A Wounded Animal – Pt 2

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
August 26, 2018


Reporting the world and its past, the past as a wound, the present as loss, has been Naipaul’s dedication and business, a sort of unillusioned mourning” (Frank Kermode, London Review of Books, 4 May 1989).

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeIt was a Saturday evening in the fall of 1988. I had just arrived at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and was having dinner with a colleague when my nephew shouted from the first-floor bedroom: “Uncle Selwyn, Mr. Naipaul on the phone.” You could have heard a pin drop. Everyone became silent.

I went upstairs to answer the phone. In my best Trinidadianese, I intoned: “Good evening, Mr. Naipaul. This is Selwyn Cudjoe.”

The finest English accent came from the other end of the telephone.

“My wife tells me that you want to speak with me. Why do you want to speak with me?”

I explained that I wanted to interview him for a book I was writing on his work. I mentioned that I was from Trinidad.

His response came quickly: “Why do you want to write a book about me. The people in Trinidad do not like my writing.”

I explained that Trinidadians loved his work. However, some of them felt he said some harsh things about them.

The conversation continued in that vein for half an hour before he announced: “Let us do the interview now.”

I told him that I would have to prepare myself to do a proper interview. I then asked,
“Could we do it another time?”

He asked me to send my questions to him through his agent and promised to get back to me.

I wanted Naipaul to respond to my observation that his creative wellspring seemed to have dried up once he ceased to draw on Trinidad and its culture. He never responded to me.

In 2002, just after he had finished writing Half a Life, a semi-autobiographical work, Naipaul visited the Boston Public Library to read from his work. After the reading I joined the long line of people that wanted Naipaul to sign their books. Needless to say, I was overwhelmed to meet this distinguished Trini writer in person.

Today, Naipaul is described as a British writer from Trinidad.

As I gave him my book to sign, he asked for my name. “Selwyn Cudjoe,” I replied.

“I know that name. I spoke to you in 1988.”

I was baffled. How could this important man remember my name when I had not conversed with him since 1988?

Naipaul left Trinidad a few days before his eighteenth birthday. When he arrived in England he was fearful, anxious and lonely. He expressed those feelings in “Two Thirty A.M,” one of his poems (perhaps his only poem), that John Figueroa read on “Caribbean Voices” on September 24, 1950.

During the latter part of 1987, I wrote to Naipaul asking his permission to reproduce “Two Thirty A.M” in my book V. S. Naipaul: A Materialist Reading.

On January 11, 1988, Patricia Naipaul, Naipaul’s first wife, responded to my request. Naipaul “says that this poem, written by him at school before he left Trinidad, was a joke poem, ‘a prank,…about modern poetry—showing how things could be written, words strung together without feeling.”

On February 12, 1988, Gillion Aitken, Naipaul’s literary agent, officially refused my request to reproduce the poem in my book. He wrote that Naipaul viewed this poem as his “juvenilia” that ought not “to be published just yet.”

In my book I argued that these claims “reflected retrospective readings of what may be Naipaul’s later embarrassed response to his first encounter with England.”

Naipaul became despondent at Oxford. His father even made plans for him to return to the safety of Trinidad. Savi Naipaul Akal, his sister, writes: “Pa feared that Vidia, in his second year at Oxford (1952), was on the verge of a breakdown such as he had, although the comparison seems to verge on the preposterous” (The Naipauls of Nepal Street).

The evening Naipaul called me he was traveling to the American South where he wrote A Turn in the South, an “elliptical, autobiographical meditation upon Trinidad” as Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times described it and which he dedicated to his father’s memory. Naipaul used a quote from Shakespeare’s Henry IV—”There is a history in all men’s lives/Figuring the nature of the times deceased”—as an epigram to this book. Frank Kermode, a distinguished English critic, interpreted this quotation to mean: whatever journeys Naipaul undertakes, “he will always carry with him his own origins in Trinidad; properly studied, those beginnings…may foretell the hatch and brood of time” (London Review of Books, May 1989).

Two things struck me about my encounters with Naipaul: his acute memory and powers of observation that allowed him to see and to capture the contradictions and paradoxes of his world and the degree to which he was trapped by his time and place.

Naipaul, irredeemably “Trini to the bone,” took his world with him wherever he went, using it to make sense of what he found out there and seeking to liberate himself from the darkness and loneliness that encumbered his soul as a colonial man. As in so many of his works, Naipaul remained the quintessential outsider/insider.

7 thoughts on “A Wounded Animal – Pt 2”

  1. Like Naipaul, Winifred Atwell, Eric Williams, Rudranath Capildeo, Trevor Mc Doanld. CLR James, and many others are some of the ‘trini to de bone’, especially of that era schooled and in some cases resident in the UK. They also had that inward hunger to excel in their respective disciplines adding that flavour of ‘trinidadianess’ as required. Just like an actress of the stature of Julie Andrews visiting Trinidad and showing us how to enjoy a roti by using our fingers. Therefore, Eric Williams stating to his fellow Oxford counterparts we speak Latin down here or Naipaul speaking English with the correct phonetics are release valves to blow off steam to overcome the isolation imposed through the struggles experienced in foreign lands.

    These scholars knew very well what struggle meant before they succeeded. Most of us in that era experienced racial discrimination in foreign lands working in some cases twice as hard to achieve the same level of status as the ‘local’.

    The ability to draw from that well spring of his culture from birth and to place it on the international stage is a feat and yet drawing from religious and political prognostications as practised in the world and intertwining such speak volumes. In my view he has become the literary ambassador of his country with no strings attached. His not changing his name to fit into his adopted situation shows the pride and strength in manifesting himself with character. What’s wrong in being a critic with the ‘Naipaulian’ touch when he did not take out a contract to be insular in his viewpoints.

    His international recognition and the fact that his native land did not reciprocate is not a defeat. We know a prophet at times is not recognised in his own kingdom but we do recognize that all the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.

    1. the fact that his native land did not reciprocate is not a defeat. We know a prophet at times is not recognised in his own kingdom but we do recognize that all the world’s a stage

      I beg to differ here about TT did not accept him. Writers have their method to their madness. That is understandable. Trini love the man, but he did not reciprocate. He did not at least come home and at least try to mamaguy we. He was seen by some as the Trini in the metropole and having no concern about we. I had no problem with Naipaul. I just knew he was a great Trini writer. As far as I see, VS thrived on chaos.

  2. Mr Naipaul, comes across as very arrogant, quintessential British, true in colonial, and an explosively collaborating outsider/insider. While the Indentures/UNC are willing to do and say whatever needs to be said for control for this here TRINIDAD, Mr Naipaul didn’t care about the communal politics that we ended having to live and be govern by. As mr Capildeo before him, both died in England collaborating with oppression. None gave Trinidad, what the Island needed, in terms if Intellectual stability, they ran away, never to return. Today, as we celebrate another year of so-called political freedom, Mr Naipaul’s voice should have been an imminent one, sadly it’s not, Trinidad was just a Transitional point.

    on VS NAIPAUL:

    ScIentIst as Well as ArtIst

    November 2001

    “…..To grapple with complexity, the treatment is simple. Naipaul adds to our self-knowledge. He rejects ideological impositions. The political sociology he devises is founded in scientific observation. The hardware of our Constitution may sound like Westminister but the software of our political culture makes a government and politics of its own kind. Novelist and writer that he is and artist supreme, craftsman of the prose, it is the scientist in him which, at this precise
    moment, has come to the fore.”

  4. In a report on Naipaul’s funeral in the Newsday, 28/8/2018, it was said that “the service was attended by approximately 100 people who were very close friends of the author, and a few close relatives.” It ended on this note, “Among them were newspaper publisher Sonny Mehta and his author wife Gita. The reporter, Amit Roy, also commented: ‘The author would have been relieved the majority of mourners were white.’”

  5. Naipaul was a very complex man with a complicated persona. At times inflicting self hatred at other time being pompous, but most of all in true Trini style of the era, don’t give a dam.

    He was a man ahead of his time. He wanted a society that was advance, cognitive and capitivating. That is where the self hatred began, I must say a bit arrogant after tasting success. He saw Trinidad from different lenses. There was the funny lense as found in Miguel Street. Then post colonial backward imagery overtook him for but a moment.

    But Naipaul will continue to live on in his many novels that captured a bygone era. May his soul RIP.

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