Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Naipaul, exile and love

On the whole I prefer VS Naipaul's reflective novels, rather than those more closely concerned with character and plot. The latter are the famous ones, from the Dickensian comedy of Mr Biswas to the Booker Prize-winning seriousness of In a Free State. In the end, the characters of these books just aren't that likable, and I wonder if this is not a coincidence.

I'm reading The Mimic Men, a book whose narrator is certainly a character and not merely an authorial mouthpiece. But Ralph Singh's reflections on history and landscape do reflect Naipaul's recurring preoccupations. There's a passage early on in the book which I think reveals something essential not only to his thought but to his writing too. Singh says:

I have seen much snow. It never fails to enchant me, but I no longer think of it as my element. I no longer dream of ideal landscapes or see to attach myself to them. All landscapes eventually turn to land, the gold of the imagination to the lead of the reality. I could not, like so many of my fellow exiles, live in a suburban semi-detached house; I could not pretend even to myself to be part of a community or to be putting down roots. I prefer the freedom of my far-out suburban hotel, the absence of responsibility; I like the feeling of impermanence.

Of course this speaks clearly of the book's central concern (and a central concern of post-colonial literature in general), the difficulties faced by the post-colonial subject searching for his identity. But it also hints at a key condition of Naipaul's writing, the fact that he writes from such a position, without a 'home' landscape in any easy sense. His great qualities as a writer are his detachment and pitilessness in recording the world, including himself, the landscapes he has lived in and the ideals he has tried to espouse. He explicitly mentions this detachment as an enabling condition of his writing in The Engima of Arrival, where he talks about being able to see, as an outsider, things that the native inhabitants of a place cannot see (and in the end he feels like an outsider to all his landscapes). In a review Salman Rushdie criticised The Enigma of Arrival for being the record of 'a life without love, or one in which love has been buried so deep that it can't come out'. I can't agree with the gist of Rushdie's review, or with the paragraph from which that line is quoted, in which he seems to conflate Naipaul's life and work. But I suspect that there is a grain of truth in the idea that Naipaul's work is essentially loveless: lacking a home, it also lacks the cpre emotion of home. And while in human terms this is indeed a tragedy, it is also the sort of flaw that makes possible great, original writing.


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