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Complicated traveler
V.S. Naipaulís restless sojourns
BY RICHARD C. WALLS

The Writer and the World
By V.S. Naipaul. Knopf, 544 pages, $30.


" I travel to discover other states of mind. " writes V.S. Naipaul in " The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro " (1982-í83), a longish piece of reportage on the post-colonial Ivory Coast thatís typically trenchant though not unsympathetic. " And if for this intellectual adventure I go to places where people live restricted lives, it is because my curiosity is still dictated in part by my Colonial Trinidad background. I go to places which, however alien, connect in some way with what I already know. " To judge by this collection of 20 essays from the last 40 years, what Naipaul already knows is that the world ó and not just the post-colonial world ó is lacking in substance, is full of deceit and illusion. What he continually discovers, whether on the poor and neglected island of Mauritius or at the moneyed rituals of the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, is activity against a backdrop of emptiness, diversions attempting to fill a vast vacancy that is intellectual, cultural, spiritual, and moral.

The book is divided into three sections: " India, " " Africa and the Diaspora, " and " American Occasions. " India, Naipaulís ancestral home, is an ongoing obsession, a place to which he keeps going back to prod and probe and find wanting. By the time of " A Second Visit " (1967), the exasperation level is high and the insights read like a series of insults: " There is no tragedy. There is, as perhaps there always has been, drabness. " " To see mysteriousness is to excuse the intellectual failure or ignore it . . . it is to deal with Bengal Lancer romance or Passage to India quaintness . . .  " " Every discipline, skill and proclaimed ideal of the modern Indian state is a copy of something that is known to exist in its true form somewhere else. " " India possesses only its unexamined past and its pathetic spirituality. . . . India is simple; the West grows wiser. " This is a familiar aspect of Naipaulís complicated personality, the scathing proclaimer who heaps acerbic judgments on post-colonial hollowness.

In the second section, the high dudgeon is more often tempered by irony. " Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad: Peace and Power " (1973) is the saga of a Malcolm X wanna-be whose delusions of relevance become a self-consuming folly. " The Overcrowded Barracoon " (1972), the calmest of the angry pieces here, makes its most effective indictments indirectly, detailing the lives of a few of Mauritiusís struggling inhabitants. And whereas the idiocy of nations makes Naipaul tersely wrathful, the forlorn tedium of poor people trying to get by can provoke poetic passages like this description of a young motherís household inventory: " So the girl bought a loaf and some chutney for eleven cents ó that loaf there ó and brought back the change, fourteen cents, there, on the table, next to the tin of Nivea Creme, the broken comb, the worn powder puff, the half-filled bottle of Cologne Imperiale (a gift to the baby from the hospital nurse), the rubber dummy, and a pencil. Possessions. "

Finally, the American section has the famous " Argentina and the Ghost of Eva Perón " (1972-í91), with its appreciative aside on Jorge Luis Borges, whose jokes and puzzles he finds " addictive, " as well as pieces on Columbus, Steinbeck, and Norman Mailerís quixotic bid to become mayor of NYC, a city with areas that remind him of " Calcutta, with money. " With the Republican National Convention piece Naipaul finds himself back among the egregiously benighted, though now, perhaps because his subjects are well-off and secure, the tone is decidedly whimsical. How else to deal with one of Texas billionaire Nelson Bunker Huntís mass barbecues, the various crackpot evangelicals and pols, and the ghostly figure of the once vital Eldridge Cleaver?

" Itís a writerís curiosity rather than an ethnographerís or journalistís, " Naipaul continues in the " The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro. " " The intellectual adventure is also a human one: I can move only according to my sympathy; there is no spokesman I have to see, no one I absolutely must interview. " No doubt, but thereís also an abiding dissatisfaction with the way things have already been described, interpreted, and nailed down. And once you get past the anger that accompanies the ripping apart of preconceptions, thereís a large but not unlimited empathy for human foibles and an energetic desire to describe things he has seen. Which is what makes Naipaul a valuable writer.

Issue Date: September 5 - 12, 2002
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