Second Look Books: A Way in the World by V. S. Naipaul (Alfred A. Knopf $23)

First published August 14, 1994. In this review from twenty years ago, I see that not much has changed. Colonized by the West, the Middle East is now in tragic turmoil, its people physically displaced, slaughtered, ill educated, adrift. Early Naipaul is worth re-reading for its reminders of how this all began.

In a very long and productive writing life, V.S. Naipaul has given himself heart and soul to the problem of colonialism, which is to say that he has adopted a course of struggle bringing him into direct conflict with the themes of racial politics, identity and self-determination. AS much as anything Naipaul has written, including his great and near-great non-fiction about India, Trinidad and the Middle East, “A Way in the World” exhibits in its inception and style the cracks and fissures of a displaced personality, with all the haunting uncertainty thus involved.

And though Naipaul calls the work a novel, it is in reality a hybrid. “A Way in the World” is not a wholly successful book—part fiction, part autobiography, part meditation—but it is part and parcel of so important a life’s work that one is compelled by it.

“A Way in the World” is composed of six self-contained chapters, each an aspect of Naipaul’s postcolonial epic. Three of these chapters are subtitled “unwritten” stories, and are the author’s attempts to develop plots or themes he has, elsewhere, ostensibly refused to develop. One long account of Francisco de Miranda (“In the Gulf of Desolation”), a Venezuelan revolutionary who predated Bolivar, a romantic figure who showed up in such unlikely places as Revolutionary America and Catherine’s Russia, has all the elements of Conradian melodrama. Unfortunately, the tale is overlong and wrought with hyper-complexity.

Another such tale (“A Parcel of Papers”) follows an aged and disease-racked Raleigh on his 1618 wanderings around the Orinoco basin s the wayward and demented seafarer searches for El Dorado. This tale, submerged as it is by windblown monologues, fails disastrously. These tales, or ones much like them, were treated by Naipaul in “The Loss of El Dorado” and “The Overcrowded Barracoon,” great works of non-fiction that better serve the historiography of discovery, enslavement and domination. The biographical and autobiographical sections of “A Way in the World” center on Naipaul’s Trinidadian homeland. Some center on his travels to Africa. They are filled by a knowing presence and are masterfully crafted. Naipaul opens the book with an appealing portrait of a 17-year old clerk in the municipal office at Port of Spain, Trinidad’s capital and major seaport. This recollection of the birth of black-pride in politics in the Caribbean summons up all the rough and tumble of life on the island, including its cruelty:

There was an ancient, or not-so-ancient, cruelty in the langue of the streets; casual threats, man to man and parents to children, of punishments and degradation that took you back to plantation times. There was the cruelty of extended-family life; the cruelty of elementary school, the bad beatings by teachers, the bloody end-of-term fights between boys; the cruelty of the Indian countryside and the African town. The simplest things around us held memories. We all lived easily with this kind of cruelty.

Whether relating the extended life history of a ground-breaking Marxist revolutionary named Lebrun, encountered by Naipaul over the course of 30 years in places like New York, London and West Africa (“On the Run”), or describing the intellectual decay of travel writer Foster Morris, who had written a book about Trinidad in 1937, a time when Naipaul was a child, and saw his country with child’s eyes (“A Passenger From the Thirties”), Naipaul writes with passion and precision. These sections alone make “A way in the World” memorable.

One must at times grieve for Naipaul’s loss of self, and admire his effort to retrieve a past that was stolen from him by the colonizers. At one point Naipaul observes of Lebrun—after reading one of the revolutionary’s philosophical tracts: “…I had been granted a vision of history speeded up, had seen, as I might have seen the opening and dying of a flower, the destruction and shifting about of peoples…and had understood what simple purposes that colony serves.”

We in the West continue to be swept along by postcolonial history. The tragic fate of the people of Haiti, of Panama, of Rwanda and Liberia, bare witness to the pain and loss of slavery and displacement. One wishes for Naipaul, as for all these other tragic souls, a moment of peace.