This is a fascinating book about a fascinating, inscrutable man whose books are widely read since he received the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature. It is also a book about a friendship that came to an unexpected and painful end.
"Sir Vidia's Shadow" has been widely criticized for being petty and revengeful. Unexpectedly though, it is not. In a very Naipaulian way, Paul Theroux turns his feelings for Naipaul and his sense of loss into detailed description, and in this imitation of Naipaul's style the book is much more a tribute to Naipaul than a work of slander.
"Sir Vidia's Shadow" is at its best when Paul Theroux balances the human weaknesses of Naipaul with his strengths as a writer. For example, when he reminisces, "I was a young man in Africa, trying to make my life. He was one of the strangest men I had ever met, and absolutely the most difficult. He was almost unlovable. He was contradictory, he quizzed me incessantly, he challenged everything I said, he demanded attention, he could be petty, he uttered heresies about Africa, he fussed, he mocked, he made his innocent wife cry, he had impossible standards, he was self-important, he was obsessive on the subject of his health. He hated children, music, and dogs. But he was also brilliant, and passionate in his convictions, and to be with him, as a friend or fellow writer, I had always to be at my best."
The book is at its worst when Thoreaux tries to analyze Naipaul: "I also saw that the man who dislikes children and doesn't have any of his own is probably himself childish, and sees other children as a threat. Vidia was the neediest person I have ever known. He fretted incessantly, couldn't cook, never cleaned, wouldn't drive, demanded help, had to be the center of attention."
Naipaul comes across as a passionate, dedicated, inspiring, demanding, meticulous, wide-awake, self-confident writer; but also as an often opinionated, fastidious, haughty, dogmatic, self-important, pompous, stingy, snobbish, garrulous, cruel, misogynistic, pampered, blunt, insensitive, angry, intolerant, mean man.
"Sir Vidia's Shadow" is well-written, entertaining, and contains some prime examples of Naipaulian political incorrectness ('To me, one of the ugliest sights on earth is a pregnant woman') and humor ("He said he had once received a letter from Penguin Books addressed to 'V.S.Naipull.' It was from a man named Anthony Mott. Vidia replied, typing on the envelope, 'To A Mutt,' and began his letter, 'Dear Mr. Mutt ...'"). My favorite Naipaulian provocation, however, is his claim "that book reviews served their purpose but had no lasting value, except for the jokes."