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A severe bend in the river

Does the greatly esteemed and cherished Nobel Prize provide the kiss of death for writers, VS Naipaul in particular? Ramachandra Guha examines.

india Updated: Feb 26, 2008 23:51 IST

Like some other writers of my generation, I have a deeply ambivalent attitude towards the work of VS Naipaul. I was moved and charmed by his early stories of social life in the Caribbean. I admired the understated style of his non-fiction. I marvelled at his readiness to challenge the pieties of political correctness, as in his book, Among the Believers, a prescient analysis of the pathologies of Islamic fundamentalism. On the other hand, I was irritated by his ill-judged comments on Indian politics (as in his seeming endorsement of Hindu fundamentalism). And I was seriously put off by his vanity and pettiness, as in his disparaging remarks about his contemporaries and the simultaneous suggestion that he was the only living writer worth considering.

In the middle of last year I was asked to review Naipaul’s new book, A Writer’s People. I found it a disappointing and at times even obnoxious book. He could not, it seems, mention another writer without putting him down (thus Philip Larkin was dismissed as a “minor poet”, and Derek Walcott accused of insinuating himself into the good books of the Americans). The subliminal and at times open message of this silly little book was: Once there was Mahatma Gandhi, who transcended the boundaries of caste, religion, and nation to become a Universal Being. After him came VS Naipaul, who did likewise. In between lay a barren desert of under-achievement.

The two Naipaul books I had read before this one were his late novels. A Half Life and Magic Seeds, books without a coherent plot and whose characters led anaemic lives. After reading A Writer’s People my anti-Naipaul sentiments were confirmed. I did not think I would ever read another work by this writer. But then I went into one of my favourite bookshops and found there an older work of his that I had not read. There was nothing else that attracted my attention that day, and since I am always loth to leave a bookshop without purchasing a book, I bought this one.

A Turn in the South (to give the book its name) was first published in 1989. It is based on a trip made by Naipaul to the southern parts of the United States. He wished to explore here the relations between White and Black, the residues and torments of a society with a slave-owning past. It is a richly textured and at times profoundly moving book. The sights and smells of the region are captured beautifully — the charred remains of a burnt-out sugar plantation, for example, or the soullessness of cities who live in a remembered (and wrongly remembered) past. The characters he meets are captured with skill and empathy. He writes with equal understanding of a White Christian fundamentalist and a Black civil rights leader.

It was in books such as Among the Believers and A Turn in the South that Naipaul perfected the genre now known as ‘narrative non-fiction’. Here Naipaul showed that works of travel and history could be as readable as the best novels, in good part because the characters in these books sparkled as they did in the best novels. But it was Naipaul’s special genius to be able, from time to time, to stand apart from thick description to offer more general observations about society and history at large. In A Turn in the South he compares the cult of Elvis Presley to the cult of the Black politician in the islands he grew up in. “In colonial days in the British West Indies,” writes Naipaul, “for about a hundred years after the abolition of slavery, the Black people had no heroes. They began to get heroes very late, and these heroes were sportsmen, cricketers mainly. No other kind of hero was possible. But then, when a political life developed, towards the end of the colonial period, West Indian Blacks acquired leaders, union men in many cases, who then became political leaders and later, in independence, prime ministers. For these early leaders who were their very own, West Indian Blacks had more than adulation. They wished these leaders to represent them, and more than in a parliamentary way. They wished their leaders (who had started as poor as everybody else) to be rich (by whatever means) and powerful and glorious. The glory of the Black leader became the glory of his people. The leader lived (or lived it up) on behalf of his people; and the people lived through their leader. Ordinary ideas of morality and propriety didn’t apply. A leader wasn’t required to be modest and correct; those were the virtues of another world. A leader was invested as a Black man with a responsibility: to be grand, larger than life, for the sake of all Blacks. This idea of the leader — which has caused such havoc in the West Indies — has changed in recent times, but it is still there.”

The truths offered by the finest literature are said to be timeless. In fact, they are not bound by constraints of space either. What Naipaul writes about the adoration of Black leaders in the Caribbean of the 1940s speaks to us also in India today, as a way of understanding the cult of Mayawati, the leader who represents her flock in more than a parliamentary way, the leader to whom ordinary ideas of morality and propriety do not apply, the leader who lives and lives it up on behalf of her people. Prudent, proper, middle-class (and usually upper-caste) Indians object to Mayawati cutting a 200-pound cake, or wearing an approximation of the crown jewels, or paying many crores in income tax when her income is actually a fraction of one crore. But her followers do not object; to them, she has been ‘invested with a larger responsibility’; to be ‘grand, larger than life’, for the sake of them all.

Through his early novels and the brilliant non-fiction books of his middle period, VS Naipaul did enough to count as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. His more recent works are another matter altogether. They are unmemorable; lacking in warmth and empathy, and in insight and understanding as well. The once great writer has become a pompous bore.

How to explain this discrepancy between the early/middle Naipaul and the late Naipaul? A publisher friend attributes it all to the Nobel. This greatly esteemed and cherished prize, he tells me, is the kiss of death for the creative writer. There has been a perceptible decline in the quality of the novels published by JM Coetzee after he won the Nobel Prize. Even Naipaul’s great contemporary and rival, Derek Walcott, has not published much good poetry after being dignified by the award. Naipaul’s later trajectory is of a piece with this trend, with the caveat that in his case it has been a descent not so much into banality as into vanity.

It is too late now to redeem Naipaul, but my friend’s thesis makes me fear for the future career of one of my favourite modern writers, Orhan Pamuk. His recent essay-collection Other Colours was a disappointment. A collection of not particularly sparkling odds and ends, it does not sit well with books such as Snow, the Black Book or Istanbul. The portents are bleak, not least because at the same time as he won the Nobel, the threats from extremists forced Pamuk into exile in New York, away from the materials and characters that have made his work. Has Pamuk then written his last great book? In that case, one must hope that it will be some years and many novels before either Philip Roth or Ian McEwan are obliged to travel to Sweden in December.

(The writer is Historian & Author of India After Gandhi)