This latest offering by V. S. Naipaul provides the reader with his intimate views of the people who have influenced him in the course of his writing. With more than twenty insightful books under his belt, and a Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, he is at an appropriate juncture in his life to pen something on such a theme.
Alas, the writer who created a new vision of travel writing – some would say even an entirely new kind of writing itself when it came to the portrayal of colonized societies – is unable to extend his keen analysis and insight to reviewing and assessing the literary contributions of his contemporaries and predecessors. In its numerous contradictions, the book reveals more about Naipaul himself, both directly and indirectly, than it does about other writers.
Consider, for instance, his lament early on in the book about his own lack of family history: "I know my father and my mother but beyond that I cannot go. My ancestry is blurred." And he writes of how he "grieves for that lack." Towards the end of the book, while assessing the literature of the subcontinent, he complains that "every Indian who looks within himself finds the matter for a family story, with great characters, daddyji and mamaji and nanee and chacha against a background of the extended Indian family." He chooses here to selectively focus on a large number of expatriate writings that were being published by Penguin India some years ago, ignoring other magnificent Indian writing that is not so family centric. It would seem he has some pent up anger on this score since this possibility of speaking of an illustrious family background is denied him.
When Naipaul accuses Indian novelists of being too family-centric in their themes, he ironically allows himself to fall victim to the same malaise, though to a more limited extent. While acknowledging that his father’s final literary output was fairly meagre, Naipaul’s attachment to his parent, even "father fixation" of sorts, reveals itself when he speaks of how the writings of his father, published in the West and later in India, met with a poor response. He blames India for not having responded favourably to the writings of his father by claiming that his father was a literary pioneer of sorts but that "India will never wish to know its history, literary or otherwise, and no one else will."
The new reflective tone in this book suggests that some of the sharpness and combativeness of his early writing sustained itself by turning a blind eye to contrary facts; however, albeit indirectly, it is a measure of Naipaul’s honesty as a writer that he now acknowledges this. Thus, in An Area of Darkness, an early book about India, he had belittled Gandhi’s autobiography My Experiments With Truth, pointing out how Gandhi never wrote anything about the British or South African landscape, the buildings, the atmosphere of the times, but appeared to be merely steeped in his studies while occasionally experimenting with vegetarianism, dancing and elocution. Now, in this book, he reveals how Gandhi’s book has actually fascinated him.
In an interview given by Naipaul to the writer Farokh Dhondy (subsequent to the publication of this book) he mentions how he considered the French writer Maupassant to be a true genius, and rated Flaubert as vastly inferior in comparison. Yet, in this book, one chapter is substantially devoted to a harsh criticism of Flaubert as a representative of European literature, but Maupassant finds mention in scarcely a paragraph.
Writing of Anthony Powell, the British novelist, who was also a long-standing and close friend, he confesses that he never once bothered to read any of his books, simply presuming them to be well-written. By a strange irony, Naipaul starts to read the books after Powell's death. Furthermore, he only does so because the editor of a newspaper approaches him to write something about his friend (their friendship was well known). What follows is truly bizarre, for irony upon irony, when Naipaul starts to read Powell, he discovers to his horror that there is hardly anything he likes. He is forced to confess that had he but read Powell earlier, while his friend was still alive, it might have irrevocably marred their friendship!
Naipaul is now aware that it is the conflicts within him that prevent him from finding that elusive balance. Approaching old age has perhaps contributed to his wish to strike a more balanced and new, less combative tone. There is even somewhere in this book an indication of a spiritual quest.
It is hard for this reviewer to be too harsh on V. S. Naipaul. In many respects the book reads like a confessional. He writes of how he never had a sense of poetry and how he could not appreciate Greene’s The Quiet American because he hadn’t bothered to keep abreast of world politics. There is much lashing out in this book, which any one familiar with his works can expect from Sir Vidia, but there is also a strange and new kind of humility that one finds here. It is as if he needed the final accolade of the Nobel Prize to allow this humble side of his personality to surface, and is now telling himself: You have achieved enough to now confess your weaknesses and limitations. No one will now be able to take away from you what you have already achieved.