VS Naipaul, Nobel Prize-winning author, dies at 85

Naipaul’s fiction and nonfiction reflected his journey from Trinidad to London and many stops in developing countries.

VS Naipaul
Naipaul was critical of colonialism, but set himself apart from any social movements [Ralph Orlowski/Reuters]

Trinidad-born British author VS Naipaul, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2001, has died at his home in London aged 85.

His wife, Nadira Naipaul, said he was “a giant in all that he achieved and he died surrounded by those he loved having lived a life which was full of wonderful creativity and endeavour”.

His friend and fellow author Paul Theroux said Naipaul had been in poor health prior to his death on Saturday, but had taken pride in having his work recognised.

“He will go down as one of the greatest writers of our time,” Theroux told The Associated Press, citing his mastery of writing about families and colonialism.

“He also never wrote falsely. He was a scourge of anyone who used a cliche or an un-thought out sentence. He was very scrupulous about his writing, very severe, too.”

Naipaul’s fiction and nonfiction reflected his personal journey from Trinidad to London and various stops in developing countries. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001 “for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories”.

In an extraordinary career spanning half a century, Naipaul travelled as a self-described “barefoot colonial” from his rural childhood to upper-class England, and was hailed as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.

British author VS Naipaul at his home near Salisbury in 2001 [Reuters]
British author VS Naipaul at his home near Salisbury in 2001 [Reuters]

From A Bend in the River to The Enigma of Arrival to Finding the Centre, Naipaul’s books explored colonialism and decolonisation, exile and the struggles of people in the developing world.

He was critical of colonialism, but set himself apart from any social movements. He saw himself as a realist, cured of illusions, his outlook defined by the famous opening words of A Bend in the River that became the title of a biography by Patrick French: “The world is what it is.”

He was equally sceptical of religion and politics, of idealism of any kind, whether revolutionary uprisings or of quests for paradise such as Sir Walter Raleigh’s search for the non-existent El Dorado.

“If you come from the New World, as I in large measure do, you see all the absurd fantasies people have taken there and the troubles they have wrought as a result,” Naipaul told AP in 2000.

Naipaul prided himself on his candour, but he had a long history of offensive remarks. Among his widely quoted comments: He called India a “slave society”, quipped that Africa has no future, and explained that Indian women wear a coloured dot on their foreheads to say “my head is empty”. He laughed off the 1989 fatwa (religious ruling) by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie as “an extreme form of literary criticism.”

The critic Terry Eagleton once said of Naipaul: “Great art, dreadful politics.” Caribbean Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott complained the author’s prose was tainted by his “repulsion towards Negroes”. CLR James, a fellow Trinidadian writer, put it differently: Naipaul’s views, he wrote, simply reflected “what the whites want to say but dare not”.

‘A great mistake’

Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul – Vidia to those who knew him – was born on August 17, 1932, in Trinidad, a descendant of impoverished Indians shipped to the West Indies as bonded labourers.

His father was an aspiring, self-taught novelist whose ambitions were killed by lack of opportunity; the son was determined to leave his homeland as soon as he could. In later years, he would repeatedly reject his birthplace as little more than a plantation.

“I was born there, yes,” he said of Trinidad to an interviewer in 1983. “I thought it was a great mistake.”

In 1950, Naipaul was awarded one of a few available government scholarships to study in England, and he left his family to begin his studies in English literature at University College, Oxford.

After graduation, Naipaul suffered a period of poverty and unemployment. He was asthmatic, starving and depending on his wife for income. Despite his Oxford education, he found himself surrounded by a hostile, xenophobic London.

“These people want to break my spirit … They want me to know my place,” he wrote bitterly to his wife.

Visibly emotional writer VS Naipaul waits to receive his Nobel prize for literature in 2001 [Chris Helgren/Reuters]
Visibly emotional writer VS Naipaul waits to receive his Nobel prize for literature in 2001 [Chris Helgren/Reuters]

Naipaul eventually landed a radio job working for BBC World Service, where he discussed West Indian literature and found his footing as a writer. His breakthrough came in 1957 with his first published novel The Mystic Masseur, a humorous book about the lives of powerless people in a Trinidad ghetto.

In 1961, Naipaul published the celebrated A House for Mr Biswas. That novel, about how one man’s life was restricted by the limits of colonial society, was a tribute to Naipaul’s father.

“If he had been born in another culture, not a colonial agricultural society, his talent would have given him a reasonable chance somewhere and he would have flourished,” Naipaul told AP in 2000. “Part of his pathos was that he was born in the wrong place.”

In its Nobel citation, the Swedish Academy called him “a literary circumnavigator, only ever really at home in himself”.

Naipaul’s nonfiction often provoked much anger, and many were offended by his views about Islam and India. Rushdie, for example, thought Naipaul was promoting Hindu nationalism.

Rushdie tweeted late Saturday night: “We disagreed all our lives, about politics, about literature, and I feel as sad as if I just lost a beloved older brother. RIP Vidia.”

Source: News Agencies