By PAUL THEROUX
November 16, 1975
It is hard for the reviewer of a wonderful author to keep the obituarist's assured hyperbole in check, but let me say that if the silting-up of the Thames coincided with a freak monsoon, causing massive flooding in all parts of South London, the first book I would rescue from my library would be "A House for Mr. Biswas," by V. S. Naipaul. Apart from anything else, it would be immensely helpful when the water subsided, since it is one of the century's best fictional examples of a householder struggling against unfriendly conditions in a village--"a place that was nowhere, a dot on the map of the island, which was a dot on the map of the world."
The island is Trinidad, where Naipaul was born in 1932, and he has written about it with insight and compassion in many of his thirteen books. He has written of other places as well--India in "An Area of Darkness," Africa in "In a Free State," London in "Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion" and the oddly-lit world of exile in "The Mimic Men." His history, "The Loss of El Dorado," is the envy of most historians who specialize in the origins of New World imperialism and slavery; his essays in "The Overcrowded Barracoon" are masterpieces of vivid compression, good sense and wide reference (cricket, Mailer, London, Columbus, Kipling, colonialism). In all of Naipaul's work it is possible to see how a preoccupation with truth, an exactitude of vision, cannot but be prophetic.
"A House for Mr. Biswas" is a vast Dickensian novel, "The Mystic Masseur" is slighter and sunnier; but whether Naipaul is writing fiction or non-fiction his perceptions are precise, and in both his concerns have remained constant: creation, fantasy, marriage, statelessness and travel, our use of the past and the casualties of freedom. He has spoken of himself as being without a past, without ancestors, a country or a tradition. He is a Brahmin who has used his sacred thread to tie his luggage; and how well he understands other people's countries! Read "An Area of Darkness" and you understand both the complexity of India in its present political extreme and the strange fate of Indians in Trinidad; "Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion" is a sad comedy of middle-class English life and the creative impulse; and reading his new novel, "Guerrillas," I was reminded of something the narrator of "The Mimic Men" says: "Hate oppression; fear the oppressed."
"The violence [in modern writing] some of us are resisting," Naipaul once observed, "is the violence which is clinical and documentary in intention and makes no statement beyond that of bodily pain and degradation. It is like the obscene photograph. It deals anonymously with anonymous flesh, quickened only by pleasure or pain; and this anonymity is a denial of art." "Guerrillas" is a violent book in which little violence is explicit; and it is the opposite of anonymous. It may surprise the casual readers of Naipaul's work, those who regret the absence of calypso in his West Indian books. And yet in a metaphorical sense it takes place on the same island he has described in many of his novels, where Mr. Biswas was a journalist, Picton was a governor, Ganesh was a pundit, and Ralph Singh was a politician--indeed, the island that once seemed "a dot on the map of the world itself, immense and troubled and returning to its darker origins, a slave-society in which in every barracoon is a mimicking enactment of rebellion, the oppressed as dangerous and evil-smelling as their oppressors. It is a novel, not of revolt, but of the play-acting that is frequently called revolt, that queer situation of scabrous glamour which Naipaul sees as a throw-back to the days of slavery, half-remembered even now in the angry grizzling of people like Jimmy Ahmed, the lost soul of the present novel.
"Guerrillas" is one of Naipaul's most complex books; it is certainly his most suspenseful, a series of shocks, like a shroud slowly unwound from a bloody corpse, showing the damaged--and familiar--face last. The island now is infertile, crowded, reeking with gas fumes and the dust from the bauxite plant. The particularities of irritation are everywhere, for this is the Third World with her disordered armies and supine population, and --with a vengeance--her camp followers. Jimmy, the fifties' pimp and sixties' black power leader, is the seventies' guerrilla; Roche, the jaded white liberal, resembles in his wronged mood a slave-owner--he is a kind of benign puppeteer; and Jane, who uses the lingo of sympathy easily ("words that she might shed at any time, as easily as she had picked them up, and forget that she had ever spoken them")--Naipaul describes her best:
"She was without memory. . .She was without consistency or even without coherence. She knew only what she was and what she had been born to; to this knowledge she was tethered; it was her stability, enabling her to adventure in security. Adventuring, she was indifferent, perhaps blind, to the contradiction between what she said and what she was so secure of being; and this indifference or blindness, this absence of the sense of the absurd, was part of her unassailability."
The condition Naipaul is describing here is as American as apple pie, and though Jane is English she epitomizes our own failure to understand just how empty and foolish someone like Patty Hearst is, and why it is always fatal to misread the intentions of adventurers and their victims. Jane is of the West; "Guerrillas" is very much of the present, and the convulsion to which Naipaul is giving artistic expression could not be more horrifyingly close. Roche, who was once in a South African prison on a political charge, works for a firm of West Indian traders (formerly slave traders, now respectable). He is concerned with helping dispossessed blacks on this island find their feet, though in fact he is exercising a kind of control over them. Jimmy is one of his charges, and Jimmy's commune--a ramshackle affair--is subsidized by Roche's company.
It is at this point that Jane arrives on the island, and it is she who causes the situation to worsen: she is adventuring, but she carries anxiety to the place and, without ever guessing it, intensifies the paranoia Jimmy has begun to feel. She is habituated to using people for her own drama, but in a series of reversals she herself is used, until at last she becomes a ritual sacrifice; in this way, Jimmy placates his reptilian catamite, Bryant. And in the end, Roche, whom Jimmy has always jokingly called "Massa," fulfills his role. The last word in the book is literal, not ironic: "Massa"--Jimmy knows what he is saying.
Most men are captive, and therefore brutal and small, but there are survivors. There is an aspect of life on the island that goes slumbering on, and an ambitious politician, a tycoon, a media-man and a gospel singer appear as if to show that this tiny world contains other worlds; in this fury there is solitude and even contentment--the Sunday lunch party in the tropics, the prayer meeting on the beach, the bathers and tourists.
It is amazing that in such a closely-plotted book there is room for this, but the people themselves are even more remarkable. This is a novel without a villain, and there is not a character for whom the reader does not at some point feel deep sympathy and keen understanding, no matter how villainous or futile he may seem. "Guerrillas" is a brilliant novel in every way, and it shimmers with artistic certainty. It is scarifying in the opposite way from a nightmare. One can shrug at fantasy, but "Guerillas"--in a phrase Naipaul himself once used--is, like the finest novels, "indistinguishable from truth."
Paul Theroux's most recent books are "The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia" and "The Black House," a novel.