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From The Pen of Naipaul

Sunday, October 2, 2016
Back in Times
Seepersad Naipaul sometime after the end of WWII with his trusty Ford Prefect, PA1192.

This year would have marked the 110th birthday of Seepersad Naipaul, who died quite suddenly in 1953. An unobtrusive man with a penchant for written drama he spent years as a correspondent for this very newspaper, the Trinidad Guardian, after contributing his first article in 1929. His desire to write evocative stories set in the world that he knew saw no fruit until these sketches were published long after his demise. 

Seepersad Naipaul might have spent his life in relative obscurity but for one posthumous event. In 1961, his son, then a moderately successful novelist, Oxford-educated and living in England penned one of the great works of modern literature. A House for Mr Biswas stands immortally from the genius of Seepersad’s son, Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul as one of the outstanding literary works of our time. 

Based largely upon his father’s biography, Sir Vidia took the seemingly hapless, tragic hero, Mohun Biswas and created a new Odysseus. Long considered by critics to be the finest living writer of the English sentence, Sir Vidia to those of us who have been exceedingly fortunate to have met him is interchangeably supercilious, disdainful, engaging, acerbic or simply nonchalant.

He distances himself from his Trinidadian roots and has long been loath to reconnect to the landscapes of his early novels which show that in spite of his denial, Sir Vidia is indelibly a son of our soil. 

From 1957 until 1961 and then again in 1967 with A Flag on the Island, he has shown us how deeply he grasped the nuances of being born and raised in the society that at once clung to its somewhat prejudiced identities while attempting to forge ahead in a changing environment that would trade the long-cherished mores of colonialism for something of a different stripe.

Without intending to step out of my depth and examine the merits of the first novels, this column and the few that will follow seeks to put into perspective, the world of Naipaul as he made his homeland famous through his works. 

The books which earned him his fame are familiar to many schoolchildren today—The Mystic Masseur, The Suffrage of Elvira, the ever-delightful Miguel Street and A House for Mr Biswas—are all stories which have overlapping elements. The NGO founded by Prof Kenneth Ramchand, Friends of Mr Biswas is the custodian of all things Naipaul, situated as it is in the home Seepersad bought in St James and here is where the spiritual nexus can be felt most intensely. 

It was a time of war and Trinidad was being turned upside down by the arrival of thousands of American soldiers who brought chaos in their wake. These books show a life before, during and after the Yankees came. Who could forget Edward, Hat’s brother of Miguel Street, who was the archetypal Trini youngblood of the period falling under the American spell:

“Edward surrendered completely to the Americans. He began wearing clothes in the American style, he began chewing gum, and he tried to talk with an American accent. We didn’t see much of him except on Sundays, and then he made us feel small and inferior. He grew fussy about his dress, and he began wearing a gold chain around his neck. He began wearing straps around his wrists, after the fashion of tennis-players. These straps were just becoming fashionable among smart young men in Port of Spain.”

In continuing the theme of constant paradigm change, The Suffrage of Elvira comically assesses the ground level impact of electoral politics during its infancy in postwar Trinidad. This book was serialised some years ago by the Trinidad Guardian and was a hit, introducing a new generation of readers to a scenario that at once had shades of déjà vu—“Elvira, you is a bitch!”.

The rich descriptiveness of Trinidad enshrined in A House for Mr Biswas and The Mystic Masseur provides at once a kaleidoscope into the period as well as the sundry historical characters made memorable by the master writer himself. Sir Vidia’s eye for detail opens a spectrum to us which only our senior citizens can remember with any clarity.

Scanning some old newspapers a couple of years ago, I became indelibly aware of just how connected the Nobel Laureate Naipaul had been to Trinidad and in spite of his rejection of the place of his birth, he exhibits a keen understanding of the place and its people. Thus, over the next columns, we will learn that ‘Red Rose Tea is Good Tea’, be dosed on Sanatogen and live in the Trinidad of Naipaul.


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