Things we learn from VS Naipaul’s interview with The New Republic

It’s hard to be a Diasporic Indian sometimes. And Sir Vidiya in the news never helps. The New Republic’s book editor, one Isaac Chotiner, felt that V.S. Naipaul was the right person to seek out for commentary on the Arab Spring. Because “Many of his books are set in post-colonial societies—from Africa and South America to Iran and Pakistan.” And because “Naipaul showed a skepticism about revolutions and social change that gave him a reputation for pessimism and prescience” when others were “cheering the end of the age of empire.”

At home in his Kensington flat (obviously, as do many experts on the general demise of Africa, he lives Elsewhere), the Trinidadian-born author begins by telling his interviewer why he no longer spends as much time at his country residence in Wiltshite: because his cat died.

“Now that Augustus has died, I want to spend more time in London…It is too painful to be [in Wiltshire]. I think of Augustus. He was the sum of my experiences. He had taken on my outlook, my way of living.”

If only Augustus was the sum of V.S. Naipaul’s experiences. He may have napped a lot, sniffed a bum or two, and ended up on some “my cat is evil” video on Youtube, providing endless amusement for office workers. And if he were just the ordinary misanthrope and misogynist, almost-concurrently  exchanging recently deceased first wife (who died after a long battle with cancer; during her illness, he famously had many affairs, and gave an interview about his visits to prostitutes) for creepily-fawning new wife, Nadira—this, even while he finds abhorrent people’s suggestion that he gets a new cat to replace Augustus—we would just write him off.

But because he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, interviewers keep trying to paint him anew, bring him back to civility, using words like “complicated” or phrases like “brutally honest” to describe his erroneous pronouncements. They try to resurrect some semblance of his significance by referring to his capacity to produce books, invent a nice turn of phrase, bringing up his quite remarkable capacity for book-learning, and his general (perhaps even an exceptional) level of cleverness. And I’m certainly not denying him those things. I often wonder if people who write about Naipaul are only seeing their own gentle intelligence and capacity for compassion (as was evident in Teju Cole’s recent essay, ‘Natives on the Boat’, in the New Yorker).

Vidiya’s conclusions for the great energies of the Arab Spring?

“I think it’s nothing. You saw how it ended in Libya. It ended in a kind of mess, you know. It will happen elsewhere, too.”


“I thought it was nothing really. It would come and go, and we’ll be back where we started.”

However, he continues to need the fawning masses, especially those in the very societies that he denigrates and dismisses — the infidel hordes from “Islamic” countries, the Africans — even if he says that “people coming up to one…it doesn’t mean anything.” Nadira Naipaul insists that he’s misunderstood because “he didn’t make the right noises about racism.” She also reminds us that all that fawning “does mean something to [Naipaul].” Naipaul, in her version of him, is “very moved by [people coming up to him]. Especially when people in Africa, or Pakistan, in other countries, in Islamic countries, when people actually seek you out and they start crying. … In Uganda, people actually came to seek you out and say thank you for looking at us and you are right.”

This is what Chotiner went to London to get? Two sentences about the “nothingness” of Egypt’s mass demonstrations, and how the Ugandans tearily thank him for “looking at them” and reassure him of his “rightness”? People. Let’s stop asking Naipaul for his opinions about revolutions and countries he’s never been to since 1964. The man wants to be a dictator.

4 thoughts on “Things we learn from VS Naipaul’s interview with The New Republic

  1. Elsewhere, Nadia Davids summed it up thus, “Isn’t a lack of genuine empathy for *people* but a fixation/idealisation of pets/animals one of the symptoms of being a sociopath? Just saying…”

  2. Unfortunately, he has been back to Africa since 1964. Just a few years ago, a trip resulted in the horrible “The Masque of Africa.” But it may just as well have been written in 1964, or 1934.

    • Oh yah, I wiped out the memory of his treatise trip to discover the “nature of African belief” by erm, going to some haphazard collection of countries (Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Gabon and South Africa). A wheelbarrow ride later, he was no less tetchy and misinformed. Who the hell wanted Naipaul’s take on the whole Africa? And what publisher wanted him to do a sweeping caricature of an entire continent’s ways of practicing the sacred? Picador. Profane.

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