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Man without a country
V.S. Naipaulís Nobel tour

BY JON GARELICK

I STAND FOR no country," was V.S. Naipaulís apparently bewildered response to the representative of the Nobel committee who called last month to inform him that heíd won the 2001 prize for literature. Naipaul ó born of Hindu-Indian parents in Trinidad, then educated at Oxford and a resident of England ever since ó has long spoken of the displaced and dispossessed. In his first great masterwork, A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), he portrayed his familyís life in Trinidad, and since then heís charted life in the postcolonial world. His fiction has traveled to Africa (In a Free State, 1971; A Bend in the River, 1979) and the Caribbean (Guerillas, 1975). Two major nonfiction works, Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981) and its sequel, Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples (1998), are suddenly more relevant than ever. His 25th book, the novel Half a Life, gathers together all his themes and echoes his own life in that of Willie Chandran, a young man who travels from India to London in the í50s, writes radio scripts, writes a book of stories, then meets a Portuguese-African woman named Ana, with whom he moves to Africa and spends the next 18 years. The book ends with Willie ready to move on, alone.

Earlier in the month, Naipaul took what amounted to a Nobel victory tour of the US in support of Half a Life. For a couple of days, he was everywhere in Boston ó reading at the Boston Public Library, being interviewed on The David Brudnoy Show and The Connection. Listeners grew accustomed to his soft Oxford accent and radio-trained delivery, and his careful, deliberate answers. We caught up with Naipaul on the phone from a hotel room at the Miami Book Fair as he prepared to return to England. The author tends to greet questions with an eager, reflexive "yes, yes, yes" before answering, always ready to elaborate on the question youíve asked ó and the question you havenít.

Q: My impression from reading you is that youíre a solitary man, but you actually seem to enjoy reading to an audience ó you seem to enjoy performing your work.

A: Yes, yes, yes, yes. And you want to know the origin of that?

Q: Well, sure; that would be good.

A: When I was very young and quite desperate, I got a job ó a part-time contract job doing a literary program for the BBC colonial circuit. The program was called Caribbean Voices. At the time it was quite a famous program. I edited and presented the program once a week. I got just about eight pounds a week for that program. So I needed to make more money. And I would do scripts for other radio services. And I often, in those programs, had to act with actors. Real professional actors, who, by their presence on the radio, made life very hard for me. So I had to learn to match them in authority ...

Q: You do seem to enjoy reading your work aloud.

A: The thing is, as a result of my radio training, all my writing has been done for the spoken voice. In the early days, everything I wrote I would read out to my wife at the end of the day. And even little corrections I would read out to her. So the writing has the quality of speech. Itís really meant to be spoken. So thereís no trouble for me in that.

Q: Is there pleasure as well for you in reading to an audience?

A: If the audience is good and responsive and they like the jokes, then itís marvelous.

Q: In your new short-essay book, Reading and Writing, you talk about how important the cinema was to you.

A: I think without the movies I would have died. They kept me alive emotionally, they kept me alive in fantasy. It is very hard for people nowadays to understand the pleasure that we, of that earlier time, took in the movies. Most hypnotic experiences! And now when I look at the old films on the video, I see how extraordinarily well made they were. How swift, how well written, how beautiful the sets were made, and the lighting ... fabulous! All the rich tones which you get in black and white.

Now all of that I lived for. I got much more out of that than from books. Youíve been reading that piece [Reading and Writing], and you will see that because of my background I couldnít connect with, yíknow, the novels in the library and things like that. Novels of English society or other societies, far away from my own, which I couldnít enter into. Whereas in that period the American cinema had a universality, there was an intellectual content in the films, and great social concern. That is probably why Iím a little bit out of sympathy with the cinema nowadays. Itís a jokey, tricky, technical thing full of technical exhibitionism.

Q: And do you still go back to older movies to review them on video?

A: Yes, I wrote a long book, I finished it about 1997, Beyond Belief, and for many months after that I did nothing but look at old films. I went to the video shops and borrowed and looked and looked and looked. That was a great experience, too. I actually think the movies in the 20th century were much more important as a forum for shaping peopleís feelings and educating people than literature.

Q: What are some of your favorite movies?

A: I must say High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino. My God, Iíve seen it so often, it is my favorite film! I used to look at the Russians. I used to look at Detsvo Gorkovo/The Childhood of Maxim Gorky, but I canít get that on video, so I canít bring a mature judgment to bear on it. I used to adore, of course, Laurence Olivierís Henry V. But again I havenít looked at that recently. There was one British film, with James Mason, called Odd Man Out, set in Belfast. I think I saw that five or six times. A dark film, set at night, lots of lights and darks, lots of shadows.

Q: Can you talk about the conclusion to Half a Life? I found it enigmatic.

A: I hope that the reader would just, in an upsetting way, cast his mind back over what heís read, and understand the nature of life, and understand that people, sometimes, for all their solidity, are made by circumstances which they may resent. And the life they appear to be leading, which appears to be so much their life, might really be something else ó a historical accident, a colonial accident, a political accident.... It was that idea that there is some degree of incompleteness, some degree of accident in all our lives and within us. Within all of us there is a secret self that believes it has not truly lived.

Q: At the library you said the novel is no longer the paramount literary form, and you we were just now talking about movies, and yet you keep returning to the novel. Why?

A: Well, whatís happened ó itís very brutal ó I keep on living longer than I think I should! I just keep on living and then I have to do something. Everything I write, for some time, Iíve written as though itís my last book. Itís this feeling that, well, even if I die I wouldnít mind being judged by this book, finally. Thatís the way I write. But then the years pass, seven years pass, and well, being someone whoís lived by writing, there are all kinds of impressions in my mind and things like that, you know. And if I get a publisher who tells me, "Well look, we would like to do all your backlist and do them nicely, but it would help us greatly if we could kick off with a new book." And so I try to do that, to help the other books along. But then I found that I was surprised by the book I had written. I felt that I had written a book, as it were, with blurred backgrounds. Theyíre blurred, theyíre not very precise, theyíre not very realistic. And because theyíre blurred, I think they might speak to people far away, and people far away might feel that the experience, this incompleteness ... this thing that befalls us all ó people could feel, "This book is about me."

Q: In your prologue to Beyond Belief you describe religious conversions as a kind of "cultural big bang ó the steady grinding down of the old world." Do you feel as though that expression, "the cultural big bang," has now become frighteningly literal, is now in the foreground?

A: What I was talking about was the destruction in Malaysia and Java, and to some extent in Afghanistan and Pakistan, of the old Buddhist, Hindu, and in Java, the animist world, the ancient world, the world of the earth religions, which some of us find quite attractive, you know.... I think these are now being wiped out by the revealed religions [Islam and Christianity]. So that was the cultural big bang, the Old World thing. But, of course, the growth of nihilism and the Islamic force, I think it was being prepared. I went to study this in 1979 and had a look at it again in í95. And I saw that it was philosophically an unsound idea, this fundamentalist idea, which is for people far away from Arabia, the source of Islam ó people in faraway places trying to give themselves the pure Arab faith and to trample on their own past, their own culture. Which is to trample, in fact, on essential bits of their soul. I thought that that was philosophically unsound, it was a neurosis. I had no idea that it was so frighteningly close to the rest of us. And I think we should understand we are not dealing only with terrorism, we are dealing with a religion that has declared war on the rest of us.

Q: Your work provokes controversy, and itís always received all kinds of interpretations. But after all this time and all these books ó and I donít know whether you read your critics or not ó do you feel essentially understood?

A: I began to be aware of political criticism of me 25 years or so ago, and it was so trivial and foolish that I no longer pay attention to it. Because, the thing thatís happened is the books have gone on being alive, you know, and in a way the points of view that have criticized the book have had to be modified in the light of events. Events have overtaken that simple view of the liberal left and people speaking out for the Third World in a foolish way. A lot of the criticism was based on not reading my work. I canít deal with that. Iím not interested in it, so it doesnít worry me. I think all writers should provoke a certain amount of criticism. If people love you all the time, the work isnít so hot, you know?

Jon Garelick can be reached at jgarelick@phx.com

Issue Date: November 29 - December 6, 2001

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