In my view, he is the greatest writer of the English language in the second half of the 20th century. His legacy as a writer is two-fold. One, is to take the modern writer’s preoccupation with provincial life and show show us how to be joyous about the sense of constraint and discovery that comes from being within a province — not being in a centre of power, but marginal and floating, and drifting. It might be a neighbourhood in a big city, or, in his case, Trinidad. He shows us how it is possible to do that with a non-Western location — it need not be exotic, or theme-heavy, nor about the deprivations of a race or a culture that we ascribe to it. It could be about the magic of the provincial, about discovering what life feels like within a constrained, limited orbit of modernity. I am thinking of his early works when I say this, of Miguel Street (1959), and especially of A House for Mr Biswas (1961). I am thinking of how eavesdropping, loitering, daydreaming was so important to him in these works. He borrowed that partly from RK Narayan, whom he admired very much. But he brought to it his own kind of poetic intensity and immediacy, which marks out Biswas.
The other part of the legacy is the formal innovation and the new way of thinking that The Enigma of Arrival (1959) constitutes. It showed us how to finally step beyond the novel. The novel of pure character and psychology was not of great interest to him. Spaces were interesting to him (even earlier). Here, he shows us how his own experience could become a part of the reflection that deals with how we write. The novel is also about writing, and not making a pretence of fictionalising in the older way. That pretence is thrown out of the window, and something else takes its place. And that something else is the novel. So that’s a huge innovation that meant a lot to younger writers in a way that we are still understanding. Then, of course, there are the unpleasant aspects of what he said, which many of us disagreed with or disliked. I think the prejudices that he held, the kind of distortions that he had in his head to do with his understanding of other cultures, or his own culture, and how he mistook them for the truth, those don’t diminish — and will not, in the long run — diminish his work. The only thing that will diminish his work is if it actually had no life.
He was one of those people who always believe they are in the “waiting room of history”. That because history has already occurred in the West, and a developed society is in place there, we can never authentically catch up. We will always be half-made. He is haunted by that, and it cripples him I think. It distorts his views as a thinker. But as an imaginative writer, he is in love with the process, with the incomplete, with the half-made. He is not interested in the static, in the beautifully made, but in the provincial spaces, whether it is in Trinidad or Wiltshire. That Naipaul is the one those of us who admire him are not only drawn to, but one whom we are deeply beholden to.
The writer is a novelist and critic (As told to Amrita Dutta)
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