Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Way in the World by VS Naipaul

When I began to write of it, the Trinidad landscape that was present to me was the landscape I had known as a child and felt myself part of... Later, in London, when I was writing a book of history, I studied for many months the historical documents of the region. The documents (the early ones were copies of Spanish originals stored in Seville) took my back to the discovery. They gave me a sense of a crowded aboriginal Indian island, busy about its own affairs, and almost without relation to what I had known. A sense, rather than a vision: little was convincingly described in those early documents, and few concrete details were given. In my mind's eye I created an imaginary landscape for the aboriginal peoples living--on what was to become my own ground--with ideas I couldn't enter, ideas of time, distance, the past, the natural world, human existence. A different weather seemed to attach to this vanished landscape (like the unnatural weather in an illuminated painted panorama in a museum glasscase), a different sky.

Naipaul is the foremost postcolonialist we have still writing, not least because he himself is a thoroughly colonial product. British but born in Trinidad, an island which is perhaps not technically more diverse than the rest of the Western Hemisphere, but which has a diversity enlarged by its smallness: people of African and Indian descent have long shared tight quarters with Arawak natives, and the island itself has been ruled by the English, Spanish, French, and no joke, Latvia.

A Way in the World is Naipaul's attempt to sort through that heritage, to sift through the muddled sands of Caribbean history and discover himself. The narrator is a fictionalized Naipaul, who begins with his childhood and works strangely backward, telling stories of Columbus and Raleigh, and a failed South American revolutionary named Francisco Miranda, each of whom are in some sense, like Naipaul's narrator, frustrated and bewildered by the political and ethnic realities of the Caribbean. He tells us of an unfinished writing project about the three of them, here focusing on Raleigh's last excursion to the New World:

Perhaps a play or a screen play, or a mixture of both--that is how it came to me, an unrealizable impulse, a long time ago: the first set being a view in section of the upper decks of a Jacobean ship, the Destiny. The time, 1618. The setting, a South American river, grey when still, muddy when rippled. It is almost dawn. The sky is silver.

Naipaul wants to keep us at arm's length, to screen Raleigh's story through the false pretense of an unwritten play. Don't forget that I'm here, he tells us, this is not a story about Raleigh but a story about me. This choice causes Naipaul to descend into some truly horrific prose, as if pretending this were just a treatment would permit authorial laziness. Why does Raleigh's ship surgeon insist on recounting Raleigh's own story as if he didn't know it already?:

"When you showed the North African gold, people asked why you hadn't brought more back from this fabled land of El Dorado. Of course you didn't have the money to buy more. But you say in your Advertisement rather sharply that no one has the right to ask you for more. You go on to say that you didn't have the time or the tools or the men when you were on the river of El Dorado."

If Naipaul means to bring to mind the sort of illogical plot-recapping that takes place in bad movies, he succeeds. Elsewhere, this approach treats us to similarly banal sentences like, "We focus again on Don Jose: his confident face, his fine Jacobean tunic. He takes up his narrative again." Yes, I get it: We're all in this together.

A Way in the World reminds me of Joyce, in that the novel recounts the story of its own creation. But Naipaul is telling us obliquely that this book is explicitly not the product he desired, but some sort of meek compromise crafted in the face of failure. Portrait is the proof of its own labor; it insists on its own triumph. A Way in the World insists on its own failure, and necessarily compounds it. It is unflinchingly bland, reticent to tell us that Naipaul's search for identity as a Trinidadian has produce fruit of any kind. With fodder like Raleigh and Miranda, it should have been better, but Naipaul is not comfortable handing his book over to them, perhaps worried that they will consume him. But neither can he give us any convincing account of his own innermost self. He uses dead prose and cheap tricks to keep us strung between the two poles of then and now, not frustrated and bewildered as he seeks to make us, but merely bored.

This is only the second Naipaul book I have read; did he expend all of his creative power in the formation of Mr. Biswas, who outstrips nearly all of his latter-20th-century peers for pathos? The greatest impact of this book is the realization that it is wholly unlike that one, sharing only its setting. It makes me worry that Biswas, who is wonderfully and repeatedly ironic, may present his strangest irony in that he understands more of his origins and more deeply than the author who created him.

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