- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 25, 2003


By V.S. Naipaul

Knopf, $24, 202 pages


Despite the countless wonders and pleasures of V.S. Naipaul’s prose — I can think of no greater stylist alive today — the publication of his latest book, a collection of autobiographical and literary essays, seems almost unnecessary. Except for two book reviews and the lecture Mr. Naipaul delivered upon receiving the Nobel Prize in 2001, all of the pieces here have appeared in book form before.

The problem isn’t the recycling itself (common enough in the literary world), but the repetition of material that is a consequence of it. A few significant episodes appear in more than a few of the essays — incidents of the writer’s childhood in Trinidad, descriptions of immigrant Indian life on that island, how the writer’s father became a writer. All of this repetition can make “Literary Occasions” feel a bit thin.

If the life described in these essays were anyone else’s but Mr. Naipaul’s, this repetitiveness would be a much greater flaw than it is. Mr. Naipaul’s life illuminates his novels and travel books, more so perhaps than with any other contemporary writer. And he embraces the connections we might make between the writer’s life and art. “To take an interest in a writer’s work,” he notes in one of the essays here, “is, for me, to take an interest in his life; one interest follows automatically on the other.”

Mr. Naipaul’s very interesting life began in 1932, in the rural Trinidadian town of Chaguanas. He was born into an orthodox family, “country people, Indians, culturally still Hindus.” His forebears had come to the Caribbean, like so many desperate, destitute Indians, as indentured laborers; after the completion of their five-year contracts, they remained. (In 1932, according to Mr. Naipaul, 150,000 of Trinidad’s 400,000 inhabitants were of Indian descent.) At the age of six, the writer moved with his family to the capital, Port of Spain, and the “little rural Indian world” of the countryside, “the disintegrating world of a remembered India, was left behind.”

At 11, ensconced in the unfamiliar life of an urban street, Mr. Naipaul decided that he would become a writer. “And like a wild religious faith that hardens in adversity,” he explains in “Prologue to an Autobiography” (a masterful piece of writing that is as much family history as it is autobiography), “this wish to be a writer, this refusal to be extinguished strengthened as our conditions grew worse in the house on the street.”

There was more than a little audacity in this determination to write, for, as Mr. Naipaul admits in the essay “Reading and Writing,” he was not an especially avid reader as a boy, his essays in school were far from exceptional, and he seemed to have little desire to make up stories, as fledgling writers are apt to do. And though he showed no obvious talent, he continued to imagine himself as a writer. To him, writing was the noblest profession, and he aspired to nothing less.

But the tropical backwater of 1940s Trinidad offered a nettlesome frame of reference for the very English books that Mr. Naipaul encountered. How could a young boy in a sweltering Caribbean city inhabited by Indians, blacks and mulattos relate to the strange things he came across in books, Wordsworth’s daffodil, for example, or the fog shrouding a Dickensian street, things he had never seen and could not imagine? As Mr. Naipaul writes in the essay “Jasmine”: “Books came from afar; they could offer only fantasy.”

The only experience and social knowledge the writer could call upon when reading was “a faint remembered village India and a mixed colonial world,” none of which helped him to make sense of English writing. How to inherit the tradition of western literature, to make that tradition his own, to plunge headlong into it was not at all apparent. “Dickens’s rain and drizzle,” he writes, “I turned into tropical downpours; the snow and fog I accepted as conventions of books . Everything in books was foreign; everything had to be subjected to adaptation.”

In this way did the young writer — not yet a writer, really, only an ill-equipped reader — perform an imaginative alchemy upon the English literature to which he was exposed. Lacking a proper frame of reference, his mind turned to fantasy. Only then could he in some small measure possess the books he read.

This admission of Mr. Naipaul’s suggests an interesting question: If we are to truly call a book our own, to possess it, must we be intimately familiar with the landscapes it describes, with the details that bring it to life? Or can the human imagination, even that of someone confined to isolated, Third World environs, surmount the limitations of region? For Mr. Naipaul, Wordsworth’s daffodil was merely a figment; it offered him nothing real. If only the poet had written of a banana tree.

At any rate, it was at Oxford that Mr. Naipaul finally realized what his subject might be, that this subject had in fact been around him all along. He would write (quite convincingly and humorously, it would turn out) of the city street in Port of Spain that he had lived upon, “and the country life before that, with the ways and manners of a remembered India.” An Indian named Bogart, a man on that city street, would be the impulse for the writer ‘s first book, “Miguel Street.”

India — or, rather, the idea of India – was for Trinidad’s Indians hazy and distant, but they clung to its half-remembered rituals, its religious orthodoxies, as if, afloat upon treacherous, unfamiliar New World seas, that remote notion of India was the only lifeboat in sight. Trinidad was a land where “Hindu pundits [scuttled] about country roads on motor-cycles,” where “pennants with ancient devices [fluttered] from temples.” The Indian immigrants believed fervently in caste, even as the primitive system was in decline in the motherland. “We had brought a kind of India with us,” Mr. Naipaul says in his Nobel lecture, entitled “Two Worlds,” “which we could, as it were, unroll like a carpet on the flat land.”

In “Prologue to an Autobiography,” Mr. Naipaul discusses the clashes that arose from almost comical trivialities: “What was the correct form of Hindu greeting? Could marriage ceremonies take place in daylight? Or did they, as the orthodox insisted, have to take place at night?” India may have receded, but a certain Indianness remained, stubborn and persistent. I have seen the same phenomenon in the small Midwestern town in which I was raised: Indians, cut off from India by many years, still clinging to the rituals of their childhood, frozen, in a sense, in the past. India may have moved on, become modern, loosened its bonds with ritual, but the Indians of the New World, unable to truly assimilate, continued to inhabit in their minds a distant, old-fashioned, familiar terrain.

With thoughtfulness and the sharpest of eyes, Mr. Naipaul examines the work of several writers, including Conrad (“[His] value to me is that he is someone who sixty to seventy years ago meditated on my world . I feel this about no other writer of the century.”), Kipling, and the greatest of Indian nonfiction writers, the Bengali Nirad C. Chaudhuri, with whom, I think, Mr. Naipaul shares most acutely “the Hindu sense of exile and loss.” There are meditations on the Anglo-Indian encounter, and there is much here about Mr. Naipaul’s father, a journalist who wrote short stories about pastoral Indian village life and who went eventually mad.

“In Trinidad, bright boy though I was,” Mr. Naipaul writes, aligning himself with Conrad, “I was surrounded by areas of darkness.” But so much of what Mr. Naipaul would later write — about India, the Muslim world, the Caribeean, Africa, England, even the American South — had its beginnings in the darkness of colonial Trinidad. The emptiness of that tropical world forced him to look deeply and closely for his subjects, both inside of himself and in the world that extended far beyond Trinidad’s shores.

From that darkness emerged an unrivalled body of work, characterized by an unforgiving honesty about the things the writer saw around him, wherever he happened to be. “I had to do the books I did,” he writes, “because there were no books about the subjects to give me what I wanted. I had to clear up my world, elucidate it, for myself.”

Sudip Bose is senior editor of Archaeology Odyssey magazine.

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