Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Naipaul on travel writing

Naipaul writes in this article in the Guardian of how he conceived and wrote India: A Million Mutinies Now, one of my favorite books. I always find myself disagreeing with Naipaul when I read his non-fiction or hear of his arrogant, unsubtle opinions in interviews. But there is something in the way he looks at things and reaches out to people that repeatedly draws me to his work. His travel writing – especially his later work: A Turn in the South and India: A Million Mutinies Now – is built entirely from narratives constructed from what people have to say. Indeed more than half of these books are direct quotes from people from all walks of life: people in cities and villages, people involved in struggles for social justice, the elite, entrepreneurs, administrators, religious figures, politicians and many more. In this wonderful paragraph that summarizes his view of serious travel writing, Naipaul talks about people and narratives:
"Ideas are abstract. They become books only when they are clothed with people and narrative. The reader, once he has entered this book and goes beyond the opening pages, finds himself in a double narrative. There is the immediate narrative of the person to whom we are being introduced; there is the larger outer narrative in which all the varied pieces of the book are going to fit together. Nothing is done at random. Serious travel is an art, even if no writing is contemplated; and the special art in this book lay in divining who of the many people I met would best and most logically take my story forward, where nothing had to be forced."
Naipaul’s travel writing is unsurpassed for the sheer number of people he has spoken to, and whose thoughts he has meticulously jotted by hand; some of the conversations in his books run on for many pages. Such labor and perseverance! I had always wondered about how he had achieved this. In the article Naipaul explains his way of approaching people while travelling:
"I have often been asked about note-taking methods during the actual time of travel. I used no tape-recorder; I used pen and notebook alone. Since I was never sure whether someone I was meeting would serve my purpose, I depended in the beginning very often on simple conversation. I never frightened anyone by showing a notebook. If I found I was hearing something I needed, I would tell the person I wanted to take down his words at a later time. At this later time I would get the person to repeat what he had said and what I half knew. I took it all down in handwriting, making a note as I did so of the setting, the speaker, and my own questions. It invariably happened that the speaker, seeing me take it all down by hand, spoke more slowly and thoughtfully this second time, and yet his words had the rhythm of normal speech. An amazing amount could be done in an hour. I changed nothing, smoothed over nothing."
Update: And here's a review of Naipaul's new book A Writer's People.


Kartikeya said...

This book brings back some amazing memories. I read this book on my commute to and from work in Churchgate, Mumbai. Its one of the best books i have read about India.

I have always been struck by the self-assuredness that can only come from genius, which is characteristic of all of Naipaul's opinions in his interviews. I can sort of relate to your view about Naipaul's positions being jarring (if thats what you meant)

Hari said...


I agree completely with you: Naipaul's self-assuredness in his interviews is striking. He comes across as someone who has come to a resolution about the topics he is talking about.

In his books too he brings his strong opinions and prejudices with him - actually everyone who writes does this does this as well - but there's a lot more nuance in his prose than there is in his interviews. In fact, Naipaul has often said that all that he has to say is there in his books.