Postcolonial hell: a survey. . – Books – The Writer and the World: Essays

Postcolonial hell: a survey. . – Books – The Writer and the World: Essays – book review

Peter Heinegg

The Writer and the World: Essays

By V. S. Naipaul, New York: Alfred A. Knopf 2002, $30.00 (cloth)

MONTY PYTHON FANS will recall the scene from The Life of Brian where a band of moronic terrorists from the “People’s Front of Judea” gather in a dingy hovel to plot their next strike against the Roman occupying forces (it’s, not accidentally, 33 A.D.). Trying to stir his feckless brethren to action, the ringleader, “Reg” (John Cleese) roars out, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” This rabble-rousing rhetorical question is first met by silence; but then one by one the Pseudo-sicarii timidly venture a series of answers: “Aqueducts?” “Sanitation?” “Roads?” “Irrigation?” “Medicine?” “Education?” “Public order?” “Peace?” “Oh, all right,” Reg snorts in exasperation. “but what else have the Romans done for us?” The point, obviously, is that these “revolutionaries” are both stupid and dishonest. All things considered-at least for the sake of this extended joke-the Roman Empire was a GOOD THING. Sure, the Romans were often brutally cruel, but how else could they have contained the volatile “natives,” ever prone to religious and political mayhem?

Reading V. S. Naipaul’s The Writer and the World (Naipaul happens to be an Oxfordian, like Cleese & Co.), a hefty collection of twenty essays that spans vast stretches of the planet over a period of thirty years (1962-92) and focuses on various public figures in postcolonial India, Africa, the “African Diaspora,” Argentina, and the Caribbean, one often feels Monty-Pythonesque bursts of impatience: “Good Lord, what a bloody mess these people have made of things! You call this progress?” Not that Naipaul, who was born in Trinidad and has a home in rural England, feels nostalgia for any colonial empire; nor does he naively glorify the First World and western civilization. (The only glimpses his book provides of either come in three slight accounts of visits to America and one on Jacques Soustelle, the shady ethnologist-politician who was Governor-General of Algeria under De Gaulle-and almost everything he has to say about them is negative.) But he’s practically obsessed with hypocritical, wrongheaded Third-World revolutionaries. Many of Naipaul’s interlocutors would sound as farcical as Monty Python caricatures, if he didn’t also record the voices of their victims and didn’t show us all the murder, chaos, oppression, and dismal impoverishment surrounding them. Naipaul seems to do most of his traveling alone; and he rarely meets anyone who shares his keen-eyed, unsparing, monumental pessimism. Of his first visit to India in 1962 he writes, “despair lies more with the observer than the people.” If there’s one recurrent emotion in this book, it’s despair.

In his fine introduction, Naipaul’s editor, Pankaj Misisra, observes: “It is hard to think of a writer more fundamentally exilic, carrying so many clashing fading worlds within him.”

Of course, the number of major writers who have lived at least part of their lives in exile is legion: from Ovid to Dante to Swift (exiled to his own accidental birthplace) to Conrad, Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Gertrude Stein, I. J. and I. B. Singer, Solzhenitsyn, et al.; and there’s no exile without some loss and bitterness. But Naipaul outdoes most of his fellow exiles in unrelenting bleakness. At the same time, he is so meticulously factual, so understated, and un-self-promoting that there seems no way to dismiss this long travelogue (and the many non-fiction volumes that have preceded it, such as Beyond belief or India: A Million Mutinies Now) as mere rancorous personal screeds.

The worst place of all for Naipaul, perhaps–certainly the most maddening one–is his ancestral homeland, India. The sight of thousands of beatniks, American, Australian, and whatever, flocking to a country ravaged by hunger, illiteracy, caste violence, corruption, etc., (which prompts the glossy Indian Hotelkeeper and Traveller to purr: “To some of the materially affluent but psychologically sick and spiritually rudderless foreigners from far-flung corners of the world, India’s saints and sadhus provide irresistible magnets of attraction”) all but unhinges Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad. “The absurdity of India,” he declares, “can be total. It appears to ridicule analysis. It takes the onlooker beyond anger and despair to neutrality.” He labels its spirituality “pathetic.”

But then what to make of the horrible and politically meaningless “Black Power Killings in Trinidad” (1972), sparked by “Michael X” (Michael de Freitas, a seaman, pimp, drug-dealer, utopian visionary, and barely literate author)? What of the lost souls (nearly everyone, according to Naipaul) in Anguilla, “a tiny colony set adrift, part of the jetsam of an empire, a near-primitive people suddenly returned to a free state, their renewed or continuing exploitation”? Anguillans, Naipaul bitingly remarks, “are not well-educated. Instead, they have skills, like boat-building and religion…. .Few Anguillans act without divine guidance.” Then there’s the case of Mauritius (in a piece reprinted from The Overcrowded Barracoon): once uninhabited and the home of the dodo; it’s now crammed with 1,000 people per square mile and no more dodos. Its people are enslaved to the sugar-cane monoculture; its palm trees are blighted by the rhinoceros beetle. It’s ruled by gangs and a crackpot government that blames all the island’ s problems on “the malignant white god.” Its most reliable industry is prostitution, into which countless Mauritian women are forced in order to survive.

In another brilliant, surrealistic account, “The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro” (the title refers to a weird private presidential zoo), about the Ivory Coast, which at the time (1983) was one of the more stable and functional countries in Black Africa, Naipaul speaks with an old Ivory Coast “hand.” “Africans,” he learns,

were still ruled by magic. In the interior, when a chief or an important local man died, the man’s servants and his wives were buried with him. If the servants had run away at the time of the death, then heads were bought. That explained the regular disappearance of children, as reported in the necrology page of the newspaper. On that page there was a coded way of referring to certain kinds of death. A death by poisoning was said to have occurred. ‘after a short illness,’ apres une courte maladie. A child reported as having disappeared was presumed to have been sacrificed. In the interior, for these funerals or other sacrifices, a head could be currently bought for ten thousand francs, less than [pounds sterling]20.

All this and similar outrages, it might be noted, occurred before the massacre of the Tutsis in Rwanda, the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Nigeria, the sub-Saharan AIDS pandemic, etc., none of which Naipaul ever gets around to dealing with, all of which would have supplied still more fuel for his hopelessness.

Naipaul spends relatively little time on the nightmarish political absurdities of Africa. He discusses neither apartheid nor Idi Amin, neither Qaddafi nor Mugabe nor Robert Taylor. But “A New King for the Congo: Mobutu and the Nihilism of Africa” paints a grim enough picture. Kinshasa is just one of the many circles in Naipaul’s postcolonial hell:

A city of two million, with almost no transport, with no industries (save for those.. .On the road from the airport to the capital), a city detached from the rest of the country, existing only because the Belgians built it and today almost without a point. It doesn’t have to work; it can be allowed to look after itself Already at night, a more enduring kind of bush life seems to return to central Kinshasa, where the watchmen (who also shadow their jobs: they will protect nothing) bar off their territory, using whatever industrial junk there is to hand, light fires on the broken pavement, cook their little messes and go to sleep. When it is hot the gutters smell; in the rain the streets are flooded. And the unregulated city spreads: meandering black rivulets of filth in unpaved alleys, middens besides the highways, children, discarded motorcar tyres, a multitude of little stalls, and everywhere, in free spaces, plantings of sugar-cane and maize: subsistence agriculture in the town, a remnant of bush life.

Another revolutionary catastrophe.

And so it goes. In a long and sometimes tedious historical panorama, “Argentina and the Ghost of Eva Peron, 1972-1991,” Naipaul traces “nearly half a century of revolutionary plunder and waste.” Argentina, for all its fabulous natural resources, has been repeatedly bathed in blood and terror. Peronist politics, as Naipaul describes it, was a lunatic mixture of populist lies and fantasies. At one point Naipaul himself is arrested and almost gets executed by the police, except that his smoking a pipe convinces the officer than he really is a foreigner, not a native agitator. Naipaul momentarily lets his Anglophilic slip show here when he offhandedly recalls that: “More gifted men and women have come from [New Zealand’s] population of three million than from the twenty-three millions of Argentines.” Argentina’s greatest modern writer, Jorge Luis Borges, comes across in these pages as limp and “irresponsible” (although more truthful than most of his countrymen)–and the inhabitant of a stunningly barbarous societ y. “When I was a child if I saw a Negro,” Borges admits, “I didn’t report it at home. I don’t know what happened to our black men. We had only six slaves.”

And thus Naipaul fills in his hideous mural of places you wouldn’t want to live (Calcutta, Abidjan, Guyana, pre- or post-American-invasion Grenada), of people you wouldn’t want to meet (the propagandists, stooges, hacks, and profiteers of fraudulent Third World governments) in a tone that aims at, and succeeds in, echoing Evelyn Waugh’s travel writings, of being “aloof everywhere, unsurprised, immensely knowing.” (Naipaul’s descriptions of physical spaces and complex episodes are so precise that one imagines him going about with a camcorder in one hand and a notebook in the other.)

Which is not to say that his work doesn’t also, and even primarily, burn with moral intensity, though he doesn’t preach or lecture. On the last page of his book, in a revealing postscript entitled “Our Universal Civilization,” he confesses that as “a child worried about pain and cruelty” he was particularly stuck by “my discovery of the Christian precept, Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” (Oops, he should have credited Lev. 19.18 and Rabbi Hillel as much as Jesus.) “There was no such human consolation in the Hinduism I grew up with, and–although I have never had any religious faith–the simple idea was, and is, dazzling to me, perfect as a guide to human behaviour.” “Dazzling” is not a word that springs readily to Naipaul’s lips.

He then pays a tribute to the Enlightenment. “A later realization…has been the beauty of the pursuit of happiness….So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievements. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and, because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.” Or so he hopes. Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin and his old professors at University College (to which he won a scholarship in 1950) would agree.

Neither muckraker nor crusader, Naipaul doesn’t set forth to denounce the wicked (though he remains deeply hostile to “philosophical hysteria”) or change the world. He travels, he says. “to discover other states of mind.” Having found them–and having usually found a good deal of fault with them–he moves on. Now a grizzled and wrinkled septuagenarian, he has, no doubt, most of his traveling behind him. But he’s given us a body of travel literature that, while downplaying the color, excitement and exotic appeal often associated with the genre, bears witness to a consistently fair and astonishingly keen intelligence. In his own hard-bitten, implacable, secular fashion he deserves the honor–and he has already received some of the vilification–traditionally heaped on the biblical prophet.

The Writer and the World is a jeremiad in the best sense of the term.

Peter Heineqq is CrossCurrents’s book editor. He is a professor of English at Union College in Schenectady, New York.

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