One of the best writers of the finest English prose of our time has just passed on. My first encounter with VS Naipaul (1932-2018) was about two decades ago when I borrowed a millennium edition of his A House for Mr. Biswas (1961) from the British Council Library in Kano. The deceptively beautiful simplicity of the prose was striking. Like Hemingway. Like Achebe. The prose was never over-wrought. The diction was perfect and decisive. He was not susceptible to the urge to pile qualifiers upon qualifiers to generate an atmosphere. The writing was an exemplar of the maxim ‘show, don’t tell’. He had no time time for show-boating. He was an old-fashioned story-teller who obviously believed that pretty prose is no substitute for a good story-line.
Later I learnt he was a bad man – a hater of Arabs, Muslims and Africans, and a self-loathing Anglophile. A man who provided grist to the mill of the unflattering predominant Western discourse of the Orient, Africa and the rest of the Third World. This came out in his travel writing and essays rather than his fiction. I got a dose of this when I read Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981) and the delicious The Masque of Africa (2010). His judgments on Africa, Asia and the Islamic world are impressionistic and sometimes annoyingly superficial. They are of the calibre of journalism rather than well-studied history. These books taste like honey slightly laced with gall. Some medicine to shock us out of our complacency? He tells the ‘truth’ mercilessly, sadistically. He seems to be propelled by an honesty indistinguishable from insensitivity. Not bad if only he always got his facts right and had the sensibility, empathy and generosity needed to truly understand some things.
But even his fiction, the less contentious territory, wasn’t always nearly of Nobel or Booker quality. I recall my impressions when I read Guerillas (1975):
Naipaul’s `Guerillas’, contrary to the effusive blurb, is unremarkable. It reads like geography without an enlivening dose of history, or anatomy in want of some sexing up with physiology. Kai, it’s almost anaemic, and more than occasionally jaundiced.
He was savaged by critics and intellectuals but he didn’t seem to give a damn. He said outrageous and dismissive things about fellow writers without batting an eye-lid. Joyce, Austen and Wole Soyinka didn’t escape his contempt and vitriol. He thought Soyinka did not deserve the Nobel Prize and said it. I heard that he even said Henry James was the worst writer in the world. Imagine!
Finally, no matter your political or ideological inclination, if you are a true lover of great literature, you cannot completely hate Sir Vidia; for he was one of the producers of the best example of world literature.
Written on August 12, 2018