BOOK REVIEW / A man with no past: V S Naipaul's new book - 'not quite a novel and not quite autobiography' - is a project which perhaps no other writer could tackle

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REALISING, perhaps, that V S Naipaul's 22nd book is by no means as approachable as his previous 21, his publishers have made more than usually strident claims for it. A Way in the World is suffused, we are told, with 'the conundrum of inheritance . . . a profound awareness of the modern post-colonial experience . . . a series of linked narrations of astonishing imaginative integrity . . . placed within a context of echoing modernity . . . Like Proust, (he) tells us who we are.' This is the sound of empty music and a blurb writer in difficulties. The giveaway, the warning light, is the phrase: unconfined by the conventional novel form. The fruit of this liberation is what Naipaul calls

a 'sequence'.

It does not work. The book does not fit together. There are two chapters (out of nine) which are as brilliant as anything Naipaul has written, and another two which are no disgrace to the excellence of the standards he has usually set for himself, but the rest is frustratingly poor - frustratingly because A Way in the World is a grand and good project which possibly no writer other than Naipaul has the mind, the eye and the skill to tackle. Contrary to the idea that Naipaul can tell us 'who we are', his theme is the impossibility of such definite knowledge, that we are both how we choose to define ourselves and how others choose to define us, and that these definitions change with geography and the unpredictable currents of history - the surges and ebbs of cultural, racial and national power. The 'we' is both the individual and the racial group to which he (I nearly wrote 'or she', but that alternative is redundant with Naipaul) belongs.

Once again, Trinidad provides Naipaul's focus; the island of his boyhood, a place depopulated of its original Amerindians many centuries ago, and subsequently repopulated as a Spanish and then British colony by Europeans, Africans, Chinese, and Indians from the Subcontinent, among them Naipaul's own ancestors. The question 'Where do I come from?' (and by extension 'Who am I?') has more than usual urgency in such a place, and yet as recently as 50 years ago few Trinidadians could summon the strength or the curiosity to ask it. The Africans had come as slaves, the Indians as indentured labour. As Naipaul writes: 'We didn't have backgrounds. We didn't have a past . . . We were just there, floating.'

Since that time, the question has been answered - at least for now, for many - by the eclipse of colonial power and the rise of the politics of black consciousness. Naipaul, as we know over his long career, has found a different solution for himself. He has traced his ancestry, he has travelled widely and read history from the different perspectives of several nations and ages, he has become the scrutinising stranger whose only allegiance is to his craft.

Ten years ago in his autobiographical essay, 'Finding the Centre', Naipaul described how he had inherited his father's 'fear of extinction' and how 'the fear could be combated only by the exercise of the vocation'. Now we learn how the vocation forbids belonging, in a passage where Naipaul senses that the friends of an old black radical - here called Lebrun, though it may be C L R James - are inviting him to join their brotherhood. It is tempting: 'they were so nice and attractive, and the house was so pleasant' and 'few of us are without the feeling that we are incomplete'. But: . . . my feelings of completeness were not like Lebrun's. In the things I felt myself incomplete Lebrun was - as I thought - abundantly served: physical attractiveness, love, sexual fulfilment. But there were other yearnings that no shedding of skin could have assuaged: my own earned security, a wish for my writing gift to last and grow, a dream of working at yet unknown books, accumulations of fruitful days, achievement. These yearnings could be achieved only in the self I knew.

The achievement has come. It has enriched his readers over 30 years and more. It is measured by the growth of what Naipaul calls his 'writing personality', produced at some cost to himself and the people close to him: weeks of solitary introspection, meagre but daily rations of words forced on paper, the incompleteness of his real persona partially satisfied (according to the current issue of the New Yorker) by an early recourse to prostitutes and latterly by an Argentine mistress who has given him . . . well, that most unNaipaulian idea, the joy of sex. This writing personality is not, we should remember, the complete Naipaul, but a version of himself he has chosen to offer us.

All writers do this. The act of writing does it. The difficulty with it in Naipaul's case is that so often Naipaul has made autobiography the centre of his fiction, that his books of fiction and fact so closely resemble one another because the 'I', the writing personality, is the same and centre-stage, and that within his fiction there is usually a great deal of fact, or at least fiction which derives its status from seeming to be fact. It allows Naipaul to be and not to be. It makes The Enigma of Arrival, his previous book labelled fiction, not quite a novel and not quite autobiography, with the complete satisfactions of neither. It allows him in this book to describe - wonderfully, and with his usual mastery of the exact - an English novelist called Foster Morris, which may be a pseudonym for one person or several people, and then to place his name in the mouth of Graham Greene during what seems to be a real conversation with Naipaul when (in 1967) he was still donning his journalistic personality.

All that said, Naipaul's successes in this book come when he sticks to his old conventions. The writer Morris, for example, reveals to us the tricky light of an outsider's perception and the falseness of an outsider's truth. An Englishman, a literary figure in the Thirties, he comes to Trinidad to write a book about a strike in the oilfields in the years before the war. Previously, Trinidadians had been written about only as quaint and colourful figures in 'cruise books' for tourists. ('Then - hard to imagine now - local people lived with the idea of disregard. You could train yourself to read through this disregard in books and find things that were useful to you . . . we needed our visitors to give us some idea of where and what we were.') Morris writes a different kind of book. He treats the people he meets without irony or condescension, as though they were English people, 'as though they had that kind of social depth and solidity and rootedness'. It was, writes Naipaul, well-intentioned but wrong. There is no rootedness - 'we had been transported to that place' - and Morris makes figures who are locally satirical into heroes.

Then, while working at the BBC in the 1950s, Naipaul meets Morris. Naipaul wants desperately to be a writer. Morris is not only a writer, but one who in the young Naipaul's eyes has written the first sympathetic book about his birthplace. He seeks his advice and encouragement. They talk. Foster Morris, the great liberal, the compassionate friend of black strikers, asks: 'Whatever happened to that white-nigger fellow?'

Naipaul is stumped. He has never heard the combination of words before. 'But I understood - though he had been scrupulous in his book in the other direction, not appearing to notice a person's race and hardly mentioning it - he was making a heavy kind of local joke with me.' Eventually he places the 'white-nigger fellow' as a light-skinned mulatto, a radical leader of whom Morris had written admiringly. Morris tells him later that he and the strikers were 'a bunch of racial fanatics'. Why hadn't he written that? 'How could one write that?' says Morris. The oilfields were like a colony within a colony. Some people 'could hardly wait to start shooting niggers'. To protect an idea and a movement, he had written dishonestly.

Such difficulties, the difficulties of seeing and writing and the way that time can change both, are meat and drink to Naipaul. In the Morris chapter and an earlier passage on the transformation of Port of Spain from colonial to national capital, he writes with the lovely clarity we have come to expect of him. The detail and structure of each are beautifully done; his compassion and humanity, which to some extent went AWOL after Mr Biswas 33 years ago, has returned as a richer thing.

Spliced in between these passages and others like them, however, are some experiments - what Naipaul chooses to call 'unwritten stories'. The trouble is that Naipaul has not bothered to write them either. They are neither the plays nor the screenplays nor the novels that Naipaul thought they might once become. He says of one of them, not quite disarmingly, that it 'never clothed itself in detail, in the 'business' necessary to a narrative'. Instead he presents us with page after page of dialogue and monologue, quotation marks standing at the beginning of each long paragraph as small salutes to what Naipaul may consider a different voice. But the voice remains Naipaul's - too much of the 'writing personality' is there and yet (because these are meant to be words spoken by someone else - Sir Walter Ralegh's surgeon at one point, Francisco Miranda, the failed Venezuelan revolutionary, at another) not enough of it.

The warning signs come early. A Trinidadian schoolteacher is telling us in the first of these sequences about a Muslim who is a flower arranger and also a mortician:

He frightened me because I felt his feeling for beauty was like an illness; as though some unfamiliar, deforming virus had passed through his simple mother to him, and was even then - he was in his mid-thirties - something neither of them had begun to understand.

Only Naipaul could have written that, and nobody, not even Naipaul, could have spoken it. The question remains why he has chosen to write in this new and unsatisfying way. Perhaps his recent non-fiction has had its influence: large parts of his last book on India were marked by a departure in the form of interviews (and in that case, enlightening ones). Naipaul has said rather testily to his own recent interviewers that he took lavish trouble with these sections of his book, and that they repay slow reading and re-reading. Perhaps, as a reader, I am no longer up to his exacting standards. My feeling, however, is that Naipaul has been over this ground so often before that, lacking new things to say, he is striving for new ways to say them. The result is the only book by Naipaul I have wanted to put down - never to pick it up again.

'A Way in the World' is published by Heinemann at pounds 14.99

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