= HE WAS THE BEST MAN I KNEW STOP EVERYTHING I OWE TO HIM BE BRAVE MY LOVES TRUST ME = VIDO
The elder Naipaul dreamed of becoming a writer, and didn’t quite see his ambition fulfilled. The achievement of putting words down on the page, the ambition and also the anxiety, was a central theme in the novel. (Every time he puts a sheet in the typewriter, Mr. Biswas types out the following: “At the age of thirty-three, when he was already the father of four children….” The half-finished sentence lights up a whole dark universe of desire and futility.)
And it can be said that this preoccupation with the written word, the centrality of the writing life, was a gift that V.S. Naipaul gave to younger writers like me in places like India. If I were to speak only for myself, although I know this includes many others, I owe everything to him.
I’m telling you this because I think my wife’s answer reflects a response that many people, including those who have a profound respect for Naipaul’s achievements as a writer, will share. The list is familiar: in one baffling interview after another, the scorn he showed for many women writers; his representation of Islam as a medieval religion full of violence, which I always thought had its origins in his being raised as a diasporic Hindu; his swift, often ahistorical, dismissal of formerly colonized nations as inferior.
Was I being over-dramatic, or defensive, when I said to my wife: “But suppose one’s father has bigoted views. When he dies, will you still not mourn him?”
Reading him as a young man in a provincial town in India, I found Naipaul’s writing gave a solidity to my surroundings. In a language that was as clear as the dawn, he appeared to be giving our streets a name and a recognizable air. In books like “India: A Million Mutinies Now,” his 1990 book recounting travels in his ancestral home in India, he was also giving the ordinary person a voice.
Later, when I came to the West and began to live here, I took great pleasure in his books like the autobiographical 1987 work, “The Enigma of Arrival.” In that strange book in particular, neither simply a novel nor a work of non-fiction, I saw an immigrant writer’s tremendous act of invention. Through the sheer power of perception, noting details in the landscape and the people he saw at a distance, Naipaul was staking a claim to England, where he had come as an outsider.
Naipaul then proceeded to offer me a brief history lesson about the ruins in Kashmir. He was merciless, but also wrong, and perhaps more than a bit bigoted. But the real thing I want to tell you is that I lost the fax. And yet, until I found it many months later, I could recall each word of it. That is the real importance of Naipaul’s talent as a writer: to find in deceptively simple prose, an arresting syntactic rhythm that fixed for his reader an image of the world as it was.