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About this book

V. S. Naipaul is a reader-friendly introduction to the writing of one of the most influential contemporary authors and the 2001 Nobel laureate in Literature. Bruce King provides a novel by novel analysis of the fiction with attention to structure, significance, and Naipaul's development as a writer, while setting the texts in their autobiographical. philosophical, social, political, colonial and postcolonial contexts. King shows how Naipaul modified Western and Indian literary traditions for the West Indies and then the wider world to become an international writer whose subject matter includes the Caribbean, England, India, Africa, the United States, Argentina, and contemporary Islam.

Thoroughly revised and updated, the second edition of V. S. Naipaul now includes an expanded Introduction, and discussion of his most recent novels A Way in the World and Half a Life, his Nobel Lecture, Naipaul's writings on Islam, and a survey of the main criticism by other writers and postcolonial theorists.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

Abstract
When V. S. Naipaul was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001 few readers doubted that he deserved the honour for a lifetime’s achievement as novelist and for his travel writings; there was, however, a highly vocal group of critics who detested Naipaul for what they perceived as his political views. It was said that for decades the Nobel literary awards committee would turn from him to someone less controversial, someone with a less impetuous tongue, someone more progressive in politics. The award of the 1992 Nobel Prize to the St Lucian poet Derek Walcott seemed to seal Naipaul’s fate; the committee was unlikely to award the prize soon to another Caribbean writer in English. As other English language writers, Toni Morrison and Seamus Heaney, were given Nobel awards, Naipaul’s case seemed forgotten, but it was not. He continued to be nominated and he continued to write.
Bruce King

2. Miguel Street, The Mystic Masseur and The Suffrage of Elvira

Abstract
While Naipaul’s first three books of fiction are extraordinarily popular because of their comedy, implicit are such themes as the way impoverished, hopeless lives and the chaotic mixing of cultures result in fantasy, brutality, violence and corruption. The three books are also social history showing the start of protest politics during the late 1930s and how Trinidad began to change during and after the Second World War. The infusion of American money and the beginnings of local self-government created new possibilities where few existed before; but such social change is treated amusingly, without the analytical perspective found in later novels.
Bruce King

3. A House for Mr Biswas and The Middle Passage

Abstract
A House for Mr Biswas (1961), Naipaul’s first major novel, belongs with those classics in which through the portrayal of an individual the complexities and aspirations of a previously ignored culture are articulated, given epic, mythic stature. While it is an imaginative, fictional recreation of the past, the main characters, places and events are based on Naipaul’s father, Naipaul’s own youth and the larger family of which they were a part (see Appendix A).
Bruce King

4. Mr Stone and the Knights Companion and An Area of Darkness

Abstract
Naipaul’s first phase consisted of four works of fiction and a travel book about the Caribbean in which his manner is amused or satiric. His second phase comprises two novels set in England, a travel book about India and a history of early Trinidad. His manner is more serious and there is an increasing attraction to and resistance against traditional Indian passivity and fatalism. His year in India marked a major crisis in his life by revealing there could be no return to his origins, but in England he continued to feel a colonial outsider in exile from the political disorder of the decolonizing Third World. Feeling unsettled, unrooted, he began questioning his life and the life of being a writer. What was to be his subject matter and his relationship to English literature? What was he really writing about — society, his past, himself, the artist, the world, the relationship of art to what? Now that England and India had failed as homes could he return to Trinidad despite its preoccupation with race? Because of such concerns the novels became more densely layered, with a variety of significances, many levels of meaning, ranging from the autobiographical to the philosophical.
Bruce King

5. A Flag on the Island, The Mimic Men and The Loss of El Dorado

Abstract
A Flag on the Island (1967) brings together short fiction written at various times. ‘My Aunt Gold Teeth’ (dated 1954) the earliest of Naipaul’s collected writings, is set in Hindu rural Trinidad. Its amusing illustration of the way the community was changing through contact with other cultures reveals the antagonisms at the heart of social relations; the comedy of deceptions, feelings of guilt and family recriminations results from giving in to the temptation to try the ways of others. An orthodox Hindu’s wife resorts to Roman Catholic prayers to overcome her barrenness; when her husband, a pundit, dies her prayers are said to have caused his death and she is told that she does not deserve to have children to care for her in old age. The aunt’s ignorance of the significance of both the Hindu and Catholic rituals she practises, as well as the various ethnic animosities within the community, foreshadow the title story ‘A Flag on the Island’, written (1965) during the time Naipaul was working at The Mimic Men. The two stories and the novel are in part about communal antagonisms and the cultural confusions and mimicry of cultural behaviour that occur when different groups are brought together and society is in a period of change. The title story is also concerned with commitment and the dangers of the Americanization of the West Indies.
Bruce King

6. In a Free State

Abstract
Three of Naipaul’s best works of fiction, In a Free State, Guerrillas and A Bend in the River, were written in England during the ten years when he lived in Wiltshire, interrupted by travels abroad on assignments as a journalist. While offering portraits and analysis of the postcolonial world, their main concerns are the nature of freedom, commitment and authenticity in relation to experience and giving purpose to life. Ideas are questioned by actualities. The focus is usually on individuals, their hopes, desires, fears; lives show the real as opposed to abstract theoretical problems of liberty and human nature. These novels are rich in psychology, in awareness of how insecurity is transformed into violence and tyranny. People are often driven by self-defeating emotions and repeat the same patterns of behaviour. Personal lives illuminate the political. In a world without stability or purpose is there anything more than the law of the jungle, the hunter and the prey?
Bruce King

7. The Overcrowded Barracoon, ‘Michael X’, Guerrillas and India: A Wounded Civilization

Abstract
Naipaul published a selection of his essays and journalism as The Overcrowded Barracoon (1972) which includes, along with some autobiography and comments on India, studies of small, economically unviable, islands caught up in the drama, rhetoric and delusions of independence. Anguilla, a Caribbean island with a population of six thousand, wants to go it alone, but has not the economic means, is unable to defend itself and is vulnerable to every sweet-talking hustler or crook. If only for its own protection it needs to belong to a larger economic and political body. Mauritius, the Indian Ocean island where ‘the dodo forgot how to fly, because it had no enemies’ (p. 277), was once uninhabited. Since the seventeenth century there have been various attempts to settle the land, grow sugar cane, import slaves and use indentured Indian immigrants for labour. After malaria was eradicated in the late 1940s the population increased rapidly and keeps growing. Sugar remains the sole export, there is massive unemployment, society is racially divided (‘rural labour is Indian; mulattos are civil servants; Blacks are artisans, dockworkers and fishermen; Chinese are in trade’), the country is independent, a ‘paradise’ to tourists, and ‘part of the great human engineering of recent empires, the shifting about of leaderless groups of conquered peoples’.
Bruce King

8. ‘A New King for the Congo’ and A Bend in the River

Abstract
Naipaul, who had spent a large part of 1965–66 in East Africa and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), returned to East Africa in 1971 and Zaire in 1975. His report on ‘A New King for the Congo: Mobutu and the Nihilism of Africa’ (1975) was republished in the collection of essays The Return of Eva Perón (1980) along with ‘Conrad’s Darkness’, the latter a slightly revised version of an essay written in July 1974. The novel A Bend in the River (1979) was followed by a limited edition of A Congo Diary (1980). At a conference Naipaul said, ‘You’ll find in the Congo all the nice ideas of Fanon ridiculously caricatured by the present ruler … Mobutu says … that he doesn’t have a borrowed soul any longer; his particular black thing is “authenticity”. Authenticity … is rejection of the strange, the difficult, the taxing; it is despair.’43
Bruce King

9. Finding the Centre, The Enigma of Arrival, A Turn in the South and India: A Million Mutinies Now

Abstract
Naipaul’s writing began to change again in the early 1980s. This new mood first appeared in the ‘two narratives’ of Finding the Centre (1984), ‘Prologue to an Autobiography’ and ‘The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro’. The relation of the writer’s self to his work is now accepted as the answer to the problems of marginality, exile and insecurity that characterized Naipaul’s earlier books. The centre is now the creation and discovery of the self rather than external in an ideal society. Recognition that the problems of Trinidad, India and England are similar and that all life is subject to change was followed by a new mellowness. There are still moments of irritability, but such eruptions are brief and followed by what may seem a too tolerant interest. At times Naipaul may be letting those he interviews convict themselves rather than openly judging them. Women also begin to appear in the books as enjoyable friends rather than as dangers who mislead men from their work.
Bruce King

10. A Way in the World: A Sequence

Abstract
A Way in the World (1994) is a ‘sequence’ of nine narratives including autobiography, fiction, history, scholarship, and imagined versions of actual lives. (The American edition describes the book as ‘a novel’ rather than ‘a sequence’.) It is set in Trinidad or places, such as South America and Africa, which have associations with its history. Many of the characters in the stories are real persons, some are fictionalized or composite versions of well-known people, while still others are invented. Details of Naipaul’s life can be found placed throughout the volume which offers some of the most personal remarks he has made concerning the ways colonialism had limited the possibilities of self-realization in Trinidad, as well as the historical and ethnic reasons for his estrangement from the Port of Spain he loved as a youth. The narrator is Naipaul, a Naipaul talking to the reader about a place he left some forty years earlier, at times has revisited, and about how it has changed. The stories include memories of Naipaul’s youth and family life, his first attempts to become a writer, and how he was influenced by anti-Indian racism on the part of black politicians.
Bruce King

11. Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey, ‘Our Universal Civilization’ and Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples

Abstract
Naipaul claims that he differs from previous writers who report from abroad in that he is himself an outsider who can see without European prejudices. That does not mean he sides with the opinions of those he writes about, but he claims to understand the issues, has felt similar emotions and tries to see the world through their eyes, a skill he has been practising since his teens. He feels free to be critical without the sentimentality and guilt of a European. Often his perspective is complicated by the position of Asiatics (his ironic term for Indians) in relation to dominant groups or by the history of Hinduism.
Bruce King

12. ‘Two Worlds’, Reading & Writing and Half a Life

Abstract
In ‘Two Worlds’, his Nobel Lecture (2001) in which he retells his career as a writer, Naipaul claims that he is ‘the sum’ of his books:
Each book, intuitively sensed and, in the case of fiction, intuitively worked out, stands on what has gone before, and grows out of it. I feel that at any stage of my literary career it could have been said that the last book contained all the others.54
Naipaul’s books emerge from and build on each other, so that such different works as A Way in the World, Reading & Writing and Half a Life are autobiographical, allude to his previous writings, and consequently have a significance more than the sum of their parts. They are also increasingly different from each other while having similar preoccupations such as freedom and change versus security and order. The themes are transposed into various keys so, for example, that the problems of personal, political, economic and cultural freedom may also be treated through sexual freedom.
Bruce King

13. Naipaul’s Critics and Postcolonialism

Abstract
The basis of most criticism of Naipaul is epitomized by a disagreement early in the careers of Naipaul, Sam Selvon and George Lamming after they moved to England. The three were among the first of what was to be regarded as the start of a modern West Indian literature and their writing was thought an expression of the politics that had led to decolonization and the formation of newly independent nations. Lamming did write novels pondering racial identity and politics. While Selvon is now best remembered for his amusing novels of black immigrant life in London, most of his novels concern Trinidad where Selvon sees the need for the Indians to accommodate themselves to the creolized Afro-Caribbean society that he regards as the future.
Bruce King
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