In Vidia's Debt: The Price of Literary Friendship

Article excerpt

Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples VS. Naipaul

Random House /408 pages / $27.95

Sir Yidia's Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents

Paul Theroux

Houghton Mifflin / 288 pages / $24

REVIEWED BY David Pryce-Jones

At a time when books have dwindled to a function of mass-marketing, there is V.S. Naipaul. Original in himself, and wide-ranging, he is a master of narrative and observation. His work serves to extract reality from the indeterminate mess of human life. Literature has no higher purpose.

The unlikeliness of his career is marvelous. Born in Trinidad in 1932, Naipaul is the descendant of indentured laborers shipped from India. A child of the Raw, then, dispossessed materially and above all culturally. He had nobody and nothing to rely on as he made his way, arriving in England in the postwar wave of West Indian immigrants.

At the time, the process of decolonization was encouraging huge numbers of Indians, Africans, Arabs, and others to blame an abstraction called imperialism for all their political, social, and personal ills. Even when whites were granting independence to others and offering integration at home, they were at fault. Even when Third World populations were killing each other in tribal and national wars, whites were again at fault. So-called liberals in the West still subscribe to this caricature of whites as simple victimizers, and Third World populations as simple victims. This brew of guilt, condescension, and inverse racism creates a false history that is the equivalent of prison for those caught in it. The damage is lasting.

After four years on a scholarship to Oxford, Naipaul established a base in London. Like almost everyone of his age and background, he might have made victimhood his central theme. Instead, free from self-pity, his characters speak for themselves; they are who they are, no more and no less. It was an act of liberation to reject victimhood so absolutely. Naipaul's originality, his greatness, lay in taking that crucial step, because afterwards the way was open to become a writer with universal values.

Footloose, he spent long periods from the late fifties onwards in India and Africa, exploring the social and historical developments that had made him what he was. The world, he found, did not match the stereotypes of it then being offered. Exploitation and slavery, for instance, were not unique to modem whites, but had existed immemorially in societies, from the Greeks to the Arabs and of course the Africans themselves. By definition, the powerful are imperialist. Through trade, the rule of law, the exchange of ideas, colonialism had introduced the peoples of the world to each other, and now it was for all of them to make of their culture what they could.

Culture and liberation everywhere were blocked by myths and fantasies, the various self-serving apologetics whereby people never come to terms with what they really are, sinking back instead in victimhood. This was to be the central theme of Naipaul's mature writing. In novels set in the West Indies and in Africa, he depicted hitherto oppressed blacks who at the first opportunity prove oppressors themselves. Their white sympathizers believe that Third World violence is not violence at all but a retribution justified by history. Patronization of this kind destroys those they claim to be helping, and themselves too.

Guerrilas, published in 1975, fictionalized the story of one Michael de Freitas, a black racist from Trinidad. Many upperclass whites backed him. Among them was his English mistress, whom he murdered. Naipaul's account of this crime stopped in its tracks the incipient Black Power movement in Britain. It was then that Third World intellectuals began to campaign against him. Rejecting the exclusive identities of tribe and race to which they clung, he was "fouling his nest," as one famous West Indian poet put it. …