Literature: A Voice For Dire Times

Literary oddsmakers were caught short last week with the announcement that V. S. Naipaul had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Sir Vidia has long been thought unofficially ineligible, not least because of the rudeness and thorough-going political incorrectness of his opinions. He despises colonialism and its aftermath. But he also sneers at the formerly colonized. Islam, he recently informed the world, is beneath contempt--but then, so is every other religion. In books, articles and interviews, he has managed to belittle or insult every culture under the sun, including that of his adopted England. Dour, pessimistic, a child of the Third World but truly at home no-where, Naipaul seems an odd candidate for the Nobel. This year, however, he's a natural.

What makes Naipaul such a challenge for both his fans and his detractors is that this 67-year-old author's opinions would not carry the weight they do were he not such a fearsome writer. Reviewing the latest Naipaul novel, "Half a Life," Paul Theroux, who recently devoted an entire book to his fractious--and finally broken--friendship with Naipaul, wrote, "Even though I have suggested that personally Naipaul is a sourpuss, a cheapskate and a blamer, I have the highest regard for his work. He is, like Conrad, a most serious and self-conscious writer; everything he writes is freighted with intention and every word deliberately chosen."

The comparison with Conrad is apt. The Poland that produced Conrad was less a country than a concept at the time of his birth, having been claimed and reclaimed by larger empires for centuries. Naipaul's native Trinidad was an English colony, while he was the child of the descendants of Indian immigrants. Questions of identity and the ruinous effects of colonialization haunt the works of both men, each of whom, by various paths, found in England a permanent, albeit always uneasy, address.

Naipaul's earliest novels, such as "The Mystic Masseur" and "Miguel Street," written in the '50s, are wry comedies of manners. "A House for Mr. Biswas," published in 1961, is his breakthrough masterpiece, fusing social comedy and genuine pathos in the story of a Trinidadian for whom owning a home is the validating fact of his existence. As he progressed, the focus of his work expanded to include Africa, the Indian Subcontinent, England and, in an odd and oddly charming foray, a tour of the American South.

As book followed book, too, the tone darkened, the humor curdled. The modern world, Naipaul insists, is a disaster. In novels such as "A Bend in the River" and travel writing that included "Among the Believers," his disdainful look at Islamic culture from Iran to Indonesia, he bears unforgiving witness, harshly judging both colonizers and the colonized. He reaffirmed those opinions at a reading last week in London, condemning what he called Islam's "calamitous effect." Elaborating, he went on to say, "To be converted, you have to destroy your past, destroy your history. You have to stamp on it, you have to say, 'My ancestral culture does not exist, it doesn't matter'."

Yet the fair-minded reader must admit that while there is always something to disagree with in a Naipaul book, there is also a lot to learn. Yes, he is something of a cultural tourist and a literary incendiary--and curiously willing to make bland generalizations about the Third World, ignoring the fact that Pakistanis are as likely to differ from Indonesians as Iowans from the Irish. But give Naipaul this much: before issuing his screeds, he has always taken the trouble to get off his backside and have a look for himself.

When this writer picked up "A Turn in the South," it was with every expectation that Naipaul would trash the region where I grew up. Instead, he was grudgingly beguiled by what he found below the Mason-Dixon line, and in turn he beguiled me. He got the place, with all its tragedy and comedy inextricably interwoven, as few writers have. And, it cannot be said enough, Naipaul's cultural credentials are impeccable. He is himself dispossessed, and yet he has fought terribly hard to fashion a voice with which to counter and articulate the cultural confusion of the Third World from which he comes. Even those of us who find much to dislike in his work must admit that in this aim he has succeeded as well as anyone before or since--and more often than most.

Lately, it has become all too easy to dismiss what he has to say as merely the fulminating of a Cassandra in overdrive. Surely, we are tempted to say, the world cannot be that bad. But just as surely we have felt that way because the cultural bankruptcy that Naipaul chronicles has always been--for Americans at least--an ocean away in any direction. Rereading Naipaul now, in light of recent events, giving ourselves up to what the Swedish Academy called his "incorruptible scrutiny," is to hear a dry, wise and illusionless voice whispering, "Welcome to the world."