Guerrilla: V.S. Naipaul

V. S. Naipaul: born in Trinidad 1932, Nobel Prize for Literature 2001. A personal view of the man and his work by Jeremy Taylor

  • Sir Vidia visits former Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister A. N. R. Robinson. Photograph courtesy Trinidad Publishing Company Limited
  • In Grenada, after the US-led invasion; 20 November 1983. Photograph courtesy Trinidad Publishing Company Limited
  • Naipaul was devastated when his younger brother Shiva (right), also a successful writer, died in 1985 at the age of 40. They are standing in front of  a portrait of their father Seepersad. Photograph courtesy Kamla Naipaul-Tewari
  • Naipaul and younger sister Savi Akal (right) with former Trinidad and Tobago president Noor Hassanali and wife after being presented with the Trinity Cross. Photograph courtesy Trinidad Publishing Company Limited
  • Front view of 26 Nepaul Street. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • View of St James from the main bedroom. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • A rare early photograph of  Vidia with his parents and elder sister Kamla. Photograph courtesy Mrs Kamla Naipaul-Tewari
  • Author V. S. Naipaul at his home near Salisbury, England, on Thursday 11 October 2001 after it was announced that he had been awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature. The 69-year-old Trinidadian-born writer was awarded the Nobel for "having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories" according to the Nobel Academy. Photograph by AP/Chris Ison

In rural England, where he lives, Naipaul responded graciously to the news of his award. He acknowledged England (his “home”), India (the country of his “ancestors”), and his literary agent. He had not thought of himself as a “suitable candidate”, he explained (though he had been nominated for the prize every year since 1972). He neglected to mention his birthplace.

In Trinidad, the new National Library was named after him. The house in St James where he spent some of his adolescence was handed over to “The Friends of Mr Biswas”, to be developed as a centre of research into the writings of the Naipauls and other West Indian authors. Letters in the newspapers debated whether the quality of his books could excuse the hurt of his disdain. They carried headings like “Naipaul Misses The Point”.

V.S.Naipaul has not been much liked in Trinidad since he published his first travel book, The Middle Passage, in 1962. Trinidad, he wrote, was “unimportant, uncreative, cynical.” Trinidadians substituted intrigue for talent. In the entire British West Indies, “nothing was created . . . no civilization as in Spanish America, no great revolution as in Haiti or the American colonies. There were only plantations, prosperity, decline, neglect . . .”. These judgements were remembered; his kinder observations were forgotten.

Naipaul does not temper his judgements or his language. He is not in the business of sparing anyone’s feelings. Over the years, he has called people monkeys, infies (inferiors), bow-and-arrow men, potato eaters, Mr Woggy. He has described whole countries as “bush”. Oxford University, where he earned his degree in English, was “a very second-rate provincial university”. Africa “has no future”, and as for African literature, “you can’t beat a novel out on drums”. He once recommended that Britain should sell knighthoods through the Post Office (this was before he became Sir Vidia Naipaul).

He can make interviewers squirm; his intolerance of unprepared questioners is legendary. He has trashed many of the great names in literature, from Jane Austen to James Joyce. He savaged British Prime Minister Tony Blair for cultural vandalism. “He has this image of being irascible,” says his second wife Nadira, “but that really isn’t true.”

Naipaul’s many detractors have accused him of racism, snobbery, misogyny, eurocentricity and perfidy, among other grievous crimes. Derek Walcott, who won the Nobel in 1992, complained about “that self-disfiguring sneer that is praised for its probity”. Jamaica Kincaid cried, “He just annoys me so much, all my thoughts are intemperate and violent”. Edward Said called him “a purveyor of stereotypes and disgust for the world that produced him”.

The sharp-tongued celebrity is only one of Naipaul’s roles. He can reduce an audience to helpless laughter with his readings. He can play the charming and cultured English gentleman with his cottage in the Wiltshire countryside, his apartments in London, his ripe English accent and his pipe, his “beautifully accented French”. He knows about fine wines, snuff, cricket, 1940s movies, Indian art, printing and typography, and likes to deduce personality from handwriting.

He professes to hate Trinidad’s Carnival and the sound of pan, but he can sing Sparrow and Invader calypsos. He can be a marvellous friend and teacher, and a ruthless enemy. He suffers from asthma, insomnia, anxiety, bad dreams and bouts of depression.

The American novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux, who met Naipaul in Africa and was close to him for 30 years, tells many stories about him. “When two Chinese, both named Wong, were deported from East Africa at a time when Europeans were getting preferential treatment, Naipaul commented, ‘Well, two Wongs don’t make a white.’” In Africa Naipaul deliberately distorted names: “‘Mah-boya’ he said for Mboya, ‘Nah-Googy’ for Ngugi, and an Englishman called Cook he called Mah-Cook, because the man wore an African shirt and was full of enthusiasm for bad African poems.”

Even then, he had no time for bad writing. “‘Is this your poem?’ he asked an African student who had submitted a hand-written piece of verse . . . ‘Yes? Well, I’ve read it and I want you to promise me to give up poetry immediately. Don’t be depressed. Look at me, I’ve never written a poem in my life. I’m sure your gifts lie in quite another direction. But you have beautiful handwriting.’”

But a writer does not win the Nobel Prize for rudeness or political incorrectness. Naipaul has produced 26 extraordinary books, many of them of real greatness. Yet the Nobel prize-winner is the same man who, asked by an interviewer what the red dot means on a Hindu woman’s forehead, once replied that it means “My head is empty”.

Welcome to the complexities of Vidiadhar Surujprasad Naipaul.


Naipaul’s huge output spans 44 years: fiction, history, autobiography, travel, reportage, and various mixtures of these genres. His settings range across the planet: the Caribbean, South America, the United States, England, East and Central Africa, the Ivory Coast and Mozambique, Iran, Pakistan, India, Malaysia. Few writers have attempted such an epic journey. None has explored so thoroughly and so bleakly the distress of the “post-colonial world” (an idea which, since September 11, has become rather more than an academic cliché).

“Tranquillity recedes,” he wrote from Mauritius in 1972. “The barracoon is overcrowded; the escape routes are closed. The people are disaffected and have no sense of danger.” The frailty of “half-made societies”, their potential for disruption and violence; the dislocated and dispossessed; the migrant, the exile, the half-breed — this dark side of the “globalised” world has been Naipaul’s habitat. He has conducted a guerrilla war against the second-rate, against confusion and inertia: freedom and respect must be earned by action. Naipaul does not offer solutions: he sees himself as a diagnostician, not a therapist. You can disagree with him, deplore his manners, dismiss his more outrageous opinions; but there is no escaping his work.


Naipaul is one of those writers who are driven to write for their emotional survival.

His Trinidad childhood was turbulent. His mother Droapatie Capildeo belonged to a Hindu family, a clan of “pundits and property owners” presided over by his matriarchal grandmother in Chaguanas, central Trinidad. (The 1920 North Indian-style house is still there, newly renovated.) His father Seepersad Naipaul was a loner; he was expected to become a pundit, but turned away, supported Hindu reform, and became a journalist. Both families had brahmin roots; both had left India only two generations earlier, in the 1880s, as indentured labourers. Vidia was the second of the seven children born to Seepersad and Droapatie between 1930 and 1952.

When he was seven, Vidia was taken from the Indian world of Chaguanas, with its supporting Hindu networks, to the creole world of Port of Spain. His parents lived in his grandmother’s house in the Docksite area near the waterfront, then to his grandmother’s cocoa estate outside the city in Petit Valley, then back to town. Finally his father — alienated from the Capildeos, depressive, frustrated — bought his own house in 1946, at 26 Nepaul Street in the suburb of St James. Vidia attended Queen’s Royal College. “Our last two years in that home,” he wrote, “were very bad indeed.”

Seepersad Naipaul longed to be a writer, and produced a number of good short stories, some of which were broadcast by the BBC in London. He served two stints with the Trinidad Guardian, the first under the editor Gault MacGowan who modernised the paper and gave him valuable advice and support. His stories dealt with Indian village life and “the Hindu rituals that gave grace and completeness to that life”. He read The Adventures of Gurudeva to young Vidia as it took shape. “He had the journalist’s or writer’s vocation,” Vidia wrote later; his writing was “a version of the pundit’s vocation”, though it was never fulfilled.

A fractious and disordered family life, constant moves, the Indian world enclosed within an alien creole world, his father’s unhappiness — all this shaped Vidia’s perception of Trinidad and life: “only my school life was ordered.” Family life was “a microcosm of the authoritarian state, where power is all-important. I withdrew.” It was “an early introduction to the ways of the world, and to the nature of cruelty. It had given me . . . a taste for the other kind of life, the solitary and less crowded life, where one had space around oneself.”

Out of this childhood stress sprang all the themes and concerns of Vidia’s adult work.

He learned to wear the mask of aloofness and distance. He felt a desperate need for order, rationality, privacy, solitude. He inherited his father’s “hysteria” — “the fear of extinction . . . a panic about failing to be what I should be.” Like his father, he discovered that “the fear could be combated only by the exercise of the vocation” — by the time he was 11, though he had “given no sign of talent”, “it seemed to be settled . . .  that I was to be a writer”. To be a writer, he saw, was “to triumph over darkness.” He learned that survival meant making your own mark in the world: it meant applying all the resources of intellect and will towards individual achievement.

By the late 1940s his greatest need was to escape from Trinidad. He told an interviewer in 1983: “I didn’t like the climate. I didn’t like the quality of light. I didn’t like the heat; I didn’t like the asthma that gave me. I didn’t like a lot of the racial tensions around me . . . I didn’t like the music. I didn’t like the loudness. I just felt I was in the wrong place.” He developed the graphic image of “the bush” to describe anything that was in decay and decline: “the breakdown of institutions, of the contract between man and man . . . theft, corruption, racist incitement.”


He did escape in 1950, on a scholarship to University College, Oxford. He wrote confident letters home and to his elder sister Kamla, who was studying in India. He made a few friends (though “there are asses in droves here”), had a succession of short-lived girlfriends, worked on the university paper Ibis and the Oxford Tory; he played cricket (he once recorded bowling figures of 11-3-25-3 and was selected for his college First Eleven). He sketched and did oil paintings. He visited Paris. He was elected secretary of the “college intellectuals” group The Martlets.

He steadily gained confidence. “Whenever I go into a new town, I go into the best hotel, just to feel comfortable, sit in the lounge, read all the newspapers . . . and drink coffee. I like comfort. And, whereas in Trinidad I was tremendously shy of going even into a Civil Service office, now I go everywhere, firmly believing that I have as much right to be there as anyone else. That is one good thing Oxford has done for me.” He wrote a novel at Oxford — The Shadow’d Livery. “I am afraid I have become a writer,” he reported. “The more I write, the more I want to write.” He remembered to add: “And I don’t enjoy writing.”

But after his novel was rejected for publication in November 1951, he sank into a prolonged depression, “quite indifferent to everything”. By the following March his stories were being broadcast by the BBC, but he was “extremely depressed and felt intensely homesick . . . intolerably lonely”. In April he admitted to his family he was having a “nervous breakdown”. “Of course I know the reason for my breakdown: loneliness, and lack of affection . . . I couldn’t bear to see anyone. I couldn’t bear to read, because it made me think of people; I couldn’t go to the cinema; I couldn’t listen to the radio . . .  it has been a near-miracle that I can walk the streets without being afraid.”

This phase lasted for several months, though by September he had seen a psychologist and had also met Patricia Ann Hale (he married her in 1955); she “befriended me at the height of my illness, put up with all my moods”. He was still reporting “periods of black depression” when he earned his BA in English in 1953. He was only 20.

Seepersad died in October 1953, but Vidia resisted the pressure to return to Trinidad to help support the family. “I don’t see myself fitting into the Trinidad way of life. I think I shall die if I have to spend the rest of my life in Trinidad. The place is too small, the values are all wrong, and the people are petty. Besides, there is really very little for me to do there.” Instead, he worked on a farm, he sold encyclopaedias, he applied for a job in India. He went to London, with about £6 to his name, did part-time work with the BBC, wrote copy for the Concrete and Cement Association. “Look, I am going to be a success as a writer,” he wrote in April 1955. “I know that. I have gambled all my future on that possibility.” And in October: “Frankly, you see, I am expecting something fairly big to come from my writing.”

The breakthrough came in 1955, when the Trinidad material in his head suddenly focused, and he wrote the stories in Miguel Street in six weeks. They were about the people of the Docksite street where he had lived, strongly-coloured Trinidad “characters”, funny, sad, vivid, eccentric. But already the comedy was soaked through with Naipaul’s own concerns: transience, ethnic mixing, mimicry, empty promises, fantasies; nothing ever accomplished, nothing lasting. This was a genuinely new voice in Caribbean writing: a brilliant comic surface, sharp clear dialogue, clinical sentences, and a dark ironic undercurrent.

In December, the publisher André Deutsch accepted Naipaul’s first novel The Mystic Masseur for publication, which was followed by The Suffrage of Elvira and Miguel Street. He would never again work for anyone else, or be beholden to people. “That . . . has given me a freedom from people, from entanglements, from rivalries, from competition. I have no enemies, no rivals, no masters. I fear no one.”


After Miguel Street, four more books drew on Naipaul’s Trinidad material. The Mystic Masseur and The Suffrage of Elvira were sharp social comedies set in 1930s and 1940s Trinidad: their protagonists rise to fame and fortune through cunning, fraudulence, vote-buying, intrigue, magic or pure chance. Later, A Flag on the Island collected some of Naipaul’s funniest stories from this period.

But his early masterpiece was A House for Mr Biswas, a big realistic novel reworking his childhood experience. Poor bemused Mohun Biswas stands in for Seepersad Naipaul, yearning for a house of his own, both literal and metaphorical; the tumultuous Tulsis stand in for the Capildeos, and young Anand Biswas is like Naipaul himself (“His satirical sense kept him aloof . . . satire led to contempt, and . . . contempt, quick, deep, inclusive, became part of his nature. It led to inadequacies, to self-awareness and a lasting loneliness. But it made him unassailable”).

This early phase was completed by The Middle Passage, a Caribbean travel book suggested by the then Trinidad and Tobago premier, Dr Eric Williams. Naipaul visited Trinidad, Guyana, Suriname, Martinique and Jamaica, observing with an outsider’s eye, in the tradition of English travellers. His editor at André Deutsch was privately dismayed at the “desperately negative view of the place, disregarding a good half of the picture”. But it was an important advance: here Naipaul made it clear, without the mask of fiction, exactly what he meant by “half-made societies”.

These early books would have been a solid achievement for any author. But they were not commercially successful. Naipaul complained in 1958 that he had written three books in five years and had earned £300 from them. He was to struggle with poverty for some years yet, and did not make his reputation in the United States until 1975, with Guerrillas. And now he found his Trinidad material exhausted. He was that desperate thing, a writer without a theme.

He began to scrutinise other parts of the developing world. He spent a year in his ancestral home, India, and wrote An Area of Darkness, exploring both a country and his own Indianness. His grandfather had eventually returned to India from Trinidad, though he died before reaching his old home. Naipaul found the village, and wrote: “This village was the real place. Trinidad was the interlude, the illusion.” He found much to berate in India. Chaos, corruption, incompetence, dirt, unthinking habit and ritual, irrationality, decay, meaningless mysteries. He told an interviewer in 1981: “What I want is for India to regard itself as a big country. It should be doing something in the world. It should have high standards of achievement. A country with 600-700 million people which is now offering the world nothing but illegitimate holy men should be ashamed of itself.”

Naipaul had hesitated to write about England: he saw it as a closed, private society, largely inaccessible to an outsider. But he felt that he had to be more than a “regional writer” and establish himself in the literary mainstream. In Kashmir in 1962, he finished his first “English” book, the sombre and reflective Mr Stone and the Knights Companion, with its completely English setting and cast. The elderly Mr Stone and his thwarted dreams in dreary, grey England were a radical advance, though the novel remains little-read and underrated.

But neither of these books solved the problem of finding a personal centre. Naipaul felt an outsider in the land of his ancestors as well as the island of his birth: too western in India, too Indian in the west. Emotionally, both India and Trinidad seemed barred to him. He returned to London “facing my own emptiness, my feeling of being physically lost.”


In the mid 1960s Naipaul spent several months in East Africa. He befriended the young American Paul Theroux, who has provided the most telling and vivid portraits of the young author. Although he was attached to the University of East Africa, Naipaul never gave a lecture, according to Theroux, and soon left the campus to finish a new book at a hotel in western Kenya.

“He was one of the strangest men I ever met,” Theroux wrote, “and absolutely the most difficult. He was contradictory, he quizzed me incessantly, he challenged everything I said, he demanded attention, he could be petty, he uttered heresies about Africa, he fussed, he mocked, he made his innocent wife cry, he had impossible standards, he was self-important, he was obsessive on the subject of his health. He hated children, music and dogs. But he was also brilliant, and passionate in his convictions, and to be with him, as a friend or a fellow writer, I had always to be at my best.”

The two travelled together, Naipaul decked out in bush shirt, bush trousers and floppy hat, and carrying “a stout walking stick that doubled as a club, should he wish to disable or brain an attacker”. Naipaul instructed Theroux in writing. He rejected anything false or showy or mannered; he insisted on clarity and simplicity and hard work. “The truth is messy,” he told Theroux. “It is not pretty. Writing must reflect that. Art must tell the truth.”

“He was the most wide-awake person I had ever travelled with,” Theroux wrote. “No one I had ever met was so devoted to the art of writing . . . for him literary creation was a form of prayer, a disturbing prayer. He was not the writer as equal, the reader’s buddy, but rather the writer as priestly figure.”


The book that Naipaul was finishing in western Kenya in 1966 was The Mimic Men.

As Naipaul worked at his craft, he seemed to see less reason for tolerance or tenderness; the social comedy of the earlier books was turning bleak and dark. In the book, a failed Caribbean politician, exiled in London, reflects on his career and tries to make sense of himself by writing. He sees that his Caribbean island is too small for real independence; he muses on ethnic hurts, the politics of resentment, the wounded culture, the loss of Indianness, the failure of rationality. Washed up 4,000 miles from home, he finds that writing is his only defence against apathy, withdrawal and collapse.

The Mimic Men took Naipaul almost two years to write. But almost immediately he started a new book. The Loss of El Dorado contains two juxtaposed narratives that delve into Trinidad’s darker history. The project took more than two years of primary research and writing; Naipaul learned that “history” is not just there on the shelf waiting to be used, but must be created, excavated, re-imagined. The narratives, about Raleigh’s quest for El Dorado and the torture of a young girl in the Port of Spain gaol, deepened the idea of futility, fantasy and the seeds of collapse.

El Dorado was a massive accomplishment. But it triggered one of the biggest crises of Naipaul’s career. The publisher who had commissioned it lost interest — he had expected a popular history suitable for visitors. In this rejection, Naipaul felt “a grief, too deep for rage or tears”. He had expected big things of this book; he had planned to leave England and settle in Canada or even Trinidad. Now that was out of the question.

This bitter experience, however, focused what was to be Naipaul’s new material. He saw himself even more as an enforced expatriate, a stranger and outsider wherever he went. “I belong nowhere . . . I have no home . . . I am an exile.” He wrote: “Nearly all my adult life had been spent in countries where I was a stranger. I couldn’t as a writer go beyond that experience. To be true to that experience I had to write about people in that kind of position.”

By the early 1970s, Naipaul had retreated to the English countryside, to a small cottage in Wiltshire, near Stonehenge, the setting he described later in The Enigma of Arrival. The outer defensive crust hardened. He often travelled between books, sometimes on commission for magazines. A visit to Trinidad produced a long essay on the murderer and “black power” apostle Michael X, and a study of messianic fantasy in the novel Guerrillas. Central Africa produced essays on Mobutu’s Congo and the novel A Bend in the River. Public prestige and endorsement came with the Booker Prize in 1971 (for In a Free State, with its complex world of rootlessness — the title story drew on his East African sojourn). Exploring Argentina, Naipaul was briefly arrested, and was probably lucky not to suffer worse.

Naipaul’s protagonists in this period are preoccupied with the making or re-making of themselves and establishing a place for themselves in the world. They battle against doubt, passivity, fear of the void. They find themselves adrift, without the support of family, community or government. Societies crumble around them, sliding into violence and tyranny. People are uprooted, dislocated, follow bizarre and fantastic dreams, come to appalling ends, like Jane in Guerrillas. They are at the mercy of brutes and exploiters. Well-meaning white liberals and post-colonial experts (like Bobby and Linda in In a Free State) meddle in other people’s societies, dragging their emotional baggage into unwanted places, just as their colonial predecessors did. All that remains is the bid for freedom and authenticity in the face of a perilous world; to make a mark through action and accomplishment.

In this way, Naipaul successfully “globalised” the themes he had developed in Trinidad and in India. In Wiltshire, after the pain of El Dorado, he had the sense of a new start. “I had no means of knowing that the landscape by which I was surrounded was in fact benign, the first landscape to have that quality for me. That I was to heal here . . . have something like a second life here.” He saw his writing as something utterly new and unique, to be defended at all costs.

He has often referred to the difficulty of writing, the exhaustion and despair that follow each book, the futility of fiction. But according to Pat Naipaul in 1979: “I’ll tell you something about him. He believes it has to be agony to work. In fact, it is Vidia’s supreme joy.”


A second book on India, A Wounded Civilisation, appeared in the mid-1970s, revising the insights of An Area of Darkness; and now Naipaul started to extend his travel writing. In 1979 he spent several months travelling in “converted” Islamic countries — Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia. The result was Among the Believers, which he finished in 1981, and which began to explore a new approach to travel writing and investigation.

He had always had a problem with the traditional approach — treating a country as an exotic backdrop for the adventures of a western traveller — and had been searching for a less condescending way of travelling and seeing. “Now . . . I feel that when you travel in a country, you, the traveller, are not the most important person; the important ones are the people you’re travelling among.”

So the narrator stands back, and a chorus of individual voices emerges on the page. This technique was steadily developed in the American south (A Turn in the South), a third exploration of India (A Million Mutinies Now), and a return visit to the Islamic world (Beyond Belief). The result was a more objective portrait, denser, without the clear focus of authorial control, and — as many readers objected — much harder to read.

In other books, though, Naipaul was focusing more and more closely on himself, looking inward for meaning and order. In Finding the Centre, The Enigma of Arrival and A Way in the World, public issues of freedom and rationality gave way to an exploration of inner realities — ways of seeing, ways of understanding history and culture, the process of writing, the nature of reality. Fiction and travel started to merge with autobiography. Naipaul returned repeatedly to key experiences in his own life, reworking them from changing points of view: the memory of starting to write, his father, leaving Trinidad, early months in England. Building on the structural techniques of El Dorado and In a Free State, he used juxtaposed narratives to break conventional barriers between fiction and autobiography, history and travel, setting up a complex web of resonance and connection across time and space.

The Enigma of Arrival, for example, a book cited by the Nobel committee, is a meticulous, detailed description of beginning a new life in Wiltshire, and learning to read and interpret a new culture and landscape (“like a Soviet dissident going home to Gorky,” joked Walcott). It is about refocusing perception, the constant adjustment needed to pursue the truth. The title comes from a de Chirico painting: the traveller’s arrival in a nameless place, stripped of context, the journey with no return. Naipaul saw himself now — the Indian Trinidadian exile, washed up in post-imperial England, writing about African and Asian and South American distress — as part of a vast historical canvas of change and flux, decay and rejuvenation, affecting everyone and everywhere, even the seemingly timeless world of rural England. The decayed estate on which he settled in Wiltshire, with its tenant cottage and deranged aristocratic landlord, provided a perfect image of decline.

People could find their space in this world; could survive, achieve, struggle for individual identity and security, against illness and mortality, age and chaos. In a way, Enigma is a counterpart and sequel to Mr Biswas. In it, Biswas junior rides another wave of exile, but finds and creates a house of his own.


Naipaul told an interviewer in 1981: “Someone asked me many years ago what I enjoyed best — this was before my sensual life really kindled — and I named three things: I like meeting new people, I take great delight in landscape, and I like a nicely arranged dinner party where one feels cherished.”

Naipaul’s “sensual life” apparently kindled in Argentina during the 1970s. It’s a subject that strikes many readers of his books — the complaints of sexual awkwardness, the idea that sex and romantic love are dangerous distractions, the joyless and even brutal sexual encounters of A Bend in the River and Guerrillas, the sense that attachment is dangerous and that love cannot last. “Wife is a terrible word,” he once remarked. He told an American interviewer in 1995 that he had once been “a great prostitute man”. “To me,” he once said, “one of the ugliest sights on earth is a pregnant woman.”

When Patricia Naipaul died in 1996, after 41 years of marriage, Naipaul quickly married again — a Pakistani journalist many years younger than him — while he was working on Beyond Belief, his second Islamic book. The only other books to appear for the rest of the 1990s were two short essays under the title On Reading and Writing, and a collection of letters between Vidia, Seepersad and his sister Kamla, dating from Oxford days and put together by his agent.

But in March 1999 he started on a new novel, which appeared shortly before the Nobel award last year. Half a Life, on the face of it, seemed to be a return to straight fictional narrative, despite the obvious autobiographical echoes. Its Indian protagonist, Willie Chandran, has a self-made but inadequate pundit father, who marries a low-caste “backward”, so that Willie and his sister Sarojini are cross-caste and by definition dislocated. Willie escapes to London, goes through some grim and joyless sexual experiences, and complains bitterly about his sexual naiveté. He soaks up knowledge hungrily, discovers how to re-create or re-present himself to other people as the occasion requires.

He writes for the BBC, publishes a book of stories. He meets a kindred spirit in Ana, a student from Mozambique, and goes back to Africa to live with her and her family. He stays there for 18 years, works on his sexual skills, and has a satisfying affair. How awful, he thinks, to have died without “this depth of satisfaction, this other person that I had discovered within myself. It was worth any price, any consequence”.

But Ana’s Portuguese world is closed and crumbling; a guerrilla war is in progress, people are leaving. Nothing lasts. Willie concludes that he has failed to live his own life; instead of accomplishing something and making his mark on the world, “The best part of my life is gone, and I’ve done nothing. I’ve been hiding for too long.” He leaves Africa and joins his sister, who has married a German and lives in Germany; he wonders what would have happened to her without the German “to take her away” from India. He tells her that he has been living Ana’s life, not his own. “I depended on her for my idea of being a man”. Ana’s final comment to him had been: “Perhaps it wasn’t my life either.”

There the book ends, not with a bang but a whimper. This, Naipaul seems to say, is what happens if you compromise yourself instead of using every reserve of intelligence and will to achieve: you live a pointless, futile half-life in a crumbling world.

Paul Theroux, now estranged from Naipaul, denounced the book as “the slightest [he] has ever written, and unquestionably the weirdest.” It is certainly sad, bleak, stark; everybody is adrift, nobody has a whole life. But it is entirely consistent. “If you don’t strive,” Naipaul said in 1983, “then the mind is unengaged, and if the mind is unengaged, then life must be a little worthless . . . It’s open to anybody to do, to act. I think it’s wrong of people to say that they don’t do, they don’t act, and that therefore they are entitled to consideration simply because they are.”


The thought, and the writing, in Half a Life are as clinical as anything Naipaul has done. It is hard to connect this rigour with the flippant provocations Naipaul offered the public last year in the course of promoting the book, wading into everything from the “calamitous” effect of Islam to the sexual habits of E. M. Forster and John Maynard Keynes.

Anger, Naipaul has said, “unhinges judgement and almost physically limits vision”, but creates a “moment of exalted, shrinking lucidity”. As early as 1971, he confessed, “I may sit down in enormous rage to write something; I might even begin in terms of caricature and animosity; but in the course of writing, something will happen. That side of me, that comes out in the writing, is the better side, and better not because it’s nicer but because it’s truer.”

Naipaul rarely gives interviews, and has always insisted on being judged by his work. “I do not believe in natural genius,” he told Derek Walcott in an early interview (1965). “I do not believe in the spontaneous outpouring of soul.” Critics who praise his style soon discover their mistake. Style is merely “a matter of hard thinking; it is knowing exactly what you want to say.” “Style in itself has no value. I just try to write as clearly as I can to let those thoughts appear on the page. I don’t want the style to stand out, I don’t want the word to get in the way.”

Four hundred words, he said in 1994, constitute a good day’s writing. He drafts in longhand, transfers text to the screen, and prints it out so he can “play with it”. There might be two or three good days a week, with luck. Travelling, he concentrates hard to remember what people say. “I have always used a little notebook, which I write in later. With a tape recorder, the conversation would not be concentrated. One would babble. One would not get the exercise of mind and memory that the need to write would give you.” And truthful writing is bound to hurt. “I think that unless one hears a little squeal of pain after one has done some writing, one has not really done much. That is my gauge of whether I have hit something true.”


What upsets the Caribbean about Naipaul is the sense of being weighed in the balance by a man who couldn’t stay in the region, who identified himself with a metropolis; and the implication that nothing the Caribbean does can stand beside the metropolitan way of doing things. Although it is based on a misunderstanding, that hurts, and the hurt is real.

But everyone has to find their own comfort zone. Those who are adrift in the world can run aground in unexpected places. It is futile to fault Naipaul for embracing a “benign landscape”; or to judge his work by his public provocations and indiscretions, his trampling on nationalist sanctities, his insistence that people and places should be different from what they are. Comfort and encouragement are not Naipaul’s calling. In his work, he made himself naked before his readers. He decided that a writer’s duty is to be wholly honest to himself, without compromise, and to tell the truth as he sees it, never mind the consequences.

Like it or not, that is what he has done.


Quotations are from Naipaul’s books and interviews except where otherwise stated.



1906 Father Seepersad Naipaul born

1913 Mother Droapatie Capildeo born

1932 Born 17 August, Chaguanas, Trinidad (second of 7 children)

1938 Moves to Port of Spain

1944 Queen’s Royal College, Port of Spain

1950 University College, Oxford

1952 Stories broadcast on BBC Caribbean Service; suffers depression

1953 Seepersad Naipaul dies

1953 BA degree in English, Oxford University

1954 Based in London; copywriting for Cement & Concrete Company; part-time work for BBC Caribbean Voices

1955 Marries Patricia Ann Hale

1955 Writing “breakthrough”; Mystic Masseur accepted for publication

1957 John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize for The Mystic Masseur

1957 Began regular book reviewing for New Statesman and other publications

1959 Somerset Maugham Award for Miguel Street

1960 Travel in the Caribbean, South America

1962 Travel in India

1963 Hawthornden Prize for Mr Stone and the Knights Companion

1965/6 Visiting writer, University of East Africa; travel in Rwanda, Zaire

1967 W.H.Smith Award for The Mimic Men

1971 Booker Prize for In a Free State

1971 Settles in Wiltshire, England

1972 New Zealand lecture tour; travel in Argentina

1975 Travel in Zaire

1979 Travel in Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia; Writer in residence, Wesleyan University, Connecticut

1984 Attends Republican Convention, Dallas

1986 T.S.Eliot Award for creative writing

1989 Awarded Trinity Cross (Trinidad and Tobago)

1990 Knighted in Queen’s New Year Honours List

1991 Droapatie Naipaul dies

1993 David Cohen British Literature Prize

1995 Further travel in Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan, Indonesia

1996 First wife Patricia Hale dies (January); marries Nadira Khannum Alvi (April)

2001 Nobel Prize for Literature



1957 The Mystic Masseur

1958 The Suffrage of Elvira

1959 Miguel Street

1961 A House for Mr Biswas

1962 The Middle Passage

1963 Mr Stone and the Knights Companion

1964 An Area of Darkness

1967 A Flag on the Island

1967 The Mimic Men

1969 The Loss of El Dorado

1971 In a Free State

1972 The Overcrowded Barracoon

1975 Guerrillas

1977 India: A Wounded Civilisation

1979 A Bend in the River

1980 The Return of Eva Peron (with The Killings in Trinidad)

1980 Congo Diary (limited edition)

1981 Among the Believers

1984 Finding the Centre

1987 The Enigma of Arrival

1989 A Turn in the South

1990 India: A Million Mutinies Now

1994 A Way in the World

1998 Beyond Belief

1999 Letters Between a Father and Son

2000 On Reading and Writing

2001 Half a Life

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