Mr Ford’s Hacienda
Tariq Ali remembers V.S. Naipaul
V.S. Naipaul never saw himself as just another face in the mural of 20th-century literature. The mural was, in any case, not his favourite art form. He loved and possessed a very fine collection of Persian and Indian miniatures. But this wasn’t a frame in which he saw himself either. Long before the knighthood and the Nobel Prize, it was the mirror that excited him. Destiny stared him in the face every morning. He believed in himself. The Trinidadian was to become a very fine writer of English prose.
Naipaul and C.L.R. James were educated at the same colonial school. The high quality of teaching in classics and English literature left its mark on both men. Both of them came to England. There the similarity ends. James moved to Marxism and became a great historian in that tradition. Naipaul put politics on the back-burner, joined the lesser ranks of vassalage (the BBC) and cultivated a cultural conservatism that later became his hallmark both politically and socially. The classical heritage of the European bourgeoisie had completely bewitched him. He saw it as the dominant pillar of Western civilisation and this led him to underplay, ignore and sometimes to justify its barbaric sides both at home and abroad.
In later years, James (in private conversation) would refer to Naipaul as someone who is often needed in an imperialist country trying to create a post-colonial culture so as to say things about native peoples that are no longer acceptable in polite society. Naipaul was never, by any stretch of the imagination, a card-carrying Tory. He lived his life through a circle of friends that he had carefully selected. Most, if not all, were figures on the right.
Whatever his politics, the novels were very good, especially the earlier ones. The autobiographical A House for Mr Biswas remains a comic masterpiece. And it would have made an excellent TV series, or so I thought. Would he ever agree? It wasn’t a secret that Naipaul had long opposed his work being transferred to small or big screen. Twenty-odd years ago I rang him up and was invited to lunch. He confirmed that he had always hated the idea of his work being polluted by cinema or television and told me how his excited US agent had once forced him to fly out to ‘Mr Ford’s hacienda’ to discuss filming A Bend in the River. ‘Mr Ford’ was his name for Francis Ford Coppola.
Against his own instincts, Naipaul arrived on the West Coast. At the hacienda, Coppola informed him that the only other guest apart from family would be George Lucas. Naipaul was amazed. ‘Georg Lukács, the Hungarian philosopher? I thought he was dead?’ It got worse. During supper Coppola handed Naipaul a script that he had commissioned. He wanted Naipaul to have a quick read of the adaptation and see what he thought. While handing the script, ‘Mr Ford was also trying to swallow some spaghetti which he managed to spill on his shirt. It was a very vulgar occasion. I decided to leave.’ Which he did. Since then, he had turned down every proposal.
His second wife, Nadira, whom he married in 1996, persuaded him to calm down and let Ismail Merchant commission Caryl Phillips to write a script of The Mystic Masseur. Naipaul was filled with foreboding that it might turn out to be awful. ‘It did.’ This was not a promising start. He asked why I liked A House for Mr Biswas. ‘It’s pure,’ I replied, ‘and very funny.’ He agreed we should have a go. Farrukh Dhondy, he agreed, knew the book well and Channel Four commissioned the scripts. Peter Ansorge was a stern invigilator and made sure that most of the dialogue from the novel was retained. When we discussed the scripts and possible directors over dinner at my place several months later, Naipaul and Nadira and Gillon Aitken (his agent) were pleased with the final product.
Channel Four had appointed a new boss who had brought in a new drama editor, Gub Neal, who also liked the scripts. But the marketing folk at the channel were surprised to discover that no white star could be cast in a main role, since there was none in the novel. No black stars either except in minor roles. It was Trinidadian Asians all the way through, a ‘problem’ that would never have bothered Satyajit Ray or Ken Loach. And so the project was cancelled. Naipaul was shocked but not surprised. The scripts still work and if Ian Katz seriously wants to lift C4 a tiny bit from the ratings sewer where it has been immersed for many years, he might have a read.