Magazine article The Spectator

Bleak Expectations

Magazine article The Spectator

Bleak Expectations

Article excerpt

Fireflies; The Chip-Chip Gatherers;

North of South by Shiva Naipaul Penguin, £9.99; £9.99; £11.99 the spectator | 29 september 2012 | www. spectator. co. uk Shiva Naipaul died unexpectedly in the summer of 1985, six months after his 40th birthday. In his decade and a half on Grub Street, he published three novels, a brace of polemical travelogues and the scintillating miscellany of stories and occasional pieces collected in Beyond the Dragon's Mouth (1984). An Unfinished Journey, an account of a Sri Lankan trip, whose 80th page he had reached when he suffered the heart attack that killed him, was issued posthumously in 1986. He was much loved (see the portrait by Geoffrey Wheatcroft in Absent Friends, 1989), much admired, much abused and - almost inevitably, given some of the things he wrote about - much misunderstood.

The memorial essay prize instituted in his name by The Spectator after his death has been revived this year.

Like his older brother Vidia, Shiva could be an intimidating presence, both on the page and off it. A year before his death a producer at the fledgling Channel 4 - a rather more highbrow concern in those days - commissioned a piece from him entitled The Illusion of the Third World. The essay, later published in this magazine, was delivered without props, direct to a camera that, thanks to some technical quirk, grew nearer and nearer as the programme unwound.

By the close, all that remained was Naipaul's face, flushed, hectic and accusing, in grotesquely exaggerated close-up, as he declared that in the name of the Third World we 'maddened ourselves with untruth'.

The Illusion of the Third World is a deconstruction of racial stereotyping, a series of bitter comments on an entity created for the convenience of ideologues rather than the people who inhabited it. Needless to say, this kind of thing seldom played well in the packed amphitheatres of early Eighties radical opinion, and Naipaul was regularly sneered at for being a white man's stooge and a traitor to his skin.

His real interest, on the other hand, lay in exposing one or two of the confidence tricks practised on poor and developing nations in the name of freedom. Thus the preface to North of South wonders what terms like 'liberation', 'revolution' and 'socialism' actually mean 'to the people - i. e. the masses - who experience them', before deciding, 300 pages later, that they meant corruption, exploitation and misery.

But there were wider, and at the same time more personal, issues at stake. Born in the backwater of colonial Trinidad, and saved from drudgery by one of the covet-ed 'Island Scholarships' to Oxford that his brother had carried off 15 years earlier, Naipaul took care to populate his novels with people who, denied his luck and intelligence, are engaged upon the much more fundamental task of establishing whether they really exist. Like Tissa, the failed Sri Lankan writer who turns up in An Unfinished Journey's final fragment, the cast of Fireflies (1970) and The Chip-Chip Gatherers (1973) suffer from a condition 'often to be met with among those who have been colonised'. This is invisibility, lack of authenticity, spiritual deracination. 'We need to exist in our own eyes, ' Naipaul insists, uncomfortably implicating himself with that first person plural. 'We need to have some reasonably lucid idea of what we are and who we are.'

The Khojas in Fireflies - a novel that might be thought to give Vidia's A House for Mr Biswas a run for its money - are fatally representative of this tendency. …

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