Captain Moonlight's Notebook: Naipaul casts about for a biographer

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The Independent Online
V S NAIPAUL, casting around for a biographer, has fixed his eye on Ian Buruma, the Anglo-Dutch writer who supplied the introduction to the latest paperback edition of his novel A House for Mr Biswas. Naipaul's agent, Gillon Aitken, has approached Buruma on Naipaul's behalf and all three have met, though nothing has been agreed.

It does not surprise me that Naipaul should want his life written about while he is alive, rather than have someone he doesn't know do it when he is dead. He does tend to want to control things, but more of that later. The immediate question for Buruma is how far Britain's greatest living writer will allow his biographer to roam through his private life, which like all private lives has its non-cerebral side. Naipaul enthusiasts may say that we know quite enough about Naipaul's life already - his mum and dad, Trinidad, England, etc - through his travel books and autobiographical novels. But successful modern biographies, you may have noticed, usually contain elements of stunning disclosure, in fact must contain them if they are to repay their advances by being sold to newspapers.

The word here is that Naipaul intends to set no boundaries. He likes Buruma and Buruma likes him, even though he is reported to have occasional bouts of terror in Naipaul's presence. The two writers share the same sense of not quite belonging in whatever country they happen to find themselves. Buruma was educated in the Netherlands and lived in Japan for several years - he has a Japanese wife - where he made his literary reputation writing distinguished pieces on the Far East for American magazines. His most recent novel, Playing the Game, was a fictional account of another cultural misfit - the great Indian batsman Prince Ranjitsinhji, who played for England from 1896 to 1902.

I have met Naipaul only once, during his visit to Pakistan for his book on Islam, Among the Believers. I was living there at the time, he telephoned me to announce his arrival so I asked him round to dinner. Before he accepted he asked me to run through the menu. Eventually he settled on fish as the main course and pomegranate mousse for the pudding. Mrs (then Begum) Moonlight was not amused. I chose as a guest a dentist - no ordinary dentist but a man known as Fang who was the only man allowed into the condemned cell of the deposed prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Fang also looked after the teeth of Bhutto's daughter, Benazir, who was then under house arrest. The dentist was the Bhutto conduit to the outside world.

This kindly man and his devout wife were encouraged by Naipaul to explain their faith and their politics. Over the fish, he led them on like lambs with his attention and charm. But when, over the pomegranate, the couple finally talked about democracy and their faith he pounced and gave no quarter. Islam, he said, made no room for democracy. The two were incompatible. Fang and his wife collapsed into silence and the dinner ended abruptly. Bad behaviour, I suppose, though better than being smarmy at the time and later dispatching the couple with a few cruel adjectives in his book. You can't always - or often - say that about journalists.

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