Critical Digressions: The Naipaulian Imperative and the Phenomenon of the Post-National

Ladies and gentlemen,

Naipaul Naipaul is brilliant. Indeed, he is one of the finest writers the 20th century has produced. His book covers are often embellished with the following blandishment: “For sheer abundance of talent there can hardly be a writer alive who surpasses V.S. Naipaul.” We agree. His early comedies – Suffrage of Elvira, Miguel Street, and The Suffrage of Elvira – are perceptive, compassionate, even Narayanesque, evoking, reifying a distant, eccentric island – a world populated by real, colorful characters. The culmination of the early period of his career is in A House for Biswas, which, according to James Wood, issued the most enduring literary character in post-WWII fiction. Subsequently, his superb, dark, Conradian novels that include Mimic Men, Guerillas, and A Bend in the River depict seismic shifts in the short history of the “Third World” like few others before him.

But Naipaul’s prose is not the issue. It’s his politics and persona. In a way, Naipaul has not published a book worth the page it’s printed on since 1979, since A Bend in the River, when he almost exclusively pursued “travel writing,” an ill-defined genre, neither fiction nor autobiography, neither journalism not sociology. In a review of Among the Believers, for instance, Fouad Ajami avers,

“…one gets the distinct feeling of superficiality in this book. Of the holy city of Qom, Naipaul writes: ‘Qom’s life remained hidden.’ It is probably fair to say that much of the territory he covered remained hidden to him. The places he went to confused and eluded him, denied him entry. He was in a hurry; he wanted to see ‘Islam in action.’ But the people he wanted to comprehend were ambiguous and guarded, and under no obligation to reveal themselves to a traveler. Inside the large international hotels, visitors came to talk with him, but his questions frequently seem rigged and their answers canned.”

As Naipaul once said, “We read to find out what we already know.”

In fact, over the years Naipaul has fancied and fashioned himself into what can be best described as a “post-national,” a native so progressive that he can scrutinize himself, his society, and context without prejudice. It seems that Naipaul believes that he has progressed, evolved, by stepping on to an airplane. It’s as if he is awed by order: light-switches that function; taps that pour water; well-stocked grocery stores that carry eight varieties of jam; and clean streets that lead to well-lit avenues and those to broad highways. He’s become civilized by moving from here to there, by severing ties with his past, and consequently, he can claim citizenship of the world.

Yet he is a bigot. Of the bindi that adorns the forehead of married Indian women, Naipaul once said, “The dot means: My head is empty.” Naipaul vitriol for Africa and Africans is spectacular. “This place is full of buggers”; “Do you hear those bitches and their bongos?” Mel Gussow notes, “About the influx of Jamaicans into England, he suggested in an article that one way to decrease immigration would be to increase the importation of bananas. His much quoted line was: ‘a Banana a day will keep the Jamaican away.’” Naipaul has managed to package condescension as objectivity.

Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul’s pathology intrigues us endlessly. Both post-national and bigot, his persona remains entirely parochial. In Sir Vidia’s Shadow, his one time friend Paul Theroux comments,

“…[Naipaul] behaved like an upper-caste Indian. And Vidia often assumed the insufferable do-you-know-who-I-am posturing of a particular kind of Indian bureaucrat, which is always a sign of inferiority. It had taken me a long time to understand that Vidia was not in any sense English, not even Anglicized, but Indian to the core – caste conscious, race conscious, a food fanatic, precious in his fears from worrying about the body being ‘tainted.’ Because he was an Indian from the West Indies – defensive, feeling his culture was under siege – his attitudes approached the level of self-parody.”

Recently, old man Naipaul has come full circle, officially reclaiming his heritage by associating himself with the BJP, the Hindu chauvinist party in Indian politics. None other than Rushdie castigated him for being a “cheerleader for the [BJP].” He added, “When Naipaul writes articles that the BJP can use as recruiting material, it’s a problem.”

Rushdie Naipaul is, in a way, a bastard, spawned of disparate narratives, a byproduct of the postcolonial world. He’s uncomfortable here and there, in his native Trinidad and his adopted country, Great Britain: “Indian by descent, Trinidadian by birth, a Briton by citizenship…He has lived in all three societies, and…has bitter feelings about them all: India is unwashed, Trinidad is unlearned, England is intellectually and culturally bankrupt.” Indeed he has become a sort of archetype, a variety of insider who has adopted the outsider’s methodology and worldview and consequently can corroborate the outsider’s perception of the inside. Strangely and sadly, Fouad Ajami, the brilliant author of the Vanished Imam and one time friend of Edward Saeed, typifies this variety. (It should be noted there are many insiders who are not Naipaulian: Walcott, Mahfouz, Marquez, Coetzee.)

More recently, a character named Hussain Haqqani has joined the Naipaulian ranks. Haqqani, though, is no Naipaul; he’s neither bigoted nor brilliant. Known in Pakistan as a charming, slippery, has-been politician, Haqqani – since he stepped on an airplane – has reinvented himself as pundit in the DC think-tank community. Indeed, amongst the multitude of politicians that populate the political landscape, Haqqani has the singular distinction of having served every major political party: he began his career as student leader of the Jama’at – the fundamentalist party – then served both Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, before being dispatched as ambassador to Sri Lanka. Arguably, he possesses the requisite insider’s perspective. He also possesses an eagerness to please. Consequently, Haqqani has been championed not only by Thomas Friedman but by the unsavory Daniel Pipes, as a man who “speaks the truth” (a questionable blandishment, especially as Friedman suggests that “Every quarter, the State Department should identify the Top 10…truth tellers in the world”). Accolades by one are rare and by both, rarer.

AjamiHaqqani’s first book, the alliteratively titled, Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military, has recently been published. To be fair, the book is more substantive than another dissident’s, Hassan Abbas’ horribly written, anecdotal (and alliteratively titled), Allah, The Army and American War on Terror (which apparently is on “the bestseller list in India, where newspapers have carried some of its juiciest tales, but it’s harder to find in Cambridge, where Abbas is a visiting scholar”), but it reads something like Stephen Cohen’s mostly facile, alarmist, (and ambitiously titled), The Idea of Pakistan.

(It’s important to note here that are some intelligent commentators on Pakistan’s politics and history on the inside and outside including the late sociologist Hamza Alvi, Aeysha Jalal, the MacArthur award-winning professor at Tufts; Shahid Javed Burki, an economist; Washington Post correspondent Kamran Khan; BBC’s Pakistan correspondents, Owen Bennett Jones, Zafar Abbas, and Paul Anderson; ex-CIA station chief to Pakistan, Milt Beardon; and possibly, ex-US ambassador to Pakistan, Robert Milam.)

Haqqani’s analysis is reductive and binary as he largely absolves the political establishment of the mismanagement of Pakistan. As Fareed Zakaria points out, democracy and liberalism (or progress, for that matter) are not the same thing. Furthermore, Haqqani uses such constructions as, “if Pakistan had proceeded along the path of normal political and economic development,” which makes us wonder what country is normal, what his comparables are (Argentina? Turkey? South Korea? Malaysia? China? Nigeria? America?), and why his book is hinged on the claim that Pakistan is in some way abnormal. This is the stuff of poor analysis.

Finally and most importantly, Haqqani, like his peers, ignores certain defining characteristics of contemporary Pakistan: the robust economic growth of 8.3% – the third fastest in Asia – has empowered the urban middle class, a class most susceptible to religious recruitment; Musharraf’s startlingly open media policy – not only the freest in the Muslim world but also among countries like Russia or India – which, over a period of three years, has produced a seismic shift in public discourse on matters as varied and previously taboo as the ’71 War or sex; the inability of radical or Deobandi Islam to change the accommodative Barelvi personality of rural Pakistan. Of course, these powerful “counter-mosque” dynamics in contemporary Pakistan do not concern Haqqani as his book’s trajectory is historic. There’s nothing new in it. In that case, his take on history is about as valid as ours. As Naipaul said, “We read to find out what we already know.”