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Sir V(idiadhar) S(urajprasad) Naipaul

V.S. Naipaul

Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born in 1932 in a small town in Trinidad into a family of Indian Brahmin origin. His father, Seepersad Naipaul, was a correspondent for the Trinidad Guardian. He also published short stories. When Naipaul was six the family moved to Port of Spain, the capital. Seepersad Naipaul died of a heart attack in 1953 without witnessing the success of his son as a writer. He had encouraged Naipaul in his writing aspirations, telling him in a letter: "Don't be scared of being an artist. D. H. Lawrence was an artist through and through; and, for the time being at any rate, you should think as Lawrence. Remember what he used to say, 'Art for my sake.'" At the age of 18 he had written his first novel which was rejected by the publisher.

Naipaul was educated at Queen's Royal College, Port of Spain, and in 1950 he won a scholarship to Oxford. After a nervous breakdown he tried to commit suicide, but luckily the gas meter ran out. While at Oxford he met Patricia Hale; they married in 1955. She died in 1966 and Naipaul married Nadira Alvi, a divorced Pakistani journalist. On graduation Naipaul started his career as a freelance writer. During this period Naipaul felt himself rootless, but found his voice as a writer in the mid-1950s, when he started to examine his own Trinidadian background. From 1954 to 1956 Naipaul was a broadcaster for the BBC's Caribbean Voices, and between the years 1957 and 1961 he was a regular fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

Naipaul published his first books in the late 1950s. MIGUEL STREET (1959) was a farewell to Port of Spain, Trinidad. The colorful characters of the sketches include Bogart, who got his name from the film Casablanca, B. Wordsworth who sells his poetry for four cents, and Man—man who is a real mystery to the people of Miguel Street. The narrator is a boy who grows up, starts to earn his own money and finally goes abroad to study. "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." In later works Naipaul gave up comedic tones but in 1960 Charles Poore could write in his review of the book: "A comparison with "Porgy and Bess" has been suggested. The parallel has at least the merit of reminding us that the whole world is one. In that hospitable mood we might also remember Mark Twain's tales of life on the Mississippi. But Miguel Street, in Trinidad, is not really very much like Catfish Row, nor are reminders of nineteenth-century Missouri prevalent. What is true and, if you will, significant about Mr. Naipaul's book is that it presents a world of its own excellently." (The New York Times, May 5, 1960)

In 1961, A HOUSE FOR MR BISWAS was published. Often regarded as his masterpiece, the book tells the tragicomic story of the search for independence and identity of a Brahmin Indian living in Trinidad. The protagonist, Mohun Biswas, was partly modeled after the author's father. Naipaul has said about this character and his father: "My father was a profounder man in every way. And his wounds are deeper than the other man can say. It's based on him, but it couldn't be the real man." Later Naipaul returned to his father in BETWEEN FATHER AND SON (1999), a record of their correspondence in the early 1950s.

In 1961 Naipaul received a grant from the Trinidadian government to travel in the Caribbean. From the wide period of travels in the 1960s and early 1970s in India, South-America, Africa, Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and the USA, Naipaul produced among others INDIA: A WOUNDED CIVILIZATION (1977), and A BEND IN THE RIVER (1979), a pessimistic novel about Africa, proclaiming the corruptibility of mankind. 

Since 1950 Naipaul has lived in Britain, but traveled extensively. His essays and travel writings are often negative, unsentimental explorations of West Indian society as in THE MIDDLE PASSAGE (1962). "The steel band used to be regarded as a high manifestation of West Indian culture, but it was a sound I detested." AMONG THE BELIEVERS: AN ISLAMIC JOURNEY (1981) was accused by Muslim readers of narrow and selective vision of Islam. Naipaul searches the sources of the new Islam—and the ideological rage. "Islam sanctified rage—rage about the faith, political rage: one could be like the other. And more than once on this journey I had met sensitive men who were ready to contemplate great convulsions." (from Among the Believers) Naipaul's latest travel books include BEYOND BELIEF: ISLAMIC EXCURSIONS AMONG THE CONVERTED PEOPLES (1998), intimate portraits from his journeys to the non-Arab Islamic countries of Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, and Malaysia. Naipaul tries to understand the fundamentalist fervour that have marked the Western image of the region. "There probably has been no imperialism like that of Islam and the Arabs," he writes. In Iran he meets war veterans, who express their disillusionment and their sense of being manipulated by the mullahs, and in Indonesia he meets his former friend, who opposed the Suharto regime, and later became an establishment figure, an advocate of an Islamicist future.

In his semi-autobiographical novel THE ENIGMA OF ARRIVAL (1987) Naipaul depicts a writer of Caribbean origin, who finds joys of homecoming in England after wandering years—during which world stopped being a colony for him. Central themes in Naipaul's works are damaging effects of imperialism upon the people of the Third World, exemplified in cultural alienation and illusory 'freedom'. As a writer he has been compared to Joseph Conrad because of similar pessimistic portrayal of human nature and the themes of exile and alienation. "Barbarism in India is very powerful because it has a religious side," he once stated. In the essay 'Conrad's Darkness' (pub. in THE RETURN OF EVA PERON, 1980) Naipaul sees his own background as "one of the Conradian dark places of the earth."

In the 1990s Naipaul concentrated on non-fiction. In 1994 appeared his long-awaited novel, A WAY IN THE WORLD, an autobiography and a fictional history of colonialism, presenting stories from the times of Sir Walter Raleigh to the nineteenth-century revolutionary Franciso Miranda. In HALF A LIFE (2001) the protagonist is Willie Somerset Chandran, born in India in the 1930s. His second name he has got from the English writer Somerset Maugham, who has met his father. Willie moves to London, drifts in bohemian circles, publishes a book, marries Ana, a woman of mixed African descent, and moves with her to Africa, to her family estate. Willie has problems to come in terms with himself, as the son of a Brahman, who has married an "untouchable." His father is a rebel who ends at a monastery. Willie rebels against his own background and the wishes of his father, with whom he has more in common than he admits. In his wife's home country, in which colonial system is breaking down, Willie is also an outsider. After eighteen years he decides to leave her, and find his true identity. He has lived half a life, a shadow life, but Naipaul doesn't tell will happen to him. Willie's existential search continues and the rest of his story is left open.

Willie's decision parallels with history of the the American writer Paul Theroux, who depicted his decades long friendship with Naipaul in Sir Vidia's Shadow (1998). In this angry and unforgiving book Theroux eventually is rejected by Naipaul and he realizes he has come out Naipaul's shadow, he is free. Theroux considered earlier the older writer as his mentor but the friendship ended in breakup, which Theroux sealed with his bitter accusations. "I had admired his talent. After a while I admired nothing else. Finally I began to wonder about his talent, seriously to wonder, and doubted it when I found myself skipping pages in his more recent books. In the past I would have said the fault was mine. Now I knew that he could be the monomaniac in print that he was in person." (from Sir Vidia's Shadow) Among Naipaul's several literary awards is the Booker Prize for IN A FREE STATE (1971). He was knighted in 1989 and in 1993 he won the first David Cohen British Literature Prize for "lifetime achievement by a living British writer". Naipaul's manuscripts and extensive archives have been deposited in the University of Tulsa.

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