Tag: Tehran

Remembering Naipaul

Tuesday, 14 August, 2018

The novelist VS Naipaul, who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2001, died on Saturday evening in London. He was born in Trinidad in 1932, wrote more than 30 books including a genuine masterpiece, A House for Mr Biswas. He also fell out with the American travel writer Paul Theroux, who he had mentored, after Theroux discovered a book he had given Naipaul in a second-hand bookshop. After a bitter 15-year feud, they reunited and, paying tribute to Naipaul on Sunday, Theroux said: “He never wrote falsely. He was a scourge of anyone who used a cliché or an un-thought out sentence.”

Back in mid-August 16 years ago, Rainy Day went along one evening to hear Naipaul speak. Here’s what we posted the day after, 13 August 2002:

Honoured guest in Munich’s Literaturhaus last night was VS Naipaul, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature. Now 70, he says his contribution to letters is drawing to a close. Maybe two more books and that’s it. Quality, not quantity, however, is the measure of the man’s work and what a career he has had. His fiction remains definitive of the post-colonial experience and his fact, primarily travel writing, is without parallel because it describes not just places and people but the history and politics that have made them what they are.

From The New York Review of Books here’s part of Ian Buruma’s review of Naipaul’s magnificent Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples:

Why Islam? Why did Naipaul feel the urge to return to the Muslim believers? He offers some reasons. Peoples converted to Islam, he says, become part of the Arab story; they reject their own histories, turn away from nearly everything that is theirs. As a result, he writes, people “develop fantasies about who and what they are; and in the Islam of converted countries there is an element of neurosis and nihilism. These countries can easily be set on the boil.” There is another, more sweeping reason. Conversion, Naipaul argues, “can be seen as a kind of crossover from old beliefs, earth religions, the cults of rulers and local deities, to the revealed religions — Christianity and Islam principally — with their larger philosophical and humanitarian and social concerns.” The crossover to Islam, which still goes on, is “like a cultural big bang, the steady grinding down of the old world.”

Buruma is in splendid form here, and he continues: “There are many hints of this parallel with communism in Naipaul’s own account. During his first visit to Tehran, in 1979, he looks at the booksellers and cassette-sellers on Revolution Avenue, near the university. He sees books on the Persian revolution. He sees cassette tapes of Khomeini’s speeches, and those of other ayatollahs. And he sees piles of English translations of Marx and Lenin. As he observes: ‘One revolution appeared to flow into the other.'”

Beyond Belief The similarities do go back further than the recent Islamic upheavals. In the Prologue to Beyond Belief, Naipaul writes that the revealed religions (like Marxism) are more concerned with large humanitarian and social problems than the old beliefs. That is why so many Indians converted to Islam in the past, without having to be forced: Islam, with its egalitarian ethos, seemed the perfect way out for low-caste Hindus, who felt oppressed by the old beliefs. Naipaul doesn’t make a point of this, even though he gives a chilling description of the continuation of Hindu caste prejudices under the Islamic surface of contemporary Pakistan.

Communism, too, has (or had) Meccas far removed from most converts—in Moscow or Beijing. And communism is a notorious wrecker of the past: history is a mere collection of dustbins along the way to Utopia. In his section on Indonesia, Naipaul makes a very interesting comparison between nineteenth- century Sumatran pilgrims to Mecca and colonial students sent abroad in the twentieth century. The pilgrims returned from Arabia under the influence of Wa-habi fundamentalism and were ‘determined to erase local errors, all the customs and ceremonies and earth reverences that carried the taint of the religions that had gone on before….’ This is precisely what the most monstrous tyrants did in our own time, in the name of communism. Pol Pot wanted to remake Cambodia in the image of hazy visions picked up from revolutionary circles in Paris (not perhaps a Mecca of world communism, but at least a major shrine).”

Rest In Peace Sir Vidia. “The only lies for which we are truly punished are those we tell ourselves.” — VS Naipaul, In a Free State.