BOOKS: Fear in the Freedom Hotel

BEYOND BELIEF: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples by V S Naipaul, Little, Brown pounds 20
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Seventeen years ago, V S Naipaul undertook a journey through Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia, which formed the basis of perhaps his greatest travel book, Among the Believers. Much has happened in these lands since then, not least the extraordinary rise (and most recently fall) in the economies of Indonesia and Malaysia, the bloodbath of the Iran-Iraq war and a major expansion of Islamic fundamentalism. All this tempted Naipaul back for a second set of journeys (from 1995-7), of which this book is the highly accomplished fruit.

Cultural dislocation has been the central theme in Naipaul's work, reflecting the author's own migratory identity (born in an Indian family on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, then resident in Britain since 1954) - and what interested Naipaul in the four countries he visited was the catastrophic identity crises they have suffered, largely because, he suggests in the opening pages of Beyond Belief, of the influence of Islam. Far more than other religions, Islam makes it hard for people to combine national traditions with faith. Islam, according to Naipaul, makes "imperial demands". Converts to Islam from non-Arab lands have to reject their history; their holy places are in Arab lands; their sacred language is Arabic. As Naipaul puts it: "The convert has to turn away from everything that he is. The disturbance for societies is immense ... and in the Islam of converted countries there is an element of neurosis and nihilism. These countries can be easily set on the boil."

One has to applaud Naipaul's courage for stating his melancholy thesis so bluntly, and after reading his book, it is not hard to subscribe to it. This is no romantic travelogue: there are few idyllic descriptions of the rice paddies of Malaysia or the mountains around Tehran. What Naipaul discovers in the four countries is an inner landscape of rootlessness, anger and disappointment.

Throughout the journey, he is almost invisible. Occasionally we see him stepping into a Jakarta taxi or ordering room service, but he largely lets others speak; he refers to himself modestly as merely a "manager of narrative". And the narratives are of a handful of representative people from each country, many of whom will be familiar to readers of Naipaul's previous Among the Believers.

In Indonesia, we find a profoundly corrupt country, with a ruling elite siphoning off enormous fortunes and practising a cynical alliance with the Islamic fundamentalist movement, which they had previously and just as cynically attempted to destroy. The picture is no rosier in Iran, the war with Iraq and the rule of the Ayatollahs has more or less crushed the country's spirit, and completely finished off the economy. Naipaul spends time detailing the various state of the once sumptuous Hyatt hotel in Tehran, now taken over by the state and renamed the Freedom Hotel. A big sign on the atrium wall above the lobby reads: "Down with the USA". Government regulations force all hotels in Iran to erect similar signs. Such has been the chaos since the fall of the Shah that many who opposed him in 1979 now look back on a golden age. But Naipaul's narratives offer little hope. The grip of Islamic fundamentalism is solid, the population has sacrificed too much to tolerate a return to the pro-Western and pro- middle-class policies of the Shah, but nor does there seem to be a future in pursuing the policies of the present government. There is only impasse and sadness. In Pakistan, the dream of the Islamic state has turned sour. There is envy of the richer, more dynamic Indian neighbour, and yet all attempts to emulate its success fail: the country lacks a proper judiciary, a functioning democracy, a free press, an open economy. With a growing population and increasingly fundamentalist Islamic movement, the future looks alarming. Meanwhile in Malaysia, the success of the economy has helped to distract the population from its profound cultural divisions, but lurking beneath the glitzy exterior of high-rise hotels and sumptuous weekend retreats, there lies an unstable legacy of conflict between the Malay Islamic converts and the Chinese.

A few years ago, Naipaul made a statement - much ridiculed at the time - to the effect that the novel had died as a viable literary form, and that the future lay with non-fiction narrative. To an extent, Beyond Belief vindicates the claim, at least in demonstrating that non-fiction narratives can, in the hands of a master like Naipaul, possess much of the power of a traditional novel.

Nevertheless, readers should be warned of two potentially off-putting features of this book. Firstly, Naipaul makes almost no concessions to anyone not already familiar with the history of the countries he visits, Beginners will feel muddled and eventually irritated. Secondly, the absence of any authorial intervention at times left this reader hungry for some systematic analysis or conclusion. In the best traditions of the 19th- century novel, Naipaul merely lets his characters speak; he shows but rarely tells. Which doesn't stop this from being another display of Naipaul's remarkable talent.