The Enchantment of Vidia Naipaul

D.A.N. Jones

  • Finding the Centre: Two Narratives by V.S. Naipaul
    Deutsch, 189 pp, £7.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 233 97664 7
  • A House for Mr Biswas by V.S. Naipaul
    Deutsch, 531 pp, £9.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 233 95589 5

‘Indian’ is a word which our English-speaking forebears have scattered rather too casually about the globe. V.S. Naipaul is an ‘East Indian’, but not from the Dutch East Indies; nor is he an Anglo-Indian, a Red Indian or an Amerindian. He is of Hindu stock, born and bred in the West Indies. His grandfather went to Trinidad from Uttar Pradesh, as an indentured labourer; his father became a reporter for the Trinidad Guardian and a writer of short stories – ‘not for money or fame (there was no local market), but out of some private need,’ writes Vidiadhar Naipaul now. ‘Not formally educated, a nibbler of books rather than a reader, my father worshipped writing and writers. He made the vocation of the writer seem the noblest in the world; and I decided to be that noble thing.’

Vidiadhar Naipaul won a scholarship to Oxford in 1950 and is now Trinidad’s most famous writer of English. It was colonial Trinidad, he records, that helped him become a writer, by sending him to England: but it was self-governing Trinidad that sent him on ‘a colonial tour in 1960 – and by this accident I became a traveller.’ Much of his fiction and travel writing reflects a strong interest in the question of where he – and people in like case, colonials or ex-colonials – fit in. Do they belong to the community or are they always on the periphery? If they are ‘outsiders’, where is the inside, the centre?

In his novel of 1967, The Mimic Men, an ambitious West Indian observes that the Caribbean islands offer a bad start for a man who wants to make his mark in the great world. They are populated by ‘mimic men’, he says: they are part of ‘the suburbs of the world’. He quotes an old Greek proverb, to the effect that no man can be great unless he comes from a great city.

Naipaul has travelled adventurously around the suburbs of the world, those Third World territories that used to be outposts of empire. He has inspected the successor states and reported his findings with a severity that seems designed to challenge the paternalist sentimentality that comes so easily to those of us who think of ourselves as descendants of the white imperialists. But now, in Finding the Centre, he reports on a recent visit to the Ivory Coast with a sort of wondering enjoyment and approval. The old words of magic are not too strong: he has been fascinated, enchanted, ‘glamoured’ (a favourite Naipaul word) by West Africa.

The Ivorian narrative is entitled ‘The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro’, this being the ancestral village of that powerful prince, President Houphouet-Boigny, who has been trying, for many years, to turn Yamoussoukro into a great and famous city, under the tutelary protection of sacred crocodiles. The reader is as surprised as Naipaul himself that the author should feel almost at home in this exotic community, as he instructs himself in Ivorian mysteries, seeing the new nation (Ex Africa semper aliquid novi) as an ancient heartland, a centre, not merely as one of the suburbs of the world.

The other narrative in Finding the Centre is called ‘Prologue to an Autobiography’ and blends an account of Naipaul’s beginnings as a writer with his middle-aged discoveries about the old subject matter of his youth, Trinidad and his father. It is a sort of recherche du temps perdu: sometimes he is peeling off the onion-skin from his early fiction, as if progressing toward the heart of the subject matter, and sometimes he is adding new outer layers, memories of memories.

A House for Mr Biswas, probably his most popular novel, was the story of a man like his father, a Trinidad newspaperman, an adventurous spirit pushing out against the bars of convention: he had felt oppressed by the orthodoxies of Trinidad, the general will of his people, especially the rigorously conservative Hinduism of his wife’s extended family, a formidable tribe. Naipaul’s fourth novel, first published in 1961, A House for Mr Biswas is now reissued with a new introduction by the author, written in a spirit of serenity, glee and candour that harmonises well with the mood of the two narratives in Finding the Centre. He remembers being surprised in 1981 by a broadcast reading of A House for Mr Biswas (on the BBC World Service, when he was in Cyprus): tears came to his eyes with memory upon memory, childhood impressions of his father’s early life, adult memories of happy months spent writing this international success in the London suburb of Streatham.

His Streatham landlady’s daughter read a lot and was a great buyer of books. ‘She subscribed to the New Statesman; and it was for her, as much as for the literary editor of the New Statesman, that every four weeks I wrote my review of novels,’ Naipaul recalls. ‘The two years spent on this novel in Streatham Hill remain the most consuming, the most fulfilled, the happiest years of my life. They were my Eden. Hence, more than twenty years later, the tears in Cyprus.’ He had written the book with joy – ‘the joy of allowing fantasy to play on stored experience, the joy of the comedy that so naturally offered itself’. He still hopes to write another ‘piece of comedy that might complement or match this earlier book’.

Naipaul has written one novel about suburban Streatham: if he had kept up the local connection he might have succeeded Dr Johnson as the genius loci, especially now that Streatham has so large an Indian population. In spite of that old Greek shoulder-chip proverb, it is people, original spirits, who make places real – Athens, Ithaca or Lesbos, Streatham, Trinidad or Yamoussoukro. Trinidad has become more real to the world because of A House for Mr Biswas. Naipaul suggests in his new introduction that the reality of the book derives from those memories of memories: it begins with ‘events twice removed, in an antique “pastoral” time, and almost in a land of the imagination’. He was a town boy with little knowledge of ‘the Trinidad Indian village way of life’, so he made it up from childhood memories of his father’s conversation and from the short stories, his father’s own way of looking back on the past.

Mr Biswas is comical in his role as the dissident in-law: he snipes cockily at the caste-consciousness of his wife’s family, mocking their choice of a Roman Catholic school for their children. When the family worries about one of their number going to England (and thus losing caste and eating unholy food) Mr Biswas says: ‘Every morning in England, you know, the scavengers go around picking up the corpses. And you know why? The food there is not cooked by orthodox Roman Catholic Hindus.’ Mr Biswas himself flirts with a set of ‘protestant’ or reforming Hindus, the Aryans, he dabbles in Christianity, he causes irritation with his non-Indian books and the vulgar Fleet Street style of his newspaper work. Naipaul’s father was like that, but for him the family situation wasn’t comical. Finding the Centre reveals the severity of the pressure he suffered.

In 1970, an American writer in Russia, after reading Naipaul’s fiction, sent the author a newspaper cutting about his father, published in 1933. The headline was: ‘Writer Kowtows to Kali to Escape Black Magic Death’. The story began: ‘Threatened with death by the Hindu goddess Kali, Seepersad Naipaul, native writer, today offered a goat as sacrifice to appease the anger of the goddess ... ’ This story surprised Naipaul: it had not been in his father’s cuttings-book. He thought it might have been a journalistic joke, cooked up by his father and his genial editor, an ‘Amazing Scenes’ addict. But he learned that it represented a genuine public humiliation for his father – who, he now remembered, detested the Kali cult and had complained that his mother-in-law was a votaress of that order. Naipaul discovered that his father’s newspaper work had been acceptable to the family when he could act as their herald, reporting political meetings which took place in the main family house, but not when he ‘got people into the paper whether they wanted it or not’. There was trouble over his reports of an election and a riot in which members of the family were involved. Matters came to a head when the reporter was encouraging Indians to get their cattle vaccinated, scientifically, although they preferred to perform religious sacrifices to Kali, the black mother-goddess. The reforming journalist was told that unless he himself performed this rite, in public, he would surely die.

So, he surrendered: ‘A man who had been intended by his grandmother and mother to be a pundit, now for the first time going through priestly rites: a man in white, garlanded like the goat with hibiscus, offering sacrificial clove-scented fire to the image of the goddess, to the still living goat, to the onlookers, and then offering the severed goat’s head on a brass plate.’ Then he tried to write about his humiliation in jaunty, Fleet Street style, on the front page of the Sunday paper. ‘Mr Naipaul Greets You! – No Poison Last Night. Good morning, everybody! As you behold, Kali has not got me yet ... ’ Soon he was quite ill.

His son pieced the story together from the newspaper library, some forty years later, and asked his mother: ‘What form did my father’s madness take?’ She replied: ‘He looked in the mirror one day and couldn’t see himself. And he began to scream.’ This is not comedy, but tragedy. The very word is Greek for ‘the song of the goat’, presumably derived from the idea of the goat as totem or sacrifice. The younger Naipaul seems not dispirited by the tale but more inclined to admire his father for his spirit, his sense of vocation, against such odds: the man has become heroic. The little communities of Trinidad begin to seem like Greek cities where serious things happen: not suburban, not off-the-map.

This is the main story, told with crafty discursiveness, in ‘Prologue to an Autobiography’. It is echoed poetically in the second part of Finding the Centre, when Naipaul reports on the ceremony of feeding the crocodiles at Yamoussoukro: there is a tall, thin man in a skullcap and a flowered gown who throws live chickens to the crocodiles in the newly created lake, using a long, thin knife to kill any chicken that escapes the jaws. The lake is near to the fine new golf-course and near to the long walls of Houphouet-Boigny’s Presidential palace: these walls surround his ancestral house, where the ceremonies are less public than the feeding of the crocodiles, a spectacle open to visitors and convenient for motorists.

Naipaul asked several Ivorians about the ritual significance of the President’s crocodiles. The only straightforward explanation came from Mr Bony, a former Minister of Education. Mr Bony said that the crocodile was the totemic animal of the President’s family, just as the panther was for Mr Bony’s family. There were two worlds, said Mr Bony, the world of workaday reality and the world of the spirit: ‘Ces deux mondes se cherchent.’ They seek each other out – rather as power and authority seek each other, in Roger Scruton’s formulation, to create our own political establishment. Mr Bony, so Naipaul was told, had been accused of plotting against the President and had spent five years as a political prisoner before being pardoned.

The President, who is over eighty, has held office since the date of independence in 1960. He encourages a spirit of reconciliation: at the last election, Naipaul was told, it had been agreed that any member of the political party could stand for the 140 seats in the assembly and, with 600 candidates, many of the older deputies lost office, after 20 years’ service, and this was unhappily degrading to the elders, necessitating ceremonies of reconciliation in their home villages. The President told a moral parable about a man who threw aside his beautiful knife when it cut him, but then forgave the knife, cherishing it in a noble sheath. In like manner, ‘wicked men had been cast aside; but they had once been good and useful and loved; the chief would remember that, and he would forgive.’

Naipaul might have mentioned here that President Houphouet-Boigny was the man who offered sanctuary (at the request of the French) to Bokassa I, the deposed Emperor of Central Africa, much as President Sadat did for the Shah of Iran when that prince’s friends in the Western governments were afraid to receive him. The style and methods of Houphouet-Boigny are worthy of study in this new period of international politics when theocracies and sacred princes have acquired so much power and authority through modern technology. Not only in the Third World, of course: we may think of Irish bishops and the Polish Pope.

A new cult among the Ivorians is called the Celestial Christians: they come from Ghana and have only been in the Ivory Coast for three years, so they are anxious to make their mark. Naipaul followed up one of their success stories: they had driven out an evil spirit which had persistently started magical fires in a harmless schoolmaster’s house, and they complacently expressed their regret that the schoolmaster had wasted so much money on fetishes and Muslim marabout magic. A letter to the newspaper, offering ‘A Scientific Explanation’, was disregarded.

Mr Biswas, that fictional amalgam of Naipaul and his father, might have expressed scorn and distaste for all this magic – as for Naipaul’s stories about the severed human heads still needed for the funeral rites of Ivorian princes. But Naipaul tells his tales with more satisfaction that scepticism. The magic-haunted regime of Houphouet-Boigny is, after all, more stable, prosperous and popular than other West African governments, so often overturned by sergeants and flight-lieutenants with progressive, Biswas-like ideas. What Naipaul wants to know is whether the ‘modern’ world of motorways, hotels and golf courses can be quite real to the Ivorians. He is taken with Mr Bony’s talk of two worlds, one spiritual, one workaday, and associates it with his idea that West Africans have a world of the day and a world of the night: in the latter, weak women become powerful sorcerers and beggars become princes.

In Nigeria, I have often heard the story that while a woman is peacefully sleeping her spirit may be dancing with other sorcerers on the top of a banana tree; in Vol. 6, No 2 of the London Review of Books, we read of similar beliefs in 17th-century Italy, when Anthony Pagden discussed The Night Battles by Carlo Ginzburg. Hearing of this night life in the Ivory Coast, Naipaul was reminded of the beliefs and customs of black slaves in old Trinidad. ‘A king of the night, a slave by day, would be taken about by his fellows in a litter. To the outsider, to the slave-owner, the African night world might appear a mimic world, a child’s world, a carnival. But to the African it was the true world: it turned white men to phantoms and plantation life to an illusion.’ Who are ‘the mimic men’ now?

It was with a different sort of Caribbean-inspired notion that he came to the Ivory Coast. He had been attracted by the idea of France in Africa – ‘a private fantasy, based on my own love of the French language, a special schoolboy love, given me at Queen’s Royal College in colonial Trinidad by teachers, many of them black or partly black, who were themselves in love with the French language and an idea (hinted at, never stated) of an accepting, assimilating France’. For all their faults as colonisers, the French have often been said to be more skilled in assimilating their subjects than the standoffish British. But the Ivorians whom Naipaul met seemed to regard the French rather as useful tools, for the daytime superstructure, than as a civilisation to supersede their own. One of them found the French too placid, unstimulating, compared with the British.

The Ivorians he talked with most were not unlike Mr Biswas in the way they threw out general statements and epigrams – often ‘modern’ and Western in tone – without attempting a consistent philosophy. Djedje, the young man who attempted to guide Naipaul among the magicians, told him: ‘Without civilisation, everyone would be a sorcerer.’ What did he mean by civilisation? Some equivalent of an established church, perhaps, to keep the spiritual world under control. Djedje told Naipaul that sorcerers might hide their secrets from him if they discovered that he was a Hindu, since Hindus had a great reputation as magicians: however, Naipaul was the same colour as a European. This surprised Naipaul, who thinks himself quite a different colour, and he decided that Djedje was ‘racially, an innocent’.

His relations with black people here are different from the world of Mr Biswas in Trinidad. Mr Biswas liked to read in Huckleberry Finn about ‘nigger Jim who had seen ghosts and told stories’ but he was not at ease when his editor sent him out to interview ‘deserving destitutes’ – which might mean that he would be accosted by ‘burly negroes, pictures of health and strength’, demanding money: ‘Indian, give me a shilling!’ Among the Ivorians there was a different sort of ‘racial awareness’. Those with general ideas about Africa and the African race had got them from another continent: ‘a man like Djedje still knew only about the gods and the tribes.’ What Naipaul seems to have found among the Ivorians is an intriguing, encouraging reflection of the ex-colonial, ancient-and-modern dilemma faced both by his real-life father and by Mr Biswas: the Ivorians had their own equivalent of the choice between vaccinating cattle or sacrificing to Kali, and they had the confidence to reconcile the two. As for snobberies and jealousies about skin-colour, such matters hardly entered into the Ivorian world-picture. Naipaul noticed French-speaking West Indians failing to win the respect they expected for being more French, more Parisian than the Ivorians, while a Guyanese from Huddersfield ‘had the security of her beauty. She had no anxieties about belonging.’ Naipaul’s narrative concludes with some paragraphs about less beautiful women, evangelists from Harlem who seemed to have given up their missionary efforts, sitting shyly in hotel lobbies, occasionally pressing their tracts upon the waiters. ‘We get so many people like them from the United States,’ an Ivorian resident told Naipaul:

Black people who come here to convert the Africans. They bring their own psychic sickness to Africa. They should instead come to be converted by Africa. Ils sont fous.