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Speaking of Naipaul: An Essay

Shane Joseph

I’ve read the works of V.S. Naipaul over the years, beginning with his early hu­morous novels set in the Caribbean, to his journeys of discovery in India and the Middle East, to his post-Nobel efforts that looked rushed and uncaring, and was de­lighted to read Literary Occasions (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003, 195 pages, hardcover, $35.95) that traverses the path of his literary odyssey in his own words. Naipaul’s challenge as a writer is that he came from a disorganized, infighting, plan­tation colony devoid of a strong culture, but was raised in an European literary tradition that reflected historic order and a well es­tablished social and civic life. How could Wordsworth’s literary daffodil be interpreted in Trinidad where such a flower was not to be seen? As a colonial writer myself, I fully understand this dichotomy that isolates, but develops the sharper eye of the ‘outsider’—a vital asset for the writer. Naipaul’s positional conflict leads him, unlike his idol and fellow immigrant writer Joseph Conrad, to try and discover the light and patch together a more complete world, instead of venturing further into the heart of darkness. This quest leads him to England as a student, to a series of poorly-paid jobs in broadcasting and publishing in that coun­try, to writing comic novels about the Trinidad he left behind, to travels in India to discover his ancestral roots, and to writ­ing many travel books about other places on the planet that would, hopefully, reveal the more complete world to him. ‘Half a writer’s work is the discovery of his subject.’ Literary Occasions is a series of essays and forewords from Naipaul’s work (and his father’s), quite repetitious, for they touch on recurring themes: his father, the street he lived on in Trinidad, life in England where the English novels he had read in childhood suddenly came alive, and a character named Bogart who had a profound impact on the young writer. The only relief is that with every subsequent chapter, Naipaul delves deeper into each repeating subject, giving us richer insights than what we have already gleaned. His father, Seepersad, gets the author’s veneration and a lot of airtime in the book. Seepersad was a journalist who married into a rich, landholding, brahmin family in Chaguanas and later worked in Port of Spain. Journalism was polarized at the ...

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