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.
The evolutionary cast of Naipaul’s thought is expressed at the level of individual sentences and paragraphs. A typical sentence propels itself through repeating elements to which new material can be attached. Take, for example, the use of the phrase ‘you could see,’ and its variant ‘you could look down,’ in the passage just quoted about the ruin of the Port of Spain streets. Or the following sentence, where ‘cesspits’ and ‘runnels’ and ‘with’ serve as points of bifurcation in a tree-form grammatical structure:
It was late afternoon, warm still, and through the open window came the smell of the cesspits of St James, the cesspits of those dirt yards with the separate little wood houses, two or three to a lot, with runnels of filth from the latrines, runnels that ran green and shiny and then dried away in the dirt; with the discoloured stones where people put out their washing to bleach; with irregular little areas where the earth was mounded up with dust and sand and gravel, and where fruit trees and little shrubs grew, creating the effect not of gardens but of little patches of waste ground where things grew haphazardly.
Larger structural units ramify on a similar principle, the matter for a passage, section or chapter seeming to emerge incidentally at the end of the one preceding it. Out of these connections Naipaul weaves an intricate but utterly coherent network of pathways: pathways through the text, pathways through his mind, pathways into the past, pathways through places.
Given its wonderfully organic structure, it seems feeble to call A Way in the World a ‘sequence’, as the British edition has it, as though the book were just one damn thing after another (and, in any case, what book isn’t a sequence?). But the American edition misrepresents it more grossly, calling it a novel, which it quite simply isn’t. Only one of the book’s nine chapters is entirely fictional, and this is more of a sketch for a story than the fullyworked thing. The long chapters which reconstruct scenes from Raleigh’s and Miranda’s ill-fated missions to the Gulf of Paria stay close to the research which Naipaul did for his history, The Loss of El Dorado. The rest of the book, a good half of it, is a species of autobiographical reminiscence crossed with travel writing – recollections of Trinidad and Venezuela, portraits of people and places, reflections on the author’s relations with them.
It would be ironic if the urge to dress the book up as a novel came from snobbery about fiction being more imaginative than other kinds of prose, since the nearer A Way in the World approaches fiction the less imaginative, the more fanciful and contrived, it becomes. But it may be that, by allowing his book to be called a novel, Naipaul has sought to protect it from simple-minded interpretation as nonfiction, as in some literal sense true. Such an interpretation would offend his deep belief that truth is not accessible by any but an indirect route.
In a book hostile to generalisation two general statements stand out: ‘We all inhabit “constructs” of a world’; and ‘Few of us are without the feeling that we are incomplete.’ In the light of these assertions A Way in the World can be read as an implicit meditation on the Fall, a meditation which reclaims the myth from Christian dogma by attributing the loss of paradise primarily to the acquisition of self-consciousness, and by identifying the emotional and psychological consequence of this loss as shame, not guilt.
Naipaul understands the condition of man to follow from a radical inability to see straight. Like sheepdogs who mistake rocks for sheep, or birds pecking at their image reflected in a wheel hub, we misinterpret the world by imposing prejudgments on it. The fat boy Naipaul thinks he sees from a distance turns out, as he gets nearer, to be no boy at all but a middle-aged man ‘who had seen much’. When Columbus first set eyes on the northeastern corner of Trinidad he saw it as a galley under sail – ‘the rocks standing for the galley, the twisted trees standing for the sails’. Five hundred years later, Naipaul sees a similar formation (‘rocks created out of those he had seen, and wind-beaten trees like the ones before me, ten or twelve or fifteen cycles before’) from the other side, from on land, where no such shape is discernible. Space and time multiply perspectives on the ‘same’ thing. These are further subdivided by culture. Columbus sees with ‘15th-century Mediterranean eyes’, Naipaul with the eyes of a 20th-century writer of Hindu Asian ancestry, who was born and brought up in Trinidad, educated at Oxford and who has adopted post-imperial Britain as his home.
The kaleidoscopic multiplicity of human seeing can be a source of fascination and pleasure for Naipaul. On each return to Trinidad from England he watches his shifting perceptions and perspectives with delight: ‘to go back home was to play with impressions in this way, the way I played with the first pair of glasses I had, looking at the world now sharp and small and not quite real, now standard size and real but blurred.’ But relativity of seeing has a darker side. As the faculty of comparison and evaluation, ‘seeing as’ is responsible for much of the confusion, cruelty and unhappiness in the world.
Most of the men portrayed in A Way in the World are shown grappling with the problem of what to see themselves as, and of how other people see them. Most of them are judged to solve this problem unsatisfactorily. The characteristic sadness of these men is not that they have had to invent themselves, but that they have done so in ways that are false or evasive. In their self-constructions they have been untrue to themselves. It is implicit in the examples Naipaul gives that a man is true to himself when he fearlessly confronts his incompleteness and the shame associated with it. These things cannot be evaded, for all paths lead back to them. They cannot be dressed up, for they will always show through. As Miranda says of one of the other characters, ‘I had seen something like pathos in him: he had dressed with such care.’ When the black lawyer Evander, father of one of Naipaul’s school friends, wrongly attributes his name to Homer instead of Virgil, his precocious young visitor sees through the pretence of the self-made man immediately. The bluff and affable manner of the failed writer Foster Morris cannot hide the evidence of an inner incompleteness – ‘the dimness of the eye, the withdrawal, the man removed’. At the end of his life, despite his status as prophet of black liberation, Lebrun is still ‘on the run’ from the shame of his colonial origins and still liable to show this at moments when he is caught off balance: ‘the old man ... expressing old hurt’.
Naipaul’s sympathy for the fragile men who populate his book is tempered by his sense of the harm they are capable of doing. Damaged men cause damage. Foster Morris is sad, but his attempt to rubbish his more gifted contemporaries (and even harm the young Naipaul) is contemptible. The cost of Raleigh’s and Miranda’s self-regard can be counted immediately in bodies, more remotely and incalculably in the disturbance of a whole region. The connection Naipaul perceives between personal inadequacy and power is fundamental to the implied politics of A Way in the World.
We live well in the world by attending to what is there. We learn to attend to what is there by developing an awareness of how we are inventing what we see. In Naipaul’s view, utopians are people who have run away from themselves and from the necessarily divided world and taken up residence in a delusion. They have a deplorable influence on other unhappy people. They compound the misfortunes of oppression by inviting the oppressed to exchange the limited uncertainties of a miserable reality for the unlimited uncertainties of a miserable dream. And they are rarely around to pick up the pieces. Raleigh, in search of El Dorado, ‘stirred people up’ and went away, leaving ‘a lot of people to face the consequences’. Miranda, pursuing ‘fantasies of an immense Spanish-American republic of Colombia’, didn’t liberate Venezuela but ‘released a kind of anarchy’. Lebrun, orator and political visionary, never has ‘to live with the consequences of his action’, is always ‘free to move on’. The unsoundness of utopian vision will always betray itself in the words it uses. Raleigh adds to the history of blood and revenge in the Gulf of Paria, and then goes away and writes a book ‘about an untouched paradise’ – ‘a slippery piece of work’ full of distortions and evasions. Lebrun’s fluency as a talker and writer is ‘rhetoric, of course’. On a radio programme, he talks of race ‘in a vast, categorising way’. The personal inadequacy of Foster Morris, the off-centredness of his book about Trinidad, are immediately to be heard in the timbre of his sentences. Talking to Naipaul about one of Naipaul’s early novels, Morris uses a florid image, ‘a writer’s simile ... It struck a false note.’
V.S. Naipaul does not use writer’s similes. He says nothing in ‘a vast categorising way’. At 17, his writing was ‘too falsely knowing’, suggesting ‘he knew another, better world.’ At 22, the novel he was writing compounded ‘the fabrication, the turning away from truths I couldn’t acknowledge’. With time, immense effort and ruthless self-criticism he purged his writing as he centred himself. Learning to write meant learning to distrust the written word, learning to watch for the way utterance takes us not closer to the world but away from it. His technique had to be self-sufficient. Like the primitive tribes of the Orinoco, ‘people without writing and books’ who ‘depend completely on sight and memory’, he developed his own faculties of sight and memory – his ‘newsreel’ technique – ‘trying to remember words, gestures and expressions in correct sequence, to arrive at an understanding of the people I had been with and the true meaning of what had been said’. The result is now a prose of exceptional clarity, an irreducible medium which, in its use of recapitulation and summary, shares with poetry a sense of its roots in an oral tradition (perhaps the tradition of Hindu storytelling, which Naipaul speaks of as part of his childhood). In Naipaul’s prose, generalisation is rare, recourse to figurative language permitted only in exceptional circumstances. (In A Way in the World there’s a wonderfully precise image describing an old Barbadian mason: ‘I liked the way the hairs sprouting out of his nostrils were dusted with cement, like a bee’s legs with pollen.’) This is writing that casts no shadow, that has no penumbra of connotation around it, that never gestures beyond itself.
Naipaul’s asceticism with words goes with a refusal to speak of anything which he has no experience of, or which he cannot claim legitimately to understand as a direct result of his experience. He knows he may talk of ‘the primary notion of cruelty’ and chronicle the cruelties of the past, because he grew up with cruelty, ‘the unacknowledged cruelty of our setting’, as he calls it.
It might have been that ... I had grown up thinking of cruelty as something always in the background. There was an ancient, or not-so-ancient, cruelty in the language of the streets: casual threats, man to man and parents to children, of punishments and degradation that took you back to plantation times. There was the cruelty of extended-family life; the cruelty of the elementary school, the bad beatings by teachers, the bloody end-of-term fights between boys; the cruelty of the Indian countryside and the African town. The simplest things around us held memories of cruelty.
He is contemptuous of people who have no knowledge of such things yet presume to speak of them. The Western journalists who interview Lebrun have ‘risked nothing at all’. They have ‘no means of understanding or assessing a man who had been born early in the century into a very hard world, whose intellectual growth had at every stage been accompanied by a growing rawness of sensibility, and whose political resolutions, expressing the wish not to go mad, had been in the nature of spiritual struggles, occurring in the depth of his being’.
Naipaul’s probity is formidable. But it is also ferocious. He is a justified man and he knows it: ‘I have an interesting mind, a very analytical mind. And what I say tends to be interesting. And also very true,’ he tells Stephen Schiff. And there’s no denying it. His prose, he says, can only be properly read at the rate of twenty or thirty pages a day: ‘You’ve got to rest after reading twenty good pages. You’ve got to stop and think.’ And indeed, his writing repays such attention. Like the ‘apparently simple objects’ which he sees in the sitting room of a friend, De Groot, Naipaul’s sentences are ‘things you can give attention to and constantly see afresh’. They teach the art of discriminating so as to understand better how discrimination – regard and disregard – have shaped our world. They show us difference and put us in mind of the cruelty of indifference. Granting this, I cannot escape feeling that Naipaul’s later work is created in a state of embattlement. Sometimes it seems as though the whole proud edifice of what he writes, the unimpugnable virtue of it, is an armour he has put on to rebuff the world in his own struggle for regard and against disregard.
Naipaul’s writing personality is partly that of a satirist and partly that of an elegist. It is the satirist’s role to seek out the flaws in people. But in Naipaul’s satire there is an element of competitiveness. He is watchful but not aloof. A Way in the World includes only one man whom, one is given to feel, Naipaul would accept as a teacher: the gentle De Groot, who represents no threat. Otherwise there are no characters in the book to set the standard by which the sad men are found wanting, only Naipaul himself. Meanwhile, the elegist in him writes not only out of a love for the delicate beauty and complexity of the world, and a desire to mourn its transience, but also out of a fear of the future (‘worrying always about finding the matter for the next book, and then the one after that’) and a distrust of the present (‘We don’t always know what we are doing now. We can just get dragged along,’ as General Hislop says to Miranda.)
Naipaul writes of men who have run away from the past, but he writes as a man who has run away into it. His political conservatism is not just the fruit of his wisdom but also the expression of his insecurity. Like Mr Biswas, he is in search of a house. He wanders the world, anxiously fingering his British passport, ‘always nervous, when I was travelling, of losing it, and doubting whether, if I lost it, I would be able to explain myself to anyone in authority’. To such a man the crowd is ‘unreadable’ and threatens to swallow him up. He cannot ‘support the idea of being part of a group’ and recoils when he is invited to join a cause: ‘to yield was to cease to be myself, to trust to the unknown.’ For such a man, any regulated state of affairs will be preferable to the chaos which results from an attempt to change things for the better. There is, then, a tension in A Way in the World between the intellectual force of Naipaul’s vision and the detailed self-portraiture that shows us how circumstantial that vision is. In nothing is this more true than in Naipaul’s disregard for women, which is so nearly complete as to reduce what he has to say about humanity to an anatomy of the male psyche.
The Enigma of Arrival, Naipaul’s last book, burrowed back, through an intensely detailed reading of a small corner of Wiltshire life, into a late 18th-century space imbued with the spirit of Cowper, Dorothy Wordsworth, Gilbert White. A Way in the World, despite its wide historical sweep, captures a less elegiac mood, and with its political concerns, put me in mind of Hobbes. I also kept thinking of Raleigh, and his short poem ‘What is our Life’:
What is our life? A play of passion.
And what our mirth but music of division?
Our mother’s wombs the tiring-houses be
Where we are drest for this short comedy.
Heaven the judicious sharp spectator is
Who sits and marks what here we do amiss.
The graves that hide us from the searching sun
Are like drawn curtains when the play is done.
Thus playing post we to our latest rest,
And then we die, in earnest, not in jest.
The stoical gloom of this fragment chimes well with the tone of A Way in the World (rather a 16th-century title). The image of life as a play we dress up for, while commonplace, is implicitly present throughout Naipaul’s book. The ‘music of division’ could describe the special qualities of Naipaul’s prose, while ‘the judicious sharp spectator’ would do well as a characterisation of Naipaul himself. The dismissal of women to a functional role fits in too. And then there’s the preoccupation with death. A Way in the World is much concerned with the ends of people’s lives: Raleigh’s, Miranda’s, De Groot’s, Foster Morris’s, Lebrun’s. And it ends with a death, the death of Blair, a black man Naipaul met when he was a teenager in Trinidad. Blair made a good career for himself as a spokesman for the black cause, but met his end, ironically, at the hands of the agents of a black African state which he had come to advise. His body was found in a banana plantation:
It had a special atmosphere. Old banana leaves, quickly drying and breaking down, and many inches thick, were used as a mulch. To walk on this mulch was like walking on a very thick, soft carpet. It deadened footsteps and seemed to absorb all other sound, and you very quickly began to feel uncertain of your footing.
In the version of his death I carried in my imagination I saw Blair alive in that banana plantation, a big man floundering about in silence in his big, shiny-soled leather shoes in the soft mulch, between his sure-footed attackers. There would have been a moment in that great silence when he would have known that he was being destroyed, that his attackers intended to go to the limit; and he would have known why.
The body is flown back to Trinidad. The image of the embalmed body, stored in a box in the refrigerated hold of the plane and then disgorged through flaps to a low trailer, thence to be taken away in an ambulance, identifies death as a final inescapable return from the cool pathways of the past to the hard, ungenerous glare of the present moment.