Monday, August 24, 2009

Brilliance couched in criminal self-obsession

A direct descendant of indentured labour who had moved to Trinidad from India, rising from humble beginnings to go on scholarship to Oxford, finding his calling in the written word, and scorching the literary scene with incisive forays into hitherto unexplored territories. That is the life historian Patrick French set out to chronicle.

It was an unexpected thing to do for a writer. V S Naipaul, narrator par excellence of the agony of the immigrant, a writer who had built a career describing the diverse ways in which identities shift in foreign lands, let his biographer Patrick French unrestricted access to his private correspondence and to the diaries of his wife, Patricia Hale (Pat), kept at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma.

It was to be a mixed blessing, arrived at after much introspection. For Naipaul is not an easy man, least of all, an easy husband. His hankering for truth is his fiction may have extended to an unnatural striving for a brutally honest account of his own life, a wish granted by his biographer.

Meeting Naipaul as a fellow student at Oxford, Pat disregarded her family's doubts about him to enter an alliance that would, ultimately, become the death of her. Over the course of several decades, Naipaul reduced her to a pale effigy of her former self. He forced her to become his cook and typist — so thorough was his indoctrination in hate that Pat, the silent gullible wife, felt honoured in surrendering to his genius.

Later, Naipaul began a torrid affair with Margaret Gooding, an Argentine woman from Buenos Aires. French's biography is the most damaging to Naipaul's reputation in portraying the monster that he could turn into with the women in his life. When Margaret revealed a one-night stand to him, he beat her repeatedly for two days, relishing in her acquiescence.

While Pat knew about Margaret, she was embittered by Naipaul's proud assertions that he had started visiting brothels three years into their marriage. Pat was weak with cancer, and Naipaul concedes to French that his verbal volleys may have hastened her death.

Naipaul's bad behaviour did not stop there. He fell for a third woman, Pakistani journalist Nadira, after Pat's death, and asked his agent Gillon Aitken "to sort out the mess" with Margaret. "I feel that in all of this, Margaret was very badly treated. But you know there is nothing I can do. I stayed with Margaret until she became middle-aged, almost an old lady," he says.

Naipaul's corrosive gaze extended to large swathes of his life, including his writing. As a journalist, he was a scathing, original chronicler of the social pitfalls in the lands he visited: India, the home of his ancestors, in "An Area of Darkness"; and Trinidad, the land his ancestors adopted, in "The Middle Passage". Further, "Among the Believers" was the result of his excursions into the heart of radical Islam, much before such writing gained widespread readership.

A one-time friend and fellow Trinidad writer (Naipaul hates this label), Derek Walcott was also not spared the famed acerbic tongue. In "A Writer's People", Naipaul slammed the veteran's writing as being symptomatic of Trinidad's cultural barrenness. Naipaul's dismissive attitude toward friends and agents completes a portrait of brilliance couched in criminal self-obsession.

"The World Is What It Is" is an apt title for Naipaul's biography, for little that happened in this man's life played to convention. French must be congratulated for undertaking an intimidating task that involved poring over hundreds of documents and spending time in the august company of a man who must have seemed, with every passing day, less and less deserving of the attention.

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