V. S. Naipaul's fiction and nonfiction since the 1960s have reflected an unenthusiastic view of postcolonial nationalism and nation building. He has had difficulty believing in the ability of new nations in Africa and the Caribbean to raise themselves to a condition of economic autonomy and cultural authenticity. He has also been against a political rhetoric and agenda that calls for breaking cultural ties with European nations.  Instead, political skepticism, Western cultural conservatism, and realist and-modernist aesthetics have determined the selection and treatment of subjects in Naipaul's writing. These approaches have caused postcolonial intellectuals to complain about his lack of interest in local culture  and to grumble about his choice of material--such as Mobutu Sese Seko's reign in the Congo and the Michael de Freitas trial in Trinidad--that reflects pessimistically on politics, revolution, and the prospects of national renewal.
Naipaul, however, is probably the most honored living author in the British literary world. Even those postcolonial intellectuals averse to his politics concede his great talent as a novelist and the rewards of reading him.  In addition, there is his irrefutable commitment to the Third World, implicit in 40 years of writing about non-Western nations and peoples. His practice of revisiting places written about earlier--Africa, India, the West Indies, non-Arabic Islamic countries, and South America--underscores the abiding strength of his interest in cultures and governments of the Third World. They are the subjects on which he has chosen to expend his talent. Whereas often in his investigative travel writing during the 1970s and 80s he found fresh instances that corroborated his earlier harsh judgments, more recently in books such as A Turn in the South (1989) and Beyond Belief (1998), he demonstrates a new receptiveness to the places he visits and the people he meets.
Nevertheless, exactly how well- or ill-intentioned Naipaul is toward the Third World remains a much debated literary and political question. That he is, as he believes, a disinterested observer who works empirically, without cultural bias, is difficult to accept.  Eugene Goodheart's description of Naipaul's point of view as possessing "prejudice" within "clear-sightedness" seems closer to the truth. While Naipaul is uncompromisingly committed to the description and representation of what he sees, he nevertheless includes in this description his previously formed opinions, what Goodheart calls the "prejudices" of Naipaul's "incorrigible subjectivity" and temperament (245-46), and what Naipaul views as the conclusions he reached earlier in his life. "Never give a person a second chance," Paul Theroux remembers Naipaul telling him when they first became acquainted in Africa. "If someone lets you down once, he'll do it again" ("V S. Naipaul" 447).
Twenty-five years of age to Naipaul's 34, Theroux also remembers Naipaul's "doubt, disbelief, skepticism, instinctive mistrust; I had never found these qualities so powerful in a person; and they were allied to a fiercely independent spirit" (449).  This independent, often fiercely opinionated spirit is explained in great part by his creative isolation, his need to provide his own foundation where most writers find firm ground in their relation, however embattled, to their homeland or their adopted country.  In Naipaul's case, self-validation is the only platform for his ego and ideas, the only strategy against his displacement from Trinidad, where he was born and raised and from the alienation of living in England, his usual residence as an adult. Even those periods when he has sought to establish a home base--such as the 1 970s when he lived in Wiltshire or the somewhat earlier period when he owned a house in London--do not seem to reduce his combativeness. For example, in a short article in the Satu rday Evening Post in 1967, he defends what he calls his "snobbery" for not wanting a particular (unidentified) group of people moving into his neighborhood in London. He does this by asserting that the power of past experience is unfortunately greater than the power of liberal goodwill: "The sad fact about prejudices between classes, castes or indeed races, is that they are an accretion of observations and cannot be destroyed by simple contradiction" ("What's Wrong" 18).
If Naipaul's cultural displacement and existential unease would seem to explain why he is quick on the trigger with his opinions, two forces from his Trinidadian childhood and youth help to explain the occasional racial caste of his opinions and the effect of these opinions on his fiction. These two forces are an undertone of Indian pessimism and a persistent lack of generosity in one's estimation of blacks. Throughout his political fiction-- including, along with The Mimic Men (1967), In a Free State (1971.), Guerrillas (1975), and A Bend in the River (1979)--these attitudes direct, shape, and color his work. At the core of the power of The Mimic Men, for example, are a passive East Indian protagonist who anticipates failure, and explicit racial characterizations. And while space limits me to a thorough treatment only of The Mimic Men in this essay, I would mention briefly here several manifestations of these forces in his other three political novels. The preoccupation of the narrator with the body odor of Africans in In a Free State has understandably focused much debate on Naipaul's possible racism.  As for the influence of Naipaul's ancestral pessimism, it may be seen in the forgotten colonial towns and decaying hotels in In a Free State, in the acidic skepticism turned on white Western radicals in Guerrillas, and in the delineation of Salim's experience of historical vulnerability in A Bend in the River. In each instance, there is an almost Eastern sense of the inevitable emptiness and false pride behind worldly endeavor--of the transience, ultimately, of all power and empire. Naipaul says in an interview with Charles Wheeler: "I have to admit. . . that a lot of Hindu attitudes, the deeper attitudes, are probably also mine--that I probably do have a feeling about the vanity of human action and human life" (42).
Avaluable entry point into Naipaul's attitude about discovering individual and ancestral identity is found in the text of a speech Naipaul gave at a conference in Trinidad on the East Indian community. It will also be helpful to become acquainted through this speech with Naipaul's views about black-Indian relations and his ambivalence about a cosmopolitan versus a local and particularistic approach to art and life. Naipaul concedes in this 1975 speech his obsession with the emergence of Black Power in the West Indies  and Mobutu's "big man," corrupt, nationalistic dictatorship.  He says:
Earlier this year I was in the Congo--it's not a journey I recommend. You'll find in the Congo all the nice ideas of Fanon ridiculously caricatured by the present ruler. But fine words of black consciousness are simply used to buttress a personal rule. I must be careful, I mustn't let myself run on about the Congo. But my point is the nihilism that can arise from nice words. Mobutu says, you know, that he doesn't have a borrowed soul any longer; his particular thing is "authenticity." Authenticity means that Mobutu is good for you, that things are all right as they are. It is rejection of the strange, the difficult, the taxing; it is despair. It's a version of many of the things we have been hearing about in this part of the world.  (Introduction 7-8)
The final sentence refers to a point earlier in his speech where Naipaul emphasizes the importance of scholarly research for self-knowledge about one's past and contrasts this kind of studious commitment to books and libraries with what he believes Caribbean black nationalists were doing by pursuing a spontaneous racial "sentiment" (6). He says, "the whole business of looking at one's past--one's assessment of one's culture--does open out in a rather frightening way." But, he emphasizes, "it requires effort; it isn't amenable to sentimental political slogans." His method begins with direct personal experience and observation:
I begin with myself: this man, this language, this island, this background, this school, this time. I begin from all that and I try to investigate it, I try to understand it. I try to arrive at some degree of self-knowledge. (7)
But despite Naipaul's empirical approach to knowledge about himself and other people of color, ambiguity about his fundamental sympathy or hostility to the Third World remains. To date he has strictly limited his autobiographical discussion of the "racial antagonisms" in Trinidad.  Even his lengthy discussion of black-Indian racial tensions and rivalry in The Middle Passage (1962) demonstrates his wish to avoid painful autobiographical testimony or to scrutinize the ideological biases and cultural privileging that might creep into his "disinterested" generalizations.  Here are some key passages about black-Indian relations from the study of five Caribbean nations in The Middle Passage:
When people speak of the race problem in Trinidad they do not mean the Negro-white problem. They mean the Negro-Indian rivalry. This will be denied by the whites, who will insist that the basic problem remains the contempt of their group for the non-white. (78)
Though now one racialism seems to be reacting on the other, each has different roots. Indian politicians have created Indian racialism out of a harmless egoism. Negro racialism is more complex. It is an overdue assertion of dignity; it has elements of bitterness.... It has profound intellectual promptings as well, in the realization that the Negro problem lies not simply in the attitude of others to the Negro, but in the Negro's attitude to himself. It is as yet confused, for the Negro, while rejecting the guilt imposed on him by the whiteman, …