Now, here is an interesting discovery. Not for the literary world. The man has a Nobel Prize, after all. But for me, Naipaul was an unknown quantity. So much so that (ignorance confessed here) I thought he was an Indian writer. In a way he is, I guess, his parents being Indian emigrants. (if you can call and indentured servant a true emigrant) But not really, since he was raised in Trinidad and has spend much of his life in the U.K. and Africa and, and, and, and so on. A citizen of the world. And he’s a writer of the world and its history.
A Way In the World seems like the title of a modest tale, perhaps tracing the footsteps of a single individual (Note that it’s not THE way OF the world) making a tentative way through life. In fact, it’s both an individual first person tale that has the feel of a memoir, and a sweeping historical novel that covers a span of four hundred years of the history of colonization. And, although the memoir appellation is accurate, the narrator’s voice also has from time to time the quality of an academic–an historian, perhaps, or an anthropologist–describing the process and results of careful research.
We meet Sr. Walter Raleigh in old age, on his last voyage to the new world trying vainly to substantiate his claims of discovered El Dorado and avoid decapitation by King James. We meet Senor Miranda of Venezuela, another adventurer intent on becoming ruler of his native country, but seeking to do so by enlisting the support of various Europeans. We meet Monsieur Lebrun, an early twentieth-century Trinidadian seeking to free his country of colonial domination and being misunderstood and reviled along the way. Some of the more modern historical figures become characters in the narrator’s own life, and we see through his reactions to them the difficulties of one culture or way of life trying to adapt to another. Literally, in a couple of instances, trying to swallow another, as the narrator fails in his attempts to eat, for example, gefilte fish while others glory in the feast. This loss of appetite, failure to assimilate, stands, I believe for the failure of colonists and colonized to merge. What happens instead is that one erases the other.
When I began to write of it, the Trinidadian landscape that was present to me was the landscape I had known as a child and felt myself part of . . . Then, upon his return to Trinidad after a long absence: The landscape I had grown up in, and felt myself part of, had been wiped clean of this other past. . . .[and] the aboriginals of our own island offered less to the imagination than the still living people we read about . . . in the geography class. Eskimos crawling in and out of their warm . . . igloos. . .
Thus, to be colonized is to have a hunk of one’s past, and by inference a hunk of one’s identity, destroyed. Yet, the colonizer does not escape corruption. Lives and fortunes are lost searching for El Dorados, loves sacrificed for the sake of a concept imposed on a landscape and people it does not fit. Yet, Naipaul tells this with such such simplicity, such seeming objectivity, that there’s not a trace of the anger or victimhood one would expect from a work on this subject. Instead, there is an admiration for the striving and ambition human enterprise, however maliciously intended. And a sadness for the futility of great dreams gone awry. I will return to Naipaul. I’m sorry I waited so long to find my way to him.