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At a loss for words

Theroux and Naipaul kiss and make up with a handshake. A shame because we thought literary sparks would fly.

india Updated: May 31, 2011 23:16 IST

As part of that rare group of humans that make their living solely by mincing words, we scribes have always believed in the superior might of the pen. But as our fellow practitioners of the written word, the writers — who, one must add, write with greater flourish and attract larger fame than us — have shown us, words can indeed serve as a reliable, handy weapon even in adversity.

Wielded skillfully, they inflict far greater damage than a mere blade of metal. When words clash, they also create a rather un-pretty yet strangely gratifying episode for the rest to behold. It explains our sense of loss at knowing that the 15-year-old feud between Nobel-winning writer VS Naipaul and fellow writer and friend-turned-foe Paul Theroux has been made up over an insipid handshake.

Not that the standards set by the Naipaul-Theroux slugfest can claim to have set any new high. A signed copy of his book Fong and the Indians, which Theroux had lovingly gifted to Mr Naipaul, had found its way into the second-hand book market, presumably thrown out by the latter’s second wife Nadira. When challenged about the affront, Mr Naipaul is said to have told Mr Theroux to “take it on the chin and move on”.

That turn of rhetoric, even you the reader will agree, may have served its purpose but would be no match to the right hook that Mario Vargas Llosa dealt to Gabriel Garcia Marquez (both Nobel winners) at a Mexico theatre in 1976, leaving the latter bloodied and sparking off a celebrated literary feud.

And while Mr Theroux may have got his own through an uncharitable portrait of his foe in Sir Vidia’s Shadow, or written disparagingly about Mr Naipaul’s shortcomings — “his tantrums, his envy, his meanness, his greed, and his uncontrollable anger”— he obviously lacked the edge that marked Truman Capote’s terse dismissal of fellow American Jack Kerouac’s work, saying “that’s not writing, that’s typing”.

While we, close observers of episodes when writers bare their fang and sharpen their talons, did enjoy the dramatic tension of the Naipaul-Theroux act while it lasted, we cannot but be dejected by this disappointing denouement.