Nicholas Laughlin—“His world was what it was: the enigma of V.S. Naipaul”


Many thanks to Annie Paul for sharing this item (via Facebook): a beautiful piece by Nicholas Laughlin—“His world was what it was: the enigma of V.S. Naipaul,” at once an obituary tribute and an assessment of the writer’s place on the stage of Caribbean literature and identity, and far beyond. My favorite sentence in this article is “There are books of Naipaul’s I hope never to read again, and books of his without which I can’t understand the world I was born into.” Here are excerpts; please read full article at Global Voices:

He was the rare literary figure of sufficient notoriety that newspapers had kept draft obituaries on file for decades. When news broke on August 11 that V.S. Naipaul had died at the age of 85, press coverage was swift and voluminous. It was a front-page story in Trinidad and Tobago’s three daily newspapers, the Nobel laureate’s photograph blown up above the headlines.

On the social networks where most of T&T’s public debate now unfolds, some commenters pounced on the detail that the international press described Naipaul as a British writer. “He would have loved that,” was a typical response. For those who disapprove of Naipaul—and he courted disapproval—one longstanding grouse was his supposed disavowal of Trinidad, the island where he was born and grew up. We remember the sting of Naipaul’s statement on receiving the 2001 Nobel Prize: “It is a great tribute to both England, my home, and to India, the home of my ancestors, and to the dedication and support of my agent.” Full stop. So, to be elegised as British: surely that was his wish all along?

But the facts are complicated. Born in a British colony, Naipaul was a British subject when he left Trinidad in 1950, 18 years old, on a hard-won scholarship to Oxford. He was permanently settled in London by the time Trinidad and Tobago became an independent nation in 1962. He was “British” all along, and at the same time he never really belonged in his adopted country. The evidence is plain to read in his books.

Naipaul was “Trinidadian to the core,” says Kenneth Ramchand, the eminent literary scholar. “Trinidad made him. It shaped him, and even when he was vexed with Trinidad, it haunted him throughout his career.” I’d go further and say Naipaul was the most Trinidadian writer Trinidad has produced, in all good and bad ways. “A House for Mr. Biswas” remains the closest thing we have to a Great Trinidadian Novel, with its unsentimental portrait of an Indo-Trinidadian family striving for a sense of coherence and self-determination in a small society “at once exceedingly simple and exceedingly confused.” “The Suffrage of Elvira” is the most valuable primer for anyone trying to understand T&T’s incorrigibly tribal politics (according to no lesser authority than the political theorist Lloyd Best). “The Loss of El Dorado” is still the most bracing and penetrating history of colonial Trinidad. And the picaresque stories of “Miguel Street”, Naipaul’s breakthrough book, have more pervasively influenced subsequent Trinidadian fiction writers than any other text.

[. . .] Trinidadians ought to recognise these provocations as his version of our very own picong, the mocking, merciless banter perfected by our calypsonians. We should understand his impish public conduct as Naipaul “playing himself,” as Trinidadians describe the performance of a carefully crafted persona that at once masks and reveals. [. . .]

Please read full article at Global Voices:

One thought on “Nicholas Laughlin—“His world was what it was: the enigma of V.S. Naipaul”

  1. V.S. Naipaul at 85 (Aug. 17, 1932-Aug. 11, 2018)
    “The world is what it is; men who are nothing,
    who allow themselves to become nothing,
    have no place in it.” ~ V.S. Naipaul

    We perhaps sometimes wish to disagree
    Or perhaps condescend with scrutiny
    Of his literary authorship flow
    His inking steadfastly for us to know
    From the Humming Bird island Trinidad
    What A House for Mr. Biswas we had
    Then coursing our colonial history
    From the heartland of British piracy
    Clinching the Nobel laureate in hand
    Sailing in A Bend in the River grand.

    ~ Leonard Dabydeen

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