This article by Evan Calbi, co-editor of L.A. Exile: A Guide to Los Angeles Writing 1932-1998 and co-founder of the journal Rhizome, appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books. FOllow the link below for the original report and the article’s footnotes.
THE ISLANDS of the Caribbean Sea are divided into two constellations. The Greater Antilles accounts for most of the population of the West Indies and includes, among others, Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. Southeast of this archipelago, a cascade of smaller nations and non-sovereign states leads to the largest island of the Lesser Antilles, Trinidad. Christopher Columbus first approached that island in the summer of 1498 on his third voyage in search of Asia. He noticed three ranges of mountains covered with lush vegetation and named the island La Isla de la Trinidad in honor of the Holy Trinity. European settlers from Spain and France made occasional attempts to colonize the indigenous Amerindians before the British took control in 1797. When they abolished slavery almost 40 years later, African slaves working in the sugar-cane plantations were replaced by peasants from impoverished areas of northern India. The new arrivals were recruited to work as indentured laborers on contracts that lasted from five to ten years. Rather than return to India adrift, many elected to stay.
V.S. Naipaul, knighted by the Queen in 1990 and awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, is Trinidad’s most famous writer. His first ancestor to arrive on the island was a Brahmin named Kopil from a family of pundits that lived on the border of Nepal. He was of a higher caste than the other laborers that made the harrowing three-month sea voyage to Trinidad, and so he was removed from a shovel gang when an Indian overseer learned of his ability to read Sanskrit.
Naipaul retraces much of his family history in detail in his novel, A House For Mr. Biswas. He has often blurred the lines between fiction and autobiography, and his debut book, Miguel Street, is no exception. In 1955, after several abandoned attempts at a first novel, Naipaul began a series of interrelated stories about this fictional street in Trinidad’s capital, Port of Spain. Published in 1959, Miguel Street won the Somerset Maugham Award two years later.
Told through the eyes of a fatherless boy, the novel is based on Naipaul’s time living with extended family on Luis Street in Woodbrook, a district outside Port of Spain. The book’s short vignettes focus on the many characters of the street, such as the carpenter Popo, who is going broke while building “the thing without a name,” and crazy Man-Man, who runs a misguided campaign for political office before staging his own crucifixion. As Naipaul’s older sister, Kamla, recalled in Patrick French’s The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul:
Her name was Lorna Lange and she said to me, “Kamla, I know you, so don’t come with any style to me, I lived all my life in Luis Street until I got married and came south, I know Hat, Hat is Topi, you can’t fool me, and Man-Man is Thakrine’s son, I know Bogart, and the drunken chap who started running a whorehouse.” She knew every single character in Miguel Street.
The fact that Naipaul’s characters were seemingly pulled from Luis Street and delivered whole to the page became particularly interesting to me during my first trip to Trinidad in 2007, when I learned that I was staying in a house featured in the novel. I had traveled to Port of Spain to research a book about a Trinidadian musician I’d met in Los Angeles and stayed on Luis Street with an extended Indian family, the Narines.
Krishna is the oldest of four Narine siblings. At the time of my visit, he shared the house with three brothers, a sister, significant others, children, grandchildren, and guests. When I told Krishna of my desire to write about Trinidad, he mentioned that someone had already written an entire book about his street — no less than V.S. Naipaul. After fishing a worn copy ofMiguel Street from a bookshelf, he read the opening lines:
Every morning when he got up Hat would sit on the banister of his back verandah and shout across, “What happening there, Bogart?”
Bogart would turn in his bed and mumble softly, so that no one heard, “What happening there, Hat?”
Naipaul reflected on this opening in the essay “Prologue to an Autobiography”: “The first sentence was true. The second was invention.” Bogart’s real-life counterpart lived in a single room behind the house occupied by several branches of Naipaul’s family, and Hat lived next door. An indelible character, Hat was in many ways my introduction to Trinidad; I was staying in his very house.
“We used to call him Topi, and Topi is a reference to wearing your hat, you know?” Krishna said. “He always liked to wear these hats and caps, so that’s the nickname for him. Naipaul wrote something different. Topi, now in the true sense of it, is something on your head. He didn’t say ‘Topi.’ He said ‘Hat.’”
Krishna flipped through a photo album looking for a particular snapshot.
“This guy here, that’s our great-uncle,” he said. “That’s the fellow called Topi.”
In the yellowed photo, a dark-skinned Indian man with short, gray hair sits on a wooden chair in front of the house on Luis Street, a one-story cement home with a corrugated steel roof. Topi wears white shorts and a loose-fitting tank top, and a young boy stands next to him with a toothy grin: Abby, one of Krishna’s younger brothers. The year “1958” is written in the corner of the photo with a methodical hand.
Naipaul moved to the street in 1943, when the house was crowded with various branches of his family. At times during the school year, more than two-dozen children slept on tables lined up in the tall basement area under the house. Naipaul’s family lasted for three unhappy years on Luis Street until his father, Seepersad, was able to save enough to buy a house in an Indian neighborhood nearby.
Naipaul’s uncle Rudranath was one of the island’s first Indians to earn a highly competitive island scholarship to study at a university in Britain. In 1949, after Naipaul was passed over for the annual award, his principal at Queen’s Royal College successfully petitioned Trinidad’s government to extend a special scholarship. Naipaul left for London in 1950 and has never returned for longer than a few extended stays.
On my first day in Trinidad, Krishna and his nephew, Shane, took me fishing. As we walked along Luis Street, Krishna offered anecdotes about the area with an amused detachment that reminded me of my adjunct professors in college, journeymen lecturers with battle scars from years of academic infighting. At the end of the block, a cement barricade separated the residential street from the bustling Wrightson Road running along the bay. Krishna pointed to the ocean beyond a line of industrial buildings.
“That’s Invader’s Bay. It’s named for the British ships that landed when they invaded the island. During the war, this whole area was an American military base called Docksite.”
We waited for a break in traffic.
“Where those big buildings are, that was a grazing field,” Krishna said. “The cows would go down there and eat the grass. They come up lunchtime. Give them water, then you milk them, and you take them back down.”
In Miguel Street, a mysterious character named B. Wordsworth stops by the young narrator’s house one afternoon, offering his poems for sale and explaining that he is writing the greatest poem in the world. These two, the young child and the broken poet, become friends and often walk along the waterfront at Docksite. The child recollects:
We walked along the sea-wall at Docksite one day, and I said, “Mr. Wordsworth, if I drop this pin in the water, you think it will float?”
He said, “This is a strange world. Drop your pin, and let us see what will happen.”
The pin sank.
The world is what it is. This is Naipaul’s famous opening to his novel A Bend In The River, and it offers a sober understanding of his complicated relationship with the island. As Christopher Hitchens wrote in a review of Patrick French’s 2008 biography of Naipaul, The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul: “It was shrewd and intelligent of French to take the opening sentence from A Bend in the River — ‘The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it’ — and describe it as ‘terrifying,’ then annex it for his title.”
The reception of French’s biography — Hitchens wrote about it in The Atlantic, George Packer in The New York Times, etc. — focused on the brilliance of the book while expressing a mix of bewilderment and awe at Naipaul’s narcissism in authorizing such a troubling monument to himself. The reviews uniformly saved their scorn for Naipaul’s terrible treatment of those closest to him, particularly the sickening and prolonged emotional assault of his wife Patricia Naipaul and repeated physical attacks of his longtime mistress Margaret Murray. It’s an unflattering portrayal that at times veers into the monstrous.
Why did French call Naipaul’s opening sentence from A Bend in the River“terrifying,” and why did it hit such a nerve that Hitchens mentioned it in his review? The world is what it is — to many, that statement could be construed as a plea for acceptance, for making peace with the past. For Naipaul, it is a means of devaluing the things and the people that define him, namely his homeland and those closest to him. As Adam Kirsch mentioned in a recent article in The New Yorker, the hard light of such a belief, and the rejection it implies, led the Caribbean’s other Nobel laureate, poet Derek Walcott, to openly despise Naipaul, referring to him as “that bastard” in his latest collection.
What is possibly most terrifying about Naipaul’s sentiment is that it was already apparent in his first book. At the end of Miguel Street, the young narrator leaves Trinidad with an island scholarship to study in London. Hat, one of the men who, in Naipaul’s words, allow themselves to become nothing, ushers the boy into adulthood.
“I always looked upon Hat as a man of settled habits, and it was hard to think of him looking otherwise than he did,” Naipaul wrote.
Hat’s stint in jail signals the first blow, and his indifference to the narrator’s departure is the final knife stroke that severs ties to the street. In the novel’s final sentence, the narrator walks towards the plane, focused only on his shadow dancing on the tarmac.
Naipaul left and earned his place in the world, and the young narrator’s rejection of Hat — and Naipaul’s rejection of Topi — defined much of the work that followed. Today, Luis Street has no outward signs of having inspired the novel. This is, I would guess, how Naipaul would want it. There are better-known streets in Trinidad for anyone looking to tour his childhood, and people on Luis Street remain ambivalent about their famous neighbor. To borrow from Naipaul’s lexicon, it was what it was.
After crossing Wrightson Road, Krishna, Shane, and I walked in single file next to a wall crowned with barbed wire. The dirt path was strewn with fast food containers, aluminum cans, and broken shipping crates. It followed a channel of water streaming towards the bay.
“Where is the water coming from?” I asked.
“It’s man-made,” Krishna said. “The PowerGen plant supplies the city’s electricity with thermal generators that burn natural gas. Each turbine is cooled by ocean water that is released back into the bay, and the warm water attracts fish.”
Below a cement bridge, a padlocked chain-link fence blocked the way. On the other side of the canal, new cars sat in rows awaiting delivery to island dealerships.
“This was a favorite spot,” Krishna said. “People would bathe in the waters. It was a remedy for ailments, but then they gated the path.”
We stepped through a crumbled section of the wall and into a half-empty lot of truck trailers. The bay sparkled in the late afternoon sun. Krishna walked along a rocky and overgrown path at the water’s edge. Trash was strewn about the shore. A few hundred yards away was the port, where a tugboat refueled and, beyond that, massive cranes unloaded cargo from two docked freighters. Krishna smiled while hanging his shirt on a nail in a dilapidated shack.
“The fish don’t seem to mind,” he said.
Krishna and Shane waded into the bay. Seeing that they kept their shoes on, I did the same. Shane threw a net that landed like a watery moon on the ocean’s surface while Krishna held a plastic bucket with holes drilled in the sides. Nearby, a freighter belched a giant horn blast. We stayed for an hour, until Shane caught enough fish to grill for an early dinner.
Back on Luis Street, Shane prepped the meal while Krishna untied his wet shoes. Family members emerged from the house with reports of the growing mass of revelers nearby on Ariapita Avenue; Carnival was three days away and crowds were forming in anticipation. Shane began grilling the fish and an uncle offered unwelcome commentary on his cooking. A neighbor brought a case of Carib beer and passed bottles around. Another brought a boombox and Soca music filled the yard. Kids danced, absorbed in the play of their shadows on the cement patio, while I watched the house next door, waiting for any sign of life.