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'The Writer And The World: Essays,' By V.S. Naipaul

Third World journeys deepen Naipaul's humanity

Sunday, September 01, 2002

By John Freeman

Long before travel became a major industry for the Third World, V.S. Naipaul visited India, the Caribbean islands and numerous countries in Africa, reporting on their political upheavals and struggles with modernity.

 
 
"The Writer And The World: Essays"

By V.S. Naipaul.

Knopf. $30.

   
 

In his latest book, Naipaul repackages these pieces into one volume. The result is a profound, bracing meditation on the legacy of the Colonial world.

He has divided his collection into three sections, which deal with India, Africa, and America.

Although this organization buries some of his stronger pieces -- such as a history of Eva Peron's rule -- it provides an opportunity to observe how his attitudes toward the Third World changed over time.

Naipaul's early perceptions of India are vitriolic and scornful. Raised in Trinidad by Indian parents to think of the country as a beautiful place, Naipaul arrives poised for a letdown. The landscape is astonishingly poor and populated by "people grown barbarous, indifferent and self-wounding, who, out of a shallow perception of the world, have no sense of tragedy."

Naipaul's impressions of his home country of Trinidad and the surrounding islands are not much kinder. Writing of the Caribbean in 1970, he said "... island blacks will continue to be dependent on the books, films and goods of others; in this important way, they will continue to be the half-made societies of a dependent people, the Third World's third world. They will forever consume; they will never create."

Although he professed to make such trips to "discover other states of mind," there is what John Updike once called a "pained partial recognition" in each of these pieces, as if Naipaul were discovering hidden parts of himself in each trip.

After all, by the time he began to travel with zest, Naipaul had become one of those travelers he detests -- a person with a round-trip ticket to a place in turmoil, someone who can return home to some place posh and safe.

The best pieces reveal Naipaul learning something new from a situation, rather than imposing himself and his preconceived notions into it.

"Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad" brilliantly captures the difficulty of importing foreign ideologies into developing societies.

In "The Air Conditioned Bubble," Naipaul travels to Dallas for the 1984 Republican National Convention, discovering a tribal religiosity to its pomp and circumstance.

Given Naipaul's fictional output, it's somewhat astonishing that he had time to visit such a wide array of societies. But it also makes a certain kind of sense. What has distinguished Naipaul's work over time is its desire to capture the absurdities of history while engaging the people it afflicts.

Not surprisingly, as this collection deepens, Naipaul's perceptions hone in on the people he writes about, not just their conditions. His writing grows less shrill, and he begins to see the world through eyes possessed of a noble clarity.

John Freeman is a free-lance writer in New York.

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