V. S. Naipaul (born 1932) was one of the foremost spokespersons in English prose of the post-colonial Third World.
Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born August 17, 1932, in Trinidad, where his grandfather, an indentured worker, had come from India. An agnostic, Naipaul very early experienced a profound alienation, both from the close-knit family life of his Brahmin ancestors and from the social and political life of his native Trinidad: "It was a place where the stories were never stories of success but of failure: brilliant men, scholarship winners, who had died young, gone mad, or taken to drink." A scholarship winner himself out of the Queens Royal College, he used the award to escape to England in 1950, where he attended University College in Oxford. England, more than Trinidad, became his home beginning in the 1950s.
The first fruit of Naipaul's escape from the colony was a series of gently satiric short novels set in Trinidad. In The Mystic Masseur (1957) a semiliterate medicine man makes good as therapist to his village community because of the ignorance and gullibility of the local people. In The Suffrage of Elvira (1958), Naipaul turned a wry critical eye on the first general election held in a town where possibilities for democratic reform abort because of longstanding petty group enmities: Hindu-Moslem, black-white, Indian-Spaniard. Miguel Street (1959) is a "Winesburg, Ohio" collection of vivid character portraits drawn from the author's neighborhood. It closes in the Sherwood Anderson manner: the young narrator leaves his neighbors to continue his education in life abroad, but will immortalize them in his future role of writer.
Next came a big generational novel one of two Naipaul masterpieces A House for Mr. Biswas (1961). Set also in Trinidad, it echoes in some passages the light tone and fun of the earlier, shorter pieces, but achieves the stature of only a few other 20th-century novels largely through the detailed, compassionate picture of Biswas the fictional representative of the author's own father defeated in the struggle for a place of his own, alien both in a matriarchal Indian family and in the larger colonial society still not open to non-Europeans of talent in the 1940s.
Using London as a permanent return base, Naipaul began to travel extensively after 1960. His prolific writing continued, alternating between autobiographical fiction and reportorial non-fiction based on these travels. The unifying persona is that of an alienated ex-colonial, cut off temperamentally both from his native roots and from the European culture upon which he attempts to graft himself. In the novel The Mimic Men (1967) the action shifts between England and Trinidad. The protagonist, Ralph Singh, is out of place in both worlds as a scholarship student in London, and later as a deposed political minister and real estate speculator on his native island; his marriage to a liberal white English woman ends miserably. At the end of the novel, Singh, a disillusioned London recluse, is left writing his memoirs: "We pretended to be real, to be learning, to be preparing ourselves for life, we mimic men of the New World."
In two fine subsequent novels of the 1970s there is little trace of the earlier comic tone. In a Free State (1971) is set in a sub-Saharan African state in uneasy transition between incompetent post-colonial governments. Powerful descriptive passages juxtapose hauntingly beautiful natural settings with the detritus of European technology. New themes of sadistic violence and homosexuality link this work with the longer Guerillas (1975). In both novels the focus of alienation is on a liberal white couple whose pretensions political and sexual are ruthlessly exposed by the "Heart of Darkness" context. Naipaul himself explicitly pointed out his lineage to that earlier writer in quoting Joseph Conrad on authorial purpose: "To awaken the sense of true wonder. That is perhaps a fair definition of the novelist's purpose in all ages."
Perhaps Naipaul's finest sustained writing is to be found in the 1979 novel A Bend in the River. Here, in a small village in "New Africa," the writer explores all of his important themes, treated separately elsewhere: the disorder left in the wake of imperialism; the problems of emergent but underdeveloped third world peoples caught between old tribal ways and the new technology of dangerous arms and tinsel consumer materialism; and the liberal white woman as sexual symbol of Third World political trust and ultimate despair. Here, fortunes are made and lost overnight in gold, copper, and ivory; a Hindu couple from Africa's East Coast, poor shopkeepers one day, strike it rich the next when they are awarded proprietorship of the sole Bigburger franchise of the region. Instability and alienation are indigenous; the Moslem narrator of the novel, back from a short trip abroad, finds his small store nationalized by the Big Man, president-dictator of the Progressive State. After a brief stint in a concentration-camp-like prison, he is lucky to escape with his life. But to what place? He has no "home": "There could be no going back; there was nothing to go back to. We had become what the world outside had made us; we had to live in the world as it existed." Many felt the village was based on Kisangani, Zaire, and in 1997 as the city crumbled, some even hailed his 1979 work as prophetic.
A 1987 work, The Enigma of Arrival, was classified as fiction, although much of the material is indistinguishable from Naipaul's own life.
The variety of Naipaul's interests as a traveller-observer is suggested by the following survey of some of his nonfiction. His two personal roots are explored in the fusions of history with contemporary political analysis which make up The Loss of El Dorado (1969), about Trinidad, and India: A Wounded Civilization (1977). Among the Believers (1981) records impressions of the author's visits to several important Moslem nations, including Iran and Pakistan. Finding the Center (1984) includes an essay on his stay in the relatively stable and prosperous West African Ivory Coast. Here the observer analyzes sympathetically the balance of power between competing tribal and European values. In 1996 Naipaul released The World's Great Places An Area of Darkness to favorable reviews.
Naipaul published several new works in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including A Turn in the South (1989), India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990), and Way in the World: A Sequence (1994).
Further Reading on V. S. Naipaul
The first section of Finding the Center (1984) is an autobiographical essay; A Flag on the Island (1967) is a collection of short stories; The Overcrowded Barracoon (1972), is a selection of essays; William Walsh's V. S. Naipaul (1973) is a brief but comprehensive introduction to the writer's life and work; Robert K. Morris's Paradoxes of Order (1975) focuses critically on Naipaul's fiction. A good general analysis of Naipaul's work is to be found in Anthony Boxill's V. S. Naipaul Fiction: In Quest of the Enemy (1983).