Worlds within a self: V. S. Naipaul and modernity

Helen Hayward in TLS:

V. S. Naipaul’s work speaks eloquently to the contemporary world. His focus is on migration and displacement, and his abiding theme is “the great movement of peoples in the second half of the twentieth century”. Naipaul is ripe for reassessment now that work can be seen as a whole, following his death in 2018 – and time has only made his legacy clearer. Moreover, Naipaul is no longer around to stir up controversy with outrageous statements in interviews – a form of deliberate provocation that George Lamming likened to carnival masquerading.

Naipaul was born in 1932 in rural Trinidad; a scholarship enabled him to study in Oxford, and so his life followed the trajectory to which Sanjay Krishnan’s subtitle alludes. Krishnan constructs a narrative out of Naipaul’s oeuvre, making it the story of postcolonial societies undergoing the disorientating transition to modernity, with Naipaul’s own life providing the starting point: his subject is “the worlds I contained within myself”. Naipaul works through this modern disorientation, Krishnan contends, in order to consider how formerly subject peoples can hope to understand their predicament and reshape their lives.

At the beginning of his writing life, in the 1950s, reaching an understanding of such historical forces constituted an innovation, Krishnan suggests, and it involved trying to see the postcolonial world as a globalized whole. Yet Naipaul is more interested in self-examination than in ideas of resistance and of cultural hybridity celebrated by postcolonial critics – which is part of the reason he has excited controversy, if not opprobrium. Krishnan notes that Naipaul writes frankly about racist feelings in the context of the ethnic hostilities unleashed by decolonization, in his efforts to understand the forces that shaped him. The problem is that Naipaul’s expressions of outrage at postcolonial racism risk echoing the language of the racism he condemns. His critics denounce him for peddling damaging stereotypes about the formerly colonized and their inability to govern themselves, and Krishnan at times finds himself writing in the guise of Naipaul’s advocate, taking issue with these detractors, despite his claims not to seek to defend him.

More here.