Jeffrey Folks - 04/07/08
The central task of all literary art, V. S. Naipaul believes, is “to awaken the sense of true wonder” in relation to the world we inhabit. The uncertainty that exists today concerning the purpose of fiction leads to the promotion of work that is more often than not escapist, narcissistic, or merely experimental without any real purpose. To write fiction, in Naipaul’s sense, is something entirely different. It is to surrender everything, all of one’s energies, all of one’s ego and self-interest, to the demands of a narrative that is brutally honest. Getting it right is the writer’s greatest accomplishment because so much in the real world depends on this truthfulness: the possibility of healthy and productive social relationships, the possibility of any sort of true happiness, the possibility of political stability and of civilization in any genuine sense. All of these depend on the difficult task that not only the writer but also every human being is enjoined to undertake, the task of striving for fresh and unbiased perception and judgment.
Writing in the sense of truth-telling, starting with and always accountable to fundamental human motives and needs, is a form of human commitment that is so rare in our culture as to seem quixotic. The art of fiction is an endless process of observation, reflection, vision, and revision, but there is always the temptation, especially for the unestablished author struggling through the lean years of apprenticeship, to settle for the easy answers and commonplace assumptions. Even for the established writer there are the never-ending pitfalls of self-delusion, prejudice, indifference, and simple indolence.
As a young writer, Naipaul faced all of these temptations, especially the inducement to align his career with fashionable ideological positions, but his prickly resistance to joining a group of any kind afforded early protection, and this resistance soon became habitual. As a result, Naipaul has gone through his career with his guard up, a posture that has preserved his independence though it has gained him more than his share of enemies. In all of his work, Naipaul has resisted the temptation to fall back on an aesthetic grounded in any sort of deterministic philosophy, whether it be the economic determinism of Marxism or the misguided pity, based on an equally reductive perspective, of self-styled “postcolonial” writers and critics. In both of these cases, to quote what Naipaul wrote in “The Documentary Heresy,” the approach to human damage is “clinical and documentary in intention and makes no statement beyond that of bodily pain and degradation…. It deals anonymously with anonymous flesh, quickened only by pleasure and pain; and this anonymity is a denial of art.“1 In the documentary aesthetic, within which the Marxist and the postcolonial practitioners occupy a prominent place, the representation of human damage appears as practically an end in itself; mere representation of harm, with its automatic assumption of violation, is thought to be enough, and there follows an immediate leap toward blame and an insistence upon reparations of one sort or another.
The effect of such an aesthetic—a class action mentality that wishes to obscure differences and fine distinctions rather than to explore them—is, of course, to reduce individuals to groups. In doing so it closes off avenues of thought and imposes conformity, yet it is not merely literary art but our entire information culture that seems to have accepted the self-censoring limitations of the documentary fallacy. An entire spectrum of mental activity—the difficult process of analysis, reflection, and judgment that ought to follow any observation of fact— has been relentlessly repressed. In our culture, to question the reflexive correctness of the majority has become a dangerous act of heresy.
Still, not all artistic pitfalls are ideological in nature. Increasingly, our fiction has withdrawn from ideological battles altogether. It can be faulted not because of a naïve embrace of political solutions but because of its withdrawal from public discourse in total, whether into the absurd postmodern labyrinth of technical complexity or the cozy escapism of small personal dramas—the hermetic worlds of The English Patient (1992) or The Shipping News (1993). Unlike these fictional approaches, both a withdrawal from common experience, Naipaul has always sought to engage what he calls the “actuality” of human life. His first publishable book of fiction, though not first published, was the collection of mundane sketches that comprise Miguel Street (1959). These brief encounters with everyday characters of the city of Port of Spain are early evidence of Naipaul’s remarkable gift for observation, but they are also evidence of his artistic judgment and moral sensibility. As always in his writing, nothing is disguised or concealed; Naipaul employs no empty rhetoric to “ennoble” suffering humanity because he respects humanity as it is.
Perhaps the most difficult thing about Naipaul’s fiction is this simplicity. The truly difficult undertaking is not the construction of ambiguity and complexity, the pointless experimentation and the deliberate obfuscation of meaning that have preoccupied a great number of Naipaul’s contemporaries, but just the opposite: it is the stripping away of distractions, the exact statement of a truth judged on its own merits. It is that most difficult task for a writer or for any human being: to look directly at the simple truth, a truth that is often, at least to those who seek complexity, disappointingly commonplace.
In reading Naipaul, our difficulty lies in the fallacy of a modern aesthetic that is blind to the virtues of simplicity and understatement and is unwilling to acknowledge the barrenness of life that underlies these narrative virtues. To look directly at existence as Naipaul discloses it is an unsettling and humbling task. This is the case in all of his novels, but in A Way in the World Naipaul focuses with special intensity on the corrupt record of the colonial enterprise in the Americas and on the legacy of this enterprise as it affects everyone in the New World. This is not the celebration of Great Men of nineteenth-century historiography nor the escape into the forest of particularity evident in more recent histories of everyday life. Both of these approaches ignore the fundamental task of history: to observe and to judge the record of human life on earth. A Way of the World is an imaginative recreation of the past, not historical research per se, but it does not evade its responsibility toward truth. In Naipaul’s view, we are both the inheritors of the tarnished legacies of the past and responsible agents in an unfolding history that is equally at risk.
Like all of the characters in Naipaul’s fiction, the reader must admit to his own failing—his own dullness, his own frightening laziness and selfishness, his own complicity with evil. Naipaul sees the way in which contemporary culture wishes evil to disappear; he witnesses its unwillingness to face those elements in man and nature that earlier Western culture embodied in the figure of Satan. This most striking feature of modern culture is perhaps its greatest weakness. By not looking the devil in the eye and refusing to face the satanic qualities of our own culture, we risk a frightful arrogance in our relations with other human beings and in our relation with the natural environment. As Naipaul knows only too well, evil is an ineradicable aspect of our own nature and of our condition in the world, and it can only be mitigated through a vigilance that involves constant and relentless self-examination. Earlier generations routinely engaged in daily meditation on their own complicity in evil through a discipline of prayer and confession. As our culture has abandoned this meditative activity (even among practicing Christians, the Christian life is increasingly understood as a prop for “positive” self-development and social improvement), we involve ourselves in a dangerous deception, one that Leszek Kolakowski defines as “the illusion that there are no limits to the changes that human life can undergo, that society is ‘in principle’ an endlessly flexible thing.”
A Way in the World offers an account of this self-deception on a grand scale. As it investigates the colonial past of Trinidad and Venezuela and of their relationship to England and Spain, as well as to the United States, the novel reaches back in time to unravel the historical causes that have produced the world that Naipaul grew up in, but it is far more than a historical novel in the sense in which that genre is often understood. Because all of us in the Americas, and countless others around the world, share Naipaul’s legacy of damage—a damage that is most frightening in its moral and spiritual aspects— nothing could be more urgent than the imaginative journey upon which he sets out in the novel.
This endeavor involves, first of all, an attempt to redefine the meaning of colonialism, that much abused term that refers to the relationship of those within and without the secure, ordered centers of culture and power. Reaching into the past 150 or 200 years and beyond, Naipaul intends to bring the past to life and to position the past in relation to the present. In his novel, Columbus, Raleigh, and Francisco Miranda—a lesser known but more pertinent example of New World adventurer—are painstakingly summoned back to life, to reappear before us in their ignominious mixture of incredible idealism and crass ambition. The task is a bit like refinishing a worn chair or table, removing layer after layer of paint and varnish that stand between ourselves and the original surface. We must peel back our own assumptions and examine the evidence in a fresh way, but we must also peel back the assumptions of earlier accounts and even the conjectures of the original actors.
As he relates the depressing history of revolution and counter-revolution in the New World, Naipaul must deal with the central myth of the Americas—the belief in liberation as an ultimate value. In a world in which large numbers of people have only recently gained self-rule, it is, of course, heretical to question the benefit of independence for a colonized people: to suggest, for example, that Latin America has paid too heavy a price for its independence or that much of Africa since independence has suffered greater misery than was the case under colonial rule, and it is doubtful whether Naipaul actually entertains such a view. The problem is that, given our all-consuming interest in victimization, the discussion of imperialism is always framed in terms of an either/or proposition, and Naipaul’s interest lies elsewhere than in the celebration or the condemnation of political liberation. Naipaul focuses on the actual conditions of human life, not on the utopian plans that have haunted modern political movements and brought with them so much devastation. Given this focus, one would have to admit that, at the very least, the record of postcolonial rule on almost every continent has been wretched.
In fact, Naipaul finds that the break with imperial authority, not only in Trinidad but also in nearly every place that it has occurred, has been followed by a horrendous period of violence, impoverishment, and corruption lasting decades, if not centuries. This is the rule of black power that Naipaul describes in Trinidad after independence, the civil wars in Venezuela following the revolution, the tyranny and corruption in the newly independent African states. One of the most salient features of the post- war period in Trinidad, a time of far-reaching faith in the independence movement, is the actual diminishment of human life. The city of Port of Spain expands, it is true, but largely in ways that are destructive, and this is nowhere more evident than in the shantytown that springs up to the east of the city and that constantly enlarges itself along the boundary of a new rubbish dump. This new neighborhood is little more than a make-shift camp: noisy, dirty, unhealthy. With its obvious reference to Dante’s hell, the description of the shantytown amid the acrid fumes of the burning dump is evidence of the ruin that follows the breakdown of imperial order: in this case, the transition from British rule to the national independence of Trinidad and Tobago. As Naipaul writes, “All the colonial landscape was being trampled over and undone; as though, with that past, the very idea of regulation had been rejected.”3
Naipaul’s fiction is a warning not just for so-called colonial cultures but for imperial culture as well. The decline of great civilizations—of Greece and Rome, of the French and British, and now of the American civilization—has always been followed by long periods of disorder for all who lived within their sphere of influence. This insight, of course, runs counter to received opinion that the Great Powers are themselves the problem: the common assertion, for example, that the post- liberation conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa are the legacies of European misgovernance during the colonial period. This is a position that, in fact, Naipaul partially embraces, but it is also an easy excuse for continuing abuse, indeed for tyranny of a sort that often exceeds that of European imperialism. This conclusion is a difficult pill to swallow, especially for the ideologically correct reader, and, as a consequence, Naipaul is especially careful to support his conclusion with meticulous fictional observation and presentation. His method is to portray figures who are representative of the destructive effects that he observes in postcolonial societies.
One such figure is the Venezuelan whom Naipaul meets on a plane ride from Trinidad to Caracas. Manuel Sorzano is seemingly a very fortunate individual— an ethnic Indian from Trinidad who has migrated illegally to Venezuela to work during the oil boom and who, as a laborer, discovers a treasure of nineteenth-century gold coins. In fact, Sorzano lives an unsettled, troubled existence within a brutal and lawless culture. A wise and careful person, Sorzano understands that, in a country dominated by the destructive legacy of the collapse of the Spanish empire, there are dangers everywhere, and yet, while he is shrewd and disciplined enough to make his way within this environment, his son is not. Antonio has difficulty at several stages of his life. After his wife has an affair with a well-todo Syrian merchant, Antonio, who is employed by the Guardia Nacional, thinks of killing his rival and perhaps his wife as well, actions that would effectively end his own life.
Unlike his father, who recognizes the destructive legacies of the revolutionary past, Antonio is not even aware of the fact that his own culture, one that is increasingly hedonistic and heedless of authority, is the product of history. Within his culture, distinctions between self-respect and disrepute, between chastity and licentiousness, even between what is fundamentally harmful and what is not, seem to have broken down. In an effort to instill some sense of restraint in his son, Sorzano talks to him about the price of the social liberation that the son’s generation has claimed for itself. As Sorzano says, “If you want this kind of excitement, you have to pay the price. Other people must have their excitement and freedom too…. Once you start looking for this excitement, you have to put away this idea of fair and unfair.”4
This discussion is a crucial part of Naipaul’s “history” of the Americas. It is an effort to show that the personal autonomy that we prize so highly and that is so closely identified with New World culture is not natural at all: it is perhaps better understood as part of the legacy of decay of those overriding sources of authority that have been widely discredited within a culture of never-ending innovation and emancipation. As the authority of church and school declines, and as the strict interpretation of the law is forsaken and replaced by the whimsical authority of private interests, we move further and further from what is natural in the sense of what suits our fundamental needs, our nature as human beings.
No figure in Naipaul’s fiction better represents the disturbing consequences of personal sovereignty than the protagonist in A Way in the World, Francisco Miranda. His story can be summarized as a lifelong devotion to the idea that he, Miranda, is destined to be the liberator of South America. Miranda speaks of establishing an empire stretching from the western half of North America to Cape Horn, with Miranda himself rewarded with vast holdings of land if not as ruler of the entire region. Even when it becomes evident that his plan has little chance of succeeding, Miranda returns for one final attempt at conquest. He feels compelled by the need to establish his worth in the eyes of the world, and yet he is actually a pathetic failure; his career amounts to little more than a confidence game as he approaches one backer after another for financial support. Not only is Miranda self-deceived but his entire enterprise is futile. The New World that he has come to is a lawless and unprincipled place, a place where everything is a lie. Thus, Colonel Downey, one of the influential and respected British officials in Trinidad, is not really a colonel. Archibald Glouster, who serves as attorney general of the colony, is not really a lawyer. The New World, as we understand its real nature, seems less and less “real.” With the frequent regime changes and unpredictable shifts in local authority, it is also an unstable and dangerous place for an ambitious man like Miranda.
In the end, after the failure of all his plans due to a combination of his own incompetence and his betrayal at the hands of his backers, Miranda is left to his enemies. As he awaits his inevitable punishment, the Inquisition-like torture and execution that he knows will follow his return to Spain, he is overcome by a sense of grief as he recognizes the futility of the lifetime that he has wasted in exile. It is not merely grief for himself, however; it is anguish for all of those who live within what Naipaul refers to as “incomplete” cultures. Their exile is from a life that should be meaningful, productive, and whole, but is not.
The final section of the novel, “Home Again,” is a brilliant improvisation on the theme of exile and return. Life inside an expatriate compound in East Africa exemplifies all the fraudulent motives that Naipaul has stressed in earlier sections of the book. Among the South African political exiles in the compound, the white revolutionaries who have fled their home- land seem particularly disfigured by their exile, and the elderly Indian lawyer and son of a prominent merchant family who has sponsored the brutal African ruler who has betrayed the Indian population is another instance of failure. His life is one of humiliations, and at the end, as he devotes himself only to the task of sending his money outside the country, he is overwrought by a sense of the irrelevance and unreality of his life.
“Most people on the compound,” Naipaul writes, “even the servants, were living unnatural lives.”5 This is certainly true of Richard, a British intellectual who is a devoted supporter of the tyrannical president of the country (a fictional character modeled on Idi Amin of Uganda). Richard’s life has been so distorted that even his rationality has become severely limited; he is a person who cannot escape the control of his own ideological assumptions and so cannot communicate with anyone who does not share his beliefs. After he leaves Africa following the ruler’s decline into barbarity, Richard shifts his interest from African independence to the needs of Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism. Richard believes that he serves a cause that will lead to social perfection, a utopian system that nonetheless always relies on the support of a totalitarian regime. Underlying Richard’s benevolent instincts for reform is a malignant dream of total human regimentation and conformity, the same “progressive” ideal that underlay Stalinism, Maoism, the Khmer Rouge, and so many other cruel tyrannies in the past century and that underlie the aspirations of radical Islamic leaders today. In their pathological instinct to bring human personality under the control of the state, they betray their aspiration to god-like power.
For all of these difficulties, the narrator himself, who is largely indistinguishable from the author and whom we may refer to simply as “Naipaul,” is the exception. From an early age, he has had “the clear vision of a way ahead”6: that is, through his hard work as a student, he earns a scholarship for higher education abroad. Beyond Oxford, he dreams of a successful writing career, though he has little idea of the sacrifice that this ambition entails. In the end, of course, his clear vision of the future must be revised: as a student he has learned little beyond the abstract world of classic English literature, in his case an education that comes to seem irrelevant to his ambitions. He must look instead to the simple facts of human life, and he must find his way as a writer who, because of his uncompromising beliefs, will always stand alone. The way ahead is neither as clear nor as sure as it seems in his youth, but somehow his vision never fails him. His imagination, a term that must be understood to include curiosity, creativity, but also labor, intelligence, and judgment, has preserved him in a world of confusion and conflict.
Still, even as he continues to write out of faith in his art, there are surprises. One of these is that life spares no one, not even the author of exceptional talent and dedication. Despite his intelligence, his persistence, his fidelity to his art, Naipaul realizes that he is all too much like Miranda and many of the other figures in his novel, even including Blair, a leader of the black consciousness movement in Trinidad whom he initially despises. Naipaul and Blair have both pursued success beyond their limited childhood worlds, and both find themselves on unsettling assignments in East Africa. Blair has been brought to the newly independent state in order to justify the president’s plan to further exploit the Asian community, but he also begins to examine the involvement of the president’s protégées in the illegal smuggling of ivory and gold. As a result, he puts himself at extreme risk; his body is discovered several days after his murder—another shocking image of decay in this novel centered on moral corruption—in a “model” banana plantation that has been set up to showcase the president’s “progressive” administration.
There is, then, the difficulty that Blair’s body must be returned to Trinidad. Despite Naipaul’s fantasy of seeing the body carried off the airplane by an honor guard of six or eight men, the reality would be, as Naipaul realizes in his revised judgment, that the body would have been unceremoniously shipped back to Trinidad in the refrigerated bay of an airplane, unloaded mechanically, and transported to Port of Spain in an ambulance. Ironically, but perhaps blessedly as well, the narrator is still having to revise and reinvent as he imagines how Blair’s body is finally carried by ambulance to Parry’s funeral chapel, a humble, unexalted place well-known to Naipaul from his youth. Miranda, Raleigh, Blair are all dead and others like Antonio and Richard are all but dead spiritually, but Naipaul continues his quest for “true wonder,” even if the pathway is crooked and rough. It is a hopeful sign that, at least in the case of this author, an incorruptible voice of truthfulness continues to be heard.
So the novel comes full circle, returning to a familiar but now problematic world, ending on a note of prosaic devaluation of whatever buoyant, idealistic, or exotic sense of the New World the reader may have entertained. Nothing is further from Naipaul’s purpose than the deceptive comfort that one has survived the ordeal of history and can now relax. One can never relax. Naipaul’s conclusion presents us with no dreamy tropical landscapes, no resolution of the tension that our exile imposes—only the prospect of a long road ahead, illuminated by Naipaul’s “sense of wonder” and, if we are lucky, by our own.
V.S. Naipaul, “The Documentary Heresy,” in Critical Perspectives on V.S. Naipaul, edited by Robert D. Hamner (Washington, D.C., 1977), 23.
Leszek Kolakowski, “The Revenge of the Sacred in Secular Culture,“ in Modernity on Endless Trial (Chicago, 1990), 72.
V.S. Naipaul, A Way in the World (New York, 1995), 37-38.