The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul
RS 595 PP 555
There is probably only one thing that can be said about V Naipaul without fear of .S. attracting controversy: he is one of the finest writers in the English language. We can argue about his talent as a novelist will anybody still read his fiction 20 years from now? - but the quality of his prose is not in dispute.
Though he's never had a really big novel - a Midnight's Children or The God of Small Things - his body of work remains substantial and highly regarded. And there's the non-fiction for which he is probably better-known.
Even when he covers the same ground as journalists - the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, the rise of African na- tionalism and the resurgence of India - his observations seem more insightful, his perceptions are more acute and the books have a far greater impact. Many foreign journalists trashed India in the 1960s but nothing they wrote had the influence of Naipaul's An Area of Darkness.
But once you've got the quality of the writing out of the way, there's almost nothing about Naipaul that people agree on. The nonfiction attracts two extreme responses. The first is the his opinion of (largely Western) admirers that he is a thoughtful observer who can go into a society and detect its fault-lines within days of arriving.
The second is the view of his critics that he is an Uncle Tom figure whom the West loves because he calls the Third World names. According to this view, Naipaul's principal regret in life is that he was not born white. He hates the Blacks of Trinidad where he grew up and judges countries by their ability to adopt Western standards and values.
There is a similar division over Naipaul, the human being. Once again, there are two extreme positions. The favourable view is that, yes, like all great men he can be a little self-obsessed. But even if his behaviour in personal relationships is less than exemplary how does it matter? When we judge Picasso's paintings, do we worry about how he treated his many wives, mistresses and girlfriends? Great art and great literature cannot be assessed on the basis of the niceness (or not) of their creators.
The uncharitable view is that Naipaul is a monster. He is a small, petty person, ungenerous in spirit and mean with money He is a megalomaniac who takes other people for granted and uses them mercilessly And yes, it does matter. If he is indeed a racist, as many of his detractors claim, then that must surely reflect in his regular attacks on Black nations.
The challenge before any Naipaul biographer is to find the truth which, presumably lurks somewhere between , these extreme positions. Does Naipaul really understand the countries he writes about? Or is he simply using his undeniable writing skills to dress up pre-conceived preju dices? Is he the monster of legend? Or is too much being made of his massive ego? And finally is , he a racist?
The most extraordinary thing about Patrick French's biography is that it exists at all. Who would have thought that Naipaul would allow an author of a liberal bent of mind unlimited access to him and his friends? That he would let French examine private papers, including the journal of his late wife? And that when the book was written he would make no attempt to censor it?
How you react to the freedom afforded to French also depends on your view of Naipaul. Either he is the great artist, eager to let the truth come out, no matter how much it may damage him. Or he is the megalomaniac and publicityhound who knows that a revelatory biography will attract more attention than a reverential one and who doesn't really care, at this stage of his life, what we think of the way in which he treated his first wife or exploited his friends and contacts.
French's view of Naipaul is nuanced and carefully written. Though he avoids any direct criticism, it is clear that, on the man himself, he comes down on the side of the Selfish Monster school.
Even if there was no other evidence, Naipaul's shocking ill-treatment of his first wife Pat would be enough to guarantee that we lost all sympathy for him as a human being. French is neither judgmental nor commentative. He just repeats the facts, many in Pat's own words (from her journals).
Naipaul treated her like a glorified maid servant, she lived in mortal fear of him, he routinely humiliated her, told her he found her sexually unattractive, belittled her for her lack of skills, gave interviews about his visits to prostitutes, ignored her as she lay dying of cancer and then, finally right after her cremation, asked his housekeeper to buy food for his new girlfriend who moved into the house the following day .
There is other evidence as well of Naipaul's flaws as a human being, most of it in the form of quotes from those who either know him well or have worked with him.
He takes people for granted. He is rude and insulting about those who disagree with him. Prem Jha is a ‘windbag', while Edward Said is "an Egyptian who got lost in the world and began to meddle in things he knew nothing about". Even poor, harmless Nirad Chaudhuri is "an old fool… setting himself up as a clown in Oxford for his last 30 years". (The last from an obituary of Chaudhuri!) Naipaul's oldest friends are the most scathing about him. Rahul Singh talks of his stinginess: "He would never pay bills. There were occasions when I expected bills to be split but he would make no gesture".
Vinod Mehta says, "He is a weird person. He doesn't understand the position of others. I never got the impression that he was grateful. He expected it of me as if I were privileged in aiding him... After 20 years, [our friendship] did not extend to him giving me his telephone number." And of course, adds Mehta, "He is very tightfisted, no doubt about that."
When I met Naipaul in Calcutta in 1989, he had just come from Bombay where the journalist Nikhil Lakshman had helped him research the book that became A Million Mutinies Now. Naipaul spoke fondly of Lakshman: "Do you know he believe in the Infant Jesus?" But Lakshman's recollections are less sentimental. Naipaul was a "kanjoos, a Mr Scrooge", he remembers, who even made Lakshman pay his local train fare from Bombay to Thane and back. Later, he told Lakshman that he was too fat and should join a gym at once.
These incidents and anecdotes, piled one on the other, leave the reader in no doubt of what French thinks of Naipaul, the man. But you could argue: so what? How does this affect the quality of his work?
French has an answer for that too. The Naipaul that emerges from these pages is indisputably a racist, obsessed with ‘negroes', who he is only too willing to call ‘niggers' when he lets his guard down. At dinner at my house in Calcutta, I was a little taken aback when he said that he wouldn't get the Nobel Prize because they would give it to "some nigger". I thought he was just drunk (we had been hitting the wine) and said as much to French, who quotes the exchange in the book.
But there are too many other such stories here for this to have been an isolated incident. Most shocking for Indians will be this remark made to Nikhil Lakshman about Neena Gupta. "How could she have a child by that nigger [Viv Richards]?"
There's less evidence of prejudice against Muslims - after all, he's married to one now. But the contempt for Black people must surely colour his view of Africa, his native Trinidad and the American south, all of which feature in his non-fiction.
That leaves the books. French praises the fiction, as do most critics. He is less sure about the non-fiction. In a revealing passage he writes: "During his journey through India, Vidia would hone the technique he was to use in his subsequent non-fiction writing: he found experienced local journalists to guide him, took whatever assistance or hospitality was available, interviewed people in great detail, linked what he had discovered to his existing ideas about the country and wrote up the results fast."
, "His existing ideas about the country"? Is French suggesting that he arrived at each destination with his prejudices already formed, used local journos to find him interview subjects and then churned out the books? He seems to suggest this, quoting one such local journo, Charudatta Deshpande: "He had a preconceived notion. I believe that he worked from a larger picture and he basically knew what he wanted to see and tried to fit everything into that conception."
I suppose there is an element of truth to that charge. French hedges his bets. The closest he comes to expressing a personal judgement is to quote his own review of Beyond Belief, Naipaul's second Islam book, in The Sunday Times. French found fault with Naipaul's central thesis that "everyone who is not an Arab, who is a Muslim is a convert" arguing reasonably enough, that the same could be said of Christianity and pointing out that in countries where conversion took place between the 7th and 11th centuries, Islam was now an indigenous religion.
He ended that review with generalised praise: "There is a candour to his writing, a constant precision at its heart. It is this quality of integrity - the close analysis of human conduct -- that enables Naipaul's work to transcend the peculiarity of his general theories."
Years later, writes French, "I would not resile from that view." Which means what? That Naipaul writes well, candidly and with precision and passion -- but that his overall theories are ‘peculiar'? Perhaps it does.
The trouble with any rubbishing of Naipaul's view of the world is that often he is right about the big picture, even if he gets the details wrong. He wrote off post-colonial Africa before the rest of the world did, and events have proved him right. In A Million Mutinies, he captured the spirit of an India in transition long before the world began looking at us again. And though liberals were worried by the sub-text of Among The Believers, he was right to focus on resurgent Islam when the rest of us had missed the point.
Of course this doesn't mean that he gets the nuances right. He made a fool of himself over Ayodhya, telling an interviewer, "Pulling down the first Mughal emperor's tomb is a marvelous idea. I think in years to come it will be seen as a great moment and it will probably become a public holiday ."
Do you really need to contradict a man who thinks that the Babri Masjid was Babar's tomb? When French asks him how he feels about the hundreds who died in the riots that followed the demolition, Naipaul is evasive: "I didn't kill them myself… 1992 was a very bad year. That was the year when I could barely walk. I had surgery on my spine..." Ah yes, the great man has his priorities all worked out.
French's is an important book. So far reviewers have focused on Naipaul's love life. That interest will fade. But after that, serious readers will look for clues to Naipaul's beliefs, prejudices and methods.
And I'm not sure how well the world's greatest writer of English prose will fare when that examination begins.