Half A Life
by V. S. Naipaul
Vintage 2001, $13.00
Naipaul has always been a hero of mine, so I'm going to use this review of his latest novel to offer him a general homage, discussing the novel itself only briefly. But now that I try to do it, I realize that praising Naipaul is not so easy. He's easy to hate, admire, or accuse; but not easy to praise -- because as well as a Promethean hero and literary giant, the man is a specimen of pure cruelty, a bigot, and a shameful grovellor who spent the 90s crawling after the Nobel Prize. In his shameless Nobel-begging campaign (he finally got it), Naipaul soiled whatever honor he had left by touring the non-white world for years, trying to show everyone that he had become "compassionate" and no longer hated blacks as Derek Walcot said. Even the Swedes were ashamed of his pleading, his Gollum-whine: "Preciousss, we likes the Nobel Prize, we will not kill for the Nobel Prize, but we will makes sure we is photographed weeping beside every person of color we drags out of a hut and sends the photos to the Swedish Academy, O Preciousss."
But for every mark of Satan he carries, Naipaul also wears emblems of saintliness. For one thing, Paul Theroux hates Naipaul so much he wrote a whole book, Sir Vidia's Shadow, about how good and kind he (Theroux) was and how bad and cruel he (Naipaul) was. And if you ask me, anybody who causes the pig Theroux that much pain wears a halo ever after.
His cruelty is the obvious beginning. It's very Anglo-Indian (very unAmerican, that is): savage, nervous about its place in the world, trained in family mockery. Like Saki, in many ways; Saki the Anglo-Indian anti-Christian, Nietzsche shrunk to a croquet lawn, a worshipper of cruelty.
(I've always thought Naipaul's real name is"Sredni Vashtar," the honorific with which the hero of Saki's story christens a ferocious, giant weasel he keeps hidden in a shed. "Sredni Vashtar" -- those ersatz Indian syllables bestowed on a giant weasel-if that's not Naipaul's true, Platonic name, then I'm a Hindoo.)
Naipaul was not one of your kindly writers, not someone it paid to meet. If you did meet him, you would be wise never to speak or make any gesture. If you did, he would happily eat your soul, stuff it into his novel-making meatgrinder. Naipaul's friends -- they thought they were, anyway -- learned this the hard way.
But there are a lot of writers as ruthless and diligent as Naipaul in that way. Mary McCarthy, they say, spent her life listening for, recording and parodying her friends' verbal missteps. But her malice doesn't amount to much any more, because she was recording the sins of people whose stupidities don't matter any more.
Naipaul's people matter very much, matter more every year. He was right where the world was being born: the Third, or Brown, World at the beginning of the UNICEF era. It must amaze Naipaul that his starting point turned out to be central, when McCarthy's Manhattan turned out to be the sticks, Nowheresville, the periphery. Because it very definitely didn't seem that way to the young Mr. Naipaul, growing up in Trinidad -- a place that never had, and never would matter. In Trinidad, as Naipaul said later, there were exactly 60 jobs. And even Trinidad, that miserable sweatbox, wasn't his. Trinidad had been the property of the whites, but in Naipaul's youth it was clearly passing to the blacks. Naipaul, a brown, whitecollar Indian, wasn't going to be in on the inheritance and knew it very well. He hated the black boys, big and muscular, who beat him up, who scared him. It's the truth; let's face it. He has been called a racist, and he is one. It isn't hard to spot; Guerrillas, his cruelest book, oozes hate for Michael X and all the other big black boys who played the dashing militant but were just big bullies after all.