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Sunday 21 July 2019
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Sir Vidia’s shadow

VS NAIPAUL was never afraid of controversy. He was only 16 when he was first the subject of public uproar. The government of the day had decided to award him a special scholarship. “There were articles in the press,” Naipaul later recalled. “I got used to criticism at an early age.” Perhaps it was this early baptism of fire that helped turn him into the astonishing writer he became.

It is often forgotten that Naipaul, who has died just shy of his 86th birthday, had only one serious job before he became a full-time writer. He worked for the BBC’s Caribbean Voices show. Arguably, Naipaul brought something of the fearlessness of journalism to his books.

Here was a writer who had no qualms in criticising his homeland of Trinidad and Tobago. Nor did he have any romantic visions of India. He escaped, like many of the Windrush era, to the British Motherland, but had no hesitation in biting the hand that fed him, writing of his experience of racism in Oxford and London.

He had a dim view of the American south; was critical of Islamic nations; and wrote about Africa in a tone that evoked Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. “My background is at once exceedingly simple and exceedingly confused,” Naipaul said in his Nobel Lecture in 2001.

The same thing applies to his legacy. None can doubt Sir Vidia deserved to win the award for his “incorruptible scrutiny”. But even then, the Nobel Committee’s gesture was controversial. After all, Naipaul was a writer who openly deemed all women writers as inferior, sentimental and narrow-minded.

He derided the gay novelist EM Forster, attacking him on the basis of his sexuality. He dismissed a fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie as an extreme form of literary criticism. These provocations, which often coincided with the release of a new book, tended to generate more headlines than censure. How would Naipaul – and other figures from his generation – fare in today’s environment, post #MeToo?

True, the personal views of authors can be separated from their work. But in the case of Naipaul, his work sometimes reflected his troubling views. His treatment of gay characters in his novels In a Free State and The Enigma of Arrival, as well as his depiction of women in books such as Guerrillas, remain problematic.

But love him or hate him, Naipaul was a writer who was not afraid to go against the current. His stylistic achievements in prose – and his contributions to the resurgence of the travelogue and non-fiction narrative have forever changed the face of English letters.

Additionally, none can question the achievement of his greatest book, A House for Mr Biswas, for which he will be rightly remembered as one of our finest writers

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