Commentary: V.S. Naipaul critic’s notebook

Jean H Charles LLB, MSW, JD, is a regular contributor to the opinion section of Caribbean News Now. He can be reached at [email protected]

By Jean H Charles

I wrote an essay last week on the universal legacy of V.S. Naipaul and, as usual about Naipaul, the criticism for or against his view abounds. From Haiti, where he is not known, there are inquiries for more information about him, and from the Greater Caribbean, why do I adulate Naipaul when Derrick Walcott, also a Nobel Laureate from Saint Lucia, deserves a better accolade?

On the outset, Naipaul, the author of some 30 books, knighted by the Queen of England and recipient of the Nobel Prize of literature is one of the most gifted writers of the English language after William Shakespeare. My own characterization of Naipaul places him as the best philosopher of modern times after Socrates; he uses the same standard of truth with those in power as well as those of the lower class. You may be subjugated by life circumstances, it is still up to you to rise up and change your situation.

At his installation as a Nobel Laureate, the tribute about his work is indicative of his exceptionality:

“Other writers born abroad have settled here and enriched our literature, but there has never been one like Naipaul. His personal story is moving, his achievement extraordinary. There is a great morale to his life work that the human comedy will come out all right, because when all is said and done, intellect is more powerful than vicissitudes and wickedness.”

Son of a Hindu immigrant from India displaced by England to serve as indentured laborer in Trinidad, Naipaul was fortunate to have a father who himself aspired to become a writer. He provided excellent advice to young Naipaul on the craft of good and penetrating writing.

After his elementary and secondary studies in Trinidad, he obtained a scholarship to study in England and he chose Oxford University. He gave all of himself to his academic pursuit so he would beat the Englishmen in their own language.

This displacement came with alienation, prejudice and even depression. Naipaul used this situation to put in writing his sentiments and that was his first novel – The Mystic Masseur (1957) – and his calling to become a writer. He would travel the world like Euripides in ancient time and would tell the world about the people, the customs and the habits of the different civilizations he has visited.

He was frank, even brutal sometimes, but always respecting the canon of excellent writing and providing an almost photographic panorama of what he saw.

Oxford, the bastion of higher learning, he described as a plantation. For some of us who had the experience of the small minority frequenting institutions of higher learning in the rank of Ivy League, the echo of Naipaul is familiar.

I remembered my feeling at Tulane University, dubbed Harvard of the South, in the School of Law, some 40 years ago, it was just a big plantation that you were allowed to be in, with all the prejudice and the mat of inhospitality of young white men and women not comfortable with an immigrant or a black skin in their midst.

Of his homeland, Trinidad, he felt then it was a place where the combination of easy money through oil and gas, corruption, racial division between Hindu and black would render Trinidad an explosive place. The Loss of Eldorado (1969) sets the stage for a declining Trinidad that will go the way of Guyana, divided by racial politics, pregnant with corruption, and engulfed with criminality.

He visited his ancestral homeland, India, and that is where he gave the best of himself in a masterpiece: India: A Wounded Civilization (1979). He spared no sacred cow to tell the rulers and the people of India they may have been subdued by the British but there is no reason to remain in the mud and not meet their divine destiny to rise up and become a light on the hill for themselves and for the rest of the world. India is indeed taking those steps today.

His visit to the Middle East, Among the Believers, in 1981 provided to policymakers who cared to take note of a Muslim world where “the irrational frenzy of the Islamic retreat from history into self-serving myth” would escalate into violence, universal insecurity such as the bombing of the World Trade Center in Manhattan or car bombing in several western cities decades later.

A Turn in the South (1989) gives a glimpse of the state of the black and minority world in the United States that did not understand “the absolute rejection of victimhood is necessary if we are to meet as we must on an equal footing.” I remembered calling on the black president of a major black American organization to take care of the youth culture that spoiled the United States and the rest of the world with the brand of bashing women, crass consumption, violence and just plain stupidity, His answer of not being competent to get involved was not convincing.

Naipaul’s visit to Atlanta, where the government is black, the mayor black and plenty of black millionaires but the legacy looms large in the black culture. The true holders of power are the white people who live in the outskirts of the city.

In Charleston, he saw the tourist town of today’s Caribbean where he sat down with the rednecks, ate and drank with them. He found they are a threatened species that created the white soul music with down home music.

Naipaul was indeed our Socrates of modern times; he kept asking questions to debate ideas. He was interested “about slavery, revolution, guerillas, corrupt politicians, the poor and the oppressed interpreting their rages so deeply into our societies.” He was like a societal psychiatrist who could put a whole nation on a couch to help the people understand what is wrong with their style of life that leads to their decline.

I would love Naipaul to have had the occasion to visit Haiti and write our story. He would have played the role of a healer to tell it like it is to those rulers who tarnish so badly the momentous opus of their ancestors. They have liberated this world of the ugly stigma of slavery. Haiti, the shitty place as it is called by the United States President Donald Trump, would have the nerve to take the brush and the broom and start cleaning to become the Pearl of the Islands that it was during the slavery era.

To my critics who demand why I place Naipaul on such a pedestal, leaving Derrick Walcott on a lower rung of the scale, the answer is evident, being a student of Naipaul gives you all the necessary skills to undertake a revolution for the best in your own country. Walcott was an excellent poet; indeed the feud among the two Nobel laureates from the West Indies was legendary.

But to create a world where peace, prosperity and illumination is the lot of most, build a school where the instruction on Naipaul and his writings become a mandatory staple of the curriculum of studies.

To my brethren from Haiti who did not know Naipaul, use that giant in literature to learn English by reading all his books and, as a byproduct of that instruction, you might create a better Haiti while becoming yourself a better and more enriched person!



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