Saturday, 19 February 2011

Faulks on Fiction: Sebastian Faulk's Shirt

I was sitting in the lounge, taking tentative sips of the nasty Beaujolais Nouveau I shall thank you for charitably assuming that I got it as a Christmas gift. I had opened the bottle and kept it near the log fire for half an hour (OK, I don’t actually have a log fire; I have an electric fire that cleverly simulates the flames) to make it slightly warm. (That’s obvious, I hear you saying, the wine will get warm when you keep it next to the fireplace. The question, I hear you asking, is why do I do it? I do it because experience has taught me that if I warm Beaujolais Nouveau before drinking, not till it begins to bubble but a tad above the room temperature, I am less likely to gag when I drink it.) And then, as recommended by some wine pundits, I was dipping a small lump of sugar, couple of cloves and a thin stick of cinnamon, sewn in muslin, into my wine glass, telling myself that this little trick went a long way towards enhancing the (limited) pleasure you can get out of a Beaujolais Nouveau. (Perhaps I am too hard on the gamy wine. For its multitudes of faults Beaujolais Nouveau is still more drinkable than the vinegar that passes off for wine in California. If I wanted instant peptic ulcers, I’d drink sulphuric acid, thank you very much; give a Californian wine as a present to someone you really dislike).

The television was on. The programme I was watching was the second of the four-part series Faulks on Fiction, presented by the novelist Sebastian Faulks.

The room was nicely warm. I had helped myself to one of Jamie’s 30 minutes meals (cassoulet with chipolatas) although it had taken me just under an hour to prepare it, but it did not matter, as I am not exactly pressed for time. (I used to think he was a total waste of time, a talentless piece of shit, a retard with a verbal repertoire of 200 words who talked rubbish all the time. But he has gone several notches up in my estimate thanks to his book of 30 minutes meals. I must review it one of these days. I am not surprised that it sold 750,000 copies in the first six weeks of its release, and is on its way to becoming the biggest selling cookery book of all times, in the UK. It’s a sensational book.) I had finished 1/3rd of the bottle of Beaujolais and was looking forward to (after Faulks on Fiction) snuggling up with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. The memoir had reached what I considered to be the pivotal point in its narration. Gilbert was in Bali, the last leg of her year-long travels during which—this was repeated every fifty pages—she was celibate, having put behind a bitter and rancorous divorce followed by a torrid love affair. But now, in Bali, she had met this Brazilian cheesecake, a total bullshitter, who, in the balsy manner of all bullshitters, readily admitted that he was a bullshitter (labouring under the belief that the admission would make him irresistible to women), and was trying to lure Gilbert into his bed mouthing calculatedly droll lines last heard in Pulp Fiction. Gilbert had declined his offer. She had retired to her bed alone, with only her hand to provide her comfort. She had marshalled forth several reasons why it would not be a good idea to get involved with a man old enough to be her father, whose idea of a gourmet meal was heaps of pork in black bean sauce and whose biggest skill lay in making Brazilian cocktails. But—this was an indication that the lady was wavering—she had also accepted his invitation to have a dinner at his place the next day. She told herself that it would just be dinner and nothing else. But would it? Be just dinner? I thought not. For a Yoga-practitioner supposedly inhabiting a higher plane of existence, the lady, I thought grimly, was easily swayed by sagging pectorals. She had agreed to enter what Alcohol Counsellors call a very risky situation. You don’t have to be Nostradamus to predict what was going to happen. The Brazilian grandfather would not be interested in discussing Goethe with Gilbert over his cocktails. It was clear to me that Gilbert, having spent the previous four months in an ashram in India (trying out extraordinarily tortuous Hath-Yoga positions), was getting in the mood, despite her protestations, for some bedroom gymnastics. My money was on Gilbert sleeping with the Brazilian (although, strictly speaking, she wouldn’t be sleeping), and I was keen to find out whether my guess was correct. But I had a programme to watch first: Faulks on Fiction.

The theme of the second episode was love and romance. And Faulks started off, predictably, with Pride and Prejudice. That pissed me off (figuratively speaking). I have struggled to understand the sway this early nineteenth century  novel continues to hold over the British public. Some years ago, if I am not mistaken, it was voted as the most loved novel in England. It is not the worst novel I have read, but I remain unconvinced that it is the best British novel ever written. I do not find the story—a silly old woman trying to marry off her daughters—that proceeds (at a pace which, if it were any slower would bring the narrative to a halt) via endless tea-parties (which are so bloody boring, I would pay to watch geriatrics playing bingo than be there) and interminable ball-room dances particularly riveting. The main characters, Elizabeth and Darcy, have the genius for jumping to the wrong conclusions, and change their views about each other faster than a veteran of Folies Bergere gets out of her clothes. Elizabeth is alternatingly a mean tongued bitch and a Shakespearean tragedy queen. Darcy is pretentious, petulant, speechyfying, sour, grumpy, cranky, judgmental, quick to take offence, and, above all, insufferably dull, the sort of chap you would be thinking of making redundant if he were employed by the council. The humour, which comes in the form of Mrs. Bennet, has the subtlety of an industrial blast furnace. That said, there is this theory—put forth by a character in a Martin Amis novel I read recently—that the novel is incredibly sexual, if only you break the code. (Jane Austen’s novel, that is, not Amis’s novel, although it—the Amis novel—is also incredibly sexual, tell as it does the story of a handful of adolescents in a fort in Italy, who have got enough hormones raging in them to keep a whorehouse in Texas in business for a year. And Amis does not speak in codes.) This character, from Amis’s novel, who is studying English literature in Oxford, hypothesizes that Pride and Prejudice is all about tits and bums. For example, Lydia, the youngest (and silliest, even sillier than the silly mother, who is pretty stupid) of the Bennet sisters, is described as ‘stout’. ‘Stout’, posits, Keith (the character in the Amis Novel), is Austen’s codeword for big arse. When Catherine is growing up, she gets plumper and her figure gains, as a result, ‘consequence’. That is big tits. ‘Consequence’ is Austen’s code for big breasts. When I came across this hypothesis in the Amis novel, I thought that it, although put forth by a fictional character that does not actually exist, had what the researchers describe as face validity. It was worth exploring further. I read the novel further to see whether Keith would make it easier for me by expounding more on this hypothesis; but he didn’t, busying himself, instead, with a woman character Jane Austen would have had no hesitation in describing as ‘very stout’ (assuming of course his hypothesis about Austen’s code was correct). Should I read Pride and Prejudice again, I wondered briefly (very briefly), to see whether I could find out more sexual codes, but then decided that this wasn’t a big enough incentive for me to go through three hundred pages of drudgery.

I shall never comprehend quite why this novel, remarkable only for its quirky use of punctuation marks, is considered the best, the most loved, novel in English, just as I shall struggle to comprehend why those dreadful Carry On films are considered classics. (Carry On films are not classics; they are just smutty, and full of actors who couldn’t act.) I suspect that many amongst those who profess to admire Pride and Prejudice do it for no reason other than that they think it would make them look learned, sophisticated, and possessing good taste and discretion.

Faulks, of course, said none of the above. He is a wily character and he knows what will earn him brownie points with the viewers. (I considered the possibility that he might actually have liked the novel, but discarded it immediately; he looks too intelligent to go into faux rapture over some tawdry love story written two centuries ago by an idle woman with more time on her hands than she knew what to do with.) The narration was interspersed with the so called cult BBC adaptation of the novel, starring that incredibly bland actress (whose name escapes me, but I derive satisfaction from the knowledge that she has since sunk into well deserved obscurity) who simpered moronically, and the overrated Colin Firth, walking as if suffering from a virulent relapse of haemorrhoids, his facial expressions suggesting he was a couple of hundred bowel motions behind the game.

As I sat there, feeling cosy, and drowsy on wine, listening to Faulks talking some nonsense (a ‘colonial’ word if you believe Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love. ‘Nonsense’, according to Gilbert, is a colonial word, like ‘splendid’; and the Indians are very fond of it (a few weeks’ stay at an Indian ashram where more than two thirds of residents were non-Indians and during which she spoke to a total of three Indians, has obviously made Gilbert an authority on the linguistic legacy of the British Raj); they use it all the time, apparently, although I have never heard any Indians I know say them) about how Darcy is not so much depressed as repressed, when I noticed something about Faulks. Or, to be precise, his clothes. Or to be even more precise, his shirt. Or, to be absolutely pinpoint, the colour of his shirt.

Faulks was wearing a red T-shirt. As red as the Beaujolais I was drinking. I immediately clicked opened the first part of the series I had saved on the hard drive of the free-view box. I fast-forwarded the programme. All the way till the end. My suspicions were confirmed.

Throughout the one hour programme Faulks wore a red shirt.

Now I may not be a man of what is known as broad culture, but I am not stupid. I have read three fourth of the WikiPedia entry on Karl Marx; I am thinking of ordering Lisa Jardine’s book on Renaissance from Amazon; and I have heard that Quick Ratio is a reliable indicator of a company’s liquidity. These are but three examples of my wide-ranging interests and knowledge base. I straightaway figured out that even though the programme was of one hour duration, it must have been shot over a period of weeks, if not months. Faulks could have worn different shirts when he met with his interviewees at different times and went to different locations. But he didn’t. Why? Let’s look at it methodically, shall we?

Here are the possibilities.

(1)   Faulks has only one shirt, which happens to be of red colour, and he is forced to wear it all the time if he does not want to go about semi-naked. I reject this possibility. While there are many poor people in the world (like the Indian boy Elizabeth Gilbert saw in the ashram in India, but she didn’t speak to him, so we don’t know whether he is inordinately fond of ‘nonsense’) who have only one shirt. But Faulks is not one of them. He is a very successful novelist and I can’t believe that he has only one shirt.  
(2)   Faulks has more than one shirt, possibly of different colours, one of which is red. He has only one red shirt which he wore for the entire duration of the shooting of his series.
(3)   Faulks has different shirts of the same colour. This is possible. I have three white shirts myself. Although personally I wouldn’t go for the colour red, maybe Faulks does.
(4)   Faulks does not own a red shirt; he borrowed it from his neighbour. (As unlikely as the first possibility.)

So, we are left with two probabilities: either Faulks wore the same red shirt or different red shirts. I am unable to narrow it down further at this stage.

What is ineluctable is that Faulks wore a red shirt. Why? (why red shirt, that is; we accept that it is not unreasonable of him to wear a shirt.) Again we have to consider more than one possibility.

(1)   Faulks wore a shirt of the same colour for the sake of continuity, that is to give his viewers an illusion of continuity, because, as I have cleverly deducted, the programme couldn’t have been shot in one go. And he happened to wear a red colour shirt the first time round, and persisted with it. It could have been a yellow or an orange shirt. The colour is unimportant.
(2)   Faulks wanted to create an illusion of continuity for reasons described above and chose to wear a different red shirt because he happens to have more than one red shirt. Why does he have several shirts of red colour in his wardrobe? We don’t know. Maybe he likes red colour.
(3)   Faulks wore one shirt throughout the shooting because that happens to be his favourite shirt. Perhaps it is his lucky shirt. Maybe he was wearing that shirt when he got the news that his first novel was accepted for publication, and ever since it has become his lucky charm. In this scenario the shirt that is lucky. The colour is unimportant. It could have been a green or blue shirt.
(4)   It’s not the shirt but the colour that is important for Faulks. Maybe red is his lucky colour, or his favourite colour.

Finally, there is one more possibility. I mention it, not only for the sake of covering all angles, but I believe this theory is on the money Hear me out, please..

The possibility is this: Faulks wore the same red shirt throughout the shooting because his standards of personal hygiene leave a lot to be desired. In other words, he is too posh to wash.

This theory may not be as farfetched as it may appear. It is supported by empirical evidence. 

Last month I read a novel by David Nicholls, entitled Starters for Ten. The protagonist of this novel is a working class boy, brought up by a single mother (the twist being the father dies and does not walk out on the family). The boy goes to University where he meets an upper middle class bird, who takes an interest in him in the same way BBC’s Human Planet researchers take interest in the bushmen of Kalahari. She invites the boy to her home for Christmas. There he meets her parents. Her parents are posh and totally lacking in inhibitions. Both the father and mother walk about bollocks naked (to be exact, father bollocks naked; mother c**t naked) in front of their daughter and the protagonist. The house is cold. And dirty. There are dogs’ hair, dirty books and muddy boots everywhere; the fridge is reeking of sour milk, rancid cheese, and decaying vegetables; and the sink is overflowing with dishes that probably haven’t been washed for weeks. The definition of true, authentic, British upper-middle class, the boy concludes, is to be cold and filthy with complete self-confidence.

Here is more evidence, though not as compelling as the first. Some years ago I read a silly book, entitled Watching the English in which there is an entire chapter called 'Home Rule'. In the chapter the writer goes on about the differences between lower-middle, middle-middle, and upper-middle classes. I shall spare you the details which are about as exciting as a cricket match between Leicestershire and Glamorgan, but the conclusion is: the higher you go up the ladder of British classes the lower the standards of hygiene.

Finally, I present you with my own experience. I once worked with a Scottish (male) colleague. This guy, as far as I was aware, was not rich. But he was posh. For a start he did not speak in Scottish accent; he spoke in a posh accent. (Am I suggesting that Scottish accent is not posh? Yes, I am, and no, it isn't.) And he had inherited the title Baron. The Baron wore the most crumpled pair of trousers and a shirt last seen when a trunk full of clothes was recovered from Titanic. He stank to high heavens but went about completely oblivious of the bad odour he was spreading. One secretary (who was working-class, and didn’t know any better) finally asked him directly when was the last time he washed his clothes. With a straight face the Baron replied that he couldn't remember and in any case he viewed concerns with such fribbles as clothes and hygiene as bourgeois affectations. This secretary was quite a motormouth, and the only reason she kept quiet (I think) was that she wasn’t sure what bourgeois meant.

Sebastian Faulks is posh. He looks posh, he speaks in a posh accent, and he writes high-brow novels. I won’t be surprised if he lives in a (cold) Victorian house. I don’t know if he is in the habit of appearing naked in front of his guests, but is it beyond the realms of possibility that he is one of those who are too posh to wash? I think not. Once you accept this premise then everything else follows. The conclusion is inescapable that Faulks wore the same red shirt during the entire shooting of the series showing his solidarity with the class to which he belongs or (if you look at it the other way) betraying his class snobbishness.

If we assume that Faulks wore the same red shirt throughout, would he have washed it? If you subscribe to the ‘too posh to wash’ theory, then they you’d say he didn’t. I looked at the facial expressions of all the interviewees of Faulks to see whether I could get any clues. But I was none the wiser. (Martin Amis, if anything, looked like he had just woken up in the boot of his car). That is, though, neither here nor there. The interviewees could simply have been polite, or, some of them being posh, like Faulks, probably were wearing themselves the same clothes for the past six months. (Simon Armitage looked quite scruffy. But he is a poet and lives in Huddersfield, so he might just be poor.)

In a nutshell here are my final thoughts on the subject. Sebastian Faulks is posh. Ergo he doesn’t wash. Ergo the red shirt he wore throughout the first and possibly the second episode (I didn’t get round to watch the whole of it, as I was busy solving this conundrum) was the same shirt. It was a deliberate decision by him; he thought about it, planned it, and in cold blood executed his plan. Faulks probably has several shirts; he may even have more than one red shirt; however, I think he wore the same shirt and not different shirts of red colour during the shooting. He did not wash the red shirt he wore because he is too posh to wash. He is probably also tightfisted.

I had finished the whole bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau and was feeling nicely high, but I thought this called for a minor celebration, so I poured myself a generous thimble of Tawny Port. There was only one more thing I needed to check before I turned in. I opened Eat, Pray, Love and began reading it. My hunch was right. The Brazilian shagged Gilbert senseless.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Faulks on Fiction: Sebastian Faulk's Beard

Last Saturday, BBC 2 aired the first part of the series entitled Faulks on Fiction, the Faulks in question being the novelist Sebastian Faulks.

I must say that I was a tad surprised to see Faulks opting to front a television programme. There is of course no law against writers doing television. But somehow you don’t think serious writers, writers of real merit, would be interested in television. And Faulks is currently definitely in the premier league of British writers. He is one of those writers who are regarded highly by the critics, and whose books sell. Many would say he is a class act. And the real talent of classy writers lies in writing classy novels, not in gabbing at the camera. It’s is probably OK for someone like Will Self to prostitute himself in this fashion. Will Self is to writing what Steven Segal is to acting: he butchers it. (When will Self learn that it takes more than obscure sixteen-letters words from the OED to produce a half-descent novel?) Self is not known to have written anything that has sent critics scrambling towards their word-processers to type out kudos, or has had the public queuing outside Waterstone’s to pre-order the latest Self.

At least Faulks is fronting a programme devoted to literature on prime time television and not some puerile quiz show Self used to do. And I would any day prefer to look at Faulk’s face (See above) than into Self’s serial-killer-eyes.

The first part I watched was devoted to the heroes of English fiction. There he was, Faulks, with his mane of curly hair, matched by the luxurious beard that covered rather a lot of his face, the intertwining of the scalp and facial hair conspiring to give an appearance of a grizzly (but cuddly) bear.

Why do men grow beards? Does a beard tell us about a man’s character, just in the way a tattoo above the coccyx of a woman (with a fat arse wearing hipsters), that proclaims ‘Julie loves Pete’, as I witnessed in Asda (where else?) the other day, tells about the woman’s character (or IQ)?

When I was in my 20s, I went through a phase, which lasted for a year, I think, when I grew a beard. I never sported a goatee and, if I remember correctly, for the first several months, I trimmed it only occasionally. The scraggly beard, combined with my painstakingly assembled attire of casual scruffiness, I hoped, would give the message to others (i.e. women) that here was an intellectual, a cerebral man, a man who may be nothing to write home about in the looks department but was nevertheless intense and, therefore, interesting. (I even toyed with the idea of smoking a pipe, but gave it up after a few weeks because even I could see that that would make me look pretentious; and it was not an image I wanted to convey. I mean I was a pretentious little sod, but I did not want others to know it.) I was forced to revise the strategy when girl-friend number 3 (in 7 months) who dumped me said, as her parting advice, begging me not to take it personally, that the beard and crumpled clothes made me look as if I was in need or (more likely) in receipt of Care in the Community. (It is difficult not to take personally a comment made on your personal appearance even if it is accompanied by the disclaimer that it is not personal. When you make a personal comment, what else can the recipient of your comment do than take it personally?)  This woman, I used to tell myself during the two months that we went out, was attractive in a fat Teutonic way. The truth was I was kidding myself because she allowed me to sleep with her (I was desperate); she was just fat (but I did not tell her so, because that would have been personal), and although I insisted to my friends that the sight of her pierced belly-button turned me on, there was nothing remotely sexy about her tummy as it rolled down lard layers over her jeans. The girl friend before her was, I think in retrospect, slightly bipolar, although she put down her violent mood swings to PMT. This girl friend tended to go at the deep end too quickly, and before I knew it saucepans would be hurled at my occiput when my back was turned. She would express extreme views about my beard (OK, not just about my beard; she would express extreme views about me and my character, but beard was part of it). When you have grown a beard you tend to stroke it, or caress it, or (frequently) scratch it. It becomes a kind of reflex; or a tic. You do not do it intentionally; I didn’t, or, at any rate, didn’t do it to deliberately annoy others. The girl friend with undiagnosed bipolar condition (or poorly controlled PMT) would get indescribably annoyed when in a bad mood (which was, like, 20 days out of a month; that’s how I ruled out PMT, unless of course she suffered from perpetual dysmenorrhoea, which, I knew for a fact, she didn’t) and would snap at me to stop milking my nose even though my hand would be nowhere in the vicinity of it. When we finally split up which was after a row (if you can call a woman hysterically screaming at the bloke who is standing there wondering whether the next missile is going to be hurled at his face or genitals a row), during the course of which I was described as vain, selfish, passive, lacking in will power, insufferably dull, arrogant, sanctimonious, misogynist, petit bourgeois, whinger, complainer and a Communist (you see what I mean by bipolar?), she declared that she would rather set herself alight and run through Madam Tussaud’s  than look at my face-fungus. Finally, there was another girl I went out with during my beardy phase. This girl, I am convinced, had OCD (also undiagnosed). She was excessively and inordinately concerned about matters of personal hygiene. Any kind of physical intimacy, as far as she was concerned, was just an open invitation for the germs to colonise different parts of your body (depending on the activity). She would refuse to have sex unless I had a shower first. I had to present myself for her inspection as soon as I stepped out of shower. She would lift my penis as if handling a dead mouse and, cocking her head to one side, would peer critically at my scrotum (which admittedly is not the prettiest sight in the world, but I would put it to you that a good looking scrotum is a bit of a contradiction in term, like a hard-working Arab), wondering, no doubt, whether they oughtn't to be pinned down lest they swing too freely and bounce too forcefully causing vulval bruising, and wrinkling her nose at the thicket surrounding them, no doubt thinking they were too untidy. Only when she was satisfied that I was not carrying on my genitals germs of Kala Azaar would she agree to be horizontal. Afterwards, she would spend two hours in bath cleansing her orifices. She always refused to kiss me on the mouth on the grounds that she could still detect evidence of last night's dinner stuck in my beard. She had, she would declare, no desire to munch on stale food. The real reason of course was that she was paranoid about unsanitary exchange of saliva and—I have to accept this as a possibility—germs in my beard contaminating her. She thought my beard was infectious. With this girl it was I who quit, having come to the rueful conclusion that while her ability to detect dirt in creases and folds of a human body was a talent to reckon with, it was not conducive to a lasting relationship. 

It would be fair to say that my beard was not the unmitigated success I hoped it to be. But I digress. We are talking about Sebastian Faulk’s beard.

I think Faulks sports a beard to make him look intellectual; and academic; and meditative; and erudite; and scholastic. Mind you, he is probably all of these, and would be, even without the beard. But would he look it? Shave off Faulk’s beard and you could be looking at the (about to be made redundant) waste disposal manager in your local (Labour) council. It has to be said, though, that Faulks carries off his beard well. Not everyone could do that. You can be a beardy like Al Pacino in Serpico or you can be a beardy like Mahmoud Ahamadinejad. Faulks definitely is in the Al Pacino category.

As I watched Faulks in the first episode of the four-part series on fiction he is presenting, I kept on thinking the man had missed his vocation. He looked more wise, worldly, and compassionate than my psychiatrist. (He would also be a great host at the dinner table: he would regale the audience with his amusing, witty—if slightly mendacious—anecdotes; would keep the wheels of conversation among different groups moving by dipping in and out of different conversations, managing to give each group the impression that there was nothing in the world he was more interested in than what they are discussing; and would nip potential tricky problems in the bud by his timely interventions that  would calm jangled nerves.) His deportment was perfect; he couldn’t be faulted. As Faulks mouthed sentence after beautifully sentence, as neatly sculpted as those in his novels, in a voice as soothing as the rectal massage you get in one of those Soho parlours, I suddenly realised that this is how we colonized the world. I have no doubt it was our accent. We said to the Indians, ‘Hey Gungadin, this is a fine mess you have made here. We are going to have to take over your country, we are afraid. Now be a good chap and get a glass of water. Jaldi Karo.’

In the programme Faulks spoke to a number of people some of whom I recognized; like the baby faced poet from Huddersfield, Simon Armitage; the baby faced mayor of London, Boris Johnson; and of course, Martin Amis, who, I can confirm, is not baby faced (and looked as if he was nursing a particularly vicious hangover). Amis was on good form, and declared that he would consider writing children's book only if he had a serious brain injury. This had some (women) children's authors (the authors were women; the books they write are presumably for both male and female children) madder than rabies victim. One children's author announced that she felt especially offended because she actually had a brain injury (which, if you think of it, proved Amis's point, but I guess a brain damaged person would struggle to notice it). Then there were a few faces (on Faulk's programme) I didn’t recognize. There was a man whose face had an uncanny resemblance to a frog, his mouth so wide it literally slashed his face into two halves. This guy looked something straight out of Taliban except that he did not wear a beard and skull-cap (and spoke English), but had the same mad glare they have when they are about to stone an adulteress to death. He was creepy; I didn’t look at him, as I was afraid I might die of fright if I looked at him for too long. Naturally I didn’t listen to him. Then there was a fit looking redhead who spoke in a slightly breathless voice, as though looking forward to or having just emerged from a vigorous session of bedroom PT, talking about I forget what, as I was too busy looking at her lips. Finally, there was another bird in her forties (so not really a bird), also a redhead, speaking about I forget what, as I was not listening, imagining, instead, a session of bedroom P.T. with the other redhead. (Also, she talked too much—the older redhead that is, although it is possible that the first redhead talked too much as well; I couldn’t really say; I wasn’t listening to either of them.)

So who were the heroes of British literature Faulks discussed? I haven’t a clue, although I remember that the programme started with Robinson Crusoe. I loved Robinson Crusoe when I first read it; but then I was only fourteen and didn’t know any better. (Ditto for Gulliver’s Travels) As for the rest, I am sure those who are really interested to know would already be in the know, as they would have (unlike me) paid attention to the programme.

I am not finished with Faulks yet. There was something about his attire that caught my attention. But that is for another post.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Book of the Month: The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Mohsin Hamid)

Reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohseen Hamid’s second novel, is linguistically a strange experience.  It is an English language novel, yet you feel as though you are reading a translated work, say, originally from French; the narrative simply does not strike as instinctual English.  As Changez, the Princeton educated protagonist of the novel, regales a chance acquaintance, an American tourist in the Old Anarkali district of Lahore, Pakistan, with his story—rather several stories that loop into one another—juxtaposed with an advice regarding spicy mutton dishes and syrupy sweetmeats, you get a de ja vu feeling.  Surely, you have read a novel with similar structure. Then you remember: The Fall.

Albert Camus’s brilliant novel of the life and times of Jean-Baptist Clamence, the raconteur par excellence, is a story of guilt, hypocrisy, and the self-loathing and alienation associated with them. Changez, the bearded hero, is, like Jean-Baptist Clamence, a soul in turmoil. He, too, feels alienated and disillusioned; but whereas Jean-Baptist is disillusioned with and profoundly cynical of the world, Changez’s disenchantment is focused. He has identified the enemy, the enemy that is imposing its will on others, especially those in the Islamic world: America. Changez is not an illiterate villager whose knowledge of the world is dictated and edited by the Imam of the local mosque; he comes from an affluent, upper-middle class Pakistani family, and has travelled to the land of plenty to be a part of the American dream. In the spring of 2001, Changez graduates from the prestigious Princeton university and is immediately head-hunted by a valuation firm at a whopping salary of $ 80, 000. He becomes friends with Erica, a fellow Princeton graduate, who happens to have a very wealthy New York investment banker for a father. World, it seems, is Changez’s oyster. He has landed a high-flying job, into the bargain he has also latched on to a girl, who, if he plays his cards well, would not only allow her body to be the receptacle of his gifts, but would also be his passport to the New York high society. (The descriptions of the parties Changez goes to, thanks to his association with Erica, are heavily inspired, to say the least, by The Great Gatsby.) What can possibly go wrong for this bright young Pakistani? Then—you have guessed it!—9/11 happens. America’s war on terror begins, and Afghanistan, a country neighbouring to Changez’s Pakistan and with which Changez shares a sense of kinship, is invaded. Changez, because of his skin colour and Asiatic looks, is inevitably subjected to physical scrutiny at airports and the odd abuse from the rednecks on the streets. His nascent relationship with Erica does not blossom. It turns out that Erica is a depressive who has not come to terms to the death of a childhood sweetheart who died of cancer a few years ago. In due course, Erica suffers a breakdown and is conveniently shipped off to the local loony bin, from where she (even more conveniently) disappears after a few months, presumed dead. Around the same time, terrorists from Pakistan attack the Indian parliament, and the two nuclear rivals come perilously close to an armed confrontation. The crisis in his personal life, the crisis in his country of birth, and the crisis in his adopted homeland—all cause Changez to re-examine his values, his political allegiance, and the direction in which life is going. He makes the discovery that all these years he has been nothing but a serf of the American empire, an iniquitous, immoral empire that attempts to maintain its cultural hegemony. The more he thinks about it the more Chagnez is filled with bitterness and anger, and, above all, a sense of betrayal—Julius Caesar could not have been more shocked when Brutus sank the dagger in his back.  Everything going on—from invasion of Afghanistan to India’s threats of retaliation—is a giant plot against the Muslim world, actively abetted or connived at by the Americans. He cannot really carry on working for and strengthening the enemy, $ 80,000 per anum job notwithstanding. The job at the valuation firm— which specialises in giving frank, even brutal, recommendations on how its customers can improve efficiency, make savings, and increase their market values— usually through lay-offs and ruthless closure of non-profit-making units –for which, just a few months ago he was prepared to give his right arm, strikes him as being a microcosm of American imperialism, and therefore to be rejected. Changez makes up his mind to return to Pakistan much against the wishes of his family members who seem to hold  more balanced views on these matters than the young protagonist, who has undergone an ideological revolution in his mind compared to which the one is Russia was a tea party. As the novel plods towards its somewhat ambiguous, if anticlimactic, end, the reader can be excused for wondering what exactly is the point, if any, of this monologue.

As the only remaining superpower in the world goes about exporting democracy to countries that would rather carry on with their feudalistic customs, thank you very much, and unleashing its war on terror, Muslim writers all over the world have taken upon themselves to hold a mirror up to her face. The mirror that Hamid holds is cleverly and deliberately distorted to exaggerate the American foibles. Via the narrative of his young protagonist, rich in quiet irony, Hamid gives vent to the disenchantment of educated Muslims with America.  The narrator, Changez, in the here-and-now, the patronizing monologist, is another kettle of fish from the insecure, oversensitive employee of Underwood and Samson, in New York. He is on a mission. He wants to unshackle the fetters of Western prejudices about Islamic societies. He emphasizes, albeit indirectly, the secular nature of the Pakistan (officially an Islamic Republic) by pointing at women wearing jeans or referring to working women in his family. He repeatedly and, at times, glibly, reassures his silent American listener about his safety and the safety of food. He makes pointed observations about the double standards of the West, in the process laying bare—perhaps unwittingly—his own prejudices.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the story of a Pakistani’s love affair towards America turning sour. Perhaps it was not a love affair at all; it was infatuation. At one stage, Changez compares himself to the janissaries of the Ottoman Empire, who were captured Christian boys trained to fight against their own people, and declares that he was a modern day janissary, except of the West. The hyperbolic analogy draws a line under the sense of silent hysteria that pervades the deceptively simple narrative. The trouble is: the narrative offers no insight into why an educated Muslim comes to nurture such a bitter grievance against a country, which, while it did not invite him, nevertheless accepted him and showed him glimpses of a lifestyle very unlike his compatriots have led under a cavalcade of dictators, a sprinkling of jeans-wearing women in Lahore notwithstanding. The novel merely touches on the big themes, but remains entangled in superficialities. Changez is upset that America invades Afghanistan, for no other reason, one has to assume in the absence of any other explanation proffered, that it is a Muslim country. As the narrative degenerates into a litany of petulant complaints and pettifogging, remarkable only for their unsubstantiated paranoia, the patience of all but a superhumanly tolerant reader will creak and snap under the load of specious, circuitous arguments. The unfulfilled relationship between Erica and Changez has, like much of the narrative, a contrived feel to it. If the purpose was to draw parallels between the upheavals in Changez’s personal life with that in the society in which he finds himself living, it does not really work, because the writer makes no effort to develop, psychologically so to speak, the relationship between Erica and Changez. Such tawdry bits of information as are provided about Erica—her rich background, her childhood sweetheart who dies oh-so-tragically and whose death is still haunting her emotionally, her mental breakdown—remain sketchy and unconvincing. If it is an allegory—is Erica America?—it is crude and superfluous.  In an interview, Hamid said, ‘ [Changez’s] political situation as a Pakistani immigrant fuels his love for Erica, and his abandonment by Erica fuels his political break with America.’ The link between the ‘personal’ and the ‘political’ is hinted at so obliquely, it is almost obtuse.

Seven years in gestation, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is about big themes, themes crying out for a great novel; this, sadly, is not it. Hamid has been at pains to clarify that although he lived in America for fifteen years and even trained at the Princeton University, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is not his story. However, like all his novels (two in fourteen years), it is about the issues he is most passionate about at the time; the issues he is seeking to understand and make sense of for himself. Judging the offering, he still has some way to go. 

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Trouble with Naipaul



V.S. Naipaul, the winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature, is, as the BBC website would describe it, a controversial figure in British literature. In vulgate, it means that there are many who would like nothing better than to feed his entrails to the hyenas. If you want to spit at Sir Vidia, then, as they say, you will have to join the queue where Derek Walcott, and Paul Theroux are jostling to be at the head.

In November 2010 Naipaul had to withdraw from the loftily titled European Writers’ Parliament (EWP)—the brain child of two other Nobel Laureates, Orhan Pamuk and Jose Saramago—in Turkey. Trouble began for the 78 year Naipaul soon after he was invited to give the opening speech. And this time, he hadn’t even said anything to upset people. A poet and philosopher by the name of Hilmi Yavyuz wrote in a widely circulated Turkish newspaper that invitation to Naipaul was disrespectful [to whom?] because he had insulted Islam in the past. Once the clarion call was made by the philosopher Yavuz, it seemed as if there was a competition amongst several Turkish writers (presumably with long beards) to see who was more outraged by the invitation to Naipaul (who also sports a beard these days, but not very long). Several Turkish writers declared that they could not, durst not, must not, and would not share the same postcode, let alone a podium, with the infidel who had been offensive to their great religion. Some came very close to suggesting that a fatwa be declared against Naipaul. (OK, I made it up, but doesn’t it seem like the next logical step, to the extent logistic has a place in orthodox Islam? If indeed a fatwa was taken out against Naipaul, who had described Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie as an extreme form of literary criticism, would it have been considered ironic by the British news papers? I should clarify that I am glad that no fatwa was taken out against Naipaul or, for that matter, no one was killed, which is always a worry when Muslim sentiments get hurt.) This was followed by a stirred up storm in the Turkish newspapers by selective quotes attributed to Naipaul about Islam which suggested that (how shall I put this delicately?) he took a less than positive view of Islam. Naipaul then withdrew from the event, claiming that the event had been politicised.

Two months prior to Naipaul getting the boot from the European Writers’ Parliament was published The Masque of Africa, Naipaul’s most recent work of non-fiction, in which he purports to examine the workings of African traditional belief, travelling on a theme, as it were. I have not read The Masque of Africa (I am waiting for it to come out in paperback), but the book, like its author, has generated extreme reviews. Robert Harris, writer of racy thrillers, hissed in the Times that the book was ‘toxic’, ‘racist’, and ‘repulsive’ (I haven’t read Harris’s review because I cannot, should not, must not, and will not pay £ 2 every week to Rupert Murdoch in order to have the online access to the Times), and compared Naipaul to Oswald Mosley, the British Fascist leader in the 1930s. (This from a man who petitioned that a certain seventy odd years old man, who is wanted in America for having sex with an underage girl and is on the run for more than three decades, should not be extradited to that country. Could it be because the old pervert has directed a film based on one of Harris’s novels?)

In Independent, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, that giant presence in the British literary scene, sneered at the ‘brown sir, with glittering prizes [who is] still afraid of the third world that made him.’ Albhai-Brown’s review, full of bile and prejudice and a basinful of clich├ęd observations, showed her for what she is: a bumptious, pompous, self-righteous, and not very bright woman with prissy littlie opinions.

Samir Rahim, in his review of The Masque of Africa, in The Telegraph, wondered what Naipaul sees when he looks in the mirror. Does he wonder (Naipaul, that is, not Rahim, although, strictly speaking, it is Rahim who is wondering what Naipaul wonders) whether he is the Nobel Prize winning sage who has written 30 acclaimed books over 50 years, or whether he is a fraud, pretending to be a country gentleman in Wiltshire [where Naipaul lives], when his true place is amongst the wretched of the world? Now I have never met Naipaul, but I am going to go out on a limb and guess that Sir Vidia has no doubt in his mind what he sees when he looks in the metaphorical mirror.

Naipaul is not unaccustomed to flak. Over the years he has attracted, either deservingly or undeservingly, more than fair share of hostile animadversion, the kind of over-the-top, ultra-righteous, over-dramatic twaddle boy Harris wrote in The Times, or the silly doggerel Derek Walcott read out in a literary festival in Jamaica, in 2008. The sneering and poisonous diatribe of Alibhai-Brown reveals perhaps more about the workings of her mind than the quality (or its lack) of Naipaul’s book: it is as if Alibhai-Brown is furious that Naipaul, of Indian descent like her, born ‘amongst the wretched’, had the temerity to rise above his lot, win the Nobel, and live in English countryside, when he ought to have done no better than work in the paddy fields of Trinidad, or, at best, become a clerk in Trinidad Public Transport.

Finally, I came across a review in the Guardian of Patrick French’s India: A Portrait, by Arvind Adiga, the 2008 Booker Prize winner. Adiga started his review thus:

A non-fiction book on India must aim to be either literature or journalism. If the book's goal is to be literature – to find a way through the stories of Indians to the heart of the human condition – then it competes with VS Naipaul's India: A Million Mutinies Now, the best thing written about the subcontinent in the past 30 years.’

Adiga then went on to observe that ‘the influence of Naipaul is obvious in French's new book, which relies on detailed character sketches of individual Indians – ranging from prime ministers such as Indira Gandhi to a guerrilla leader of India's Naxalite insurgents – to tell the story of how India became one of the world's fastest-growing economies and one of its most stable democracies.’

In the comments section on Adiga’s article, the first comment is by someone who calls himself (or herself) ‘kanchhedia’. I quote from the comment:

‘I am appalled to think that Mr. Adiga thinks that what V.S. Naipaul writes is literature. Nothing that that ass-kissing toady of Western imperialism ever wrote can be described as literature even in the loosest sense of the word. Awarding V.S. Naipaul the Nobel Prize for literature was a lot like awarding the Nobel Prize for peace to Henry Kissinger. Nothing like an original idea ever passed through the bilious vacuum that Sir Vidiot has for a mind. But then, what would Mr. Adiga know of literature? The only work of fiction he has written is based on what he learnt of rural India from his servants.’ 

Each, as they say, to his opinions. I do not know how many books of Naipaul ‘kanchhedia’ has read. Having read India: A Million Mutinies Now, the third book of the trilogy Naipaul wrote over more than two decades (also, the most balanced of the three books, in my view), I have no trouble agreeing with Adiga’s verdict. Of the books I have read about India, India: A Million Mutinies Now is one of the best. I should also say that the first book of the trilogy, An Area of Darkness, written in the 1960s, seems excessively pessimistic and very harshly critical of that country. Naipaul struggles in the book to see anything positive in or about India; the country, for him, as the title of the book suggests, was a basket case. It was also Naipaul’s first visit to the country from where his ancestors immigrated to the Caribbean in the nineteenth century. It was almost as if Naipaul had a beau ideal of India in his mind, and, when he encountered the grim reality, he was severely disappointed. India: A Million Mutinies Now is a much more balanced work, and, to me, shows Naipaul’s growing maturity as a writer. (As an aside, in White Tiger, the novel for which he won the Booker Prize, I thought Adiga depicted very convincingly the lives led by those in what he described (admittedly a tad ostentatiously) as the other India. It is a well-written novel, and there is nothing in the novel, or indeed in Adiga’s biography, to suggest that he ever had servants at his beck and call. In any case, fiction is ultimately a work of imagination; you do not have to have spied for MI5 in order to write an espionage thriller, as the success of Robert Harris’s novels shows.)

The ill-natured rant of ‘kanchchedia’ (I can’t believe it is a real name) and the prejudiced, dyspeptic and petty nonsense of the poseur Alibhai-Brown (who has no talent but tons of opinions) serve to show that V.S. Naipaul has a great ability to get under people’s skin. How does he manage it? Let’s have a look, shall we?

Firstly, there is Naipaul the person. A lot of Naipaul’s personal life has been laid bare in two books. The first of these is Paul Theroux’s vituperative and unforgiving memoir, Sir Vidia’s Shadow, in which the former disciple took an axe to his mentor’s reputation and accused him of racism, arrogance, misogyny (this is a partial list) and bullying. The book (very entertaining and readable, I have to say) seems to have been written out of pique: Theroux couldn’t quite understand why his mentor suddenly dropped him without any explanation. The second book is Patrick French’s ‘authorized’ biography of Naipaul, The World is what it is (the title taken from the opening sentence of one of Naipaul’s novels, my favourite: A Bend in the River). This book is on my ‘to read’ list, but I have read reviews of the book. French’s biography (which gives an account of Naipaul’s life up to the death of his first wife in 1996) echoes what Paul Theroux has written in his memoir: that the 2001 Nobel Laureate is probably not a very nice person; that he did not treat the women in his life well. The great Diana Athill, the legendary editor who supported many writers (including Philip Roth and Naipaul himself) in their struggling years, considered Vidia Naipaul to be the trickiest of the lot. In a recent interview Athill remarked that whenever she was going through difficult periods (personal and professional) in her life, she cheered herself up with the thought that at least she was not married to Vidia. Well, big deal! Is Naipaul the only writer who is not a ‘nice person’ in his private life? (Philip Roth has been described by his ex-wife as a ‘nasty piece of work’.) My neighbor Norman is one of the nicest blokes you will ever meet. Norman is kind, considerate, affectionate, and always willing to lend a helping hand. He is steady and reliable. He is also a very boring man. And he couldn’t write a book if his life depended on it. Great artists are great precisely because they deviate from the population mean in many respects. This is not something to be recommended, of course (and the reverse is not true either: many geniuses may be t**ts, but most t**ts are not geniuses), but that is how frequently it is. I am sure Somerset Maugham was not a very nice person; he was still a great writer.

Linked to the above is Naipaul’s public persona: the interviews he gives from time to time, the comments he makes about other writers, and the comments he has made over the years—at least the comments that are attributed to him in various magazines and blogs—about Islam and Africa, amongst other things.

In the interviews of Naipaul that I have read he does come across as intense, brooding, mournful, difficult, prickly, and (occasionally) contradictory with an insatiable penchant to call spade a spade. He is disdainful of the renowned English novelists of the yore, and seems to take delight in dismantling the reputations of the likes of E.M. Forster and Anthony Powell. You can’t help feeling, at times, as you read these interviews, that there is a mischievous child inside Naipaul when he makes these comments. And he is haughty. He does not like being compared to Orwell (but Conrad will do). He is also a perfectionist. Diana Athill, his editor at Andre Deutsch, remarked once that Naipaul didn’t even need a copy-editor; he had a very clear idea where he wanted a hyphen and where he wanted a comma, and all that she had to do was to see whether the type-setter had got it right. (Incidentally, Naipaul parted company with Andre Deutsch after Athill dared to criticize the manuscript of his novel Guerrillas.)

The problem (for me, anyway) regarding Naipaul’s comments about Islam and Africa is: it is difficult to be sure what exactly Naipaul is supposed to have said at different times. 

In the August 2010, Times published an interview of Naipaul. The interviewer says to Naipaul that the tone of Masque of Africa (which was published the same month) is bleak, and tallies with his previous bleak pronouncements on Africa such as its people are ‘primitive’. In response Naipaul asks the interviewer, ‘Where did I say that? Can you tell me?’ It then turns out that the ‘primitive’ quote comes from a letter Naipaul wrote to Antonia Fraser. Naipaul then says, ‘I have no context of what you have just said. I have to say I am a bit lost.’ The interviewer is not willing to let go, however. He wants to make Naipaul accept that his view of Africa is essentially pessimistic as it is in his two fictional works on Africa, In A Free State (which won the 1971 Booker Prize), and A Bend in the River. What is Naipaul’s response? ‘To be pessimistic or 
optimistic—that is one-dimensional. Everything is in a state of flux, everything changes; I wouldn’t want to take a side in that debate.’

Throughout the interview Naipaul refuses to say what the interviewer clearly wants him to; neither does he draw any clear conclusions about The Masque of Africa, and eventually concludes that many of the extreme views he has been associated over the years are not a reflection of his true opinions, but rather misquotations.

I think it is probable that Naipaul on many occasions has been quoted out of context or, as he believes, simply misquoted.

Nevertheless let’s assume that on the whole Naipaul’s views of Islam and Africa are not favourable.

If we look at Naipaul’s comments about Islam, two comments in particular seem to get circulated widely on the net (which is not the same as he actually said it, using exactly those words). In one of the comments Naipaul compares the spread of Islam to the colonization of Africa, Asia, and Latin America by the European powers, and concludes that on the whole it had a ‘calamitous effect’ on those who were converted. The comment attributed to him goes like this:

‘Islam has had a calamitous effect on converted peoples. To be converted you have to destroy your past, destroy your history. You have to stamp on it, you have to say ‘my ancestral culture does not exist, it does not matter….’

Another comment on Islam, attributed to Naipaul, is:  

‘Islam is in its origin an Arab religion. Everyone not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert. Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It makes imperial demands. A convert’s worldview alters. His holy places are in Arab lands. His sacred language is Arabic. His idea of history alters. He rejects his own: he becomes, whether he likes it or not, a part of the Arab story. The convert has to turn away from everything that is his.’

Both of the above comments are points of view. They suggest that the person holding these views probably does not see, from a socio-cultural viewpoint, Islam or its spread as necessarily a positive thing. Now I do not know enough about Islam or how it spread in different parts of the world, but they do seem like sweeping generalizations about the world’s fastest growing religion. Also, to regard someone whose family embraced (or was forced to convert to) Islam hundreds of years ago as a convert does not seem very logical to me. Some may also (rightly) point out that the same criticism could be made of the other great proselytizing religion, Christianity, and wonder why Naipaul chooses to remain silent about it. However, can one not make observations about religions in isolation? Why is it that you have to bring in another religion every time you speak about a religion? There are many who level similar accusations at Christianity and do not attract the hostility Naipaul does. In any case, these comments (if indeed Naipaul made them) hardly make him a racist (the last time I checked Islam was a religion, not a race).

Naipaul is branded as racist by some because of his views on Africa and the Caribbean. I have come across two quotes that are attributed to Naipaul in this regard. In one he gives his acerbic view on why his novels are not read in Trinidad, the country of his birth. He is supposed to have said that ‘these people’ [the Trinidadians] live a ‘purely physical lives’ which he found ‘contemptible’. It made them [the Trinidadians] interesting ‘only to chaps in universities who want to make compassionate studies about brutes.’ On another occasion, in one of the literary festivals, he is supposed to have given his reasons for not returning to Trinidad after he completed his studies in Oxford and decided to earn his living as a writer. The long and short of it is: Naipaul was dismissive of the intellectual life in Trinidad and did not think he could write in that atmosphere. He is supposed to have said ‘You can’t beat a novel out on a bongo drum’ or something like that. (It does sound like the kind of remark Naipaul would make. I might have come across it in Theroux’s Sir Vidia’s Shadow, but am not totally sure.) What these comments reveal is that Naipaul thought that the country of his birth was a cultural wasteland and had reasons why he, once he got out of it, did not want to return. (In one of his books, A Writer’s People, he has expounded more on his dislike for Trinidad and has attempted to analyze it.) From his point of view they were essential reasons. And who are we to take issues with it? I mean, if you have decided to earn a living as a writer (a very brave decision in itself) then you couldn’t possibly be blamed for taking the steps you think are necessary to make it easier. In any case, is it such a heinous crime to not have warm feelings towards the place where you were born? I have always believed that the two most important events that shape our lives are not under our control: we can’t choose where we are born, and we can’t choose our parents. Let’s face it, on the whole your chances in life are better if you are born in the West instead of in what Paul Theroux once poetically described as the turd world. And what has contributed to it? The accident of birth. To expect people to have feelings of loyalty towards a place and culture simply because they happened to have been born there is a bit like expecting everybody to enjoy boiled courgettes because they are supposed to be good for your health: some might like the taste and texture of boiled cellulose, others won’t. So Naipaul is not madly in love of Trinidad where he was born. Big deal! To insinuate that Naipaul has rejected his Caribbean heritage in order to get acceptance from the British literary establishment (as the poet Derek Walcott, another Nobel Laureate who hails from the neighbouring Caribbean island of St Lucia, has done) does Naipaul a disservice, and, given the kind of remarks he has made about many giants of British literature (E.M. Forster, Anthony Powell, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh to name just a few), is probably erroneous. (In his interview to theTimes in August 2010 he was dismissive of his Oxford years too: ‘The thing I regret the most about the past, really, is the Oxford business. Oxford fed me hardly at all. Oxford gave me nothing.’) Naipaul’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Enigma of Arrival, which I think is a masterpiece, goes some way to explain his attitude towards his adopted country. It is a story of a writer from the Caribbean, who finds the joy of homecoming in England. Why can’t we just take what Naipaul says at its face value? Why do we have to send search parties to ferret out ulterior motives? If there is one theme in Naipaul’s fiction that strikes me, it is the theme of alienation and displacement: many heroes of his fiction are outsiders. Naipaul considered himself to be an outsider in Trinidad where he was born, and he was obviously an outsider in England. Nevertheless if he felt himself to be more at peace in England than in Trinidad, could it not be simply because he felt more at home in England? Naipaul left Trinidad when he was 18 and, since then, has lived in England. In one of the essays about his childhood in Trinidad, Naipaul claims that while his family had lived in the Caribbean for more than one generation, they were completely embedded in an ‘Indian way of life’. He also writes that he hardly ever spoke to a black person as a child. Strange! But that’s how it was for him. It is hardly surprising, then, that he publicly acknowledged that the Nobel was a tribute to England, his adopted country, and India, the country of his ancestors, and failed to mention Trinidad. The point is: there is no need to jump to the conclusion that Naipaul’s antipathy towards the place of his birth makes him a racist. (What I also find interesting here is that when Naipaul makes these comments about Trinidad he does not actually specify whether he is talking about the Blacks or the Asians (Indians). I say this because when Naipaul was growing up (in the 1930s and 1940s) and up until the end of 1950s (possibly longer), more than 40% of Trinidad’s population consisted of Indians, who were brought to the island by the British as indentured labourers (including, presumably, Naipaul’s ancestors), and the Blacks formed just over 50%. It is interesting that it is the Blacks who have chosen to take offence at Naipaul’s comments about Trinidad even though, in theory, he could have been referring to Indians (there is no reason to believe that the Indians were not leading the ‘purely physical lives’ which he found contemptible) as well as the Blacks when he made those comments.)

Finally, there are the books Naipaul has written over the years. These can be divided into fiction and non-fiction. It’s Naipaul’s non-fiction work that has generated the wrath and self-righteous indignation of the champagne lefties like Harris and Alibhai-Brown.

I should state here that V.S. Naipaul is the writer I admire the most. I have read all of his novels save the last one, and I have no hesitation in including several of his novels as some of the greatest to have been written in the twentieth century. Writing on Naipaul’s fiction is beyond the scope of this post (that is for another post), so I will only say that the early Naipaul novels are some of the funniest novels I have read. The mood and theme in his later works become increasingly somber and dark. I like his later novels (in many ways) even more, but I do miss the humour of his early novels, which is totally absent from his later work.

I have not read much of Naipaul’s non-fiction. I have read his trilogy on India; I’ve read Among the Believers—his journeys in the Islamic nations; I’ve read Literary Occasions— a compilation of the essays he published in various magazines over the years; and finally, I’ve read Letters between a Father and Son—another compilation, of incredibly moving letters between Naipaul and his father during Naipaul’s early years in England. I have not read either The Middle Passage, Naipaul’s journey through the Caribbean (in the 1960s, at the invitation of the then prime-minister of Trinidad), or (as I have mentioned earlier) The Masque of Africa, Naipaul’s first non-fiction book on his travels through some of the African countries.

A word about Naipaul’s non-fiction travelogues. They are more than just travelogues, in the sense that they are not descriptions of must-visit places for the tourists. Almost always Naipaul has a theme in his mind which he pursues. Towards this end he goes about visiting and speaking to people from the different strata of the society of the country he happens to be visiting. These people are not chosen randomly. He records the experiences of his subjects faithfully, but then draws his own inferences, and generalizes them to the country or the peoples he is studying. Not the most methodologically robust way of going about things, I agree, and I am sure Naipaul’s essays and observations will be rejected by the British Journal of Anthropology or the American Journal of Cultural Studies or whatever. But then Naipaul is not claiming to be a scientist. He is a highly intelligent writer, with above average powers of observations, and a gift for capturing the foibles of human nature and societies; and he reveals them without mercy. (This is equally true, in my view, of his fiction. The reason I return to many of Naipaul’s novels again and again—he is the only writer whose fiction I have read more than once—is because his fictional characters so inerrantly echo universal human experiences.) It may make uncomfortable reading; you may squirm uneasily when you read it; you may wish Naipaul were more sparing when he makes his observations; but that is of little concern to him. He records things the way he sees them. It is, in my view, a very powerful way of capturing readers’ interest; the writing becomes much more credible in my eyes, the way Naipaul does it. His former follower Paul Theroux has mimicked this format effectively in many of his travelogues, as has Patrick French in his book on India (if Arvind Adiga’s review is anything to go by).

And it is undeniable that however disputable and contestable are Naipaul’s views; however unpalatable or unpleasant you may find the way he chooses to highlight things, there is a prescience to what he has written, exemplified by the uneasy relationship West and Islam have come to share in the 21st century. I read Among the Believers, first published in 1981, a few years ago and came to the inescapable conclusion that it was prophetic writing. Naipaul was accused by his critics of presenting a narrow and biased vision of Islam in this book, but I think his aim was very clear: he wanted to understand the ideological fury that he felt was gripping many in the Islamic nations; he wanted to understand the attempt of many to forge an identity for themselves through their version of Islam which was pure. He detected, in his travels through the Islamic world and talks to ordinary people, a desire by many to return to the glory days of Islam. And what he wrote: 

(‘Islam sanctified rage—rage about faith, political rage, one could be like other . . I met sensitive men who were ready to contemplate great convulsions.’)

in 1981 makes even more sense in 2011, with the debacle in Iraq.You might say that what is happening now, Naipaul saw it coming three decades ago and warned about it. Herein also lies, I think, part of the problem Naipaul has faced in the last decade. In the aftermath of September 11, with the anti-Muslim paranoia gripping America and Europe, some of Naipaul’s views about Islam became fashionable amongst centre-right politicians and thinkers. Which meant that those who were centre-left felt that they had no choice but to come down heavily on Naipaul and discredit him. From what I have read about Naipaul (mainly some of the interviews he has given to broadsheets), I don’t think he gives a toss what people on 
the right or on the left think about him. (A lot of pleasure of Naipaul’s writing, for me, is the style in which he delivers his prophecies of doom. Again, to quote from The Enigma of Arrival: 

To see the possibility, the certainty, of ruin, even at the moment of creation: it was my temperament. Those nerves had been given me as a child in Trinidad partly by our family circumstances: the half-ruined or broken-down houses we lived in, our many moves, our general uncertainty.’

Naipaul has always maintained that he has allegiance to no one and writes the way he sees the world without a compromise, without caring to whom it might appeal and whom it might alienate.  He is a stateless observer. He does not care to be liked. He does not feign. There is nothing sham about what he writes. He tells it as he sees it. And if you do not like what he says or what he shows, well, tough titty. It is for this reason he was said to be very surprised when he was awarded the Nobel. (Apparently when the phone call came, he refused to take it, believing it was a hoax.)

As for his writing on Africa, I shall make up my mind when I read The Masque of Africa (although you’d have discerned by now that I am hardly an unbiased reader of Naipaul). The book, as described earlier, has generated very hostile and lop-sided reviews. The only decent British reviews I came across were by Giles Foden and Aminatta Forna, both in the Guardian, and by William Boyd in the TLS. None of the reviews, I should point out, is laudatory, but the reviewers do not appear to have taken complete leave of their senses when they are critical of the book. Foden notes that Naipaul ‘never writes of Africa with anything remotely approaching love.’ Boyd remarks that Naipaul has become the Moosbrugger of our times and views the wide world through his narrow lens. Forna notes that Naipaul does himself a disservice when he fails to verify much of his information and seems to take some of the stories told him at face value. Forna concludes that The Masque of Africa is a book for the outsiders, those who may never visit Africa or may know it only superficially. But, she goes on to say, it is a book in which Africans themselves may find something to learn. Forna finishes her review by stating that despite his best efforts she has grown to like Naipaul.

That, in a nutshell, is the trouble with Naipaul. He remains a deeply polarizing figure in British literature. There are those who believe that he is the greatest living British write of prose whose consistently brilliant and mesmerizing fiction has enriched the world of literature, and a fearless, visionary seer who has the ability to go to the very heart of the matter and throw into sharp relief that which many would rather believe does not exist. (I belong to this group). And then there are those who are convinced that he is a self-important, self-aggrandizing, narrow-minded, arrogant, blinkered, and deeply flawed man, whose time has long gone and he will be sorely missed by no one.