November 11, 2021

V.S. Naipaul was a scathing critic of postcolonial societies and their offspring. In his fiction and travelogues, the Indo-Trinidadian author depicted the newly liberated nations of the Third World as something akin to a grim joke, ironising the chasm between their utopian aspirations and the sordid and often bloody realities that followed their independence.

This stance won him few friends among his fellow postcolonial writers. The Caribbean historian C.L.R. James spoke for many when he dismissed Naipaul as a colonial stooge who simply published “what the whites want to say, but dare not”. But while it may have been true that Naipaul provided comfort to Westerners licking their wounds over the end of European empire, he also offered something to those he critiqued: a challenge. Naipaul wrote about the pathologies of the downtrodden with an intimacy that could neither be faked nor ignored. Today, at a time when the American empire has entered its twilight, Europe is somnolent, and the long-marginalised are slowly attaining power commensurate with their numbers, Naipaul’s challenge feels worth reflecting upon.

“He had been fed by so many civilisations; so much had gone into making him what he was, but now, at what should have been the beginning of his intellectual life, he [had] cut himself off,” he wrote in his travelogue Among the Believers about a Leftist Iranian friend whose life he used to critique the culturally defensive trajectory of Iran after its revolution. The Iranians had wanted the amenities of modernity — fighter jets, medical technology, television. But the headlong cultural Westernisation of the Shah had unnerved them. Their passionate, unforeseen revolution had tried to turn back to the past while holding onto modernity’s material benefits, only to find that such a thing was impossible. The new regime they now lived with was ruthlessly modern in its style of oppression while still corrosive to the old values. In place of the Shah, they had not received the warm certainties of the past, but a gaping spiritual void.

It was these types of half-modernised peoples whose psychology Naipaul picked apart in his travel writings, from the Middle East to India, to Argentina. Even as he skewered the hypocrisy and brutality of empire, which he did with quiet effectiveness, Naipaul knew the pathologies of those on the other side. The child of an impoverished Caribbean society deeply shaped by the slave trade and colonialism, Naipaul, when he turned his sights onto his own people and those like them, knew how to press where it hurt.

Naipaul’s fiction, for which he won the Booker Prize fifty years ago this month, poked holes in the confidence of the newly liberated masses. In his 1979 novel, A Bend in the River, Naipaul depicted a fictional African country spiralling into the abyss after winning its freedom. At a time when cathartic violence was very popular on the postcolonial Left, he wasted no time pointing out where those furies would lead. “They’re going to kill all the masters and all the servants. When they’re finished nobody will know there was a place like this here. They’re going to kill and kill. They say it is the only way, to go back to the beginning before it’s too late.” These chilling words remind one of the apocalyptic visions of Isis. But they could describe any number of countries that have plunged into limitless violence after winning independence.

“Hate oppression; fear the oppressed,” Naipaul once wrote, pessimistically. Too often this has turned out to be wise advice. Naipaul painted with a broad brush. He got his share of things wrong. Later in his life, he even succumbed to the same fanaticism and hypocrisy for which he chastised others. Even so, his writings — about the squalor of India, the prideful stagnation of most Muslim countries, and the dangerous fantasies of the recently liberated across Africa and Latin America — could not be brushed off as simple ignorance. They had the sting of truth.

I started reading Naipaul a few years ago on the recommendation of friends. These recommendations typically came with a murmured warning that his politics were questionable, but that his books were worth it for the prose alone. I found that they were even better than that. Discovering Naipaul was like finding a curmudgeonly uncle who could point to one’s neuroses because he, too, had suffered from them.

Any reader who identifies with what used to be known as the ‘developing world’ will find in Naipaul’s writing a heavy dose of introspection. Naipaul’s first book about India, An Area of Darkness, was so pitiless about the country’s backwardness that its publication there was banned for several years after its initial release in 1964. His words seemed to open something up in people who were willing to listen. The Indian writer Pankaj Mishra said that the experience of discovering Naipaul as a young man left him “shocked and bewildered”. “I didn’t know that you could write a book like that about India,” he added. “I think it was the first book I read in English that contained the world I lived.”

Naipaul could be ungenerous to his subjects, most of whom were just emerging towards political independence after the long trauma of colonisation. But by shining a harsh spotlight on their failures, he also offered them a more comprehensive kind of freedom. Naipaul returned to those he wrote about moral responsibility for their own condition. This was the burden of independence, and accepting it, Naipaul suggested, was the only way that the formerly colonised would ever truly be liberated.

There’s a lesson in Naipaul’s life story as well. As the son of a lower middle-class Indo-Trinidadian family, he had one of the unlikeliest literary careers in history. At a time when the Western publishing world was considered the racial patrimony of those who controlled it, Naipaul triumphed so thoroughly that his personal background became immaterial. By the time Naipaul finished A House for Mr Biswas in 1961, he had established himself as perhaps the finest writer of the English language to be published in decades.

Naipaul achieved this in the face of an atmosphere that was not just unwelcoming but actively hostile. He did not retreat into a defensive cocoon but instead conquered the English literary world on his own terms. Like James Baldwin, whose writings on race dwarf most of what is published on the subject today in eloquence and coherence, Naipaul’s writings were put up against the Darwinian test of an unsympathetic audience. “I have got to show these people that I can beat them at their own language,” he wrote to his father in an anguished letter while at Oxford. And he did.

The “bootstrap” mantra of modern American conservatism is correctly criticised for serving as a defence of unjust economic or social arrangements, often by those who fail to live up to the high standards they prescribe for others. But there is also something to be said for persevering in the face of a world that never has been and never will be fair. “The world is what it is,” as Naipaul put it in the immortal opening lines of A Bend in the River, and those who begin at a disadvantage must strive to be their best selves regardless. This, at least, was the world that he inhabited. “You couldn’t be a victim in the 1950s,” Naipaul observed drily. “There wasn’t the market.”

If there was no market for victimhood in Naipaul’s time, even for a brown-skinned, lilting-accented son of Caribbean poverty, now it seems there is no market for anything else. These days I sometimes find myself involuntarily rolling my eyes at the mention of terms like “race” and “empire,” even though, objectively speaking, they remain important subjects. The deference that comes when these sacred terms are invoked feels too easy. No one has the courage to push back, to demand from the victims rigour and consistency. Without worthy adversaries to overcome, their writing devolves into cliché.

Like C.L.R. James and Edward Said, I likely would have been a political opponent of Naipaul had I lived in his time. But one does not need to endorse all of his views to recognise that he was a worthy critic of many who would conceive of themselves as members of an underclass — and that we, like everyone else, need such critics. I never met him. Yet reading his books decades after they were published, I’ve often had the feeling that that Naipaul was challenging me personally. His entire career was an argument against taking up the mantle of sainted victimhood.  To a reader of a particular background, he offers bitter medicine through self-reflection rather than the sugar rush of moral self-righteousness.

Fifty years after winning the Booker Prize and a few years after his own death, it turns out that this descendant of indentured labourers cast off by the British Empire still has something important to say.