WORKING from the uncorrected ``galleys'' distributed prior to a book's official publication, reviewers sometimes catch a glimpse of last-minute changes.
In my galley of V.S. Naipaul's ``A Way in the World,'' the phrase ``A Novel'' is taped over the previous designation, ``A Sequence.'' In some ways, this seems a pity, because the discarded subtitle provides a clearer picture of the distinct, yet interconnected chapters that make up this amalgam of fictionalized memoirs and hypothetical history.
Fiction and journalism have both featured prominently in Naipaul's career. His more than 20 books - roughly half of them fiction, half nonfiction - have established him as one of the most gifted and unsparing chroniclers of the ironies, horrors, and absurdities of the post-colonial world in transition. His vision, at once expansive and intense, not only takes in the large-scale disasters of dictatorship, corruption, and internecine ethnic and factional strife, but focuses also on the myriad unforeseen ways in which cultural dislocation takes its toll on the individual.
``A Way in the World'' offers itself as a work of a man like Naipaul himself: a Trinidad-born writer of East Indian parentage, educated at Oxford. He is a sort of permanent expatriate perennially cast in the role of observer rather than actor. While six of the chapters involve episodes from the narrator's experience, the remaining three are presented as ideas or scenarios for ``unwritten stories'' involving the imaginary reconstruction of history.
Lebrun, the Trinidad-born revolutionary depicted in ``On the Run,'' has made a career of being the man behind the scenes. He skips from continent to continent, advising new rulers on radical reform but never staying on to face the consequences of his all-too-eloquent advice. His story is juxtaposed with that of Phyllis, a French West Indian black woman whose marriage to a tyrannical West African tribal chieftain nearly costs her her life. Both these stories serve as tacit commentary on that of a third West Indian black, Blair, who is tragically victimized by the forces he has tried to serve.
``Sometimes,'' the narrator reflects, ``we can be strangers to ourselves.'' The disintegration of personality under the pressure of changing circumstances is a theme that runs through all of these stories. Occasionally the results are tedious, as in Naipaul's leaden account of Elizabethan explorer Sir Walter Raleigh embarking on his last attempt to find the fabled land of El Dorado. Far more successful is ``In the Gulf of Desolation,'' a tale of Venezuelan revolutionary Francisco Miranda's vain, sadly premature efforts to ``liberate'' his unwilling countrymen from Spanish rule.
``Passenger: A Figure from the Thirties'' is an intriguing look at a now-forgotten English writer whose attempt to provide a serious, 1930s-style politically correct portrait of West Indian society failed to grasp the fact that these people (in Naipaul's view, at least) did not take themselves entirely seriously: ``We weren't responsible in that way. Much had been taken out of our hands. We didn't have backgrounds. We didn't have a past.''
Trying to make their ways in the world, Naipaul's characters must continually alter or abandon their ideas about the world and their places in it. Persisting in delusion can mean tragedy. But continually adapting to new circumstances can undermine their sense of identity. ``A Way in the World'' is, in fact, not so much a novel in the conventional sense as it is an anatomy of lives that resist being made into shapely, comprehensible stories.