On Naipaul, etc.

"There is the real enigma: that the provincial, the colonial, can never civilize himself beyond his province, no matter how deeply he immures himself in the woods of a villa outside Rome or in the leafy lanes of Edwardian England. And that is not pathetic; it is glorious. It is the other thing that is the final mimicry: to achieve absorption into what is envied not because that absorption is the dissolution of individuality, the sort of blessed anonymity that Hinduism teaches, but because it is only the vain mutter of 'I have survived.'

As beautiful as the prose becomes in the first chapters of this novel [The Enigma of Arrival], it is scarred by scrofula, by passages from which one would like to avert one's eye; and these reveal, remorselessly, Naipaul's repulsion towards Negroes. It is a physical and historical abhorrence that, like every prejudice, disfigures the observer, not his object. To cite examples would reduce the critic to the role of defender or of supplicant, would expose him to more of Naipaul's scorn. That self-disfiguring sneer that is praised for its probity is only that: a wrinkling of the nostrils, a bemused crinkling of the eyes at the antics of mimicking primates, at their hair, at their voices, at their hands extended in the presumption of intimacy."

{ Derek Walcott, "The Garden Path: V.S. Naipaul," What the Twilight Says: Essays, FSG, 1998 }


In a profile of Walcott earlier this year in The New Yorker, Hilton Als quotes him as referring to Naipaul's disdain toward the Caribbean. Something along the lines of: "But of course we have culture here. How can Naipaul claim otherwise?" And yet Naipaul does this quite often. Particularly, as Walcott and Chinua Achebe point out, when it comes to blackness. Naipaul's narrators often stop to highlight distortions or cartoonish exaggerations of blackness. I imagine this is the same disdain, or self-denial, one sometimes finds in Venezuela when it comes to blackness or indianness. 500 years of colonization have left certain Eurocentric tendencies among us.

But one must read Naipaul for the wonder of his prose. And for his exploration of the various forms of exile and cultural displacement experienced by many of us in the Caribbean and Latin America. At times, when I was reading The Mimic Men, I momentarily lost track of whether the protagonist was in England or in the fictionalized version of Trinidad, Isabella. He was a shade, a ghost in both places. Dispersed and unable to return to any sense of home.

In The Mask of the Beggar, Wilson Harris is once again addressing this topic of the attempt to return home, always unsuccessfully. Like Walcott's Omeros, Harris' novel rewrites The Odyssey in seven cantos. They both make it clear that this postcolonial/postmodern experience of exile and displacement is not a new poetic subject. What is distinct is how Walcott and Harris approach the matter: from simultaneous and multiple directions. Harris, in particular, breaks his narrative into quantum fragments that repeat themselves with subtle variations throughout his seven chapters/cantos. When his Odysseus returns to the fictional South American city of Harbourtown, he has been away for centuries and one is never sure if it's him, his ghost or his echo that walks those crowded, precarious streets.

Walcott and Harris constantly return to tribal affiliations, poems and books that have survived the Middle Passage and the inferno of colonization. Those indigenous traces are as alive today as they were centuries ago, only now they're blended into the landscape (both human, vegetable and animal). Part of what these two poets are attempting (and what Naipaul seems to avoid) is to sustain those indigenous breaths and words that are often, and mistakenly, considered extinguished:

"The artist experiences an excitement, troubling and ecstatic, as he finds himself launched on pathways he never expected to travel and on which his intuition is aroused afresh."
(The Mask of the Beggar)

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