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In late 1979, V. S. Naipaul, then middle-aged and of some literary stature, traveled to the newly declared Islamic Republic of Iran for what would eventually become his travelogue Among the Believers. He hated the place, beginning with his guide, a man named Sadeq:

He was in his late twenties, small and carefully dressed, handsome, with a well-barbered head of hair. I didn’t like him. I saw him as a man of simple origins, simply educated, but with a great sneering pride, deferential but resentful, not liking himself for what he was doing. He was the kind of man who, without political doctrine, only with resentments, had made the Iranian revolution.

Naipaul arrived when the country was still in flux: the revolution had been greeted with optimism, and Iran’s liberals and leftists still believed that the ascendancy of the mullahs was a passing phase. Yet the mood he caught was sinister. In Tehran’s northern suburbs lay wide European boulevards, where the country’s rich and cultivated lived in between shopping trips to London, Paris and Milan. The children of these upper classes—educated, idealistic, English- and French-speaking—had played a key role in the early stages of the revolution and had become, for many in the West, the face of the new Iran. They had scribbled English graffiti on the streets of London (“Down with fascist Shah”) and appeared on American television programs, which Naipaul had watched, to explain their revolution in American terms: freedom realized, a tyrant overthrown.

A few miles to the south of those green suburbs, in the crowded streets of central and southern Tehran, Naipaul saw something different: healers hawking remedies from Galen and Avicenna; patrols of young men enforcing medieval Islamic discipline; walls plastered with violent slogans; powerful ayatollahs with a taste for hanging, preaching of the coming victory over the infidels and Jews; an atmosphere of resentment and religious fervor, something dark and foreboding seeping from the stones and dust and the black-and-red portraits of martyrs sold in the market stalls, something bloody-minded and bent on revenge.  He thought that the young and educated Iranians, who had invested so much in their revolution, had failed to understand their own country. Raised on abstractions borrowed from other civilizations—the liberalism of the West or the Marxism of the Soviet Union—they had mistaken the map for the territory, forgotten that the poor in whose name they had toppled the “fascist” Shah were not a “proletariat” but a religious peasantry, whose peasant rage, now unleashed, would swallow the country up.

The depiction is classically Naipaulian. A country that has recently liberated itself from the shackles of colonial rule (or in this case, a pro-Western dictator) finds itself stumbling, to the applause of the best and the brightest, into a fresh hell of its own making—foreign domination producing, through the resentment and delusion it engenders in the dominated, a grotesque parody of independence. And then there is Naipaul himself, the meticulous observer, backed by the firm judgments of Western civilization yet drawn by bonds of personal history to the poorer regions of the world, chronicling their humiliations with an alternately cruel and loving eye.

Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, who died on Saturday at the age of 85, was born in 1932 into a poor Hindu family in the rural Trinidad town of Chaguanas. His ancestors, a race of Brahmin pandits according to the family legend, had migrated from India as indentured sharecroppers in the late-nineteenth century, when the British, after abolishing slavery, had needed a new source of cheap labor for the island’s sugarcane plantations. Naipaul’s father Seepersad was a journalist with thwarted literary ambitions, a local character and a misfit who raged against the constricted horizons of rural Hindu life in a poor agricultural colony. As a young man, Naipaul escaped to Oxford on a scholarship before settling permanently in England to seek his fame as a writer.

Naipaul initially built his literary career on novels and short stories set in the Trinidad of his childhood, culminating in 1961 with the publication of A House for Mr Biswas, a miniature epic about a neurotic Indian journalist, based on Naipaul’s father, and his long struggle to break free from his domineering in-laws. The book is one of the great English novels of the twentieth century and among the most brilliant early exemplars of postcolonial literature. It is essentially a nineteenth-century realist novel adapted to the social world of rural Trinidad, in which the timeless society of the Hindu village, transported to the New World, was disintegrating under the encroaching pressures of modernity. Naipaul, sensitive to both the rhythm and values of that vanishing world, yet equipped with the critical distance of his English education, balances an affection for his characters—their ambitions, their hopes, their resentments, their feuds and rivalries, their private tragedies—with a sense of the absurdity imposed by the setting, producing a small-scale tragedy shot through with irony and humor.

Yet if Naipaul was an early star of literary postcolonialism, he was violently out of step with the movement’s politics. Postcolonialism was, after all, a political as well as a literary phenomenon, becoming in the hands of critics like Edward Said a full-blown challenge to the preeminence of the West—the cultural wing of the decolonization movement that swept the world between the 1950s and 1970s. Naipaul fit the part poorly: he was an Anglophile conservative, a literary devotee of Joseph Conrad, and staunch in his conviction that Western civilization, for all its flaws, was both potentially universal and self-evidently superior to its real or pretended competitors. He hated the New Left’s romanticism about the Third World, regarding it as a sort of moral preening—a fantasy on the part of comfortable people insulated from the consequences of their ideas, which, when acted out in more fragile parts of the world, could prove disastrous.

Naipaul’s rage against the politics of his contemporaries in time led him to his true subject. By the late Sixties, his comic Trinidad pastorals had given way to scathing reports, issued in his novels and his travel writing, on the halting progress of the newly independent Third World. And as postcolonial regimes degenerated into stasis—or, worse, blood and terror—Naipaul was there to document it. During the Seventies his writing became a series of dispatches from the abyss, the subject-matter summed up in a 1971 letter to his publisher as “race, perverted sex, boredom, communes, communal lunacy, conscience, fraudulent politics (black & white), liberalism etc.” His style changed to suit the new material. The gentle musicality of Biswas was replaced by something more spare, direct and repetitive, simple words and short sentences aiming no longer to amuse so much as to hypnotize and terrify. When Gale Benson, a middle-class hippie seduced by the romance of black revolution, is murdered in a Trinidad commune, the killing, as described in the essay “Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad,” is “sudden and swift. She was held by the neck and stabbed and stabbed.”

It was in this dark middle period, in books such as Guerrillas (1975), A Bend in the River (1979), and Among the Believers (1981), that Naipaul found himself as a writer. This was especially evident in his travelogues and journalism. Whereas his earliest nonfiction had mimicked the tone of Evelyn Waugh and other metropolitan travel writers—glib, ironic, knowing—Naipaul soon transformed “travel writing” into a new genre altogether: a grim, darkly funny, yet deadly serious literary anthropology in which the deep movements of history are read from the conversations of the people and even the physical landscape. Take the following description of Malaysia from Among the Believers:

Malaysia steams. In the rainy season in the mornings the clouds build up. In the afternoon it pours, the blue-green hills vanish, and afterwards the clouds linger in the rifts in the mountains, like smoke. Creepers race up the steel guy-ropes of telegraph poles; they overwhelm dying coconut branches even before the branches fall off; they cover dying trees, or trees that cannot resist, and create odd effects of topiary. Rain and sun and steam do not speak here of decay, of tropical lassitude; they speak of vigour, of rich things growing fast, of money.

There is in all of his best writing this element of what Joan Didion calls a “stunning, even numbing physical immediacy,” which registers as both a stylistic technique and, implicitly, a political argument—that abstraction is not to be trusted; that “a theory or an ideology is superficial to the phenomenon it attempts to describe.” This, in time, would become Naipaul’s great theme.

During the Seventies, Naipaul’s increasingly pessimistic depictions of the postcolonial world brought him into ever more open conflict with the left. “A writer is in the end not his books, but his myth,” he once wrote of Steinbeck, and for many the myth of Naipaul came to be that of a sort of ludicrous Uncle Tom figure: the brown man telling white audiences the racist stories that they could no longer openly tell themselves. Naipaul did not help himself by being a notorious bastard in his private life, as Patrick French’s 2008 biography revealed in painful detail. He was vain, insecure, abusive and tyrannical to the women on whom he emotionally depended—and prone, in both private conversations and interviews, to outrageous expressions of bigotry, partly sincere and partly exaggerated for love of provocation. (“Certain countries,” he once said of Saudi Arabia, “probably should be destroyed.”) The result is that although Naipaul’s talent is almost universally recognized, he is the sort of writer who is often praised with caveats: great novelist, pity about the politics, pity he was such a prick.

There was of course some basis for the myth. Naipaul harbored violent prejudices: Africans and Muslims came in for particular abuse, but he also disliked homosexuals and sneered at women as his intellectual inferiors. Yet the racism is often exaggerated: for all his ugly comments, Naipaul wrote with heartbreaking sympathy about many of the people he is alleged to have despised—I am thinking now of the passage in A Turn in the South when he breaks into tears listening to an African-American pastor describe her experiences with white racism. Perhaps more importantly, he listened to people, even those he disliked or found absurd. He considered it his obligation to understand them in their own words, which he dutifully reported on the page, rather than disfigure them by forcing them into some narrative of his own devising.

The question of imperialism and Western civilization is more complex. Naipaul was an open admirer of Europe and specifically England, though some of his later pronouncements make it easy to forget the indictments of European cruelty and delusion contained in books such as The Loss of El Dorado. Yet his feelings toward empire were ambiguous. He knew it could be violent and genocidal, but that it wasn’t always—contact with empire had given him, as a boy in Trinidad, a chance to escape the limitations of his community, to cultivate his talents and experience the wider world. And as someone who had himself been a target of racial prejudice in England, he knew the damage that oppression could work on the souls of its victims: the wild anger it could inspire, the urges toward vengeance and nihilism, cruelty begetting further cruelty. He feared the cruelty of the oppressed, for their own sake rather than for that of their oppressors, because they were the ones who would have to live with its results. What is sometimes read as Naipaul’s contempt for the peoples of the Third World—the self-destructive rage of the Africans depicted in A Bend in the River­is usually a contempt for those in the West whom he sees as enabling their self-destruction. His view is captured in a dark passage from A Bend in the River, in which the narrator, an Indian from East Africa, describes the revolution that has struck his home country:

What I feared would happen on the coast came to pass. There was an uprising; and the Arabs—men almost as African as their servants—had been finally laid low….

Then newspapers from Europe and the United States came to various people in the town and were passed around; and it was extraordinary to me that some of the newspapers could have found good words for the butchery on the coast. But people are like that about places in which they aren’t really interested and where they don’t have to live. Some papers spoke of the end of feudalism and the dawn of a new age. But what had happened was not new. People who had grown feeble had been physically destroyed. That, in Africa, was not new; it was the oldest law of the land.

This was a war, for Naipaul, against a broader intellectual development: one that held that nothing of substance existed beyond the realm of words and symbols; that realities are constructed by and consist of discourse; that to change the words is to change the world they describe. Although outwardly nihilistic, in practice this theory tended toward relentless politicization: if nothing was inherently true, all that mattered was whose side you were on and which words you used. Intellectual life became a matter of posturing. In the West, this was a rather academic, if also somewhat absurd proposition—the type of thing that could only be asserted by those who took for granted that reality, however constructed, would continue to exist much like it always had; that their world was so secure there was no price to be paid for living in fantasy. In less stable parts of the world, that absurdity turned mordant: words like “liberty” and “revolution,” applied to the most cynical exploitation, could not prevent the reality of the situation from intruding.

This commitment to the real, this distrust of words and rhetoric, became Naipaul’s own form of morality. George Orwell once wrote that what enraged the middle-class left about Rudyard Kipling, another literary reactionary, was not his callousness or cruelty but his patrician assumption of “responsibility,” which exposed their own positions as a form of empty display:

He identified himself with the ruling power and not with the opposition. In a gifted writer this seems to us strange and even disgusting, but it did have the advantage of giving Kipling a certain grip on reality. The ruling power is always faced with the question, “In such and such circumstances, what would you do,” whereas the opposition is not obliged to take responsibility or make any real decisions.

Something similar might be said of Naipaul. He never did identify himself with any ruling power; however much affection he felt for England, he was also well aware that he was in but not quite of it, a displaced person whose home was in exile. But he was, in his own way, committed to Kipling’s question, “What would you do?,” to keeping that same grip on reality.

Naipaul’s version is summed up in the famous opening lines of A Bend in the River: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” It is a harsh statement, terribly so. But it is also a call to responsibility, which for Naipaul is above all else a call to honesty. “The world is what it is”—not a statement of resignation but a mantra, a reminder that there is a world, a real one, that exists beyond our ideas of it, as beautifully and brutally real as the rain and the mud and the moths and insects described in the novel’s final lines, thousands of them floating over the great African river,  illuminated by searchlights, showing “white in the white light.”

Photo credit: A. Abbas, Magnum Photo.

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