Each year for the past decade, I have been convinced that the Nobel Committee in Stockholm was not so much annually awarding their literary prize to different writers as they were denying it to V.S. [Vidiadhar Surajprasad] Naipaul. How else to explain why the planets peerless prose master, author of countless novels, literary travelogues, provocative social and cultural critiques, could be so consistently snubbed?
This year, the Nobel Committee apparently could deny him no longer. And so, the Trinidad-born, Oxford-educated, India-descended writerthe worlds most renowned man of letters without a countryhas the award he long deserved. The timing of the award is both fortuitous and potentially unfortunate.
Fortuitous, because Naipaul is one of the most incisive chroniclers of the Islamic world, and his unflinching honesty is something the planet must hear, whether or not it has wanted to in the past. Fortuitous for him, personally, because he has just published a new novel, Half A Life (Knopf), his first fiction in seven years.
Potentially unfortunate, because Naipaul has developed a reputation for being anti-Islamic. He is not; he is anti-ignorance, anti-fanaticism. But he is not anti-Islamic. If anything, he seems to hold all religions in equal disdain, but he happens to think Islam is the most openly dangerous in the modern world. He seems to hold all peoples in equal disdain, too, for that matter.
This, apparently, is the price to be paid for being a man without a country or a culture unblighted by colonialism (Trinidad, India). Furthermore, he ishow to put thisnot an altogether pleasant chap (see Paul Therouxs brilliant 1998 chronicle of his soured friendship, Sir Vidias Shadow, for a full whiff of Naipauls numerous neuroses). These were all strikes against Naipaul in the make-nice, celebrity-obsessed world whose bubble burst on Sept. 11, 2001.
Though Naipauls legion of detractors will no doubt have a field day over his winning the Nobel, this should not stop anyone who loves great writing from seeking out his work. This should also not stop those whove dismissed him as a pessimistic crank in the past from rereading himbecause what he portended has turned out to be chillingly accurate. We are poorer as a civilization for having ignored Naipauls warnings.
The most pertinent book anyone can read at the moment might just be Naipauls 20-year-old Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981), a truth-filled, tough-minded account of his lengthy visits to four different Islamic societies (Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia). Several things become clear about Islamic fundamentalismto Naipaul, they are one and the same thingand space permits only mentioning a few.
One, practitioners of radical militant Islam do not like history, as it clashes with their myopic worldview. Secondly, practitioners of radical militant Islam are almost all men. Thirdly, like most male religious fanatics (including fundamentalist Christians) practitioners of radical militant Islam have little regard for women. (From the Koran: "For those [wives] of whom you fear disobedience, send them to beds apart and beat them."). Finally, practitioners of radical militant Islam really, really, really hate Western women. Because they are "liberated," because they have choices, because they display exposed flesh in public.
In Among the Believers, Naipaul describes what he calls the "thuggish public life of Muslim polity, where in practice, the only morality (and also the eternal balm) was the possession of faith."
He refers to the blinkered view of an Islamic past, as "The time before Islam is a time of blackness: that is part of Muslim theology. History has to serve theology."
Naipaul meets a zealous Muslim revolutionary in Indonesia who matter of factly tells him, "I am preparing the new generation to replace all this." Naipaul then ponders what the young man, Imaduddin, has said: "To replace all this. But for what, and by what? Not by new institutions, but only by men as pure and cleansed as himself
To replace all this: Islam sanctified ragerage 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."
An Indonesian Muslim businessman blithely tells Naipaul, "We have to kill a lot of people. We have to kill one or two million of these Javanese."
About Pakistan, Naipaul writes, "History as selective as this leads quickly to unreality. Before Mohammed there is blackness: slavery, exploitation. After Mohammed there is light: slavery and exploitation vanish. But did it? How can that be said or taught? What about all those slaves sent back from Sind to the caliph? What about the descendants of the African slaves who walk about Karachi? There is no adequate answer: so the faith begins to nullify or overlay the real world."
Continuing: "The military rules; political parties are banned. There is 15 percent literacy, and fundamentalism stifles the universities. There is no industry, no science. The economy is a remittance economy; the emigrants, legal and illegal, pour out. But in the social studies textbook in the sixth class in English-language schools the child reads:
we are a democratic country. Here everyone is free to adopt the occupation of his choice. This is the secret of our progress."
Naipaul ends the book pondering the tenacious but dangerous mental landscape of the young man in Indonesia:
"The logic of Imaduddins faith, and his own integrity, was simple: injustice was un-Islamic, and Indonesia was full of injustice. And the Imaduddin who grieved about injustice at home could travel without pain to Muslim despotisms abroad. To these countries he travelled as to lands of the achieved faith. In such lands you did not look for injustice; you considered only the leader, and felt cleansed by the purity of his faith. He had told me he spent a couple of days in Pakistan
Of the institutions of Pakistan, of its phantom Islamic laws, its martial law and constitutional breakdown, its political abjectness, the public whippings, the censorship, the humiliation of the intellectualsof this he knew almost nothing. Why did he know so little? He said, Perhaps its because of the Western press.
How banal and yet how frightening is such ignorance, especially compounded by the fact that 1.5 billion people in the world are said to profess the Islamic faith. While we profess to be tolerant of all religions here in the United States, radical Islam is not tolerant even of our existence. It wants to exterminate us; this goal is, in fact, a religious duty. This sense of a religious duty is based on an interpretation of history that is essentially a fairy tale. The distorted logic of the fanatic folds in on itself like the Worm Ouroboros or an M.C. Escher architectural fantasy.
Contributing to this sense of unreality is the fact that we are constantly being told by timid talking heads that Islam is a peaceful religion, but that consolingly simplistic view does not set right with Naipaul. (Nor should it set right with most Americans, as the most visible proponent of Islam in the U.S. is Louis "Kill Whitey" Farrakhan, who has been conspicuously silent about the recent series of despicable crimes committed here in his religions name). Naipaul has gone everywhere in the world where Islam has spread (including Iran on the eve of the Shahs overthrow), and the truth is that a fundamentalist core in each "Islamic nation" trumpets a murderous jihad as the panacea to all social, moral and political ills.
So-called moderate Muslims can take exception with this all they wantindeed, we must ask the question, honestly, is there even such a thing as a "moderate" Muslim?but it still doesnt change the fact that thousands, if not millions of children are being taught by hate-filled mullahs that the United States is evil and that non-Muslims are infidels. Screaming at Naipaul for pointing this outnot just pointing it out but going to these hotbeds and interviewing the principlesis tantamount to shooting the messenger. Wasting energy responding to this review is also pointless.
The point is: unless something is done within the world of Islam to curb these strains, then the sense of outrage over Naipaul, or even this woefully inadequate assessment of the Nobel laureates career, is just pissing in the wind. Because, just as the Taliban gave cover to Osama bin Laden, the world of Islam gives cover to violent, brutal fanatical wings of their religion like the Taliban. So-called moderate Muslims donate money to overseas charities, not bothering to find out how much of that money ends up in the hands of these powerful mullahs who brainwash the young with messages of hate. What is the point in sugarcoating this?, Naipaul seems to ask. He seems to ask that of everything he writes about, not just Islam. The blood, he seems to say, is on your hands, not mine, and his prodigious body of work speaks for itself.
Naipaul has since written another book on Islam, Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted People (1998), a sort of follow-up to Among the Believers that was roundly vilified by academes, opinion shapers and apologistic Islamic scholars. Its a wonder, in fact, that Naipaul wasnt the one with a fatwa on his head, rather than Salman Rushdie. After all, Rushdies "sin" was contained in a work of fiction; Naipauls were always grounded in fact.
Naipaul has examined the land of his Hindu forebears with equal ferocity in several books, including An Area of Darkness (1964) and India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990). He has made few friends there, as well, by his honesty.
Perhaps it ultimately comes down to this: Rather than simply studying the facts of the case, as Naipaul has always done unflinchingly and often with brutal honesty, the overriding intellectual current of the past decade or so has been to widen the stream so that any crackpot with Internet access and a smattering of half-digested information can piss into it. All water, of course, runs downhill, so that by the time it gets to you or me, the truth is so obscured it might as well be a lie.
This, of course, only served to shrink Naipauls place at the table, to erode his intellectual perch (he is affiliated with no university or school of thought, after all). His message never changed, but the worlds ears did.
As for his fiction, a separate review would be needed to do justice to such works as his classic "big" novels, A House for Mr. Biswas, A Bend in the River and Guerrillas. His most recent "big" novels, like A Way In the World and The Enigma of Arrival, are to be avoided, as they contain long, discursive, "experimental" (read: boring) passages that give only fleeting glimpses of his best work. For those daunted by the task of finding any entry point whatsoever into his work, the best place to start might be earlier, "smaller" works of satire, like The Mystic Masseur or Miguel Street.
With a Nobel under his belt, Naipaul might just begin to win the appreciative audience he has always richly deserved.