- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 25, 2002

I've been reading V.S. Naipaul's "The Writer and the World: Essays" and I believe I've come upon something the figure in the carpet that helps to clarify the mission of this most intransigent, unillusioned and privately enigmatic of writers.
In "Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad," one of the lengthy centerpiece essays in this substantial collection, Mr. Naipaul reports in some detail on the life and death of one Michael Abdul Malik. Malik left his native Trinidad in 1957 for London, where he got caught up in the politics and militant rhetoric of the 1960s mainly the latter and emerged as a self-styled black revolutionary, returning home in l971 to establish a commune and to undertake various ill-conceived business and political initiatives. Intensifying power struggles with his confederates resulted in a rampage of murder and led to Malik's death by hanging in 1975.
I had been wondering for some pages why Malik's complicated dealings required as much focused attention as they were getting, when something about the salient dates and places rang a bell. Looking back to Pankaj Mishra's informative introduction, I registered the Holmesian frisson. Malik born in Trinidad in 1933 traveled to England in 1957. Mr. Naipaul born in Trinidad in 1932 traveled to England to study in 1957. In a flash the lineaments of the alter-ego appeared and the logic came clear. Here, in the chaos of Malik's ambitions and defeats, his illusions and his schemes, was the counter-life, the mesmerizing Other. The young man left his island to find a better life; transplanting himself to London, he soon fell prey to the bombastic agendas of revolutionary redemption.
Mr. Naipaul, only kilometers away looking for his own way out was at the very time busily purging himself of all rhetoric and cultural sloganeering, forging the core principles of what would become his famously pitiless view of the world. To read Mr. Naipaul on Malik, therefore, is to feel, beneath the surface of the prose, a collision of worlds.
Mr. Naipaul is merciless and exacting in his fiction as well as his essays and documentary accounts, and many readers have concluded that he is scornful of his subjects, expending upon them a powerful private rage. I have said as much myself. But a reading of the pieces assembled here selections from four decades of work along with his "Postscript: Our Universal Civilization" must modify such a view.
The more one reads these essays of Mr. Naipaul's, the more clearly one sees that the point of his astringent reportage, his withering portraits of life in various unstable pockets of the Third World, is not to expose the deficits of the people or their culture though it can certainly look that way but rather to unmask the grandiose mythologies, the illusions, that flourish where the deeper continuities of civilization are lacking. It is the pompous, self-serving manipulations of the powerful that he would excoriate, and he does this, over and over, by playing off the fantasies of power against what are invariably the sad facts of the case as seen by the outsider's unblinkered eyes.
In the 1975 essay "A New King for the Congo," Mr. Naipaul throws this split into sharp relief. Assessing the role of then power-lord Joseph Mobutu, he writes, "The cult of the king already swamps the intellectual advance of a people who have barely emerged. The intellectual confusions of authenticity, that now give such an illusion of power, close up the world again and point to a future greater despair." A few sentences later he identifies the crisis as one of "nihilistic assertion," concluding: "To arrive at this sense of a country trapped and static, eternally vulnerable, is to begin to have something of the African sense of the void. It is to begin to fall, in the African way, into a dream of a past the vacancy of river and forest, the hut in the brown yard, the dugout when the dead ancestors watched and protected, and the enemies were only men." One can see where the pessimist tag comes from.
In addition to pieces on Trinidad and the then-Congo, Mr. Naipaul here collects stark assessments of India (on which he has written several books), the Ivory Coast and Mauritius, to name a few, as well as his tour-de-force essay "Argentina and the Ghost of Eva Peron," which explores that culture's self-mythology by way of its tragic and symbol-laden leading lady.
Mr. Naipaul rounds out The "Writer and the World" with "Postscript: Our Universal Civilization," an address given to the Manhattan Institute of New York in 1992. He claims right at the outset to have "no unifying theory of things," explaining: "To me situations and people are always specific, always of themselves." The assertion is borne out everywhere in his documentary prose, which limns contexts and situations with fierce exactitude. But Mr. Naipaul nevertheless rises to the occasion of his high-sounding title by affirming what he calls "the beauty of the idea of the pursuit of happiness."
Surprising words from this most dyspeptic of writers, yet one heeds them all the more knowing their source. "It is an elastic idea," he writes, "it fits all men. It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit … It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away." To see bitterness thus turned inside out is heartening, even exalting.

Sven Birkerts is the author of five books of essays. His memoir," My Sky Blue Trades" will be published later this month.


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