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Du Bois Institute

Review: V. S. Naipaul, Postcolonial Mandarin

Author(s): Rob Nixon
Reviewed work(s):
India: A Million Mutinies Now. by V. S. Naipaul
A Turn in the South. by V. S. Naipaul
Source: Transition, No. 52 (1991), pp. 100-113
Published by: Indiana University Press on behalf of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2935128
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Rob Nixon
With the passing of each decade, Naipaul it is, paradoxically, equally important to
has invested more and more of his energy recognize his impassioned efforts during
in travel writing, producing less and less the late I98os to terminate his travels. His
fiction. During the ten years that followed writing during the early part of the decade
the appearanceof his first novel, The Mys- (Amongthe Believersand the Grenadian es-
ticMasseur(I957), he published nine titles, say, "An Island Betrayed") was cast in
seven of them novels or collections of Naipaul's standard, brittle categories-
short stories. Between I968 and I975, his mimicry, barbarism, world civilization,
industry was split equally between fiction parasitism, and simple societies. But the
and nonfiction, generating two books of split title of Finding the Center: Two Nar-
each. But in the fifteen years since Guerillas rativesindicated a threshold text: the long
(1975), he has produced only one full novel travel essay on the Ivory Coast was vin-
(A Bendin theRiver, I979), while his travel tage, predictable Naipaulia, while the
and autobiographical writings have grown book's other half, "A Prologue to an Au-
ever more prolific. In addition to The tobiography," pulled in a contrary direc-
Enigmaof Arrival (1987), a hybrid work of tion, anticipating the new developments
autobiography and fiction, the period that would ensue in The Enigmaof Arrival,
since 1975 has seen seven works of non- A Turn in the South, and India: A Million
Discussed in fiction: India: A Wounded Civilization Mutinies Now.
this essay
(I977), The Returnof Eva Peron (1980), A Each of his three latest books marks an
India: A Million Congo Diary (1980), Among the Believers attempt to make his peace with one of the
Mutinies Now, the Center A Turn in three cultures that have contributed most
(I98I), Finding (I984),
V. S. Naipaul,
New York: Viking the South (1989), and India:A Million Mu- to his identity-England, Trinidad, and
tinies Now (I990). India. In the process, each includes an el-
A Turn in the South,
V. S. Naipaul, New While it is crucial to observe Naipaul's ement of muted self-criticism. The Enigma
York:Knopf increasing commitment to travel writing, of Arrival, as the title intimates, is suffused
since. His newfound conciliatory mood
toward Trinidad does not prevent him,
however, from reanimating his bigotries
toward the black cultures of the New
A Turn in the South, too, was an-
nounced as his last travel book. But, hav-
ing faced first England, then Trinidad, he
returned to India to resolve his differences
there. The prevailing restraint, even ten-
derness, of India: A Million Mutinies Now
V. S. Naipaul, inatrnoreal inalldarinland travel makes for an astonishing contrast with his
writer ...
earlier writings about the subcontinent.
Significantly, Naipaul closes A Million
with a sense of an ending. In the central Mutiniesby reviewing his first Indian trav-
section of the book, Naipaul reviews his elogue, An Area of Darkness,anatomizing,
life and ponders, among other things, the in the process, the youthful rawness that
distortions of his identity that prompted contributed to its limitations.
iim to ignore the rich lode of immigrant
experience in London during the 195os and
I960s. Naipaul's condensed, revisionist
rewriting of his collective travels in Enigma For three decades, Britain and the United
was meant to be a kind of terminus. He States, the sites of Naipaul's residence and
would, he insisted, write travel no more. his principal audiences, had been consti-
Yet he went on to produce A Turn in tutively absent from his travel writing. So
the South. His first American travel book,
it brought him unexpectedly face-to-face
with his Trinidadian ancestry and child- ... Or itinerant handkerchief-head?
hood. The bonds he discovered between
the South and Trinidad-bonds of slavery,
racial conflict, and plantation society-
stirred in him a mixture of anguish and
serendipity. A powerful strand of the book
contains an attempt to review, from the
paradoxical distance and proximity of the
South, the roots of his old rage at Trin-
idad. As in Enigma, we observe a cautious bo
homecoming, this time as he becomes (at c3
least in spirit) more accommodating of the
society that he fled in bitter shame and to- 2

ward which he has been so vindictive ever


when, in quick succession during the late raphy forecast by that prologue. The book
I980s, he finally swung round to face these mulls over journeying as metaphor and
two societies, the decision marked a major event. Naipaul revisits and reconceives his
departure. Enigmaand A Turn in the South 1950 passage to England while musing, in
abut postcolonial travel writing somewhat addition, on the unstable sensation of hav-
tangentially: the British book because it is ing "arrived" as a writer, of possessing a
a lightly fictionalized autobiography in career to survey. As, in close succession,
which arrival serves more as metaphor his brother, his sister, and Indira Gandhi
than event, the American book because it
admits only ambiguous continuities with
No other Britishwriter of
Naipaul's postcolonial preoccupations.
But significantly, these experiments with Caribbeanor South Asian
a change in locale (from Third World to
ancestry would have
First) have produced sharp shifts in temper
and focus. Naipaul admits a less curbed
chosen a tucked-away
range of emotions, breaking away from Wiltshire perspective
his customary disdain and irritability into
from which to reflect on
tolerance, empathy, tearfulness, deferen-
tial curiosity, even naked delight. the themes of
The new tack really began with Finding
the Center, the 1984 volume that fell into
two parts: "Prologue to an Autobiogra- postcolonial decay
phy" and the travel essay on the Ivory
Coast. The latter piece, as well as his es- (whom he deeply esteemed) all pass away,
pecially cynical article on Grenada (which the writing becomes shadowed by an
surfaced that year in Harpersand the Lon- alertness to death as the terminal arrival.
donSundayTimes)displayed Naipaul in his Above all, Enigma depicts a homecoming
familiar, hatchet-jobbing self. But "Pro- of sorts to the Wilshire estate of Walden-
logue to an Autobiography" introduced a shaw, where Naipaul takes up residence.
different impulse. It returned him, in In composing The Enigma of Arrival,
memory, to the Trinidad from which he Naipaul invents postcolonial pastoral.
had retreated with the intent of becoming There is decidedly no other British writer
a writer, after having watched his father's of Caribbean or South Asian ancestry who
creative talents get dashed by that unsup- would have chosen a tucked-away Wilt-
portive environment. In pursuit of his shire perspective from which to reflect on
own literary origins, Naipaul embarks on the themes of immigration and postcolo-
a quest for Bogart, the man who once in- nial decay. It is a place where Naipaul
spired his first callow, literary sentence. stands alone as an oddity, and the result is
Despite being marketed as fiction, The a self-engrossed, deeply solitary, almost
Enigma of Arrival, which appeared three evacuated though powerful work. Having
years later, comes closer to the autobiog- deferred confronting, in autobiographical


terms, his own presence in England, the estates--the colonial plantation that was
version of England Naipaul ultimately his grandparents' destiny and the English
faces is a garden county suffused by an am- manorial grounds long sustained by the
bience of Constable, Ruskin, Goldsmith, wealth drawn from such foreign proper-
Gray's Elegy, and Hardy; of chalk downs, ties. He detects a hint of historical justice
brookside strolls, footbridges, bridle that the waning of Waldenshaw should
paths, Stonehenge, and delicate beds of pe- satisfy his enduring fascination with "a
onies. Naipaul stations himself in a cottage sense of glory dead," a fascination instilled
on the fringe of an estate from where he in him by empire in the first place. The
observes, with a half-respectful, half- effect is profoundly ambivalent. By insert-
erotic voyeurism, the withering of his aris- ing himself into a diorama of faded gran-
tocratic landlord's hold on his property deur, Naipaul is able to disturb a certain
and health alike. notion of Englishness while warming his
Enigma stages Naipaul's transforma- hands over the embers of the "real" En-
tion into an English writer, in the old and gland he inhabited in childhood fantasy,
new senses of the phrase. He elects himself the England that never was but nonethe-
to the great pastoral tradition of English less existed, as we have seen, as a lifelong
literature, but his postcolonial presence rebuke to Trinidad and the Third World
there ensures that he both continues and for all they could never be.
disrupts the lineage. A temperamental fas- In mulling over the construction of
cination with decay Naipaul's authorialidentity, Enigma,more
generously than any of his previous work,
hadbeengiven meas a childin Trinidadpartly accommodates self-criticism. And the sty-
by ourfamily circumstances: the half-ruinedor listic amplitude that pervades Naipaul's
broken-downhouses we lived in, our many work begins to be matched by a munifi-
moves, ourgeneraluncertainty.Possibly, too, cence of spirit. Yet contradictions remain,
this mode of feeling went deeperand was an for this self-interrogation repeats a late ro-
ancestralinheritance,somethingthatcamewith mantic ideology of the isolated, self-made
the historythat had mademe; not only India, author who dwells apartfrom the corrupt-
with its ideasof a worldoutsidemen'scontrol, ing ideologies of the world. To achieve
but also the colonialplantationsor estatesof that elevated solitude-to survey his own
Trinidad, to which my impoverishedIndian presence in that pastoral scene-requires
ancestorshad been transportedin the last that he compose his isolation, not least
century-estatesof whichthis Wiltshireestate, through the textual extinction of his wife,
where I now lived, had been the apotheosis. Patricia, whose sustaining companionship
Fifty yearsago therewouldhave beenno room in the manorial cottage is held from view.
for meon the estate;evennow mypresencewas Her acknowledged presence would have
a little unlikely. jeopardized the uninterrupted "I" who is
wedded to the Wiltshire landscape and,
Naipaul savors the irony of his liminal, through it, gains entry into the lineage of
postcolonial presence between the two romantic English pastoral.


Naipaul's focus on the crumbling of a ancholy on the England of Roman con-
select England allows him to rein in his querors and Camelot. Ruin, in its unpop-
anger. (Although even here a viciousness ulated, bucolic English mode, becomes a
may break loose to reveal the pleasure he ruminative, poetic affair where in the
gains from the vicarious class fantasy of Third World it made him irascible and ac-
admission to the gentry. On certain em- cusatory.
ployees of the manor: "They were ser-
vants, all four. Within that condition A Turnin the South
Just two years after Enigma, Naipaul
emerged with his first American book, the
Ruin, in its unpopulated, record of a journey through seven South-
bucolic English mode, eastern states undertaken over a period of
becomes a ruminative, four months. In his ventures through the
South, we see the flowering of a whole
poetic affair, where in new approach toward the sensation of
the ThirdWorldit made travel:
him irascible and
Driving backone stormyafternoonin Missis-
accusatory sippifromthe Delta toJackson,andexcitedby
the darksky, the rain, the lightning,the lights
(which should have neutered them) all of carsand trucks,the spraythatrosewindow-
their passions were played out.") The ab- highfrom heavy wheels, I beganto be aware
sent England becomes as thematic as the of thegreatpleasureI hadtakenin travelingin
one he chooses to represent. Behind the the South. Romance,aglow of hopefulnessand
tender elegy to the manageable decline of freedom,hadalreadybegunto touchthe earlier
Wiltshire stand the unmentioned circum- stagesof thejourney:my arrivalat Atlanta, the
stances of Brixton, Notting Hill, Totten- drivefrom thereto Charleston.
ham, Southall, Bristol, Bradford, and
Handsworth, communities of displaced In every Third World country he visited,
minorities rife with the forms of racial and traveling had been a necessary burden so
religious tensions and social dereliction that he might write; for the first time, out-
Naipaul would have hounded down in the side Jackson, this gets reversed, and
societies to which he ordinarily travels. Naipaul wishes he could simply savor the
Naipaul's angle, ingenious yet perverse, delights of the trip itself, liberated from the
screens out the violent decrepitude of Lon- anxiety of working it into words.
don and Birmingham's inner cities as well But more than that has changed. Re-
as the monumental industrial collapse of markably, more than half of A Turn in the
the rusting north, all regions where he South falls between quotation marks. The
could not have nurtured the sensation of implications are clear: Southerners deserve
his "oddity" or mused with delicate mel- to be heard and Naipaul is quick to listen,


tardy in judgment. This approach rewards gious fundamentalism and racial tension
him richly. Had he adopted his customary becomes indulgent to a degree quite unlike
intrusive, spiky manner, a man called his attitude to related phenomena in, say,
Campbell would never have waxed lyrical Trinidad, Pakistan, and Malaysia. This
about redneck culture, revealing to discrepancy becomes especially stark in his
Naipaul (at a distance) a style of life that writing about southern evangelists and
would emerge as the obsession and chief racists, of both the genteel and redneck va-
delight of the trip. Nor would Naipaul rieties.
have come around to admiring civil rights Among these fundamentalists, Naipaul
leader Hosea Williams, after initially dis- exercises remarkable self-government,
missing him as a glib performer on the coming to accept southern Christianity as
protest circuit. And through steady listen- a necessary irrationalcompensation for the
ing and restrainedquestioning he draws on anguish and fractured order of the past.
poet Jim Applewhite's considerable in- His preferred tone is generous and reflec-
sight into tobacco-curing, the wellsprings tive rather than snappish, pusillanimous,
of his art, and what Naipaul calls--in a and unforgiving. The contrast with his
perfect phrase-"the religion of the past." earlierIndian and Islamic writings - where
Naipaul's newfound tolerance and his he condemns all forms of religion as sti-
almost reverential curiosity give A Turn in fling, sentimentally seduced by the past,
the South a novelistic edge. He clears suf- irrational, and antiquated-could scarcely
ficient space for his white charactersto ex- be more pointed. Naipaul's lopsided sec-
pand in rather than populating his narra- ularism calls to mind the furor, stirred up
tive with ciphers of the particularnational by the Rushdie affair, over the British de-
or cultural essence he is committed to in- crees that define blasphemy as an offense,
dicting. For the kind of characterization not against religion, but against Chris-
absent from the southern book, one has tianity.
only to turn back to his meeting with A Turn in the South is the only one of
Sadeq, which, on the first page, sets the Naipaul's travel books to be principally
tone for AmongtheBelievers.Sadeq gets ex- about white culture. It is also the only one
peditiously dismissed as simpleminded of which any reviewer could say, as did
and sneering only to be replaced by a slew Thomas D'Evelyn in the ChristianScience
of figures (Pakistani, Indonesian, Malay- Monitor,that "Naipaul tries so hard not to
sian, and Iranian) embodying Islamic re- offend that it's hard not to be offended."
sentment. Yet that statement is only selectively ac-
The Naipaul ofA Turnof theSouthfinds curate as Naipaul's newfound tact retains
himself once more an atheist among the a racial slant. As Arnold Rampersad first
believers. Indeed, some of his finest in- observed in an acute essay on A Turn in the
sights reveal the versatility of religion in South, the book betrays an imbalance in
the South and the improbable alliances it the distribution of Naipaul's sympathies
sustains. But his stance toward both reli- and attention to the point of bigotry.


Transfixed by country-and-western mu- his life. By the end one feels that it was a
sic's inventiveness, he remains silent about voyage he had always half-knowingly
blues andjazz. White writers get a full bill- sought while unable to anticipate its shape
ing as artists, black writers are scaled down or location. Especially in the final third of
to representatives of racial frenzy or de- the book, a sustained meditation on the pa-
spair. In encounters with southern church- thos of redneck culture, the elegiac tone of
folk and political leaders, too, Naipaul The Enigma of Arrival returns. Again, the
manages to uncover the noble pathos of a normally disputatious Naipaul is reduced
vanishing past amidst white southern to whispered devotion by his immersion
in a beleaguered culture of white, agrarian
The normally ruin. If he views both black and redneck
worlds as tragic, pained by the knowledge
disputatious Naipaul is of "the past as a wound," only the red-
reduced to whispered necks get embraced with all the emotion of
devotion by a a cause. Here Naipaul's enchantment with
country-and-western music becomes
beleaguered culture of symptomatic of the turn to elegy: it is the
white, agrarian ruin cultural form that expresses, most con-
summately, white melancholy and loss.
communities, but among black commu- For the first time in his lifelong travels,
nities, he unearths self-violation and back- Naipaul agrees to recognize a culture's
to-back dereliction. Predictably, Naipaul transcendental, mythologized past as a vi-
finds himself drawn to Booker T. Wash- able consolation rather simply than a de-
ington while recoiling in irritation from bilitating prop:
the more radical W. E. B. Du Bois.
The past transformed,lifted above the actual
Naipaul's general disdain toward southern
black culture contains dim echos of his history,andgiven an almostreligioussymbol-
ism:politicalfaith and religiousfaith running
more violent dismissals of Caribbean cul-
into one. I had beentold that the conservatives
ture, like his scoffing account of Trinida-
dian Carnival "as a version of the lunacy of North Carolina spoke in code. The code
couldsometimesbe transparent:"TobaccoIs a
that kept the slave alive."
Way of Life" beingthe smallfarmer'spleafor
Naipaul's writing about Wiltshire ad-
governmentmoney. But in this flat land of
mitted, for the first time, a note of wistful
reverence into his prose, a tone so evi- smallfieldsandsmall ruinstherewerealso cer-
tain emotionsthat were too deepfor words.
dently tied to his newfound capacity for
dwelling-in the deep, affirmative sense of This passage paves the way for the book's
that word-in a cordial landscape. That resolution, not the enervated, exasperated
harmoniousness is matched by the sensa- departure scene that recurs across
tion, during his southern turn, that he has Naipaul's Third World travelogues, but a
completed the most congenial journey of scene of a quite contrary emotional inten-


sity that has Naipaul and the Southern cor, in The MiddlePassageand The Loss of
poet, James Applewhite, bonding in an al- El Dorado.
most sacramental moment. As Apple- Applewhite, in a memoir about his en-
white cradles memories of his rich yet de- counter with Naipaul, speaks of their
pleted past, Naipaul enters a condition of shared desire to cherish
quasi-religious transport and recovers,
rapturously, a childhood rendered dor- theillusionof beingco-originators
of a narrative
mant by denial. thatsolacedbothourhurtsfromearlyignorance
In Applewhite's phrase, the South is apt and culturaldispossession,creatingout of the
to "cherish the unreasonable, the unrea- harshsun andweedlikeleafandsightof its har-
soning." Yet these irrational strains in the vestinga culture-story
with botha beforeandan
culture-religious fervor, overzealous after,antecedentand consciousness: a storyout
community loyalties, and ritual attach- of an ignoranceand a folly which explained.
ments to myths of the past-are exactly
what Naipaul finds most moving about One may read in Applewhite's words
the South, even when they manifest them- more than simply a recollection of a mo-
selves in a hidebound disciple of Jesse ment of high union. For they convey
Helms. He finds, stirring in himself, a spe- something larger about the shift in
cial affinity for an ethos that melds fierce Naipaul's perspective begun by "Prologue
frontier individualism with fidelity to a to an Autobiography" and carriedforward
close-knit community. Above all, he iden- by The Enigma of Arrival, A Turn in the
tifies with the South's obsessive toying South, and India: A Million Mutinies. His
with history. This version of the South determined disowning of a past that had
helps him salvage affecting memories injured him resulted in a lifelong sensation
from his own Trinidadian childhood, a of severance, which he dubiously por-
past he once so forcibly rejected. Time and trayed as "homelessness." It is only in
again, as he stumbles on an unimagined these later works that he finds the forms
bridge between the southern and the West of forgiveness-both literary and
Indian past, serendipity breaks through emotional-that would allow him to re-
and his reflections acquire an edge of self- integrate the perpetual present of elected
affirmation. abandonment into unbroken narrative.
A Turnin theSouthshould ultimately be This restitution of the past lies at the very
read, not just as Naipaul's solitary exper- heart of his late middle-aged inquiry into
iment in First World travel writing, but as the enigma of arrival.
the consummation of his New World ven- One feels gratified to see Naipaul's
tures. As such it can be recognized- writing recover a generosity not seen since
despite the new tone-as the final volume A Housefor Mr. Biswas. He seems, once
of his slave society trilogy, a book that more, capable of an emotion that borders,
strikes a truce with the Trinidadian past he at times, on something like hope. Several
had written off, with such bewildered ran- factors lie behind this altered mood: his


growing awareness of death, his reac- Naipaul remarks how, in writing up his
quaintance with family grief, his return American travels, he had to adjust his ap-
(and that is surely part of age) with fresh proach to the genre because the United
passion to the painful tensions of his States is "not open to casual inspection,
youth. All of these seem to me crucial, yet unlike Africa." That vague "Africa," he
on their own insufficient, explanations. It intimates, has the transparencyof a simple
remains too grim an irony that this new society. Yet his altered approach to travel
self should first emerge from under its car- ought to be seen less as a response to the
apace when England and the United States differences between an opaque complex
society and a transparent "simple" one
Had he inspected the than as a consequence of a different kind of
United States with the answerability. Had he inspected the
United States with the casualness with
casualness with which which he skimmed the Ivory Coast and
he skimmed the Ivory Zaire, the American reviewers and readers
on whom he depends would have dragged
Coast and Zaire,
A Turn in the South to the slaughterhouse.
American reviewers and How are we now to read the harsh po-
readers would have lemics in his Third World travel writings,
where much of his energy went into ex-
dragged A Turnin the coriating precisely those tendencies
South to the which, in The Enigma of Arrival and A
Turn in the South, receive sympathetic,
slaughterhouse even heroic treatment? For the first time,
shift from being merely his audiences to fixations with the past-his own and
becoming the subjects of his prose. One others'-are not dismissed as self-
observes an insidious correspondence be- destructive or escapist but found to be
tween a change of heart and a change of brimming with poetic pathos. In The Mid-
location. By Naipaul's standards of af- dle Passage, Afro-Caribbean efforts to re-
front, even his diminution of the achieve- connect themselves with Africa-imagin-
ments of black American culture falls short atively and emotionally-got brushed
of his customary abuse. To say as much is aside as nostalgic, as the "sentimental ca-
not to detract from the force of the injus- maraderie of skin." And in the Argentina
tice, but merely to suggest that in writing of The Return of Eva Peron, Naipaul dis-
about America for Americans he comes cerned "legend and antiquarian romance,
under pressure to curb some of his more but no real history." Yet what finer def-
splenetic prejudices. He evidently felt no inition could one imagine of the white
such pressure in "The Crocodiles of plantation tales that so engage Naipaul
Yamoussoukro," for instance, when giv- than "antiquarian romance?"
ing credence to expatriate rumors that can- Naipaul might feasibly have called his
nibalism exists in the Ivory Coast. American book The South: A Wounded


Civilization. But that would have defeated ulous man. ... He is a man whose life,
the redemptive dimension best suggested when I contemplate it, makes me cry; I am
by the chapter titles- "The Truce with Ir- moved to tears."
rationality," "The Religion of the Past," The Indian edition of A Million Mutinies
"Sanctities." Yet in India:A WoundedCiv- Now carries, on the back cover, a delight-
ilization, his stance toward any show of de- fully uncharacteristic photo of the newly
votion to the past was scoured of fascina- animated Naipaul in action. It departs rad-
tion and indulgence. His admonition to ically from the standard dustjacket shot of
India was categorical: "the past has to be him gazing at the camera year after year,
seen as dead, or the past will kill."

India: A Million Mutinies Now

Above all, that hanky,
A Turn in the South had been billed as which seems to signal
Naipaul's final venture in travel. But he "I'min thick with the
found, in writing it, such revived spirits
and such a fresh conception of the form's
possibilities that, far from heralding his re-
tirement, the American book spurred him book after book, with marmoreal impas-
to embark on the journey that would pro- sivity. Normally, so little does his posture
duce his most ambitious and epic work. change that the gradual aging of his por-
Made in I969, the trip took him to Bom- traits seems virtually computer simulated.
bay, Goa, Chandigarh, Bangalore, and Hence the shock of the new photo: it
Madras, then up to Calcutta, Lucknow, catches him in profile outdoors, complete
and Punjab, and ending in Kashmir at the with sunglasses and a colored handker-
Hotel Liward for a rendezvous with the chief draped over his head, while making
former self who resided and wrote there at jottings on a little pad. The snap has a pos-
the close of his first Indian voyage in 1962. itively jaunty, unbuttoned feel to it.
India: A Million Mutinies Now marks Above all, that hanky, which seems to sig-
the most decisive new departure in nal "I'm in thick with the locals."
Naipaul's career since he exchanged the The photo conveys with instinctive
profound social commentary of A House precision the difference in approach be-
for Mr. Biswas (1961) for the uncontrolled, tween this and every other work in which
skidding invective of The MiddlePassagea Naipaul has faced an Asian, African, Car-
year later. To get a measure of his latest ibbean, Latin American, or Middle East-
shift in orientation and tone, one has only ern society. The least polemical of his
to contrast his lacerating indictment of travel books, it is also the one where he
Gandhi in India: A WoundedCivilization breaks loose from the straightjacketing id-
(the section is entitled "Not Ideas, But iom of his paradigm-primitivism, bar-
Obsessions") with his positive buoyancy barism, mimicry, parasitism, and self-
when asked, in I990, his opinion of the violation-that had given the bulk of his
mahatma: "I adore him. . . . He's a fab- work such a reiterative character. He had,


of course, first moved beyond such terms white to be spoken for, in A Million Mu-
in The Enigmaof Arrival and A Turn in the tinies Now, even when women's experi-
South, but as those departures had coin- ence is the subject Naipaul's interlocutors
cided with his arrival as a literary voyager are unremittingly male. They also emerge
on British and American soil, they con- as mostly urban, middle aged, and middle
firmed ratherthan erased one's sense of his class.
resolute prejudices. Nonetheless, the scores of life stories,
The change in tenor is inseparablefrom all told in the first person, make for such
a change in form. One can perhaps best an utterly different effect from what one
depict A Million MutiniesNow as a halfway
house between oral history and travel
In the realm of the
writing. Long swathes of the book, par-
ticularly during the first half, have the tex- senses, his ear has
ture of a work like Blood of Spain, Ronald dethroned his imperious
Fraser's oral history of the Spanish Civil
War. The analogy is partial, but conveys eye
the sense of a roving, literary-minded pro-
fessional listener, someone restrained in has come to expect from Naipaul. How
his interference and whose restraint be- unlike his method in Among the Believers,
comes a measure of his enthusiastic invest- where his slash-and-burn orientalism laid
ment. interviews waste in advance. And how un-
In an interview, Naipaul explains the like An Area of Darknesswhere, as Naipaul
lure of this altered approach: himself intimates in the closing moments
of A Million Mutinies,he was, fresh off the
The idea of lettingpeople talk in the bookon
boat from England, too nervy, too intro-
the South was really quitenew to me. And so
verted to intuit what questions to ask. In-
in this bookI thoughtit was betterto let India
deed, although he still defends An Area of
be defined by the experienceof the people,
Darknessas belonging to its moment, we
ratherthan writing one'spersonalreactionto
can read A Million MutiniesNow as a com-
one'sfeeling aboutbeingan Indianandgoing
pensatory sequel twenty-seven years de-
back-as in the first book [An Area of
Darkness]-or trying to be analytical, as in
Naipaul's oft-reiterated claim that he
the secondbook [India: A Wounded Civi-
looks and sees where others blindly obsess
has, over the course of his oeuvre, accrued
Even the most generous interviewing is the force of a controlling metaphor. Now
never disinterested, and Naipaul's remark finally, in the realm of the senses, his ear
that he holds "no views, no philosophy- has dethroned his imperious eye. Nai-
just a bundle of reactions," is as silly as it paul's decision to give the locals more air
ever was. Just as in A Turn in the South, time is a gesture of great formal cunning.
black southerners were more apt than For the centrifugal scattering of voices


voices stages his overriding concern with A million mutiniessupportedby twenty kinds
the dispersion of India, the dismembering of group excess, sectarianexcess, religiousex-
of the nation's body politic under pressure cess, regional excess; beginnings of self-
from a myriad mutinies. awareness,a centralwill, a centralintellect,a
Like the term "Mau Mau" in Kenya, national idea. The Indian Union as greater
"mutiny" in India is a colonial word that than the sum of its parts.
implies a colonial vantage point. Naipaul
This is probably a minority view, al-
polemically dismisses the 1857 uprising as
though not a unique one. Amitav Ghosh,
warranting the alternative appellation,
for instance, has recently seen some glim-
"First War of Indian Independence"; he
finds it too aggrandizing. Instead, he stays merings of possibility in the emergence of
new Indian coalitions and new concep-
with "mutiny" and finds in that histori-
tions of identity. Amidst the spiralling vi-
cally charged word the presiding trope for
his book. olence, he argues that
In tracking a myriad mutineers across Whatis reallyat issueis thequestionoffinding
India, Naipaul may ultimately overtax the a political structurein which diversegroupsof
term: it covers everything from regional
people can voice theirgrievancesthroughdem-
secessionist movements to religious and ocraticmeans.It seemsto methatIndiais indeed
caste chauvinisms - ex-Naxalite, Dalit,
lurchinginfits andstartstowardfinding sucha
Shiv Sena, Dravidians Aryan, Muslim, structure.... In many ways, the turmoilis a
and Sikh-to middle-class individuals
sign of the astonishingenergy that India has
(stockbrokers, film makers) tinkering generatedover the last coupleof decades.
with the edges of caste rituals in order, say,
to make a commuter life in Bombay more But there remains a distinctively auto-
manageable. Naipaul's perception of all biographical dimension to Naipaul's po-
these as mutinies becomes crucial for the litical conclusions. The book could not
book's central paradox: India has entered have been written at any other point in his
a state of regenerative disintegration. As career. It is as if, in projecting mutiny as
Naipaul remarks: "strange irony-the a prelude to healing, he envisages Indian
mutinies were not to be wished away. history as mirroring and thereby ratifying
They were part of the beginning of a new his personal passage from a sensibility of
way for many millions, part of India's ruin toward late restoration. Amidst his
growth, part of its restoration." An even swirling interviewees, many of them be-
stranger irony: Naipaul has been charged wildered or panicked, the lasting image of
-surely for the first time-with gratu- Naipaul is of a man becalmed in the eye of
itous, irresponsible, wilful optimism. a storm. Newly whole, in the sense of hav-
So once more, Naipaul stirs contro- ing made peace with the places of his past,
versy, though of an unfamiliar kind. In the he no longer cultivates and wields against
book's most contentious formulation, he others his wounded sense of having
writes of inherited-to invoke a keenly subconti-


nental word-a partitioned life. Where tive circle less as a community responsive
once he would have clasped Rashid, a Luck- to needs than as a noose, strangling the
now Muslim, with the dead hand of cyn- possibilities for solitude. And so prior to
icism, now he responds with an empathy the recent emergence of his understated,
reminiscent of the intense fellow feeling he forgiving (if still intermittently bigoted)
achieved with Jim Applewhite. Nowhere self, his standard impulse was to demon-
more so than when Rashid laments: strate that in Third World societies, to en-
gage in political resistance or cultural self-
I also know thatI canneverbe a completeper- assertion was to become implicated in
son now. I can'tignorepartition.It's a part of
pointless, compromised, misguided, ig-
me. Ifeel rudderless.... The creationandex- noble endeavors. Naipaul thus ended
istenceof Pakistanhas damageda part of my
up-at times openly, at times by default-
psyche. I simplycannotpretend it doesn'texist.
sanctioning the status quo. Such trade-
marked Naipaul phrases as the "congruent
Despite its startling freshness, India:A
corruptions of colonizer and colonized,"
Million Mutiniesis far from being a tabula
"the negative colonial politics of protest, "
rasa.The book bears the traces of many of
and his skepticism about the "healing
Naipaul's lasting themes, such as his vision
power" of "political and racial assertion"
of extended family life as an analog for the
convey, in capsule form, his tenacious
corruption of collective political endeavor.
preference for inertia over resistance.
Listening to Kala, a woman of Tamil brah- In an interview, Naipaul once came to
min origins, articulate her experience of
reflect self-critically on this personal and
familiar confinement, Naipaul is suddenly
political predilection, characterizing him-
thrust back on his own memories:
self as "unable to take decisive action on
The clanthatgave protectionand identity,and behalf of anything: it is very hard to be
savedpeoplefrom the void, was itself a little against. I am aware that I have probably
state, and it couldbe a hardplace,full of pol- been rather feeble and non-involved." Yet
itics,full of hatredsand changingalliancesand strictly speaking, only the latter part of the
moraldenunciations.It was the kind offamily statement is accurate, for he has long
found it easy to be against againstness-in
life I had knownfor muchof my childhood:an
earlyintroduction to theways of theworld,and Eugene Goodheart's words, "if Naipaul
to the natureof cruelty.It hadgiven me, as I moralizes against anything, it is against re-
sentment." Goodheart's phrasing is pre-
suspectedit hadgiven Kala, a tastefortheother
kind of life, the solitary or less crowdedlife, cisely Naipaulian in reducing political ac-
where one had spacearoundoneself tion to an expression of temperament. The
image of Naipaul lecturing against "re-
Naipaul has stressed this analogy so fre- sentment" is also in accord with his loath-
quently over his forty-year career for it to ing for "causes." Yet collective action re-
be central to any account of his suspicion quires binding causes, requires what
of joint endeavors organized for political Naipaul would call obsessions and what
change. He invariably perceives a collec- others might call commitments. Without


causes to galvanize them, without griev- the effects of imperialism, he tends to find
ances, the struggles for decolonization imperial ideas more compelling than those
could never have been launched nor could which have braced anti-colonial and anti-
formal independence (however inadequate imperial struggles. His affection for the
the achievements) have been attained. In- high style of that "sense of glory lost" only
deed, the colonizers frequently dismissed sharpens this tendency. His position is fur-
such struggles as irruptions of "native ther complicated in that his criticisms of
resentment"-the ingratitude of the dis- the effects of imperialism are readily meta-
empowered. morphosed into anger at those who bear
In The Enigmaof Arrival, Naipaul sur- the scars of that legacy. What, for instance,
veys the trajectory of his career and con- is one to make of his remark that "my
cludes that "to see the possibility, the cer- sympathy for the defeated, the futile, the
tainty, of ruin, even at the moment of abject, the idle and the parasitic gets less
and less as I grow older"? The cluster of

"Mysympathy for the nominal epithets illustrates his incorrigible

weakness for that imperial tradition of
defeated, the futile, the thought which brackets subjugation with
abject, the idle, and the idleness.
Naipaul's obsession with ruin has long
parasitic gets less and been yoked to his indifference to action,
less as I grow older" just as his moralizing about "resentment"
has been coupled to a lack of moralizing
creation: it was my temperament." One about domination. His vision is critical but
would be hard-pressed to word more suc- scarcely ever remedial. It has no need to
cinctly what, prior to his latest work, be- be. Scathing of the bad faith of metropol-
came one of the great continuities of his itan tourists who take their return-ticket
sensibility. That same eye for ruin security for granted, Naipaul himself has
prompted him to embrace Conrad's asser- not always been candid about the privi-
tion that "something inherent in the ne- leges which cocoon his critical license.
cessities of successful action . . . carried Counseling despair is the traveler's pre-
with it the moral degradation of the idea," rogative, a luxury item available to all for
and to deem the shortfall between idea and whom withdrawal by boat or air provides
act so severe in Third World societies as to a personal solution, relieving them of the
render action self-defeating. pressure to act. Others who remain have
Naipaul's fascination with ruin-he to live with the gap between the idea and
once described himself as an ironist rather its implementation. If they seek wider
than a satirist, as satire presumes a modi- control over the circumstances of their
cum of optimism-long rendered him an survival, they will persist in acting, with
incompetent observer of regeneration and the conviction that, while the rift may
resistance. His attitude to imperialism has, never be closed, it may, however, be prof-
moreover, been contradictory: disliking itably narrowed.


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