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October Surprise

Any other year, giving reactionary author V. S. Naipaul a Nobel Prize would have sparked debate

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The announcement that the Trinidadian-born author V. S. Naipaul had been awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature came only 30 days after the events of September 11. Those who would ordinarily have taken an interest in this decision by the Swedish Academy were, like nearly everyone else, still blindsided by shock, grief and fear; press coverage of Naipaul’s laureate felt perfunctory and cramped, hemmed in by the crush of breaking news. What would certainly, in a normal October, have prompted a fractious literary and political controversy was swamped by events.

It may yet erupt, given time. For Naipaul is the first Nobel author in many years with whom it is possible for readers and critics to disagree: not just about whether he is good enough to deserve the prize (the usual, bootless debate over academy choices) but about his central interpretation of the world. Had he stuck to the novels on which his reputation grew during the 1960s and ’70s, Naipaul could claim immunity from all but aesthetic judgments of his work. But he began devoting ever more of his time and energy to nonfiction, to recording his travels through the postcolonial worlds of Africa, South America and India, the home of his ancestors. Born in a backwater of the British Empire, Naipaul wanted to see what people newly liberated from European dominance would make of themselves and their societies. He hoped to bring a novelist’s eye to a vast story with a cast of hundreds of millions unfolding in real time: "I have no unifying theory of things," he has said. "To me, situations and people are always specific, always of themselves. That is why one travels and writes: to find out."

What he found out, and recorded in book after book, appalled him, and many critics: "The new politics, the curious reliance of men on institutions they were yet working to undermine, the simplicity of beliefs and the hideous simplicity of actions, the corruption of causes, half-made societies that seemed doomed to remain half-made...." Outsiders, of course, were not supposed to say such things about the Third World. Western liberals had developed a new orthodoxy—cultural relativism—which outlawed judgments of one society based on the standards of another. Naipaul evidently missed this news. In 1979, prompted by the revolution in Iran, he began traveling through non-Arab Muslim countries, tracking the eastern spread of Islamic fundamentalism though Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia. In the book that followed, Among the Believers (1981), he unembarrassedly referred to "The West, or the universal civilization it leads" and argued that the rejection of Western values is "a way of ceasing to strive intellectually. It is to be parasitic; parasitism is one of the unacknowledged fruits of fundamentalism."

Such assertions of cultural supremacy are anathema among educated Westerners. Did members of the Swedish Academy understand just how reactionary Naipaul’s views are, given the current climate, and then courageously award him the prize anyhow? It would be pretty to think so, but the evidence suggests that the members misunderstood or misread Naipaul’s message. The Nobel citation singled out the author’s novel/memoir The Enigma of Arrival (1987) for special praise and described it as "an unrelenting image of the placid collapse of the old colonial ruling culture and the demise of European neighborhoods." This summary suggests that Naipaul is somehow celebrating that colonial "collapse" and "demise" from the perspective of a onetime outsider who has lived to see the interments of the old oppressors.

The burden of this melancholy book is precisely the opposite. Having made the physical and intellectual journey from Trinidad to England, "traveling," as he has often described it, "from the periphery to the center," Naipaul settles in a cottage on an estate near Stonehenge and then watches as, over the years, the landscape and society around him decline and diminish. The Enigma of Arrival is not a celebration but a dirge for a vanishing order that Naipaul loves.

Defending Naipaul isn’t always easy; even his champions sometimes find him unsympathetic. His comments on other writers have tended toward the vitriolic, whether he is assailing the "nastiness" of E. M. Forster’s homosexuality or dismissing the author of Ulysses: "Joyce was going blind and I can’t understand the work of a blind writer." After a friendship of 30 years fell apart in 1996, Paul Theroux wrote a stinging denunciation of his former mentor in Sir Vidia’s Shadow. Theroux’s Naipaul emerges as egotistical, stingy and given to racist slurs, in private referring to Arabs as "Mr. Woggy" and Africans as "bow-and-arrow men."

Assuming this is accurate: So what? Great writers need not be, indeed regularly aren’t, nice people. It is through his books that Naipaul’s true value emerges: through the supple, unobtrusive power of his prose, through the accumulation of scrupulously precise details into a pattern of aesthetic and moral authority. If he is thoughtless or cruel in his personal dealings, he always treats the people in his books with respect; he manifestly wants for them the best they can make of themselves and grieves when he senses that they will not succeed in transcending their constrictions.

Finally, Naipaul has undertaken arduous journeys that most of the rest of us will not or cannot make. His reports back from these remote regions may have angered those who saw jingoism in his advocacy of Western values: the Enlightment ideals of the free play of inquiring minds and the disinterested pursuit of the truth. Without a hint of modish irony, Naipaul said of the notion of the pursuit of happiness that "it fits all men.... It is an immense human idea." Those who found his views uncritical or naive might, in the aftermath of September 11, want to take another look.

by Paul Gray

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