He is the outstanding chronicler of the Anglophone Caribbean, the brightest literary beacon of the Indian diaspora and arguably Britain’s greatest living writer.
But V.S. Naipaul, prized by millions of readers for his precise language and thought and recent winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature, is just about the last author one would expect to win the Nobel. The Royal Swedish Academy, after all, is the same body that gave its 1997 prize to Dario Fo, the clownish Italian writer of bad agitprop plays.
Naipaul, on the other hand, not only excels at fiction (including his latest effort, “Half a Life) and non-fiction, he’s a purveyor of uncomfortable, politically incorrect truths in the clear-eyed, morally rigorous tradition of George Orwell – particularly when it comes to post-colonial or “Third World” societies like the one into which he was born.
The child of Indian Brahmins whose ancestors came to Trinidad in the late 19-th century, Sir Vidiadhar Naipaul grew up in Port of Spain before attending Oxford on a scholarship in 1950. Having moved, as he later put it “from the periphery to the center,” he made his home and his name in Britain, though his Trinidadian childhood and subsequent travels inspired much of his best work.
Perhaps his best-loved novel is the superb “A House for Mr. Biswas,” a dark, moving comedy of manners loosely based on his father’s life on the island. (Another much loved novel, also set in Trinidad, “The Mystic Masseur,” has just been made into a lyrical movie by Ismail Merchant – the first Naipaul book to be filmed.)
An exile and a member of an ethnic minority on several levels, Naipaul has written repeatedly about belonging and foreignness. But he has done so without a trace of the self-pity you find in the work of other post-colonial Caribbean writers like Caryl Phillips and Jamaica Kincaid.
Instead, in works that recall both Joseph Conrad and Evelyn Waugh -novels like the brilliant, quietly terrifying “A Bend in the River” and travelogues like “Islam: Among the Believers” – Naipaul has devoted himself to painting unromantic and often deeply bleak pictures of post-colonial societies.
What makes much of the non-fiction so effective is not so much Naipaul’s ability to synthesize his experiences, impressive though they are, but the way he lets the people he meets along the way tell their own stories. In the end you get a kind of dossier. “Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples,” for example, becomes at its conclusion a kind of unwitting indictment.
Though well-known for his pessimistic perception of Islamic countries like Iran, Indonesia and Malaysia, Naipaul’s depictions of India have provoked the most controversy.
Indeed, the publication of “An Area of Darkness” (1964) and the even more devastating “India A Wounded Civilization” (1977) – written during the “Emergency,” when Indira Ghandi assumed dictatorial powers – earned him the hatred of India’s endlessly self-congratulatory and thin-skinned post-independence elite.
Both books, which are essential reading for anyone who visits the subcontinent, depict a society that is fathomlessly indifferent to the vast poverty and suffering in its mist, a society whose cruelty is inextricably linked to habits of mind inculcated by Hindu tradition. Naipaul has since mellowed on India, however: In 1990, he published the rather more optimistic “India: A Million Mutinies Now.” But he remains an unapologetic champion of high culture, rationalism, individualism and of what he calls “our universal civilization.”
And it is to the credit of the Swedish Academy that it has recognized Naipaul “for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny.”