V.S. Naipaul is probably one of the most controversial and offensive Caribbean writers that literary fiction has to offer. In fact, just last month he declared to the Guardian that there are no women writers that he considers his match.
The author, who was born in Trinidad, said this was because of women’s "sentimentality, the narrow view of the world". "And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too," he said. (Guardian)
Then there is that time, several years ago, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize and never made any mention of the land of his birth, Trinidad. And then there was that time when he returned to Trinidad and did a reading at a high school, and stopped the students’ questioning, telling them that their questions were trivial and that this proves that literature is not for children. Then, of course, there are all those negative representations of the Caribbean in his works. In short, he makes it very difficult for people to actually like him.
However, he along with the likes of Derek Walcott, who doesn’t like him either and actually wrote disparaging poem about him, are some the few writers responsible for shaping the Caribbean identity, a major theme in Caribbean literature. It’s a major theme because, for the most part, the Caribbean has been shaped by Asiatic Indenture-ship, the trans-Atlantic slave trade and European settlement. There are few people, if any at all, left that are indigenous to this region. Sometimes I get the sense that when a Caribbean person asks the question “Who am I?”, it’s not entirely an abstract one. And now on to the Mimic Men!
A disgraced colonial politician from the fictitious island of Isabella, Ralph Singh, sits at a writing desk in an English hotel composing his ‘political memoirs’, oscillating between England and his former home land, Isabella. The story begins presenting Singh as a promiscuous Oxford student preying on other ‘tourists’, seeing the language barrier as a plus. This is until he meets Sandra, an English girl, and a recent University dropout. Sandra comes from humble beginnings, but she despises her origins, and tries to sever ties with her past and roots. From there on the story recounts his failed marriage with Sandra, his issues with social class and his need to escape the island , and an explosive political career that ends dramatically, forcing him to leave Isabella for the last time.
In a sense, Singh is a lot like Sandra. He attempts to do the same thing. He tries to cut ties, but what ties does he really have? And if he does cut them, what does he have left? From the very beginning it is clear that the protagonist is of the opinion that people are only what other people think they are. I can almost see the look of utter disgust on Sartre’s face. He is always just playing a role, and it all begins at school in Isabella when he changes his name. There is sense of emptiness, when he speaks about certain aspects of his life taking place within a ‘parenthesis”. This is seen in repeated slogans, in the maintaining anachronistic symbols, and the lack of basic central notion of who he is.
The novel is well written, which probably is why he won the W.H. Smith Award for it in 1968. I always enjoy a good satire, but to be totally honest I was starting to get tired of the narrator’s inflated vision of himself. I found that the character had this amazing capacity to vindicate himself regardless of the situation and if he does admit fault, it is done such a way as to solicit sympathy. I got the sense that Naipaul was trying to paint his character in sympathetic light, and while I know that the character cannot be held accountable for the for the damaging effect that colonialism would have had his development, I found it hard to sympathize with him. I preferred the character when he was cruel, but when he started whining, I found myself getting bored…I don’t really know what that says about me as person…oh well.
Be sure to check back next week Sunday for another Classics Corner post.
Image Credit for author photo: New York Times