Academic journal article Journal of Caribbean Literatures

V.S. Naipaul: The Man and His Mission

Academic journal article Journal of Caribbean Literatures

V.S. Naipaul: The Man and His Mission

Article excerpt

Beyond Belief, V.S. Naipaul's second excursion into five Islamic countries, was published in 1998. It's a book of discovery, a follow-up to Among the Believers, a book of stories garnered through travel in Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia, which was published in 1977. Both dates are important because they are sandwiched between the Islamic revolution in Iran in the early 1970s and the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. Both books are compilations of stories about people, their journeys, the generations that bred them, and the nuances of faith and belief that sustains them.

Beyond Belief may be read as a panoramic portrait of these countries of "converts," as Naipaul calls Muslims who are not Arabs, Muslims who have through history and mostly through conquest converted to the religion that sees Arabia as the center of civilization and their own history as an adjunct of the Arab story. As such, the book is magnificently ambitious, central to the concerns of the world today, portentous, and, for those who put their faith in forces outside literary insight, prophetic.

In the Prologue to Beyond Belief, Naipaul anticipates a question that the reader may reasonably ask:

   It may be asked if different people and different stories in any 
   section of the book would have created or suggested another kind of 
   country. I think not: the train has many coaches, and different 
   classes, but it passes through the same landscape. People are 
   responding to the same political or religious and cultural 
   pressures. The writer has only to listen very carefully and with a 
   clear heart to what people say to him, and ask the next question, 
   and the next. (2) 

In India, the metaphor of the train would become real. Sitting in, shall we say, a third class railway carriage, making a sustained journey for any purpose, one's fellow passengers would open conversation with "Where are you from?" And then the next question and the next. We Indians are used to the locative question and have prepared answers. But suppose (unlikely, but just suppose) V.S. Naipaul found himself on such a journey in such a train. Any answer he gave to the questions that would follow "Where are you from?" would, in all probability, confound the understanding of the questioners. What would he say? "Wiltshire?" Or "Trinidad?" And the remark that followed would perhaps be, "I apologize, I thought you were Indian."

Naipaul doesn't answer such questions because the real answer is that he doesn't belong to Wiltshire, Trinidad or indeed, in the sense of being circumscribed by its culture and prejudices, to India. He belongs to literature or to writing, the home of his intellect. But that's not the sort of answer you give to Aap kahan sey hain, janab? [Where are you from?].

This sense of not belonging has enabled Naipaul, the quintessential writer of our times, to look at the world without the constraints of a mission. In a century in which literature, the very art and act of writing, has been coerced into a dedication to Soviet Realism; to progressive causes; to feminism to self-discovery; to antiracist protest; to proselytising in the cause of Islam, Hindutva, Indian secularism, fraudulent spirituality, shallow and humbug life-guidance; to advertising travelogues and to ark-loads of imitative novel writing, grist to the mill of popular, pap publishing; Naipaul has uniquely gone his own way. And his own way has always implicitly posed and answered the question: "What is writing for?" This is not a question that can be asked or answered independent of a time and place. It's not a question that can be answered for all societies at all points in their material and cultural development. And yet the word "societies" here is not misplaced. Writing is for and from within a society. Writers need readers. That readership has always consisted of those who will treat the formulated thought, the organized narrative, the expressed subtlety of ideas, the sharpness of insight as definitions of truth, as keys to their civilization. …

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