A Voice for Dire Times

Article excerpt

Literary oddsmakers were caught short last week with the announcement that V. S. Naipaul had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Sir Vidia has long been thought unofficially ineligible, not least because of the rudeness and thorough-going political incorrectness of his opinions. He despises colonialism and its aftermath. But he also sneers at the formerly colonized. Islam, he recently informed the world, is beneath contempt--but then, so is every other religion. In books, articles and interviews, he has managed to belittle or insult every culture under the sun, including that of his adopted England. Dour, pessimistic, a child of the Third World but truly at home no-where, Naipaul seems an odd candidate for the Nobel. This year, however, he's a natural.

What makes Naipaul such a challenge for both his fans and his detractors is that this 67-year-old author's opinions would not carry the weight they do were he not such a fearsome writer. Reviewing the latest Naipaul novel, "Half a Life," Paul Theroux, who recently devoted an entire book to his fractious--and finally broken--friendship with Naipaul, wrote, "Even though I have suggested that personally Naipaul is a sourpuss, a cheapskate and a blamer, I have the highest regard for his work. He is, like Conrad, a most serious and self-conscious writer; everything he writes is freighted with intention and every word deliberately chosen."

The comparison with Conrad is apt. The Poland that produced Conrad was less a country than a concept at the time of his birth, having been claimed and reclaimed by larger empires for centuries. Naipaul's native Trinidad was an English colony, while he was the child of the descendants of Indian immigrants. Questions of identity and the ruinous effects of colonialization haunt the works of both men, each of whom, by various paths, found in England a permanent, albeit always uneasy, address.

Naipaul's earliest novels, such as "The Mystic Masseur" and "Miguel Street," written in the '50s, are wry comedies of manners. "A House for Mr. Biswas," published in 1961, is his breakthrough masterpiece, fusing social comedy and genuine pathos in the story of a Trinidadian for whom owning a home is the validating fact of his existence. As he progressed, the focus of his work expanded to include Africa, the Indian Subcontinent, England and, in an odd and oddly charming foray, a tour of the American South.

As book followed book, too, the tone darkened, the humor curdled. …