Online edition of Shunpiking
Published on Feb 2002
Culture & Life
NOT WORTH THE NOBEL PRIZE
Naipaul in denial
by PASCALE CASANOVA
WHEN Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul received the Nobel prize for literature in Stockholm in December, the event was reminiscent of Henry Kissinger being awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1973. Sweden – the Switzerland of literature – deliberates over the prizes, and masterfully selects the "classics of modernity".
The Swedish Academy has tirelessly promoted those whom it believes to be "pioneers of the literary arts"1 since 1945. TS Eliot took the prize in 1948 "for his outstanding contribution to present-day poetry". William Faulkner was nominated in 1949, when he was a virtual unknown even in his native land; the Stockholm judges considered him the 20th century’s greatest experimentalist of the epic. Samuel Beckett received the award in 1969; France’s Claude Simon, pioneer of the "new novel", in 1985.
The Academy has favoured the international avant-garde, and its refusal to concede to literary fads – or rapidly acquired reputations – is coupled with an independent political will. The prize committee, with a few exceptions, has refused to yield to diplomatic manoeuvres, national, European or international. Its criteria are exclusively literary and it has semi-progressive tastes. This was proved in 2000, when the prize went to Gao Xingjian; honouring a dissident Chinese writer (now a naturalised French citizen) was certain to displease the Chinese authorities. The Swedish Academy does not deal with political diplomacy, and it has been, wrongly, condemned for this; instead, it is concerned only with the literary and political merits of the works and authors. It has recognised minority and resistance writers – Derek Walcott, the black anglophone Caribbean poet (1992); Toni Morrison, African-American novelist (1993); Kenzaburo Oe, activist Japanese novelist (1994); Dario Fo, subversive Italian playwright (1997); and the German novelist Günter Grass (1999).
But to give the award to Naipaul is totally at odds with the historical traditions of this most prestigious of literary prizes. The Academy’s decision betrays the Nobel spirit, both in literarature and in politics. Naipaul has invented nothing novel in his novels, he merely shrewdly reproduces the narrative models of 19th century writers; his literary distinction, if any, derives from his conformity. He has written more journalism than any other major modern author, "investigations" into landscapes supposed "objectively" to describe third-world political and religious realities. He is a century and a half behind the times; his favourite novelist is Balzac and he unsurprisingly dislikes James Joyce’s "incomprehensibility" 2. Naipaul’s conventional style is to literature what his conservative public pronouncements are to politics.
For he subscribes wholly to British values and is devoted to defending his chosen cause. He was born in Trinidad in 1932 to an upper caste (but poor) Indian immigrant family, and left for Britain on a scholarship in 1950. He denies that journey and disavows his past; he sees himself as an English writer and his knighthood in 1991 reinforced his attempts at assimilation.
In The Enigma of Arrival, Naipaul writes of his "rebirth" in the English countryside. He describes Wiltshire’s beauty, its landscapes, seasons, flowers, and the houses that recall Britain’s past glory. Naipaul’s sad desire to erase his origins has led him to espouse prevailing values, and to scorn all those with whom he does not wish to be identified, the immigrant workers and the people of poor nations. His famous address in 1991 to New York’s Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (a conservative think-tank), was called "Our universal civilisation" – each word shows a naive identification with the West. This was a deliberate repudiation of his origins and a declaration of his capacity for denial 4.
Naipaul is contemptuous of the peoples of the South, and he is a mouthpiece for extreme conservative and nationalist views in Britain – his is a position usually associated with overly assimilated immigrants. With each new book he confirms again his lack of sympathy with the most marginalised peoples – particularly those with whom he shares a background – and uses his perceived membership in both the worlds of the privileged and the unprivileged as authorisation for his views.
Naipaul’s pose is especially loathsome because of his cruel and cynical descriptions of misery. He blames underdeveloped countries for their underdevelopment, rather than enquiring into the historical roots of the problem. Western readers, who think of Naipaul as a Westerner, frequently mistake his attitudes for an objective viewpoint. Those he attacks in print are powerless and cannot fight back – this may be the reason why Salman Rushdie criticised Naipaul’s "Olympian" disdain 5. Derek Walcott noted "Naipaul’s repulsion towards negroes" 6.
Naipaul has propagated anti-Islamic views for years, and sought historical and political justification for doing so. His premise, which he writes repeatedly, is: "When you convert [to Islam], you become transparent, and culturally empty" 7. He has also said that "there probably has been no imperialism like that of Islam and the Arabs"; that populations colonised by Islam regard themselves as "stripped by their faith of . . . expanding cultural and historical knowledge of the world"; that "the faith was the complete way, filled everything, left no spare corner of the mind or will or soul"; and that the world should be discussing Muslim "hysteria"8. He believes that Islam represents tyranny. India’s decline was not caused by English colonialism but Muslim imperialism: "To be converted, you have to destroy your past, destroy your history".
Naipaul has recently explained that, as a Hindu from the Brahmin upper caste, he now understood the need for the caste system; and of Shiv Sena, the fascistic Hindu party of India, he said: "I have the most sympathy with these movements coming from below" 9.
Naipaul should never have been awarded the Nobel prize: his lack of creativity should have precluded him even from the Academy’s short list 10. And it is an even more serious error of judgment at this particular moment in history to give the prize to a hatemonger and an Islamophobe.
Literary critic and author of La République mondiale des lettres. Histoire structurale des révoltés et des révolutions littéraires, Seuil, Paris, 1999.
1 See Kjell Espmark, The Nobel Prize in Literature: A Study of the Criteria behind the Choices, Macmillan, 1991.
2 See interview with Hector Bianciotti, Le Nouvel Observateur, 18 July 1981.
3 V S Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival, Knopf, New York, 1987.
4 New York Review of Books, 31 January 1991.
5 Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991, Penguin, New York, 1992.
6 See Petri Liukkonen, Books and Writers.
7 Le Monde, 17 July 1998.
8 V S Naipaul, "Notre Civilisation Universelle", Le Débat, Paris, no 68, p. 86.
9 Le Monde, 13 October 2001.
10 Even if some of his earliest novels (Miguel Street, The Mystic Masseur, A House for Mr Biswas) did offer original insights into the poorest societies and the immigrant’s worldview.
Reprinted from Le Monde Diplomatique, December, 2001
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