Leela Gandhi (La Trobe University)

A Complicated Occidentalism:

Colonial Desire and Disappointment in V. S. Naipaul


In recent years the question of V. S. Naipaul’s relationship to England has begun to complicate his hitherto negative reception within the postcolonial academy. While, in the 1980’s, a generation of colonial discourse analysis-inspired critics were able to condemn him unequivocally as an apologist for empire, a new recuperation reveals Sir Vidia as a casualty of imperialism; a man more victim than collaborator. Something of this, albeit still incipient, shift in attitude belongs to the changing nature of postcolonial critique itself. If, following the example of Edward Said’s Orientalism, the ‘80’s were preoccupied with imperial constructions or representations of the non-West, a new tendency seeks a reversal of the imperial gaze, asking what colonised cultures and their travelling/writing figures made of England and empire when they arrived as emigrants, expatriates, travellers, in the ‘mother country’. Each of these perspectives, as we will see, offers a variant, if not opposing, assessment of Naipaul and his oeuvre.

Read solely through the dark glass of colonial discourse analysis, Naipaul does emerge as a native informant, colluding opportunistically with imperialist/neo-orientalist constructions of the third world. In his Caribbean travelogue The Middle Passage (1962), for instance, Naipaul’s gaze upon his former homeland appears mediated, without qualification, through the condemnatory imperial prose of former Victorian travellers to the region. There is nothing to offset the ethnographic virulence of his Victorian authorities, Trollope, Froude, Kingsley; no ‘alternative’ bias gleaned from local sources divulges a subaltern speaking-back to empire. It is precisely this anachronistic ‘allegiance to the imperial vantage point’ which critics like Rob Nixon single out as proof positive of Naipaul’s desperation to retain a, presumably conservative, English constituency (47). Indeed, as Nixon would argue, Naipaul’s literary success in England, especially through the 1970’s, accrues, in part, from his racially secured license to condemn the third-world. Where an over-vigilant liberal/postcolonial thought police has scrupulously checked the racism and imperial nostalgia of English writers, Naipaul, allegedly, remains free to animate the outdated diction of empire. In the words of Joseph Epstein, ‘It may be that among living writers only Naipaul is able to speak of “barbarian peoples”; only he can say things that… in the mouths of others would straight away be declared racism’ (cited in Nixon, 118). There is, thus, a guilty and forbidden pleasure in reading this Naipaul, a convenient ‘White Man’s Brown Man’ (Gorra 72), who has made his career, according to Said, as ‘a witness for the Western prosecution’ (53). For Said, who would debar the author entirely from the postcolonial counter canon, Naipaul betrays the most shameful variety of eurocentricism, viz., that of ‘a third-worlder denouncing his own people, not because they are victims of imperialism, but because they have an innate flaw, which is that they are not whites’ (79).

Over the last few years this strident and over-conscientious verdict on Naipaul has met with substantial resistance from at least two mutually sympathetic groups of critics. The first comprises West Indian scholars like John Thieme, Stephano Harney and Gordon Rohlehr, who read Naipaul’s pessimism about the postcolonial nation-state differently, as an indictment of imperialism. ‘Imperialism and the wicked consequences of colonialism’, Harney writes, ‘are the central themes of Naipaul’s work. The dismissive comments on the Third World are made in this context—–a Third World disfigured by the greed and violence of the colonial powers’ (145).1 This appraisal is strongly corroborated by a second group of like minded metropolitan postcolonial critics, who include Sara Suleri, Michael Gorra and Ian Baucom. Refusing the rigid binary of empire and its colonial other, these scholars foreground the profound cultural/political ambivalence produced by the colonial encounter, and embodied in renegade writers like Naipaul. Naipaul’s critique of England-as-empire, they suggest, is implicit in his irascible account of colonial complicity.

Accordingly, Gorra interprets Naipaul’s impatience with the colonised world, and with the imitative postcolonial nation-state, positively, as an appeal for ideological change. It is impatience, he argues, which ‘allies Naipaul with Fanon… He has that kind of rage, the rage that in other men and women brought independence into being, that made the postcolonial world’ (Gorra 110). In this reading, far from being a writer intent, as Nixon puts it, on ‘ventriloquising an English identity’ (49), Naipaul’s gaze upon Englishness is shown to reveal a greater self-reflexivity, and a bitter apprehension of his own implication in the workings of empire. Always writing himself into his critique of the postcolonial condition, his oeuvre concedes the existential cost of desiring metropolitan England from the colonial margin. ‘The need for angry critiques of his work’, then, as Suleri tells us, ‘is now obsolete, or such critiques must be prepared to admit what each successive text from An Area of Darkness to The Enigma of Arrival makes increasingly clear: Naipaul has already been there before them and has been exquisitely angry with himself’ (158).

We can, however, only begin to comprehend Naipaul’s ‘exquisite’ self-loathing if we admit to our analysis something of his double vision of England itself: simultaneously the scene of desire and lack, faith and agnosticism, creativity and self-denudation. Keeping company with his critical allies, this chapter argues that Naipaul’s ‘England’ is written up as a duplicitous entity—–which he believes in, even though he knows it lies. In his writing, then, we find three distinct ‘discoveries’ of England’s deceit, and so, three accounts of colonial deception. First, Naipaul’s autobiographical work concerns itself with the bitter knowledge that, for all its pretensions to the contrary, the English canon is an incarnation of English imperialism. Second, in his ethnographic and travel literature, Naipaul addresses the lie of the ‘civilising mission’. In other words, closer examination reveals that, for all its apparent concern for the cultural and civilisational ‘betterment’ of its colonial subjects, the English empire was a profoundly narcissistic enterprise. And finally, in his rewriting of a familiar postcolonial trope, Naipaul battles with the discovery that the ‘real’ England bears little or no relation to the one imagined and constructed in the colonial periphery. The subsequent section looks at Naipaul’s disclosure of his fraught relationship with the imperial metropolis, with a specific focus on his negotiations with the English canon.

The Politics of Literature

The paradox which informs Naipaul’s writing is this: that if England is troped, consistently, as the land of opportunity, the place in which to ‘arrive’ decisively as a writer, it is also the scene of a terrible incarceration. The longing for England, thus, folds seamlessly into its antithesis, the desire for departure; a landscape once loved from afar proves, on closer acquaintance, to be tragically dystopian. This is the burden of Naipaul’s autobiographical, The Enigma of Arrival (1987). ‘For years’, he writes, ‘in that far off island whose human history I had been discovering and writing about, I had dreamed of coming to England. But my life in England had been savourless, and much of it mean… And just as once at home I had dreamed of being in England, so for years in England I had dreamed of leaving home’ (95).

A related sense of the claustrophobia and inhospitality of English life marks Mr Stone and the Knight’s Companion (1963), Naipaul’s first and only novel with an entirely English setting, and exclusively English characters. Here, at the end of his professional career as a petty bureaucrat, Naipaul’s hero attempts to extend and animate his barren future through marriage and a ‘scheme’ to rehabilitate the retired members of his Department. The inevitable, if heroic, failure of these efforts is amplified through the novel’s insistence on the oppressive enclosure of the English scenes, habits and rituals which supply its narrative context. The routines of Mr Stones’ single life lapse into the slightly more tedious routines of his marriage and domesticity. The confinement of everyday spaces—–the ‘unbearably hot and crowded’ lunchtime pub, ‘the damp and steaming queue into the underground’(24, 25)—–find a correlative in the incurable insularity of the lives stunted by these spaces. Ironically, Naipaul writes himself and his world into this exhaustively ‘English’ novel only as the absent object of xenophobia, as a potential trespasser defying the interdiction imposed by his own blinkered characters. There is little accommodation for him in the Earl’s Court residence, once occupied by Mr. Stone’s wife, whose ‘refuge of calm and respectability’ is secured by a discrete ‘“Europeans Only” card below the bell’ (32). A similar sign appears to regulate the unthinking racism of Whimper (by name and by nature), office colleague and friend of the Stances, who is inexplicably and regularly ‘driven to fury’ by the ‘sight of black men on the London streets’ (112). And finally, as though mocking his exilic and deracinated author, there is Mr. Stone, who wisely prefers ‘to spend his holidays in England’, never leaving the shores of his island habitat.

Gazing steadfastly upon England in this early work, Naipaul finds it desolate and, implicitly, unwelcoming. In an essay, ‘London’ (Overcrowded Baracoon, 9-16), he explicates the negative impressions of England fictionalised in Mr Stone. Postulating England as a necessity, as the only place in which he can meaningfully exercise his vocation as a writer among writers, he simultaneously laments the insularity of English life, the absence of visible communal pleasures. Alienated by the baffling opacity of Englishness, his craft—–much like Rushdie’s—–concedes the gap between metropolitan location and non-metropolitan materials. England, as he tells us, ‘it is the best place to write in. The problem for me is that it is not a place I can write about’ (16). The Enigma of Arrival will revisit these early impressions about the frustrating inaccessibility of English ‘materials’; the autobiographical pieces in Finding the Centre (1984) will, likewise, record Naipaul’s belated recognition that he can only write about the home that he has so eagerly relinquished: ‘To become a writer… I had thought it was necessary to leave… Actually to write, it was necessary to go back’ (47). This prodigal return, of course, finds expression in, and as, his very first novel, Miguel Street (the third to be published), which already registers a formative ambivalence in Naipaul’s relationship to the imperial metropolis.

In the Trinidadian ‘vignettes’ which comprise Miguel Street, England is exalted as the grammar of colonial aspiration, as the governing trope for opportunity and ‘improvement’. At the same time, however, England and Englishness also emerge as shorthand for failure and deception. So, the hopeless Elias briefly wins the respect of his small community for the reason that his Cambridge School Certificate examination scripts will obtain a metropolitan audience: ‘Errol said, “Everything Elias write not remaining here, you know. Every word that boy write going to England’ (Miguel Street 39). Destined to drive a scavenging cart, however, Elias’s efforts are futile, and England is rapidly transformed into the scene of his repeated academic failure. Much the same, the unsuccessful calypso lyricist, B. Wordsworth, fails to fulfil the canonical expectations of his improbable name. And although the character ‘Man-Man’ sounds like an Englishman ‘if you shut your eyes while he spoke’, an open gaze reveals a madman, covering the local pavements of Miguel Street with cursive renditions of the English alphabet. Eventually, the narrator of this early bildung himself succumbs to the dream of arriving in England to become a literary man. ‘Think’, he is instructed by his benefactor Ganesh Pundit, ‘It means going to London. It means seeing snow and seeing the Thames and the big Parliament’ (218). But in order to secure this trip to London the narrator must bribe Ganesh Pundit (destined to become the protagonist of Naipaul’s first published novel, The Mystic Masseur, (1957) and, thus, obtain an always, already illegitimate place in the imperial centre. As he prepares to board the aircraft to depart for his desired destination, a sudden trick of light projects a prophetic image: ‘I left them all and walked briskly towards the aeroplane, not looking back, looking only at my shadow before me, a dancing dwarf on the tarmac’ (222). So it is, that the act of leaving for England, which requires the ‘corruption’ of local culture, also produces the unsettling image of a shrunken and comically reduced self. What, then, is the basis for this desperately fraught perception of England? What, in the other words, accounts for Naipaul’s particular crisis about Englishness?

In his autobiographical essay, ‘Conrad’s Darkness’, Naipaul is illuminating on the subject of his own disappointed arrival in England: ‘I suppose in my fantasy I had seen myself coming to England as to some purely literary region, where untrammelled by the accidents of history or background, I could make a romantic career for myself as a writer. But in the new world I felt that ground move below me’ (216). Here, in summary, we have it: the wishful fabrication of England as the uncontaminated place of literature comes unstuck. Instead of delivering the political, cultural and historical amnesia that Naipaul devoutly seeks, England brings on the reverse: an acute consciousness of the damaged postcolonial world he has left behind; a world damaged, furthermore, by empire: ‘The new politics, the curious reliance of men on institutions they were yet working to undermine … the corruption of causes, half-made societies that were doomed to remain half-made: these were the things that began to preoccupy me’ (216). For Naipaul’s detractors, a passage such as this is characteristic, confirming his arrival in England as an ideological departure from his own origins. But, is this harangue on the lamentable failure of the ‘third’-world simply a sycophantic performance of his allegiance to the ‘first’, or, something rather more interesting? Could it be the unexpected knowledge, for instance, that England is (has always been) simultaneously the place of both empire and canon? To put this differently, it is, arguably, in England that, contrary to his deepest expectations, the colonial writer-aspirant finds himself pathetically trammelled by the accidents of both history and background.

Sara Suleri’s insightful reading of Naipaul develops a similar viewpoint, casting his troubled relationship to England as a continuous struggle to sever canon from empire. Everywhere, Naipaul’s writing is haunted by the desire (everywhere recognised as impossible) to apprehend the unproblematic autonomy of the canon, and to confirm, concomitantly, the immunity of English literature from the contagion of English imperialism. Naipaul, Suleri notes, ‘records a perspective that… has no choice but to register its own bewilderment at the relation between education and empire, seduced as it was into the quaint belief that literature could somehow provide a respite from what it means to gain consciousness in a colonial world’ (Suleri 150).

Even in his earliest excursions into writing, Naipaul is keenly aware that the principal deceit of European culture inheres in the racial exclusivity which undermines its apparent universality.2 The curiously Calvinist paradox of la mission civilisatrice, that Naipaul fully understands, is this: while England (with its European counterparts) represents the only possible cultural/civilisational truth, only some are chosen, by accident of birth, to have natural access to the privilege of this truth. And as his relentless pathologisation of the ‘mimic man’ reveals, the colonial aspirant can only enter the compelling scene of Englishness, its exhaustive ‘everything’, as the subject of mutation and comedy. Such is the judgement he offers on, among others, the Anglophile Mr Mackay in, The Middle Passage (1962) who, ‘like all good West Indians… was unwilling to hear anything against England’ (18). The ‘nigrescent’ Pundit Ganesh Ramsumair, in The Mystic Masseur, is similarly mocked for inappropriately anglicising his name, on arriving in England, to G. Ramsay Muir (215).

But what of the colonial reader/writer and his cultural and linguistic metamorphosis in the face of England? We might refer here, briefly, to Simon Gikandi’s, Maps of Englishness, which teases out, through the example of the athomi (Gikuyu converts to Christianity) something of the complex betrayal and self-loss which accompanies the practice of colonial education/reading. ‘Athomi’, a tribal name literally meaning ‘one who reads’, signals a biblical literacy predicated upon a total, and ultimately unrewarded, rejection of the pre-colonial and pre-Christian past. As Gikandi observes, ‘After all, what made the African readers athomi was not merely their newly acquired literacy but also their willingness—–and capacity—–to renounce their previous identities and narratives to enter an imperial future in which—–many of them were to complain later—–they were still marginal’ (Gikandi 37). It is in ‘Conrad’s Darkness’, again, that Naipaul touches upon his own experience of reading the English canon as a conversion, not dissimilar in its implications to that undergone by the athomi.

The essay seems to suggest, contra Bloom, that the postcolonial ‘beginning poet’ or ephebe comes to life and voice without sufficient anxiety about his influences. Exploring his own too ready acquiescence to the lessons of literary and other fathers, Naipaul’s study bristles with the consequences of receiving a flawed and unexamined patrimony. Conrad, we are told at the end of this essay, ‘died fifty years ago. In those fifty years his work has penetrated to many corners of the world which he saw as dark. It is a subject for Conradian meditation…’ (227). The ironies of this conclusion—–what Suleri calls the ‘ambivalence of reading’—–are complex. In the main, Naipaul points to the bizarre self-disregard involved in assiduously reading a writer whose oeuvre is, in some ways, a meditation upon the cultural impoverishment (the civilisational darkness) of one’s own world. And Conrad’s verdict is comprehensive, condemning both the geography and inhabitants of the colonised world: ‘it extends to all men in these dark or remote places who, for whatever reason, are denied a clear vision of the world’ (215). As a colonial reader, then, one cannot participate in the pleasures of Conrad, as it were, properly, from outside the logic of conversion. To concur with Conrad’s verdict, as Naipaul does, is to authorise his estimation of the colonial world: ‘ …in Conrad… I was… to find my feelings about the land exactly caught’ (214).

There is another irony. Conrad’s power as a storyteller, as Naipaul recognises, is an effect of what Said has described as imperialism’s ‘structures of attitude and reference’ (Said 84). And, in this, Conrad’s writing is typical of the fiction produced under the aegis of empire. As Said writes, ‘imperialism and the novel fortified each other to such a degree that it is impossible… to read one without in some way dealing with the other’ (ibid.). Anticipating Said, ‘Conrad’s Darkness’ concedes the symbiosis between imperialism and the canon. ‘The great novelists’, Naipaul insists, ‘wrote about highly organised societies’ (213); and later, attributing the death of the novel to the end of empire: ‘the great societies that produced the great novels of the past have cracked’ (227). Nowhere, then, is the question of literary influence more complicated: to admire the canon, and to emulate a precursor like Conrad, the late coming postcolonial ephebe must consent to his own cultural and material dispossession. So too, in recognising his cultural seduction by England, the colonial reader/writer is compelled to register the fact of his complicity in the work and lies of empire.

Keen to the ethical and existential compromises which mark colonised subjectivity, what does Naipaul have to say about the mentality of Empire? The following section will assess Naipaul’s verdict on England’s imperial narcissism.

Imperial Narcissism

In his studies of India and the West Indies, Naipaul recognises, and foregrounds, the colonial encounter as a pastoral relationship between the English metropolis and the far flung peripheries of empire. His insights, in this regard, are very close to those offered by Raymond Williams’ in The Country and the City. Williams, we might recall, reads the English pastoral as generic evidence for the fundamentally unequal relationship between metropolis and the rural periphery. In the course of its transmission, he argues, the form gradually becomes a pretext for the self-elaboration of metropolitan desire and identity. Concomitantly, the realities of country life all but disappear or, are actively repressed to achieve the projection of poetic/metropolitan conceits. ‘The pastoral drama beginning with Tasso’s Aminta (1572)’, he writes, is… the creation of a princely court, in which the shepherd is an idealised mask, a courtly disguise: a traditionally innocent figure through whom, paradoxically, intrigue can be elaborated’ (20).

Williams’ also acknowledges the pastoral underpinning of English colonialism. The paradigm of country and city, he tells us, has long exceeded the boundaries of the nation-state. Read especially as a set of overdetermined political and social relationships, the English pastoral has always sought a global provenance. In his words, ‘Much of the real history of city and country within England itself is from an early date a history of the extension of a dominant model of capitalist development to include other regions of the world… Thus one of the last models of ‘city and country’ is the system we now know as imperialism’ (Williams 279). Williams reading here is, of course, authorised in Mill’s earlier and explicit endorsement of colonial commerce as an extension of the city-country relation. ‘These [outlying properties of ours]’, he writes in his Principles of Political Economy, ‘are hardly to be looked upon as countries carrying on an exchange of commodities with other countries, but more properly as outlying agricultural or manufacturing estates belonging to a larger community… The trade with the West Indies is hardly to be considered an external trade, but more resembles the traffic between town and country’ (cited in Baucom 44).

While emphasising the socio-economic content of the colonial pastoral, Williams’ points to the specifically cultural mutations of this form in, among others, Kipling, Maugham, Orwell, Joyce Cary and, of course, Conrad (See Williams 281). In the work of such writers he observes the distinct emergence of imperial territory as ‘an idyllic retreat, an escape from debt or shame… an opportunity for making a fortune’ (ibid.). Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness (1964) and The Loss of El Dorado (1969), it might be suggested, pursue a similar reading of the colonial pastoral in India and the West Indies. Both books foreground the ‘colonies’ as a new peripheral theatre for the performance of English identity.

In An Area of Darkness, the scene of the colonial pastoral is written out in the language of touristic disappointment. Naipaul approaches India in the hope of discovering the pre-colonial landscape of his childhood imagination, and finds England instead. Much of the book is a response to this unwelcome surprise. The opening pages, with their account of Naipaul’s sea-borne approach to India, reveal, in advance, the traveller’s determination to recover a Europe-free zone in his ancestral homeland. Anticipating the East, then, Naipaul registers the ‘falling away’ of Europe ‘even in Greece’ (10). And so, progressively, the journey sometimes yields up the satisfactions of ‘withdrawn’ imperialisms (11), and sometimes discloses a fearful racial alterity as ‘the physique of Europe… melt[s] away’ (13). Yet, if the approach to India satisfactorily delivers on the promise of Eastern difference, India itself appears tragically overcome by an irrevocably ‘Englished’ landscape. The demystification comes even before Naipaul sets foot on Indian soil: ‘sitting in the launch about to tie up at the Bombay pier… the names on cranes and buildings were, so oddly, English’ (16). For the rest of the journey, England proves ubiquitous, living ‘in the shadow of imperial-grand houses’ (188); ‘in the division of country towns into “cantonments”, “civil lines” and bazaars… in army officers messes… in the silver… in uniforms and moustaches… in mannerisms and jargon… in the clubs, the Sunday morning bingo… the Daily Mirror’ (190).

Naipaul reacts to the ubiquity of England-in-India with a self-directed anger at his own belatedness. The journey described in Area, as he confesses elsewhere, is heavily invested with the desire to authenticate an ‘original’ fantasy about India: ‘India was special to England; for 200 years there had been any number of English travellers accounts and, latterly, novels. I could not be that kind of traveller. In travelling to India I was travelling to an un-English fantasy. There was no model for me here. Foster nor Ackerly nor Kipling could help’ (My Emphasis. Enigma 141). In context, Naipaul’s extreme aversion to the English possession of India is at least partly informed by the supersession of his autonomous fantasy by the very models he hopes to eschew: Kipling, Forster, Ackerly etc. And as Naipaul understands, a competition with these powerful predecessors for the creative rights of fantasy, is a bit like wishing colonialism away. And yet, the too excessive and insistent elaboration of Englishness in the subcontinent also betrays what we have described earlier as the logic of the colonial pastoral. For, in its self-referentiality, its very incongruity, the Englishness which Naipaul encounters in the land of his forbears, reveals a characteristically metropolitan self-regard. The Raj, as he bitterly concludes, ‘was an expression of the English involvement with themselves rather than with the country they ruled’ (201). Revealed as yet another rehearsal ground for the elaboration of English identity, postcolonial India bears witness to the symbiosis between imperialism and the emergence of the myth of English nationalism. So, tracking the literary history of the word ‘British’ from Austen to Forster, Naipaul finds a telling shift from a geographical idea to a cultural ideal. ‘Between the two uses of the word’, as he writes, ‘lie a hundred years of industrial and imperial power’ (196). It is possibly in India that the English fully succumb to self-love. After empire, Naipaul tells us, the writers of the nineteenth-century begin to report, ‘not on themselves but on their Englishness’ (ibid.).

If India is often cast, in Naipaul’s oeuvre, as the preferred site for imperial self-elaboration, The Loss of El Dorado (1969) foregrounds the West Indies as another overlooked setting for England’s self-consolidating performance. Framed by the European discovery of the new world, this monumental study substantiates what Naipaul himself describes as ‘a colonial aspect of the taste for pastoral’ (182). The book develops its thesis through a detailed account of the events surrounding the trial of a British governor, Picton, for the torture of one Luisa Calderon at the end of the eighteenth-century. Reading against the grain of Picton’s trial, Naipaul transforms a congratulatory account about imperial legislative justice into a narrative more concerned with a struggle over the signification of Englishness. In the face of growing abolitionist concern about Britain’s deteriorating image overseas, the Luisa Calderon ‘cause’ acquires an unexpected ideological urgency. Picton’s style of rough imperialism is suddenly rendered obsolete by a newly conscientious jury of ‘English radicals, English humanitarians, English patriots’ (184). By the time prosecuting First Commissioner, William Fullarton, begins to elaborate ‘Britishness as an ideal of justice and protection’, Picton does not stand a chance. Altogether superseded by a new and improved imperial fashion, his indictment confirms Englishness as the real subject of the trial. His victims, meanwhile, remain faceless and nameless in the self-regarding din of ‘London talk, from London people’ (257). ‘So much was written about the Negroes’, Naipaul wryly observes, ‘but the Negroes of 1800 remain as anonymous as the Indians of Las Casas three centuries ago. It is the silence of serfdom’ (250).3

Troubled as he is by such examples of imperial narcissism, Naipaul refuses to forgive the colonial world for its own unrestrained capitulation to the myth of Englishness. This is the underlying theme, as it were, of A Bend in the River (1979). In a brief but significant episode in this novel, the character Indar describes, in such terms, a culturally alienating visit to India House in London. The visit leaves him with a sudden nightmarish apprehension of his own contrivance by England. A new perspective on the borrowed English costume he wears, the ‘London building… which pretended to be of India’ produces something like the estrangement which qualifies the conclusion of ‘Conrad’s Darkness’. As he puts it: ‘I felt in that building I had lost an important idea of who I was… For the first time in my life I was filled with colonial rage’ (152). The rage is directed at England, at empire, but no less, also at ‘the people who had allowed themselves to be corralled into a foreign fantasy’ (ibid.).4

To an extent, of course, Naipaul comes to believe too much in his own exposition of the cannibalism and ubiquity of empire. Indar’s harsh indictment of colonial mimicry informs Naipaul’s easy dismissal of Indian nationalism as an English invention.5 The insistence that empire supplies the vocabulary for anti-colonial nationalism finds new expression in his judgement on other resistance movements in the colonised world. He readily and repeatedly dismisses negritude as a modernist invention, and in ‘Michael X’ (1980), Black Power is similarly condemned for its wholly derivative etymology. This study of the Black Power killings in Trinidad in 1872-’73, accounts for the revolutionary ‘negro’ as an English projection, produced—–much like the ‘shepherd’ of the conventional pastoral—–for the entertainment of a listless metropolitan audience. Such then, is his verdict on Michael X: ‘He was the total 1960’s negro, in a London setting; and his very absence of originality, his plasticity, his ability to give people the kind of Negro they wanted, made him acceptable to journalists’ (23). The damning notion of the anti-colonialist as an imperial mannequin is further developed in the character of Mr. Blackwhite, the colonial writer figure in A Flag on the Island (1967). Once marked by the apparent unauthenticity of his lurid English romances—–’all the time… only lords and ladies’ (184)—–Blackwhite is shown to be equally derivative when he starts to write nativist novels which are enthusiastically endorsed by his English audience. ‘Discovered’ by London, like Michael X and a host of Indian nationalists, he is rapidly dispatched to Cambridge to recuperate his colonised culture and ‘to do some work on your language’ (207).

In his studies of India and the West Indies, then, Naipaul bemoans the self-regard of empire. While pursuing the systematic ‘manufacture’ of Englishness in the colonial world he comes up against yet another aspect of imperial deceit, viz., the impassable gap between the imagined and the real England. And to this discovery we now turn, very briefly, in the final section.

The Fiction of England

El Dorado, as we have seen, takes as its theme the shifting and ‘constructed’ nature of Englishness. Such too is the subject of Area, which confirms Englishness as a theatrical ‘role’ rather than a cultural reality. Indeed, Naipaul tells us here, colonial mimicry is facilitated by the invented rather than essential nature of Englishness: ‘Almost the last true Englishmen… are Indians. It is a statement that has point only because it recognises the English “character” as a creation of fantasy’ (Area 41). Elaborating these perceptions in his early travel-book, Naipaul pushes against the suspicious, ‘full-bloodedness’, or excessiveness, of England-in-India, to reveal an England which simply does not ‘ring true’ (190-191). So, for instance, in the overproduced architecture of the Raj, he finds an England which protests too much: ‘Their grounds were a little too spacious; their ceilings a little too high, their columns and arches and pediments a little too rhetorical … a little too grand for their purpose … They were appropriate to a conception of endeavour than to endeavour. It was embarrassing to be in these buildings’ (33). Re-grafted into the alien top soil of Northern India, Eastern Africa, South-East Asia, imperial Englishness, Naipaul suggests, transmutes into something all the stranger for its colonial riches.

Writing in a similar vein about life as a civil servant in the former Ceylon, Leonard Woolf points to the blurring of fiction and reality in the making of Anglo-Indic burra sahibs and memsahibs. He writes, ‘The white people were… in many ways astonishingly like characters in a Kipling story. I could never make up my mind whether Kipling had moulded his characters accurately in the image of Anglo-Indian society or whether we were moulding our characters accurately in the image of Kipling story’ (Woolf 46). Naipaul’s reiteration of this reading—–’at the height of their power, the British gave the impression of a people at play’—–brings us in the presence of something that Baudrillard has called ‘hyperreality’. In his work on the excessive consumerism that marks late-capitalism, Baudrillard, as is well known, describes a cultural condition given over to the indeterminate play of simulations and images. The predicament of advanced capitalism as he sees it, then, is this: that the lines dividing the real and the unreal gradually become indistinguishable. So much so that artificial or fictive simulations achieve a ‘hyperreality’; in other words, they become more potently real than that which is real. So too, although in a world only just anticipating the culture of late-capitalism, colonial England becomes hyperreal in relation to its real/metropolitan counterpart. This is what Naipaul suggests when he tells us that ‘to be English in India was to be larger than life’ (Area 200).

Like many of his 20th-century postcolonial counterparts, Naipaul discovers that the real England, encountered in the flesh, falls short of the hyperreal England, manufactured and imagined in the colonies. Such is the lament recorded in a range of his minor and major, fictional and autobiographical, ‘arrival’ narratives: ‘I used to have a vision of a big city, it wasn’t like this’ (In a Free State, 72); ‘The Europe the aeroplane brought me to was not the Europe I had known all my life’ (Bend 237); ‘I no longer dream of ideal landscapes… all landscapes turn to land, the gold of the imagination to the lead of reality’ (Mimic Men 13); ‘England is not perhaps the country we thought it was’ (Overcrowded Baracoon 21); ‘I had come to England at the wrong time … I had come too late to find the England, the heart of Empire, which (like a provincial, from a far corner of empire) I had created in my fantasy’ (Enigma 120).

On the face of it, there is nothing especially delphic about the text of Naipaul’s disappointment. Measured against the English fictions of his colonial childhood, England itself simply fails to satisfy: a destination which falls short of tourist brochures. Indeed, the colonial migrant/traveller’s disappointment with the real England is already a postcolonial trope; a commonplace which invariably attends the much-awaited journey into the imperial heartland. Yet, one feature of Naipaul’s particular disappointment stands out, and deserves comment. It would appear that his complaint seems to accrue, in part, from the apparently contaminating presence in England of colonised people like himself. London, Naipaul’s books reiterate, is soured by the ubiquity of the third world. The streets seem overcome by North Africans, East Africans, West Indians, Arabs, South Asians, and the flotsam of Europe, journeying in at the end of Empire. As Indar says to Salim in A Bend in the River: ‘We’ve come here at the wrong time … When we were in Africa, in the good old days… I don’t suppose we thought it would be like this in Europe, or that the British passports we took out as protection against the Africans would actually bring us here, and that the Arabs would be in the streets outside’ (247).

We could read a text like this as evidence, yet again, of Naipaul’s adopted racism, or of his inherent conservatism. Naipaul, as Nixon insists, only criticises England when he finds the over-liberal postimperial welfare state hastening ‘national decline towards a third world degeneracy’ (Nixon 36). On the other hand, his consciousness of the colonial presence in London could also be read as an attempt to divulge England’s imperial legacy. For, as Said tells us, the residual history of empire is revealed precisely in such migrations from the ‘developing’ to the ‘developed’: ‘a vast new population of Muslims, Africans, and West Indians from former colonial territories now resides in metropolitan Europe; even Italy, Germany and Scandinavia must today deal with these dislocations which are to a large extent the result of imperialism and decolonisation’ (341).

The unwelcome surprise of finding East Africa in London is consistent with the material logic of the colonial pastoral, or, more specifically, with the reverse journeys provoked by its narratives. In The Country and the City Williams sees in successive rural emigrations to London, evidence of the dispossession produced, and long repressed, by the material practices underpinning pastoral poetry. The same reading, he writes, applies to the scene of colonial ‘arrival’ into the imperial metropolis: ‘unemployment in the colonies prompted a reverse migration, and following an ancient pattern the displaced from the “country” areas came, following the wealth and the stories of wealth, to the ‘metropolitan’ centre, where they were at once pushed in, overcrowded, among the indigenous poor, as had happened throughout in the development of cities (283). Could it be that the reverse migrations foregrounded and lamented in Naipaul’s books also register the savage inequities produced by empire? In other words, might we read his anger with the third-worlding of poor London as an anger about the repressed realities of the colonial encounter? There is enough in his prolific career that would suggest so.

Works Cited:


Baucom, I. Out of Place: Empire and the Locations of Identity. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999

Baudrillard, J. Simulations. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983

Farred, G. ed. Rethinking C.L. R. James. Oxford; Blackwell, 1996

Gikandi, S. Writing Identity and the Culture of Colonialism. New York: Columbia UP, 1986

Harney, S. Nationalism and Identity: Culture and the Imagination in a Caribbean Diaspora. London: Zed Books, 1996

Naipaul, V. S. The Mystic Masseur. London: Andre Deutsch, 1957

—–. The Suffrage of Elvira. 1958. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978

—–. Miguel Street. 1959. London: Andre Deutsch, 1966

—–. A House for Mr Biswas. 1961. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985

—– The Middle Passage. 1962. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975

—–. Mr Stone and the Knights Companion. London: Andre Deutsch, 1963

—–. An Area of Darkness. 1964. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968

—–. The Mimic Men. London: Andre Deutsch, 1967

—–. A Flag on the Island. London: Andre Deutsch, 1967

—–. The Loss of El Dorado: A History. London: Andre Deutsch, 1969

—–. In a Free State. 1971. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981

—–. The Overcrowded Baracoon. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973

—–. A Bend in the River. 1979. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980

—–. ‘Michael X’. In: The Return of Eva Peron with The Killings in Trinidad. New York. Alfred A. Knopf, 1980. 1-92

—– ‘Conrad’s Darkness’. In The Return of Eva Peron with The Killings in Trinidad. New York. Alfred A. Knopf, 1980. 205-228

—–. Among the Believers. London: Andre Deutsch, 1981

—–. ‘Prologue to An Autobiography’. In Finding the Centre: 2 Narratives. London: Andre Deutsch, 1984. 15-86

—–. The Enigma of Arrival: A Novel. Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1987

—–. India: A Million Mutinies Now. London: William Heinemann, 1990

—–. Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples. 1998. London: Abacus, 1999

Nixon, R. London Calling: V S Naipaul. Postcolonial Mandarin. Oxford, New York: OUP, 1992

Said. E. Culture and Imperialism London: Chatto & Windus, 1993

—–. ‘Intellectuals in the Post-Colonial World’. Salmagundi, no. 70-71 (1986): 44-64

—–. ‘The Postcolonial Intellectual: A Discussion with Conor Cruise O’Brien, Edward Said & John Lukacs. Salmagundi, no. 70-71 (1986): 65-81

Searle, C. ‘Naipaulicity: a form of cultural imperialism’. Race & Class, 26. 2 (1984): 45-62

Suleri, S. The Rhetoric of English India. Chicago & London: Chicago UP, 1992

Woolf, L. Growing: An Autobiography of the years 1904-1911. London, 1961


1 See Farred for C. L. R. James’ favourable assesment of Naipaul ( 42).

3 Gikandi’s reading of the 1865 Morant Bay rebellion develops a similar perspective (69)

4 See also, ‘Prologue to an Autobiography’ (58)

5 See Area of Darkness (398)


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