The death of V.S. Naipaul last month marks an epoch in English letters. He was firmly rooted in a tradition that goes back to the origins of the modern novel in the 18th and 19th centuries, but he was also wholly modern. Above all, he faced the grim reality of existence, what Conrad called “the horror, the horror”, with an unflinching courage and a sardonic sense of humour. Naipaul foresaw the dangers to Western civilisation, notably the failure of intellectual elites to defend it — a campaign he prosecuted with a ferocity that offended many. That is why he read Standpoint from its inception a decade ago and joined our editorial advisory board, ably supported by his second wife, Nadira. The man himself is evoked with a few sharp but sympathetic strokes in Miriam Gross’s pen portrait. Naipaul is an irreparable loss, but his astonishingly rich and varied corpus of works will live on to nourish the hearts and minds of posterity.
The objections to Naipaul’s work, and indeed its relative neglect, arose from his uncompromising devotion to telling the truth as he saw it. This was clear from his very first novel, The Mystic Masseur, published in 1957. It is an incisive satire about an upwardly mobile Trinidadian who, like Naipaul himself, has his cultural roots in India but whose ambitions are Anglophile. A failed teacher and autodidact who takes up massage and mysticism, Ganesh Ramsumair rises to become a politician, albeit an inept one. The unforgettable epilogue depicts the narrator greeting the guru-turned-statesman on his visit to England:
The day of the visit came and I was at the railway station to meet the 12.57 from London. As the passengers got off I looked among them for someone with a nigrescent face. It was easy to spot him, impeccably dressed, coming out of a first-class carriage. I gave a shout of joy.
“Pundit Ganesh!” I cried, running towards him. “Pundit Ganesh Ramsumair!”
“G. Ramsay Muir,” he said coldly.
More than 60 years later, it would be inconceivable for such a passage to be written by a contemporary writer. A word such as “nigrescent” no longer belongs in the postcolonial vocabulary, any more than the merciless mockery of the protagonist’s pretentious efforts to ingratiate himself with the British. In part this is because Naipaul’s targets, the “Mimic Men” (as he called them in a later novel), no longer seek to transform themselves into ersatz Englishmen, preferring to emphasise their anti-imperial credentials and their resentment of the West. There was no such cult of the victim in his first big success, A House for Mr Biswas, which depicted his own father’s quest to achieve intellectual and domestic independence. But the human conflicts of Naipaul’s early works seem remote, because any positive acknowledgement of the imperial heritage, or even of the civilisation that it represented, is now more or less frowned on.
When Naipaul came to examine the Islamic world, of which he says he knew “almost nothing” before 1979, he was simultaneously fascinated and appalled. In Among the Believers (1981) and Beyond Belief (1998), he documented his experience of four non-Arab Muslim countries: Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia. The underlying theme of the first book was revolution, of the second, conversion. He chose these places because “in the Islam of converted countries there is an element of neurosis and nihilism. These countries can be easily set on the boil.” Naipaul was gripped by “the crossover to Islam”: “It is the extra drama in the background, like a cultural big bang, the steady grinding down of the old world.”
What even Naipaul could not then have imagined, but which he lived to see coming to pass, was the same process of conversion in Europe. The same “neurosis and nihilism” are visible here and now, in the heartlands of the West. Examples abound in Europe. A young Yazidi refugee from the Islamic State finds herself confronted on a street in Stuttgart by the IS terrorist who had once enslaved and abused her. As this man also enjoys refugee status, the German police dare not touch him, so the woman flees to Kurdistan, vowing never to return to Germany. Or an imam in Didsbury preaches about jihad, urging his congregation “now it is time to act and do something”. One of them blows himself up in the Manchester Arena, killing 22 young people.
Naipaul anticipated all this, because he had already seen it first hand. In Pakistan, for instance, his conversations with members of the fundamentalist Jamaat-I-Islami two decades ago are chillingly reminiscent of what is now to be heard in mosques and madrassas throughout Europe. His judgments on Islam were harsh, but that he had no prejudice against it is demonstrated by his marriage to a Muslim.
Since his death, Naipaul has been damned with faint praise, condescended to and cast as a victim. Writing in the New Yorker, the British critic James Wood poured scorn on “snobbish and racist English students at Oxford”, but there were some who befriended the young Vidia, my mother among them. In life he was fêted as well as vilified. Will his works give him life after death? Great books have always found readers; his are no exception. But if we are to grasp not only the colonial past that now eludes us, but the post-Western future that may await us, Naipaul is necessary reading.