Tag Archive for 'V S Naipaul'

Girish Karnad takes on V.S. Naipaul

Supriya Nair in Mint:

Karnad, whose session was announced as a masterclass where the playwright would talk about “his life in theatre,” spoke instead about Naipaul’s mischaracterisations of Indian history and the politics of giving him an award in spite of his widely-quoted remarks about Indian Muslims, especially in light of Mumbai and India’s recent history.

Edited excerpts from Karnad’s remarks follow:

Why is Naipaul Being Honoured?

At the Mumbai Literature Festival this year, Landmark and Literature Alive have jointly given the Lifetime’s Achievement Award to Sir Vidia Naipaul. The award ceremony, held on the 31st of October at the National Centre of the Performing Arts, coyly failed to mention that Naipaul was not an Indian and has never claimed to be one. But at no point was the question raised, and the words Shashi Deshpande, the novelist, had used to describe the Neemrana Festival conducted by the ICCR in 2002 perfectly fitted the event: ‘It was a celebration of a Nobel Laureate… whom India, hopefully, even sycophantically, considered an Indian.’

Apart from his novels, only two of which take place in India and are abysmal, Naipaul has written three books on India and the books are brilliantly written—he is certainly among the great English writers of our generation. They have been hailed as a continued exploration of India’s journey into modernity, but what strikes one from the very first book, A Wounded Civilization, is their rabid antipathy to the Indian Muslim. The ‘wound’ in the title is the one inflicted on India by Babur’s invasion. Since then Naipaul has never missed a chance to accuse them of having savaged India for five centuries, brought, among other dreadful things, poverty into it, and destroyed glorious Indian culture. More:

Literary critic Deepanjana Pal was there at the Literature Live session and weighs in with…And Girish Karnad went Boom!

Natives on the boat: Teju Cole on V.S. Naipaul

In The New Yorker:

Two years ago, I was invited to a dinner party in New York. It took place on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, in a penthouse apartment. Our host was not merely rich: she had a name that through long association with money had itself become a shorthand for wealth. The dinner was being held in honor of a writer, by now old and famous, on the publication of his latest and perhaps final book. And because the book was about Africa, and because as a man ages his thoughts circle around questions of legacy, the writer, who was not himself African, had requested, in lieu of a normal book launch, a quiet dinner with a group of young African writers. This was how I came to be invited.

I stood in the luxurious living room of the penthouse, glass in hand, surrounded by Morandi’s paintings and Picasso’s prints. To the sound of a small bell, from a private elevator the old writer and his middle-aged wife emerged. He was short and stout—a little fat, even, though you could see he hadn’t always been so—and he walked across the marble floor unsteadily, with the aid of a walking stick, and with the aid of his wife, a dark-haired, dark-eyed woman, taller than him, glamorous in her pashmina. My agent, who was also the old writer’s agent, introduced us. “Teju, meet Vidia Naipaul.”

The faint hiss of champagne being poured. The clink of glasses. Far below us was the obscurity of the East River and, beyond it, the borough of Queens, glimmering in the dark. In all that darkness was an infinity of information, invisible under the cloak of night. Vidia—please call me Vidia, he had said—whom the agent had told about my work on Lagos and New York, said, “Have you written about Tutuola?” I said, no, I hadn’t. “It would be interesting,” he said. I demurred, and said I found the work odd, minor. There was something in Tutuola’s ghosts and forests and unidiomatic English that confirmed the prejudices of a European audience. “That’s what would be interesting about it,” he said. “A reconsideration. You would be able to say something about it, something of value.” More:

Among the 10 grumpiest living writers: Khushwant Singh and V.S. Naipaul

From Flavorwire:

V.S. Naipaul:… Naipaul always seems to be stirring up trouble with the kind of statements that make you want to roll your eyes and say “oh, Grandpa” — or they would, if they weren’t coming from an accomplished and influential author in a high-profile public forum…

Khushwant Singh:… Like any grumpy old man worth his salt, Singh just wants to be left alone — a sign next to his apartment door reads “Please do not ring the bell unless you are expected.” Fair enough, and it’s really for the good of everyone.

Full list here

Scholars of Sodom

Roberto Bolaño in NYR blog:

Many years ago, before V.S. Naipaul—a writer whom I hold in high regard, by the way—won the Nobel Prize, I tried to write a story about him, with the title “Scholars of Sodom.” The story began in Buenos Aires, where Naipaul had gone to write the long article on Eva Perón that was later included in a book published in Spain by Seix Barral in 1983. In the story, Naipaul arrived in Buenos Aires, I think it was his second visit to the city, and took a cab—and that’s where I got stuck, which doesn’t say much for my powers of imagination. I had some other scenes in mind that I didn’t get around to writing. Mainly meetings and visits. Naipaul at newspaper offices. Naipaul at the home of a writer and political activist. Naipaul at the home of an upper-class literary lady. Naipaul making phone calls, returning to his hotel late at night, staying up and diligently making notes. Naipaul observing people. Sitting at a table in a famous café trying not to miss a single word. Naipaul visiting Borges. Naipaul returning to England and going through his notes. A brief but engaging account of the following series of events: the election of Perón’s candidate, Perón’s return, the election of Péron, the first symptoms of conflict within the Peronist camp, the right-wing armed groups, the Montoneros, the death of Perón, his widow’s presidency, the indescribable López Rega, the army’s position, violence flaring up again between right- and left-wing Peronists, the coup, the dirty war, the killings. But I might be getting all mixed up. Maybe Naipaul’s article stopped before the coup; it probably came out before it was known how many had disappeared, before the scale of the atrocities was confirmed. In my story, Naipaul simply walked through the streets of Buenos Aires and somehow had a presentiment of the hell that would soon engulf the city. In that respect his article was prophetic, a modest, minor prophecy, nothing to match Sábato’s Abbadon the Exterminator, but with a modicum of good will it could be seen as a member of the same family, a family of nihilist works paralyzed by horror. When I say “paralyzed,” I mean it literally, not as a criticism. I’m thinking of the way some small boys freeze when suddenly confronted by an unforeseen horror, unable even to shut their eyes. I’m thinking of the way some girls have been known to die from a heart attack before the rapist has finished with them. Some literary artists are like those boys and girls. And that’s how Naipaul was in my story, in spite of himself. He kept his eyes open and maintained his customary lucidity. He had what the Spanish call bad milk, a kind of spleen that immunized him against appeals to vulgar sentimentality. But in his nights of wandering around Buenos Aires, he, or his antennae, also picked up the static of hell. The problem was that he didn’t know how to extract the messages from that noise, a predicament that certain writers, certain literary artists, find particularly unsettling. More:

One small step?

Primary-Red in his blog reads hope in the nude photograph of Veena Malik

I am shame and boldness.
I am shameless; I am ashamed.
I am strength and I am fear.
I am war and peace.

From The Thunder: Perfect Mind


Veena Malik bared her body and exposed the nakedness of her society.

But she is not alone. In recent weeks, Egyptian Aliya Magda Mahdi posted bold self-photographs on her blog. Tunisian actress Nadia Bostah posed provocatively to promote a film.

Something’s happening here. And it could be very significant. more

Of no fixed address

In The Indian Express, Amrita Dutta says a new breed of Indian writers writing in English are moving away from inner courtyards and stifled domestic lives.

“Masterji, why do you want to stay in a building that is falling down?” It is a home where the ceiling blossoms with water stains, and taps sputter into reluctant, muddy trickles. But Yogesh Murthy, the protagonist of Aravind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower, hoards the memories of his dead wife and daughter in its bare cupboards, and chooses them over builder Dharmen Shah’s “generous offer of redevelopment”: Rs 19,000 per square foot for the mildewed, rotting flats of Vishram Society. His home and society add up to something more: “Just as when a drop of formaldehyde falls on a dead leaf in a science class, revealing a secret life of veins, Vishram throbbed with occult networks. It was pregnant with his past.”

Flipping through the pages of Indian fiction in English over the years, one stops often at houses: rooms clogged with the collected detritus of years, or filled with the warmth of laughter and Kuku couplets; or kitchens clanging with unspoken anger. Here are Bim and Tara, hesitantly watching each other in the house of their childhood, a refuge on some days, and a prison on the others (Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day); and there is V.S. Naipaul’s Mr Mohun Biswas in the tragic and thwarted search for a house of his own. And Jaya Kulkarni, slowly clawing out of the stagnation of being “Mohan’s wife” in Shashi Deshpande’s That Long Silence. In several novels, the home, and by extension the web of family and relationships, not just described characters, but defined them. It was often the moral theatre in which they were tested, which circumscribed them, but where they had to grope for meaning and sense of their lives. Equally, in several others, the Family Saga tipped unarguably over into the exotic caricature loved by the West — stories of conflicted generations and lonely afternoons in large mansions surrounded by mango orchards. more

Man without a country

Joseph O’Neil in The Atlantic on V.S. Naipaul and his The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief:

From time to time I fantasize about commissioning nonfiction books. Two writers—no others—figure in these fantasies: Janet Malcolm and V. S. Naipaul. Currently I dream of sending Naipaul to Ireland. From the tearoom at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin (in Room 112 of which, he wryly reminds us, the Irish constitution was allegedly drafted), he extracts from a series of interlocutors detailed, thoughtful life stories illuminative of the condition of Ireland, currently in its post-post-colonial Shit Creek period. Propelled by his abnormal curiosity and diligence into various outings (I see Belfast, Roger Casement’s grave, the ruins of Clonmacnoise), overcoming the difficulties created by his advanced age, Naipaul hyper-notices random mundane stuff (a new road, an unsatisfactory sandwich) and productively examines local newspapers, all of which results in a picture of the Irish national malaise that, in its subtle grasp of lingering primitivities, its alertness to suffering and self-deception, and its firm overruling of local sensitivities, religious ones especially, knocks into a cocked hat Tocqueville’s Journey to Ireland (1835) and Böll’s Irish Journal (1957). If you’re going to fantasize, fantasize.

Perhaps the most basic wishful element of this scenario is that Naipaul still has it in him to travel. Last year saw the publication of The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief and the statement by Naipaul to the effect that he is too physically frail to write another book involving travel (the book comes out in paperback next month). It would seem that, unfortunately, a complete panorama of his wanderings is now available. What exactly has he been up to? I confess that one purpose of my Irish fantasy is to get a clearer sense of this. I know something about Ireland; I know very little about Pakistan, India, Iran, Malaysia, Indonesia, Mauritius, Argentina, or most of the other places from which, for half a century, he has brought us his distinctive version of news. I don’t for a moment suspect Naipaul of the surreptitious if ultimately valuable falsifications committed by Bruce Chatwin and Ryzsard Kapuscinski. But readers of travel literature have always been in a relatively weak position. They have few means of verifying what is offered by the traveler, who as a consequence is a kind of trustee of his truth. More:

An interview with VS Naipaul

Patrick Marnham in Literary Review:

Sir Vidia Naipaul lives with his wife, Nadira, in Wiltshire, in a house surrounded by fields, with the River Avon running past the foot of the garden. Outside the study window a roe deer and fawn stand motionless. A second glance reveals that they are lifelike wicker-work shapes, the gifts of an anonymous admirer, possibly someone who approves of Naipaul’s passionate concern for animal welfare. He believes that when the local hunt is up, wild animals take shelter in the garden. We talked over two days about his interest in Africa, his latest book, ‘The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief’, and his long writing career.

LR: You went to see a fortune teller in West Africa on your recent journey. What did you ask him?

VSN: Oh, I always ask them a few specific questions. Will I own a house of my own one day? Will I find emotional satisfaction with someone? Will there be a book next year? Next year … For me that is always a sign of life. But I pay no attention whatever to the replies. I’ve never had any wish to penetrate the personal future. The bigger future is always interesting, but I don’t have this personal wish.

Was the African seer any good?

My favourite answer, which is quite common, is ‘Government help will be forthcoming’. After the Nobel I received a long letter from one fortune teller who had given me this assurance a few months earlier. So they remember their customers. You went to the Congo?

Kinshasa …

Was it fun?

I hadn’t been since the Seventies. I couldn’t believe what had happened to it. It was smashed up in a civil war and fifteen years on it is still a complete mess. You had a similar impression in Uganda, I think.

Kampala is horrible now. I think the population has just got out of hand. And there’s no one worried about it. The man in charge, Museveni, appears in the newspaper every day, walking somewhere and being photographed. Walking and being photographed. It’s pathetic really.

When he first came in it all seemed so hopeful.

Yes. But that was a long time ago.


VS Naipaul withdraws from Turkish event after row over Islam comments

From The Guardian:

The Nobel laureate VS Naipaul has pulled out of a literary event opening in Istanbul tomorrow, after Turkish writers threatened a boycott because of deeply critical comments he has made on Islam.

The row erupted after Naipaul was invited to give the opening speech at the European Writers’ Parliament (EWP), the brainchild of novelists Orhan Pamuk and José Saramago, which aims to bring together authors from across Europe to debate key issues of the contemporary literary scene and opens today. But several Turkish writers expressed outrage at the invitation, citing hostile comments Naipaul made about Islam nearly a decade ago. More:

The valley of taboos

V.S. Naipaul dares to discuss Africa’s indigenous beliefs. Johann Hari on Slate:

There is a great thudding taboo in any discussion of Africa. Western journalists and aid workers see it everywhere, yet it is nowhere in our coverage back home. We don’t want to talk about it. We don’t know how to. We smother it in silence, even though it is one of the most vivid and vibrant and violent parts of African life. We are afraid—of being misunderstood, or of sounding like our own ugliest ancestors. The suppressed topic? The African belief in spirits and spells and ancestors and black magic.

These are not trivial side-beliefs, like vague fears of black cats crossing your path. They are at the core of many Africans’ understanding of themselves and the world. I have stood in a blood-splattered house in Tanzania where an old woman had just been beaten to death for being a “witch” who cast spells on her neighbors. I have stood in battlefields in the Congo where the troops insist with absolute certainty they cannot be killed because they have carried out a magical spell that guarantees, if they are shot, they will turn briefly into a tree, then charge on unharmed. I have been cursed in Ethiopia by a witch-doctor with “impotence, obesity, and then leprosy” for asking insistently why he charged so much to “cure” his patients. (I’m still waiting for the leprosy.)

Where do these beliefs come from? What do so many Africans get out of them? Can they be changed? These are questions that are asked in Africa all the time, but we are deaf to the conversation. It’s not hard to see why. The imperial rape and pillage of Africa was “justified” by claiming Africans were “primitive” and “backward” people sunk in a morass of voodoo, who had to be “civilized” in blood and Christianity. Just as there are legitimate and necessary criticisms of Israel but nobody wants to hear them from Germany, any legitimate and necessary criticism of the problems with Africa’s indigenous beliefs will never be welcome from Europeans or their descendants. And yet there they are, ongoing and alive, waiting to be discussed. Must we ignore it? More:

V. S. Naipaul, a misanthrope abroad

William Boyd in The Sunday Times:

In her great poem “Questions of Travel”, Elizabeth Bishop outlines the quandary that all long-distance travellers put to themselves at some stage of their journey: “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here? . . . Is it right to be watching strangers in a play / in this strangest of theatres?” It’s a good question for an elderly novelist pondering a trip to Africa to revisit some of the places that inspired his earlier work. It’s one that Evelyn Waugh might have asked himself in 1959 as he set off for East Africa; one he might have reiterated as he wrote up his journey in what became A Tourist in Africa (1960) – a book that even the most fervent Waugh admirers consider his laziest and worst.

Similarly, Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, born in Trinidad in 1932, knight of the realm, laureate of the Nobel Prize for Literature, might also have questioned himself in 2008 as he prepared to leave for Uganda and other African countries, West and South, unifying his peregrinations under the vague subtitle “Glimpses of African belief”. In fact, the comparisons with Waugh don’t need to end there: it’s an interesting thought-experiment to look at the two writers’ careers and to consider V. S. Naipaul as a kind of Caribbean Waugh. Both were precocious schoolboys who won scholarships to Oxford. Waugh was a distinctively small man – so is Naipaul: both around five foot, six inches. Both took bad degrees and in the doldrums of their post-Oxford lives half-heartedly attempted suicide (Waugh by drowning, Naipaul by gassing). Their early novels were brilliantly original comic satires before the later work assumed more gravitas and the humour diminished. And in their personas, also, both men reinvented themselves in early middle age and took to wearing masks, masks that eventually “ate into the face”. In these masks they delighted in expressing outrageous, unfashionable, ultra-right-wing opinions and the more the metropolitan intelligentsia howled and railed at them the more gleeful they were. Both men, late in their lives, went to Africa to write a travel book. More:

V.S. Naipaul

From Intelligent Lilfe:

Favourite trick

In his later work, he repeats a phrase from one paragraph in the next one, which gives his prose an almost biblical sense of progress. The mythic tone is heightened by short words and inverted sentences: “In the morning there came the fighter plane.” (“A Bend in the River”, 1979.) Every evening Naipaul reads out loud what he has written during the day. Or used to—nowadays he has what he has written read out to him. This lifelong habit gives his prose the weightiness of considered thought and the lightness of conversation.

Role models

His father—“possibly the first writer of the Indian diaspora”—for his short stories about Trinidad’s Indians. Joseph Conrad, for seriousness and a sense of those living on “the other side of the fence”. Flaubert, for the “selection and achievement of detail”. Shakespeare, for freshness of language and the power of his simplest lines.

Typical sentence

Easier to pick two of them. What’s most typical is the way one sentence qualifies another. “The country was a tyranny. But in those days not many people minded.” (“A Way in the World”, 1994.) More:

The Masque of Africa by V S Naipaul: review

Sameer Rahim in The Telegraph:

V S Naipaul’s father was once forced to sacrifice a goat to the Hindu goddess Kali. In June 1933, when Vidia was still a baby, Seepersad Naipaul had written an article in the Trinidad Guardian criticising Hindu farmers who ignored government regulations and inoculated their cattle with religious rites.

His angry opponents threatened him with a poisoning curse unless he appeased the goddess. He refused at first but soon relented: wearing trousers rather than the traditional loincloth (his small rebellion), he offered up a severed goat’s head on a brass plate.

In that Sunday’s paper he was all bluster: “Mr Naipaul greets you! No Poison last night”. But this “great humiliation”, as his son wrote in Finding the Centre (1984), destroyed his life. He lost his job and sunk into depression. According to Naipaul’s mother, “He looked in the mirror one day and couldn’t see himself. And he began to scream.”

Over the course of his long writing career, V S Naipaul’s view of religion has moved – much like this story – from the potentially comic to the outright sinister. His first published novel, The Mystic Masseur (1957), was a satire on a fake pundit. In his masterpiece A House for Mr Biswas (1961) the title character (based on Seepersad) is expelled from his training as a Hindu priest when he pollutes some sacred flowers with his excrement. His travel book on India, An Area of Darkness (1964), took a harsher view of Hinduism and the caste system and after 1970, when he first learnt about his father’s ritual humiliation (the family had kept it an absolute secret), his work took on an unforgiving tone. More:

Patrick Marnham in The Spectator: Naipaul starts in Uganda, because he once knew this country best. He lived there in 1966 and now says that he remembered it as a rather beautiful country with an independent future, and clear evidence of pre- colonial civilisation. This time he was appalled by what he found. The roads had fallen to pieces, the garbage lay uncollected, the trim bungalows had disappeared beneath piles of corrugated iron shacks, which were crammed together and falling down.

And The Guardian review here: