Dark Pieces on Dark Places

Malcolm Deas

  • The Return of Eva Peron with The Killings in Trinidad by V.S. Naipaul
    Deutsch, 227 pp, £5.95, June 1980, ISBN 0 233 97238 2

This collection of essays from the first half of the Seventies is here in the briefest of author’s notes described as intense and obsessional. He says, too, that the themes repeat. There is indeed little relief. What has Providence done to Mr Naipaul, that he should find the world so consistently depressing? Can one think of a place that would cheer him up, that would resist his persuasive invitation to lament? Trinidad, Argentina, Uruguay, Mobutu’s Congo – in the first half of the Seventies were these nations not in a sorry enough state to justify everything in his usual tone, to exclude even the odd glimmer of optimism that can be found in his account of a second visit to his first area of darkness, India: A Wounded Civilisation? They were in such a state, but one still comes to the conclusion that that cannot justify all of Naipaul’s intensities and obsessions.

These eight pieces – a long one on the Michael X murders in Trinidad, five on Argentina and Uruguay, one on the Congo and one on Joseph Conrad – are held together by Conradian preoccupations. They represent an ‘effort of thought and sympathy’, an effort that ‘does not stop with the aspect of the land. It extends to all men in these dark and remote places who, for whatever reason, are denied a clear vision of the world.’ They offer a ‘vision of the world’s half-made societies as places which continuously made and unmade themselves, where there was no goal, and where always “something inherent in the necessities of successful action... carried with it the moral degradation of the idea.” Dismal but deeply felt: a kind of truth and half a consolation.’ Naipaul finds his affinity with Conrad in these accounts of post-colonial confusion. At his best, where his imagination is fully caught, as in the Trinidad piece which should have given the collection its title, he does convey his own dismal truth, and even offer his mite of consolation.

One unifying concern of the author’s, in Trinidad, South America and Zaire, is with the local fate of metropolitan ideas and attitudes.

‘But that’s our trouble here. You’ve probably observed it. We are too vulnerable to other people’s ideas. We don’t have too many of our own... We need other people’s approval. And when people come to us with reputations made abroad we tend to look up to them.’

Thus Meredith in Guerrillas, the novel that offered itself to Naipaul from the case of Michael X, alias Michael Abdul Malik, here set out in 94 unadorned pages that show how close he kept in his fiction to what occurred. ‘Michael took the press for a ride, and viceversa. And out of it grew a monster’ – he quotes a London journalist who had something to do with the process. ‘We’re a dependent people,’ Meredith says: the dependence is not a matter of multinational or North American companies ‘lifting’ bauxite, but of a more pernicious traffic, the export of rhetoric and other forms of intellectual poison beside which the transactions of the average multinational at least have the decency of clear purpose. In the countries here observed, the end of colonialism is not the end of credulity but the beginning, unconsciously abetted by old powers that have lost both interest and responsibility. ‘England made things easy for Malik. But England in the end undid him’ – though in this case the rhetoric originated in the United States and was already second-hand in London:

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