Portrait of V. S. Naipaul. Photo by PA Images /Alamy Stock Photo

Looking into the world of V.S. Naipaul

The essays by V.S. Naipaul give us an insight into the fragility of freedom and progress, and shed light on the mechanisms that allow establishing power relations. Knowledge shared by Naipaul in his great volume 'The writer and the World' is far from theoretical, but the result of a slow crystallisation through observation of the human condition and experience

The current panorama cannot spare (good) observers, or journalists, for the sake of it. Maybe because of this, when one bumps into someone empowered with V.S. Naipaul’s intellectual and human sharpness, happiness is twofold. Many considerations can be extracted from the essays by the Indian Nobel Prize collected under the seal Debate in the excellent volume El escritor y el mundo [The Writer and the World]. The book consists in a vivid mosaic of very personal essays in Naipaul’s career whereby the reader can peep into some of his key experiences. This wide and assorted compilation encompasses several continents between the late 1960’s and mid-1990’s. The main theme of the book is the desire of the Indian writer to observe, think and write. The book is an attempt to understand the world as it is, reflect through writing and share it with the readers.

Nowadays, Naipaul’s insights often resound with a louder echo. The writer’s skill to focus his attention on essential issues, cutting out minor ones, makes his writings quick to read, but nothing is surplus, as deep inside, they have a universal outlook

The essential fragment of the book is when the author looks into his own roots and explains the intricate and taciturn politics of India from the late 1960’s. He offers an outlook of a democratic but immeasurable India, with plenty of unaccomplished promises, consumed by a chronical victimism, more harmful than colonial heritage itself. Far from idealized and romantic images, Naipaul reveals a country, deadened by its own complacency and incapable of moving forward. A country that is not lived on is a country that always hurts. This severe diagnosis also shows through in his accurate analysis of post-colonial Africa. Remarkable is the evidence of political transition of the former Belgian Congo. With clear signs of Lampedusian intelligence, Naipaul describes delicately the transformation process led by Mobutu, former dictator of the newly-created nation of Zaire, one of the many failed and tragic episodes of African Marxism. The text describes how scenarios and words mutate in order for social and political dynamics to remain the same, or even worse. With great intelligence on the nature and the shadows of the human condition, the author describes some of the resources of national construction that allow controlling the power, a process that includes language politization or domination of education or textbooks, and even the country’s history itself. Everything must be controlled and adjusted according to the new narrative of power. Mobutu will nationalize the industries and impose a reign of terror for those from outside, yet a patronising attitude for those from inside, that will condemn Zaire to extreme poverty until well into the 20th century.

Nowadays, Naipaul’s insights often resound with a louder echo. The writer’s skill to focus his attention on essential issues, cutting out minor ones, makes his writings quick to read, but nothing is surplus, as deep inside, they have a universal outlook. On Mobutu, the author describes how the African dictator talks incessantly to the (manipulated) Zairean media; his voice can be heard on the public radio across the forest where everyone laughs and applauds his jokes. Mobutu, concludes Naipaul, has had the lucidity to give his people what they need. In this case, an African King; regardless of the fact that it may be a bad king. An African peace; regardless of the fact that this peace may be tense and sterile. This is what is asking a country allergic to responsibilities and contrary to creativity and prefers to obey than think.

Another remarkable essay is the one that tackles Argentinian Peronism. In a raw style, this genius stripes off the myths of dictator Juan Perón and his corrosive, insecure and fanatic young wife, Eva Perón. Both sowed a paralysing seed for the country whose consequences are still felt nowadays. This is an extremely tragical story: the history of a country that, despite having all the odds in favour, decides to throw it all away on account of Cainism and envy of two fanatics; not only that, they opt to persist in its error. This is a road to perdition that, paradoxically, will end up placing on a pedestal those responsible for this preposterous political social and economic blunder. The worship of the gold calf taken to the extreme. The sharp look of the author drives us to the heart of the matter and identifies the disastrous and merciless consequences of inflation, that is, impoverishment due to impoverishment. The policies of alleged social spending become a nightmare and degrade the morale of the population, as they have gradually fallen prey to gambling, betting and any other short and easy path. Effort dilutes, just as saving and long-term prospects.

Once again, the ghosts of Marxism appear, and as on previous occasions, these are thick lenses that distort the diagnosis and get even more malicious and complex on taking into account the time of dictatorship and police repression. Nonsense after nonsense, they are described masterfully and facilitate comprehension of the great paradox, namely that one of the wealthiest countries in the world has also become one of ones that has asked for more financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund because of its repeated episodes of debt default. The press, points out Naipaul, unable to understand what is going on, becomes one more element feeding the spiral of ignorance and desperation. These indications, at least many of them, can shed light on the current situation.

Anyone who travels and reads a lot, sees a lot and knows a lot”, claims Cervantes

The great effectiveness and sharpness of Naipaul’s texts rest on his being a good observer and his understanding of the importance of ideas in the development of history. Passions, emotions and bad ideas are often some of the great engines that drive human societies into the abyss. Because of action or omission, because of fear, incapacity or inaction, throughout history, nations of all continents have failed or succumbed in declining periods. Understanding the origins of these bad crops, where never a bad idea is missing, be that communism, nationalism, fascism or the like (Naipaul, specifically, refers to the dangers of fundamentalism), allows clarifying processes and situations that would otherwise be incomprehensible. Good ideas, solvent ideas and the existence of solid moral values are the only great pillars that allow society to move forwards in all sense in the long run.

The essays by V.S. Naipaul give us an insight into the fragility of freedom and progress, and shed light on the mechanisms that allow to establish power relations. Knowledge shared by Naipaul in his great volume The Writer and the World is far from theoretical, but the result of a slow crystallisation through observation of human condition and experience. Anyone who travels and reads a lot, sees a lot and knows a lot”, claims Cervantes. Hence its great value, depth and, also solvency. Besides, the book includes many touches of the author’s great literary intelligence. May the book be an inspiration to new and better observers. We certainly need it.

Cover of ‘The writer and the world’, by V. S. Naipaul.