IF VS NAIPAUL had remained in Trinidad and Tobago, which he left at 18 in 1950, no one would have bothered. No one would have discovered him. No one would have hailed his genius: his writing style, voice. There would be no skilful editors to value his works. No one would have published him. No one would have bought any of his local self-published books. He would have been ignored, with an indifference akin to sadism. He would have lived and died, as Mr Biswas would have, if he had not built his house, a tragic man, abandoned and unknown, unaccommodated.
England gave Naipaul what he wanted. It discovered him. It gave him his first opening, a voice on BBC. It gave him editors and publishers. It hailed his writing style. One blurb called him “the greatest living writer in English.” It gave him a wife who cared for his works. It gave him awards and prizes for his works. It made him into a writing icon, and gave him, eventually through nomination, the Nobel Prize, and salutation, a knighthood.
Here are impressions of his first four books, fictional works on Trinidad (1955-1961).
Miguel Street. In London, working at the BBC, after leaving Oxford University in 1953, Naipaul was waiting. He was waiting on a line. This in not unusual for some writers. Such writers wait on a line, an image, a motif which opens the gates to their muse, their inspiration, the line upon which all subsequent lines are built. In tone, mood, tempo, it acts as a catalyst for all the work. And this line was a Trinidad line, ending: “What happening there, Bogart?”
This was an important discovery by Naipaul. This line carried the idiomatic sensibility of Trinidad language, without being “improper” English. It was not difficult for the British or Commonwealth English reader to understand. The book proffered an archetype: a virtual stage, a Trinidad street laden with Trinidad characters, Trinidad speech. It was a transcendental moment for Naipaul, that he, striving so eagerly to be a writer, encouraged by his father and sisters, often depressed about possible failure, should discover his voice, in this Trinidad line.
The Mystic Masseur. Here Naipaul is still solidly in Trinidad. Character, theme, mood, language, tone. The novel describes the life of a mystic masseur. The tale is told through Naipaul’s ironic voice. It is his only voice, now. We have to look sharp to grasp tone, meaning, and therefore intentionality. As in Jane Austen. There’s always the subtle undercutting of endeavour, sublime, profane or normal.
The very word “mystic” might be mocking. Through the different incarnations of Ganesh, from masseur, to writer, to professional and politician, we are never sure if he is a crook, or if he is genuine. He is the archetypal Trinidadian hustler, survivor, “smartman.” The nation is still trying to cope with, survive this seemingly immortal character.
The Suffrage of Elvira. Here the archetype is the market, the political market. It describes the amazing scenes of a Trinidad election: the trade in superstition, insult, bacchanal, tricks, chicanery, comesse, kuchoor typical of the democratic suffrage. This is pathological group behaviour at its tragicomic best. The subject is universal.
US elections, from civil war America to the present, for example, have been, sometimes more than less, suffrages of Elvira. But again here, in character, tone, setting, speech idiom, the dramatic richness is of Trinidad. Trinidad is Naipaul’s wealth. He is at home here, describing the wealth of Trinidadian cultural and linguistic pique.
A House For Mr Biswas. Here Naipaul is writing of his Trinidad roots. His history. His mother. His father. The pundits. The people whom he knew growing up with. It describes an archetypical Caribbean journey; a family’s search for, with its myriad trials, a house. The novel is at once poignant and macabre. The comic elements, involving this immediate family, father, mother, siblings, are poignant, are forgiving.
The tragic parts, about the sadisms of the pundits, the family clan, are macabre, unforgiving. Naipaul’s chapter on Shorthills, in this finest novel of the English Caribbean, is prescient. We witness the Tulsi family’s butchery of land, scape, heritage, Naipaul’s angry denunciation of its depravity, stupidity.
Then Naipaul did something very heroic, mammoth, mythical. Going past the broad brush of post-colonial polemics, he travelled to all parts of the world, afflicted by the wound of empire, its grand tidal withdrawal, to see for himself how the people were doing. To record their speech, their views, their phantasies about themselves and the societies they lived in.
He inserted himself, often alone, not only in the Caribbean but Africa, India, South America, Iran, the American south; chronicling with filmic detail the impressions of his mind, as it panned or zoomed into the speech and lives of ordinary and official inhabitants, which the wake of empire and subordination had left behind.
Now it is all over, finis. The camera, the lens, the light is out. Only his works remain. His novels, essays, biographical sketches, his chronologies. It is all recorded, done and dusted. He was the man who disdained the broad brush of polemics. He went to discover for himself, the scale, the scope, the pathologies of empire. He needed to do his own synopsis, dissections. He was Alexandrine. Some elegance. Some brutality. Some rank disfigurations. And thereafter, leaving many of his subjects weeping in his wake.