Free Press Journal

From absurdist to absurd: The spurious case of VS Naipaul


We may never see the likes of VS Naipaul again. May we never see the likes of VS Naipaul again,” Hamid Dabashi sums up his obituary of VS Naipaul with these strong words. Let us unpack this statement. We may not see someone dribbling with English prose with the ease that Naipaul did, for the dedication required to the craft is on a wane with a rapidly reducing attention span. If Dabashi means, we may not see a celebrated writer who also wears regressive ideology on his sleeve, well, we just need to look around the bestseller lists, and we know Dabashi is merely choking on polluted air and dreaming up a utopia. What Dabashi means, I think, is that we may not see someone who is masterful in his craft, and also a torchbearer, celebrating the scars of colonialism. The second part of Dabashi’s statement is a prayer in vain – we will see the likes of Naipaul more and more (minus that kind of control over prose) as neo-imperialism inflicts new kinds of wounds. Some write to heal their wounds, some to lick them.

The passage of Sir Naipaul (1932-2018) has led to a spate of illuminating essays about his writing and politics – however, most of them in the end, decrying him. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Mark Antony says, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interrèd with their bones. So let it be with Caesar.” (Act 3, Sc 2) So let it be with Naipaul.

I turned to what critics and intellectuals had to say about him during his prime years. Selwyn R. Cudjoe published a book titled V.S.Naipaul: A Materialist Reading, in 1988, in which he delves into various phases of the writer’s career. Cudjoe was prompted by a response to a lecture he delivered in 1978 at Columbia University, about how resistance had fashioned Carribean prose. A student questioned how Naipaul fitted into this tradition. Cudjoe responded that there had been “positive dimensions of that tradition” like in George Lamming, and others like Naipaul had responded to its negative aspects. A fellow panelist said that Naipaul was “just reactionary”.  Naipaul has had to contend with this binary, and eventually be at one of the binary himself. The first world critics have usually hailed him as exposing the state of the developing world, postcolonial world and the Islamic world; while the third world critics have seen him as regressive and reactionary, as Edward Said and CLR James gone wrong.

CLR James, the great Trinidadian writer, looked up to by the subaltern studies scholars and several others, talked of the power of Naipaul emanating from “advanced nature of Carribean societies,” them having been exposed to Western culture for three hundred years since the inception of plantation economy there, and through that interaction having developed a “highly developed modern language.” So, while today CLR James and Naipaul are at two ends of the balance, the former considered the latter a force to reckon with. Naipaul himself denied being part of the Carribean tradition – even though his father also was a journalist and writer – and helped perpetuate the myth of a “freak genius”. He was playing to the gallery and knew what works. It is something akin to calling Dara Shikoh (at the other end of the spectrum as Naipaul’s) a “freak poet prince” while Dara was well situated within the canon of Sufism, with all Mughal princes being so much as fed on the milk of Sufi “wet nurses”.

Postmodernism, for whatever it means, has always hung heavy in the loom and the doom of the world –a powerful idea, which can go either way. There’s Jinnah and there’s Gandhi; there’s Dara and there’s Aurangzeb; and there’s James and there’s Naipaul. There will always be doppelgangers to show the dark side of the moon. Naipaul was born to poverty, to din, and to a tin house; and as James put it, to a rich tradition of writing. A young Naipaul went to Oxford at the age of 18, and determined to undo his poverty, crossed over to being an apologist of colonialism rather than being the force of resistance.

While it is contended that Naipaul’s Nobel in 2001 was a result of the Afghan war and a general Islamophobia, which he very much played to in his final years; Cudjoe talks of him as a powerful contender for the Nobel as far back as in 1988. Also, the Naipaul of 1960s was seen as a nihilist and absurdist. Gordon Rohlehr says in 1963, “It is only when one reads The Middle Passage that one realises how completely Naipaul has accepted anarchy and absurdity as the norms of his society.” This is the danger of the postmodern condition – the absurdist became absurd himself – saying Jane Austen is boring (which many students of literature may feel), that women writers cannot match him; and of course his uninformed, infamous rant against the Islamic world.