Underrated: Shiva Naipaul

A warm and witty writer with a mordant eye for the bad and the bogus

Underrated
ILLUSTRATION BY MICHAEL DALEY

Shiva Naipaul, who died of a heart attack in 1985 at the age of 40, refused to be rushed. His journalism was brilliant because although he saw things with miraculous speed, and had a gift for detecting every kind of bogusness, he would not have found it bearable just to slap down his impressions, take the fee and hurry on to the next assignment. He was a craftsman, who could not deliver a piece until he felt he had got it right. To do anything as well as it can be done, one must take it more seriously than someone intent on making a quick buck — and a quick reputation — would consider altogether sane.

Naipaul did, as it happens, make his name as a writer with remarkable speed. His first novel, Fireflies, was published to great acclaim in 1970. It is set in Trinidad, to which Naipaul’s forebears had been taken as indentured labourers from India, and is described on the cover of my Penguin copy as “ferociously comic and profoundly sad”, which is true. The author had escaped from Trinidad by winning an island scholarship to Oxford (the route taken a dozen years earlier by his older brother, V.S. Naipaul), and on visits to the land of his birth in later years, suffered from the nightmare that “I may never be able to get out again.”

But if he did not belong in Trinidad, where did he belong? He thought the answer was nowhere. After a second novel, The Chip-Chip Gatherers, he turned to journalism, and applied his outsider’s eye to others who did not belong in the identities which had been provided for them: “Third World”, “socialist”, “black”.

He might have written with a degree of sympathy about Theresa May’s remark to the 2016 Conservative Party conference: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”

But it would be absurd to pretend to know what he would have said. He was too independent, had read too widely, thought too deeply, and possessed too keen an eye for the world as it actually is, to submit himself to any orthodoxy, whether of the Left or the Right. The journalist in a rush is forced to grab ready-made labels and opinions, for there is no time to develop, let alone explain to one’s editor and readers, a view of one’s own.

My admiration for Naipaul began in the late 1970s, when as a student I read the pieces he wrote for the Spectator,  which was edited from 1975 by Alexander Chancellor. A journalist of his kind needs the amused companionship and intelligent appreciation of an editor like Chancellor. Lunch is taken, and ideas for pieces at length occur. Naipaul went on a journey through Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia, countries about which the British press for most of the time had nothing to say. South Africa was getting a lot of coverage, and the story was all about whites versus blacks, apartheid versus liberation. But here was Naipaul in East Africa, reminding us that there are also Asians in Africa, oppressed and treated as alien — a complicating factor — by both blacks and whites who assume their relationship with each other is the decisive one. Naipaul observes with a mordant eye the failure of that continent’s inhabitants to correspond to the categories imposed on them either by the former colonial powers, or by theorists of anti-colonialism.

His journey resulted not only in some wonderful articles, but in a travel book, North of South, which is a masterpiece. Apart from anything else, it is extremely funny. Many of the jokes are at the author’s expense, concerning his fears, misjudgments and inability to extricate himself from the company of people who alarmed him. Not that this comedy averted the expression of an unfashionably pessimistic truth: “Only lies flourished here. Africa was swaddled in lies — the lies of an aborted European civilisation; the lies of liberation. Nothing but lies.”

Naipaul was a great reporter in part because he was so good at getting people to talk to him; so warm and ready to be amused, as I discovered when I got to know him near the end of his life. His wife, Jenny Naipaul, whom he had met at Oxford and who was his indispensable support, worked at the Spectator, as did I by that stage, and sometimes he would come to have lunch with her. On August 12, 1985, they came into the small restaurant where I was waiting for a friend, and sat down at the next table. There was some joking, but Naipaul said he was suffering from terrible indigestion. Of this too he made a joke. The next day, he died at his desk of a heart attack.

It is, in a sense, ridiculous to call him underestimated, for he was recognised from the first by his peers. But his way of going about things has become, if anything, even more unfashionable than it was. His determination to report what he saw, rather than impose some glib ideological simplification upon it, is exemplary.

The journalist who enjoys early success soon gets invited to write far more words than he or she can take proper care over, and becomes a sort of glorified bluffer. Naipaul never did.