By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
August 20, 2018
“If being afflicted with asthma [as Naipaul was as a child] shaped personality and character, then, perhaps it made him [Naipaul] a wounded animal. —Savi Naipaul Akal”
On May 13, 1979, Irving Howe reviewed V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River in the New York Times. Although Howe praised the novel effusively, he knew little about the man or the society that produced such a talented writer.
On June 24, 1979, Michael Thelwell responded to Shiva and Vidia’s comments about Africa and asked the Times: “Had the brothers Naipaul not existed, would you have had to invent them? One suspects so. For how else would it have been possible for little brother Shiva to pontificate in your columns that the African soul is a blank slate on which anything can be written, onto which any fantasy can be transposed.…
“In your May 13 issue, senior brother Vidiadhar compounds the nonsense by intoning dramatically, to the quite evident titillation of interviewer Elizabeth Hardwick, that ‘Africa has no future.’.… Should we not expect from him [Howe] at least some understanding of the ironies of history and its devious little sister, literature?”
Many of Naipaul’s admirers know little (and care even less) about the particular Caribbean context out of which Naipaul’s writing comes. Reading their analyses, it seems as though this literary god descended out of the heavens without precedent and bereft of a tradition. Last Sunday Paul Theroux had the effrontery to say: “He is a man that came from nowhere…He created out of despair, unhappiness, sadness, rootlessness, homelessness, and unhappiness (NPR, August 12, 2018).
Bridget Brereton reminds us that Naipaul admitted that the years he spent researching The Loss of El Dorado “were enormously important in helping him to locate his place in the world.” He told Keith Laurence “that his archival research was the hardest work he’d ever done” (Express, August 16). Naipaul wrote that “through scholarship and intelligent inquiry, we will understand more about the past and more about the culture of our grandfathers than they understood themselves.”
The same civilization that produced Naipaul cradled Derek Walcott (St. Lucia/Trinidad), Wilson Harris (Guyana), Alejo Carpentier (Cuba), Aime Cesaire (Martinique), and Saint-John Perse (Guadeloupe), the first Caribbean Nobel Laureate. In 1960 the Nobel Committee recognized Perse “for the soaring flight and evocative imagery of his poetry which in a visionary fashion reflects the condition of our times.”
At the end of A Bend in the River, Ferdinand exclaims: “We’re all going to hell, and every man knows this in his bones. We’re being killed. Nothing has any meaning.” This was Naipaul’s prognostication of African people. Howe deduces the following from Naipaul’s observation: “Beyond this, Naipaul offers no intimations of hope or signals of perspective. It may be that the reality he grapples with allows him nothing but grimness of voice…Yet one may wonder whether, in some final reckoning, a serious writer can simply allow the wretchedness of his depicted scene to become the limit of his vision. Such novelists as Dostoyevsky, Conrad, and Turgenev, also dealing with painful aspects of political life, struggled in some ways to ‘surmount’ or ‘transcend’ them.”
If Howe knew anything about the Caribbean/Trinidadian literary tradition, he would have known that as early as 1850 Georges Des Sources, the editor of the Trinidadian, had already answered the criticism that Vidia and Shiva leveled against what they described as the blood-thirstiness and hopelessness of African people.
Des Sources noted that any time a disturbance took place in the West Indies “a cry of alarm is raised, and Hayti pointed at as a bloody example of the danger of Negro emancipation.” He noted further that any time Trinidadian leaders (invariably Black) called for the introduction of the elective franchise, “Hayti is cited as an instance of the impossibility of self-government being a judicious exercise by the African race.”
Des Sources conceded that there existed “uninterrupted confusion, rapine and carnage” in Haiti. That was true for any people who sought to throw the yoke of despotism off their backs. He invited his detractors to look at Europe’s long years of fratricidal struggle for freedom and asked: “Was not France, the most polished nation of civilized Europe, deluged in the blood of their best citizens? Is her internal condition much better than the last century? Is not the whole European continent convulsed by the conflict between the people and despotism? Has not vandalism, from time immemorial spread furiously over that delightful abode of the arts and sciences?” (Trinidadian, January 23, 1850).
Dostoevsky was skeptical about the undeserved valorization of Western Europe. In Crime and Punishment (1868) when Dunya confronts her brother Raskolnikov about the awfulness of his crime [he had killed a pawnbroker in cold blood], he exclaims: “Everyone sheds blood…which flows and has flown on earth, like a waterfall, and which has been poured out like champagne, and for which they crown people on the Roman Capitoline and designate them benefactors of mankind.”
Dostoevsky saw human suffering as redemptive. All Naipaul saw was nothingness and despair. It will take a long time before we recognize that Naipaul’s merciless condemnation of Africa and the Caribbean, merely inscribed his neuroses upon people who seem to be defenseless in this day and time.