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Sir Vidia—who he was, who he became
In a letter to his father, a 19-year-old “Vido” Naipaul, as a lowly student at Oxford University, (in)famously wrote: “I want to come top of my group. I have to show these people that I can beat them at their own language.”
It’s a familiar quote; the ambition he articulated carried with it an undeniable arrogance, a trait that would come to define the man and his reputation throughout his literary career. There’s another quote about Sir Vidia from the Jamaican reggae poet Linton Kwesi Johnson contained in The World Is What It Is: The Authorised Biography of VS Naipaul by Patrick French, who describes him as “…a living example of how art transcends the artist ‘cos he talks a load of s*** but still writes excellent books.”
VS Naipaul passed away last Saturday at the age of 85, less than a week before his birthday. He leaves behind a body of work that is regarded the world over as masterful, both in its narrative style as well as in its insight on the post-colonial struggle for identity. But apart from being a creative genius, he was—to appropriate the title of one of his books—an enigma. Those who knew him, be it on a social or professional level, commented that it was difficult to discern where the artist ended and the man began…and vice versa. In the sporadic interviews he gave, there was a caustic undertone that permeated his carefully chosen and enunciated words. Perhaps it was how Naipaul hardly seemed to care if he offended anyone or how he refused to play the archetypical role as the proud, patriotic son of the soil.
Regarding his relationship with Trinidad, the land of his birth, it was clear that he not only physically left here all those decades ago, but, in emigrating, underwent a mental and emotional separation as well. On learning that he was selected to be a Nobel Laureate, he put out a statement that nonchalantly praised “…both England, my home, and India, the home of my ancestors.” Hard luck there Trinidad. The country probably responded with a unanimous and synchronised sucking of teeth.
Displeasures aside, the enigma of (his) departure remains, with some Trinbagonians continuing to ponder whether his contempt was real or that he was simply misunderstood. In an interview with UWI vice chancellor Bhoe Tewarie, during a somewhat hostile visit in 2007, Naipaul bemoaned that “…there hasn’t been any recognition or awareness” of him. Is he right? He did receive the Trinity Cross in 1989. But maybe what he was referring to a genuine appreciation for him beyond the whimsical ownership we adopt when one of our own excels on an international scale.
However, it was that ambition to excel in writing that took Naipaul to England. When speaking at the 1990 Wriston Lecture for the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, he stated that “ …as someone with a writing vocation there was nowhere else for me to go…and [England] also gave the means to fulfil that prompting.” The irony is that his much-lauded works are not about his adopted home, but are inspired by the one he left behind. Miguel Street, The Mystic Masseur, Guerrillas, and A House for Mr Biswas—these critically acclaimed are about his life in and the history of Trinidad. It would be irreverent to make any pronouncements on Naipaul’s psychology. But maybe, just maybe, is writings, satirical as they are, were a form of catharsis. Always feeling like an outsider, it was his way of coming to terms with the experiences of growing up in an overbearing family, of living on a complicated island, and the feelings of alienation when he first moved abroad. His writings were a journey of self-discovery, and he decided to take us along for the trip.
At his speech at the 2001 Nobel Awards Banquet, a weathered but still vibrant VS Naipaul spoke of his watch, informing the audience that the strap had broken while traveling to Stockholm. Until that night he could find “…no words to make the bad symbolism good.” He said that time for him has to stop. And indeed it did last Saturday. The opportunity for a reconciliation between him and the land of his birth never materialised. If we are to honour him, we have to remember that behind the genius was a man—a man who said questionable things but was nonetheless a maestro of the written word. He may not have overtly accepted who he was, but we can accept who he became—Sir Vidia Naipaul, Trinidadian-born British writer and novelist, Nobel Laureate.
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