V.S. Naipaul was a complex and divisive figure, regarded by some as morally suspect and politically culpable – but it’s wrong to see him as an elegist for empire
When a great writer dies, so does their mystique. Previously muttered complaints about inflated reputations and unpleasant personal traits are brought into the open. (A scandalous biography helps.) But when V.S. Naipaul died in 2018 the work had already been done. Naipaul was best known as a snob, always keen to dismiss modern England or lament the dark failure of Africa.
Derek Walcott, who once admired his fiction as much as Naipaul did Walcott’s early poems, composed a satire called ‘The Mongoose’: ‘Each studied phrase is poison, / Since he has made that sneering style a prison.’
His old friend Paul Theroux wrote a memoir, Sir Vidia’s Shadow, that depicted him, in Theroux’s words, as ‘a grouch, a skinflint, tantrum-prone, with race on the brain.’ In 2008, Patrick French’s authorised biography exposed his mistreatment of his first wife Patricia Hale, and the sexual sadism he inflicted on his Argentinian mistress Margaret Gooding.
Morally suspect, he was also deemed politically culpable: Edward Said, in one of his final interviews, accused Naipaul of believing ‘not that colonialism lasted too long, but that it didn’t last long enough—look what happened after the white man left!’
Barack Obama, former commander-in-chief of the US armed forces, admired his work but was uncomfortable with his ‘curmudgeonly sort of defence of colonialism’. Posthumous judgement was sealed in 2020, when the BBC commemorated Britain’s first non-white winner of both the Booker Prize and the Nobel with a documentary entitled The Trouble with Naipaul.
But the image of Naipaul as an olympian reactionary in both his politics and his art – everyone admits he wrote beautiful English – relies on a selective and superficial reading of his work. In the 10-year period from the late 1960s onwards, Naipaul wrote excoriating books about the colonial history of his native Trinidad and white settlers in Africa; he also showed surprising empathy for revolutionary black nationalists.
His novels about damaged post-colonial societies and tragically unmoored migrants invented a genre that contemporary writers such as Mohsin Hamid, Teju Cole and Pankaj Mishra have since taken up. Neither was he formally conservative in his writing style. In the 1970s, he abandoned the solid Victorian realism of A House for Mr Biswas (1961) for a more disjointed, experimental style, one that suited a series of protagonists who always remain, unlike Biswas, unnecessary and unaccommodated.
History was a fairy tale not so much about slavery as about its abolition, the good defeating the bad. It was the only way the tale could be told. Any other version would have ended in ambiguity and alarm
The book that began this sequence, The Loss of El Dorado (1969), was first commissioned as a tourist guide to Port of Spain; but when Naipaul began exploring the English and Spanish archives in London, he uncovered a terrible hidden history. He had never known his old school was close to a large slave estate; his school textbooks said the native Indians simply ‘sickened and died’ when the Spanish came, rather than being deliberately exterminated. ‘The intrinsic pain of the material,’ he later wrote, meant ‘the work was slow,’ as he immersed himself in his island’s ‘ghastly past’.
El Dorado was a Spanish dream. ‘Always the Indians told of a rich and civilised people just a few days’ march away,’ writes Naipaul with restrained irony. ‘Sometimes there were pieces of gold, finely worked; once a temple of the sun was found in the jungle; once a crazed explorer returned with a tale of an enormous city of long straight streets, its temples full of golden idols.’ Both explorers and their guides had an interest in maintaining this fantasy; they even began to believe it. ‘The legend of El Dorado, narrative within narrative, witness within witness, had become like the finest fiction, indistinguishable from truth,’ says Naipaul.
As Sanjay Krishnan points out in his recent monograph V.S. Naipaul’s Journeys, colonial storytelling was the engine of the realist novel. Robinson Crusoe, suggests Naipaul, is a composite of various figures, including the shipwrecked governor of Trinidad, Antonio de Berrio.
This dream became a nightmare. In 1699, an Indian workman helping to build a church, after being told his work was shoddy, knocked down his monk overseer. (Poor carpentry is a persistent Naipaulian metaphor.) The Indians killed the monks with poisoned arrows; they, the Indians, were in turn tortured and executed. A poem about the martyred monks was written called ‘Romance muy doloroso’. ‘It was the only piece of literature the Spaniards produced in Trinidad,’ writes Naipaul. ‘It was quickly forgotten.’
The English, meanwhile, wanted the Indian gold but also wanted to be loved. For Sir Walter Raleigh, ‘to be received among them as a liberator: that was part of the dream.’ He wanted to create a ‘Raleana’, where he would be adored by the natives. Raleigh wrote: ‘To tell you I might be here King of the Indians were a vanitie; but my name hath still lived among them… all offer to obey me.’
Naipaul is withering about such pretensions to imperial benevolence. By the late 18th century, he tells us, the British ruled over ‘an empire of plantations and Negroes, the whip, the branding-iron, the knife (for cutting off Negro ears), the stake and the torture cells of the Port of Spain jail’.
In an infamous case, General Thomas Picton, Trinidad’s governor, tortured Luisa Calderón, a 14-year-old mixed-race girl accused of theft. Naipaul’s exacting description of the torture is excruciating to read. Ten years after his death at Waterloo, Picton would have a monument raised to him in Carmarthen and later a statue in Cardiff’s Marble Hall of Heroes. (In 2020, Cardiff Council voted to remove the statue.) For Trinidadians like the young Naipaul, ‘Picton was the name of a street; no one knew more’.
The Loss of El Dorado casts a somewhat different light on Naipaul’s reply to Bernard Levin’s question about his Trinidadian roots. ‘Yes, I was born there,’ he said, ‘I thought it was a great mistake.’ Usually read as hauteur, I hear instead genuine anguish: Trinidad itself was the mistake, and his Indian ancestors’ arrival after abolition as indentured labourers – near enough a form of slavery – simply one more layer of oppression.
So it is hard to see Naipaul as an elegist for empire. What irritates his liberal readers, I suspect, is his refusal of any redemptive narrative – for him the arc of history does not bend towards justice. And yet his pessimism oddly overlaps with more recent critical theories on empire and race: ‘History was also a fairy tale not so much about slavery as about its abolition,’ he writes in The Loss of El Dorado, ‘the good defeating the bad. It was the only way the tale could be told. Any other version would have ended in ambiguity and alarm.’ Similarly, he felt his fellow Trinidadian CLR James, whom he would later fictionalise in A Way in the World (1994), told the story of the Haitian slave rebellion in The Black Jacobins with a misleading heroic emphasis.
Neither was Naipaul blind to English racism. A few months after Enoch Powell’s 1968 Rivers of Blood speech and the restrictive Commonwealth Immigration Act of the same year, he was interviewed on the BBC’s World at One: ‘It has been really rather astonishing,’ he said, ‘that in the past year immigrants have been subjected to an unparalleled vilification from Members of Parliament and the press… Immigrants are just discussed as though they don’t exist, as though they are objects outside in the street.’
Rather than listen to ordinary immigrants, the press preferred to interview self-styled radicals like Michael X, with his fantasies of Black power and performative hatred of whites. In his long report for the Sunday Times on the murders Michael X and his group carried out in 1972, Naipaul identifies him as a kind of racial entrepreneur, who ‘sensed that in England, provincial, rich and very secure, race was, to Right and Left, a topic of entertainment. And he became an entertainer.’
Immigrants are just discussed as though they don’t exist, as though they are objects outside in the street— V.S. Naipaul speaking soon after Enoch Powell's 1968 'Rivers of Blood' speech
Yet Naipaul’s essay reserves its real contempt for fellow travellers such as John Lennon, who gifted Michael X a £400 piano; for the revolutionary himself, if not his ideology, he retains a subterranean sympathy.
The two men had a lot in common. Born a year apart, both were racial outsiders in Trinidad: Naipaul an Indian, Michael X half-white Portuguese, half-Black; both were educated at well-known colonial schools; both went to England to prove themselves to a white audience; both changed their names as they shifted their identities—Vidiadhar Surajprasad, Vido, V.S., Sir Vidia; Michael de Freitas, Michael X, Michael Abdul Malik; and both were published by André Deutsch. The second (unpublished) volume of Michael X’s autobiography even had the Naipaulian title Requiem for an Illusion.
As explored in explicit detail in Guerrillas, Naipaul’s 1975 novel based on the case, there was also an uneasy overlap in their sexual tastes, especially in relation to white women. Gale Benson, the daughter of a Tory MP, who worshipped Michael X and was eventually murdered by his gang, was drawn to the cult, says Naipaul, through liberal masochism.
Jane, the character in Guerrillas based on her, sleeps with Jimmy Ahmed (the X character) for the same reason. One sex scene reveals Jimmy’s Othello complex: when she rejects anal sex, ‘sudden anger swept over him… he raised his hand to strike her’. (In the end, he gets his way and kills her.) The scene recalls Naipaul’s confession to his biographer that when he discovered Margaret Gooding had slept with another man, ‘I was very violent with her for two days with my hand… She didn’t mind it at all. She thought of it in terms of my passion for her… I have enormous sympathy for people who do strange things out of passion’.
For readers who prefer their writers morally spotless, Naipaul will always be a difficult figure. But he understood intimately the toxic combination of racial self-hatred, sexual shame and violent sadism that colonialism had engendered.
Today, we see the same pathology in a figure like Islam4UK founder Anjem Choudary (known in his student days as party-boy ‘Andy’), who played the media with his clownish ‘behead those who insult Islam’ placards. Except the joke turned sour when he started recruiting British Muslims for Islamic State.
You might go on endlessly writing “creative” novels, if you believed that the framework of an ordered society exists, so that after a disturbance there is calm, and all crises fall back into that great underlying calm. But that world no longer exists for most people
A new world needed a new literary style. In a Free State (1971) is both elliptical and experimental, the main story supported by three thematically linked narratives. Justifying his new approach, Naipaul told an interviewer: ‘You might go on endlessly writing “creative” novels, if you believed that the framework of an ordered society exists, so that after a disturbance there is calm, and all crises fall back into that great underlying calm. But that world no longer exists for most people, so that kind of imaginative work is of less and less use to them. They live in a disordered and fast-changing world, and they need help in grasping it, understanding it, controlling it.’
The novel’s subject is what it means when someone is liberated from their past—when their country’s colonisers leave or when they move to a rich country. What kind of freedom is possible when the burden of independence is, for the first time, laid upon you?
In One out of Many, the narrator Santosh has a settled life as a cook in India. ‘I was so happy in Bombay. I was respected, I had a certain position. I worked for an important man.’ Then his boss takes him to live in Washington, and it is there that Santosh’s troubles—and story—begin. On the flight over, he accidentally gets drunk on champagne, and soils the plane toilet by squatting on the lavatory seat. Santosh earns more money in America, which he spends on a green suit with matching green hat. ‘Even in the shop, even while counting out the precious dollars,’ he says, ‘I had known it was a mistake’. He never wears the suit outside.
After getting entangled with an African-American woman, he runs away from his boss and ends up working in an Indian restaurant staffed by Mexicans. Back in India, he had so few opportunities that failure was not an option; but in the US he is tormented by the possibilities he cannot take advantage of. ‘I was like nothing; I had made myself nothing,’ he says, in a pre-echo of the famous opening to the Booker-shortlisted A Bend in the River (1979) that Obama liked to quote: ‘The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.’
For whites in Africa the situation is reversed – without the colonial state’s protection, their privilege fades. In a Free State’s long central narrative follows Bobby, a British civil servant living in a country resembling Uganda. There is a king and a president. ‘The white men who were appealed to liked the king personally. But the president was stronger… and the white men decided that the president was to be supported.’
Bobby was at Oxford with the king and, being a good liberal, wishes the king were more ‘African’ and less obviously pro-British (much good it does him). Yet Bobby is also used to being served by Africans; he often picks up young men in bars for a few shillings. He meets a Zulu in a recently integrated establishment called the New Shropshire, and begins speaking to him in pidgin; he puts his hand over his. But Bobby doesn’t realise this is a new Africa. The Zulu spits in his face.
Bobby goes on a road trip with Linda, an unreconstructed racist whose generalisations about Africans he corrects; all the while, the country is descending into civil war, rendering their theoretical conversations irrelevant. Even when Bobby is being beaten up by the president’s soldiers, vestiges of liberal guilt remain: ‘He had thought at first that the soldier with the cigarette wished only to humiliate, denude, disfigure; and he had half understood, half felt sympathy.’ But then he ‘felt the boot hard on his right wrist’, and with that fracture ‘the knowledge that what had been whole all his life had been broken’.
Like Santosh, Bobby once lived in a world that made sense—the whites were in charge, and he was a good white. Now the Africans are in charge and, although intellectually Bobby welcomes this, only now does he realise his African life can never be the same.
In 2015, to celebrate 60 years since he moved to London, Naipaul was thrown a party by Geordie Greig (Eton, Oxford, future editor of the Daily Mail). Tatler reported that Prince Harry’s ex-girlfriend Cressida Bonas got a signed copy of A House for Mr Biswas. In one photo, Evgeny Lebedev and Anna Friel flank the elderly Naipaul, wearing a suit as ill-fitting as Santosh’s, his eyes looking sceptically sideways.
Three years later, as Naipaul lay dying, Greig reported that he read Tennyson’s ‘Crossing the Bar’ with him. To some, Naipaul had long since crossed the bar (or gone beyond the pale) into the cosy world of establishment privilege, where he could be reliably wheeled out to condemn the ‘racket’ of multiculturalism or lambast New Labour for fomenting a ‘socialist revolution’.
Where would Naipaul have stood in our current culture war? I can guess what he might have said down the phone to the Spectator’s diarist – and it would, perhaps, not have been charitable to the Bristolians who pulled down Edward Colston’s statue in 2020.
But when I saw Colston fall, I immediately thought of Salim, the narrator of A Bend in the River, who sees through the hypocrisy of colonialism with his creator’s clear-eyed vision: ‘The Europeans wanted gold and slaves, like everybody else; but at the same time they wanted statues put up to themselves as people who had done good things for the slaves. Being an intelligent and energetic people, and at the peak of their powers, they could express both sides of their civilisation; and they got both the slaves and the statues.’
V.S. Naipaul has appeared on numerous BBC radio programmes available online: