Naipaul, V(iadiadhar) S(urajprasad)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Naipaul, V(iadiadhar) S(urajprasad)

Naipaul, V(iadiadhar) S(urajprasad) (1932- ) Trinidadian-British polemist, travel writer, and novelist

A scion of British, Indian, and West Indian forebears, V S. “Vidya” Naipaul won the 2001 Nobel Prize in literature for works in which he weighed the effects of imperialism on nations that decline to let go of old grudges. Born to an orthodox Hindu family of nine in Port of Spain in the British colony of Trinidad, Naipaul was the grandson of a sugar plantation laborer indentured by trickery into a new version of the slave system. He grew up among writers, attended Queen's Royal College, and departed at age 18 by plane to England, the land he had previously lived in only in his imagination. According to an autobiographical image in Miguel Street (1959), Naipaul left the southern Caribbean “not looking back, looking only at my shadow before me, a dancing dwarf on the tarmac,” an image of diminution common to nonwhite colonials who venture into the mother country. (Naipaul 2000, 176). He studied English on a scholarship at Oxford University and worked for the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) on the program Caribbean Voices. In 1955, he wed a fellow student, Patricia Hale, who subsequently nursed him through nervous collapse. Upon recuperation, he dedicated his career to fictional and nonfictional treatises on the effect of forcing peoples and cultures into empires. He published his first novel, The Mystic Masseur, in 1957.

Naipaul developed his bent for irony, provocative farce, and SATIRE as they apply to the third world's neglected areas. Like the Polish-British author JOSEPH CONRAD and the Caribbean writer JEAN RHYS, he earned a reputation for ambivalence and skepticism toward the feasibility of human advancement through colonial evangelism and overt civilizing. From the outset, his blunt delivery offended idealists and social thinkers who campaigned for noble causes, particularly justice and equality. Of the survival of the fittest in a postimperial milieu, he stated, “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it” (Naipaul 1989, 3). He made three tours of India and Pakistan to explore his ancestry first hand to determine why the two nations experienced waves of turmoil that reignited long-standing antagonisms between young and old, Hindu and Muslim, and Brahmin and illiterate. He concluded that “The world abrades one” (quoted in Dooley 2006, 12), a justification for his prickly fictional scenarios.

Naipaul had little sympathy for the situation in the Middle East. Of fanatical Muslims, he blamed fundamentalism for conversion methods that denied and erased previous cultural traditions. He believed that so limited a view “allows only to one people—the Arabs, the original people of the prophet—a past, and sacred places, pilgrimages and earth reverences… . It is the most uncompromising kind of imperialism” (118). Rather than launch a literary crusade, he declared himself devoid of cant: “I'm not interested in attributing fault… . I'm interested in civilizations” (118). In his late 40s, he toured the Muslim world to compile Among the

Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981), which contrasts fundamentalism in the former British and Dutch colonies in Iran, Malaysia, and Pakistan. Unlike the simplistic views of imperialism promulgated by the British apologist RUDYARD KIPLING, Naipaul saw too many variables in human and state relations to reduce imperialism to a simple paradigm. After a series of working tours and expatriate sojourns on five continents, at age 75, he resettled in Trinidad and began promoting a West Indian mindset to erase diasporic ties with ethnic homelands, particularly Africa, India, and Pakistan.

Cause and Effect

Inspired by a kaleidoscopic curiosity and an inborn identification with the underdog, Naipaul's works avoid the rigid ideology of the Marxist author Marjane Satrapi and the straightforward social scrutiny of anti-imperial authors such as JAMAICA KINCAID and DORIS LESSING. Rather than levy charges of exploitation in past epochs of colonialism, diaspora, and bondage, he ridicules the do-gooders who set out to save the third world and blames underdeveloped countries for apathy, superstition, and envy of industrialized nations. He began to address such multicultural concerns in a travelogue, The Middle Passage (1962), which covers his journey through British Guiana, Jamaica, Martinique, and Suriname. The core of this book is his survey of Indian and Pakistani immigrants in Caribbean and South American cultures, which required investigating their initial settlement in the New World and the intermingling of minority languages, skin colors, and customs. In The Mimic Men (1967), he followed the fate of minorities and disclosed the failure of native Caribbean communities to establish their own identities. In a fictional West Indian setting named Isabella, the name of the queen who sponsored Christopher Columbus on his first transatlantic voyage, a makeshift identity results in tragedy for the dispossessed, who have no choice but to imitate the ruling majority.

Naipaul, like Jamaica Kincaid, has identified New World colonies as paradise lost. With The Loss of El Dorado (1969), he looked specifically at the different values of British and Spanish colonizers along the Orinoco River in Venezuela. The text pictures the New World as a vulnerable Eden: a “romance, a dream of Shangri-la, the complete, unviolated world. Such a world had existed and the Spaniards had violated it” (Naipaul 1970, 22). Instead of economic prosperity, Naipaul identifies agriculture under colonial governors as “a cynical extension of the developing old world, its commercial underside” (88), his term for the profit motive. His perusal of muddled lives in a collection of two short stories and three novellas, In a Free State (1971), winner of the Booker Prize, expands on this same theory. With succinct narration, he writes of individual immigrants in England, East Africa, and Washington, D.C., in untenable situations created by the wanton violence and bureaucracy that destroyed pre-Columbian contentment.

Naipaul specifies interracial sexual adventuring as a lighted fuse set to colonial tinder. A complex survey of interracial attraction in the Caribbean leads to social drama in Guerrillas (1975), the tragic story of Jane, a sybarite from London. Her death is the direct result of her flirtation with a Trinidadian hustler, Jimmy Ahmed, one of Naipaul's sleaziest characters, who sodomizes and murders her. Naipaul defines his enigmatic protagonists more clearly in A Bend in the River (1979), an outsider's view of the independence movement in central Africa, probably the Belgian Congo before it became Zaire. The speaker sets the action amid the cosmopolitanism of the coast, “an Arab-Indian-Persian-Portuguese place” (Naipaul 1989, 10) far removed from the dangerous primitivism of the interior in Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS (1899). Of the many causes for violence, the narrative muses on subconscious vengeance against past empires: “Do you think we will ever get to know the truth about what has happened in Africa …? All the wars, all the rebellions, all the leaders, all the defeats?” (130). The author's tone anticipates a sure negative.

Throughout Naipaul's canon, he voices continual scorn for the world's whiners and ne'er-do- wells. His narratives depict means of survival as the underclass copes with poverty and as shopkeepers and small entrepreneurs contend with crime and bankruptcy. In contrast to the bottom rung of society scraping a living, he presents the sharpers, mercenaries, gold thieves, and ivory poachers as echoes of the Africans who sold their own flesh into slavery. He concluded a trilogy—An Area of Darkness (1964), India: A Wounded Civilization (1977), and India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990)— with the dim hope of purging English imperialism from the south Asian subcontinent. Growing progressively more despondent, he continued to analyze racial and cultural blending in Half a Life (2001), which pairs Willie Chandran, the son of an Indian Brahmin and an untouchable, with an Afro-Portuguese lover from an unidentified country, probably Mozambique. In his essay “Conrad's Darkness and Mine” in The Return of Eva Peron and the Killings in Trinidad (1980), Naipaul lauds Conrad's story of anticolonialism for its regard for realism and for describing events and situations beyond the power of the world to solve.


Dooley, Gillian. VI S. Naipaul, Man and Writer. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006.

French, Patrick. The World Is What It Is. New York: Knopf, 2008.

Hayward, Helen. The Enigma of V S. Naipaul. Basingstoke, Hampshire, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Naipaul, V. S. A Bend in the River. New York: Random House, 1989.

----- . The Loss of El Dorado. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970.

------- . Miguel Street. New York: Heinemann, 2000.  . The Return of Eva Peron and the Killings in Trinidad. New York: Random House, 1980.