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Book Review January 22, 2003
Naipaul ’s Farewell: Homage to Sredni Vashtar
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 2 of 3
They, the new black rulers, didn't want any little Indians hanging around the Presidential Palace. Naipaul -- who must truly have been a nasty boy, a sneaking eavesdropper and swot, understood one thing well: though eddies of decency and culture were developing in the West Indies, none of them were in the market for a little Hindu boy possessed by a great, corrosive intellect. So Naipaul tilted to the Right, and stayed there most of his life. It's not admirable, but it's not very difficult to understand. Where else could he hope to find his cruel genius even tolerated?

Other Windies could try for the patronage of the Left, which had begun to cultivate "voices of color" -- but they meant righteous, Ciceronian outrage from black, not Brahmin-beige, people. And when they said "new voices," they were not talking about a snotty brown boy's mocking, BBC-copying voice.

Naipaul was morally wrong, maybe; but he was right in what he saw. Above all, he was right to understand and try to deal with his complete unsuitability for inclusion in the literary anthologies of the Peace Corps era. (Theroux, you will recall, was a PC Old Boy from way back -- from Africa, blackest Africa. did Naipaul ever befriend that creep in the first place?)

Even now, you won't find Naipaul in the anthologies of brave black literature from the West Indies. Derek Walcot and Naipaul; the antithesis between them has always been absolute, and accepted as such even (nay, particularly) by literary progressives who deny all such distinctions.

Walcott knew Naipaul from way back, and hated Naipaul intensely and silently, for decades-until, having won the Nobel, he felt he could now speak ex cathedra. He instantly denounced Naipaul as a racist, a black-hating little bigot -- a perfectly true charge, of course.

But hardly one which disqualifies Naipaul as literary contender. If you had to cut the bigots from a list of great 20th-c. writers you'd end up with no list. So Naipaul, a convicted bigot, gets off with parole on that charge.

But the young Naipaul knew where he was and wasn't wanted. He knew that corrosive minds like his had one choice: migrate to the Right. Because at least the Right (the mid-twentieth century literary Right) did not completely forbid close, corrosive observation -- which the Left definitely did.

So Naipaul used his lifesaving scholarship to go and join the Tory essayists of London. They patronized him, commissioned him to write reviews and BBC pieces. But how they must have hurt him. Imagine Naipaul at a party with the likes of, oh, say Paul Johnson or A. N. Wilson. Every time Naipaul opens his mouth, they can humiliate him -- for his Trinidad accent, if he uses it, and worse still for his BBC inflection. If imperfect, it earns a fast chuckle; if perfect, it proves the little brown fellow is nothing but a swot and a climber.

How many times did he smile queasily at his mentors' "friendly" chuckles? We won't find out, because Naipaul never bitched about it. I think it wasn't just stoicism; I think it hurts him too much, even now. Those people are the best torturers in the world, and they had him on their table for years before he was famous enough to earn their fawning.

Till lately, Naipaul has never said much at all about his apprenticeship, especially the painful early stages of it. And that's where Half A Life comes in. In this latest novel, now in paperback, Naipaul lets his hero, Willie Chandran, tell the reader about this own modest successes on the Tory circuit. Even though it's clear that his BBC mentors find Willie/Naipaul slightly less than human, Willie is consistently grateful to them. And his creator has been too. Naipaul has paid the Tory intellectuals who sponsored him the greatest gift a corrosive writer like him can ever give: he has never written about them.

That's the kindness of a Sredni Vashtar: not to look at you-or at least, not to write about you.

(It's amusing to see Theroux, in his book-length tantrum with Naipaul, try to write corrosively of Sredni Vashtar. It fails so completely that it's touching, like watching a puppy defend the house from...from, let's say, a giant, ferocious weasel.)

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