V. S. Naipaul’s Journeys: From periphery to center, by Sanjay Krishnan, 304 pp, £30, Columbia University Press, ISBN: 978-0231193320
During the lockdown I broke up with my partner. In the first two weeks after she drove away, I was a bundle of nerves. Emails to suddenly remembered friends did not help. Known books from my shelf were not absorbing. Nor was the edginess of missed deadlines. Then I had a terrible idea. I would get on a train and show up at her doorstep with a goodbye/reconciliation present. On my way I dropped into a bookstore to pick up something to read for the journey, to avoid staring at her photos. I couldn’t find the one I was vaguely looking for in the new releases section and went for something unread by a familiar author. I picked up the late VS Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival, not expecting solace.
Naipaul has meant many things, but being restorative is not what I would associate him with. Generally speaking, Naipaul-talk is far removed from calm. Something along the lines of: he was a bigot and misogynist, while his prose did indeed deserve the Nobel prize. Non-Western writers are not as generous: by way of an obituary, Professor Hamid Dabashi commented on the “stupidity, ignorance and flagrant racism” evident in his travel writing. Further, he is “the walking embodiment of Western colonialism”; “may we never see the likes of VS Naipaul again”. Among both friends and strangers, I have to judge my audience before I talk of Naipaul. Personally, he has provided disconcerting envy-identification. When I got my tenure-track academic job, the first image that flashed before me was the cover and title of Naipaul’s authorised biography by Patrick French: Naipaul Britishly smoking a cigarette under the banner of The World is What It Is (the opening words of his novel A Bend in the River). I can only guess why: I too am of Indian origin charting out a career in the West, I too would like to be a trailblazer in postcolonial writing, and have mixed reviews written about me. The content of his work has been of less importance than his aesthetic.
On the train to my partner’s house, I looked at her pictures and teared up. To hide this, I sought to pretend-read Enigma. It began:
For the first four days, it rained. I could hardly see where I was. Then it stopped raining and beyond the lawn and outbuildings in front of my cottage, I saw stripped trees on the boundaries of each field; and far away, depending on the light, glints of a little river, glints which sometimes appeared, oddly, to be above the level of the land.
For the first hundred pages, Naipaul relentlessly describes a cottage in Wiltshire and the walks around it. In it are encounters with the people who come and go, and a narrator who revises what he sees. There is death and decline in the valley, and loss. Out of nowhere – yet very much in flow – is this:
… having no place of my own, this gift of the second life in Wiltshire, the second, happier childhood as it were, the second arrival at a knowledge of natural things, together with the child’s dream of the safe house in the wood.
My nerves calmed. For the first time since she left, I could feel I was somewhere, and looking around gave pleasure. Before I reached my destination, I felt the beginnings of a self.
Enigma was not tourism in propertied idyll, but a total absorption. Minutiae of the landscape woven with the death of residents and untended ivy, and inquiry into how to write. It was only later, when I extricated myself from the Wiltshire countryside Naipaul had suddenly and completely thrown me in, that I was able to ask the question: what is this voice? What happened to the Naipaul I thought I knew, the one everyone talks about?
Sanjay Krishnan’s new book on Naipaul’s journeys offers some answers. Krishnan teaches English at Boston University, and his research focuses on postcolonial literature. Journeys is different from the several biographies of Naipaul that have preceded it – it curates Naipaul’s work chronologically, and as with any meaningful curating, it uses this chronology to understand both Naipaul and postcolonial writing. This was useful to me as I could map the disparate pieces of Naipaul’s fiction and non-fiction writing – and commentary on Naipaul – I had picked up over the years into a narrative of his voice. There is also a sense of fidelity in this approach to Naipaul’s wishes. Naipaul had an unusual relationship with biographies, and indeed any commentary on his life. He expressed discomfort with Patrick French’s celebrated biography that revealed cruelty towards wives and to various acquaintances. At the same time, he approved the biography without a single correction. Given that he seems to both provoke and relish gossip (Teju Cole and others have opined on him based on their cocktail party encounters), biographies would appear to be apposite. But Naipaul says in no uncertain terms: “everything of value about me is in my books. Whatever extra there is in me at any given moment isn’t fully formed.”
Thus Naipaul wishes for judgment about him through his books. This is what Krishnan does. He charts a history of his development both as a person and a writer through the books. And a clear narrative emerges. The evolution he charts is one where Naipaul moves from confidently judging “the world to be what it is” to more ambivalently “charting a way in the world”. He extends this courtesy over time to characters that animate his travel writing as well. This early (1955-1961) and late (1981-2010) Naipaul was mediated by the Naipaul of “the middle period” (1962-1980). In his early writings, Naipaul seeks to show how in “half-made”’ postcolonial societies, people go about their lives aspiring to access to “private pools of vanity”, their sentimentality keeping them imprisoned in the illusory spaces fashioned by colonialism. This builds his reputation as an unsparing observer of the postcolonial condition. In the ’60s and ’70s he fashioned himself as a travel writer, an occupation in which his practice would attract considerable criticism. Krishnan takes this period to be formative; Naipaul’s psychic recovery from the illusory interests of a colonial narrative shapes his way of looking. This lets him invent a new sort of novel – where rediscovery of self happens simultaneously with an unmasking of context. This way of writing non-fiction also provoked the most outrage. Here is Keerthik Sasidharan:
Naipaul’s literary genius, or sleight of hand, was to recognise that by chronicling the list of self-deceptions and self-promotions of individuals, one could indict or characterise entire societies for the same failings.
The historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam argues that Naipaul was born into a very particular expatriate culture in the Caribbean that was “envious of the West and its superiority, suspicious of Islam and Muslims, often with a healthy contempt for many of the practices and ‘superstitions’ of the old motherland that had been left behind”. Thus the narrative style of fusing autobiographical reflection and social commentary can be problematic for the latter when societies are collapsed into an individual, and a very particular sort of individual. The other side of the story is much more valuable, when the keen critical pen of the travel writer shapes the novel. Not when a particular psychic process of the individual is projected onto the social, but when an eye to understand and reconstruct the social is channelled into a single narrative voice and the immediate context in which it speaks. This is the style honed in A Bend in the River, where the narrator with an eye to the future sets up shop in a conflicted African space (“I was unprotected. I had no family, no flag, no fetish”). Having said that, the middle period cannot be said to be independent of his early writings. The realism that narrative distance affords is carried over from the early writings and congealed in the travel writer’s profession in the middle period. Authorship lies in striving for freedom, but agency is found in the inevitability of being in limbo. If the realism of the early writings, Krishnan suggests, is the repudiation of the illusory context established by colonialism, the edgy realism of the middle period is poetic displacement, and a yearning to be something else. Having lived under the shadow of discretionary visas and the easily withdrawn kindness of contextually secure people for the last twenty years, I can relate to Naipaul’s middle period. As any third-country citizen residing in Europe would know, the value of an individual is instrumental rather than intrinsic. As he puts it in A Bend in the River:
We had the occasional comfort of reward, but in good times or bad we lived with the knowledge that we were expendable, that our labour at any moment might go to waste, that we ourselves might be smashed up; and that others would replace us.
The banality of being smashed up or sent back is transformed into poetry; a celebrated sequence in A Bend in the River finds the narrator at a party hosted by people of privilege and security. There is a “wonderfully lit room, blurred circles of light thrown on the ceiling from the lamps on the floor”. He hears Joan Baez for the first time:
Listening to that voice, I felt the deepest part of myself awakening, the part that knew loss, homesickness, grief and longed for love. And in that voice was the promise of a flowering for everyone who listened.
Yet – and despite the intensity of this feeling – he continues:
It was make-believe – I never doubted that. You couldn’t listen to sweet songs about injustice unless you expected justice and received it much of the time … It was better to share the companionship of that pretence, to feel that in that room we all lived beautifully and bravely with injustice and imminent death and consoled ourselves with love. Even before the songs ended I felt I had found the kind of life I wanted; I never wanted to be ordinary again.
Krishnan argues that this passage is a turning point for the narrator and for Naipaul, where he aspires to a beautiful lie, and has no illusions of it passing for truth. Nonetheless, “the lie gradually begins to take the place of that reality”. This is different from the characters in early writings such as The Mimic Men, who go about life without being able to tell the difference between lies and reality, and Naipaul can condescend to them. Here there is agency in accepting the inevitability of injustice and choosing to arrive somewhere and temporarily live a compelling lie. Contrasted against the realism of Naipaul’s travel writing, Hilary Mantel once commented that colonisers have the freedom to leave, and therefore can be nostalgic for the wild places of the world. The corollary is evident in the protagonist of A Bend in the River: one romanticises a place of privilege when one does not have the security to stay.
It is tempting to think that The Enigma of Arrival is the same, with Naipaul sentimentalising the English countryside. However, as Krishnan argues, Enigma characterises Naipaul’s late style and is a “breakthrough”. Naipaul appears to have remade himself while writing it. There is a shift to a “gentler introspective tone” from the earlier “terse and hard-hitting style”. A kinder, more inclusive voice makes for a better novel. I need to quote Krishnan at length:
first impressions are repeatedly withdrawn or qualified, as the narrator has difficulty orienting himself to his surroundings. Strikingly, however, these false impressions have a productive role to play in the text: even when ostensibly corrected, they are returned to and reworked for the insights and perspectives they afford.
Krishnan gives the example of Jack in his garden in Enigma – a rooted farmhand performing a traditional activity. When the garden is in decline, Naipaul inquires further. Jack is found to have journeyed to Wiltshire and finds artistic expression in his garden. This is not a far cry from Naipaul’s own story. A self-correcting rather than omniscient narrator makes for a better novelist, Krishnan suggests. This is a new sort of novel characterised by a singular property: the observing “I” follows the experiencing “I”. That all observation starts from a place of fantasy is not in doubt, but there is no need to claim fidelity to a particular fantasy called identity:
The solitude of the walk, the emptiness of that stretch of the downs, enabled me to surrender to my way of looking, to indulge my linguistic and historical fantasies; and enabled me, at the same time, to shed the nerves of being a stranger in England.
Naipaul clarifies that he sees himself as a chronicler of ruin (“To see the possibility, the certainty, of ruin, even at the moment of creation; it was my temperament”) – something that has been realised in his writings as a postcolonial stranger of the early and middle periods. But that the sentences of ruin need to come out of a mood based on sensation is something that is realised only in his later writings, starting with Enigma. In this late period buttressed by financial, emotional and passport security, there is no need for “nerves” to dictate sensation. Absorption in surroundings has a life of its own. This does not mean that life and loss in the surroundings are all that could be talked about. The first hundred pages are solitary, without Trinidad and London (there is no mention of Naipaul’s wife – Patricia Hale – in this seemingly autobiographical book about his time at a Wiltshire cottage). But the next hundred pages is about Trinidad, London, the promise of romance, and the birth of a writer. The sensory absorptive description creates the mood out of which memory follows. This, then, may explain why Enigma became my break-up book. I internalised the idea that fidelity to a narrative born out of nerves is not the only way.
Krishnan suggests that Naipaul’s evolution in Enigma shapes his second book of travel writing on India. Unlike the earlier Area of Darkness (1964) or India: A Wounded Civilisation (1977), India: A Million Mutinies (1990) finds Naipaul interested in “the ways people were actually making sense of their circumstances, even when he disagreed with them”. It is also reflected in his autobiographical writings; it’s difficult to disagree with Krishnan that Conrad’s Darkness and Mine (1974) and Prologue to an Autobiography (1984) seem to be written by “two very different people” despite similarity in the autobiographical details. Conrad’s Darkness has an authoritative voice that seeks to repudiate or unlearn his years in Trinidad and early years in England, while Prologue has a self-deprecatory voice that considers the past as formative. Krishnan convincingly shows that after the breakthrough in Enigma, we find a Naipaul more sympathetic to both his own past and the way others make sense of their lives. This does seem motivated by an inquiry into how people make sense or chart a way in the world rather than unsparingly detailing the world as it is.
Other commentators, however, are not big fans of A Million Mutinies. Naipaul saw hope in the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the ’90s, the current ruling party that has sought to remake India into a Hindu nation, with constant violent persecution of minorities through law and incitement of lynch mobs. Perhaps Naipaul got collective agency wrong. Here Subrahmanyam’s critique of Naipaul’s earlier work may well be applicable – a Hindu bias, or the absence of women’s agency, may inform selective identification of those who contribute to minor mutinies. In Naipaul’s analysis, British rule made possible a dismantling of earlier hierarchies, introducing the possibility of law, freedom, and Christian brotherhood. And though a million mutinies by interest groups defined an India that cannot escape parochialism, Naipaul identifies promise in educated Brahmins and motivated young men who seek to travel, embrace science and redefine themselves. All of this sounds dangerously like Naipaul himself – the sympathetic self-aware Naipaul may not after all be able to escape the temptation to graft his own sensibility onto a collective. Krishnan, too, is rather quick to find a similar desirability in Naipaul’s late-style autobiographical fiction and non-fiction analyses: unlike Naipaul’s earlier confident judgment of India’s “debased form of nationhood”, A Million Mutinies seems to suggest that “emancipation [in India] can arrive only through the uneven and multiply [sic] fracturing effects of identity politics, the million mutinies working themselves out”. Some caution could be exercised before one uses a new autobiographical sensibility (however therapeutic it may be) to understand a pre-determined subject. Just because Enigma allowed me to breathe and begin my recovery from my breakup, it would not provide me with the tools to understand why the breakup happened, or how to work towards emancipation.
I’d like to suggest that Naipaul is doing something radical in Enigma. He provides a real response to a question that has plagued postcolonial writers since Salman Rushdie let it out of the bag: how does the empire write back to the centre? Naipaul provides an answer: by being in the periphery, then being displaced to the centre, and then by rewriting the centre. There is no malice towards the centre; like Thomas Hardy or EM Forster, Naipaul is inordinately fond of Wiltshire. But no one notices the layers of Wiltshire, the tendency of the idyllic to veer towards ruin and displaced aspirations in seemingly secure citizens better than Naipaul. This creative breakthrough in reconstructing the self and the fossilised English countryside, however, is hard to transplant onto saying something definitive about a partner or parent or country by first establishing a narrative separateness.
Transplanting a novel is not required for it to guide love and loss. Once we come to terms with the inevitability of decline, then Naipaul shows that individuals cannot be faulted for wanting to live “beautifully and bravely with injustice and imminent death”. What gets in the way are mediating narratives – the moment when a breakup happens, the continuing rituals of a colonial past, glorification of the West. The Naipaul of Enigma helpfully suggests that if one does not passively consume images, a single narrative no longer holds force.
Suryapratim Roy is an assistant professor at the School of Law, Trinity College Dublin.