A Week In Books: Nobel Naipaul and his voyage beyond belief

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The Independent Culture

No one can accuse the Nobel Prize committee of playing safe this year. In selecting V S Naipaul for their million-dollar largesse, they have thrown the global spotlight onto a ferocious critic of political Islam. In the Naipaul world-view, expressed most vehemently in his 1981 journey Among the Believers, Muslim conquest dealt a mortal wound to the native cultures of India and elsewhere. To Naipaul, the forcible import of Islamic rule operates (far more so than, say, the British Empire) as a sort of original sin throughout south Asia, sapping local energies to promote a rigid hierarchy.

Not surprisingly, Naipaul's critics find him guilty of Hindu nationalism, Imperial apologetics and much else besides. Horace Engdahl, secretary of the Swedish Academy, strapped on his metaphorical flak-jacket when he said on Thursday that "What he's really attacking in Islam is a particular trait that it has in common with all cultures that conquerors bring along: that it tends to obliterate the preceding culture." Up to a point, Mr Secretary. If Sir Vidia spent as much time in Shiraz as in Salisbury, we could credit this claim of even-handedness. In fact, the Trinidadian satirist-cum-Wiltshire squire has seldom let the finer nuances of history get in the way of his polemic.

This week's honour – merited, in my opinion, by the exquisite novelist of the colonial Caribbean and the migrant elegist of The Enigma of Arrival, but not by the one-eyed doom-merchant of some later travelogues – at least shows how much more there is at stake in Naipaul's work than the preening egos on display in his bizarre spat with Paul Theroux. Incidentally, Theroux might now regret his prediction, in a rude review of Naipaul's new novel, that Half a Life would result in "great reviews, poor sales, and a literary prize". He was right on the last bit.

Naipaul maintains that the expansionary Islam bred in the Arab lands tends to stifle creative spirits. So this might be an apt moment to recall the first and (so far) only Arabic author to take the Nobel. Naguib Mahfouz – the Dickens of Cairo, still with us and due to reach 90 in December – won in 1988, and was promptly struck with a fatwah from an Egyptian cleric. Mahfouz went on writing; the militants went on cursing. In 1994, a fundamentalist thrust a knife into the novelist's neck, causing partial paralysis in his right arm. Welcome as that mythical cheque must be, the Nobel can still attract the riskier edge of fame.

The admirable David Campbell of Everyman's Library (who deserves some sort of gong himself) has just issued a handsome single-volume hardback of Mahfouz's masterpiece, the late-Fifties "Cairo Trilogy" (Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street). At £20 for three books, this is a gift in every sense. The novels' rich panorama of domestic indicent and social change ought to delight any reader who enjoyed A Suitable Boy. Oddly enough, this humorous, warm-hearted epic of Muslim family and political life in early 20th-century Egypt also reminds me of another marvellous portrait of late-colonial society – Naipaul's own A House for Mr Biswas. Don't trust the teller, as the equally curmudgeonly D H Lawrence used to say; trust the tale.