Kei Miller | Naipaul: creature of candour and contempt
The Trinidad-born novelist and 2001 Nobel Prize winner, Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, will remain one of the most celebrated yet controversial figures in Caribbean literature.
A master of the English sentence, he welcomed the celebration of his work, as well as the controversies that he had often stirred and orchestrated himself. His placement within the Caribbean and its literature, however, is something that would not have met his approval. On winning the Nobel Prize, he declared, "It is a great tribute to both England, my home, and India, the home of my ancestors."
Born in rural Trinidad in 1932 to Seepersad Naipaul and Droapartie Capildeo, Naipaul's early life was one of contradictions. His father struggled financially, but his mother's family was one that wielded increasing economic and political power. His uncle, Dr Rudranath Capildeo, for instance, would become the first leader of the opposition for independent Trinidad and together with Eric Williams was one of the chief architects of a post-independent Trinidad. The Naipauls, however, were the poor and easily dismissed relations forced to live in that matriarchal household.
Seejersad Naipual had his own ambitions of becoming a writer and eventually moved his family to Port-of-Spain, where he worked as journalist at the Guardian. At first, the family had to live in another house owned by the Capildeos, but the senior Naipaul worked for years towards buying his own house and winning a sort of independence from his wife's family. These experiences would be fictionalised in Naipaul's great novel, A House for Mr Biswas.
Naipaul had inherited his father's literary ambitions but did not believe it possible to become a writer in Trinidad. His ticket out was a hard-won scholarship to Oxford University. He maintained a lively epistolary correspondence with his family, in particular his father and his older sister, Kamla. These letters were later collected in the book, Letters Between A Father and Son. While his letters to Trinidad were signed 'Vido', his writing in the Oxford Isis, a student newspaper, were signed 'V.S. Naipaul'. He was consciously creating his writing persona.
Naipaul's contempt for the postcolonial world that has produced him is clear and unequivocal in his early letters. When Kamla herself goes off to India to study, he confidently tells her what she will find, though he had never been.
"Indian painting and culture have ceased to exist. That is the picture I want you to look for - a dead country still running with the momentum of its heyday."
Indeed, this would be one of the criticisms that would attend much of his future writing - that he had already determined what he would find in Asia, and Africa and the Caribbean: societies in the ruins of empire, badly formed cultures populated with unsophisticated people who were nonetheless full of pretension. He saw these things at the exclusion of any nuance. He refused to acknowledge aspects of beauty that also coexisted in these societies. About the Trinidadian reading public, he once remarked, "I can't see a monkey ... reading my work. These people live purely physical lives, which I find contemptible."
Though present in his letters, much of this contempt is absent from his first four books - The Mystic Masseur, Miguel Street, The Suffrage of Elvira, and A House for Mr Biswas. The Middle Passage, however, represents a stylistic turn - the emergence of a Naipaul who isn't only happy to offend, but declares that a writer who isn't hated is a writer who isn't worth reading.
Increasingly irascible, many of his relationships would break down in public. He and his former protege, the American travel writer Paul Theroux, would carry on a 15-year fight. He had an extramarital affair for 24 years and then proposed to his second wife, Nadira Alvi, while his first wife, Patricia Hale, lay on her death bed. The few friendships he had maintained with Caribbean writers all strained to the point of breaking.
At Jamaica's Calabash Festival in 2009, Derek Walcott read a never-to-be-published poem called the 'Mongoose' in which Naipaul is portrayed as a womaniser and racist.
Naipaul himself would be surprised at any outpouring of grief across the Caribbean at his death. He detested public displays of sentiment. On the death of Princess Diana, he remarked, "I was walking across a park when I saw negroes crying on her death. Why were they crying? Why?"
It is a fair question. Why would we cry at Naipaul's death? Perhaps it is because in the best of his work, he always proved himself wrong. Something had been created in the Caribbean - something deeply flawed, profoundly conflicted, but towering and magisterial in its intellect and beauty.
- Kei Miller is professor of English and creative writing at the University of Exeter. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.