V. S. Naipaul’s Secret Sharer
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V S Naipaul’s ‘Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad’ begins, not with the murder weapon, but its innocent accomplice: ‘A corner file is a three-sided file, triangular in section, and it is Used in Trinidad for sharpening cutlasses.’

This first sentence could be Browning in his murder mystery, The Ring and the Book, evoking that Genoese dagger ‘triangular i’ the blade’. It was Browning who asked, rhetorically, ‘Is fiction which makes fact alive, fact too?’ Of course, there is nothing fictional about that ‘corner file’. But, in conjunction with Naipaul’s title, its presence in that opening sentence constricts our breathing. And the ‘dull’ factual record which follows is therefore radioactive, a mundane transaction whose very ordinariness seethes with irony: ‘On December 31st, 1971, in the country town of Arima, some eighteen miles from Port of Spain, Steve Yeates bought such a file, six inches long. Yeates, a thirty-three-year-old Negro, ex-RAF, was the bodyguard and companion of Michael de Freitas – also known as Michael X and Michael Abdul Malik. The file, bought from Coobal’s Hardware, cost a Trinidad dollar, 20p. It was charged to the account of “Mr Abdull Mallic, Arima”, and Yeates signed the charge bill “Muhammed Akbar”. This was Yeates’s “Muslim” name. In the Malik setup in Arima – the “commune”, the “organisation” – Yeates was Supreme Captain of the Fruit of Islam, as well as Lieutenant Colonel (and perhaps the only member) of Malik’s Black Liberation Army.’ Meticulous, evidential prose, forensic in tone, transcribing errors of orthography, judicious in its deployment of inverted commas, dry. Yet as distant as possible from a legal deposition and drenched in ironic dread, full of fear and foreboding – thanks to the art of that first sentence, its perfectly placed pellet of poison. ‘Used in Trinidad for sharpening cutlasses.’

Might it be the case that V S Naipaul’s essays in reportage – undertaken, faute de mieux, to bridge ‘a creative gap’ when no novel ‘offered itself’ to Naipaul – actually constitute his central achievement? More controversially, might it not also be the case, that these factual excursi are his greater achievement because they disclose fictional properties, fictional inflections, fictional arrangement? Greater, then, because, much more than orderly exposition and objective analysis, they evidence selection and a solipsistic certainty verging on omniscience – qualities we more readily associate with novelistic art.

‘Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad’ is Naipaul’s account of Michael Abdul Malik’s life and death by hanging. It is primarily a factual report based on the court proceedings, the legal record. (Even here, Naipaul’s ruthless cropping of the picture is clear if you compare his account with that of his wife Patricia Hale, as it appeared in The New Review, Vol 2 No 14, May 1975. Sonny Parmassar’s role as witness for the prosecution is edited out. Sam Brown, a defendant against whom all charges were dropped, fails to feature in Naipaul’s narrative.) But ‘The Killings in Trinidad’ is also an analysis of motive and causation – an argument advanced which is only quasi-factual, necessarily speculative, and perhaps solipsistic, whose conviction rests as much on the novelistic presentation as on the objective, abstract merit of the arguments. In short, because we believe in the corner file’s undeniability, because it tells, we take on trust what Naipaul’s other file tells us about Malik’s motivation. Perhaps wrongly.

At the end of his essay on Michael X, Naipaul returns to the murder of Gail Benson, with which he began. His opening pages end on an horrific post-mortem fact about the burial: ‘She was not yet completely dead: dirt from her burial hole would work its way into her intestines.’ The final account is fuller, too full to quote – full of the murderers’ panic and incompetence, until Yeates, who had bought the corner file, takes ‘lucid’ action. That one adjective, ‘lucid’, with its connotations of rationality, in conjunction with irrational, sordid action, is the measure of Naipaul’s ironic, unsentimental talent. ‘The broad blade went in six inches, and Benson made a gurgling noise.’ But Benson’s feet were ‘still beating about’ as they filled in her grave. We are given the complete police inventory of her buried belongings: ‘one tube Avon Rose-mint cream’, ‘one Liberation of Jerusalem medallion with 7.6.1967 stamped thereon’, ‘one brown small tablespoon’, ‘one blue ballpoint pen’.

It is these insignificant, irrefutable details that underwrite Naipaul’s analysis of Malik and the Black Power phenomenon. Naipaul’s exact ear for Caribbean patois makes its contribution, too. Naipaul is expert at the elision of verisimilitude into analytic truth. This is Rawle Maximin, a minor character on the very edge of the Malik drama: ‘Michael impress me a lot when he come back. He always move in a big way. If they are selling orange juice in that bar there for a dollar a glass and they are selling that same orange juice in that other bar for two dollars, he want the two-dollars one. If you go to the supermarket with him he fulling up two trolleys, one with meat only, I liked him very much. He never made me feel less than a man. And he always give. I still have a pair of black socks of his.’

A blue ballpoint pen. A pair of black socks. And, on the same continuum, Malik as the creation of gullible, guilty white radicals – who fashioned this pimp, petty criminal and extortionist, into a racial victim, an icon of liberal guilt. If, temporarily, Malik was famous, internationally feted and financed, it was only because he plagiarised the rhetoric of American Black Power – just as English pop stars made ‘cover’ versions of US hits. Malcom X. Michael X. He had no original talent. And, as Naipaul rightly points out, Black Power was more or less meaningless in a Trinidadian context – where there was no white power to oppose. (If anything, it came to mean black racism directed against the creole.) Thus far, Naipaul’s analysis is unarguable – even if it means that he has little sympathy to spare for Malik’s victim, Gail Benson, who, in this analysis, is partly responsible for her fate. (He takes his horror and revulsion as read. But this isn’t the same thing as sympathy.)

The real point of dissent should come with the most seductively elegant of Naipaul’s analytic propositions – that Malik was a novelist. Which, of course, in a sense, he was. Narrated by a thirty-year-old Englishwoman, Lena Boyd-Richardson, Malik’s ‘novel’ about himself was written ‘in a cheap lined quarto writing pad’ – ‘solid unparagraphed pages in pencil or ballpoint, the writing small, very little crossed out, the number of words noted at the top of each page.’ There were at least fifty pages of inadvertently hilarious self-aggrandisement. A dust-free copy of ‘Salammbo that masterpiece of Flaubert’s’ convinces the upper-crust Lena Boyd-Richardson that ‘he not only have books but actually reads and understands them’ – two qualifications which carefully eliminate competing eventualities, the possession of unread books, and the non-comprehension of ‘read’ books. But Mike is a man of culture: he plays ‘Thihikosky 1812′ on his gramophone.

From this hint, from the talentless tyro, vulnerable to ridicule, Naipaul extrapolates in every direction – past and future. ‘Malik was made by words, his and other people’s.’ So much for the past. The future is more problematic. We are offered the murders of Gail Benson and Joseph Skerritt as ‘literary murder’. An afternoon bathing party is ‘like an episode in a dense novel’ – with ‘many purposes’ and ‘many meanings’. Of course, Naipaul knows that Malik ‘had no skills as a novelist, not even an elementary gift of language’. So he makes Malik a novelist in a different medium – life. ‘When he transferred his fantasy to real life, he went to work like the kind of novelist he would have liked to be. Such plotting, such symbolism! The blood of the calf at Christmas time, the blood of Gale Benson in the new year. And then, at the end of the sacrificial day, the cleansing in the river, with Benson’s surrogate pyre on the bank.’ The bathers had lit a fire. Here Naipaul’s fanciful over-interpretation is credited to the lesser novelist, Malik. But it is actually Naipaul’s idea, not Malik’s. ‘So many other details: so many things that had to be worked out’ – a make-over, then, in which Malik the murderer becomes Malik the writer. The conceit is daring and grants Malik a transposed talent, a creativity in life – which is a stupid idea even in its own terms. The murders are horribly bungled, not perfectly plotted. The whole thing is a hash.

We need to ask why Naipaul should require Malik to be a novelist of any kind. The idea imposes a kind of unity, it is true, even at the cost of some plausibility. But there is a deeper reason. It lies in Naipaul’s need for a doppelganger, a secret-sharer, a failed version of himself.

Finding the Centre is Naipaul’s touching autobiographical account of his father Seepersad’s failed literary ambitions – the rationalist Guardian correspondent who was compelled to sacrifice to Kali, to bend before a superstition he did not believe in, to capitulate to provincial conformity. Seepersad went mad and his madness took the form of being unable to see himself in the mirror. On the one hand, this is pathology based on wordplay – Seepersad has lost face when he climbs down and makes the sacrifice. On the other hand, the form his madness took represents for Naipaul the crucial loss of individuality, the idea of the unique self he seeks in his fiction and non-fiction alike. His father Seepersad, the failed novelist, is the primal trauma – and therefore father of many secret-sharers, a numerous progeny in Naipaul’s oeuvre. Abreaction seems not to have worked for Naipaul, despite his several fictional and non-fictional re-visitings of the original site. Typically, paradigmatically, there is a sense of smallness, limitation amounting to suffocation, in the colonial outpost, wherever it is. However, the journey to the centre from outer utter obscurity – to London, say – is a failure and the stifled provincial self simply thins into non-existence. Writing as a form of escape and self-assertion fails to overcome the thin, papery feeling. Travel and change of place similarly fails. So does sexuality and indulgence. Finally, mediocrity is embraced and, with it, a kind of null peace.

Naturally, there are variants, but the template asserts itself in essentials. Malik is a Trinidadian half-caste, whose mother is comes to London as a brothel madam. She represents humiliation. ‘He is without a personality’ until he re-makes himself as a negro leader and achieves a measure of fame – which is critically unstable because founded on nothing true. Malik returns to Trinidad, where the murders are a desperate assertion of black power – as opposed to hollow black rhetoric. They are an intuitive, mad attempt to lend truth-value to theatrical posturing. Naipaul, always sensitive to fame and the failure of fame, understands Malik’s half-success in this deranged self-assertion. If not fame, then infamy. The interesting figure here is Stanley Abbott, Malik’s accessory in both murders: ‘His was the true agony,’ Naipaul concludes, ‘he rotted for nearly six years in a death cell, and was hanged only in April 1979. He never became known outside Trinidad [my italics].’ Naipaul presents this as a simple irony. In fact, it is a statement which issues from the secret recesses of Naipaul’s own psychic paranoia, his own area of darkness.

The Mimic Men reprises features of the paradigm as Ralph Singh experiences near-invisibility in immediately post-war London: ‘I had tried to give myself a personality. It was something I had tried more than once before, and waited for the response in the eyes of others. But now I no longer knew what I was; ambition became confused, then faded; and I found myself longing for the certainties of my life on the island of Isabella, certainties which I had once dismissed as shipwreck.’ Singh returns to Isabella, fluke entrepreneurial success in real estate, then brief political success – before failure, exile and inevitable obscurity, obscurity and fall typified by a chance encounter in a West End department store, where Singh confronts a sales assistant. ‘Her face was familiar, and a quick glance at the name pinned to her blouse left no room for doubt. We had last met at a conference of non-aligned nations; her husband had been one of the firebrands. We had seen one another in a glittering blur of parties and dinners.’ Now she has to work in the basement of a store. Singh remembers a man, ‘the third secretary of her embassy’, at the airport, presenting her with flowers, breaking with protocol because he is ‘desperate to keep his job in the diplomatic service, fearful of being recalled to the drabness of his own background [my italics]’.

In Among the Believers, Islam itself is Naipaul’s secret sharer – made to exemplify his neurosis, as we can readily see from the examples he gives of Westernised Iranians returning to Teheran and fundamentalism. On American television, he sees a self-assertive woman in the chador defending Islam: ‘an American or non-Islamic education had given the woman with the chador her competence and authority. Now she appeared to be questioning the value of the kind of person she had become; she was denying some of her own gifts.’ In Naipaul’s terms, she was accepting conformity and the loss of self. He turns then to a novel, Foreigner, by a young Iranian woman, Nahid Rachlin. The novel’s heroine has failed to find a proper self in the United States: ‘she has always been a stranger, solitary in spite of husband and friends, always at a loss sexually and socially; she cannot say why she has done anything, why she has lived the American life.’ Eventually, she chooses quiescence, ‘turning away from the life of intellect and endeavour’. What is peace and renunciation for her is defeat in Naipaul’s system. Naipaul is sometimes criticised for criticising Islam without declaring his Hindu roots, his undisclosed religious rivalry. I think this inaccurate and unjust. By succumbing to Islam, they are, as it were, worshipping Kali. It is the act of conformity that appals Naipaul as much as the orthodoxy itself.

Near the end of Among the Believers, Naipaul relates the story of Nusrat, a journalist who inadvertently provokes an extremist Islamic furore that almost closes his paper down. He survives but he is fundamentally defeated: ‘he still had plans to go abroad and study mass media. But he spoke about it differently now. He was a penitent, and he wished now to serve his country and its ideology.’ For Edward Said, anecdote is inadmissible evidence against Islam. But intuitions are not always or only prejudices. Sometimes they represent coherent conclusions for which the working has not been shown. One should respect Naipaul’s heightened sensitivity to the renunciation of individuality. A believer, though, might see renunciation as the salutary sacrifice of egotism. The question is this: is Naipaul’s criticism just because it is based on recognition of a syndrome? Or is it unjust because it imposes a private neurosis and passes it off as objective analysis? Is it insight or overlay?

In ‘The Return of Eva Peron’, Argentina and Uruguay are made to fit Naipaul’s personal paradigm. Repetitions across books alert the reader. In Iran, ‘I felt I was in a city where a calamity had occurred’. In Montevideo, ‘even without the slogans on the walls, the visitor would know he is in a city where, as in a fairy story, a hidden calamity has occurred’. In post-revolutionary Iran, ‘for seven months no one in this country has done a stroke of work’. In Argentina, a society has been destroyed by idleness, originally sustained by land and by the export of wheat and beef to England – the equivalent of Iranian oil wealth. One analysis – fits all!

Too many of Naipaul’s personal obsessions appear in his anatomy of Argentina for it to be convincing. The sense of mediocrity: ‘when the real world is felt to be outside, everyone at home is inadequate and fraudulent.’ The desire to escape: ‘for intellectuals and artists as well, the better ones, who are not afraid of the outside world, there is this great anxiety of being imprisoned in Argentina’ There are two representatives of fame in ‘The Return of Eva Peron’. One is Eva herself, fascinating to Naipaul because she comes from nothing, from a backwater in a backwater – perhaps the town of Los Toldos, or Junn, forty kilometres away. Yet she achieves celebrity, then posthumous celebrity – like a writer. Her embalmed body is lost, then re-discovered – like a body of writing. The other celebrity is Borges, who is introduced thus: ‘Borges, speaking of the fame of writers, said: “The important thing is the image you create of yourself in other people’s minds”.’ Naipaul slyly shows Borges creating his image, carefully repeating himself, playing his discos, while preserving his private self. For Naipaul, fame is an index of the unique self and its successful imposition on the world.

There are other Naipaulian predispositions. Sexual perversity – the macho preference for sodomy to degrade women – signals inner emptiness. National hollowness issues in the temptation to magic – whether it be the plagiarised jargon of guerillas or the atavistic mumbo-jumbo of espiritismo. Seepersad Naipaul and Kali again.

The Enigma of Arrival was a more interesting variant, Naipaul’s attempt to embrace a positive quiescence in the form of eventless English rural obscurity – as opposed to the more usual scenario of the anonymous, alien, engulfing, obliterating city. Naipaul’s ‘novel’ is thinly disguised autobiography and intended as a tribute to rural subtlety. Kipling’s ‘A Habitation Enforced’ – an account of the assimilation of two Americans into an English community – deals less tediously with the same theme of micro-sensitivities. Naipaul’s ‘novel’ aims at an austere fidelity to the infinitesmal uneventfulness of country life, a slowness barely distinguishable from stasis – but the result is not far removed from a meticulous description of an abstract monochrome canvas, a concussive non-event.

Half a Life, Naipaul’s new novel, reprises many of these psychic topoi, as its title suggests. It is a curiously spectral performance, reminiscent of the whitewashed walls of Buenos Aires in ‘The Return of Eva Peron’ – where old graffiti survive like ‘the ghost of a ghost’. Half a Life begins with the inescapable, accidental fame conferred on Willie Chandran’s father by a paragraph in Somerset Maugham: ‘I recognised that breaking out had become impossible, and I settled down to live the strange life that fate had bestowed on me.’ The father has already been coerced by a combination of events, a half-comic tendency to self-sacrifice and a fatalistic compliancy – an ironic unfolding of events almost Kunderan in its calm, intricate comedy. The intervention of Maugham, crucially contingent, sets in train Naipaul’s theme – the individual as victim of circumstance.

As a result of the Maugham connection, the son sails to England, enrols in a college, is sexually initiated, writes radio scripts and publishes an unsuccessful book of short stories. His plots and incidents are plagiarised from films and Maxim Gorky and transposed to an Indian context. Meanwhile London’s usual identity-erasing power is making itself felt: ‘Willie could only go back to India, and he didn’t want that. All that he had now was an idea – and it was like a belief in magic – that one day something would happen, an illumination would come to him, and he would be taken by a set of events to the place he should go.’ That place is Mozambique. Willie goes there with Ana, whom he marries after she has written a fan-letter, praising his stories for their expression of an individuality otherwise ignored in fiction: ‘I feel I had to write to you because in your stories for the first time I find moments that are like moments in my own [Portuguese African] life.’ He is content enough at first. Then he is unfaithful – ‘it was like being given a new idea of myself.’ After eighteen years, he leaves to join his sister in Berlin. Always he has felt ‘another self inside him’, that he and Ana have presented ‘characters’ to a social world inhabited by other ‘characters’, other constructs. The unrealised intention is to elevate what was an analysis of the colonial mentality to a universal, metaphysical conundrum – along the high-minded, low-spirited lines of Arnold’s ‘The Buried Life’.

The best moment comes early when a barman writes Willie’s name on a membership card – ‘making little circles with his pen before he began to write, like a weight-lifter making feints at a mighty weight on the floor before he actually lifted.’ It is good. But it isn’t new. In A House for Mr Biswas, Tara signed her name ‘with great deliberation and much dancing of the pen above the paper’. The earlier version is laconic, perfect. The later is a little over-emphatic. It is difficult not to feel the same about the hiding places of Naipaul’s art. Themes that have served him in the past now look over-exposed, a bit blunt. What they need is a file.


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