The Pungent Smell Of a Rancid Friendship


By Paul Theroux

Houghton Mifflin

358 pp., $25

Thirty-two years ago, young Paul Theroux and the Indian novelist V.S. Naipaul met in Uganda and began a long friendship abruptly broken off in 1996. Naipaul, for reasons that remain obscure, apparently cut the younger man out of his life. The result is this oddly disingenuous narrative that leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

Inspired by the African setting and perhaps by memories of his own excitement at finding a distinguished mentor-friend, Theroux writes vividly of their early relationship. But soon the book becomes gossipy, repetitive, and self-indulgent.

We never discover what drove Theroux to concoct this vain, mean-spirited tale that mixes adulation with resentment. Posing as the bedazzled, finally bewildered, admirer who endures (and perhaps secretly thrills to) his friend's outrageous conduct, Theroux praises Naipaul's abundant gifts while sniffing out his weaknesses and assassinating his character.

By this account, Sir Vidia (knighted in 1985 after decades of scorning the practice) is an arrogant, misogynistic little pontiff of taste, a virulently bigoted cheapskate, who always left Theroux holding the bill in costly restaurants where they dined.

By this account, Naipaul's idea of the originality of his own work is absurdly inflated. Despite Theroux's apparent esteem for his friend's talent and passion, we miss any balanced judgment of Naipaul's rather uneven literary accomplishments. In these pages, he lives only through the eyes of one he has summarily dropped.

Immodestly, the author proclaims this extensive chronicle of friendship is unprecedented. In fact, it is yet another narcissistic, confessional memoir, liberally sprinkled with accounts of Theroux's youthful lust for black women in Uganda and Naipaul's marital troubles.

In the current fashion, Theroux passes off as fact elaborately re-created scenes 20 and 30 years back: dinner dialogue, phone conversations, dress, and gesture. Much of this is novelized gossip, squandering pages on Naipaul's behavior at an English literary festival, or bemoaning the plight of Sir Vidia's seemingly masochistic wife, Pat, who stays at home dying while her husband travels with his mistress. What distinguishes all this from a more literate version of tabloid journalism?

Obviously, the real agenda of this story is half hidden: The bitten one wants to bite back. To Naipaul's apparently terminal silence, the author replies in spades, laying out his erstwhile friend's pettiness and frailty.

Portions of this story are, in fact, skillfully told, but Theroux always owns the turf. If Naipaul cherishes privacy and believes that the writer must disappear into in his own work, then Theroux will "out" him, revealing what he believes to be the miserable person behind the work.

For all Theroux's talent for scenes, this self-serving blend of biography and autobiography represents the culture of narcissism found in so many recent memoirs. The tell-all memoir is much in vogue, though we forget that confession and expos finally yield diminishing returns, obscuring more than they clarify, rewarding less than they promise.

With Theroux, motive, intention, and benefit are all clouded. There is more than a whiff of opportunism in his remark that Naipaul's final snub suddenly "freed" him to chronicle a relationship he'd always declared literarily off limits.

* Rockwell Gray is a freelance writer in St. Louis.

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