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Regular Column

Letters to the Editors

Volume 16, Issue 2  | 
Published 10/06/2019
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A critique (second of three) by Karim Hirji of articles in AwaaZ Volume 15, Issue 2 2018.

VS Naipul - Obituary

There is no question in my mind that Naipul was a prolific literary giant who well deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature. His ability to craft elegant prose was equaled by only a few of his peers. Yet, I am no fan of Naipul and have read only a couple of his novels. My attraction towards an influential author whose books are interpreted as commentaries on society, past or present, stems from their style as well as substance. And it is in terms of the latter aspect that Naipul’s books did not sit well with me.

Among writers of fiction and descriptive books, there are three principal approaches for examination and analysis of societal problems in the hitherto colonized nations of the Third World. The first one posits, akin to what was said by the colonizers, that the problems stem purely from the operation of internal forces. Explicitly or implicitly, it holds that the people and leaders of these nations are simply unable to put their house in order. They continually need external assistance to keep them afloat and control the enduring problems like corruption and inefficiency. Without saying it, it is also the stand of the Western governments, international agencies and the NGOs they fund.

 The second approach, on the other hand, blames external factors (legacy of colonialism, unfair trade, political interference etc.) for the ongoing problems in these nations. The Third World governments, when under pressure, favor such views. For example, Robert Mugabe’s government placed a large share of the blame for its economic plight on the manipulations by the West. Cultural extremists also blame the West for all Africa’s ills, and strive to eliminate Western influences of all sorts.

The third approach, which derives from analysis of societal structures in an historic fashion, integrates external and internal forces to explain why things are the way they are and what needs to be done to change the situation. The main example here is the various shades of Marxist analyses.

In practice, the first two approaches occur not in pure forms but in some degree of combination, with one more dominant than the other. They are also masked by elaborate technical language and tools. Combinations of these two forms are the prevalent approaches to societal theory and literature at present. The third approach, which was beginning to make some headway in the 1960s and 1970s has now been cast asunder. Just a few writers of today subscribe to it. Moez G Vassanji’s memoir of his East African childhood is more in line with the first approach while Ngugi wa Thiongo’s biographical accounts reflect the third approach.

Pardon this extended preamble, but I need to make my stand on Naipul crystal clear. In my view, he exemplified in explicit and implicit ways the literary operation of the first approach. Both his novels and travel accounts relating to the nations of Third World highlighted the `backward’ political, social and cultural practices he observed. To say he was a controversial writer is to minimize the negativity of his views. His views on female writers, thus were misogynistic in the extreme. In the Third World, as a true bred English gentleman, he looked down on what he saw. It was as if to say, `These natives, what is the matter with them?’ The existence of the problems he noted was undeniable, but to view them out of historic context, and ignore the role of direct and indirect forms of imperialism in their causation was to effectively adopt a racist stand towards the people of the Third World; only the white man can run a civilized society, the rest are destined to wallow in cultural, political and economic `backwardness.’

To equate Conrad with Naipul in any way is questionable. The former exposed the brutal nature of imperialism in Africa while the latter downplayed the role of imperialism in creating and sustaining the problems of the continent.

Contrasting Naipul’s travel-cum-political writings with those of the fellow Trinidadian CLR James can take us far. Both became lifelong residents of Britain, mastered the English language, were steeped in the intricacies of British culture and wrote extensively about the Third World. Yet, their ideological orientations were poles apart. While Naipul ignored and effectively rationalized Western imperialism, James was among it’s fiercest critics. Naipul looked down on the people of the Third World but James saw signs of hope in their struggles.

The two obituaries of Naipul in the present issue of Awaaz raise the points I have highlighted in a partial fashion only and tend to rationalize his negative views. Also, there is an editorial error in that the last paragraph of the second obituary is a repeat of a paragraph in the first one. Your readers need a well-informed and grounded obituary of this `controversial’ writer, not a standard one that could appear in any East African magazine.

More in this category: Race, Class and Identity »

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