Thursday, August 07, 2008

The grand travel writing of Naipaul

No one analyzes or sums up societies so swiftly and so startlingly as VS Naipaul. There is something like magic in his sweeping assessments; they are abstract, thrilling and they challenge. Naipaul's novels might be famous, but it is his travel writing that I really like.

Consider this excerpt from Among the Believers, where, from the evidence around him, Naipaul quickly summarizes Indonesia's history and how it is a country with a strong connection to its past:
To be in Jakarta was to be in a country with a sense of its past. And that past went beyond the freedom struggle and colonial times. The Dutch had ruled for more than three hundred years; Jakarta was the city they had called Batavia. But the Dutch language was nowhere to be seen. The language everywhere, in Roman letters, was Indonesian, and the roots of some of the words were Sanskrit. Jakarta itself – no longer Batavia – was a Sanskrit name, the “city of victory”. And Sanskrit, occurring so far east, caused the mind to back centuries.

The hotel [where Naipaul stayed] was known as the Borobodur Intercontinental, after the ninth-century Buddhist temple in central Java. The ground plan of that great nine-terraced temple was the basis of the hotel logo: three concentric dotted circles within five rectangles, stepped at the corners with a rippling effect. It was stamped on ashtrays; it was woven into the carpets in the elevators; it was rendered in tiles on the floor of the large pool, where the ripple of the blue water added to the ripple of the pattern.

Indonesia, like Malaysia, was a Muslim country. But the pre-Islamic past, which in Malaysia seemed to be only a matter of village customs, in Indonesia – or Java – showed as a great civilization. Islam, which had come only in the fifteenth century, was the formal faith. But the Hindu-Buddhist past, which had lasted for fourteen hundred years before that, survived in many ways – half erased, slightly mysterious, but still awesome, like Borobodur itself. And it was this past which gave Indonesians – or Javanese – the feeling of their uniqueness.
It’s a recurrent theme in Naipaul’s writing: his nostalgia for erstwhile Hindu-Buddhist glory, and his hostility to its erosion by later Islamic influences. One may or may not agree with his interpretations but the writing is remarkable. The best part of Naipaul’s travel books is his ability to combine his grand, if sometimes shaky, ideas with the stories of the numerous people he meets: a sort of merging of the abstract with the specific. Naipaul listens and questions carefully; and there is a tension in this dialogue. His own prejudices shape the narrative of the people among whom he travels, but he also steps back often and the stories stand for themselves. India: A Million Mutinies Now, written in this fashion, is in my opinion one of the best assessments of the country in recent times.

Update, Aug 11: And it appears that Naipaul is now writing a non-fiction book on Africa. He's already been to Uganda, is now in Nigeria, and plans to travel to other West African countries and South Africa. What will he have to say, I wonder. A Bend in the River is the Naipaul book I like the least - I found it quite vain and self-obsessed - but his travel pieces about Zaire and Ivory Coast in 1970s were on a different plane. It's possible that on this trip to Africa, some of his opinions about the continent will change, as his ideas of India have over the years. You'll find some of his preliminary thoughts on Nigeria in this interview with a Nigerian newspaper. It's only an interview - which is different from writing, especially in the case of Naipaul - but one still sees here that same tendency to make quick but fairly accurate assessments. (Interview link through Amitava.)

And here’s one of my older posts about Naipaul, where he discusses his methods in travel writing.

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