VS Naipaul: Colonialism in fact, fiction, and the flesh
Naipaul personified what European colonialism, racist to the very core of its logic, had done to his and to our world.
By: Hamid Dabashi
VS Naipaul has died. VS Naipaul was a cruel man. The cruelty of colonialism was written all over him – body and soul.
VS Naipaul was a scarred man. He was the darkest dungeons of colonialism incarnate: self-punishing, self-loathing, world-loathing, full of nastiness and fury. Derek Walcott famously said of Naipaul that he commanded a beautiful prose “scarred by scrofula”. That scrofula was colonialism.
Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul had abbreviated his history to palatable capitalised initials the British could pronounce. He was born in rural Trinidad in 1932, where the British had ruled since 1797, adding Tobago to it in 1814. By 1889 the two colonies were combined and Indian labourers – of whom Naipaul was a descendant – were brought in to toil on sugar plantations. He was born to this colonial history and all its postcolonial consequences.
By 1950 Naipaul was at Oxford on a government scholarship, just as the supreme racist Sir Winston Churchill was to start his second term as prime minister. Can you fathom an 18-year old Indian boy from Trinidad at Oxford in Churchill’s England? You might as well be a Muslim Mexican bellboy at Trump Tower.
In a famous passage the late Edward Said wrote of Naipaul: “The most attractive and immoral move, however, has been Naipaul’s, who has allowed himself quite consciously to be turned into a witness for the Western prosecution.” This alas was far worse than mere careerism. Naipaul was, at his best and his worst, a witness for the Western prosecution. He did not fake it. He was the make of it.
Naipaul personified what European colonialism, racist to the very core of its logic, had done to his and to our world. He basked in what the rest of us loathe and defy. He made of his obsequious submission to colonialism a towering writing career. He was Aime Cesaire, Frantz Fanon, James Baldwin, CLR James and Edward Said gone bad. In them we see defiance of the cruel colonial fate. In him we see someone bathing naked in that history. In them we see the beauty of revolt, in him the ugliness of impersonating colonial cruelty.
Naipaul saw the world through the pernicious vision British colonialism had invested and impersonated in him. He became a ventriloquist for the nastiest cliches European colonialism had devised to rule the world with arrogance and confidence. He proved them right. He wrote, as CLR James rightly said, “what the whites want to say but dare not”. This of course was before Donald Trump’s America and Boris Johnson’s England – where the racist whites are fully out of their sheets and hoods carrying their torches, burning their crosses, and looking for their letterboxes in the streets of Charlottesville and London.
Naipaul took the English language from his masters, as we all do, turned it upside down to fit the form of his colonised soul. He indeed wrote the English prose masterfully, but of the slavery of a mind suspicious of triumphant resistance. James Baldwin also wrote English prose beautifully, as did Edward Said, but reading them ennobles our souls, reading Naipaul is an exercise in self-flagellation.
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Naipaul was an Indian Uncle Tom catapulted to the Trinidad corner of British colonialism – exuding the racist stereotypes and prejudices his British masters had taught him to believe about himself and his people.
Yes he was a racist bigot – the finest specimen of racism and bigotry definitive to the British colonialism that crafted his prose, praised his poise and knighted him at one and the same time.
He was a misogynist for that was what the British liberal imperialism had taught him he was. He acted the role to perfection. He crafted a dark soul in himself to prove his racist masters right. When he wrote of our criminalities his masters loved it, “you see he is one of them but he writes our language so well”, and when he acted like a brute his masters sniggered and said, “you see still the Indian from Trinidad”. For them he was win-win, for us, lose-lose.
Naipaul loathed Trinidad and he detested England – he wanted to hide where came from and destroy the place where he could not call his. He belonged to nothing and to nowhere. He sought refuge at his writing desk. In his first three books – The Mystic Masseur (1957), The Suffrage of Elvira (1958) and Miguel Street (1959) he retrieved what was left of his Caribbean childhood. In A House for Mr Biswas (1961) he sought to project his relations with his own father in what his admirers consider his masterpiece. In his published correspondences with his father, Between Father and Son: Family Letters (1999), he crafted and killed his parentage in one literary move.
Throughout his travels – in Africa he saw darkness, in India banality and destitution, in Muslim lands fanaticism and stupidity. The world, wherever he went, was the extension of his Trinidad, the darkened shadows of his own brutally colonised soul.
I read his Among the Believers (1981) cover to cover when I was writing my book on Iranian resolution – shaking with disgust at his steady course of stupidity, ignorance, and flagrant racism. He knew next to nothing about Iran or any other Muslim country he visited. In all of them he was a vicious Alice in a whacky wonderland of his own making. How dare he, I remember thinking, writing with such wanton ignorance about nations and their brutalised destines, their noble struggles, their small but lasting triumphs!
In both his brilliance and in his banality, in his mastery of the English prose and cruelty of the vision he saw through it, VS Naipaul was a witness, as Edward Said rightly wrote. But under what Said saw as “witness for the Western prosecution” dwelled a much nastier truth. Naipaul was the walking embodiment of European colonialism – in fact, fiction, and flesh. He was a product of that world – in his fiction he mapped its global spectrum, and in his person, he thrived and made a long lucrative career proving all its bigoted banalities right.
We may never see the likes of VS Naipaul again. May we never see the likes of VS Naipaul again.