V.S. Naipaul: The Great, Frustrating, Hilarious Trinidadian Showed What We Can Be in the World
V.S. Naipaul’s passing is being announced around the world, not always with fond opinions. He would have had it no other way, of course. He despised sentimentality, and thoroughly enjoyed getting under someone’s skin. He would do it on purpose just to get a laugh. “Chooking fire”, as it were. It was a very Trinidadian characteristic of his. One of many.
Paul Theroux noted scores of others in his great, affectionate, broken-hearted memoir. Naipaul would often burst out singing a calypso in the most unlikely times and places – because he so enjoyed their politically incorrect, insightful wit and humour. His Queen’s English, in speech and in writing, also had a Trinidad bis – or emphatic repetition. And, of course, he spoke about Trinidad often. It was the basis of everything he wrote. He himself stated that he only travelled to the places that were relevant to his experience growing up in Trinidad – Africa, the Islamic world, India, Britain, South America, the southern (plantation) United States. He refused invitations to visit and write about Eastern Europe and elsewhere for that reason.
Indeed, there is no person who has written more on Trinidad, for a longer period of time, to a wider audience than VS Naipaul. Even when he was writing about a place like Malaysia, he would centre himself by noting : “I recognised these trees from Trinidad when I was growing up”. This is not someone who hates himself or his heritage. He wrote extremely affectionately, with great detail, precision, and care, but never flinching from the truth of his observations, as he saw them. Indeed, more than anything else, he hated people who lied to themselves and, worse, banked on others believing those lies.
While Naipaul is wrongly criticised for not taking Trinidad seriously, the official statement of the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago on Naipaul’s passing proudly references his knighthood and his Nobel Prize, but nowhere mentions his 1989 Trinity Cross. Indeed, Naipaul would later favourably comment that he received this Trinidad and Tobago award prior to his British knighthood.
Photo : Dr. Kirk Meighoo
He was often misunderstood. For instance, the famous line, “nothing was created in the West Indies” was not a criticism primarily about the former slaves and indentures. It was a criticism of the British. He wrote that line in 1960 when we were still colonies. How could it mean anything else? In Spanish America, the colonialists built substantial public buildings, plazas and great Universities that still stand today. In colonial New England, the venerable institutions of Harvard and Yale were built. Under British colonialism in the West Indies, massive wealth was generated here for a time, but nothing was created. They had no plans or ambitions for the region. We were what Lloyd Best called “colonies of exploitation”.
From this background Naipaul had one obsessive concern: “How do I, as a Trinidad Indian, born in this small colony, isolated from the rest of the world, marginal even here, find my way in the world?” It was the great theme of his life’s work. He developed many sub-themes and recurring characters from it, returning to them over and over again: the futility of people trying to run away from themselves, the fraudulence and danger of white liberals, the Trinidad “smart man” and the more brutal manifestations of this character in other societies. In fact, it is as if Naipaul spent his life writing just one Big Book, with each new publication simply being an additional volume or chapter in it.
When I put this to him, at our first meeting, he did not object. He paused. He accepted it.
That was not merely a piece of intellectual, literary, critical discussion, however. It was profoundly personal. It was the same personal question that I had learned from him to ask myself. But I had the gift of Naipaul exploring this issue publicly, in writing, for 50 years. It helped and guided me incalculably, as I also travelled from country to country in my early years. He was my personal guide and mentor, in so many ways. The advice his father gave to him while he was abroad is what he gave to all of us: “Find your centre.” It is the only then you can find your Way in the World.
That is why that meeting with him was surreal in so many ways.
After years of intense devotion to him and his work – my own Ph.D. thesis and first book was built on exploring and taking seriously Naipaul’s profound idea of the “half-made society” – one day, at home, I received a phone call.
“Hello, Kirk?” It was the low, calm, mellifluous voice I knew, but could not believe was on the other end.
“This is Naipaul. I’m in Trinidad and I’d like you to come over for dinner.”
I couldn’t believe it. But in some strange way, I knew that I would meet him one day. It seemed inevitable and I was waiting for it. The desire was too intense and persistent not to manifest. Of course, I went. I would change nothing about that evening. It was perfect. He personally confirmed everything I ever thought about him and his work.
This was one of the many times Naipaul was in Trinidad. He always did so quietly. While he was away, he used to ask his older sister, Kamla, to send him newspaper clippings. As source material, Naipaul always said that “this land was pure gold – pure gold”.
That afternoon he had a small medical emergency procedure at Medical Associates in St. Joseph, which caused him to be late for dinner. He was thoroughly impressed and couldn’t stop talking about it.
“I received better care there than I ever would in the UK,” he said. He was taken aback at how much Trinidad had progressed since the time when he lived here.
I was surprised, and I qualified his statement, telling him how the concerns he raised almost 50 years earlier and continued to elaborate were equally valid today. He disagreed, and told me stories about the one local doctor that everyone had to go to when he was child, and whom he considered to be a “quack”.
It was a surreal moment, with Naipaul defending Trinidad and I criticising it! We laughed a lot that evening. He was hilarious and constantly made dry, sharp jokes.
In fact, many critics of Naipaul don’t realise how much absurd Trinidad humour pervades even his bleakest work. When an interviewer in the 1970s asked him why he no longer wrote comic works, he disagreed. “You can’t be serious,” she queried.
“I am,” he said.
“Surely, Guerillas, for example, can’t be considered humorous.”
“You should hear me read it.”
And it is absolutely true. Naipaul shares the wicked, contrarian humour of so many classic calyspos which he loved, or the everyday, absurdist, politically incorrect hilarity of Trinidad, which is why I would title my own analysis of his work, “Sans humanité: The Perverse, Trinidadian Worldview of V.S. Naipaul”.
If you are offended by his remarks, then be doubly aware: he would push as many of your buttons as he could perceive, just to have fun watching you lose your mind. The book of his collected interviews is uproarious just for that alone.
I always appreciate the Trinidadians who maintained their deep appreciation of him in the 1970s in particular, while he was writing some of his most difficult work, charting a new course not pursued by anyone else in the world, and before he was so universally acclaimed.
Many don’t realise the importance that Eric Williams and CLR James had on this phase of Naipaul’s life, which Naipaul himself attests to. Naipaul credits CLR James with making him realise the larger, universal themes and issues that were unconsciously underpinning A House for Mr. Biswas, and they corresponded. In 1960, Eric Williams first invited Naipaul to travel the Caribbean and write his first book of non-fiction, which became The Middle Passage. On the other hand, ANR Robinson told Naipaul that it was because he read Among the Believers that he was able to understand and deal with the Muslimeen as he was held hostage during the coup.
In my own view, every Trinidadian must read three of Naipaul’s works: the Trinidad chapter in The Middle Passage (1961), “Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad” (or “The Killings in Trinidad”) (1979), and for an extended meditation on the Trinidad “smart man”, A Way in the World (1994). There are no more profound analyses of who we are as a people.
I genuinely, deeply love V.S. Naipaul. He helped me immeasurably. And he showed all of us what we can be on the world stage.
I take this opportunity again to thank him for the life he lived and shared.
Kirk Meighoo is the author of “Politics in a ‘half-made society’: Trinidad and Tobago, 1925-2001”, a part-tribute to V.S. Naipaul.
© Kirk Meighoo
12 August 2018