In its Oct. 11 announcement that V.S. Naipaul had won this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy honored the 69-year-old as ”a literary circumnavigator, only ever really at home in himself, in his inimitable voice.” By birth, Vidiahar Surajprasad Naipaul is a subject of the British Empire, the descendant of Hindus who moved to Trinidad as indentured servants; since 1950 he has lived in England. By the terms of his art, he is stateless. His hard-edged voice sings about the aftermath of colonialism — a grim farce of racked nerves, broken hearts, and moral rot.
He was an absurdist from the outset. Naipaul’s earliest books — including The Mystic Masseur (1957) and Miguel Street (1959) — are satirical examinations of the ironies attending Trinidad’s shift to self-determination. With A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), about one hapless islander’s struggle for a home of his own, he deepened his psychology and made his name. Then he began to work on a broader canvas and to lose his lighthearted tone. A passage from A Bend in the River, his 1979 novel about Africa, encapsulates Naipaul’s steely perspective on human nature: ”At independence the people of our region had gone mad with anger and fear…. [T]hey had hated the town for the intruders who had ruled in it and from it; and they had preferred to destroy the town rather than take it over.”
It’s well known that the Nobel recognizes authors’ politics as much as it does their art, so it’s impossible to ignore the odd timeliness of the prize going to the author of Among the Believers (1981) and Beyond Belief (1998), each of which rages against Islamic fundamentalism. But the Nobel Committee singled out Naipaul’s 1987 book, The Enigma of Arrival, as his masterpiece. Driven by a voice that values precision over passion, this largely autobiographical novel is a summary of Naipaul’s themes. The narrator, inspired by a surrealist painting, dreams up a book about ”a sunlit sea journey ending in a dangerous classical city” with a hero whose ”feeling of adventure would give way to panic.” As Enigma’s essayistic sentences unroll, the narrator connects this imagined tale to his biography and his anxieties, and by the end he’s reworking the book he’d imagined. ”The story had become more personal: my journey, the writer’s journey, the writer defined by his writing discoveries, his ways of seeing.” Thus, the story of Naipaul’s life — eloquence given to exile.