Academic journal article Journal of Caribbean Literatures

"And the World Continues Our Private Fabrication": An Autobiography of "Shipwreck" and Disorder in V.S. Naipaul's the Mimic Men

Academic journal article Journal of Caribbean Literatures

"And the World Continues Our Private Fabrication": An Autobiography of "Shipwreck" and Disorder in V.S. Naipaul's the Mimic Men

Article excerpt

Immigration and Return

   But even as I tried to put words to what I felt, I knew that my
   own journey, scarcely begun, had ended in that shipwreck which
   all my life I had sought to avoid.

Near the end of his autobiography, when the exiled politician Ralph Singh has recovered some sense of himself and the past and reclaimed his life again after long periods of destitution, after the "shipwrecks" have been at least partially overcome with a stay in a London hotel and the retrospective understanding made possible by the writing of his life story, he admits that:

by this re-creation the event became historical and manageable; it was given its place; it will no longer disturb me. And this became my aim: from the central fact of this setting, my presence in this city, which I have known as a student, politician, and now as a refugee-immigrant, to impose order on my own history, to abolish that disturbance which is what a narrative sequence might have led me to. (Naipaul, The Mimic Men 243)

He realizes that a narrative sequence would have perpetuated the "disturbance" he had felt from his childhood, with all its accumulated experiences of disorder, the episodes that had led to his "shipwreck" not as a single event, but as a permanent and always compromised self-understanding. Instead of a chronological history, the structural complexity of The Mimic Men (which often breaks sequence and shifts from one historical period to another) imitates Singh's consciousness as he moves from perception to recollection, from bitterness to reconciliation and, at the same time, corresponds to the "confession" that he had lived with a disordered state of mind, with a numb self-consciousness that suffered through the vagaries of his life. But unlike Rousseau, who begins Book One of The Confessions by writing that "I have resolved on an enterprise which has no precedent, and which, when complete, will have no imitator" (17), (1) Singh's autobiography will repeatedly confess how his whole life has been a complicated imitation despite his attempts since childhood to give himself a personality that was independent from the influences of birthplace, culture, family, and friends that requires both identification and mimicry. Throughout his life, Singh is forced to internalize the irreconcilable difference between the Hindu ideals of his Aryan ancestors, the cultural identity inherited on his native Caribbean island, and his pursuit of a childhood dream of independence despite being ill-prepared for it. (2) By going over his episodes in London as a student, a politician, and a refugee-immigrant, Singh learns to recognize the motivations that led him to first leave the island of Isabella in pursuit of an idea, the complicated needs that forced him to find a sense of his self, individual and independent from the influences of the past. The autobiography--in repeating certain episodes, none more important than his three journeys to London--gives him the opportunity to go over incidents that, when they occurred, were experienced passively, without understanding, with a consciousness that was barely able to perceive an external world much less reflect on the consequences for his life. (3)

At the end of his autobiography he can recount the period of his exile (his first twelve days going aimlessly from town to town by train, the first eighteen months in the restrictive order of a London hotel, the next fourteen months when writing), as well as his visits to London (the first as a student, the second as a politician, the third as an immigrant/exile). All of these are important for different reasons, making up different parts of him. Singh, the exiled politician, goes back to his beginning--when he first came to London as a student--and writes his autobiography, part confession, part political memoir, but mostly a self-accounting. As in the entire corpus of Naipaul's writing, so much of Singh's life is introduced, examined, and gone over again. …

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