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Category: Reviews Date: 14 Jan 99


‘I believe Theroux has missed the point. His vicious book, instead of diminishing Naipaul, has served only to confirm that his estranged friend has found immortality as the finest living writer in English.’

Ira Mathur

 

“Someone who builds a life on being pleasured by honour and flattery can only have known great rejection and insecurity and a yearning to belong. Vidia’s temperament was a riddle. There seemed to me, nothing lower than being beastly to book-tour escorts and nasty to secretaries, or to any underling who, out of nervousness, made gauche remarks. Did Vidia’s compulsion to intimidate such people arise from his having felt rejected himself? He did not make much of his experience of racism, but he acknowledged that he had known it in England. His cruelty could have been a case of monumental payback, though it was anyones guess why his victims were innocent Americans and English flunkies and earnest Hollanders.

“Vidia denied being Indian. He saw himself as ‘a new man.’ But he behaved like an upper-caste Indian. And Vidia often assumed the insufferable ‘do you know who I am?’ posturing of a particular kind of Indian bureaucrat which is always a sign of inferiority. It had taken me a long time to understand that Vidia was not in any sense English, not even Anglicized, but Indian to his core; caste conscious, race conscious, a food fanatic, precious in his fears from worrying about his body being ‘tainted’. Because he was an Indian from the West Indies, defensive, feeling his culture was under siege, his attitudes approached the level of self parody.

“He lost his humour, he blunted his descriptive gift, he denounced universities, he bemoaned readers, he tried to hold a funeral and bury the novel. But like the soothsayer who sees only evil because he is a miserable grouch, Vidia was not to be taken seriously.”

Extracts from “Sir Vidias Shadow:. A Friendship across Five Continents” by Paul Theroux.

 

This book is an act of revenge, an epic poison pen letter. A massive Shakespearean stab in the back of a 30-year-old friend. Parts of it are so like intense hate mail that it is written like an obituary because Naipual is spoken of as if he no longer exists. In “Sir Vidia’s Shadow” by Paul Theroux are scores of anecdotes which show how bitter Naipaul is, how cheap, how absurd, how cruel, how arrogant, how insecure, how physically ugly (“his personality dominated his face, which was forever contorted, twisted down in disapproval and misery and suffering”).

 

There’s more on how ignorant he is, of his absurd generalizations on Islam, and India and writing and people. He is conceited: “an enigma, a mocker, a complainer.” He is a snob. In Kampala he “belittled the politicians, ridiculed the currency, sneered at the newspapers.” Naipaul is also, according to Theroux, greedy money-minded, a misogynist, a visitor of prostitutes, finicky. Finally at the end of the book, Theroux attacks Naipaul’s centre calling his recent books “odd and insufficient”.

 

The book is vastly entertaining, because it does sound like the Naipaul we know. The very one who told local journalists that he “doesn’t know any Indians” when asked his opinion on the East Indian experience in Trinidad. The very man who told local journalists that the politics of a country of 1.2 million people doesn’t interest him. The man who has written scathingly about his own people and disowned his country.

 

One of the first chapters is bound to catch the West Indian eye. It is titled On Safari in Rwanda. It is roaringly funny to read about Naipaul in the late 60s during a safari when he wore heavy clothes “like a hunter or soldier”. He wore his expensive camera “as an accessory, a big thing thumping on his chest.” The conclusion was that “with his downturned hat brim and his downturned mouth and the way he sweated in those heavy clothes in the Ugandan hot season, Vidia appeared conspicuous and comic.”

 

During this long safari we learn through Paul Theroux that Naipaul was “knowledgeable and enthusiastic” about calypso.

“Vidia had written, in ‘The Middle Passage,’ ‘ It is only in the calypso that the Trinidadian touches reality’. Tell your sister to come down, boy. I have something here for she. That was Mighty Sparrow, whom Vidia called Sparrow. Lord Invader, another calypso singer, he called, familiarly, Invader. Vidia sang in his scratchy needle-on- record voice:

 

The only thing to stop these hooligans from causing panic in the island;

Well, I go by the government,

Say they need another kind of punishment,

I say one thing to cool on this crime

Is bring back that old-time cat-o-nine”

 

And in the same “tone-deaf voice” that “oddly affected” Theroux he sang the chorus.

 

There is another hilarious little anecdote in that chapter, this time reportedly told by Naipaul to his friend Theroux over the wrong spelling of names. “He (Naipaul) said he had once received a letter from Penguin Books addressed to “VS Naipaul.” It was from a man named Anthony Mott. Vidia replied, typing on the envelope, ‘To a Mutt,’ and began his letter, ‘Dear Mr Mutt.’”

 

We are also given proof of Naipaul’s finicky ways, his distaste of dirt and disorder. This was set in a hotel restaurant in Kisoro where he had stopped for lunch. Naipaul himself reportedly told Theroux this story so it’s told in Naipaul’s voice. Naipaul summoned the manager

 

“When he came to our table, I said, ‘You have very strange rules here.’

‘Strange rules? What do you mean?’

‘Rules governing the condition of your staff uniforms’, I said

‘We have no such rules. Only that they wear them.’

‘Don’t you have a rule saying that all staff uniforms must be dirty?’

‘No’, he said.

‘Oh,’ I said, ‘I thought that, because they were all dirty, your staff must be obeying a rule.’

 

“The manager glared at me. But I was not through. ‘The other rule I noticed was the one about serving. Whenever a plate or bowl is brought the table, the waiter has his thumb stuck in the food. That’s surely a rule, because they all do it.’”

 

There is another incident over which the reader is not sure whether to laugh or get angry. It took place after Paul Theroux described the scene of the Clapham riots in London.

“‘That was not a riot,’ he said. “ That was a disturbance. Frightening, I grant you. But not a riot.’

‘Hundreds of people. Angry West Indians.’

“‘Not angry,” he said. ‘Why would they be angry? They were jubilant. They wanted witnesses, and people took notice. They succeeded in destroying something. Windows, whatever. I suppose they stole some television sets.’”

 

Naipaul is capable of dismissing whole continents. Take this conversation with Theroux in Uganda when he was only 34. Theroux asks him his feelings on African literature.

“Does it exist?”

“Wole Soyinka. Chinua Achebe.”

“Did they write anything?”

“ Novels’ I said

“Mimicry,’ he said. “ You can’t beat a novel out on a drum.”

 

Naipaul has a word for people he considers inferior. “Infi”, he calls them. He walks out of countries and dinner parties even if he is the guest of honour if an “infi” annoys him.

 

A recurring theme in the book is that Naipaul avoided paying restaurant bills over this 30-year friendship.

“The bill was brought. I paid it, I left the tip. Vidia had not seen it. He did not see bills even when they were brought on the most expensive china and folded like origami and presented to him. It was one of his survival skills that a bill come and go without ever being visible.”

 

But these are mere trifles when one considers how far he has come. Both the Naipaul brothers were given glimpses of a larger life, liberated, by their father who wrote, and read books. Shiva was to write of him.

“Nothing in the rough, often squalid largely illiterate peasant environment out of which he had sprung augured so peculiar a life story. It was a leap of ambition, of imagination, of sensibility, which moves and astonishes me.”

 

Thanks to their father’s leap of ambition Naipaul was able to achieve the accolade of the finest living novelist in English. Even Theroux has had to admit that Naipaul is stimulating, brilliant, funny, curious because otherwise there would be no value to the man and nobody, would buy Theroux’s book on him.

 

“He had impossibly high standards. He said there was no point in having standards unless they were high. He did not compromise. He expected the best, in writing, in speaking, in behaviour, in reading.”

 

Although “Sir Vidia’s Shadow” is undeniably gripping, after a while it loses its credibility. No man can be so bad. The book only gets away from being churlish because it is sold as a portrait of a friendship. It allows us to eavesdrop on countless conversations: Sir Vidia in delicate lunch parties, Sir Vidia as a householder in a cramped flat and a larger house with a garden where instead of flowers, he planted only various shades of green; Sir Vidia on a snowy evening in America. As West Indian readers we are privileged because at times we know where he’s coming from. After all if he loves cricket, different shades of green, calypso, he can’t be that bad.

 

There was never any question of Naipaul returning to Trinidad because there is nobody to read, write or publish books here. There is no publishing industry. As far as he is concerned a society does not yet exist here. They are extreme views. But we can’t dismiss them entirely. The fact is that most great West Indian writers find it impossible to live here. CLR James went away. Walcott is here only for brief periods. We can’t sustain them. We are intellectually very young. Most of us barely get through a book a year.

 

Vidia’s late brother Shiva ultimately helps unravel their sense of exile, and ambivalence towards this country. The revelation comes from an extract of Shiva Naipaul’s essay for the BBC2 series “Writers and Places” broadcast in June 1982.

“The shadows on the horizon are oilrigs. Trinidad has struck it rich.

“Nobody dares to think of what might happen if and when the oil runs out.

“The gap separating rich from poor has become accentuated. The island is beginning to acquire a Latin-American profile. Rich and poor are evolving fantasies, which are not merely separate but deeply incompatible.

“Trinidad calls itself a nation. It has a flag, a flower, a seat in the UN. But we have no genuinely collective existence. We are merely a random collection of races thrown together by outside forces.

“Nations arise out of shared experience, shared memory, and shared aspiration. In Trinidad these ingredients have existed only in the most superficial forms. The fragments out of which our island society was haphazardly assembled had no communion with one another, no common sympathy. Each lived according to its own code and went its own way. Talk of a nation under these circumstances is late 20th century humbug. The term Trinidadian, aside from its geographical reference, has for me very little meaning.

“I live in London now. Yet the ragged landscape of Trinidad lives on in me. Its smells, its textures, its squalor and its beauties run in my blood. I cannot disown it and it cannot disown me.”

 

As a West Indian reader, I believe Theroux has missed the point. His vicious book, instead of diminishing Naipaul, has served only to confirm that his estranged friend has found immortality as the finest living writer in English.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur