Jewish World Review Oct. 24, 2001 / 7 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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Naipaul's Nobel: the eye of exile

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- AFTER Sept. 11, whatever was left of Political Correctness collapsed along with the twin towers. Not that PC was ever a solid structure to begin with. Now even the academy that awards the Nobel Prize has come out of its customary daze and given this year's prize for literature to that most politically incorrect of writers, everyman's curmudgeon, V.S. Naipaul.

The news will be welcomed by everybody who can tell the difference between thought and ideology, observation and propaganda, freedom and Liberation Theology.

It was about time the Nobel went to a writer who has always been immune to the nostrums and clichis of our oh-so-advanced times. It does happen. Solzhenitsyn, that forgotten prophet, got a Nobel, too.

But it always comes as a surprise when the establishment wakes up, as when the Pulitzer committee gave its photography award this year to the intrepid shutterbug who captured the jackbooted apprehension of little Elian Gonzalez, that dangerous fugitive hiding out in Miami.

V.S. Naipaul's unforgivable sin -- well, one of many -- has been to note that there is something worse than colonialism: what has followed it. No one with a Nobel was supposed to say such things before terrorism struck only a couple of miles away from the United Nations building instead of in Africa or the Middle East.

But V.S. Naipaul has been pointing out the murderous idiocy of the post-colonial world for years, which made him a pariah among the intelligentsia and a delight to the intelligent -- a kind of thinking man's Florence King.

Naipaul won his Nobel for `` The Enigma of Arrival,'' which is about the limbo in which the exiled find themselves between the end of empire and the beginning of dissolution.

Some of us prefer his less abstract ``A Bend in the River,'' with all its grim comedy on the same theme. He has a marksman's sight for all the incongruities of today's Third World and its admirers in ours. But his travel writings may outlast his fiction, for it detects -- like a minesweeper -- the long tolerated madnesses that erupted Sept. 11 and will be with us for The Duration.

Paul Theroux, who is a grimly comic travel writer himself, and a definitely former friend of the newest Nobel laureate, wrote a book dismissing his old mentor as an eccentric cuss, the kind of writer who ``elevated crankiness as the proof of his artistic temperament.'' But that kind of exposi, which is really more personal pique, only makes the reader sympathize with the supposedly exposed. Much like Richard Ben Cramer's poisonous portrait of Joe DiMaggio not long ago, which only made one admire DiMaggio the more.

Lesser lights who set out to demean artists tend to end up exposing their own frailties and resentments. The only thing remarkable about Paul Theroux's acidic attack on Naipaul was that Paul Theroux, who can be crankiness itself when traveling in difficult and exotic climes, can find anyone else insufferable.

Naipaul defies easy classification. An East Indian who was born in the West Indies, on the isle of Trinidad, he now lives in London. He is British only in the way India's exiles can be. He is, if anything in particular, a kind of artificial Briton, a son of the Empire rather than of England. He would despise the title Citizen of the World for its vapidity. And while he is certainly a man of the world, that description does not capture his talent for capturing the revealing, biting local detail that tells us all we really need to know about certain societies. Striving for utopia, they have delivered themselves not to Marx or Allah but Caliban.

Born with all the disadvantages of the outsider, Naipaul seized on its one great advantage -- the ability to see ourselves as others see us -- and made it a calling. Not a career, for V.S. Naipaul has never been one of those blurb-exchanging peers of the literary realm. Which is why they abhor him. He shows them up and, worse, in his own way and time. How this Nobel of his must gall them.

One of the nice things about winning a prestigious award must be the satisfaction it gives friends and admirers, but the nicest must be its purpling effect on one's enemies -- and on all the conventional critics whose principal reaction to talent is to misunderstand it.

Naipaul's affinity for the English language may not be natural, but his eye is unblinking -- which is how he acquired all those small-minded critics. And he doesn't just see and feel clearly, but dares to record what he sees and feels. Which is even harder.

It takes a Naipaul to put so concisely what every young person just starting out must think when confronted by another round of meaningless job interviews. He writes in ``A Bend in the River'': seems terribly eager to justify terrorism in the guise of explaining it. Or at least appease it. If V. S. Naipaul is an advocate of anything, it is civilization, specifically Western Civ, and that is what upsets those yearning for a wholly imagined past in which savagery is not savage at all, but a utopia.

Let it be said for Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul that he has tried to understand madness only to diagnose, not spread it. For example, in writing about the Islamic world, he understood that, while Islam has always had a high political quotient, the politics now seeks to override the faith -- and reduce its soul to a caricature, a means to a political end rather than a dimension of existence quite beyond the temporal idea of power. Which is what always happens when preachers put politics before religion.

In many ways, it is V.S. Naipaul who is the true subversive in an age that has made of politics a religion (be sure to call it Social Action) and indulged the terrorist by trying to find some elevated purpose to his violence. Too often our intellectual elite have saved their ire for those still attached to the idea of a free world -- a stable and peaceful world in which men might seek to save what, like V. S. Naipaul, some of us must call our soul.

Whom we honor is a sure sign of what we are becoming. Which is why a Nobel for Naipaul is such good news, and such a welcome exception to a dismal trend. After Sept. 11, maybe even the intellectuals will wise up.

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