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Trinidad & Tobago: The Enigma of V.S. Naipaul

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Sir V.S. Naipaul reading in Trinidad – image courtesy caribbeanfreephoto.

He is the single most gifted and important writer ever produced by Trinidad and Tobago, and, arguably, the English-speaking Caribbean, having written such classics as A House for Mr Biswas, A Bend in the River, and The Enigma of Arrival. He is also the most controversial writer to have come out of the Caribbean.

Recently, Nobel-prize-winning author Sir VS Naipaul paid a visit to Trinidad and Tobago, the country of his birth, the place from which he migrated as a young man to England, where he has lived ever since. He was in Trinidad as a guest of the University of the West Indies for a week of celebrations (April 16 to 20) in honour of the 75th year of his birth.

Naipaul has an infamously tortured relationship with Trinidad, and this visit was his first official visit in over 15 years. It was also his first official visit since winning the Nobel Prize in 2001. Yet despite this, and the extensive media coverage, the Trinidadian blogosphere was fairly quiet over Sir Vidia’s return.

Those who did blog had mixed feelings about the visit, and in particular, the actions of Naipaul’s wife, Lady Nadira Naipaul. Georgia Popplewell, writing at Caribbean Free Radio, thought the “Evening of Appreciation” held on April 18 was a “near-disaster”, yet went on the 20th to hear Naipaul read and sign his books. She was impressed by the reading:

Naipaul’s reading style isn’t particularly good, in the classic sense, but his stilted, slightly quaint delivery is oddly effective, and easy on the ear. Even his attempts at reading the Trinidadian dialect which he rendered so adeptly in his early novels — and which is clearly now so alien to him — worked, after their own manner. It was also remarked by at least one member of my party that Half A Life [one of Naipaul’s more recent novels] sounds better read aloud.

But then the book-signing left a bitter taste in her mouth:

When the reading was over, Lady Naipaul leapt to the front of the stage and assumed command of the proceedings. “The book signing begins now!” she announced. “Form a queue. And only new books will be signed. That is the form.”

What form was this? we wondered. My heart went out to the throngs clutching their well-thumbed copies of early Naipaul novels and first editions which, on being subjected to the newness test by an advance guard comprising Naipaul’s agent, Gillon Aitken, and Lady Naipaul’s daughter, Maliha, were deemed too old for signing, and turned away.

Over at Trinidad Media Arts & Culture, Raymond Ramcharitar also remarked on Lady Naipaul’s handling of the book-signing, after what was an obviously enjoyable reading, both for Naipaul and the audience:

[T]he crowd of about two thousand, who had surged out of their seats, bore down on [Naipaul] to sign their books at UWI’s Sport and Physical Education Centre on Friday 20, and Mrs Naipaul’s voice rang out: “No old books, please. Only new books.” I’m not sure if she said “please”, but it killed the moment. Vidia had read from Miguel Street, displaying what sounded and looked like a few minutes of unforced happiness—a real treat from a man whose favourite adjectives to describe his process include “painful” and “exhausting”.

Jeremy Taylor, meanwhile, gave the “Naipaul circus” a very wide berth. He wondered why Naipaul bothered to accept the invitation to come to Trinidad in the first place:

Why did he fall for it, I wonder, given his well-known disdain for his once-native land? Does he secretly crave reconciliation, a prophet finally honoured in his own country? He can't need the money, surely. Or the dubious glory and attention. It can only be that he enjoys performing.

And he is surprised that other people were surprised by Naipaul’s often boorish behaviour during his visit:

[A]nyone who knows anything about Naipaul — which should surely include Trinidad's literati, academics and literature teachers — should have known what role the great man most likes to play. Oscar the Grouch has nothing on the old Naipaul. Once he was asked by an interviewer what the little coloured dot means on a Hindu woman's forehead, and he replied that it means her head is empty.

Finally, yours truly had only one observation to make about the whole affair. It concerned the answer Naipaul gave to a reporter’s question. When asked about the hardships he had to suffer during his career, Sir Vidia replied that he regretted nothing, and that he would do it all over again. A newspaper headline the next day proclaimed: “Naipaul vows: Despite hardships, I’ll do it again”, which prompted me to ask:

He will do it again? At the age of 75? That's going to take some doing. Or perhaps they think he'll do it in his next life. What with Naipaul's cozying up to the religion of his birth in recent years, maybe they think he believes in reincarnation?

Which makes one think: if the oldest daily newspaper still in existence in Trinidad and Tobago can make such an error in a headline, is it surprising if Naipaul has nothing but contempt for the land of his birth?

3 comments

  • You missed one blog reaction to VSN’s visit, Jonathan, if it’s not too self-serving of me to point it out: over at Antilles, the newly launched blog of The Caribbean Review of Books, we posted a note from writer Anu Lakhan, who mused about wanting to ask Naipaul about his cat Augustus, and the fact that “the work is so much more than the man”.

  • L. Caplideo

    Naipaul , like many very bright people, does not suffer fools gladly.
    I thought that his manner was affable, even avuncular on the two evenings that I saw him.
    He said that his books are a sum total of his life…
    So when we have read them what is there left to ask?
    Yet I feel the right questions could have brought him out more.
    The disatrous schoolchildren incident was amazing.Could the teachers not get together with their students and prepare some meaningful questions to enlighten about the man’s work?
    Everyone was screaming about his outburst but I wonder if it were not Naipaul but a foreign Nobel Laurate whether the approach and reaction would have been different.
    I think that generally people love to hate VSN.
    I am not saying that he is not irascible but considering this, I think he was amazingly moderate.
    Now The Lady…that is a horse of a different colour….

  • […] More Naipauliana It’s nearly a month since V.S. Naipaul left Trinidad, but his high profile, high-controversy visit is still a topic of avid conversation (and disagreement). Just yesterday, the Trinidad Guardian […]

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