One of a kind - Nobel Laureate Sir S.V. Naipaul shares his unusual views on cruelty, identity and the craft of writing

Bangkok Post, Outlook - Monday, April 12, 2004

The man repeats the statement three times, the last as a very soft mumble, mostly to himself.

'Yes, my father wrote that to me: 'Write with sympathy.' It may not appear so because I write with cruelty very often, but it's a form of sympathy. It's a form of sympathy. It's a form of sympathy.'

An inexplicable feeling - perhaps-pathos? wells up inside me as I sit next to this elderly gentleman, a writer by the name of Sir V.S. Naipaul. He is basically not any different from any of us, I think, a human being, now at the very advanced age of 71 going on 72.

Aside from his numerous glories including the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001, and his reputation for a brusque temper, the man facing me seems less than a fort of steel. Doesn't the distinguished Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul also need self-assurance like any of us?

For several days prior to this interview, I have been through bouts of anxiety. Upon learning about my upcoming assignment, everyone unanimously wished me luck. The foreboding was not without grounds. Four years ago, a colleague discovered on the scheduled interview date that the great writer had sent his wife to talk with her instead. For this particular appointment, I have been told that one of the world's finest writers was to give me and the other English language daily exactly 30 minutes each. And that precious time was also to cover the photo session.

The V.S. Naipaul right now does not look like he is in a rush, though. He takes time to repeat some of the words, phrases, sometimes whole sentences, at least once or twice. There seems to be a kindly uncle side to him in accommodating others is that patience?

In his lucid, broadcaster's voice Naipaul freelanced for the BBC Caribbean Service during his early struggles to embark in the literary world almost five decades ago he utters several times the filler word 'er'. Or he takes long pauses. Or simply echoes statements, explanations, by his wife and constant companion, Lady Nadira Khannum Naipaul.

Indeed, talking to the husband-and ­wife pair is not unlike hearing a recitation of one piece of prose with two narrators. The voice is essentially singular, however. Sir Naipaul may start a sentence, and Lady Naipaul will fill in the middle part, to be rounded off by the writer again. The grand dame appears to enjoy her role as a mediator, an amplifier, a devoted, forceful admirer of her husband's works and ideas. In turn, Naipaul dedicated at least two of his books, the controversial Beyond Belief and Half A Life, to his beloved lady.

It is these two books that have prompted Naipaul's return to Thailand after his visit four years ago as a keynote speaker at a SEA-Write award ceremony. This time Naipaul read from Beyond Belief as part of the much-hyped 'Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace' series organised by the International Peace Foundation. Incidentally, Nanmee Books has just released a Thai translation of Half A Life under the title Krueng Thang Cheewit.

The book Beyond Belief Islamic Excursions Among The Converted Peoples is based on Naipaul's travels in Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia in 1995, the same year he met Lady Naipaul, his second wife and a former Pakistani journalist. The expedition was a follow-up from his 1981 voyage which led to another book and source of controversy Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey.

Both travelogues and some of his documentaries and fictional works have drawn as much criticism as praise. His observations of Muslims are biased, distorted and politically dangerous, critics have said. The late Edward Said once described Naipaul as 'a Third Worlder denouncing his own people, not because they are victims of imperialism, but because they seem to have an innate flaw, which is that they are not white.'

On the other side of the fence, another scholar John Lukacs insisted that Naipaul 'does not write for or pander to Western intellectuals, [that] his principal concern is not with injustice, or justice, but with truth'.

Apparently, Naipaul does not have high regard for academics and their opinions of him.

'I don't think [I'm writing in a vacuum as before]. I have people reading [my books]. I have influenced the way of thinking about the world, if only the negative ways. You know [universities] hate what I write, so that's important,' he says, pronouncing the word 'hate' with relish, following with a laugh.

'I think damaged people require to be written about with a kind of cruelty. Yes, cruelty is in the background, and unless you're cruel about people's false ideas about themselves and a bad history, you will not help them. It's good to get people agitated so they will examine themselves.'

And yet, Lady Naipaul seems to want to clarify things a little bit.

'Of course it looks cruel, but of course you are not actually being cruel,' she says, looking at both Naipaul and me. 'You may be perceived to be cruel because you're being ruthless, you're going down to the core of their problems but actually it's a great sympathy. It's a great concern. He writes with great concerns for the area he's looking at. So the word 'cruelty' is wrong.'

But what is 'truth' anyway? Much of Naipaul's writings seem to infuse fact and fiction, real people from his past in pursuits of the narrator's imagination. It's ever-shifting, treacherous boundaries of memory and redeemed history - but whose version? Which is mimicry? Which is genuine?

'I see the territories of truths in both [fact and fiction],' he muses.

'Actually, to do a documentary requires scrupulous truths. I've never changed a word of someone's speech to make the point sharper. Whereas, the work of the imagination is more internal; it tries to express what's inside one, inside the writer. One has to be true to that feeling.'

One irony Naipaul cites is how reality may not have to be rational, but a piece of fiction does. For example, if one were to pen a murder story, it requires 'great rationality' there has to be explainable cause and effect.

Indeed, there seem to be many instances of irony, or paradox, in Naipaul's world. The writer says that he comes from the small island of Trinidad, a former British colony, but has developed no sense of identification with it whatsoever.

'I came from a little island and you can't have a very great loyalty to a little plantation, you know?'

In fact, when asked how he characterises his sense of identification, he replied, 'I have none. I have only interests.'

On the other hand, Naipaul states his belief that the caste system is a great saving for India because it gives people something to hold onto.

'It gives people an idea of support, who they are, that they are not alone in the world. It'd be awful to be alone in the world. The idea of caste gives you [a] larger loyalty.'

At the same time, he discerns the myriad, competing pulls of such unifying forces.

'The minute the world become more complicated, you have many, many kinds of loyalty. Your loyalty would be the family loyalty. It would be your education that has made you something. It would be your career. [Lady Naipaul chips in the word 'friendship'.] Yes, many things. So one would have 20 ways of defining oneself, and they come together.'

From the looks of it, though, there is one single cause, devotion, that Naipaul has embraced and carried over with fierce, tenacious determination: his father's wish for him to become a writer. In 1984 at the age of 52, Naipaul wrote about his father's aborted ambition to rise in a literary career, and his subsequent mental breakdown, in a touching essay called Prologue to an Autobiography.

The first few years of his literary career, and even once he became established, were not easy. His father died three years after Naipaul left Trinidad, before witnessing his son's successes of the dream they shared.

Asked if he thinks he has any other life besides writing, the septuagenarian writer replies with a terse 'No' and follows with sentences uttered with tense undertone.

'This is what I live for, all those books. And if you want to understand me, you've got to read the books.'

'What you're seeing now is another kind of man it's not the real man,' underneath the beard, I can see Naipaul pursing his lips. 'I can't imagine what I'd have done if I hadn't been a writer. [Long pause.] It is as simple as that.

'There's no alternative. I'm pure all writer. I'm all writer. And that is actually the distinction I feel between myself and most other writers that I meet.'

Naipaul then recounts a brief anecdote concerning him and his biographer. He asked the biographer what he did and was given the routine 'I'm a writer' reply.

'So I pressed him: What do you really do?' Naipaul's eyes roll upward. 'The point of that story was he was probably engaged in something else and was turning his hand to writing.'

But for the man who cherishes writing as his one and only vocation, his work is nearly done now.

'I will be 72 in a few months. People don't write much beyond 72,' Naipaul says and then pauses.

'It's simply a matter of not having the energy of a young man to be out in the world. When you're young, you can be out in the world for a day and a half at a time, you know, without dropping on your feet.'

But if he had any more energy to muster, the Nobel laureate says he would like to explore his ancestors' land, India. To date, Naipaul has written three books on the sub-continent over 26 years. But he still sees immense changes for India in the pipeline say, in the next 50 years.

For now, the masterful writer is taking his sojourns on another plane. He says he reads constantly mostly for knowledge.

'I read all the time, to fill in gaps in my knowledge about the world. [I read] mostly old traveller books from the 19th, 17th centuries. The ships' captains writing accounts of their journeys and discoveries.'

Does he do anything else?

'I sleep more,' he says, at which point Lady Naipaul chimes in, 'That's it. That's it.'

Vasana Chinvarakorn