It took me some years to realize on what scale Naipaul had made a nuisance of himself. Since the early 1960s, when he began traveling around the world, Naipaul has infuriated not just Indians, whom he called "barbarous, indifferent and self-wounding," but also the citizens of Zaire ("trapped and static"), Argentina ("deficient and bogus"), Uruguay ("intellectually null ... parasitic"), the Caribbean (ruled by "the deadly comic-strip humour of Negro politics"), and the Muslim residents of Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan and Iran (a case of collective "neurosis and nihilism"). Upon landing in a new country—usually a developing nation that had recently shaken off colonial rule—Naipaul's modus operandi was to discover quickly that his hosts were relinquishing the gifts of civilization—courts of law, hygiene, tar roads—bequeathed to them by their European overlords and crawling back into tribal ritual, sham spirituality and chaos. He did this for more than 30 years, and when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks took place and overnight it became important to know something about countries like Iran and Pakistan, intellectuals in America and Britain were grateful that Naipaul had already filled a whole bookshelf with essays on those places. They discovered that he had seen the tension between Islam and the West earlier and more intensely than any of them had. Reviewers praised his journalism for being "prophetic." In awarding him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, the Swedish Academy drew special attention to Naipaul's travel writing and highlighted his "incorruptible scrutiny." Yet all this fame has come to the wrong V.S. Naipaul.
Before he began his second career as a journalist, a man who tries to describe the world as it is, Naipaul had already made a name for himself as a novelist, a man who makes things up. He was a Trinidadian of Indian ethnicity who wrote novels that were mostly about Indians living in the Caribbean or Africa. The ancestors of these Indians, who had followed traditional ways of living, had not equipped their sons for the political or sexual complexities of the modern era. Without help from their past or their culture, Naipaul's heroes struggled against the world for dignity and self-knowledge. They rarely succeeded, yet their struggle could sometimes ennoble them. Naipaul's fiction career had two peaks—first, in 1961, with A House for Mr. Biswas, the epic of an Indian in Trinidad who wants to build a home of his own, then in 1979, with A Bend in the River, the story of Salim, an Indian in Africa who tries to start a new life despite the anarchy spreading through the continent. Naipaul's protagonists were new to English literature, but his prose had the opposite virtue: simple and severe, it had a classical elegance that many felt had gone out of fiction since the literary experimentation of Modernism. As his novels grew darker, readers found a philosophy behind his work, a vision of the world as a relentless pressure that had to be resisted with grit and intelligence. But when Naipaul began churning out books of reportage on the countries he visited, the fiction writer shriveled: his 1980s and '90s were dominated by journalism, with a few exceptions such as his semiautobiographical novel The Enigma of Arrival (1987). Then in 2001 came Half a Life—his first full-blooded novel in a long time. Now, at 72, Naipaul has written the sequel, Magic Seeds, which he said last week is likely to be his final book.
The hero of the new novel, Willie Chandran, spent most of Half a Life being another of Naipaul's "mimic men"—his term for a person from a former European colony (India, in this case) who has grown up without knowing how to live, except by aping his erstwhile rulers. Willie has done one smart thing early in life: he escaped from India and landed in London—for Naipaul, the center of civilization, and the best place on earth to make a real man of yourself, which is the goal toward which he urges all his fictional characters. Willie, alas, keeps drifting, even in London—he idles, has affairs, publishes a book of short stories and is unsure of what to do with his life. He solves the problem by marrying a woman from a Portuguese African colony and following her to Africa. There he idles, has affairs, and learns to shoot. Eighteen years pass, and one day he realizes he can't go on like this. He leaves Africa and his wife. Half a Life ends there.
In Magic Seeds, Willie comes back to India, to join a movement of armed revolutionaries intent on ending the grip of feudal landlords on the countryside. But his real goal is not social revolution: time is running out for him to make a man of himself, and he figures he'll do it by fighting for a good cause. Almost as soon as he joins the guerrillas, he realizes he has made a mistake: he has fallen in among murderers and terrorists. In the chapters that follow, Naipaul sketches brilliant psychological portraits of the guerrillas—you understand that one man has joined the movement out of sexual rage, another because he can find no other job, and a third simply because he is bored—and you begin to feel sorry for them. Willie falls into the same trap as the reader. Then comes the day he is forced by his comrades to kill. He surrenders to the police and faces the prospect of a long jail term for his crime. Then, in one of the funniest touches in Naipaul's entire oeuvre, Chandran's forgotten book of short stories is rediscovered, he is hailed as a father of modern Indian fiction and is released. Magic Seeds may have its problems—the characters think too much, and think the same things too often, and Willie lacks the complexity of a Biswas or Salim—but there is plenty here to remind you that Naipaul is at his best when he sticks to fiction.
The term used so often to praise Naipaul's journalism is that it is "prophetic"—that he saw in the 1960s and '70s, before anyone else did, that a series of crises was about to hit Africa and India; then in the 1980s and '90s he saw that trouble was brewing in the Islamic world. Naipaul's journalism of crisis was engaged most profoundly with India. On his first visit there, in 1962, Naipaul found the country "an endless repetition of exhaustion and decay." When he came back to India in 1967, he wrote: "The absurdity of India can be total." India, he said, had borrowed words like "democracy" and "science" from the West, but Indians were miming these words without knowing what they meant. In 1975 he visited again, railing that India—then in the midst of a crisis caused by Indira Gandhi's decision to suspend democracy—was "left alone with the blankness of its decayed civilization." The only hope, Naipaul argued, was that the country had failed so completely that Indians would reject their past and start over.
It is true that India was in trouble in the '60s and '70s. But a prophet—or even a man engaged in standard, well-balanced journalism—might also have observed significant flashes of hope: that India was opening engineering colleges that would soon become the world's best, that it was solving its food-shortage problems, that it was even launching a space program. Its free press and parliamentary system—far from having collapsed, as Naipaul said—re-emerged triumphantly in 1977, when democracy was re-established. Yet Naipaul, who is praised for seeing things so clearly, saw none of India's strengths. Although his vision of the country has grown progressively more sympathetic, the idea that India's economy would one day become one of the world's most dynamic, that it would develop an outsourcing industry that would affect everyday life in America and Europe, is beyond the conception of Naipaul's journalism.
A similarly limited vision marks Naipaul's two books on Islam—Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981) and Beyond Belief (1998). His thesis is provocative: Islam is a manifestation of Arab civilization that has spread through Arab conquest. Wherever it has spread in Asia—Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia, Malaysia—it has cut off its converts from their own heritage, history and culture and made them revere the civilization of their conquerors. He certainly gathers a fair amount of evidence to support his case: in Pakistan, for example, he observes that people invented fake genealogies tracing themselves back to Arab ancestors. By uprooting them from their own cultures, Naipaul argues, Islam has created a neurosis among Asia's Muslims, leaving them vulnerable to extremism and political instability. But as the writer Ian Buruma pointed out in a 1998 review of Beyond Belief, Naipaul may have greatly overstated the role that history has played in the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. After all, Islam has existed in Asia for a long time, yet the problems of fundamentalism are relatively new. A more plausible explanation is that it stems largely from modern grievances such as economic inequality, Afghanistan, Kashmir, and America's wars in Iraq.
Naipaul's insistence that Asian Muslims are trapped in their history also blinds him to the possibility that situations might change. He recently told the (London) Observer that "there are certain countries which foment [religious war], and they probably should be destroyed, actually." Asked if he meant Saudi Arabia, Naipaul replied: "I would like to think so, yes," adding that Iran "has to be dealt with, too." Naipaul ignores evidence that Iran is going through a tremendous internal struggle, that Tehran's free-thinkers, women's activists and civil libertarians daily challenge the power of the mullahs who rule their nation. As is so often the case in his journalism, he sees half the picture.
In his fiction, Naipaul's vision is more profound. Whether it is a character like Biswas, whom he created when in his 20s, or Willie Chandran, whom he first dreamed up when in his 60s, Naipaul's fictional heroes are among the most complex in modern literature. Naipaul's strengths as a writer reach far beyond the concerns of the colonial and postcolonial. As Half a Life and Magic Seeds prove, his greatest gift is that he can unlock the closed cabinet of the male psyche and take out so much that is hidden inside: how it hits a man one evening that he has wasted his life, the way his sexual desire reawakens in middle age, the thrill he derives from seducing a friend's wife, the physical violence he unleashes on others when he is furious with himself. And it is only in his novels, where he makes things up, that Naipaul gets to such truths.