Inspector of the Sad Parade

Nicholas Spice

  • A Way in the World by V.S. Naipaul
    Heinemann, 369 pp, £14.99, May 1994, ISBN 0 434 51029 7

The Gulf of Paria, Naipaul’s mediterrnanean, lies between the coast of Venezuela and the island of Trinidad. The water is almost encircled by land, with only two outlets to the wider ocean. Here, on the Venezuelan side, close to the mouth of the Orinoco, the Destiny lay at anchor, while on board Raleigh watched for the outcome of his last doomed expedition to discover El Dorado. Two hundred years later, across the Gulf in Port of Spain, the exiled revolutionary Francisco Miranda languished for a year, as hope of relaunching his invasion of Venezuela dwindled and with it his credibility and self-respect. Raleigh and Miranda: ‘obsessed men, well past their prime, each with his own vision of the New World, each at what should have been a moment of fulfilment, but really near the end of things, in the Gulf of Desolation’.

Raleigh and Miranda are not the only disappointed men in A Way in the World. The book is an exhibition of disappointed men: Belbenoit, the clerk who ‘felt he had been discouraged for racial reasons from aiming higher’; Lebrun, ‘the revolutionary without a revolution’ who ‘belonged to the first generation of educated black men in the region ... in-between people, too early, without status’, people who ‘became eccentric or unbalanced’ or ‘became fraudsters’; Foster Morris, an ageing English writer who failed to live up to his early promise, in whom the young Naipaul sees ‘the intellectual uncertainty of the unfulfilled writer’, an ‘emotional incompleteness’; a young Venezuelan man whose wife humiliates him by leaving him for a Syrian shopkeeper; the crippled criminals in the main square of an African town – ‘men, still young, who had been deliberately deformed as children’ – who whizz about the square on ‘wheeled boards, like wider skateboards, or in little box carts, like home-made toys’. Damaged men, men whose way in the world has led them either nowhere or to a place they were never meant, or thought they were never meant, to end up.

The inspector of this sad parade, its stern adjudicator, is well placed to show where each unhappy man fell short, for he is himself a kind of failure, a rare kind: the failed failure, the exception that proves the rule. ‘It was that I had no gift. I had no natural talent,’ he tells Stephen Schiff in a recent New Yorker profile. ‘I had to learn it. Having to learn it, I became my own man.’ And, in A Way in the World: ‘I had had to learn to write from scratch, almost in the way a man has to learn to walk and use his body again after a serious operation. And even then after ten years I couldn’t feel secure, worrying always about finding matter for the next book, and then the one after that.’

For Naipaul – this obsessed man, well past his prime, at a moment of supreme fulfilment, yet still oddly anxious, as though fearful of some possible lack, some inconceivable failure – for Naipaul, the Gulf of Paria is the one place where his fretful spirit seems to find rest. Describing it, he writes his most loving prose:

Imagine the wide southern Gulf at sunrise: the flat many-channelled estuary to the west and south, the barrier arm of the low, sandy peninsula of south-western Trinidad to the east: the morning sky high, the water reasonably calm, river water from the continent mingling with the Atlantic in froth-edged bands of colour: mud, various shades of olive, grey.

This is what Naipaul imagines Raleigh saw in 1618, and it is what Naipaul sees when he crosses the Gulf in an aeroplane: ‘The water was of different shades of olive, in wide, distinct, irregular bands, sometimes frothing white or yellow at the edges: Orinoco and Atlantic in eternal conflict, mighty volumes of water pressing against each other.’ The terms of the description are in each case the same because the ocean remains the same. The passage of man leaves no trace on it. The sight of it seems to take Naipaul ‘back to the beginning of things’.

In the presence of the ocean Naipaul senses time and space to be in equilibrium, whereas on land their interaction is a source of constant mental excitement and wonder. He is awestruck by the thought of how a single place may have been the scene of numberless events through time, how a space defined by fixed co-ordinates may be occupied and re-occupied, each occupation leaving a residue of change, residue falling on residue to form a densely-layered mulch, which is history:

The idea of a recently wiped-out past ... became difficult in another way. As soon as you tried to enter that idea, it ramified. And it ramified more and more as your understanding grew: different people living for centuries where we now trod, with our own overwhelming concerns ...

Naipaul reads people and places as though they were palimpsests, manuscripts where text overlays text, though not completely – traces of what lies underneath sometimes showing through. When he meets this in people he talks of it in quasi-metaphysical terms: ‘in our blood and bone and brain we carry the memories of thousands of beings.’ Reading a place is less mystical. After revolutionary violence in Port of Spain, the layering of history is suddenly revealed in cross-section:

The commercial streets of the centre had been levelled. You could see down to what might have been thought buried for ever: the thick-walled 18th-century Spanish foundations of some buildings. You could see the low gable marks of early, small buildings against higher walls. You could look down, in fact, at more than Spanish foundations: you could look down at red Amerindian soil.

A Way in the World could itself be thought of as a palimpsest. I felt at times almost as though, were I to be able to scrape away the surface of the text, I should find earlier layers underneath. Naipaul works his material like a composer. He structures it through evolution and return. Motifs – people, places, thoughts – develop out of one another; themes return augmented or in short form; phrases are repeated verbatim, but in new contexts, or repeated with small but subtle changes. The book enacts an understanding of history as recapitulation in variation. As we read, we experience directly the way context alters meaning, how a thing may be the same yet not the same, an effect usually reserved for music.

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