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VOL 3. NO. 38 Monday, November 5 - Sunday, November 18, 2001
In Search Of V.S. Naipaul
By Fitzroy NATION

V.S. Naipaul, Courtesy Photo

Editor's note: Last month Trinidad-born writer Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul won the 2001 Nobel literature prize. He joins 1992 Nobel literature laureate Derek Walcott of St. Lucia as a Caribbean winner of this prestigious award. Literary observers explain that Naipaul, who has lived in England since 1950, won the $1 million prize for his mastery of English prose style and studies of exile which has taken him from the Caribbean and England, his adopted country to India, Africa and the Islamic countries of Asia. On the other hand, critics suggest that Naipaul's themes of immigration, colonialism and nationalism in developing countries, and his views of religion has been narrow, pessimistic and selective.
(IPS) -- In 1999, a book portraying the writer V.S. Naipaul as snobbish, mean, and dismissive of the prospects of peoples and nations south of the equator created a major stir.

Written by Paul Theroux, the author's erstwhile friend and confidante, {Sir Vidia's Shadow} was a vindication of sorts for those whose admiration of Naipaul's writing skills and literary achievements is tempered by annoyance at what they perceive to be a lack of compassion and humanity in his works.

Then in 2000, with Naipaul's permission, but not his participation, another friend -- literary agent Gillon Aitken -- gathered and published the correspondence exchanged between the writer and his family in the period 1950-1954.

{Letters Between a Father and Son} (Little, Brown and Company, 1999), can be seen as an image-burnishing exercise, down to the sympathetic picture of Naipaul on the inside back cover, wearing a smile rather than his normal scowl, and cuddling his pet cat.

Nonetheless, the book represents an important account of the moods and feelings of an important writer during a formative period. This is a different Naipaul -- quick to insult, yes, but also considerate, affectionate, caring, and funny.

V.S. (Vidia) Naipaul was born in Trinidad in 1932. He is part of a writing dynasty. His father, Seepersad, and brother, Shiva, are also published authors.

Indeed the backbone of this book is about the writing process: Seepersad's ambition to be a novelist, his son's shared passion for words. (Shiva Naipaul, a small boy during the period covered, would develop his writing later. He died in 1985, of a heart attack, after publishing seven books.)

The correspondence begins at the time Naipaul left Trinidad in 1950 to study at Oxford University on an Island Scholarship.

Much of the focus is on Seepersad - "Pa." Naipaul's father is a man torn between commitment to family and devotion to art. Every deadline at the {Trinidad Guardian} newspaper, for which he works, is an imposition. Yet without the paycheck from the newspaper, the family cannot eat.

"This is the time I should be writing the things I so long to write," he laments in a letter to Vidia. "This is the time for me to be myself. When shall I get a chance? I don't know. I come from work, dead tired. The {Guardian} is taking all out of me."

At Oxford, Naipaul encounters his own difficulties. "A feeling of emptiness is nearly always on me," he writes to his sister, Kamla, who is studying in India. "I see myself struggling in a sort of tunnel blocked up at both ends. My past -- Trinidad and the necessity of our parents -- lies behind me and I am powerless to help anyone."

What comes across is the fragility of this family's existence, how much hangs on Naipaul's academic success: not only economic support for the family, but fulfillment of his father's dream.

It proves to be too much. Naipaul suffers a nervous breakdown. He becomes withdrawn, then, with the help of his girlfriend, Pat, begins to focus again.

That illness is a turning point, a coming of age for the writer. Thereafter, he becomes more comfortable with himself and his worth.

A meeting with an old school friend from the Caribbean reminds him of why he will never return. Encounters with relatives in London reinforce his feeling of disconnection.

"Trinidad...has nothing to offer me." He writes matter-of-factly. "I hope I never come back to Trinidad, not to live, that is."

V.S. Naipaul's last letter to his father is dated Oct. 8, 1953. Two days later, he is forced to send a telegram. "He was the best man I knew...everything I owe to him...be brave, my loves...Trust me Vidia."

Seepersad Naipaul had died of a heart attack.

Vidia Naipaul, the son, would reap his father's legacy of ambition, quest for learning and love for words, and desire to become a great writer.

But this is not the son who left the Caribbean in 1950. He has been transformed by education and learning. Enamored by the world of European ideas and "high" culture, he is scornful of what he left behind.

Vidia's experiences, feelings chronicled in the book, help explain the bitter cynicism and hardness - the sense of not belonging - familiar to those who have read the 23 books published under his name over the last 40 years.

Naipaul's latest book, "Half a Life," a semi-autobiographical novel about a man who grows up in India, moves to London to be a writer and after a Bohemian existence settles in Africa. The film adaptation of is first published novel, "The Mystic Masseur," was filmed in Trinidad and will be released later this year.

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