An Interview with VS Naipaul

Patrick Marnham interviews Naipaul for the Literary Review. Here are some excerpts, with a lik to the full interview below.

Sir Vidia Naipaul lives with his wife, Nadira, in Wiltshire, in a house surrounded by fields, with the River Avon running past the foot of the garden. Outside the study window a roe deer and fawn stand motionless. A second glance reveals that they are lifelike wicker-work shapes, the gifts of an anonymous admirer, possibly someone who approves of Naipaul’s passionate concern for animal welfare. He believes that when the local hunt is up, wild animals take shelter in the garden. We talked over two days about his interest in Africa, his latest book, ‘The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief’, and his long writing career.


LR: You went to see a fortune teller in West Africa on your recent journey. What did you ask him?

VSN: Oh, I always ask them a few specific questions. Will I own a house of my own one day? Will I find emotional satisfaction with someone? Will there be a book next year? Next year … For me that is always a sign of life. But I pay no attention whatever to the replies. I’ve never had any wish to penetrate the personal future. The bigger future is always interesting, but I don’t have this personal wish.

. . .

When I read your latest book, ‘The Masque of Africa’, I wondered whether you were intending to make good a little bit there, returning as you do to so many of the themes you have touched on before.

There is something in that. I feel that when a subject is quite big, one look is not enough. One should have a second take.

There is also the return to ideas you have covered before, the disintegration of the postcolonial project, the return of the bush, and this terrible sense of abandonment. Africa repeatedly becomes a very frightening place.

I first saw those abandoned buildings in 1966 during a journey from Rwanda to Uganda, and it was staggering to me. There was a town called Gisenyi. One had an idea of towns as places with roofs, with drives, places looked after. In Gisenyi because of the rain the roofs had fallen in; the drives had poured into the road. It was very disturbing. And there were these ruins within the ruined buildings. What I saw were people trying to recreate the ‘hut life’ within a modern bungalow. At different times in my life I’ve come across the same thing. About nine years later I was in the Congo, Kisangani – Stanleyville as it was – and I was taken to see what remained of the town. And I saw streets that had been swamped by bush. And I saw name signs, still looking new, for nightclubs – ‘Château de Venise’, that sort of thing. It was very upsetting. But this is not true of West Africa. This is not true of Ghana. They’re sharper, they’re kinder, more equipped to deal with foreigners. And I was very impressed with the people I met in Nigeria intellectuals. Once that process starts it carries on.

I was wondering where your initial interest in Africa came from. Perhaps your Trinidad background played a part?

Trinidad, yes. That was a great help to me, especially when I was in the Congo. The first time I was in Kinshasa I saw workers being brought into the city in open railway trucks. And when I saw those people I felt at ease because I felt, ‘I know them. I’ll be able to talk to them.’ So my Trinidad background enabled me to have an illusion of knowledge. It’s a superficial idea but it removes the excessive strangeness, the exotic quality, that places might otherwise have.

Your African fiction started with ‘In a Free State’ in 1971, then ‘A Bend in the River’ and then ‘Half a Life’. In the first book an English couple are travelling through a disturbed country under curfew and are seeking refuge in a European compound. They live in a state of fear. In the second the hero, an Indian merchant, has no refuge and his life is eventually saved by an African friend. Then in ‘Half a Life’, Willie lives in the bush in Mozambique for eighteen years, mostly at ease.There seems to be a developing sympathy with Africa, a developing engagement. Does that reflect a developing sympathy within you for the African predicament?

Yes, you’re quite right, a developing sympathy. In a Free State was in a way a colonial book.

The English couple, Bobby and Linda, are surrounded by menace; Africans are frightening …

One wouldn’t do that now; times have changed. So one has to write of Africa in another way. And for The Masque of Africa I was looking for something different. I was looking for the human breakdown, as it were. I had to be very particular. I didn’t want to write about politics, or local internal trouble. I just wanted to stay with fundamental beliefs, if I could find them.

Of course this is a subject that is very seldom written about, African belief, the secret part that they don’t talk to us about.

Exactly. But if you want to talk to them about it they will and it wasn’t difficult.

But it was going in pretty deep, wasn’t it? The subtitle is ‘Glimpses of African Belief’. Was that as far as you got, a glimpse?

Yes. Because if you look at a book about ritual for instance, you’re getting into really deep water there. So I had to be careful. I wanted to understand what African belief represents. It needs to be looked at, as Susan, the Ugandan poet, told me. She was a Christian but she respected her people’s traditional religion. I’m interested in early religion, in the beginning of things, the beginning of religion.

In ‘A Bend in the River, Salim, the Indian merchant, who is a pretty secular figure, discovers the melancholy that is the basis of religion, since ‘religion turns that melancholy into uplifting fear and hope’.

I didn’t know I had said that but that’s good.

What is your own reason to be interested in the basis of religion? Is this a growing interest of yours?

I’ve always had a little interest in it, but I haven’t gone into it because I’m afraid that if I do I will start sinking into it.

In your own childhood was religion important?

No. I actually have no belief. I was very fortunate that way. It would have been a drag on one’s intellectual development.

In ‘The Masque of Africa’, you meet a sort of guru in Gabon called Rossatanga who has some pretty harsh things to say about Africa. At one point he says, ‘This land was not made for humans.’ He’s thinking of the forest.

Oh, but he said this in a romantic way. He wasn’t condemning it. He was thinking of African belief and he was telling you that if you lived here you too would have to find ways of dealing with this kind of flora and fauna. When I was in Gabon I went walking in the forest and it wasn’t at all frightening. I was quite calm. My only concern was that I could not walk in the elephants’ footprints because they were full of water and too deep for my shoes. But I liked all of that because I love the smell of the wet forest.

The forest has always seemed to be a frightening place for outsiders. It was an image of fear for Conrad.

Yes. But I did not go very far into the forest. There was no worry for me of being swallowed up in bush. I love the idea of the very big trees. Inevitably you think about the age of the trees, how slowly they have been growing, and you feel very warm towards them. And you understand the Gabon feeling that to cut a big tree down is like taking away a human soul.

But they cut them down all the time.

All the time, all the time. And now it will be done more industrially; the Chinese and the Malaysians will be much more efficient and more ruthless.

So, what does the forest tell us about the African psyche?

I don’t think it tells us anything. What Rossatanga was saying was that the land is so hostile to men, that it is not a place for men, you can’t even keep cows there for milk. He was saying that agriculture needs a more benign setting. And he’s probably right. I never thought of that until he mentioned it. We think of agriculture as the beginning of human activity. But no, here agriculture comes much later, it is an act of self-improvement. Rossatanga talking about a particular place in Gabon, where you can see the big animals, the whales and the dolphins, the elephants: that feeling of wonder, I had a respect for that. But I found it in nobody else. Rossatanga talking like that about the landscape was interesting to me. It was poetic, it was mystical, it was good.

In the book you emphasise the importance of African belief but you also noticed that there was a lot of cruelty involved. Of the Ivory Coast you wrote, ‘the land was full of cruelty’. You were referring to ritual sacrifice and ritual murder, and you tell stories about those practices, some of which I too heard on my travels. So isn’t this a complication of the problem? Africa confronted by a loss of traditional belief, but a kind that can be, that is, intrinsically, cruel?

I think we have to lay out the problem and live with it. You can’t always make a whole of things. If we consider Roman belief, the lowing oxen being led up the Via Sacra, I think that we don’t pay sufficient attention to that side of ancient belief. We don’t quite take it in. We don’t see the blood and the unhappy animals. The Romans saw it all the time, but they saw it in a different way, as the prayers being received. I think we are much better rid of all these beliefs. I know very little about Christianity but I think that its purification of sacrifice was a very fine thing.

But you don’t approve of what the Christian missionaries have been doing in Africa at all.

What Susan, the poet from Uganda, said about the missionaries was slightly hair-raising.

She said: ‘My people had a civilisation. It was very different but it was their own … The missionaries took away our land, religion and customs … they brainwashed us … When a person or race comes and imposes on you, it takes away everything, and it is a vicious thing to do.’

It’s an intellectual vanity isn’t it – to come among people and tell them that you, the outsider, have the answer for them. Susan suffered from that a little bit.

Yes, because it complicated her sense of identity. It sometimes seems that there are two Africas, the official world of the NGOs and the World Bank that we are allowed to discuss, and this parallel world that overwhelms the official picture as soon as we go there. And one unusual thing about your writing is that it often describes the second place. And this may be why it has sometimes been criticised.

One has to live with that.

. . .

Some reviewers of ‘Masque’ were surprised by your concern over animal suffering in Africa. I wondered whether you were using this visible suffering as a symbol for the human suffering that you were not shown?

No, no. It was just what it was. Concern about animal suffering was one of the big things in the great eighteenth-century revolution of feeling. Hogarth tried to encourage it. He did a series about cruelty to animals and he said that if it had any effect he would consider those pictures as good as anything that Raphael had done. One understands then how our attitudes are made to change, in small ways at first, and then it becomes a flood. There was a man, Captain Coram, in the eighteenth century, who was so moved by the sight of naked babies dying in the road that he decided to do something about it. Everyone else was living with that sight and it needed a special kind of person to say we must do something. So you see change has to be incremental, no revolution of feeling can do that. It’s a series of little things. When I was in Thailand I began to talk about this to people at the university there and one said, in a very knowing way, that that absolves everyone of responsibility – ‘People who worry about animals don’t worry about human beings.’ But I think the opposite is true. I think if you worry about animals it leads automatically to a concern for human beings.

Do you think that the animals know the difference between happiness and unhappiness?

Oh yes, oh yes. That’s why Augustus [Naipaul’s cat] purrs. If he does not purr you are not pleasing him.

One of the early reviews of ‘Masque’ for some reason wandered away from Africa in order to focus on Oswald Mosley and the Notting Hill race riots. This reminded me that in ‘Half a Life’, Willie, during his years in London in the 1950s, experiences the fear of those events. Were you yourself in London at that time?


Willie overhears an old man in a pub casually saying, ‘Those blacks are going to be a menace.’

Yes I actually heard that said at the time. I thought it was a strange thing to say. There they are being killed or hounded and this man is saying they are a menace. I was in London but I was not affected, I felt it was far away.

We were talking about racism, and of how the word seems to be quite recent, early twentieth century, first used it seems – perhaps by Gandhi – in relation to British policy against the Indians in South Africa. Have you yourself experienced it?

Yes, in Trinidad in 1956, the Prime Minister, Eric Williams, was encouraging anti-Indian racism. I wasn’t prepared for it. I used to walk down those streets in Port of Spain when I was a small boy going to school quite unprotected and getting nothing but goodwill from the people I saw. This was a new thing to live with. My family was affected by it; everybody was. There were riots, and they maltreated the records department in Port of Spain. But today they’ve gone through the cycle and reached an equilibrium again. In 1956 they were playing little games. If you wanted a taxi and you hailed a black taxi driver he wouldn’t stop for you. Little things like that, very bad games. Some people thought this was wonderful, that it was the new dawn. Eric Williams also had the clever idea of detaching the Muslims from the bulk of the Indian population. And to some extent that is still there.

 . . .

So Trinidad has given you an entrée, not just to Africa, but to Europe, to South America and to India. It’s the perfect starting point. Or it certainly looks like it, if one makes as much of it as you have.

I didn’t intend to make much of it when I began. It just grew on me, you know. All writing has this element of discovery and the unexpected, not only in the forms that you practise but also in the books that you might attempt to write, there is an element there too of surprise. You must be surprised a little bit by what the book tells you. Don’t you find that?

I recognise what you say. You said that you did not intend to make much of it, but you knew it was what you wanted to do.

When I began I had no idea what I wanted to do. It’s all been a great, great mystery tour. It looks obvious now, as though it was there waiting to be done but it didn’t seem so to me at the beginning. How do you write about India? You have to learn how to write about India. You have to learn how to write a book about the Islamic world.

Which was the breakthrough book do you think, the one that made you feel that you were under way?

A House for Mr Biswas – that was the book I was thinking of when I once said that if a man came to me and offered me a million pounds to stop writing, I would have to say ‘No’. I had realised that I wouldn’t give up this book now for any price. I had this conviction of its worth. Wonderful, wonderful to have that conviction, when you are writing something. It supports you. I recently talked to a gathering of people in the Langham Hotel opposite Broadcasting House where I used to work for the BBC. I told the audience about this emotional moment coming through the same front door and taking the same lift up to the second floor. But what I forgot to tell them was that everyone I saw on my first day had died. All those young men had vanished. It happens like that at a certain stage in your life, don’t you think?

. . .

I will read you a passage from ‘A House for Mr Biswas’. It’s a very powerful passage: ‘His satirical sense kept him aloof … satire led to contempt and contempt, quick, deep, inclusive, became part of his nature. It led to inadequacies, to self-awareness and a lasting loneliness. But it made him unassailable.’

I think I’m writing very accurately about my attitude as a young man. I think it’s very good for what it says.

. . .

For the complete interview go to

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