerously close to doing that." 

WHY pull out these quotations now, like so much evidence of "the other 
side"? Why be so churlish when a writer - who everyone agrees can write 
brilliantly - has been awarded a prize for literature? 

One: Naipaul has been given the Nobel this year of all years. He has been 
given the Nobel in the midst of hawkish cacophony on the "clash of 
civilisations" and growing prejudice against Muslims, indeed anyone 
of "Middle Eastern appearance". Naipaul has been given the Nobel soon after 
he has reacted to the September 11 tragedy, in myth-affirming terms, of 
Islam's calamitous effect on civilisation. 

Two: there is a theme that recurs in the reaction to Naipaul's Nobel, a 
theme that needs a closer look. Some admirers of Naipaul have acknowledged 
that he has made embarrassing, unpleasant, contentious, wrongheaded - and 
even ignorant - statements on a range of subjects from Africa to Islam. 
They have acknowledged that his writing has made liberals in both Western 
and non-Western countries "deeply uneasy". But the conclusion - the 
recurring theme - is that writers must be judged by their "writing alone". 

How exactly this is to be done is not clear. Do you, for instance, read the 
sentence "Generosity - the admiration of equal for equal - was therefore 
unknown; it was a quality I knew only from books and found only in 
England", and admire the neat definition of generosity, the well-placed 
dashes and semicolon, without paying attention to what the sentence says? 
Without taking note of the negative vision, the sense of elegant prose 
enclosed in breakable glass? An artificial separation of what the writer 
says and how he says it only serves to sanitise the writing and make it 
toothless. It is difficult to believe that this is what the writer himself 

It would make better sense to acknowledge that the writer intends 
criticism, and hopefully delivers criticism via good sentences. It is best 
to admit that this criticism, whether expressed through fiction or non-
fiction, is part of the business of a writer. 

No one wants an official writer, except perhaps the group that is using him 
as a mouthpiece. No one wants a timorous writer either, constantly worrying 
about being in fashion, or being politically correct, or in demand in the 
marketplace. No one would be absurd enough to insist that a writer's 
politics should ooze out of every written word, or scream the rhetorical or 
the banal. 

But it is a different thing altogether to ask for writers to transcend 
politics as so much petty baggage. To believe that good writing overrides 
bad politics to create literature is just as romantic as viewing the writer 
as a precocious child with a knack. Both beliefs want to keep literature 
and politics safely apart. The implication is: But what does literature 
have to do with it? In which case, Naipaul's politics can be dismissed 
(indulgently) as "famously bad-tempered", especially since famous bad 
tempers make good media copy. And in which case, Arundhati Roy can be 
called to attention by any of the real intellectuals equipped to take on 
politics. They can suggest that she go back to writing novels - small 
things - rather than meddle with big things like bombs and dams and 

A writer's vision, worldview - safe classroom words for a writer's 
politics - are inseparable from the writing. A writer offers the reader 
(and herself) a second grip on the reality being written about. Though 
Naipaul has unkindly cast aspersions on Indian intellectual life, we can at 
least recall these simple axioms while debating Naipaul's Nobel and the 
politics of rewarding literature.

The article appeared in "Frontline": Volume 18 - Issue 23, Nov. 10 - 23, 

"Frontline" is published by Indian's national newspaper THE HINDU 

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