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travel to discover other states of mind," V. S. Naipaul writes in one of the essays in his haphazard and lumpy new collection, "The Writer and the World." "And if for this intellectual adventure I go to places where people live restricted lives, it is because my curiosity is still dictated in part by my colonial Trinidad background. I go to places which, however alien, connect in some way with what I already know."
Mr. Naipaul's best known writings deal with the third world: those "half-made societies" in Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Indian subcontinent, reeling from the twin legacies of colonial oppression and post-colonial turmoil and caught between the weight of tradition and the siren call of modernity, between ancient indigenous imperatives and shiny imported ideologies.
This volume of essays by the winner of last year's Nobel Prize in Literature is essentially a repackaging of his earlier work: its strongest entries appeared previously in volumes like "The Return of Eva Peron" (1980) and "Finding the Center" (1984), while its newer additions tend to be slighter and very dated pieces about unlikely subjects like the 1984 Republican Convention and Steinbeck country in California. Most of the pieces particularly those dealing with hot spots in Africa and Latin America where political and social change has been swift would have benefited enormously from postscripts, providing the reader with historical context and updated developments.
Mr. Naipaul is not an objective reporter but a highly opinionated traveler, and what this volume underscores, once again, are the recurrent, even obsessive themes in his work: his fascination with the developing world's simultaneous resentment and envy of the West; his bitter skepticism about the ability of former colonies to shed their habits of dependence, superstition and passivity; his impatience with both third world revolutionaries in thrall to borrowed ideologies and radical chic tourists with plane tickets to crisis zones and return tickets home. He writes, as he has in so many other books, about the dangers of trying to tailor people to imported theories and the rage created in places like Mobutu's Zaire by the aping of Western consumerism. He detects the substitution of drama and style for practical politics in places as varied as the Caribbean and the United States, and he laments the persistence of magical thinking and the willingness to submit to self-mythologizing dictators in Africa and Latin America.
Clearly many of his feelings about the countries he visits are rooted in his family background his grandfather, a Brahmin from Uttar Pradesh, India, came to Trinidad as an indentured worker and his fears, as he once put it, of "being swallowed up by the bush," by the "enemies of the civilization" he so prizes. He is at his most vitriolic, in this volume, in his early essays on India, a place, he writes, "for which one has a great tenderness, but from which at length one always wishes to separate oneself."
Though he would later adopt a more detached and sympathetic attitude toward his ancestral homeland in his 1990 book "India: A Million Mutinies Now," Mr. Naipaul bemoans "the Indian intellectual failure" in a 1967 essay and writes snidely of "a people grown barbarous, indifferent and self-wounding, who, out of a shallow perception of the world, have no sense of tragedy."
"The gap between India and the West is not only the increasing gap in wealth, technology and knowledge," he writes. "It is, more alarmingly, the increasing gap in sensibility and wisdom. The West is alert, many-featured and ever-changing; its writers and philosophers respond to complexity by continually seeking to alter and extend sensibility; no art or attitude stands still. India possesses only its unexamined past and its pathetic spirituality."
He is equally scathing and fatalistic about the islands of the Caribbean, and their inability, as he sees it, to surmount their past of slavery and colonial neglect. "They may get less innocent or less corrupt politicians; they will not get less helpless ones," he gloomily declares in a 1970 essay. "The island blacks will continue to be dependent on the books, films and goods of others; in this important way they will continue to be the half-made societies of a dependent people, the Third World's third world. They will forever consume; they will never create. They are without material sources; they will never develop the higher skills. Identity depends in the end on achievement; and achievement here cannot but be small."
In the most hypnotic essays in this volume, Mr. Naipaul's highly subjective views appear to emerge, organically, from the story he is telling. "Killings in Trinidad" which would provide material for his 1975 novel "Guerrillas" showcases Mr. Naipaul's skills as a storyteller while illustrating some of his most insistent themes. The essay tells the chilling story of a half-black Trinidadian named Michael Malik (or Michael X), who started out as a pimp and drug pusher, became the darling of white radicals in London and returned to Trinidad in 1971 as an avatar of Black Power; he would end up being hanged in 1975, after orchestrating the murders of two followers.
The meaning of the story, Mr. Naipaul suggests, is simple: "Malik's career proves how much of Black Power away from its United States source is jargon, how much a sentimental hoax. In a place like Trinidad, racial redemption is as irrelevant for the Negro as for everybody else. It obscures the problems of a small independent country with a lopsided economy, the problems of a fully 'consumer' society that is yet technologically untrained and without the intellectual means to comprehend the deficiency."
In "Argentina and the Ghost of Eva Pern," he is even more scornful of Argentina, as a country that can never transcend its colonial past: "Argentina is a land of plunder, a new land, virtually peopled in this century. It remains a land to be plundered; and its politics can be nothing but the politics of plunder." Such vehement and unforgiving statements point to the limitations that Mr. Naipaul's reportorial methods would reach in his extremely dark and judgmental 1981 book about his travels through the Islamic world ("Among the Believers").
Another, more nuanced approach can be found in "The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro." This essay, which happens to be one of the author's few pieces to evince an optimistic view of a third-world country, recounts Mr. Naipaul's travels through Ivory Coast in the early 1980's and his journey to the pharaonic site of its president's ancestral village. The piece is studded with keenly observed portraits of individual residents, seemingly chosen at random, and it radiates an awareness not only of the horrors and stupidities of history but also of its wonders and strangeness, an outlook that would infuse the author's more recent fiction and nonfiction with a new benevolence of outlook.