Friday Book: Becoming the best of enemies

Click to follow
The Independent Culture



FRIENDS SHOULD be the last people to let you down. Famously, Paul Theroux feels sorely rejected by his old companion Naipaul (or V S Nipple, as he now refers to the writer). At the end of a 30-year friendship, Theroux wants payback. So here it is: Sir Vidia's Shadow, a jiltee's revenge. V S Nightfall, V S Nye-Powell: Theroux has fun with names, but humour is not the point of this wounded, self-pitying memoir.

On the page, Naipaul is an improbably unsavoury creature. His disdain for black writers, white liberals and what he calls "infies" (inferior types) is quite comic. Much of his arrogance is mere pompous la-di-da. But Theroux has an agenda: wherever possible, he turns a buffoon into a vicious, diabolical homunculus.

The authors first met in Kampala, Uganda, in 1966. Theroux, then 24, was teaching at Makerere University. Naipaul was 10 years older and already the world's most famous West Indian writer. He quickly became an important mentor and influence on Theroux. One of Theroux's best stories, "Sinning with Annie", sparkles in imitation of Naipaul's The Mystic Masseur. Yet, where Naipaul describes cultural dislocation with a real sense of mystery and pain, Theroux has mustered only a tepid sense of his own rootlessness and exile from America.

Is Theroux jealous? None of his work approaches Naipaul's A House for Mr Biswas for delicious pessimism and supple irony. Theroux ridicules Naipaul and makes a meal of his fastidious distaste for African culture. "You see? Even here. Bongo drums!" Naipaul joshes in Uganda. Born in Trinidad to an upper-caste Brahmin family, Naipaul apparently views Africans as spearchuckers waiting to be civilised. Yet how much of his condescending regality was an act?

In The Mystic Masseur, Naipaul was withering about Indians who emulate white ways. The novel's failed Trinidad schoolteacher, Pundit Ganesh, reinvents himself as G Ramsay Muir Esq, MA, a puffed-up fraud. Theroux suggests that, with age and success, his friend has turned white inside his dark skin: Naipaul has become, to use the unpleasant expression, a Bounty bar. A fully-fledged member of the British Establishment, Sir Vidia resembles the Ramsay Muir he once despised.

Naipaul has often been attacked for betraying his Caribbean heritage. "Naipaul's a very conservative kinda guy," the West Indian writer George Lamming once told me. Lamming's Afroed hair and rootsy, tropical ease made Naipaul wince. A Brahmin is never ambushed by West Indian sensuality. In one book, Naipaul claims to "detest" calypso culture and steel bands. Yet, on safari with Theroux in Rwanda, he speaks glowingly of the Trinidadian calypso singers Mighty Sparrow and Lord Invader. So where does the truth lie?

Theroux himself is not so mindful of the facts, as Sir Vidia's Shadow has its own inaccuracies. George Lamming is not from Trinidad, but Barbados. B S Johnson's experimental novel-in-a- box was not called Trawl (it was The Unfortunates). Johnson, an irreverent spirit, regarded Naipaul as "a prick". Now, 25 years later, Theroux goes further. Naipaul is a misogynist, a frequenter of prostitutes, a food snob, a scrounger, a fanatical time- keeper, a palmistry freak. V S Nipple may know his wines, says Theroux, but he's still a jumped-up babu shopkeeper.

In truth, Sir Vidia's Shadow is a posh kiss-and-tell of the sort regularly churned out by celebrities. Usually these include prurient sexual revelations and divorce settlement details. So we learn that Theroux was turned on by Naipaul's long-suffering wife Patsy ("her weeping made me want to hold her and fondle her breasts"). This put some strain on the writer's friendship, though we are not told why they eventually split up.

Theroux is never so crass as when writing about women. At a lunch given by Naipaul he fantasises about Antonia Fraser. ("I wanted to clutch her shepherdess costume", he says in full confessional mode.) Theroux's undistinguished prose had the undesired effect of sending me right back to Naipaul. Theroux tells us: "Friendship arises less from an admiring love and strength than a sense of gentleness, a suspicion of weakness". What does that mean? Honed to a laconic flatness, the Naipaul sentence is a stringent antidote to this sort of vapid imprecision.

While he is quick to condemn an old friend's snobbery, Theroux never investigates his own patronising contempt for foreign culture. Naipaul views the world from a patrician, Brahmin vantage; Theroux, from a preppy, American point of view. At one point, Theroux talks about the "pissing, monkey-eating" Bachinga tribe of Africa. This is the authentic, superior Theroux tone. So who is the more narrow author - Theroux or Naipaul?

Theroux made his name by travelling round the world on steam trains and then telling us about it. Sir Vidia's Shadow is a voyeuristic trip into the private lives of two famous writers. While Theroux offers the occasional insight into the nature of friendship, this book smacks more of pique and vengeance. The question is: will Naipaul stoop to retaliate? I suspect he has too much dignity.