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V.S. Naipaul’s Nobel

| October 12, 2001

The enigma of arriving.

Literature is a lost tribe these days, as desperate for an audience as Kurds are for a homeland. So it’s worth footnoting the one day a year when the Swedish Academy’s Nobel Prize reminds us of the tribe’s existence.

This year’s winner for literature: V.S. Naipaul, Trinidad-born but British, and only half as obscure as the usual October surprise from Stockholm.

Naipaul’s reputation has been growing as much for being the Susan Lucci of laureates (he’s been passed over for the prize for at least 10 years) as for publishing stories, plotless novels and journalistic travelogues at dependable intervals since 1957.

He never seems to have had a drinking problem, flings with starlets or sexual traumas, which — on the American literary circuit, anyway — helped to disqualify him from bestsellerdom and Vanity Fair photo shoots. Most good writers have boring lives, so Naipaul at least fits that bill. He’s worth a look.

As literary tribesmen go, Naipaul really is a nomad. He’s made a career of writing about belonging to no place, “unanchored and strange,” as he put it in “The Enigma of Arrival” (1987). Few lines better fit as a banner for the 21st century, even if Naipaul was a chronicler of the 20th. He’s been particularly attracted to the shifty grounds of post-colonialism — his own Trinidad, the Congo, India, the Islamic world — where centuries of European occupation finally ended in a void of uncertainties.

And here’s where the Swedish Academy’s choice becomes a little curious. Among Naipaul’s most acclaimed books are his two takes on Islamic fundamentalist regimes: “Among the Believers” (1981) and “Beyond Belief” (1998). Both books synthesize his travels in Iran, Indonesia, Pakistan and Malaysia at two decades’ intervals. The books are collections of bleak and disdainful snapshots of the “people- building force” of Islam.

Read again today, they are reflections of the West’s worst fears — not because they explain Islamic fundamentalism very well, but because they explain Western ethnocentrism perfectly. They explain, too, their relative success in the West.

To Naipaul, the world is divided between the “modern,” the “civilized,” the West. And then the rest. The rest can be benign. It can be an African nation, like the Congo, that plunders itself for lack of affordable plunders elsewhere. Or it can be Islamic fundamentalism from the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, a melting pot of seething resentments forming a geographic sickle on Asia’s underbelly.

It’s not that Naipaul’s view of that part of the world has been inaccurate. He can be as precise as the best journalists. What’s off-putting is his premise, his inability to see the Islamic world as anything more than a function of the West (or a dysfunction of the West, as the case may be now). The Islamic world, in short, is his example of what the West must not become.

Yet he never explores colonialism’s responsibility in seeding that world’s resentments against the West.

The Swedish Academy pretends that its prizes have no hidden meanings. But the peace and literature awards are the most political prizes on the planet.

As a recognition of Naipaul’s beautiful literature of exile, the literary prize is an unremarkable nod to a fine writer. As an endorsement of Naipaul’s view of the divide between Islam and the West, however, the academy’s choice is as suspect as Naipaul’s own latent longing for the days when colonialism kept a lid on so much fury.

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