Naipaul came from nothing, but did not allow himself to become nothing
His biggest contribution to literature may well be, as his fellow Nobel Laureate JM Coetzee wrote in his collection of essays, Inner Workings, “in pioneering an alternative, fluid, semifictional form”. It has come to be much imitated, but never surpassed.Updated: Aug 12, 2018, 17:19 IST
Great writers are immortal. VS Naipaul will continue to live on through his work, through the early comic genius of A House for Mr Biswas; the brutal bleakness of Guerrillas and In a Free State; the unsparing, clear eyed examination of post-colonial societies, not least India, in books that were only travel books in name and unlike any travel book we had read before; and the blend of autobiography and fiction in The Enigma of Arrival as well as other canonical works. He will continue to illuminate our lives. We are thankful for what he has left behind.
India had a troubled relationship with Naipaul. (The converse is also true, but only because Naipaul had a troubled relationship with everyone and everything.) It is hard to remember now, after our gush and rush to claim him as one of our own once he won the Nobel Prize in 2001, after the recent genuflection at literary festivals, how reviled he was when in 1964 he published An Area of Darkness, his first, explosive book about India. Characteristically undeterred, he published in 1977 a follow up, India: A Wounded Civilization.
Regardless of what he was writing about, Naipaul’s true subject has always been himself. Of Indian descent, born in Trinidad (a place he despised all his life and was grateful to have escaped from), he was, in England – where he spent all but the first 18 years of his life – at the heart of the literary culture and yet felt himself to be an outsider looking in. Shape shifting, restless, rooted yet always unmoored, with numerous influential friends and well-wishers yet reclusive, always contradictory, deliberately contrarian, Naipaul’s life and body of work are a testament to the migratory nature of our times.
His biggest contribution to literature may well be, as his fellow Nobel Laureate JM Coetzee wrote in his collection of essays, Inner Workings, “in pioneering an alternative, fluid, semifictional form”. It has come to be much imitated, but never surpassed.
One of his most memorable books, A Bend in the River, opens with this chilling sentence: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” Naipaul came from nothing, but did not allow himself to become nothing. He found his material, fulfilled his talent, and secured his place in the world – and the literary canon. He will not allow us to forget him.