Knight of provocation

The Nation, Sunday Style - Sunday, April 11, 2004

Sir VS Naipaul discusses thrillers, whisky and the downfall of literature, and while he's about it, civilisation as well.

Sir V S Naipaul's first morning in Bangkok is a busy one. With many interviews and readings to attend, the British author is as happy to meet his fans as he was four years ago when he was here for the SeaWrite Awards ceremony.

Sir Naipaul looks Indian, but his manner of speech and dress - suit, tie and hat - are of a cultivated English gentleman, much like his English literary agent Gillon Aitken, who accompanied him on this trip. His Pakistani wife, Nadira, prefers a sari for formal events.

Despite his 72 years and aching back Sir Naipaul looks feisty and defies frailty: his mind is a constant buzz. He's both provocative and engaging.

Naipaul is a man of three cultures. Indian by descent, a Trinidadian by birth and a Briton by citizenship. He has lived in all three societies and has bitter feelings about them all: 'India is unwashed, Trinidad is unlearned, England is intellectually and culturally bankrupt:'

He was born of Indian ancestry in Chaguanas, close to the Port of Spain on Trinidad, into a family descended from immigrants from northern India. His grandfather, an indentured labourer from a village near Gorakhpur in India's state of Uttar Pradesh, worked in a sugar cane plantation, while his father was a journalist and writer in Trinidad where half the population are Indian.

After winning a scholarship at the age of 18, Naipaul travelled to England and studied at University College, Oxford where he was awarded a Bachelor of Arts in 1953.

Since then, he has continued to live in England (since the 70s in Wiltshire, close to Stonehenge) but also spends a great deal of time travelling in Asia, Africa and America.

Naipaul's work consists mainly of novels and short stories that deal with post-colonial corruption and greed. His most controversial books deal with Islam. 'Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey' was accused by Muslim readers of being too narrow and selective.

Meanwhile 'Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples' describes his journeys to the non-Arab Islamic countries of Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia, where the fundamentalist fervour has marked the Western image of the region.

'There probably has been no imperialism like that of Islam and the Arabs', he writes.

He is, to a very high degree, a cosmopolitan writer, a fact that he himself considers to stem from his lack of roots. He is unhappy about the cultural and spiritual poverty of Trinidad, he feels alienated from India and in England he is incapable of relating to and identifying with the traditional values of what was once a colonial power.

Meeting the grand old man of English letters, Naipaul comes across as a hangover, or more likely a leftover, from the Classical World in which he seems the epitome of what real literature should be like. But he lives in an era where thick thrillers, potboilers and tales of fantasy sell in bulk.

'I don't know, but I'm a bad reader of that kind of fiction - modern fiction,' he says.

Naipaul has just finished writing his latest novel, 'Magic Seeds', a sequel to 'Half a Life' (published in Thai by Nanmee Books).

The idea of his new novel comes from the fairytale 'Jack and the Beanstalk'.

'I prefer that kind of narrative. It's direct and fast-paced. If you write like that, you eat up material. Things will happen very quickly. But a modern story would begin with people talking about things that gradually emerge from a conversation,' he says.

He adds that his love for fairytales originated from childhood and reflects 'the inconsistency of human nature and an ability to read goes well with a wish to write'.

Naipaul admits that the hardest part of writing his new book was turning unsatisfactory material into a story He recalls talking to some guerrillas and the police who had to deal with them, but reckons he couldn't do anything with the material.

'Sometimes it took many days to write just two pages. It's hard to shape what you're going to say; where to begin, how to move, to get a shape. I'm obsessed with shape. If the material is in my head, I can start at any point and the narrative or writing will take me to all the situations till I get to the end'

     Now, with 'Magic Seeds' completed he's free from writing commitments. Naipaul is enjoying studying the classical history of Rome. Otherwise, he travels to literary events around the globe where he gives reading from his works.

Naipaul is somewhat upset by the state of the publishing world that poses a threat to serious writing.

During a recent flight to New Delhi, Naipaul was drinking whisky when he spotted a fellow passenger devouring a thriller.

'I saw a man reading one of these thick thrillers and I was wondering whether the whisky was necessary or the thriller.'

According to Naipaul, thrillers come from secure cultures or wealthy countries. These books are backed by a huge marketing machine, which persuades bookshops to buy in bulk. As a result, the popularity of thrillers is pushing the idea of serious writing out of the publishers' minds.

'When you're secure you can read a thriller. But if your world is about to be swept away, you're not going to read a thriller. So I don't know what people in India or here gain from thrillers'.

'But the larger point is I think these artificial books have succeeded in putting an end to the idea of literature. It doesn't exist any longer:'

Literature is a serious project, he says, and it must be an interpretation of the world around us and to show us what's there.

'When you're reading thrillers what is it that you are developing? They are killing people's ability to develop sensibility. True, thrillers have shaken the publishing world but it's put the end to the higher idea of literature.'

If he was starting out today he probably wouldn't take up writing.

'I don't think there'd be a future. Fifty years ago it seemed that there was. It was an important enterprise. There's no need to think that literature is eternal. I used to think so, but I know now from considering the history of the world that there have been non centuries when there was no writing of serious reading.'

The death of serious literature reflects the state of the world at large and can be defined by 'the strange combination of high technological advance and very low intellectual development', he says. This kind of world spawns people who lack profound interest in the art of human civilisation.

Naipaul admits that he was once surprised to see a young Englishman (Nick Leeson), who was responsible for the crash of Britain's oldest merchant bank (Barings), pictured in an English newspaper carrying an 'ordinary thriller'.

'He destroyed a very old institution and this thriller is how he entertains himself. That was quite staggering; a man dealing in millions reading a thriller, and a thick one too,' he recalls. 'This has made me doubt whether one could have any profound conversation with people who make billions in developing the computer.

'I feel that our civilisation is very, very fragile, and probably with the touch of some violent finger it can collapse. Things can and do collapse. The Roman art of under-floor heating has been lost for 100 years. The art of civilisation can disappear. After all, the Muslim world hasn't had it for 1,000 years.'

He remains Knight of the Realm, and as provocative as ever.

Manote Tripathi