The Humor and the Pity. (Literature)

By Kumar, Amitava | The American Prospect, January 28, 2002 | Go to article overview

The Humor and the Pity. (Literature)


Kumar, Amitava, The American Prospect


THERE IS A FEATURE THAT has often marked the dust jackets of V.S. Naipaul's books. We are first given some perfunctory details about the writer's birth in Trinidad, his education at University College, Oxford, and the year, 1954, when he began to write in London. And then, like a card being put on the table with a quiet confidence, comes the statement: "He has pursued no other profession." If this were not a fact, delivered with seriousness and utterly credible, one would have taken it as a boast. Regardless, to understand the Nobel Committee's decision to award the 2001 prize for literature to Naipaul, we must ask what that statement means to us and also, of course, to Naipaul himself.

Naipaul's father, Seepersad, worked as a journalist for a Trinidad newspaper. In 1943, when V.S. Naipaul was 11 years old, his father published a volume of short stories called "The Adventures of Gurudeva" and Other Indian Tales. The book was about 70 pages long; for the younger Naipaul, this modest, self-published collection of his father's stories was his "introduction to book-printing." But along with a sense of books as artifacts, the father also gave the son a theme. The Indian community in Trinidad, descendants of indentured laborers brought in to serve on the sugar plantations after the abolition of slavery, had not been written about before. The stories penned by the elder Naipaul were about a community emerging from a past embedded in its country of origin and finding its footing in a new country of toil. This theme entered the young Vidia Naipaul's earliest writings and then found more complex form. Today we can say that V.S. Naipaul's obsessions have been the discovery of a newness--born out of displacement and loss, as well the distortions following decolonization--and an idea of identity birthed from a reworking of memory.

This mature sense of literature as a record of a damaged life could not have been arrived at easily. Naipaul has related how, in his youth, he was unable to enter the world that the books presented to him: "I didn't have the imaginative key. Such social knowledge as I had--a faint remembered village India and a mixed colonial world seen from the outside--didn't help with the literature of the metropolis. I was two worlds away." In fact, instead of books, film was what absorbed the young Naipaul. "Nearly all my imaginative life was in the cinema," he recalls. At various times, when speaking of the decline of fiction, Naipaul has argued that the creative energies that went into novels in the nineteenth century shaped the new art-form of film in the first half of the century that followed. There lies a clue to his art. Cinema is the closest I can come to an idea of an alternative profession for the latest Nobel laureate in literature.

Naipaul's entire oeuvre is obsessed with seeing. To see is to admit light; it is the opposite of existing in an area of darkness. Naipaul has always believed that Indians have turned their eyes away from the history and the geography that was present to them as evidence. This conviction was there in the writer even when he was describing his ancestors who had migrated as indentured laborers from a village near Gorakhpur in eastern India to the plantations of Trinidad: "My grandfather had made a difficult and courageous journey. It must have brought him into collision with startling sights, even like the sea, several hundred miles from his village; yet I cannot help feeling that as soon as he had left his village he ceased to see."

Even Naipaul's declared interest in clear prose has its profound grounding in a way of seeing--more specifically, in the Enlightenment tradition where rationality is exercised precisely in a visual field. Rational thought is located, literally, in perspective. And while seeing is also an inward act, it begins with the act of examining and documenting the outside world. To see, and to record, is to perform the task of the writer.

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