Since leaving his native Trinidad thirty-three years ago, V. S. Naipaul has written eight novels and seven books of social and political commentary, most of them dealing with Third World politics in a decidedly unaccommodating way. When the most recent of these, a report on Islamic fundamentalism called Among the Believers, was published two years ago, one reviewer alleged that Naipaul “underplays or perhaps misses the forms of foreign domination to which the Islamic revival is a deeply felt, if catastrophic, response.” Yet to suggest that V. S. Naipaul somehow misses the effects of foreign domination in writing about the old colonial world is like saying that he has somehow mislaid his central theme. For in all the “half-made lands” he has visited through the years, the peripatetic Naipaul has found the most damaging consequence of colonialism to be precisely a legacy of destructive resentment.
Up to a point, of course, such resentment was only natural. In colonial societies, enforced subordination and arbitrary power were usually galling, and the background of slavery in the West Indies was a good deal worse. Naipaul first turned to examine these matters in a work of nonfiction, The Middle Passage (1962); and with his next such work, The Loss of El Dorado (1969), he showed impressive powers as a historian in bringing to life both the most banal and the most pitiable details of the slaves, the traders, and the plantation economy. In doing so, however, Naipaul came to see that historical disadvantages were only a beginning in trying to understand a colonial people. They were the background against which to inquire into the damaging and perhaps crippling effect this history had had upon post-colonial attitudes, values, and behavior.
A clue was to be found in Joseph Conrad. Naipaul reports that in the course of successive readings of The Secret Agent a certain passage took on a deepening significance. Karl Yundt, wrote Conrad, was a revolutionary intellectual who had never personally “raised so much as his little finger against the social edifice.” Instead “he took the part of an insolent and venomous evoker of sinister impulses which lurk in the blind envy and exasperated vanity of ignorance, in the suffering and misery of poverty, in all the hopeful and noble illusions of righteous anger, pity, and revolt.”
Naipaul tells us that when he first read this passage his eye was caught by the sinister impulses behind the noble illusions. But on a later reading another phrase stood out: “the exasperated vanity of ignorance.” And perhaps one can see why, in the harsher political climate of the 1970’s, these words took on a richer meaning for Naipaul. During the 1950’s, when he wrote his West Indian novels, the vanity of colonial ignorance may have seemed merely comical. But when, in one country after another, this “exasperated vanity” suddenly exercised governmental power, a force for barbarism might spread throughout the world.
The West Indian country for which Naipaul’s apprehensions proved truly prophetic was Surinam, formerly Dutch Guyana. Since 1980 Surinam has been run by a military clique under Colonel Dési Bouterse, a man who had been warning for some time that he planned to stamp out parliamentary government as soon as practicable, and to establish a miniature Cuba replete with “neighborhood committees” and “popular militias” and the usual un-neighborly and unpopular things. From his published photograph the colonel looked well-organized, with a neatly trimmed black beard and a digital watch which included a calculator. And in December 1982 he struck. Estimates of the number of prominent people shot have varied, but all effective political opposition to the colonel and his “revolutionary” NCO’s has apparently been wiped out, the dead including a trade-union leader, an editor at a local news agency, and the head of the local bar association.
To understand the colonel, Naipaul’s twenty-year-old psychological commentary (in The Middle Passage) on the Surinam independence movement remains invaluable. He was by no means unimpressed by Surinam—and certainly appeared to prefer it in some respects to both Trinidad and British Guyana. In Paramaribo he found himself taken up with enthusiasm by a local poet, and running his eyes over the town, he appreciatively noted the old Dutch colonial architecture with its “run-down provincial elegance.” For their part the Dutch themselves seemed sensible and sympathetic. The unusual variety of the population—Javanese, Chinese, Indians, “Bush-Negroes,” along with the majority of Negro-Dutch Creoles to which Colonel Bouterse evidently belongs—appeared to be going its pluralistic way in relative amity, while the late-colonial administration did its dogged best to work out a satisfactory constitution for the country before the great day of “independence” dawned.
Yet despite everything, a shadow had fallen across the land. All the signs indicated that a potentially violent nationalism was arising which proved that “the objection to colonialism in the West Indies is not only economic or political, or, as many believe, simply racial.” Rather, it had to do with vague and general feelings of inferiority for which the public talk about “political liberation” and “economic equality” was a kind of rhetorical disguise.
As Naipaul saw it, the deepest and certainly the most ineradicable roots of the anti-colonial movement were psychological—they arose from the “distorted identity” of colonial peoples, along with that envious and exasperated sense of being on the fringe of a dominant civilization which they would always need, on which they would always be parasitic, but which, in the nature of things, would never be able to satisfy their even greater need for self-esteem:
Europe, the Surinam nationalist says, is to be rejected as the sole source of enlightenment; Africa and Asia are to be brought in as well. But Europe is in the nationalist’s bones, and he feels that Africa and Asia are contemptible and ridiculous. The Dutch language is to be rejected . . . and its place taken by—what? A limited local dialect which used to be called talkie-talkie.
But “talkie-talkie” was hardly a substitute for a developed language. And there could never be any serious or deep sympathy between the forest-dwelling Bush-Negroes and the thoroughly Westernized Surinamers of the towns. The irreconcilability of these aspirations seemed insoluble: though it was always possible, Naipaul concluded, that the attempted solution would be “violent and extreme.” Enter, some twenty years later, with a smoking Kalashnikov in his hand, Colonel Dési Bouterse.
Like certain other authors to whom we attribute the invention of distinctive literary terrains, Naipaul might be credited with the invention of “Colonia”—though not so much its invention as the painfully accurate description of a political landscape marked by some or all of the following melancholy features: societies entirely created by colonialism, either for the purposes of slave plantations or as convict dumping grounds, and heir to the intractable resentment inherent in such arrangements (the West Indies). Tribal societies shattered by colonialism’s modernizing impact and either drifting or collapsing into a shambles of post-colonial disorder (Zaire, Uganda, and now Zimbabwe). People trapped between traditions they cannot endure and a modernity they cannot achieve, uncertain which of these frustrations they resent the most (India). And everywhere, in every capital of every land, Westernized intellectuals created by Europe and America and then sent home to countries where they no longer truly belong, whose bitterness is expressed in a noisy public rejection of the West and all it stands for, combined with a private longing both for its amenities and for the prestige which only Western success and approval can bestow.
At home, these Westernized intellectuals have simplified politics into a jargon about class enemies and racial enemies; abroad, in the councils of the “nonaligned,” they have simplified such matters as Third World poverty into the rhetorical demonology of anti-colonialism. What has given their pronunciamentos on behalf of the poor an added poignancy is that most of them are themselves the newly rich “new class” of the new societies—people for whom independence has meant first of all an abundance of well-paying, self-created sinecures. Indeed, the very extravagance of the salaries they have demanded and the cars they drive is a measure of their insecure status and their need for public esteem. They are the elite; they live more comfortably than anyone else in their own lands; yet they are unhappy. Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth speaks for them all, for as with Fanon himself, their wretchedness has nothing to do with poverty. Theirs is a misery of the spirit—the misery of colonial foxes, yearning for metropolitan grapes, which they are obliged to denounce to the world as sour.
The politics of sour grapes is nothing new. Nor is the compulsive destructiveness to which it often leads. Sociologically, some seventy years ago, it even received a degree of formal recognition in the work of the German philosopher Max Scheler. The combination of an envious longing and of an impotent inability to achieve some high ideal, and the malevolent steps by which the ideal is first denigrated, then its destruction sought, and finally some barbarous substitute raised up in its place, was a phenomenon to which Scheler gave the name ressentiment. In the 1920’s ressentiment was invoked to explain the rise of Nazism in Germany, and given the evidence, it is surprising that it has been so little used to explain the varieties of “Left fascism” so prevalent in the Third World today. Its characteristic emotion is a kind of retributive vengefulness toward whichever class or race or cultural tradition impairs one’s self-esteem; and its characteristic political expression consists of policies which satisfy no economic rationale but exist almost entirely to satisfy a need for revenge.
Although to the best of my knowledge Naipaul never makes use of the term ressentiment, perhaps from a fastidious distaste for jargon, the concept itself permeates his work. In another of his nonfiction books, The Return of Eva Peron (1980), explaining the milieu from which the Black Power careerist Michael X emerged in Trinidad, Naipaul speaks of “the hysteria and evasions of racial politics. And racial politics—preaching oppression and easy redemption, offering only the theory of the enemy, white, brown, yellow, black—have brought society close to collapse.”
At a certain point “the theory of the enemy” as presented by Naipaul becomes hard to distinguish from the coarse and easy simplifications of ordinary scapegoating, or from the kind of full-fledged political paranoia exemplified for Naipaul in Peronism. Devoid of any serious policies, Peronism can only be defined in terms of its enemies. As listed by one member of the Peronist party, these are “American imperialism. And its native allies. The oligarchy, the dependent bourgeoisie, Zionism, and the ‘sepoy’ Left. By sepoys we mean the Communist party and socialism in general.”
“What did we talk about?” asks the retired West Indian politician Ralph Singh, reminiscing about his life in Naipaul’s novel, The Mimic Men (1967):
We were, of course, of the Left. We were socialist. We stood for the dignity of the working man. We stood for the dignity of distress. We stood for the dignity of our island, the dignity of our indignity. Borrowed phrases! Left-wing, right-wing: did it matter? Did we believe in the abolition of private property? Was it relevant to the violation which was our subject?
All too plainly it was not. Wounded dignity, a hypersensitive colonial self-esteem which would only be satisfied when someone else was seen to be symbolically stripped and violated—these were the deep, unmentionable motives. Ralph Singh himself had long ceased to believe that the abolition of private property and the nationalization of the plantations and estates would serve any economic purpose. But there was now no going back. From one end to the other of the fictional island of Isabella the cry of “Nationalization!” was heard. Soon it ceased to have any meaning whatever. “Nationalization had become a word. It had no meaning . . . to some it was a word of fulfillment and to others a word of revenge.”
A few years later, reporting from Zaire, Naipaul encountered an atmosphere of terrified uncertainty as the Zairois “new class” of demi-educated clerks, encouraged to plunder traders and shopkeepers and to confiscate their property, suddenly found itself bullied in turn by an exasperated and moody President—Mobutu Sese Seko, Guide of the Authentic Zairois Revolution, Father of the Nation, and disciplinarian supreme. The President’s exasperation was justified: the nationalizations had achieved nothing at all. Carried out in the name of “Africanization” and “the dignity of Africa,” they were, wrote Naipaul, “petty and bogus; they have often turned out to be a form of pillage and are part of no creative plan; they are as short-sighted, self-wounding, and nihilistic as they appear, a dismantling of what remains of the Belgian-created state.” The pillaging completed, supplies of even the most ordinary necessities of urban life ran out, and the shelves were bare.
The case of Uruguay, which, after long experience of democratic rule, almost willfully reenlisted in the ranks of “Colonia,” was even more extreme. At the time of Naipaul’s visit to Montevideo in the early 1970’s, out of a workforce of just over a million, 250,000 were in government employ. The telephone department alone had forty-five grades of civil servant, and although the business it did was lamentably slow,
the public, scattered among the messengers and the police dogs of the foyer, is uncomplaining: many of them are civil servants from other departments, with time on their hands. . . . The padding of the civil service, which began thirty years ago, in the time of wealth, disguises unemployment and urban purposelessness. Everyone knows this, but too many people benefit: the whole state has been led into this conspiracy against itself.
As life in this penniless wonderland slipped further and further into paralyzed incapability, many Uruguayans consoled themselves by denying the value of what could no longer be accomplished. Modernity could not be achieved internally: the level of science and technology was too low. Nor could it be bought externally: there was now no money to buy it. It therefore followed that the entire direction in which the modern world was moving had to be disavowed, discredited, dismissed: “We won’t progress. What’s progress, though? America? That’s consuming and stressing, keeping up with the Joneses. We don’t have that kind of shit here, if you pardon the expression.” But what was publicly derided was secretly envied, longed for, nostalgically remembered as something which was once more substantial than a dream. Montevideo had handsome buildings, avenues, and parks. But these now had to be seen as the spendthrift grandeur of a people whose city had only the flimsiest fiscal base. “Their habits of wealth made them, profoundly, consumers, parasitic on the culture and technology of others.”
This has become a theme which recurs throughout Naipaul’s later books on India and Islam: the blind, uncomprehending, and resentful parasitism of the technologically backward on the technologically advanced, and the moral and emotional predicament of those who find themselves in this situation:
The West, or the universal civilization it leads, is emotionally rejected. It undermines; it threatens. But at the same time it is needed, for its machines, goods, medicines, warplanes, the remittances from the emigrants, the hospitals that might have a cure for calcium deficiency, the universities that will provide master’s degrees in mass media. All the rejection of the West is contained within the assumption that there will always exist out there a living, creative civilization, oddly neutral, open to all to appeal to. Rejection, therefore, is not absolute rejection. It is also, for the community as a whole, a way of ceasing to strive intellectually. It is to be parasitic. . . .
To be consciously parasitic, to have to acknowledge openly one’s impotence, is intolerable to colonial pride. And it is the extreme humiliation of this impotence that breeds the most extreme form of the politics of resentment—nihilism as an end in itself. In Uruguay this found expression in the gangs of urban middle-class guerrillas who called themselves Tupamaros. “They were destroyers. They had no program.” And when in 1972 their parricidal fanaticism turned on the armed forces, they were themselves destroyed.
Practicality, and especially the practical matter of what is to be put in place of what is destroyed, has never been “Colonia’s” strong point. “We zestfully abolished an order,” says Ralph Singh in The Mimic Men. “We never defined our purpose. And it has happened in twenty countries.” As one thing after another is rejected, and one economy after another nationalizes, and either expels or cripples its entrepreneurial classes, Naipaul finds throughout the ex-colonial world a growing dereliction. Imposing buildings erected by the late colonial rulers are converted into museums where the whispers of ancient attendants are the only voices heard. Then the museums themselves succumb to tropical rain; the roots of plants invade the masonry; and piece by piece the ruined masonry falls.
Sometimes, however, this dereliction is caused by deliberate destruction—the defaced pedestals and smashed floodlights and the vandalized and looted suburbs in what is left of the Belgian presence in Zaire: “The wish had only been to get rid of the old, to wipe out the memory of the intruder,” says the narrator, Salim, in A Bend in the River (1979): “It was unnerving, the depth of that African rage, the wish to destroy, regardless of the consequences. . . .”
But equally common is the dereliction caused by complete incomprehension of the complexities of the social and economic life which has been either seized or inherited—complexities which, because unseen, are not even suspected to exist. In an early and poetic form this is the dereliction which comes to the splendid Trinidad estate of “Shorthills” when the all-consuming Indian Tulsi family moves into it in Naipaul’s first novel, A House for Mr. Biswas (1961).1
Upon the arrival of the Tulsis the estate had orange groves, an avenue up to the house lined with palms, a cricket field used by local villagers, cocoa woods, and avocado trees. In the timber house “a folding screen separated the regal drawing room from the regal dining room. . . .” But an estate of these dimensions requires care and maintenance and that is something the Tulsis have never considered. First the children set mischievously to work. The lianas are stripped from the saman tree. Then the mango tree is cut down. Plundering of the orchards begins and the swimming pool is partly filled in. “Week by week the bush advanced and the estate, from looking neglected, began to look abandoned.” Gradually the eroded cricket field turns to mud and manure, and slides into a gulley. And suddenly, in less than a morning, all the palms lining the avenue are cut down. Their hearts are eaten by the insatiable Mrs. Tulsi, who has heard of their medicinal value. A fire which breaks out sweeps through much of the estate, and as they contemplate its smoking desolation, the nearby villagers, a community of mixed French, Spanish, and Negro extraction (the estate having been owned by a French family), “were confirmed in their belief that their village had been taken over by vandals.”
Yet self-inflicted dereliction of the kind portrayed by Naipaul has an innocence for which vandalism is obviously the wrong word. And indeed, in the novel, an Indian sense of fatality envelops the blind career of the Tulsis. What the Tulsis want—a world of orange groves and expansive rural grandeur—is fatefully at odds with what the Tulsis are, people who do not know how to care for or preserve. The dereliction they bring belongs to a familiar list of unintended effects. It is of an altogether different order from the dereliction to be found in Africa, in which the relation among envy, destructiveness, and ignorance is compounded by vanity—a vanity projected by the figure of Ferdinand in the novel A Bend in the River.
In the opinion of Salim the narrator, an Indian storekeeper and trader, Ferdinand is barely “out of the bush.” But he has been to school, he has a lycée blazer, and he has listened to the dictatorial “Big Man” whose blaring speeches continually denounce the malignity of the West, foresee its replacement by a benign and vigorous Africa, and suggest that no achievement is too great for his own people. The result is that in his lycée blazer,
Ferdinand saw himself as evolved and important, as in the colonial days. At the same time he saw himself as a new man of Africa, and important for that reason. Out of this staggering idea of his own importance, he had reduced Africa to himself; and the future of Africa was nothing more than the job he might do later on.
Ultimately it is not Ferdinand but another who inherits his boss’s job. After “the revolution is radicalized” and the state seizes the Indian narrator’s store, Citizen Théo-time arrives as the new man in charge, and reduces the former owner Salim to a sort of under-manager, a stage on the path to making him a chauffeur. But Théo-time is unable to play his role with ease, and the galling realization of this fact make him constantly malicious toward Salim:
The trouble now was that he didn’t know what to do. He would have liked to live out his role in fact—to take over the running of the shop. He knew, though, that he knew nothing; and he was like a man enraged by his own helplessness. He was drunken, aggrieved, and threatening. . . . It was strange. He wanted me to acknowledge him as the boss. At the same time he wanted me to make allowances for him as an educated man and an African. He wanted both my respect and my tolerance, even my compassion. He wanted me, almost, to act out my subordinate role as a favor to him.
Not the least memorable figure in this novel is Raymond, a European hanger-on of the dictator from the old colonial days, a “historian” who, while making sotto-voce allusions to Mommsen, is able to move dexterously from the glories of the Pax Romana to the glories of the promised Pax Kinshasa without missing a historical beat. His home is in the multimillion-dollar extravaganza of the Presidential Domain, a suitable place for parties attended by visitors from American universities, and while a Joan Baez record plays softly in the background, he excuses himself to go and work on his “research.” This involves a publication which has now occupied him for some time: selections from the Big Man’s speeches—“the essential thoughts.” As an example of the Big Man’s more populistic manner, one of these speeches is set down verbatim. The reader feels it must be very close to some utterance of President Mobuto which the author of A Bend in the River had personally heard:
Citoyens-citoyennes, monkey smart. Monkey smart like shit. Monkey can talk. You didn’t know that? Well, I tell you now. Monkey can talk, but he keep it quiet. Monkey know that if he talk in front of man, man going to catch him and beat him and make him work. Make him carry load in hot sun. Make him paddle boat. Citoyens! Citoyennes! We will teach these people to be like monkey. We will send them to the bush and let them work their arse off.
In these words the new Maoist King of the Congo is dispatching his more uncontrollable enthusiasts (an unwholesome blend of Red Guards and Brown Shirts) off to the bush for a spell of redemptive labor. And because neither his tone nor his manner is attractive, it is the task of assorted academic aides-de-camp to make this sort of thing more palatable. Devastating events, arbitrary and savage, continually overtake these cosmetic endeavors, but the Raymonds of “Colonia,” with a little help from their friends, usually escape across the river as the fires spread to their waterfront homes, or just manage to get the last plane out before the derelict cities fall. The resident population with whose lives the Raymonds have been playing, however, is not always so fortunate.
At a rather more rarefied academic level, these “scholars” whose specialties are usually in international relations, or development economics, or political science, or anthropology—are they really so different from those countercultural drifters described elsewhere by Naipaul in the following terms?
People who substitute doctrine for knowledge and irritation for concern, the revolutionaries who visit centers of revolution with return air tickets, the hippies, the people who wish themselves on societies more fragile than their own, all those people who in the end do no more than celebrate their own security.
But perhaps the most representative of Naipaul’s various apologists and camp followers is an Englishwoman, Gale Benson, knifed to death in the early 1970’s in a Trinidad commune. The commune had been founded by Michael X, “a typical Trinidad con-man” who had impressed enough people in London to achieve a certain media fame before, in 1971, retiring to a corner of Trinidad where he more and more came to see his role, his destiny, and his fate, in terms of racial revenge. When Gale Benson chose to participate in these obsessions, she too became a part of that fate.
In recounting this true story in The Return of Eva Peron, Naipaul plainly shows some sympathy for the leading actors and for the world of the Trinidad slums out of which so many of them came. But for the mixture of vanity and self-deception which Benson herself embodied Naipaul had no sympathy at all: she “was as shallow and vain and parasitic as many middle-class dropouts of her time; she became as corrupt as her master; she was part of the corruption by which she was destroyed.” And she could hardly claim to have been utterly ignorant of the risks. Vengeance requires victims, and to her killer she offered a throat which was gratefully, if unceremoniously, cut. In this mortal coming together of self-deceiving metropolitans and vindictive ex-colonials, Naipaul surely wants us to see a metaphor for our times.
1 Recently reissued, with a new foreword by Naipaul, Random House, 481 pp., $17.95.