Manager of Stories

Michael Gilsenan

  • Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples by V.S. Naipaul
    Little, Brown, 448 pp, £20.00, May 1998, ISBN 0 316 64361 0

When, suddenly, a voice intrudes with a direct challenge to a writer in his own text, the reader is put on special alert. Think of the charged encounter in Seamus Heaney’s ‘The Flight Path’. The grimfaced stranger on the train, ‘last met in a dream’, hurls

‘When, for fuck’s sake, are you going to write
Something for us?’

at the poet. Heaney responds:

‘If I do write something,
Whatever it is, I’ll be writing for myself.’
And that was that. Or words to that effect.

‘You’, ‘us’ and ‘I’ are a tense, complex trio of identifications and distinctions. The complexity increases: Heaney thinks of himself in relation to the months of ‘dirty protest’ in Long Kesh, as walking through Dante’s hell ‘behind the righteous Virgil,/As safe as houses and translating freely’. The dialogue hits the imagination like a snooker ball cannoning round the table then cracking into a pack of reds, setting up new configurations, new challenges.

In a very different key and context, though no less disconcerting, consider the bare question of the young Malaysian, Shafi, to V.S. Naipaul some twenty years ago: ‘What is the purpose of your writing?’ Naipaul was gathering material for Among the Believers (1981). Safe as houses and translating freely, though completely lacking Heaney’s subtle self-recognitions, his response was lofty: ‘Comprehension.’ Then, perhaps aware of the self-serving in adequacy of the answer to someone he was using as informant/subject, he added: ‘and money.’ There was no possible ‘us’ in this encounter between Naipaul and Shafi. Indeed, the whole book was constructed on the clear distinction drawn by Naipaul between voices from different worlds, and a founding sense of the vast distance he saw between those worlds of ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Shafi was concerned: ‘You are not doing justice to yourself.’ Naipaul deflected the force of his interlocutor’s words: ‘Let’s get back to the U.S.’ – the ostensible subject of their conversation. We might take Shafi’s cue and go on to ask the equally important question that hangs unspoken in the air: ‘Will you, can you, do justice to us?’

Questioners who need to see themselves as professional and disinterested do not like to have the roles reversed, to become the objects of an interrogation. Challenges to one’s self-defined place and purpose create an unease that anthropologists – and I am one – know all too well. What are our real interests? How does the writer, who has of course chosen to write the challenge into the text, respond? The Naipaul who made the journey of 1979 stayed resolutely in his role. He is the author, the controller of words, ‘not confused’, as he says of himself, unlike virtually all his subjects. He tells them (and us, since part of his authority consists in our acknowledging his background as a Trinidadian of Indian family, a master of English literary style yet from a doubly colonised elsewhere) that his situation is as ‘complicated’ as theirs, if not more so. The ‘frank and attractive’ Shafi, by contrast, has feelings which are ‘uncontrolled by words’.

Nothing in Among the Believers disturbs this sense of the writer’s fundamental confidence in his clarity of vision and his virtuous, serene detachment from himself. Muslim believers, the dark side of Naipaul’s bright moon, are confused and unable to stand back from themselves. The dualisms are simple and familiar: We and They, Light and Dark, Reason and Emotion, and perhaps, Male and Female. European Enlightenment reason coolly observes and judges Islamic ‘emotion’, especially rage and resentment, for which this one-dimensional, historically unvarying ‘Islam’ has a special affinity. It is the perfect vehicle and weapon of those perverse passions – and, at least in part, the cause. Naipaul’s Islam catalyses and gives frightening shape to the grief, inadequacy, social rage and racial hate of the dislocated, the once-villagers, the uncomprehending migrants. Those who missed the beneficial ‘colonial awakening’ so unproblematically crucial to Naipaul’s crude sense of the dynamics and ethics of history become the deluded, anarchic Believers.

Unlike Heaney, then, Naipaul did not attempt to write his way into the heart of the matter or to meet the force of some pressing questions. The late Seventies, after all, was the time when the ideology of the market as the economic and moral driving force of modernity, and the sole solution to the world’s problems, was beginning its prodigious flowering. The role of the state was being questioned. In dependence movements were floundering, as far more sophisticated understandings of nationalism, community and identity throughout the world were emerging. The heroic image of the Third World was being exchanged for that of the starving black baby in charity advertisements. The Left was in crisis. And there was Islam.

The overthrow of the Shah of Iran and all that he had represented in Cold War politics, and the rise of the Khomeinist state, were seen by many as the re-emergence of the irrational in the face of the rationality of the market and Great Power politics. The Iranian Revolution and the proliferation of different reformist and radical Islamic groups became a story of blind fanaticism and mad mullahs rather than subjects of critical reflection. Figures such as Saddam Hussein, who confronted Iran in a long and hideous war, were supported, for all sorts of murky reasons combining realpolitik with arms commerce. Visions of an Islamic tidal wave being generated out there in some exotic ocean, soon to thunder onto the Judeo-Christian shores of Western civilisation, were conjured up before an often all too eager public. The media flung themselves rapturously into the crusade.

In their midst, Naipaul became one of the most prestigious literary conjurors. He had gone out there and come back with dispatches from the front. He ‘wrote well’. Among the Believers suited the moment perfectly and was much praised. If Naipaul was from elsewhere, he showed that he was nonetheless emphatically one of ours. There was nothing untoward in the ingenuousness or the disingenuousness of his approach to the colonial and religious record. The British had developed mines and plantations, worlds had ‘collided’, but there were only the barest hints of economic exploitation, violence, subjugation, missionary discipline, campaigns against other religions and cultural forms. Always, in the last analysis, there was the reassurance that evil was out there, in the malignant political Islam that offered faith to the resentful others of Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan and Indonesia, but not solutions – rage and anarchy but not thought and progress. Naipaul’s own confusion, resentment and anger were effectively camouflaged. Among the Believers was essentially a complacent diatribe, travel literature of the worst kind, that flattered notions of ‘our’ superiority to ‘them’, with a frisson of fear at their threatening passions thrown in for spice.

Beyond Belief is the narrative of Naipaul’s five-month journey to India, Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia – a return to the countries he visited, and often the people he interviewed, almost two decades earlier. The book begins by making two major claims. The first is that it is a work of pure transmission through transparent writing: ‘This is a book about people. It is not a book of opinion. It is a book of stories.’ Let the speaks fact for themselves, an impeccable sentiment to be sure. Naipaul, so he tells us, is just a ‘manager of narrative’. All the writer has to do is ‘listen very carefully and with a clear heart to what people say to him’.

‘Is that so?’ the reader mutters, head cocked sceptically at the conjuror’s artless artfulness. The voices will address us directly, in stories without opinion, unsullied by anything save translation and ‘management’? (I recall Christian priests and Muslim ulema in Egypt assuring me with equal fervour that all the other side had to do was to study the Bible/Quran with a sincere heart and conversion would naturally follow. A sigh, with thirteen hundred years of pious disappointment, and polemic, behind it. The trouble is . . .) And isn’t a man who proclaims his own clarity of heart, like the would-be saint who advertises his own deeds as miracles, inviting the irreverent to have a go at him, just to see?

The second claim, a ringing denial of the first, is that the inhabitants of the countries on his itinerary are convert peoples who have adopted the ‘imperial’ religion of Islam. And Muslim converts, even if the conversions took place hundreds of years ago, are fundamentally (and in multiple registers) dislocated – externally, because the holy places are in Arabia and the sacred language is Arabic; internally, because the convert ‘rejects his own’ and lives in fantasies about who and what he is. (Not only the convert, the reader mutters.) He – the convert is nearly always a he – is trapped in an endless repetition of turning and turning away from self and place. Such countries ‘can be easily set on the boil’. This is shallow stuff, which seems to imply that only some autochthonous group which has never converted can have ‘their own’ faith.

The convert, in Beyond Belief, is doomed by this monolithic, ahistorical Islam to neurosis and nihilism, rather than to the rage and resentment of Among the Believers. Either way, it’s a puzzle that Asian Muslims bother with religion at all. Quite apart from the intellectual emptiness of Naipaul’s writing, you wonder at the wilful censoring it takes to pass over in silence the history of different forms of imperial and eagerly conversionist Christianity in Africa, the Americas and Asia – an unfinished hist ory, and as aggressively competitive as any mullah’s dreams of a paradise for a sect. Moreover, Naipaul’s sheer ignorance, or ignoring, of all the different varieties of thought, symbol and practice in which often eclectic forms of Islam have been enmeshed in Asia leaves only strident assertions in place of an argument. His is an Islam which turned the radiance of the Indian sub-continent ‘into the light of a dead star’ and, because of its devotees’ fantasies and confusions, bears all responsibility for the horrors of Partition. The violent and dangerous activities of Hindu nationalists go unremarked.

There are hints of a more complex picture. A glimpse, for example, of a crucial aspect of Islam in Indonesia and India. When Naipaul meets Mr Wahid, who comes from a family long associated with the Islamic village schools of Java (‘these Islamic boarding schools were among the few places to offer privacy and self-respect to people’), is chairman of the important organisation of the Nahdlatul Ulama and had dared to crit icise President Suharto to a foreign journalist, he finds someone whose memory ‘was at the same time a history of European colonialism, and of the recovery of Islam’. Mr Wahid’s father, who had flawless Arabic, returns from two years in Mecca. He adds modern history and geography to the curriculum. He had become an important man by the time of Independence, having been on the committee which drafted the five principles of the new state and was made a minister. This hardly seems the ‘little bubble’ of Islamic learning to which Naipaul elsewhere refers, and one begins to see the possibility of another book, critical but far more interesting.

There are signposts pointing to other underlying themes. Though the Introduction renounces what Naipaul tells us was his early conviction that a fiction writer was the highest thing to be, he later inserts as a quasi-aside the thought that a writer’s earliest work may contain, ‘sometimes in coded ways’, the emotions and impulses that will always govern him. The important, overt indication as to what those emotions and impulses are, and what causes Naipaul’s hostility to ‘Islam’, comes earlier on when he visits the Minangkabau uplands of Western Sumatra and the hot spring from which the autochthonous people were said to have emerged:

It would always have been a sacred place; it would always have had a power over the human imagination . . . It was easy even now to forget the visual accidents – the ordinariness – of the broken masonry ramps that went down from the road to the rough concrete bath sheds, one for men and boys; one for women and girls. It was possible even to ignore the big new red-painted mosque on the far side. The mind stayed with the wonder of the site and the wonder of the water bubbling up hot from the earth for centuries.

Here is a wonder, a numen, a history. And the fundamentalists have built a mosque there to triumph over, not to honour, this authentic, originary past.

Whether that is all there is to say about the site or not, this building hardly represents a new phenomenon in religious, political or colonial history, but it leads Naipaul to muse, more illuminatingly, on his growing up in the general poverty of Trinidad, an island, he tells us, with no sacred places, and he a member of an immigrant community. Some years on, he thought Trinidad ‘unhallowed because it hadn’t been written about’; then he felt that the colonial plantation paid no honour to land or people; and later still, visiting India and seeing the numerous holy sites, came the reflection of the displaced person that people who participate intimately in the sacredness of a place are ‘different from us’. Colonialism had destroyed the aboriginal people of Trinidad, leaving only migrants such as himself (and former slaves, brought from Africa, though they are not in his picture), whose sacred spaces were elsewhere. In this at least, Naipaul resembles his converts, except that they rage against the past and have impossible dreams of faith that spring from ‘a spiritual vacancy’.

It seems to me that the peoples about whom Naipaul writes become the vehicle, and the coded expression, of his own dream of a hallowed place of belonging, of his longing for a located, undivided self, and of his anger. They are in a sense the scapegoats driven out of his village and taking with them the impurities of his world. (In fact, they cannot discharge this function and the ritual has to be endlessly repeated.) The colonial power which destroyed and created Trinidad must itself be regarded – though in contradictory, censored and immensely effortful ways – as purifying and hallowing in order to preserve the idealised Enlightenment that is the marker of the absolute separation between ‘them’, in the first instance Muslim converts, and ‘us’. Naipaul, too, obliterates history. He ‘manages’ narrative in more ways than he knows.

The deep tensions in the book surface most interestingly in the very last paragraph. Naipaul grants the final word to the Malaysian playwright Syed Alwi, who speaks of his own mother and father in a moving account of his family: ‘She was the community . . . From her Malay upbringing, her Islamic upbringing, she provided him with the support that enabled him to have his two worlds. Without her he would have been thrown into the madhouse . . . and he wouldn’t have lasted two years.’ The father had been made a land settlement officer at 16, a magistrate at 21. A year later he was schizophrenic. For periods of time, when he was violent, he was kept in a cage. During his long episodes of illness, he would speak only English and write furiously, things he never did when he was in remission. Syed Alwi tried to read the almost illegible exercise books crammed with pencilled scrawls, though he could hardly make any sense of them: ‘But practically at the end of every other sentence was the word “always”.’

The tone here is quite different, with its evocation of love and suffering, community, purpose and integrity, an unblinking living through of life’s dilemmas. Fortunately, there are other sections written in this register, and for pages on end the introductory programme vanishes altogether, as if unsustainable in the face of the experiences of Naipaul’s subjects. It is almost as if they compel him to take a different attitude. Luckman Umar, for example, had survived the Japanese occupation. His father vanished and the boy peddled sweetmeats, got himself into the Islamic university and became the publisher of the most popular magazine in the country, ‘sublimating the pain of his early life’, as Naipaul puts it, touched by Luckman’s truth to himself. He comes to appreciate the way the young software company director, Budi, negotiates constant social danger, his memories of old humiliation, and the torments of his solitude, sleeping in an office cupboard when not staying with friends.

Naipaul begins at last to realise that what seems like inadequate narrative to him may only appear so because people do not simply produce clear narratives about great pain, not to themselves or their closest intimates, let alone to a writer who appears from somewhere, asks intrusive questions, and vanishes to the next place dictated by his book contract. So when his Iranian translator, Mehrdad, says of the flags at the tombs of the thousands of unknown martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war, ‘Losing their colour. Losing its meaning’; or when the wounded veteran Arash, who had taken part in 11 advances in the Iran-Iraq war, says, ‘I still feel something’ and passes ‘a searching, caressing hand down his left thigh’; or when the 27 year-old war veteran, Abbas, who is now trying to learn how to make films, meditates on the intense spirituality of washing the military equipment in the mortuary after an attack, the sense of wonder and anguish is communicated with respect.

Beyond Belief is a book that has its own doppelgänger, which may help to explain the insistence on neurosis and dislocation that pervades it. It has its own secret sharer: the figure whose elective affinities are with the complexities of the unfinished house, with bankrupt, migrant or schizophrenic fathers, the orphaned, the split, the unrealised, the displaced, the never really to be controlled. These are insistent themes that recur again and again. When Naipaul, consciously or unconsciously, acknowledges that sharer, he becomes open to others’ worlds and the writing, at last, rings true. Beyond Belief is about his unresolved struggles with the confusions, and, in the widest sense, the politics of his own story.