The Writer And The World, by V.S. Naipaul
This is not a bad collection of essays. To be sure, this book is not as good as it thinks it is, but this a common problem. Naipaul as a writer is someone who was very certainly overpraised, seeing as he approached life with a solemn air, had a fondness for making everything political and in having a certain strident sort of leftist political perspective that plays well among cosmopolitans who think themselves above tradition and above arrogance. There are few so unrighteous and arrogant as those who think themselves to be above arrogance, who look down on Christianity and religion in general but think themselves to be united across borders and across boundaries in love. The fact that the author is a hypocrite with little taste for irony, largely because he takes himself too seriously, does detract considerably from the message he is trying to get across. Yet the author’s fondness for victim tales and his extreme self-seriousness and lack of a sense of the absurdity of life or of his own flaws that prevent him from making the world a better place than he found it, while they do detract some from the enjoyment of this work, provide a separate level of enjoyment for those who are fond of absurdity and irony, and that is enjoyment enough to make aspects of this work worth reading, even if the book as a whole is a bit of a slog.
This book is a hefty one at more than 500 pages, and a book with this much physical weight and mass deserves to show some sort of progress in the mind of the person who traveled and wrote without seeming to see what was going on, making the praise that the author has received from the intellectual world somewhat strange, as if they could not see his blind spots because they mirrored their own. The first part of this book contains some essays on India, and these predictably discuss matters of politics and the author’s own background, most notably in “The Election In Ajmer,” where the author is one of several people whose political insights are limited. The second part of the section looks at Africa and the African diaspora, where he comments on the black power killings in Trinidad, Mobuto as King of the Congo, examines the crocodiles of the artificial capital Yamoussoukro along with some trenchant observations about the fate of black West Indians who return to Africa as wives of native African men, as well as the economic troubles of Mauritus. The third and final section of the book then explores America, including the author’s experiences with Norman Mailer, some criticism of Europeans and the nature of power, the author’s lack of respect for the Republicans in the 1984 convention, a clueless look at the crisis of Grenada, and the author’s thinking of the revolution in Guyana, after which there is a postscript on the author’s universalist thinking, and an index.
One of the more tragic aspects of this book is the way that the author does not appear to have learned very much about the problems of leftist politics over the course of decades as a writer. Over and over again the author goes to a country and explores its politics and writes as if things will be different this time, as if one could follow the idiocy of socialism and end up with anything other than a disaster for one’s country. While it is no doubt true that the author’s status as a fellow traveler of sorts made it easy for him to go to places like Granada and the Ivory Coast and Congo, he appears not to have come to any insights about why it is that socialism fails and why it is that intellectuals like himself make such terrible rulers. It is one thing for a writer like this to fail to appreciate the wit of a Jane Austen. That is, while lamentable, certainly easy enough to understand. What is unpardonable in a book like this composed of political essays is that the author cannot apparently recognize the insights of a George Orwell, whose directness and honesty would have given the author insights that he could not learn from decades at watching the failure of nations and blaming neocolonialism for the failure of the political systems he held so dear.