Acerbic explorer of humanity's elusive truths

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The Independent Culture

The award of the Nobel Prize to VS Naipaul marks a lifetime of almost monastic self-dedication to a life of letters, in the teeth of long odds and early hardships. Trinidad-born of Indian ancestry, and a UK resident for half a century, he has made the world his province. In his fiction and non-fiction he has teased out the connections between the cultural worlds he inherited and those beyond.

The award of the Nobel Prize to VS Naipaul marks a lifetime of almost monastic self-dedication to a life of letters, in the teeth of long odds and early hardships. Trinidad-born of Indian ancestry, and a UK resident for half a century, he has made the world his province. In his fiction and non-fiction he has teased out the connections between the cultural worlds he inherited and those beyond.

No stranger to controversy, Naipaul has never ducked the uncomfortable. Thorny subjects such as race and sex come regularly under his spotlight, and at times he has used his work as confessional, in a way variously considered self-indulgent or courageous. His pronouncements on the Caribbean and Islam have earned him bitter hostility, but even at his most provocative he is interesting, and at his best he is unrivalled.

Acerbic in tone, spare in style, needling after elusive truths of human behaviour and history, his books have generated a committed readership in widely different social and political contexts. In the UK, the novel The Enigma of Arrival – with its meditative portrait of the changing landscape of modern Britain – is a particular favourite.

Claiming that the conventional novel is dead, he has pioneered new literary forms, employing mirrored texts, addressing the same topics in both fiction and non-fiction, or patterning a book on an earlier one. A Way in the World follows the shape of The Loss of El Dorado, for instance, while Beyond Belief revisits the non-Arab Islamic countries of Among the Believers.

One of his themes has been the problems of faith, political or religious, and the dangerous illusions it can foster. His own faith is in language, and its intelligent application to the world's conundrums. From an early age his goal was to assume the mantle of serious writer that circumstance denied his father. Father and son relationships are one of his abiding themes, and his best-loved work is a richly human and humorous tribute to his father, A House for Mr Biswas.

Naipaul's tragic vision remains finely balanced by his comedic instincts. In his newest book he continues to chart the journeys of those finding niches in the world, who refuse to be invisible, to go away, or to remain silent.

The writer is a lecturer in the department of English at Brunel University

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