16 of 22 people found the following review helpful
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When one reads Naipaul's nonfictional essays, and compares them with his fictional works, one is most certainly not as impressed. In this prolific collection- 550+ pages, Naipaul documents his diverse essays, on diverse topics, from India to Anguilla, from New York, to Algeria. Let me begin with the first essay, which, not surprisingly, regards a visit to the city of Calcutta. There is a slight background material- about Trinidad, and then starts the prophet-of-doomsday attitude. One is almost irked when continually perusing through words like "decaying", "morbid", "ruin". If India would actually be a dying culture, it would have by now been history. But it still persists, flourishes, and exports it culture. Naipaul is relentlessly critical of Indians, deeming them "indifferent", "primitive", etc. He lashes out at Hinduism with a sudden passionate loathing- "The barbaric rituals of Hinduism are barbaric, the idea of the holy cow is absurd." All this gives an impression of a ceaslessly pessimistic man, who is born to extract only the most troubling aspects of Indians, ignoring the democracy, ignoring the culture, ignoring the slow progress, ignoring the values- in short, making a thorn of every petal. But, one must admit, Naipaul's opinions about India are true, and being an Indian myself, it is nothing extraordinary. But of cruelty, and malice, one does not approve- Naipaul's satire on the Indian accent: "Esomerset, Eshelly, Eshakespeare", is almost as if Naipaul is on some evil mission to forever degrade common people. If writing about such extraneous incidents is your idea of humor, Mr. Naipaul, certainly we do not approve it. This attitude of rooting out the utmost filth out of a poor country, reveals how depressed Naipaul is, and how audacious, let go haughty.
But there is something almost magical about Naipaul's words, his interpretations are often profound, and his humor cultivated. The second essay, about the election in Ajmer, is captivating. At the end, you feel as if there lies a novel in the entire essay on the election, and a good revelation on the politics of India. Gradually, the essays become less profound, more documental, and more random. But one question still haunts- if Naipaul glorifies the West, and rubbishes the third world, how come most of his writings are on the third world, or non-western cultures? Why not write about Germany? The reason is that Naipaul finds material to criticize to be absent in the West- it merely serves as a model- a model of perfection, and a useful tool for deriding colonial peoples, though deriding impressively.
28 of 40 people found the following review helpful
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What can one say about V.S. Naipaul the essayist? This collection contains most of the shorter pieces that have made his reputation. There are the beginning pieces on India, and there are the well-known essays on Michael X, on Mobutu, on the collapse of Argentina in the 1970s. There are also the later pieces on the failed Grenadian revolution and on Cheddi Jagan, the Marxist Guyanan politician who was kept out of power by American and British electoral skullduggery. There are also several essays on America, including ones on Steinbeck, a surprisingly uncontemptuous piece on Norman Mailer's 1969 mayoralty campaign and a particularly perceptive piece on the 1984 Republican convention. And finally there is the concluding essay "Our Universal Civilization."
Surely there is much to support the opinion of Naipaul's enthusiastic followers who at the same time have praised him for refuting liberal sentimentalities. There is the fine readable prose and the cutting observation. One notes this in the essay about the election campaign in India where the conservative candidate spouts pseudo-Gandhian rhetoric about the purity of agriculture in a land of desperate poverty. The candidate even says that piped water would only make the women who spend several hours going back and forth to wells lazy. There is the theme of a lethal sentimentality: On the Jan Singh party "Like parties of the extreme right elsewhere, the Jan Singh dealt in anger, simplified scholarship and, above all, sentimentality." On Steinbeck: "His sentimentality, when prompted by anger and conscience, was part of his strength as a writer. Without anger or the cause of anger he writes fairy-tales." On Republican Party Ideology: "Americanism had become the conservative cause, and Americanism was most easily grasped, most ideal and most sentimental (sentimentality being important to any cause of the right) in comic books...and the lesser cinema." In the essay on the return of Peronism there are many caustic remarks against Jorge Luis Borges, about Borges' failure to critically analyze his country's past, the theme of racial degeneration in his work, and his tasteless jokes about the systematically slaughtered Argentinean Indians. Likewise, there is some truth when Naipaul says of Argentina that "...to be European in Argentina was to be colonial in the most damaging way. It was to be parasitic. It was to claim...the achievements and authority of Europe as one's own", even if it is more true of, say, Canada. And certainly many of the essays are very powerful: such as the essay on Michael X, a self-serving thug and hustler who prattled "Black Power" rhetoric in Trinidad before murdering two followers and being hanged for them.
One should criticize his view of Islam, starting with his use of the term "Mohammedan." Naipaul argues that the imperial conquests of Islam were especially nasty in the way that the Arab culture simply denounced the pre-existing culture into oblivion. This is an oversimplification for several reasons. First off, the examples he uses, Pakistan and Iran in 1979, are not typical even of those countries' long histories, let alone of other countries like Indonesia or Nigeria. Secondly, one can find equally boneheaded comments in the history of Christianity, whether it is of Augustine and other church fathers dismissing Aristotle and Plato, or the Protestant Reformation's lack of enthusiasm for the Renaissance. Thirdly, what about Christianity and American Indians?
Nevertheless when one looks at the essays on Mobutu's Zaire, now collapsed into brutal civil war, or at the essays on Argentina before the Dirty War or the nervous essay on the Ivory Coast before President Houphouet-Boigny apparently "successful" rule collapsed into disaster. Surely one can only praise Naipaul for his prophetic talents, for the courage of his pessimism? Quite frankly, I have some doubts. If sentimentality is unearned emotion, it should be remembered that pessimism can be unearned as well. Consider the essays, written more than thirty years ago, about Belize and Mauritius. They are just as pessimistic as the others, about mass unemployment, overpopulation and empty politics. Notwithstanding that the two small countries have remained democratic states for the past three decades, not something one would have predicted from Naipaul. The concentration on superstition and magic can be amusing: Naipaul relates a report about an old Indian sage who claimed that he was now able to walk on water, arranged an elaborate demonstration, and promptly sank. But whether it is India, or the Ivory Coast, or Argentina, Naipaul is always looking for something silly or superstitious and this palls. There is much that is depressing about Argentina: but to say that Argentina has produced nothing more than New Zealand is cheap, and Naipaul does not even bother to mention Sabato, Cortazar or Puig, who might challenge this view. It also strikes me as gross oversimplification, to say the least, that the essence of Argentine sexuality is brutal heterosexual sodomy. There is something profoundly unhelpful about all this: professional pessimists too have the luxury of having return tickets in their pockets, and when conservatives praise Naipaul one feels that it is because he grants his subjects just enough freedom to justify their condemnation into hell.