(continued from yesterday)
AFTER YEARS of intense devotion to VS Naipaul and his work – my own PhD thesis and first book was built on exploring and taking seriously Naipaul’s profound idea of the “half-made society” – one day, at home, I received a phone call.
“Hello, Kirk?” It was the low, calm, mellifluous voice I knew, but could not believe who was on the other end.
“This is Naipaul. I’m in Trinidad and I’d like you to come over for dinner.”
I couldn’t believe it. But in some strange way, I knew that I would meet him one day. It seemed inevitable and I was waiting for it. The desire was too intense and persistent not to manifest.
Of course, I went. I would change nothing about that evening. It was perfect. He personally confirmed everything I ever thought about him and his work.
This was one of the many times Naipaul was in Trinidad. He always did so quietly. While he was away, he used to ask his older sister, Kamla, to send him newspaper clippings. As source material, Naipaul always said that “this land was pure gold – pure gold.”
That afternoon he had a small medical emergency procedure at Medical Associates in St Joseph, which caused him to be late for dinner. He was thoroughly impressed and couldn’t stop talking about it.
“I received better care there than I ever would in the UK,” he said. He was taken aback at how much Trinidad had progressed as a child.
I was surprised, and I qualified his statement, telling him how the concerns he raised almost 50 years earlier and continued to elaborate were equally valid today. He disagreed, and told me stories about the one local doctor that everyone had to go to when he was child, and whom he considered to be a “quack.”
It was a surreal moment, with Naipaul defending Trinidad and I criticising it. We laughed a lot that evening. He was hilarious and constantly made dry, sharp jokes.
In fact, many critics of Naipaul don’t realise how much absurd Trinidad humour pervades even his bleakest work. When an interviewer in the 1970s asked him why he no longer wrote comic works, he disagreed. “You can’t be serious.”
“I am,” he said.
“Surely, Guerillas, for example, can’t be considered humorous.”
“You should hear me read it.”
And it is absolutely true. Naipaul shares the wicked, contrarian humour of so many classic calypsoes which he loved, or the everyday, absurdist, politically incorrect hilarity of Trinidad, which is why I would title my own analysis of his work “Sans humanite: The Perverse, Trinidadian Worldview of VS Naipaul.”
If you are offended by his remarks, then be doubly aware: he would push as many of your buttons as he could perceive, just to have fun watching you lose your mind. The book of his collected interviews is uproarious just for that alone.
I always appreciate the Trinidadians who maintained their deep appreciation of him in the 1970s in particular, while he was writing some of his most difficult work, charting a new course not pursued by anyone else in the world, and before he was so universally acclaimed.
Many don’t realise the importance that Eric Williams and CLR James had on this phase of Naipaul’s life, which Naipaul himself attests to. Naipaul credits James with making him realise the larger, universal themes and issues that were unconsciously underpinning A House for Mr Biswas, and they corresponded.
In 1960, Williams first invited Naipaul to travel the Caribbean and write his first book of non-fiction, which became The Middle Passage. On the other hand, ANR Robinson told Naipaul that it was because he read Among the Believers that he was able to understand and deal with the Muslimeen as he was held hostage during the coup attempt.
In my own view, every Trinidadian must read three of Naipaul’s works: the Trinidad chapter in The Middle Passage (1961), Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad (or The Killings in Trinidad) (1979), and for an extended meditation on the Trinidad “smart man,” A Way in the World (1994). There are no more profound analyses of who we are as a people.
I genuinely, deeply love VS Naipaul. He helped me immeasurably. And he showed all of us what we can be on the world stage.
I take this opportunity again to thank him for the life he lived and shared.
Kirk Meighoo is the author of Politics in a ‘half-made society’: Trinidad and Tobago, 1925-2001, a part-tribute to VS Naipaul