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:

Another Malik is possible. At every stage in his career he was supported by some kind of jargon and could refer his actions to some kind of revolutionary ideal. Malik’s career proves how much of Black Power – away from its United States source – is jargon, how much a sentimental hoax. In a place like Trinidad, racial redemption is as irrelevant for the Negro as for everybody else. It obscures the problems of a small independent country with a lopsided economy, the problems of a fully ‘consumer’ society that is yet technologically untrained and without the intellectual means to comprehend the deficiency. It perpetuates the negative, colonial politics of protest. It is, in the end, a deep corruption: a wish to be granted a dispensation from the pains of development, an almost religious conviction that oppression can be turned into an asset, race into money.

Official Trinidad at least stays lucid. Mobutu’s government in Zaire leads the obfuscation: ‘So the borrowed ideas – about colonialism and alienation, the consumer society and the decline of the West – are made to serve the African cult of authenticity; and the dream of an ancestral past restored is allied to a dream of a future of magical power.’ In the Argentina of Peron’s return and its aftermath, ‘the social-intellectual diversions of the north are transformed, in the less intellectually stable south, into horrible reality,’ and merged with the eclectic obscurities of Peronism, product of an earlier but similar process:

Who were the enemies of the people? His response was tabulated and swift. ‘American imperialism. And Its native allies. The oligarchy, the dependent bourgeoisie, Zionism, and the ‘sepoy’ left. By sepoys we mean the Communist Party and socialism in general.’ It seemed a comprehensive list. Who were the Peronists? ‘Peronism is a revolutionary national movement. There is a great difference between a movement and a party. We are not Stalinists, and a Peronist is anyone who calls himself a Peronist and acts like a Peronist.’

Naipaul does not make geographical allowances for fraudulence. A way of thinking that is bogus in one place is just as bogus in another, and to deny this out of some false respect for ex-colonial beginners is not charity, but treasonable condescension. That will be paid for, though not, of course, by those who have their air-ticket back. The ‘social-intellectual diversions of the north’ are still essential aid and comfort for the deluded of the ‘south’, for those in ‘dark and remote places’ who are ‘denied a clear vision of the world’. They do not look for modesty or scepticism or warnings that our fashionable dogmatists should be taken with a pinch of salt: what is sought is what in conscience should not be offered – authority. It is a much more complicated problem than working out the terms for ‘lifting’ bauxite.

In the Trinidad case, it was part of the destruction of Malik, with his pathetic victims and associates, and perhaps a major part. It is also one piece of the puzzle of Argentina, though the events Naipaul witnessed there were far more murderous and far more complex. He has the occasional good word for Trinidad: in the riots of 1970 the police stand firm, and he sees the spectacle as one of ‘a humane society divided in its wish for order and its various visions of redemption’ – in Naipaulean terms, that is almost a certificate of health. The account of Argentina is without hope. In the years of the author’s visits to Argentina horrible events occurred: Peron, a man who was never morally à l’altesse de satâche, returned to an increasingly violent country. He himself before his death and his last wife Isabel afterwards proved themselves incapable of resolving conflicts that ended in the repression of twenty or thirty thousand guerrillas and terrorists, who had no possible vision of a future Argentina, by the armed forces. These last had no clear idea of the nature of a numerous and lethal enemy, and resorted to brutal methods on an unprecedented scale. What went on in this cycle can justify much criticism of Argentines and their institutions, but it does not justify any criticism of the country. Some of Naipaul’s observations are grotesque.

He has coldly distanced himself from Argentines and Uruguayans in a way that he does not with Trinidadians. There is a barrier between him and Latin Americans that is perhaps itself Trinidadian. In an essay called ‘The Brothels behind the Graveyard’ he says that Argentina is ‘a land to be plundered’; one can see that, carrying on the Conradian echoes (sec the Author’s Note to Tales of Unrest), he has here done some plundering himself, and the title of this essay along with the title of the book is part of the spoils. He can write like someone who, in his own phrase, has his return air-ticket, and from the height of the departing plane: ‘Argentina is a simple materialist society, a simple colonial society created in the most rapacious and decadent phase of imperialism.’ Is it? Was it? How does Naipaul know? In what social-intellectual diversion did he pick that up? What makes Argentina simpler than Trinidad?

‘Women in Argentina are uneducated and have few rights; they are reared either for early marriage or for domestic service. Very few have money or the means of earning money. They are meant to be victims; and they accept their victim role.’ New Zealand ‘has had a different history. It has made some contribution to the world; more gifted men and women have come from its population of three million than from the 23 millions of Argentines.’ Both these statements are arrogant nonsense. The first comes strangely from a literary man who has spent some time in Buenos Aires, in its drawing-rooms or in its kitchens. The second comes ill from someone who, the inevitable Borges apart, shows little acquaintance with the cultural history of the River Plate. If one reads it carefully, one sees the catch: it is in the phrase ‘contribution to the world’. The world of Naipaul’s concern is English-speaking, and does not include these Spanish-speaking republics. Naipaul does not ask what they have received from New Zealand. Katherine Mansfield is a contribution to his world, but not Quiroga, nor Onetti, to name two writers from the New Zealand-sized population of Uruguay.

Then there is machismo. Anglo-Saxon writers are attracted by this theme, with its offer of swift insight into simple local ways. Latin American writers were never much interested in it, and one suspects that the notion is not much help anywhere and no help at all in Buenos Aires. Naipaul is not the only recent Anglo-Saxon novelist to make much of it, and perhaps here he has been led astray by Graham Greene. The writing of his Argentina-based The Honorary Consul at times appears to be taken over by one of the book’s least convincing characters (and there is stiff competition for that), the appalling folclorico novelist Dr Saavedra, who would certainly believe in machismo: but a close reading reveals that the most machismo-obsessed persons concerned are the foreigners in the book and the author, who clearly thinks it macho to console oneself with whiskey but not by eating alfajores. These prejudices would be harmless if they were not passed off as the product of observation and reflection. ‘For men so diminished there remains only machismo,’ Naipaul sums up a paragraph on the mimicry of Argentine life, and he follows on with two or three pages about clothes, keyrings, brothels and buggery – ‘so diminished men, turning to machismo, diminish themselves further, replacing even sex by a parody’ – which show him caught tight in the throes of fantasy. ‘The buggering of women is of special significance in Argentina and other Latin American countries... The Argentine macho, in the main of Spanish or Italian peasant ancestry, consciously dishonours his victim.’ The Trinidadian writer, of Indian ancestry, is the unconscious and unashamed heir of a long tradition of New World defamation, and continues the work of the Elizabethan propagators of the leyenda negra. He dehumanises his subjects.

Argentina was clearly a ‘stint’, the word he uses for the three-year stay there – anything but a stint, one would imagine – of Borges’s translator Norman di Giovanni, and it is in the spirit of a stint that these River Plate essays are written. There are passages of sharp observation, some precise impressions, some sayings worth reporting: ‘The Tupamaros were not the beginning of a revolution... They were the last whisper of Battlismo (Batlle was the founder of the Uruguayan welfare state). They were parricides, engaged in a kind of kamikaze.’ But few Argentines or Uruguayans speak, and the novelist does not seem to be a good listener. He writes impatiently: ‘the country has as yet no idea of itself. Streets and avenues are named after presidents and generals, but there is no art of historical analysis; there is no art of biography. There is legend and antiquarian romance, but no real history.’ The impatience is shared by the enduring translator: ‘“Nothing happened here,” Norman di Giovanni said with irritation one day.’

But it did. A less irritated visitor would look for a different kind of event, a specifically Argentine history, not a history of Argentina designed to match or to parallel somewhere else’s history or to present events to fit someone else’s preconceived idea. The historical experience of Argentina, in the pro-portion of its immigration, its extraordinary success in the fifty years before the depression, its relative remoteness and autonomy, has been singular, and it is into this singularity that one has to look for explanations of the state which Naipaul describes as having ‘as yet no idea of itself’. There is enough real history, experienced and written, but it is a history with little recent agreement among either its protagonists or its commentators. Something went wrong. Naipaul like many others can state that. His diagnosis is mostly rhetoric, and rhetoric of a surprisingly old-fashioned sort.

He confesses that he found the work hard: ‘to write realistically about this society has peculiar difficulties; to render it accurately in fiction might be impossible.’ Conrad, after an effort of the imagination that he compared with wrestling with the Creator or going round Cape Horn in winter, wrote Nostromo, a work that the young Naipaul found ‘a confusion of characters and themes, which I couldn’t get through at all’. Though Nostromo is clearly not his favourite book, Naipaul’s concluding essay in this collection is about the unique importance Conrad has come to have for him since his self-taught father, ‘picking his way through a cultural confusion of which he was perhaps hardly aware’, introduced him to ‘Conrad the late starter, holding out hope to those who didn’t seem to be starting at all’.

Conrad’s value to me is that he is someone who sixty to seventy years ago meditated on my world, a world I recognise today. I feel this about no other writer of the century ..., Nothing is rigged in Conrad. He doesn’t remake countries. He chose, as we know, incidents from real life; and he meditated on them, ‘Meditate’ is his own, exact word.

Naipaul invites a comparison. In the best of this uneven collection, he himself meditates to some purpose, and can be seen wrestling with the Creator for his material. In the worst, he can be seen sending it to the Devil.