In a long, beguiling sequence of novels and travel books he has combined an itchy-footed urge to explore the world with a rare (in these fast times) degree of stay-at-home introspection. Naipaul was knighted in 1990 and is annually mentioned as being Britain's best hope for the Nobel prize - and quite right, too: no one in recent years has managed to be both so wide-ranging and so contemplative. He has also been much-praised for his watchful, choosy prose.
But in truth it is the seriousness and delicacy of his concerns that capture and keep our attention. Wherever he has been - which is almost everywhere - he has stalked the anxieties and vanities of post-colonial life with fantastic zeal and subtlety.
Best of all, he has managed to marry several types of confusion. In book after book, political and religious divisions hold hands over the chasms dug by rivalries of race and class. And even these historical tensions are dealt with not as abstractions but as ingredients of a boisterous human pageant.
Naipaul has never been content merely to watch his characters move through the world; he has always paid attention to how the world moves through them. So it is not a surprise to find his new book rooting cultural transformations in forlorn individual acts.
In his travel books Naipaul has been brilliantly alert to the gratifying details - a hand gesture, a turn of phrase, a splash of dandruff - which hint at historic commotions further down. Now he alights on pivotal times when the world changed - a moment, for instance, when a forest Indian dons a Renaissance doublet stained with blood - and compares them (with a dizzy degree of self-assurance) to crunch moments in his own literary career.
As he has done for most of his life, Naipaul journeys back in time. But this time he has more in his sights than his own childhood. In The Middle Passage and Finding the Centre he returned to Trinidad to study an archetypal feeling of displacement. His imagination snagged on the fact that he was not from where he was from.
Hardly anyone is 'from' Trinidad, with its unusual racial mixture of Africa and Asia grafted on to the Amerindian root: almost everyone was planted there by bizarre agents of history. It is these agents whom Naipaul now seeks to expose.
He mentions Columbus, who gave Trinidad its name (Trinity, after the three mountains in the south). He describes a mysterious fugitive travelling in the forest in Guyana and attempts to imagine the primitive tribal consciousness of the forest Indians. He narrates an episode involving Walter Raleigh and his hapless quest for Eldorado up the Orinoco river. And he recreates scenes from the life of Francisco Miranda, a sad would-be liberator with a grey ponytail.
These adventures gloss what would otherwise be a rather plain series of autobiographical vignettes, some of which - the how-I- became-a-writer scenes - are pretty mundane. It is truly bizarre to see such a famous, unforgiving self-consciousness dissolving into something like watery self-love.
But in another way the book is extreme and ambitious: Columbus, Raleigh and Miranda are offered, quite deliberately, as precursors, as previous returnees, as prototype Naipauls. The familiar scenes from Naipaul's life seem, in this context, like triumphant narrations of the way-stations on his path to eminence. Late on, looking back, he refers to a man in a government office in Port of Spain, now a politician in Africa, and says: 'And yet in the office I was seen as the man with the real future.' This is touchingly immodest, but also mysterious: how does he know how he was seen?
Still, Naipaul's own latterday search for Eldorado has always been a quest for origins; and this is no exception. The book's defining word is 'aboriginal' - it recurs on page after page after page, like a chant. 'In my mind's eye I created an imaginary landscape for the aboriginal peoples,' Naipaul writes. 'The landscape of the aboriginal island became fabulous.' In practice, this involves some placid tributes to rivers and trees.
But it is important that this aboriginal world is not nave: Naipaul is no sentimentalist, and his forest is not 'virgin' but antique. The book pulses with the effort of imagining the world before the one we know, the hills and bays without names, the rivers sliding unremarked towards the sea.
At one point, in an aside not calculated to endear him to the angrier post-imperialists, Naipaul even suggests that, in the beginning, before colour arrived, everything was white. The narrator sees two white boys with arrows: 'For a moment or two it is like being taken back to the beginning of things. Before white skins turned another colour, and yellow hair turned black.'
This is just one oddness in a book that houses many. Indeed, it is almost distressing to see a work by Naipaul proceed in such a riddling, opaque way. In The Enigma of Arrival he perfected a singular and effective style: his consciousness lapped against England like the tide, polishing and examining what it turned up. A Way in the World: A Sequence combs some familiar beaches, but keeps turning up less than we expect.
The title alone (with its arch subtitle) is enough to make seasoned admirers wince; it is a blithe and mannered reincarnation of a favoured formula - A Bend in the River, A Turn in the South. No modern writer has made such a virtue of repetition: Naipaul loves to hold up phrases for inspection, put them down, pick them up and move them around - as if they were new chairs in a room. But this time the arrangement seems predictable: a three-piece suite.
Naipaul can be boastful when he describes his hard-earned literary knowledge, when he renounces the easy options of humour and pays tributes to his own start-from-scratch will power. But it could be that he understands his own style too well, and finds it too easy to reproduce: perhaps he has criss- crossed the Atlantic between England and Trinidad just once too often.
Come to that, perhaps he should leave his familiar ports and write about the Atlantic itself, about the waters over which the 20 million middle passengers floated to their fate (A Drop in the Ocean: a Sequence). He could peer through the surface of the waves, through the reflection of the sky, into the depths below. Who knows how many imperial secrets lie buried in those cold fathoms?Reuse content