What Naipaul knows

Frank Kermode

  • Half a Life by V.S. Naipaul
    Picador, 214 pp, £15.99, September 2001, ISBN 0 330 48516 4

Willie Chandran, full name Willie Somerset Chandran, is the son of a somewhat eccentric minor official in an Indian state. The novelist, conscientiously researching his final masterpiece, The Razor’s Edge, had visited the maharajah and taken notice of Willie’s father, who happened to be doing penance and, on the model of Gandhi, observing a vow of silence in the temple courtyard. Though he comes from a line of priests, Willie’s father is not, as Maugham may have supposed, a man of spiritual depth, being more interested in the fame of the visitor after whom he named his son than in his religious investigations. Maugham’s title alludes to a metaphor from the Upanishads, comparing the way of enlightenment to the sharp and narrow edge of a razor, a matter on which the penitent, even if he had been willing to speak, could probably have thrown little light. Between the novelist and his silent interlocutor there was plenty of room for misunderstanding, and despite the even-tempered course of Naipaul’s opening pages we already hear a familiar overtone: Occidental attempts to understand India have always failed, and the tragedy of that failure is that Indians, adopting European assumptions without being able to abandon their own, have to live in a perpetual intellectual muddle. Foreign critics begin to name Willie’s father as the spiritual source of his novel, and he derives some local celebrity from this. But when it comes to the point Maugham, though pleased to have Indian friends, politely abstains from doing anything for Willie when he gets to London.

As a young man Willie’s father had neglected his education and perversely taken up with a low-caste, extraordinarily dull girl, flouting his father’s choice of bride. He broke his vow of sexual abstinence, taken on the model of Gandhi, and so Willie was born, and also his sister Sarojini. Attending the mission school, Willie at first hopes to go to Canada and become a missionary, for the sake of what seemed a more interesting and better paid life than any he could hope for at home. However, he is already writing stories. By the munificence of another English grandee who had visited his father’s ashram, Willie goes to London and takes up a place at a college of education.

All this, and Willie’s experiences in London, first in a ‘bohemian-immigrant’ milieu, then in a hardly less shoddy publishing world, is recounted with the expected, quietly comic skill, with a lot of discreet detail and only the slightest of sneers. Willie’s London friends are expertly sketched: a Jamaican who argues that black genes are recessive, so that intermarriage would eliminate blackness in a couple of generations; another whose ambition it is to be the first black man to have an account at Coutts. Willie does pretty well, and begins the business of remaking himself by writing. Seeing through the ‘quaint rules’ of his college, he begins to see through the quaint rules of his old life in India, deciding that they no longer bind him. He begins to write little scripts for the BBC. His stories are liked for being ‘India and not India’. He makes some of them into a book, which is accepted for publication.

Not quite all is well; he suffers sexual humiliations and bitterly blames his father for not teaching him the art of seduction. In the India of arranged marriages, he says, there is no ‘art of sex’ and the Kama Sutra talked about in London is not only an ancient but an upper-caste text, irrelevant to real life. However, he gets together with a sexually dull but loyal woman who was impressed by his stories (‘All the bluff, the make-believe, with the real unhappiness’) and he goes off with her to her own country. A large part of the book deals with their life in Portuguese East Africa, on the point of yielding to the guerrillas and becoming Mozambique. What follows is the familiar brilliant travelogue, with observations on the Portuguese colonial class system and the mindless social round. Occasionally there is a burst of anger, as when a restaurant owner torments a man who is laying tiles for him:

With us, and his other customers, the owner was as civil as always; but then, switching character and mood, he went back to abusing the tiler. At every shout the big light-eyed man lowered his head, as though he had received a blow. He was sweating; it seemed to be with more than heat. He went on with his delicate work, laying out the thin, fast-drying mortar, and then pressing and lightly tapping each pretty Portuguese tile into place. The sweat rolled down his pale-brown forehead and from time to time he shook it like tears from his eyes. He was in shorts; they were tight over his muscular thighs as he squatted. Little sprigs and twists of coarse hair were on his thighs and on his face, where close shaving had pock-marked the skin. He never replied to the shouts of the owner, whom he could so easily have knocked down. He just kept on working.

Willie’s wife explains why this outrage was possible: the tiler was illegitimate; colonial Portuguese landowners put their illegitimate mulatto children to various trades – electrician, carpenter, tiler. ‘But whenever I remembered the big sweating man with the abused light eyes, carrying the shame of his birth on his face like a brand, I would think: “Who will rescue that man? Who will avenge him?”’ A rare note of unmodulated indignation. It is segregated and does not intrude into the direct description of the tiler, which has the evenness of tone that generally characterises the work of this superb writer.

In view of Naipaul’s recently expressed opinion of E.M. Forster, it occurs to me to compare this moment with the scene of the trial in A Passage to India: after the uproar the punkah wallah continues to pull the cord of his punkah, ‘unaware that anything unusual had occurred’. For he was untouchable though magnificent, by comparison with his neighbours a god, though destined for the rubbish heap. The sight of him makes Miss Quested reconsider the claim of the English middle classes to civilisation. The passage strikes me as very good, but the punkah wallah, doubtless a symbol of India’s caste system and more vaguely of India’s mysteriousness, is just what Naipaul does not like. His tiler is a victim, and something needs to be done about him, though there seems little hope that anything will. But nothing, quite definitively, can be done about the punkah wallah. I imagine that to Naipaul he is merely evidence of the sentimental colonialist view of poverty.

Willie now flourishes sexually, first in the bordello and then with a neighbour’s wife. But after 18 years he leaves his own patient wife and joins his bullying sister in Berlin; for she has made an ‘international marriage’ with a German, and, like her brother, got out of India. So a new half life begins. But at the end of the book we go back to Willie and his wife. About to part, they are talking about life, he saying he’s tired of living hers, and she that it perhaps wasn’t hers, anyway. Half a life each, and about all that the exiles can expect.

We seem to have left behind the original India-and-not-India subject, except in so far as it contributes to this repeated theme of exile: for instance, the Tamil boys selling long-stemmed roses in Berlin restaurants to raise funds for the war at home. Exile is now plainly what it always was, the real subject.

Admirers of Naipaul are accustomed to making allowances for his tantrums. He reminds one of certain masters in old school stories, the ones who get into a frightful wax. Indeed they exist in reality, projecting their black mood, or even on occasion their humour, on to the class. If Naipaul in his black mood calls Forster, an earlier British novelist who also had a special interest in India (was perhaps in some sense a rival), a ‘nasty homosexual’ that’s up to him; whether you agree depends on your view of homosexuality and nastiness, and it has no more bearing on the quality of Forster’s novels than Naipaul’s fury has on his. More awkward is the dismissal of A Passage to India as ‘utter rubbish’, for here an excellent craftsman is talking about a book of which the least one can say is that it is expertly crafted. It is impossible to believe Naipaul doesn’t know this. He denies it out of crossness, out of a desire to insult. Or perhaps the real motive is a deep, complicated response to English colonialism. ‘We read, really,’ as Naipaul once remarked, ‘to find out what we already know.’

What Naipaul already knows is of great importance to him. It is not what the British know and not what Indians or other exploited people know, but it is something that takes all of this into account. This knowledge confers on him a degree of enlightenment (not Maugham’s kind, but the no-nonsense European variety) that enables him to look, sometimes with despair, sometimes with contempt, on the attitudes and opinions of others, especially as they reflect ‘the degradation, all the long-lasting poisons of colonialism’. There is pity, but also disgust and exasperation.

For example, he writes about Indian technology as if it was at about the level of Swift’s Laputan academy: useless spraying machines, dangerous reaping shoes, ‘designed in an institute where there appeared to have been no idea of the anguish of the Indian countryside’. His prime example of ‘vision based on no vision’ is the upgraded bullock cart. The improvements provided by ‘intermediate technology’ to this unwieldy vehicle would, he reckons, cost more than a ‘harmless little engine’. Instead of using technology, and the funds provided for it from the rich world, for a great leap forward, they use it on expensive modifications to the bullock cart, conniving at poverty and indulging a sentimentality imported from the West, with its romantic doubts about industrialism. Among other perversities this nonsense gives Indian poverty a certain glamour. But the glamour is spurious and hateful and the poverty terrible. And ‘the poverty of the land is reflected in the poverty of the mind.’

In India: A Wounded Civilisation (1977), the book from which I have been quoting, there is a concluding chapter on Gandhi, which has a studied strictness quite unlike the more strident outbursts. ‘If he had projected on India another code of survival, he might have left independent India with an ideology, and perhaps even what in India would have been truly revolutionary, the continental racial sense, the sense of belonging to a people specifically of India.’ By acting differently he might have succeeded in his aims of discrediting untouchability and caste, and might also have awakened the individual, ‘enabling men to stand alone within a broader identity, establishing a new idea of human excellence’. Failing, he left a culture in decay. It is a severe judgment, and Naipaul’s contempt for Gandhi’s successor Bhave is even more so: another ‘retailer of spirituality’, another advocate of cultural primitivism rather than land distribution, of cow protection rather than education. The ultimate appeal had been to magic, and ‘magic hadn’t worked.’ Naipaul takes a strongly rational view of magic.

‘It seems to be always there in India: magic, the past, the death of the intellect.’ An opponent might have argued that Western rationality had its own disadvantages, among them the fact that it was still the source of most of India’s unease, spiritual and economic. But facts are facts. An old Congressman who deplored the provision of piped water and electricity to villages as ‘morally bad’ seemed to regard India’s poverty as a ‘special thing’: the author ‘got the impression that, as a Gandhian, he didn’t want to see anybody spoiling it’. One wonders what Naipaul thinks of the technology that produces not absurd shoes and buffalo carts but the great leap forward of atomic bombs. Yet he is at his most sympathetic when he is giving eloquent expression to his hatred of poverty, and deploring the futility of attempts to mend or sentimentalise it. Nowhere, I think, is his prose more admirable, flexible and forceful, than in this book, though admittedly it is rarely less than that, wherever he journeys in the post-colonial world.

It is easy to understand why other writers feel that the Third World must be defended against these ‘mandarin’ opinions. Naipaul is a tough opponent, well-informed as well as rather haughtily aggressive, resting, it seems, on certainties vouchsafed for by his own detailed understanding of the post-colonial world. Some who know it from different angles question these certainties. Because Naipaul admires Conrad (‘the stylist . . . the late starter’) ‘who had been everywhere before me’, Heart of Darkness has been as important to his hostile critics as it has been to him. They deplore his attribution of African miseries to some essential, primeval African darkness, and won’t endorse his way of sharing out blame between colonist and colonised. Chinua Achebe, among others, has led the attack on Conrad’s atavistic vision of the continent. The story of this conflict is told at some length in Rob Nixon’s book London Calling (1992), which also questions, from a similarly critical point of view, Naipaul’s attitudes to Islam, and to the problems of the Caribbean.

To ask how Naipaul achieved that superior point of vantage, at the same time developing the strong prose in which the view from it is expressed, is to be reminded that his work is to an unusual degree autobiographical. The Enigma of Arrival may be the most important of his essays in self-understanding, for it says more than the others about the complexity of his attachments to England. Half a Life has some of the now familiar blend of autobiography and fiction, and offers a different view of the early London years. Closer to fact, though no less artful, is the ‘Prologue to an Autobiography’ in Finding the Centre (1984), which has more detail about the BBC days, the first writings, on ‘non-rustle’ BBC paper. In those years he lacked the conviction that he could ‘go on’, as he thought a real writer must, as his father wanted. But he found ways of going on, and with increasing self-assurance.

Travel was part of the solution: traversing the hitherto unknown world, he says, he learned to look in his own way. But he had first to deal with a known world: Trinidad, and his family, with its rather withered Hinduism. He left it all behind, not without a sense of guilt, for when he should have gone back to help his distressed family he chose to stay in London, making himself a writer. He did return, figuratively, by writing his early books, and later he went back to Trinidad in person, but as an accredited writer and so somewhat apart. He found he had much to say about the miseries and failures of the rest of the post-colonial world, but because of Trinidad he had a special concern for India. Everything that told of India’s fatal absorption in the past, its delusions about its present, was a source of angry distress. Thinking about India and its intellectual confusion he found it ‘impossible to get back to clarifying first principles’.

You will find in Naipaul no Post-Modernist distrust of such things as first principles, which is why, even when one wants to disagree, even when one emphatically does so, he has such a powerful moral presence. So far as his own life and work are concerned, he has clarified first principles. The inability of others to accept them irritates him and can sometimes goad him into tetchiness or absurdity. From a literary point of view this charge has no more force or relevance than the condemnation of Forster’s homosexuality. It cannot make his work ‘utter rubbish’. That it is so much more than that is a judgment that should be defended against simpler, more obviously appealing defences of the oppressed, against sympathetic denials of the claim that they have often contributed to their own oppression. Half a Life is a lesser book than some of its predecessors – calmer, and slightly more bewildered, since Willie isn’t Naipaul by a long way; but it does nothing to reduce his isolation or his authority.