Tag: The New York Review of Books

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.


From left to right: Houellebecq reviewed

Thursday, 19 November, 2015 0 Comments

As we approach the penultimate day of our Submission series, it’s time to take a look at how the book has been received on the left and on the right. First up, Mark Lilla in The New York Review of Books. With a nod to the Bethlehem of Yeats in The Second Coming, his review is titled Slouching Toward Mecca. Lilla is at pains to emphasizes that none of the characters in Houellebecq’s novel expresses “hatred or even contempt of Muslims.” Instead, “It is about a man and a country who through indifference and exhaustion find themselves slouching toward Mecca. There is not even drama here — no clash of spiritual armies, no martyrdom, no final conflagration. Stuff just happens, as in all Houellebecq’s fiction. All one hears at the end is a bone-chilling sigh of collective relief. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. Whatever.”

Submission Douglas Murray takes a more robust approach in Quadrant with A Society Ripe for Submission. Like Lilla, however, he stresses that the novel is not the cartoon that its detractors have claimed it to be: “Of course it is worth stating from the outset — since in these times we seem to have to do such things — that even if Submission were the most anti-Islamic, ‘blasphemous’ and offensive novel ever written Houellebecq would have the right to publish it and do so without being judged by politicians or gunmen who in their different ways fire off over books they don’t read. As it happens, Submission is not a simple provocation. It is a deep, gripping and haunting novel which proves a culmination point of Houellebecq’s work so far and, in my view, a recent high-point for European fiction.”

In his conclusion, Mark Lilla interprets Submission as Houellebecq’s reckoning with a country and a continent that have run out of road in the modern world:

“He appears genuinely to believe that France has, regrettably and irretrievably, lost its sense of self, but not because of immigration or the European Union or globalization. Those are just symptoms of a crisis that was set off two centuries ago when Europeans made a wager on history: that the more they extended human freedom, the happier they would be. For him, that wager has been lost. And so the continent is adrift and susceptible to a much older temptation, to submit to those claiming to speak for God. Who remains as remote and as silent as ever.”

The “Who” there is echoed in the “whose” at the close of Douglas Murray’s assessment of the novel:

“Houellebecq’s career has included several fateful coincidences of timing. But perhaps the most propitious is that his work has come to artistic maturity at just the moment to capture a society tipping from over-ripeness into something else. What precisely? More decadence, barbarism, or salvation? And if salvation, then what kind, and whose?”

Tomorrow, here, we conclude our week of Submission.