Among the Barbarians: V. S. Naipaul and His Critics
There was a time when V. S. Naipaul, reporting on the growth pains of the postcolonial world, was a favorite of the literary establishment. There was something eye-opening about the essays that began appearing in 1969 in the U.S. in The New York Review of Books, whether the subject was black power in the Caribbean, the terror and the banality in Argentina, ethnic bloodletting in Africa, or the wretchedness of India. These essays were the outcome of travels to far-flung places of empire that were undertaken by Naipaul after the appearance of his breakthrough novel, A House for Mr. Biswas (1961). Two nonfiction books—The Middle Passage (1962) and The Loss of El Dorado (1969)—reported on the effects, past and present, of imperial (mis)adventures in his West Indian “homeland,” while An Area of Darkness (1964) was an account of his first journey to India, his ancestral homeland. The travels in turn fed into novels set in formerly colonized lands—The Mimic Men (1967), In a Free State (1971: Booker Prize Winner), and Guerrillas (1975)—and marked a departure from the Trinidadian matter that (along with Mr. Biswas) originally established his reputation in England: The Mystic Masseur (1957), The Suffrage of Elvira (1958), and Miguel Street (1959).
A dominant theme of the post-Biswas writings was the blighted lives of inhabitants of “the world of half-made societies” (from his 1974 essay “Conrad’s Darkness”). Empire was no more, but the institutions of the nations artificially created, seemingly ex nihilo, were expected to embody “Western” values. Individuals desiring to succeed found that their native traditions and values had become suspect, while their successes and their failures did not have a grounding in the Western pattern. They carried too much baggage, so to speak, and yet had lost a living connection to an authentic cultural past. Living in a no-man’s land of the soul, their relation to the West was that of “mimic men.” Thus Simon (in the 1975 essay “A New King for the Congo”), manager of a nationalized company in the former Zaire, who had “a background of the bush”:
It is with people like Simon, educated, moneymaking, that the visitor feels himself in the presence of vulnerability, dumbness, danger. Because their resentments, which appear to contradict their ambitions, and which they can never satisfactorily explain, can at any time be converted into a wish to wipe out and undo, an African nihilism, the rage of primitive men coming to themselves and finding that they have been fooled and affronted.
The ambition as well as the despair and dislocation of such postcolonials were intimately connected to Naipaul’s own story. He often said of himself that, despite a desire to be a writer, as a member of a dispossessed Indian substratum on a colonized Caribbean island with a majority black population, he lacked the grounding in the cultural compost from which great literature grows. Born in 1932 in Trinidad, where his Hindu ancestors had arrived as indentured laborers in the nineteenth century, he saw his future elsewhere. By his own account, he could not wait to leave. A good education led to a Commonwealth scholarship, and he went to England to study at the age of eighteen. While the conjunction of Naipaul’s personal story of alienation and cultural impoverishment with his accounts of the failures of colonial societies in the postcolonial era clearly gratified some portion of the critical establishment, truth telling has its limits.
An effect of the realism of Naipaul’s writing style is that his portraits of individuals, e.g., Simon, manager of the company in Zaire, appear so unvarnished. And because Simon does not simply stand for himself, but is also representative of an entire class of people, these portraits suggest sarcasm and condescension. Already with his Trinidad novels, Naipaul was criticized for what was held to be contempt and lack of sympathy toward the Third World, not to forget acceptance of its inferiority. A turning point in his reception came with the publication in 1979 of the novel A Bend in the River, which described the racial animosities, corruption, and descent into demagoguery after a civil war in an unnamed post-independence African nation. Edward W. Said’s assessment of Naipaul on the appearance of that novel—“a third-worlder denouncing his own people, not because they are victims of imperialism, but because they seem to have an innate flaw, which is that they are not whites”—established the parameters of Naipaul detraction henceforth, especially after the appearance of Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey in 1981. In that work Naipaul turned his gaze on the effect of Islamic imperialism on the peoples of four non-Arabic Muslim countries (Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia). As he would later write, “no colonization had been so thorough as the colonization that had come with the Arab faith,” eradicating, as it did, all vestiges of pre-Muslim history. A ferocious anti-Naipaul industry developed, with Naipaul dogged by accusations of racism and bigotry. There is a repetitiveness in the attacks, which increasingly rely on a now well established vocabulary. For instance, the writer Caryl Phillips has taken Naipaul to task for his misanthropy, his lack of compassion, and his sardonic bitter tone, for neglecting (unlike, e.g., Wole Soyinka or Chinua Achebe) “to give his community a past,” and for serving as a “Eurocentric foreign correspondent for the West.”
Without a doubt, especially when contrasted with the early Trinidadian fiction, Naipaul’s vision had turned dark. It is a vision with which one can find fault, as did Irving Howe in his review of A Bend in the River. In contrast to Edward Said’s remarks, however, Howe’s more insightful assessment demonstrates that Naipaul was never without admirers:
A novelist has to be faithful to what he sees, and few see as well as Naipaul; yet one may wonder whether, in some final reckoning, a serious writer can simply allow the wretchedness of his depicted scene to become the limit of his vision. Such novelists as Dostoyevsky, Conrad, and Turgenev, also dealing with painful aspects of political life, struggled in some ways to “surmount” or “transcend” them. Naipaul seems right now to be a writer beleaguered by his own truths, unable to get past them. That is surely an honorable difficulty, far better than indulging in sentimental or ideological uplift; but it exacts a price.
It is worthwhile to note that the change in Naipaul’s reception occurred in the same years that Western liberals abandoned their infatuation with another truth teller, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, during his post-Soviet exile. While Naipaul has not given any indication that he took an interest in Solzhenitsyn’s writings, his accounts of the effects of colonialism on native peoples—in The Middle Passage and The Loss of El Dorado and, later, in A Way in the World (1994) and Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples (1998)—resemble the kinds of case studies that Solzhenitsyn assembled in The Gulag Archipelago (first English publication, 1974). And just as Solzhenitsyn failed to display the gratitude of an exile and instead called attention to the spiritual vacuity of the West, Naipaul was denounced in attacks that neglected to deal with the substance of his writing. An egregious instance, again, is that of Edward Said, who called the writings by Naipaul “travel journalism [that is] unencumbered with much knowledge or information . . . unrestrained by genuine learning or self-education.” Whatever his interpretation of facts on the ground, Naipaul was steeped in the historical sources, and Said’s wrong-headed response, like that to Solzhenitsyn, reflects the ideological distortions of the present age.
Naipaul’s biographer, Patrick French, has written that Naipaul’s “response to the growth in his reputation as a villain was to stoke it.” One cannot help thinking that criticism also amused Naipaul and that his acerbic and offhand responses reflect his Trinidadian background, in particular the figure of the jokester that is prominent in the early fiction. A term that truly enraged his critics was “barbarian,” which Naipaul used frequently in connection with Third World countries and peoples and which was assumed to encapsulate his loathing and condescension. His critics simply could not get past its present connotations, which, besides the contrast to “civilized,” suggest depravity and evil.
The word appears in context in The Enigma of Arrival (1987):
Cities like London were to change. They were to cease being more or less national cities; they were to become cities of the world, modern-day Romes, establishing the pattern of what great cities should be, in the eye of islanders like myself and people even more remote in language and culture. They were to be cities visited for learning and elegant goods and manners and freedom by all the barbarian peoples of the globe, people of forest and desert, Arabs, Africans, Malays.
The reference to “Malays” at the end of that passage might alert a careful reader that Britain’s former colonial possessions are meant here, standing to London as once had stood the peoples on the periphery of the Roman world to its great capital city. If London before World War II represented the center of the civilized world, its imperium consisted, in the same sense, of numerous barbarians (as the Greeks had referred to surrounding peoples, ignorant of Greek customs), unable to speak the mother language (or spoke it poorly) or understand its customs, but who were nonetheless expected to pay tribute to the center’s institutions. Rather than being a dismissal of non-Europeans, “barbarian” draws on an historical parallel to characterize the ambiguous status of the inhabitants of the former imperial possessions.
The Mimic Men, Naipaul’s 1967 novel, was the first fictional exploration of the problematic assimilation of a former colonial society, the fictional Caribbean island of Isabella, to the institutions and ideology of the London imperial center. Again, Naipaul resorted to an historical analogy, drawing on the Western literary tradition, especially the Aeneid, with London being textually associated with Rome. And, yet, while the destructive symbiosis described in the novel makes abundant use of classical allusions, they are multivalent and serve as sardonic or ironic commentary on the inadequacies or instability of the center’s professed ideals.
Naipaul’s “mimicry” of Rome, drawing attention to its continuing traces in the modern world, can be seen throughout his oeuvre. A small instance occurs in the above-mentioned The Enigma of Arrival. While called “a novel”—it might be considered a “Bildungsroman”—its major character is V. S. Naipaul, and its action, such as it is, takes place in the environs of an estate in Wiltshire, near Salisbury Plain, location of Stonehenge and other historical sites, where Naipaul had rented a “house in the woods.” It opens with the first-person narrator’s reflections on the countryside during his daily perambulations, including the following: “I heard on the radio one morning that in the days of the Roman Empire geese could be walked to market all the way from the province of Gaul to Rome. After this, the high-headed, dung-dropping geese that strutted across the muddy, rutted way at the bottom of the valley . . . developed a kind of historical life for me, something that went beyond the idea of medieval peasantry, old English country ways, and the drawings of geese in children’s books.”
In dozens of interviews, Naipaul was questioned about his goals as a writer and about the adverse reaction to his works. The story of how he became a writer was also rehearsed over and over in interviews, but most prominently in “Prologue to an Autobiography” (in Finding the Center, 1984), The Enigma of Arrival, A Way in the World, and Reading and Writing: A Personal Account (2000). There is a general consensus that the “personal” characterizes both his ambition as a writer and the work itself, with the pain with which he described the creative process reflecting the raw sensibility of the narrating voice. His own insecurities and fears have always been on display. An exception is a small book of five essays from 2007, A Writer’s People: Ways of Looking and Feeling. The voice here, unlike the one that resonated in his works beginning with A Bend in the River, is utterly dispassionate.
But, as always with Naipaul, nothing is as it appears. A Writer’s People, his penultimate piece of writing, translates his fascination with Rome and the effects of empire into a veiled response to his critics. Besides being something of a provocateur, Naipaul is also very sly, artfully embedding in A Writer’s People one of the most famous works of Western literary criticism, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, written by Erich Auerbach while he was in exile in Turkey during World War II. As James Porter has noted of Mimesis, it was “plainly out to make a statement,” not simply in demonstrating Auerbach’s mastery of the Western literary tradition, even without access to appropriate libraries in Istanbul, but also, by way of “counterexample” (Auerbach’s term), in privileging the Old Testament over the dominance of Greece in the anti-Semitic German philological curriculum. Auerbach’s subject—as per its subtitle, the literary representation of reality—is also Naipaul’s.
Although Mimesis is nowhere directly mentioned in A Writer’s People, Naipaul alludes to correspondence with Robin Lane Fox, which indicates that he has had access to classics scholarship. Proceeding from the preface, in which he mentions that ways of looking “alter the configuration of the world,” Naipaul will go on to spin a complex and beautifully allusive web of associations on the examples of a variety of classical and modern literatures, both Western and Indian, to portray the inadequacies of the ways of looking of those who inhabit the civilizational center. Just as Auerbach stuck it to the classics scholars of the National Socialist era, so too Naipaul’s literary comparisons address “ways of seeing” or, in regard to his critics, ways of not seeing. Moreover, while Naipaul always emphasized in interviews that the “creative process” was a mystery to him, A Writer’s People is a veiled account of how, through imitation of classical models, he arrived at his famous realistic style, one characterized by the trenchancy of his observations.
The first chapter, “The Worm in the Bud,” concerning writers Naipaul encountered in his youth in faraway Trinidad, rehearses the issue of cultural and historical emptiness, and his assertion of “the spiritual emptiness” of the Caribbean nation is of a piece with his contention that great literatures thrive only in societies with great human wealth: “Europe had left behind nothing that could be called a civilization, no great architecture, no idea of local beauty, no memory of style and splendor (the splendor created by the sugar wealth would have occurred elsewhere, in Europe).” Even “the beauty of the islands” was a foreign imposition, introduced by European cruise ships in the 1920s. His low estimation of the poet Derek Walcott in this respect (he “sang the praises of the emptiness; he gave it a kind of intellectual substance”) brought forth the familiar chorus of anti-Naipaul criticism.
It was to escape the emptiness that Naipaul went to England. Yet England, or the literary models he encountered there, would also represent a path not taken. The second chapter, “An English Way of Looking,” relates his early struggles after leaving Oxford in 1954, as he sought to penetrate the English literary world. It is a ruminative account of his literary apprenticeship in London and his acquaintance with certain writers, including Anthony Powell, author of the twelve-volume opus A Dance to the Music of Time, an oeuvre nourished in a fertile civilizational soil. The “ways of looking and feeling” (thus, the subtitle of A Writer’s People) of the great European novel tradition, however, were “the product of a specific historical and cultural vision,” of men (and mostly they were men) who once dominated affairs of the world. If in the colonies, as he writes, “there was no depth to go into,” he now learned that great societies had in the meantime also become diminished, something of which Powell himself seems to have been aware when he began in the 1950s his retrospective account of British life of the past half-century. In Naipaul’s view, the world could no longer be written about “in the old way.” To continue to do so was to cling to what Naipaul calls a “half view,” which prevents writers from seeing the world as it really is.
In the chapter “Disparate Ways,” he gives an example of how this half view functioned in the late Roman republic, preceding the turbulent transition to empire. The evidence is in a letter that Cicero wrote to a friend about the five days of games organized by Pompey, held in “the first stone theater in the city.” (And then Naipaul adds, “These great Roman generals made money: Pompey had done in the Roman east what Caesar was doing in Gaul.”) Cicero, who attended all five days of the games, mentions in his letter the displeasure of the crowd on the final day at the killing of twenty large elephants. The only other ancient source is found in Pliny’s Natural History (ca. AD 77), where the Roman crowd was said to rise and curse Pompey as the elephants were being speared. Cicero omitted this detail, even though he was present, writes Naipaul; unlike Pliny, he “could have spoken more plainly. He could have told us more.”
But he was a friend of Pompey’s; he would not have wanted to diminish the event, and so . . . he preferred to use words to hide from what he saw. He preferred to have the half view. It enabled him, in the brutalities of the ancient world, to see and not see.
Besides letters of Cicero, the classical works discussed in A Writer’s People are Caesar’s Gallic Wars, a poem attributed to Virgil, the Histories of Polybius, and Apuleius’ The Golden Ass. By drawing on this eclectic range of texts, Naipaul demonstrates that he, the outsider, excelled in the curriculum that was once at the heart of the British educational system. But, as in Cicero’s case, the “ways of looking and feeling” of the classical texts reflect a refusal to look too closely at reality (i.e., the slaughter of twenty elephants). In the same way his modern critics, who refuse to see the world as it really is. They are “blind.” Naipaul, the outsider, in contrast, sees the postcolonial world in its unadulterated, charmless reality.
The effect of Naipaul’s compelling reports of this reality—inducing in his readers the extremes of admiration and rage—is indissoluble from his writing style, which also has a classical foundation. In the account of his early days in London in A Writer’s People, he claims that he abandoned the practice of “debilitating playacting at the writing table” and decided simply to invent his own style, “to do a narrative only out of simple, direct statements.” Hilary Mantel, a sympathetic reader of Naipaul, accepts at face value this claim of self-invention. As she wrote in 2002 in The New York Review of Books: “There was no one to provide Naipaul with lines. He has had to write his own. He has represented no one but himself and spoken in no one else’s language. He seems impervious to the influence of system . . . Perhaps what we will say about Naipaul was that he was the self-made man who didn’t stop at weaving the cloth for his own garments but clothes his own bones in prose.”
Mantel’s further choice of words concerning Naipaul’s style is correct: “simple, direct statements,” “puritan,” “spare in its effects,” with an exactness that “transfixes the reader.” But while it appears free from the influence of a recognizable literary or rhetorical tradition, no great writer is without models. The style Naipaul claims to have invented while laboring at his desk in London is indebted to a close study of Latin authors that began in his youth in an English school in Trinidad, Queen’s Royal College, which Naipaul mentions in the opening lines of the first essay of A Writer’s People. According to Patrick French’s biography, it was modeled on an English boys’ public school, which was known for its academic excellence. Among other subjects, he learned Latin and French. His writing style is of a piece with his fascination with the legacy of Rome and of empire.
The influence of Latin texts on Naipaul’s “vision” of reality (one of “clear-sightedness,” in contrast to the blindness of his critics) and on the formation of his prose style begins to emerge in the third chapter of A Writer’s People, “Looking and Not Seeing: The Indian Way,” which opens by relating the difficulty of penetrating the consciousness of earlier times. As Naipaul writes, the Indian immigrants to Trinidad (a migration that began in the late nineteenth century) carried with them “a civilization,” one that could have been reconstructed, “more than is possible for the Mayan or the Etruscan.” For instance, they transported objects with them (holy books, wood printing blocks for making designs on cotton, musical instruments), but mainly this civilization existed in the mind, e.g., in its religious rites and festivals. This was a “private India,” one that allowed the immigrants to live “instinctively,” far from home, uncontaminated by their experience of a new world. But because it was knowledge “that didn’t need defining,” it “was fragile, liable to perish or grow faint after one or two generations.”
Naipaul then introduces a mattress-maker, a Hindi speaker and one of the last contract laborers recruited to Trinidad from India. One of his grandmother’s “half-feudal dependents,” the man came to the Naipaul family home in Port of Spain in 1945 to make new mattresses. With only a small parcel of clothes and his scissors and needles, he took up residence in the lower part of the house for the duration. Here is Naipaul’s description of the mattress-maker at work:
He worked in silence, in a cloud of fibre dust, with a dedication that I had never seen before, squatting next to a new heap of reddish coconut fibre, loosening it with his fingers, and then stuffing it into the ticking envelope, the left hand pulling at the ticking, the right hand stuffing, until at last the long metal needle was brought into play, pushing through the ticking to get the rough coconut fibre into all the little pockets where it should be, the left hand then patting where the needle had worked.
Aware of how much of his ancestral past was lost to him, the young Naipaul sought to learn from the mattress-maker what India had been like more than half a century earlier, but, partly because of the language barrier, he discovered that the “mattress-maker’s way of looking was lost; I could never understand the India he came from.” On being asked what he most remembered about India, all the man would say was, “There was a railway station.” Naipaul’s lament here underscores his oft-reiterated claim of his lack of cultural grounding.
Again, an attentive reader will not fail to note the similarity of the description of the mattress-maker at work with that of the action of a classical poem in the following chapter (“Disparate Ways”). The poem “Moretum,” attributed to Virgil, is “about agriculture and country life,” which was also the life of the Indian immigrants to Trinidad. It begins with the morning rituals of a man named Simylus, who, awakened by the cock’s crow, “straight away begins to worry about hunger later in the morning.” Here is Naipaul’s prose rendering of the opening:
[Simylus] stretches out his hand to the fireplace. An ember from last night’s fire burns him. He gets up then, takes his lamp, uses a needle to pull out the wick, and holds the lamp at a slant against the coals which still have life; he puffs and puffs to get the wick to catch. It does, but it is not easy. He uses his hand to shelter the flame against draughts, and unlocks the closet door with a key. There is a small heap of corn on the ground. He uses a measure to take what he needs; sets his now faithful lamp (as he thinks of it) on a tiny shelf, which he has put up against the wall for just such a purpose. He is dressed in goatskin. He begins to work his little stone mill, pouring the corn from the top with his left hand, driving the wheel with his right, while the bruised grain runs down the lower stone.
Later in the poem, Simylus prepares his moretum, the herbs from his garden—cloves of garlic, parsley, rue, and coriander—that he blends to eat with his flat bread. As with the mattress- maker, Naipaul excels in placing Simylus’ morning ritual before our eyes: “With the pestle he crushes first the fragrant garlic, then grinds the whole mixture together. The various elements gradually lose their particular strength, the colors blend into one, not green, not white; and then he adds a few drops of oil and a little strong vinegar, stirs the dish, until at last he runs two fingers around the mortar and presses everything together into a ball.” (One cannot help thinking here of Indian food etiquette, also that of the Hindu residents of Trinidad: combining small portions of ingredients and gathering them into a ball with the tips of the fingers.)
Naipaul ascribes the realistic detail of the poem to “long observation” on the poet’s part, but he does not fail to mention what the Loeb edition indicates about “Moretum,” namely, that it derives from a Greek poem “and is also the reworking of a century-old Latin piece.” In other words, although the poet might have observed such an activity (we grant that it was a familiar sight in antiquity), he was more likely guided by an earlier poetic model. While V. S. Pritchett has described Naipaul’s “exceptional power of watching,” which attracts all his energy and talent, the power of the account of the mattress-maker is not evidence of prodigious memory of events observed fifty years earlier. True, Naipaul is able to make us see the mattress-maker at work, but the reconstruction is shaped by the kind of exercises in Latin translation he did as a schoolboy and went on to perfect in his early years in London.
The realism of the mattress-maker’s task and of Simylus’ preparation of his moretum underlines Naipaul’s subject, namely, a writer’s representation of reality. Naipaul wants his readers to see things. In the same chapter in which “Moretum” is discussed, the physical details of which take “nothing for granted,” which make us “see and touch and feel at every point,” he gives us an example of how a great modern writer is able to do this. It begins with an appreciation of Madame Bovary by Flaubert. As with “Moretum,” Naipaul closely paraphrases the action of a section of the novel (again, an exercise probably first honed in Latin class in Port of Spain), moving, in under five pages, from Charles Bovary’s marriage to the elderly widow to her death and his wooing and marrying of Emma. The details, Naipaul writes,
seemed to take me to the mind and experience of the writer. I was seeing things, light, evanescent things Flaubert himself might have seen and noted in quite different personal circumstances: the winter dawn, the boy sitting with his wooden shoes beside the ditch, the farmer’s sick room with the cotton nightcap flung to a far corner of the room, the fourposter and the upright sacks of wheat in the sitting room.
What Naipaul gives (“Flaubert’s narrative splendor in Madame Bovary”), he quickly takes away, continuing with a discussion of what he considers a serious misstep on Flaubert’s part, namely, Salammbô, published five years after Madame Bovary. Of this historical novel set in Carthage in the third century BC, Naipaul writes: “Gone are the brevity and the cleanness of the details from the second chapter of Madame Bovary, details from the writer’s own mind (the winter dawn, the boy with the sabots beside the ditch, the farmer’s nightcap flung far away on the floor), gossamer details opening up a landscape and a society which no work of scholarship could have provided.” And just as Auerbach in the opening—and most famous—chapter of Mimesis contrasted the Homeric account of Odysseus’ return to Ithaca and the Old Testament narrative of the sacrifice of Isaac, Naipaul pairs the story of the Carthaginian mercenary wars in Flaubert’s novel Salammbô with the account by the Hellenistic-period historian Polybius, one of Flaubert’s sources for those wars.
Although Polybius lived 100 years after that war, he not only knew about military matters, but, according to Naipaul, he also “had a good understanding of the institutions of both Carthage and Rome.” Moreover, “he accompanied the Roman commander during the third and final war against Carthage in 146 B.C.; Polybius saw Carthage burn. As a writer he is simple and direct, with a gift of narrative; he makes complicated things easy to follow.” Like Flaubert in Madame Bovary, Polybius is “writing of things by which he is still more or less surrounded, [he] is always simple. Flaubert [in Salammbô] is elaborate.” As an example, Naipaul introduces Polybius’ description of the temple of Venus on Mount Eryx in Sicily, site of the last battle of the first Carthaginian war, just before the mercenaries revolted: “Polybius can write directly, like a guide book: ‘Eryx is a mountain near the sea on that side of Sicily which looks toward Italy . . . On its summit, which is flat, stands the temple of Venus Erycina, which is indisputably the first in wealth and general magnificence of all the Sicilian holy places.’” Flaubert, however,
when he comes to do the temple or temples of Carthage (it isn’t clear how many), will strain; and reader and writer will strain even more at the time of the sacrifice of the children to Moloch. . . . Everything no doubt comes from the two hundred books Flaubert says he read. But there is too much jeweled description, too much color; the reader cannot take it all in . . .
Naipaul is not above pointing out the ridiculous elements of Flaubert’s plot, not to mention his failure to understand ancient religious practices. Why all the temples? Flaubert needs them, according to Naipaul, since Salammbô is a priestess or attendant in the Carthaginian temple of Tanit. Her accouterments include a python, a eunuch as her spiritual instructor, and a magic veil that makes its wearer invisible. Polybius makes only a short mention of a daughter, but Flaubert heightens the stakes by involving the daughter of the Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca in “a sexual intrigue with the Libyan leader of the mercenary revolt.” Her zaimph, as Flaubert calls her veil, has been stolen by the Libyan, and, as the war rages and Carthage’s troubles accumulate, Salammbô is called on by the eunuch to recover it. To prepare herself, as Naipaul writes, “she does the fasts and the purification. On the appointed evening she is specially dressed; she touches herself with the blood of a black dog slaughtered on a winter’s night in a ruined tomb.” She is, according to Naipaul, “a creature of bad nineteenth-century fiction, gothic, orientalist.” As she “slinks about her jeweled temple interior, never less than beautifully described, . . . since she has little to say it is hard to know what she feels or does or how she actually passes her days.” A modern reader cannot enter this world because Flaubert’s details are not based on actual seeing.
To bring home the kind of knowledge that ancient writers possessed and to which moderns no longer have access, Naipaul introduces an example of ancient religion by a writer who, like Polybius, was steeped in the customs of the world of which he wrote. This is The Golden Ass by the second-century writer Lucius Apuleius. Its style is not realistic. Indeed, “Apuleius’s Latin is strange,” writes Naipaul. (Perhaps because Apuleius was from the provinces, indeed from near Carthage?) And yet, despite being set several hundred years after the mercenary war, “enough of the older world might adhere to Apuleius to take us into the ways of old belief.” Naipaul appreciates Apuleius’ account, finding “humane and moving and beautiful” the redemption of Lucius, as the goddess Isis guides him “through his threefold initiation into her cult.” Moreover, his manner is straightforward enough “for some of his episodes to appear almost as they are, twelve hundred years later, in Boccaccio and afterwards in Chaucer.” (Again, reflecting his early Trinidad fiction, one cannot help thinking that Apuleius appealed to Naipaul because he had been accused of using magic to swindle a wealthy widow.) Flaubert, in contrast, although he would have known of this ancient treatment of religion, “wanted horror; he wanted the tableaux. He wanted the mass sacrifice of children to Moloch. He wanted Salammbô slinking about the temple of Tanit in her tight white gown and with her black python.”
Flaubert, in Naipaul’s view, has failed to understand that one cannot enter into the mind of the past simply by inventing details that are absent in the austere and brisk ancient accounts. Contemporary readers of the ancient writers filled in what we moderns would consider the gaps. They possessed in their heads “the whole apparatus of ancient civilization: the art of war and the tools of war, ideas of human association, of obedience, slavery and punishment, the pleasures of the arena.” Thus, Roman readers of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, “many of whom would at one time have been in the army,” would have known how to read what Naipaul calls “the shorthand.” For instance, Caesar mentions that Acco, leader of a rebellion in 53 BC, had been “executed ‘in the ancient Roman manner.’ He says no more; and if you don’t know what he means his polite way with words leaves you imagining horrors.”
Caesar’s reticence serves to highlight the difference between ancient and modern sensibilities. The latter Naipaul defines as “one that in its assessment of the world brings all the senses into play and does so within a frame of reason.” Caesar’s brevity, on the other hand, exemplifies “the classical half view,” a preference for not looking at the world too closely. Again, by “ancient sensibility,” Naipaul indirectly refers to his critics, who prefer to gloss over what is before their eyes. In competition with Flaubert —whose embellishments in Salammbô soften the brutality of ancient warfare—Naipaul tells us what executed “in the ancient Roman manner” looked like:
Roman readers would have had a clear picture in their head of the procedures in camp when on Caesar’s orders the six thousand men of the Verbigeni clan, associated with the Helvetii, were hunted down by the tribes through whose territory they were fleeing to the Rhine, brought back to Caesar, and killed. Six thousand men killed at the same time in a small space, and not in the heat of battle: there would have been cries and groans for a long time, and the ground would have steamed with blood. But there is no blood in Caesar’s abstract half-line statement: “they were put to death”—one of the Latin constructions the schoolboy learns early. The Roman reader would have supplied the blood for himself.
It was the discussion of the half view of another ancient civilization, namely, India (immediately following the story of the mattress-maker), that first alerted me to the influence of Auerbach’s Mimesis on Naipaul’s distinction between ancient and modern sensibilities. Naipaul’s source is a work, originally entitled The Light of Life and retitled Autobiography of an Indian Indentured Labourer, which had been translated into English in the 1950s by “Dutch–Surinam academics.” Its author had been contracted to go out to the Dutch colony of Surinam in 1898, about the time Naipaul’s ancestors, including the mattress-maker, journeyed to nearby Trinidad.
Although a Muslim, the indentured laborer of the title, Rahman, had grown up in a mixed Hindu–Muslim region. Besides knowing Hindi, he could also read the Ramayana, and, after completion of his contract labor in Surinam, he set himself up there as a scholar teaching the Ramayana to Brahmans and pundits “in the benighted Dutch plantations,” where he remained for the rest of his days. Naipaul, on discovering the autobiography, imagined that it would hold in remote memory the experiences of the mattress-maker: “the same landscapes, . . . the same weather, the same calendar, the same ideas of human possibility, the same languages, . . . a little bit of the past recovered.” Quite the contrary. Rahman, it turns out, had “no feeling for the physical world about him.” Like the older Trinidad Indians Naipaul grew up with, he carried a “private India” uncontaminated by the New World, and fifty years after migrating to Surinam, his vision remained the same:
“Holy Allah,” writes Rahman, “had picked me out and I was destined to leave Hindustan.” . . . So a devout man is always safe. He has no idea where Surinam or South America is, and he really has no wish to find out. He has no sense of the passing of time, or cannot communicate it. Once he allows himself to be recruited by the Surinam agents he is moved from depot to depot; he gives no description of these depots, judging each only according to the quality of the food given out.
Rahman’s India is “full of religious rituals, of vows made and then carried out.” Paraphrasing again, Naipaul describes an extraordinary cure, remembered by Rahman fifty or sixty years after the event:
For one cure a big tortoise had to be brought to Rahman’s father’s house. It was easy enough for a fisherman to catch a tortoise. But then the tortoise had to be made to urinate; and then the urine had to be collected and mixed with the powder of a baked earthworm. Rahman’s father didn’t know how to get the tortoise to urinate. But the wise and famous old hakim, who had prescribed the cure, laughed and told Rahman to bring a stove, a pan, and some firewood from his mother. . . . Sure enough, in this story, the tortoise urinated, and the urine was collected in another pan. Rahman was then sent to dig for three earthworms (three: Rahman is as precise as this, fifty or sixty years later). He brings the earthworms to the hakim, who (with a similar precision, and for an unstated reason) bakes only two and a quarter on the pan. From the mixture of the urine and the baked worm three tablets were made, and the patient (an assistant to a rich Hindu landowner) was told to swallow one tablet a day.
As in Auerbach’s description of the world of Homer’s heroes, in Rahman’s world “everything is visible.” If Odysseus takes the old woman by the throat “with his right hand,” so Rahman digs up three earthworms, of which the holy man uses two and a quarter. (One might even think here of Flaubert’s Salammbô, as described by Naipaul: “On the appointed evening she is specially dressed; she touches herself with the blood of a black dog slaughtered on a winter’s night in a ruined tomb.”) Auerbach might have been referencing Rahman’s world when he wrote that the Greek epics represent phenomena “in a fully externalized form, visible and palpable in all their parts, and completely fixed in their spatial and temporal relations.” And although there is much travel in Rahman’s autobiography, as in the Odyssey the moving back and forth does not create “a sort of perspective in time and place.” Here is Auerbach:
[A]ny such subjectivistic-perspectivistic procedure, creating a foreground and background, resulting in the present lying open to the depths of the past, is entirely foreign to the Homeric style; the Homeric style knows only a foreground, only a uniformly illuminated, uniformly objective present.
Like a Homeric character, Rahman displays what Auerbach called a “calm acceptance of the basic facts of human existence, but with no compulsion to brood over them, still less any passionate impulse either to rebel against them or to embrace them in an ecstasy of submission.” Thus, as Naipaul writes, while “some men can go behind the play of events and study the working of fate”—that would be the hakim—“the devout man was always protected,” never having to live with the consequences of his actions. Rahman is like the Homeric characters, who, in Auerbach’s memorable phrasing, “wake every morning as if it were the first day of their lives.” Like Odysseus on his return to Ithaca after two decades, Rahman after fifty years away is exactly the same as on his departure from India.
The most compelling part of A Writer’s People—the juxtaposition in the same chapter of the story of Rahman with the personal journey of Mohandas Gandhi—describes the strenuous self-creation required of postcolonial men and women when departing from the well-trod path of tradition. Here, too, Naipaul would seem to have been inspired by Auerbach, for whom the lack of historical consciousness on the part of the characters in the Homeric legends contrasts with that of the figures in the Old Testament narratives:
[W]hat a road, what a fate, lie between the Jacob who cheated his father out of his blessing and the old man whose favorite son has been torn to pieces by a wild beast! —between David the harp player, persecuted by his lord’s jealousy, and the old king, surrounded by violent intrigues. . . . It is only during the course of an eventful life that men are differentiated into full individuality.
Naipaul’s counterexample of Gandhi is not meant to represent an individual chosen by God to fulfill a particular destiny: Naipaul is securely secular, even as he admits that Gandhi’s political cause had a “spiritual tinge.” As in Auerbach’s account, however, the story of Rahman cleaves to the security of an ancient pattern; the other, that of Gandhi, charts the unmapped path into the modern world. Gandhi, the man who went to England to study law in 1888, was “born to a view of the world that was even dimmer” than Rahman’s, yet the road he traveled in the years between then and his appearance at the Indian National Congress in Kanpur in 1925 changed the face of India. He was a man who, whatever his tribulations, took nothing for granted. His was “a journey from not seeing to seeing.” Unlike Rahman, Gandhi’s journeys out of India led to personal transformation and to the embrace of a great political cause. It is his transformation that Naipaul describes, drawing on Gandhi’s autobiography to show how his vision was formed.
In Naipaul’s rendering, Gandhi’s achievement owed nothing to any cultural inheritance or handed-down ways of viewing the world, to any canonical “historical or cultural vision.” Gandhi, the small emaciated man with a shawl over his naked shoulders, “who might have been thought to be perfectly Indian,” was an original, and his autobiography is the step-by-step story of his self-creation, “personal experiment by personal experiment—in London, South Africa, and India—over thirty years.”
The details that Naipaul furnishes of Gandhi’s personal experiment were certainly heterodox. For instance, the “power of the fast” with which the Mahatma vexed British authorities in South Africa had its origins in his beloved mother’s arduous fasting rituals. Although Gandhi liked to eat three meals a day when he was living in Johannesburg, the headaches and constipation that he suffered led him to give up breakfast after reading in a newspaper about the Manchester No Breakfast Association. Further, after his experience in jail in Johannesburg, he adopted two restrictions placed on Indians there: dinner before sunset and no tea or coffee. He founded a commune, Tolstoy Farm, giving up milk and forcing everyone else to become vegetarian. He began to modify his dress in order to reflect the dress of the poor, wearing a shirt, a dhoti, and a white cloak. Through such an accumulation of simple props, his personal authority grew. By the time of the congress in Kanpur, he had become the iconic figure with the shawl over his shoulders. Aldous Huxley saw him at that event, but Huxley would not have known of the complicated journey Gandhi had made. As Naipaul said, “He had created his own idea of spirituality and holy living. He hadn’t stamped something out from the Indian pattern: the long hair, the saffron robe, the sandalwood caste marks.”
As with Simon in “A King for the Congo,” whose ambition and dislocation were connected to Naipaul’s own story, there is a resemblance between the facts of Gandhi’s early life and those of Naipaul’s in Trinidad. Gandhi’s people were not peasants, but, like Naipaul’s, were in the “administrative” class of the colony. Gandhi, on going to college in India, could not understand the lectures: he described himself as “raw,” which Naipaul interprets to mean “that he was under-read and knew very little about the world.” Naipaul says of himself that, as a student at Oxford, he lived in “a cloud of not knowing” when it came to European culture. Importantly, Gandhi, like Naipaul, also knew little of religion from his family: “From a family maid he had learned the virtue of repeating the name of Rama. He knew a few moralistic Gujarati plays. On certain festival days he had heard the Gita read aloud, but it had made no great impression on him.” All in all, Naipaul says that it would be hard in India today, with so much in the way of television, movies, and so on, “to enter a mind so culturally denuded as Gandhi’s was in 1887.” And yet, like Naipaul at about the same age, “he was in a fever to go to England.” Gandhi’s journeys, first to England, then to South Africa, “made him see that he had everything to learn. It was the basis of his own great achievement.” Ditto, one may assume, V. S. Naipaul.
The classical narratives in A Writer’s People also bring Gandhi’s achievement—and clear-sightedness—into greater relief. Here, too, the associations are rewarding to follow, especially the contrasting example of Cicero, seemingly the most humane and cosmopolitan of Romans, yet who (as in the case of Pompey’s games in the “first stone theater in the city”) avoided speaking plainly about what he saw. A piece of evidence is a letter concerning a slave belonging to the famous actor Aesopus, a friend of Cicero’s. The slave had run away, traveled to the east, and managed to live as a free man before being captured in Athens and sent back to Rome. Cicero, without knowing whether the slave would be sent to a mill or to a private jail, simply called the man a fellow of no worth, “a mere nobody.”
Naipaul recuperates details (from Apuleius’ Golden Ass) that Cicero neglected concerning the horrors experienced by men like the former slave, condemned to the mill, “an immemorial punishment,” which “would have been an everyday sight in the ancient world.”
The truest description, which appears to be taken from life, is in Apuleius. The animals are in an awful way, with the hooves of the donkeys overgrown, to add to the torment; and the slaves are disfigured runts, their eyelids half caked with the smoke from the baking ovens, with letters branded on their foreheads . . . They are covered with dirty flour, the way the athletes in the arena were covered with dust (a detail that brings the arena to life).
Naipaul finds it “extraordinary” that Cicero “could contemplate a man, fairly educated, with social gifts, and recently acting like a free man, committed to that kind of hopelessness [i.e., the mill].” In the face of the brutality of the ancient world, however, Cicero preferred the half view, unlike Gandhi, who, despite his lack of any specific cultural inheritance or other gifts, took action. His first intense experience with discrimination was in South Africa in the 1890s, where he practiced law for several years, yet his cause extended beyond South African anti-racial abuses. Back in India in 1901, in Calcutta, Gandhi found himself confronted with the law of caste. The unsanitary conditions, which in South Africa had justified biases against Indians living there, were even worse, and, as Naipaul writes, Gandhi might have doubted whether reform were possible.
[I]t might have been thought that in Calcutta in 1901, when he saw the dreadful latrine behaviour of the Congress delegates, he would have wondered about his cause. It would have been understandable if he had thought of washing his hands of the Indian cause in South Africa and India; if he had decided that eight years of hard public life were enough, that the people weren’t worth the pain, and the time had come for him to withdraw, to stick to his law practice and live privately. But he didn’t; it is his greatness.
Instead, Gandhi’s cause grew greater, beyond latrines, castes, and sweepers: “He looked hard at the broken-down, static, cruel India; he took nothing for granted.” So, too, I believe, we are meant to understand V. S. Naipaul.
A Writer’s People is about Naipaul’s genesis as a writer and of his personal struggles from not knowing to mastery of his craft. It is a story he frequently told, but told this time at a remove, reflected in the life of Gandhi. Like Gandhi, he also came of age far from the center of empire and, while initially ignorant of its institutions and culture, mastered its language and its ways. Although he was a native speaker of English, the Trinidad in which he grew up had no standard form, which is reflected in the English of his first two novels. The older members of his family spoke Hindi, but his father spoke good English, as can be seen in the letters they exchanged when Naipaul was a student at Oxford. These letters reveal the younger Naipaul to be an outsider striving to get in, as well as his ambition “to show these people that I can beat them at their own language.” In A House for Mr. Biswas, the point of view of the omniscient narrator is totally free of dialect. With that novel, Naipaul found a place in a tradition stretching back to Dickens, Balzac, and Tolstoy (three writers mentioned in A Writer’s People), not to forget Flaubert. But by the 1950s the world around such societies had changed, “had grown steadily larger,” and after Mr. Biswas, Naipaul struck out to look at and report on this larger world. Those reports were not well received in certain quarters.
Naipaul’s critics, however, like Cicero (and, in the Auerbach context, like the anti-Semitic German philologists), prefer the half view. By appropriating Auerbach’s characterization of the Homeric texts—which display a “calm acceptance of the basic facts of human existence, but with no compulsion to brood over them, still less any passionate impulse either to rebel against them”—he indicts his critics for their obfuscations concerning conditions in the Third World. (It might be added that Naipaul was an equal opportunity offender, also acerbic in his criticisms of England or the U.S.)
Naipaul always insisted in his own works and in interviews that great writers are in dialogue with the society for whom they write. And yet, because of his upbringing in a colonial society, he could not relate to the vision of the world of the great Western novelists. What he was able to relate to was the experience of empire, and his works are a re-creation of that experience in a literary form that (in his own words) contained and carried his own sensibility. The sensibility is a secular one, characterized in A Writer’s People as “one that in its assessment of the world brings all the senses into play and does so within a frame of reason.” It reminds me of Milan Kundera, for whom the history of the novel—from Cervantes to Kafka—portrays the process whereby the modern individual, radically free (at least in an abstract sense), must constantly break through the screen of interpretation, whether imposed by the media or the government.
Since Naipaul always thought big when it came to his own self-estimation—he aligned himself with Gandhi, after all—it may not be taking things too far to suggest that his attraction to Erich Auerbach draws on the mythic image of the Hebrews, people without roots, wandering in the desert. (Note, again, this parallel: while Auerbach was both Jew and German and also an exile, Naipaul was part of an exilic Hindu community in Trinidad and later an exile in England.). But to return to where I began, suffice it to say that Naipaul reminds us of what it is to be an outsider, a “barbarian,” but one who moved to the center of empire and conquered it with its own weapons.