Literary London is a rather small village in which everyone knows the color of the curtains and the politics of everyone else. In the early 1960s a newcomer from Trinidad with the exotic name of Vidia Naipaul moved in. Probably nobody in the literary village could have placed the island of Trinidad accurately on the map, but they could recognize talent. Vidia’s early novels The Mystic Masseur and The Suffrage of Elvira are comedies with a center of satire, very similar to Evelyn Waugh’s early novels. Anthony Powell’s novels also treat comedy as the way to be serious. A literary grandee at the time and a careful watcher of reputations, Powell was quick to praise Vidia in print and to introduce him to the literary village.
A mere whippersnapper in my mid twenties, in 1963 I was literary editor of The Spectator and couldn’t help noticing that the rival New Statesman had this V. S. Naipaul as a new and particularly sharp reviewer of fiction. I invited him to review for us, he came to the office in Gower Street, and we went to have tea in one of the gloomy Bloomsbury hotels nearby. On the way we passed some workmen on a scaffold. Some profound psychological mechanism has repressed the question he put to me about those workmen, and my answer too. “I’m glad you said that,” Vidia summed up. “If you’d said anything else, I would not have seen you again.” Try as I might, I never managed to get a review out of him.
My wife and I made friends with Vidia and his wife, Pat. Devoted to his well-being and success, Pat belonged to that rare classification of Great Man’s Wife. One day when the two of us were out walking together in Hyde Park, Vidia said that if he had been born with a private fortune he would have become a businessman, not a writer. Fear of poverty drove him to produce. In search of subjects, he went traveling, spending months at a time away from home in India and Africa and Latin America. Vidia the man had some inner uncertainty, some insecurity, that he would be obliged to live as a pauper in Trinidad and that this was the worst thing imaginable. Although he might choke with emotion at the mention of his father, he saw the family as an impediment to writing. His family saga A House for Mr. Biswas boils down to poking fun at the wish to have a roof over one’s head.
The winds of change had blown away the British Empire by then. The imperial past was presented in universities and the media as nothing but a criminal enterprise. As someone from a colony, Vidia was generally expected to write briefs for the prosecution. The Middle Passage and The Loss of El Dorado show that he had no illusions about the past but was not willing to judge it by the standards of the present. Vidia was different. For him, “the world is what it is,” a definitive phrase of his that Patrick French rightly used as the title of his otherwise rather aggressive biography. Seeing the world for what it is means an end to wishful thinking about how the world ought to be. Human nature with all its virtues and vices is constant, and no revolution, no electioneering, no amount of tinkering, is going to change that fact. The grim consequences that befall characters who for one reason or another fail to take the world for what it is give Vidia’s fiction its power.
The Mimic Men, published in 1967, is the first of his books to confront those with a view of how the world ought to be. No illusions here either: The novel has the unforgettable sentence “Hate oppression; fear the oppressed,” a shaft of light if ever there was one. Comedy survives nonetheless. Mahadeo “was old, he was black, he lived alone, he preached, and he read the Bible,” mistrustfully watching his neighbor Mr. Cuffy whitewashing the walls of his house. “On a sudden Mr. Cuffy had turned and vigorously worked the white-wash brush over Mahadeo’s face.” But the novel’s first-person narrator is a colonial politician from an island very like Trinidad. His mission to London to negotiate the nationalization of estates has been a failure. He sees himself pretending to be an important official when in reality he is just a copy of the vanished British model. Unable to do what the British have done, he has merely been a passing disturber of the peace. By the end of his story, he has come full circle and thinks that perhaps after all he might spend the next ten years working on a history of the British Empire.
Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion is an exploration of the England that Vidia had chosen as his country, and The Enigma of Arrival is the literary equivalent of acquiring a British passport. Some of the cultural turbulence of the 1960s was due to one Michael de Freitas, who called himself “Michael Abdul Malik,” and also “Michael X” in imitation of the American Malcolm X. Originally from Trinidad, Freitas was a petty gangster and a racist. Whether out of guilt or naïveté, several millionaires donated money to him, funding a violently racist headquarters known as the “Black House.” When Gale Benson, a dropout from a good family, fell in love with him, she was blindly encouraging her own destruction. Freitas took her to Trinidad and brutally murdered her there. Quoted in Patrick French’s book, the letter Vidia then sent his publisher is the heart of the matter: “Quite a book could be made of the affair, which lights up so many things in our world: race, perverted sex, boredom, communes, communal lunacy, conscience, fraudulent politics (black & white), liberalism etc.” Magazine articles and then the novel Guerrillas exposed the delusions of all parties in this contemporary drama. Freitas was found guilty and hanged. It is no exaggeration to say that Vidia had done Britain the service of stopping Black Power dead in its tracks.
In March of 1979, I interviewed him for the BBC. He said to me, “I know that Trinidad, like India, the other ancestral strand, is a place without any possibility. If a place has some positive element you like to feel for it, it gives you a little hope. There is intellectual nullity there nowadays. No mind at all.” That last sentence is key. Mind is a universal value; everybody can acquire it just the way he did, and then is civilized.
Those, and only those, who use their mind are able to escape from injustice and cruelty. Among the Believers and Beyond Belief are books of reportage on the horrors that Vidia encountered in Muslim countries where mindlessness has taken control.
Liberals were slow to realize the extraordinary damage Vidia was doing to their aspiration that the world be what they would wish it to be. Some Indians have described him as a traitor to his race, and I once heard a Jamaican professor criticize him as “too brown.” The West Indian poet Derek Walcott accused him of fouling the nest and caricatured him in print as “V. S. Nightfall” (though he later apologized for this). In Marxist clichés, the academic H. B. Synge called him “a despicable lackey of neo-colonialism and imperialism.” But even those who disliked what he stood for acknowledged his mastery of the English language.
Vidia the writer had complete inner certainty. Inevitably he generated controversy, but he hardly bothered to read what was written about him or to respond to it. Nadira, whom he married after the death from cancer of Pat, filled his final years with grace. On the morning when the Swedish Academy announced his Nobel award, I rang to congratulate him. “Oh, you’ve heard of my little spot of luck, have you.” Nadira and he invited me to accompany them to Stockholm. The moment we reached the hotel, Vidia was swept off to a television studio. On the program with him were two previous Nobel winners, Nadine Gordimer and Günter Grass. They were agreeing that poverty is the whole motivation of Islamist terror. Vidia shot back that like millions of others he came from a poor family and did not commit terror. Infuriated by the liberal twaddle, he went to his room without dinner. About 2,000 people attended the ceremony, and Vidia was instructed to speak to them for not more than three or four minutes. On a podium, he then held up his watch, whose strap had just broken, and said that Julius Caesar invading Egypt had slipped on the sandy beach. An omen! Getting up, Caesar rallied his officers, “What I have, I hold.”
Vidia was a free spirit.