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V.S. Naipaul found rich literary material in places where colonizers once ruled

A complex man himself, Naipaul had a gift for revealing in his writing dimensions other observers might have missed.

Chris Ison/PA /AP/File
British author V.S. Naipaul in Salisbury, England. The Trinidad-born Nobel laureate whose celebrated writing and brittle, provocative personality drew admiration and revulsion in equal measures died Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018, at his London home, his family said. He was 85.

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The work of acclaimed novelist V.S. Naipaul helped revolutionize the way travel writing is done, setting a standard that inspired younger masters of the genre such as Paul Theroux. Naipaul, a native of Trinidad and son of a journalist, learned early how easily complicated communities could be reduced to travel-brochure clichés. He blended the pacing and structure of a novel with extensive reportage, populating them with richly drawn characters and sociological insights. Naipaul had a gift for establishing a rapport with his interview subjects, all the more remarkable given his reputation. He could be gruff with interviewers and disrespectful of women. He nursed grudges against friends. Naipaul, who died Saturday, was perhaps most memorably a traveler into the future. “A Million Mutinies Now”  anticipated India’s ascendance as an economic power. “Beyond Belief,” a 1998 chronicle of Naipaul’s travels through the Islamic world, foresaw three years before 9/11 the degree to which extremists could pervert religion as a rationale for cruelty. Naipaul’s travel writing was visionary, too. He knew that, at heart, the best journeys are also acts of imagination. 

We are now enjoying the final days of summer, a season when tourists often seek idealized versions of their vacation getaways: the sugar-white beaches of a distant shore, the cooling serenity of a mountain peak, the cheerful bustle of a city not our own.

It was on just such a day this past Saturday when the world said goodbye to V.S. Naipaul, an acclaimed novelist who passed away in London. He gained fame for his densely textured travelogues that suggested few places are as simple as they seem.

His work helped revolutionize the way travel writing is done, setting a standard that inspired younger masters of the genre such as Paul Theroux, who had a lengthy and sometimes tempestuous friendship with Mr. Naipaul.

Naipaul, a native of Trinidad, learned early how easily complicated communities could be reduced to travel-brochure clichés. “A House for Mr. Biswas,” the 1961 comic novel that first earned him widespread attention, revealed Trinidad as something more than an idyllic locale where affluent visitors could get away from it all. One of his abiding themes was the way that native peoples adapted to the effects of colonialism.

Naipaul, the son of a journalist, blended the pacing and structure of a novel with extensive reportage in his travel books, populating them with richly drawn characters, sweeping narratives and a wealth of sociological insights.

"India: A Million Mutinies Now," his 1991 project, is typical of his technique. As the title suggests, it identifies the emerging culture of postcolonial India as an evolving negotiation among a seemingly countless array of social and political vectors – so much so that the book defies easy summary.

He interviews dozens of locals, weaving their personal biographies and impressions along with his own to create a  complex narrative tapestry.

Naipaul had a gift for establishing a sense of intimacy with his interview subjects; they seemed willing to tell him anything. In "The Masque of Africa," a 2010 account of his journey through much of that continent, a forest dweller in Gabon discloses to Naipaul his spiritual connection with the trees: “The search for the truth comes from the forest. I adore the forest, and even if I spend years abroad I have to come back and rush to the forest. I need the thick forest to feel alive.”   

Naipaul’s rapport with his subjects seemed all the more remarkable given his reputation as a difficult person. He could be gruff with interviewers, and his relationships with women involved allegations of physical and emotional abuse. He was also known to nurse grudges against friends. His critiques of both colonial rule and post-colonial cultures were unsettling for readers of many political stripes. He and Theroux had a famous falling out, then reconciled. Theroux is among a number of observers who have accused Naipaul of racist remarks.

Like Truman Capote, who feuded with friends but nevertheless insinuated himself into a small Kansas community to write "In Cold Blood," Naipaul was apparently able to mute his sharp edges when he researched his travel books, becoming a confidante to countless people he met on the road.

Naipaul was, perhaps most memorably, a traveler into the future. "A Million Mutinies Now" keenly anticipated India’s ascendance as an economic power, and "Beyond Belief," a 1998 chronicle of Naipaul’s travels through parts of the Islamic world, foresaw three years before 9-11 the degree to which extremists could pervert religion as a rationale for cruelty.

Naipaul’s travel writing was visionary because he knew that, at heart, the best journeys are also acts of imagination. “To arrive at a place without knowing anyone there,” Naipaul recalled, “and sometimes without an introduction; to learn how to move among strangers for the short time one could afford to be among them; to hold oneself in constant readiness for adventure or revelation; to allow oneself to be carried along, up to a point, by accidents; and consciously to follow up other impulses – that could be as creative and imaginative a procedure as the writing that came after.”                         

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House. 

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