I came across this news item by chance. My attention was immediately arrested by its headline: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie rips into V.S. Naipaul.
My first thought was: what has he done now? The 2001 Nobel Laureate of literature is not known for mincing his words on a variety of subjects including (but not limited to) literary giants of the English literature. He has more opinions about them than I have got hair on my head. In his old age he seems to take great pleasure in skewering people. (And after he has skewered them, he marinates them in vinegar and puts them on the barbecue to bubble.) He once described Passage to India as ‘pretence’ and ‘utter rubbish’, and added for good measure (just in case there was a doubt in anybody’s mind) that its writer (E.M. Forster, who was of homoerotic orientation) went to India to exploit poor sexually. (I have not read any biography of E.M. Forster, so I do not know whether Naipaul formed his opinion based on his extensive study of Forster’s biographies or from his personal acquaintance with Forster where Forster confessed his true intentions behind his visit to India to Naipaul, or whether he had an epiphany. I have not read Passage to India, but have read Howard’s End and A Room with a View, both of which tried my patience beyond endurance; tedious does not even come close to describing these two novels. I have therefore some sympathy for Sir Vidia’s view of Passage to India.) In a long interview he gave to Paris Review years ago (at the end of which declared that he disliked giving interviews—he is a bundle of contradiction, Sir Vidia) Naipaul was dismissive of Jane Austen: he told the interviewer that he wondered to what he was doing reading (i.e. wasting his time, I think) novels of this woman (or something to that effect; I am quoting from memory). Years later, at the Hay festival he said that he couldn’t possibly share Austen’s sentimental view of the world, which predictably raise the hackles of many in the UK (including many women bloggers who became very emotional about it) where Austen is placed on a pedestal and Pride and Prejudice remains a very popular novel.
Therefore, when I read the headline which informed that Adichie had metaphorically ripped into Naipaul, I briefly wondered whether he had made some ill-advised remarks about Adichie (or her novels), the rising star from Nigeria, or African writers, or Africa.
I was wrong.
This time round we can’t blame the old curmudgeon of sniping at others (without provocation). If anything it was the other way round. It was Adichie, who, as the headline mentioned, ripped into the octogenarian author without provocation.
It relates to the Orange Prize winner’s most recent novel: Americanaha. According to the report the black protagonist of the novel expresses severe views about V.S. Naipaul and his novels. The novel that is chosen for particular derision is A Bend in the River, which is routinely selected in various lists of Greatest Books Ever Written, 1001 Books You Must Read before You get Demented, If You haven't read these Books You should Kill Yourself etcetera etcetera. The novel was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1980 (but didn’t win it). The black protagonist of Americanaha, upon being informed by a white character in the novel (who believes itself to be liberal) that A Bend in the River is the most honest novel it (the character) has ever read about Africa, decides enough is enough. The praise for A Bend in the River is the last straw; time to call spade a spade, no more tolerance of intellectual claptrap. A Bend in the River is not about Africa at all, the black protagonist informs. What is it about then? The novel is set in an unnamed African country (which many believe to be DR Congo) and its maniacal, unhinged, despotic dictator (who, some believed, was based on the maniacal, unhinged and despotic dictator, Mobutu, although it has shades of Idi Amin, another clinically insane and despotic dictator). It might be set in Africa, but is Africa in it? At a superficial level, yes, seeing as the novel (though narrated by the protagonist who is of Indian extraction) is teeming with Africans. The novel, opines the black protagonist of Americanaha, is about Europe; it is, the black protagonist puts to the white liberalist, about the longing of Europe; it is, preaches the black protagonist, about “the battered self-image of an Indian man born in Africa, who felt so wounded, so diminished, by not being born a European . . .”
Who is the wounded man the fictional character in Americanaha animadverts about? Let’s investigate. Could it be Salim, the fictional character in A Bend in the River? Salim is a Muslim of Indian extraction who is born and raised in the unnamed African country. So he meets the first the first half of the description: an Indian man born in Africa. Does Salim think himself to be different from the Africans in the country? Yes. At the beginning of the novel he identifies his family as belonging to a "special group". He sees himself as distinct from the Africans. Whom does Salim identify with? Europeans? No. The east coast of Africa where Salim’s family has lived for “centuries”, is, according to Salim, not truly African. It is an “Arab-Indian-Persian-Portuguese” place. Does Salim show longing for Europe at any time in the novel? No. The character of Salim, you might say, is representative of how I think (having read a few of the books by and about him) V.S. Naipaul views history: “an interplay of various peoples, and it’s gone on forever.” Salim does not strike you as a character that is grievously wounded because he was not born a European.
I don’t think the black protagonist of Americanaha has Salim, the Asian protagonist of A Bend in the River, in her mind when she talks of the Indian man diminished by not being born in Europe. Could the protagonist have had the creator of Salim in her mind? It may not be as farfetched as it might seem at first instance. Naipaul has been frequently accused by his detractors of being anti-African (which, seeing as he is not African himself clearly translates as a racist). Derek Walcott, another Nobel Laureate from the Caribbean, put it bluntly that “Naipaul does not like Negroes.” (A few years ago, in a literary festival in one of the Caribbean islands, Walcott read out a poem he had written, devoted in its entirety to trounce Naipaul. What does that say about Walcott? Naipaul didn't respond to this as he has not responded to any of the personal attacks on him; come to think of it he does not bother to defend his work against the criticism levelled at it.) It has become fashionable these days to rebuke Naipaul as a writer of neo-colonialist leanings. In case you think Naipaul dislikes only the blacks, let me advise you that he is considered a Muslim-hater, too. Salman Rushdie once described Naipaul as a “traveller of fascism” who had disgraced the Nobel award. Finally, there is always Edward Said who could be relied upon to say something venomous against Naipaul, just as you can rely upon the sun to rise in the east.
I think the tragically wounded man pining for Europe the fictional character in Americanah is referring to is V.S. Naipaul.
That’s alright, you might say. It is a fictional character, after all. It does not really exist. The murderous and murdering psychopath in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho is a gushing fan of Whitney Houston, and a whole chapter in the novel is devoted to the protagonist extolling the virtues of Houston. That does not make Whitney Houston a great singer. (I mean she was a great singer, one of the best; but she isn’t great because a fictional character in a work of fiction gives her endorsement.) The opinion of the fictional character in Americanaha is, like, her opinion; and she is not even real. Does it matter? Why should we take seriously the views of someone who exists only in someone else’s head about V.S. Naipaul (who exists in his own right)?
Does the opinion of the fictional character in Americanah about Naipaul reflect the opinion of its author?
It probably does.
Adichie, while promoting the novel in the UK, told a newspaper:
“I have become very tired of this nonsense where he [Naipaul] is supposed to be the best writer in the world. God bless him and I wish him the best, but I think that just because you are an old man who is nasty doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t actually take apart your work.”
Like the protagonist of her novel Adichie has had enough. No more of this claptrap that Naipaul is the best author in the world and A Bend in the River is a great novel. She doesn’t care if he is old and nasty. She will tell the world what Edward Said forgot to mention.
Everyone is entitled to their opinions, and Adichie is entitled to hers. One can also see why Naipaul gets under the skin of many who insist on clinging to the delusion—no doubt out of colonial guilt—that everything about the European Empires were despicable and the best thing that happened to the colonies was that the colonialists left. The colonialists were bastards; they exploited the colonies, siphoned off the wealth, and reduced its citizens to subhuman level in their own countries; they were finally kicked out and everything is hunky-dory; everything is shipshape; its paradise in the former colonies, now. The reality, sadly, can’t be so neatly pigeonholed. In many parts of the world, most notably in Africa, decolonization was followed by failures of epic proportions. While there may be reasons for that and the imperialists have a lot to answer for the role they played, it does not change the fact that for many in the post-colonial world true liberation remains a distant dream as the countries hover on the brink of disaster.
That’s what Naipaul has depicted in some of his fiction and non-fiction. I am not going to review in this post A Bend in the River, which—I am not sure that it is the most honest novel about Africa; it is a view of Africa (if one can generalize from the unnamed country which is the setting for A Bend in the River), by a Muslim man who, while he is born in Africa considers himself as separate from the prevailing culture, that is an outsider—remains one of my very favourite novels. It is a blunt, brutal novel which is bleak in the extreme in its outlook. At one point in the novel, one of the supporting cast of characters says:
“Nobody's going anywhere. We're all going to hell, and every man knows this in his bones. We're being killed. Nothing has any meaning. That is why everyone is so frantic. Everyone wants to make his money and run away. But where? That is what is driving people mad....”
The world is, as the celebrated beginning of the novel says, what it is. Naipaul didn’t make it. He simply records what he sees (without concerning himself excessively about niceties and political correctness). It no doubt makes an uneasy reading; but it is not necessarily a fallacious view. Somerset Maugham once said that the best frame of mind to face the world was of humorous resignation. Naipaul's view of the world (which is very pronounced in his later work) is of nihilism and sardonicism. And such is the power of his narrative that you soon get comfortable with despair; you don’t want things to be good.
He looks like a sweet old grandfather; he can't be nasty