VS Naipaul dies aged 85: Controversial Nobel laureate leaves behind a body of unparalleled work

In Flaubert's Parrot, Julian Barnes writes, ‘The writer must be universal in sympathy and an outcast by nature: only then can he see clearly’; an adage that comes closest to describing a writer who though universal, translated differently on either side of his purported universalism. No modern writer was perhaps been more divisive than the Nobel winning VS Naipaul who breathed his last on 11 August. For nearly half a century Naipaul wrote novels and travelogues that changed literature’s laboratory, but also lit the classrooms of academia with fiery debates. No author has perhaps been so essential, yet so prickly, so monumental, yet so comically fragile on the outside. Now that he has passed away, the world must contemplate his legacy, having accepted the certainty of his arrival, now it must also find a way to remark on the enigma of his final departure.

Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born in 1932 in Chaguanas, Trinidad to a journalist father. Naipaul’s tryst with journalism, its essentials would eventually shape his voice, and also that of an entire generation. He wrote his first novel Miguel Street in 1959 followed by his magnum opus A House for Mr Biswas (1961), widely considered his best work. Even though his early novels were remarkable for the pithiness, there restraint and tautness, it was his travel writing that brought Naipaul as many plaudits and diatribes.

Author VS Naipaul. Reuters

Author VS Naipaul. Reuters

People have found it hard to categorise Naipaul’s writing as that of the third world or the west. In travelogues such as An Area of Darkness (1964) and Among the Believers (1981), Naipul found the third world on its crutches, with little sign of the promise recently freed colonies and civilisations intended to share with the world. The publication of An Area of Darkness, drew the ire of the Indian readership, parcelled as it was in the age of the Nehruvian overhaul, a soft cultural zeitgeist that India has struggled to reproduce since. While Nehru’s ideas were prophetic, Naipaul’s observations were surgical, which is also why Naipaul is the writer of the aftermath, more than he is of the story.

A majority of Naipaul’s novels including The Mimic Men (1967) and A Bend In the River (1979) were set in the aftermath of imperialism, a sort of post-mortem that many have held the opinion, is the easier, more convenient of the two timelines to helm and also westernises Naipaul’s writing to the point that it seems unassailable even by his genetic origin. The likes of Edward Said and Chinua Achebe have on different occasions torn into Naipaul’s vision of Africa, the middle-east and Asia, regions he extensively wrote about, travelled, but unfortunately never quite owned. That said, Naipaul’s travel writing was also a watershed moment in literature itself, to the extent that Naipaul himself drifted apart from the idea of the novel.

Given his style, his journalistic eye, it has always been a mystery as to why the Naipaul who could look and record so beautifully, saw so poorly. Though his books are largely celebrated, the Nobel prize he received being evidence of the same, a common thread through the majority of them was his western gaze. A number of critics rejected him as a third world writer, writing for the first world, a self-designated pawn employed to navigate former colonies for the sake of the white man’s laziness to do so. But what has never been disputed, let alone discussed, is his ability to write so much so that he is celebrated in the countries he had written the obituaries of.

Then there is the conceited, almost comically obnoxious Naipaul that many have found it difficult to reconcile with his texts. He famously had one of the most openly documented literary feuds with Paul Theroux. He rejected the likes of Salman Rushdie, and even Jane Austen as minor writers. He openly declared his belief that no woman writer in history or writing alongside him was a match for his talent. His political opinions had always been circumspect, almost the entire focus of his growing oeuvre since the turn of the 1990s. At one point Naipaul even declared the novel a secondary medium that he had conquered beyond dispute. The controversial side of his personality was as profound and outspoken as his writing style was sleek.

VS Naipaul is the kind of writer you want to emulate but try hard to not judge. He wrote some of the greatest prose ever, driven sometimes by the most divisive of motivations – to declassify the third world without completely leaving the first. In more ways than one, Naipaul was perhaps also the first truly global author, a man so mobile around his own centre of gravity, it was hard to tell where he would fall. He was so brilliant, every country, be it of his birth or residence, or even faint association has tried to claim him. His obtrusiveness, his audacity often came in the way of his humanity, evidently crumbling in his later years as was visible at his emotional appearance at the Jaipur Literary Festival a couple of years ago. But not before leaving behind a body of work that is unparalleled, despite the shadow his personality cast on it for much of his life.

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Updated Date: Aug 13, 2018 14:19 PM

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