A Wounded Animal

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”

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeOn 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.

6 thoughts on “A Wounded Animal”

  1. I will agree with Dr Cudjoe that Naipaul was an unpleasant person and his views on Africa and African people was totally derogatory and racist. Unfortunately for Naipaul he did not seek to associate himself with the great South African liberator Nelson Mandela or explore the rich musical expressions of King Sunny Ade, Fela Kuti, and others who brought the infectious rhythms to an international audience. Sadly for Naipaul because of his jaded views he probably lived a very depleted life.

    However despite his flaws, anyone who has read some of his better books, if they are being fair minded, will realize that he was a great writer who paved the way for other colonial writers in the English language to get their voices and stories heard in the wider world.

    He was also very insightful about human nature and culture and not afraid to expose contradictions wherever he found them, e.g. India: An Area of Darkness, Among the Believers-An Islamic Journey. He also did put Trinidad on the the world stage for all time with his stories of Miguel Street, the Suffrage of Elvira and House for Mr Biswas.

    RIP V.S. Naipaul, your judgement is now with the Lord and maybe us mortals should leave it at that.

  2. You are correct JustRight……But take it in Context…The Man Died at almost a Hundred…In those days that was the the way to make a Literary iving .His Peers held him in High Esteem.EVEN TODAY……So tell me now..in context…What is different with this Pipers” Opinion.???……….After all those Years..Was V S Wrong.???…..Pray Tell.!!

  3. “An autobiography can distort, facts can be realigned. But fiction never lies. It reveals the writer totally.” a favorite quote of V.S Naipaul

    He also described Trinidadians as “people who live purely physical lives.” This he said “makes them only interesting to chaps in universities that want to do compassionate studies about brutes”. Egara Kabaji said of Naipaul “Naipaul was not only a braggart, but also a gifted snob. Those of us who know the attributes of a trickster cannot fail to appreciate him.”

    Manan Kapoor said of Naipaul “his works have always left a bittersweet impression in the reader’s minds. He not only had a wide readership, but also a plethora of critics who never spared him.” Although Naipaul was born in Trinidad, it was NEVER his home. He much preferred the home of his colonial masters whom he felt more at home with than the wretched upbringing in the land of his birth.

    In India, Girish Karnad said “Mr. Naipaul has written three books on India. If you read them, you find that not even one of them contains any reference to music. He has gone through the whole of India without responding to Indian music. I think that only means that he is tone deaf.”

    Kapoor also stated that he “observed his subjects from a distance and often lacked self-awareness. In reality, he never touched his subjects with his bare hands, only with a stick, as if he was trying to poke them to generate a reaction which he surprisingly did.”

    With all that being said of him, he represented an elitist standard in the literary world. In his passing, he might find the home he sought while living, because the third world, from where he came, he never found comfort or desire to find attributes in the lives of his fellow countrymen.

  4. We are all animals and in the Caribbean most of us are wounded but what matters is how our phenotypic behavior in society at large is expressed and managed during life. Naipaul never lived to please all of society but felt freely to express his own character and beliefs in many of his writings. It is this society that rewarded him with the Nobel prize in literature.

    His polarized view of his homeland ought not be questioned just as Robin Singh played test cricket for India or Stokely Carmichael aka Kwame Turre was a black activist who worked with Martin Luther King Jr. Although, separating himself from the non-violence philosophy where a considerable amount of his work was done in the US. Eventually blacklisted from his country of birth and lived in Guinea where he met his final destiny. There are many like Naipaul who expresses a dislike of their homeland and their peoples and are comfortable on foreign soil until someone like Trump refer to them as shithole and they learn to digest such sordid comments. A prophet is not recognized in his/her own kingdom.

    If Naipaul lauded over his homeland he would have had some Library over here named after him. Just as Eric Williams stated quite clearly before his death he did not want any glorification of institutions or buildings named after him. Go figure how society entrust themselves on you.

    A beautiful mind yields wonderful thoughts that yields opportunities for society overall, yet they would often be labelled as eccentric by some members of their own society. Obama has extracted wonderful quotes from Naipaul works and used them appropriately. Is it not a fact that beautiful minds do not choose to be surrounded with corrupt elements of society but seize the moment to lambast at the right moments. WYSIWYG.

  5. Naipaul transformed satire completely.

    One letter writer put Naipaul’s perception of the world in this way: “Naipaul, in his writings, laid us bare, and what we see we do not like”. Thinking about this led me, in a moment of eureka insight, to understand what Naipaul’s greatness consisted off. He transformed the genre of satire that, for thousands of years, existed to flay and intellectually make fun of the powerful and the pompous. “Historically, satire has satisfied the popular need to debunk and ridicule the leading figures in politics, economy, religion and other prominent realms of power.” Think of Swift and Defoe, and others. Naipaul transformed satire into an instrument to make fun of and flay the powerless. That was his genius. Nobody could ridicule the powerless and dispossessed in a way that made you want to hoot and roll over laughing at them, like Naipaul. Queen Marie-Antoinette lost her head, literally, because of her satirical comment about the starving “let them eat cake”. Naipaul gained fame and fortune. Making fun of the powerless became the avant-garde thing in literature. As CLR James put it, and I paraphrase, he could say what the socially powerful wanted to say but dared not. After Naipaul, they all could; in fact, it became the thing to do. Perhaps it was because they came from a culture that valued egalitarianism while he came from one that valued hierarchy. Naipaul was one of those who helped changed that, that was his genius.

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