Anger and the Alchemy of Literary Method in V. S. Naipaul's Political Fiction: The Case of the Mimic Men

By Greenberg, Robert M. | Twentieth Century Literature, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Anger and the Alchemy of Literary Method in V. S. Naipaul's Political Fiction: The Case of the Mimic Men


Greenberg, Robert M., Twentieth Century Literature


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. [1] 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 [2] 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. [3] 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. [4] 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). [5] 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. [6] 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. …

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