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.

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