INTERVIEW / Stranger in fiction: v. S. Naipaul: Andrew Robinson talks to a novelist who celebrates the paradox of empire

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'I'LL TELL you the way I try to write. If you look at anything very honestly, without prejudices - prejudices either of hope or a political point of view - many things are contained in what you observe. But you . . . can only say I saw what I saw - and try to look at that.'

V S Naipaul is speaking about the Republican Party Convention in Dallas in 1984, which he attended and wrote about, side-stepping the cliches and received ideas of American election journalism. But he has applied the principle in almost all his published work. This now runs to 10 books of non-fiction and 11 of fiction, (and a further book well under way) with settings as far apart as Trinidad and the Caribbean, Argentina, the American South, England, central Africa, India, and the Islamic world as far afield as Indonesia. None of them is less than good; many are outstanding; and more than one is great. He has won literary prizes, been awarded honorary doctorates from Oxford and Cambridge, and was made a knight in 1990 (though does not call himself 'Sir'). He is perhaps the most wide-ranging and penetrating writer in English today.

TOMORROW he will be 60. He was born Vidiadhar Surajprasad in Trinidad, which was in 1932 just an insignificant pink dot on the map of empire. His father, a journalist on the Trinidad Guardian and an independent-minded man, died in debt when his son was just 21, away studying English at Oxford on a government scholarship. The family, who were orthodox Hindus, came from Eastern India; one of Naipaul's grandfathers was an indentured labourer, part of the great diaspora of Indians in the nineteeenth century who settled wherever the British developed rubber, tea and sugar plantations.

Empires - past and present - fascinate Naipaul; imperial themes bind his work into a whole. But unlike most colonial migrants to Britain, he is not partisan. In book after book he has articulated the pain of colonial and postcolonial life with empathy and often comedy; but his impatience with Third World special pleading has not softened with success. He recalls that he was 'utterly destitute', when he came down from Oxford in 1954. No one would give him a job.

'I think it was for racial reasons,' he says evenly, when asked why. 'But I've never worried about it. I no longer think about it - maybe because of living here in this valley.' We are sitting in the Wiltshire cottage where he lives with his wife Patricia whom he met at Oxford. Prodded, he becomes vehement, his face creasing into a grimace.

'I think it's wrong to think about it. When you consider the racial politics of Trinidad and Guyana and the Caribbean islands; when you consider the excesses that have been committed in the racial riots between Africans and Asians; when you consider the massive 'ethnic cleansing' that accompanied the creation of Pakistan - you feel that no one should come to here and speak about racial prejudice. People should hold their peace. Because to do otherwise is to expect a higher standard of behaviour from other people than you expect from yourself.'

'Ethnic cleansing': a 1992 phrase for ancient conflict. Naipaul's interest in military history, and extensive travels in places where there is strife between peoples, lend weight to his analysis. 'What's happening in Yugoslavia is dreadful, but I would like to ask: is this what happened in the Turkish empire? Is this how the Turks kept their empire, keeping all these ethnic groups at daggers drawn for four centuries? Are they to some extent responsible? I am wondering about their despotic rule: their empire vanished and left nothing behind, except disregard - unlike other more creative empires, like the Romans, and the British empire and the French.'

He is against Western military intervention: 'So many people will get killed whose war it isn't. I think the Turks should be asked to intervene militarily; it's their problem, they should take the refugees. It's part of their old empire, they made these people Muhammadan. They should take this over, send some of their dreadful soldiers there, who made such a messy invasion of Cyprus.'

Naipaul is almost equally severe on the United States for its role in Afghanistan. 'When you start playing geo-politics, and you have your big cause to defend, you get so morally twisted that you become responsible for certain messes in the world. You support the Afghans fighting their brave wars against the Russians, you represent them as freedom fighters, and then what happens? You've got fundamentalists and others killing one another in Kabul, and a spot of ethnic cleansing going on there. Who's responsible for that, at the end of the day? Who gave them the arms? America should accept its responsibility and admit: 'We cracked these barbarians up to be freedom fighters'. But the Americans say 'No, no] We don't think we'll do anything about them now.' '

Intellectual corruption bothers Naipaul. It offends his conviction that writing is a 'noble vocation'. The writer must attempt to perceive and define the truth, however unpalatable: 'The past for me - as colonial and writer - was full of shame and mortifications. Yet as a writer I could train myself to face them. Indeed, they became my subjects.' For Naipaul, the compelling aspect of communism, and now its collapse, has been its impact on the West. He was never interested in writing about the Soviet Union; he felt he had seen similar tyranny too often in Asia and Africa and the Caribbean.

'You had the people's revolution, the people's triumph, and then you had all these dreadful men who lived off the fruits of it.' The 'pretend Marxists' in Western universities, especially in the US, enraged him: 'Marxism became a posture in the 1980s, which enabled very stupid people to pretend they had a coherent view of the world.'

Naipaul undoubtedly likes to needle people he considers narrow-minded but he has a strong and deep-rooted sympathy for the poor. Thirty years after his journalist father died in debt, Naipaul wrote: 'I can easily make present to myself again the anxiety of that time: to have found no talent, to have written no book, to be null and unprotected in the busy world.' When in 1961 he published a book about his father, his great comic novel A House for Mr Biswas, that anxiety - 'the fear of destitution in all its forms, the vision of the abyss' - lay below the comedy.

HOUSES are important to Naipaul in his work and his life. The search for a house in Trinidad holds together Mr Biswas; the decay of an Edwardian manor house in Wiltshire, in the grounds of which Naipaul lived for more than a decade from 1970, holds together his most recent novel, the intricate The Enigma of Arrival. For the last 10 years he and his wife have owned a turn-of-the-century cottage near Salisbury. Before that Naipaul rented and owned flats and houses in London, some of which have found their way into his novels, too. He was not satisfied with any of them.

But one feels Naipaul has not got his heart in bricks and mortar and English rural life. He has no wish to pose as a country gentleman. He loves the solitude, the long thoughtful walks, the nearby barrows and tumuli, the fruit trees he has planted in his garden. But he feels himself a stranger, in a way that he tries acutely to define in The Enigma. Reviewing it, Bernard Levin called Naipaul an 'inquiline': that is, a lodger, and also an animal that lives in another's nest. Naipaul likes the word.

'When I see the sun set - here at Stonehenge - there is a way that it is somebody else's sun, somebody else's landscape, it has somebody's else's history connected with it. I can't avoid that: that's the way I think.' And the place gets more, not less, mysterious as he gets older: 'the way things should. It would be awful if you just stopped reacting, if your knowledge of places stopped. The idea of human beings and their destinies should get more miraculous and odd.'

Occasionally, visiting Salisbury by bus from the village, he calls at St Thomas's Church near the cathedral to see the largest Domesday painting in England, dated 1475. The naked medieval figures, in heaven on the left, in hell on the right, 'men naked, beyond their control, the wings of the consoling angels as fearful and unnatural as the bird or reptile swallowing the damned', appeal to him.

Recently he has been dipping into the Bible again (as well as into Cicero, Darwin, Balzac, and C L R James). He uses the New English version, not the Authorised. 'I can't bear the Authorised. It has been a source of corruption. It has given people an idea of beautiful language which is entirely theatrical and wrong and antiquated. . . . Those tribal chronicles . . . can stand purity and clarity of language, they don't need 'doths' and 'even untos'; they don't need these distractions, they don't need the rhythms of speech that dull you,' says Naipaul emphatically.

His new book is not a novel, nor is it conventional autobiography, though it draws on his peripatetic experience. 'It's a series of narrations. People occur in one place, then occur elsewhere in the course of your life. People you knew in Trinidad as a child turn up in London and then you see them as big men in Africa, then you see them as criminals making money somewhere else. One had to find a form for that. I hope it will be very light.'

'In a sense he has extended the range of the novel' says Naipaul's former tutor at Oxford, Peter Bayley. 'He's a most distinguished writer, and a complex man of very great charm, fascination, intelligence and distinction. I would use the word 'lovable'.'

But love is precisely the emotion some - Salman Rushdie included - cannot find in Naipaul. Where, they ask, is the love? Where is the compassion? ' 'Compassion' is a political word, isn't it?' Naipaul remarks, his distaste for politics manifest, ' . . . a word of literary criticism like 'well- crafted' and 'honed'. When someone talks about something being 'crafted' or 'honed', and 'full of compassion', you know you must stay away.'

Naipaul prefers to speak of the pursuit of happiness. 'Familiar words, easy to take for granted; easy to misconstrue', he recently wrote. 'I find it marvellous to contemplate to what an extent, after two centuries, and after the terrible history of the earlier part of this century, the idea has come to a kind of fruition . . . So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectability and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.'

(Photograph omitted)

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