Why Sir Vidia Won

Literary oddsmakers were caught short this week with the announcement that V.S. Naipaul had won the Nobel prize for literature. Sir Vidia has long been thought at least unofficially ineligible, not because he isn't talented; his talent has never been in dispute. But neither has the rudeness and thoroughgoing 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. Never say that Naipaul is not an equal-opportunity offender.

In books, articles and interviews, he has managed to belittle or insult nearly every culture under the sun, including that of his adopted England. He has jeered at every writer of stature still living and quite a few long dead. He even managed, in a book charting the correspondence between himself as a student and budding author in England and his father, a journalist and an amateur author back in Trinidad, to look down his nose at his own dad. Dour, pessimistic, a child of the Third World but truly at home nowhere, Naipaul is not an odd candidate for the Nobel. This year at least, he's a natural.

But back to the talent--or rather, back to what makes Naipaul such a challenge for both his fans and his detractors. Which 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 Indian immigrants. Questions of identity and the ruinous effects of colonialization haunt the works of both men, each of whom, by various paths, fetched up in England as a permanent, albeit uneasy, address.

Naipaul's earliest novels, such as "The Mystic Masseur" and "Miguel Street," written in the '50s, are wry comedies of manners. As he progressed, the focus of his work expanded to include Africa, the Indian subcontinent, England and in an oddly beguiling tour of the American South. And as book followed book, the tone darkened, the humor curdled. The modern world, he 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, Naipaul was an unforgiving witness, harshly judging both colonizers and the colonized. He was never charitable about the emerging nation-states of Africa, nor about the tradition-minded fundamentalists of the Middle East. 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." It was grimly amusing to watch a spokesman for the Swedish Academy try to spin that sentiment in a positive manner. "I don't think we will have violent protests from the Islamic countries," said Horace Engdahl, "and if they take care to read his travel books from that part of the world they will realize that his view of Islam is a lot more nuanced."

Whether such damage control--much less nuance--spares Naipaul the indignities of a fatwa remains to be seen, but 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 incendiarist--and curiously willing to make bland generalizations about the Third World, ignoring that fact that Pakistanis are as likely to differ from Indonesians as Iowans are different from the Irish. For this he has been rightly criticized. Enumerating the superficial assumptions marring "Among the Believers," Naipaul's bleak look at Islam, Middle East authority Fouad Ajami called it his "thinnest and least impressive book."

But give Naipaul this much: before issuing his condemnations, 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 and that I would hate what he had to say.

Instead, he was grudgingly impressed by what he found below the Mason-Dixon line, and in turn he impressed me. He got the place, with all its tragedy and comedy inextricably interwoven, as few writers have. And it cannot be said enough, his 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. 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.

It is often said that "A House for Mr. Biswas," published in 1961, is Naipaul's masterpiece, an opinion he himself affirmed recently when he said his only remaining ambition was to write another book as good as that one. A huge novel, running well over 500 pages, it narrates the efforts of Mohun Biswas, a Trinidadian loosely modeled on the author's father, to own his own home. The critic Michael Thorpe has ascribed the book's popularity to "its universality of subject and theme, the struggle of one ordinary man to climb--or cling to--the ladder of life; the ordinariness lies in his ambitions for home, security, status, his desire to live through his son, yet he remains an individual." From the first paragraph, we know we are in the hands of a master of tone, setting and, yes, nuance--and a bitterly funny writer in the bargain: "Ten weeks before he died, Mr. Mohun Biswas, a journalist of Sikkim Street, St. James, Port of Spain, was sacked. He had been ill for some time ... When the doctor advised him to take a complete rest, the Trinidad Sentinel had no choice. It gave Mr. Biswas three months' notice and continued, up to the time of his death, to supply him every morning with a free copy of the paper."

The levity that made tragedy bearable in that book has gradually seeped from Naipaul's writing, to the point that he has lately seemed almost completely humorless. Worse, it has become all too easy to dismiss what he has to say as merely the fulmination 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."