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Remembering Nobel Prize winning author V.S. Naipaul: celebrating a complex legacy

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Nobel Laureate and winner of the Man Booker prize, Sir Vidia Naipaul’s literature was no stranger to intense criticism.  Sir Naipaul even feuded with other prominent, controversial authors, Salman Rushdie and Paul Theroux. His death has brought forth a renewed wave of mixed reactions.

Exposed to literature in his early years

V.S. Naipaul is considered one of the greatest prose writers of the last half-century. He created more than 30 works of both fiction and non-fiction. His early works were comical and influenced by his diverse roots. His grandparents were immigrants from India who moved to Trinidad and Tobago to work at the British sugar plantations. Naipaul was born in Chaguanas, Trinidad.  Naipaul’s early foundations in literature were his father’s love for writing for the Trinidad Guardian and shared a reverence for writers.  He excelled in school. He won a government scholarship, giving him a choice of any university in the British Commonwealth.

His years at Oxford University was relatively rough, experiencing long episodes of depression and self-doubt. Later in life, he opened up about frequent breakdowns during this period, in which he also experienced the loss of his father. Shortly after graduating, he and his partner, Patricia Hale moved to England. He wrote his first short story to officially launch his career as a writer. His publisher thought that a short story anthology by an unknown Caribbean writer would not sell in Britain. So, he wrote a novel which we now know as The Mystic Masseur.

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An unconventional storyteller, Naipaul

Psychiatrist and revolutionary theorist Frantz Fanon wrote that “the first ambition of the colonized” was to resemble the colonizer “to the point of disappearing in him.” This was not the case for Naipaul’s storytelling. His writing style is closer to sub-continental authors than western works. In almost all of his works of fiction, there was an interplay between tragedy and comedy.

His stories usually featured a fictitious island or a nameless land, which was a clear reflection on his life in the Caribbean island of Trinidad and his paternal roots in India. Naipaul’s undeniable talent was showcased in his writing. On display, is also his callous opinions and his blunt cruelty. From the contemporary point of view, Naipaul’s opinions seem self -loathing, borderline racist and even slightly misogynistic. His portrayal of female characters often made him susceptible to criticism; frequently objectifying the women in his books. His dismissiveness of the female extended to female, talented authors. One can imagine a substantial reaction from readers and writers when someone describes Jane Austen as “too trivial”.

“A House for Mr Biswas is packed with conflicts as the protagonist, Mr Biswas, subverts conventional tropes of a hero.”

A writer of a classic, A House for Mr Biswas

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His greatest work, A House for Mr Biswas stands as a classic. The story is of a son tormented by the memory of his father’s thwarted ambition, alluding to his relationship with his own father. It is a novel of epic length and formal perfection. A House for Mr Biswas is packed with conflicts as the protagonist, Mr Biswas, subverts conventional tropes of a hero. Naipul frequently broke away from conventional structures of writing and arranged his narratives haphazardly.

Among all his works of fiction, A House of Mr. Biswas is certainly the most noteworthy. In addition to that, A Bend in the River and his short story anthology A Flag on the Island are definitely worth a read. Fair warning though, in his books A Bend in the River and In a Free State, he portrays a depressing picture of post-independent African nations.

Valuing literature for itself, not the character of the author

We cannot help but marvel at the formidable body of work he left as a writer. His candid and straightforward style of writing often landed him in contentious territory; despite the unpleasantness, the messages usually possessed a degree of truth. This is the paradox of literature. Should the value of literature lie in itself, or should we take into account the views or the character of the author? Can we separate the writing from the personality that wrote it?

Even his fiercest critics have to admit that some of his works are timeless masterpieces. For many, his controversial opinions or his actions in his personal life cannot diminish his writing. Even writers who are adamant in their criticism, have expressed their grief at the loss of a literary genius. Author-poet Jeet Thayil successfully summed it up describing Naipaul as an awful man, a brilliant writer and said his death was like “losing a cantankerous, contrarian father”.

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