I first read Naipaul in Malaysia as a teenager. I would check out his books from the library of the club to which my family belonged. I recognized the world that Naipaul described in early books like A House for Mr. Biswas and Miguel Street, though I had never been to Trinidad, from where Naipaul hailed. I had grown up in Nigeria and India, before coming on a prolonged visit to Malaysia, where my family was then living. Naipaul’s fictional world was sort of Hindu, yes, but what made it recognizable was the perceptive treatment of ambition in the midst of postcolonial scarcity. This theme of desire confounded by material circumstances is universal and early in his career—very early in his career—Naipaul explored it with some insight.
Young as I was, I recognized the postcolonial aspects of Naipaul’s theme from having lived in so many places. Even then, though, something about his fiction was disquieting. I wrote my first (unpublished) short stories more on the model of Chinua Achebe, whom I had read in school in Nigeria, and R. K. Narayan, whom I had read in India. What I was drawn to in these other writers, I recognize now, was their more compassionate plumbing of that same theme of ambition amid constraint. I say this even though there is room for misunderstanding—after all, Achebe is nothing like Narayan and compassion is often regarded as being opposed to truth (it is not).
In comparison to Achebe and Narayan, Naipaul is routinely applauded by his admirers for being uncompromisingly honest about the varied “Third World” locations (Trinidad, Uganda, India, Iran) on which he poured scorn. This “honesty” is a tiresome defense of Naipaul’s reprehensible causticness, and since I have written about all three writers extensively in my criticism and literary journalism over the last twenty years I will forego saying more here. But here’s the truth I know: Naipaul was in his writing an Islamophobe, a racist, and a misogynist.
In his early writing, whether because Naipaul was dissimulating or because he was genuinely less doctrinaire, his prejudices were somewhat in abeyance. Later, he was feted by the literary establishment in Europe and the US because he did the ideological work of reinforcing the legacies of empire and European self-regard. I know it is common to call Naipaul a great writer with a mean streak, as if his greatness were somehow separate from his meanness and made his meanness bearable; but to my mind it was this very mean-ness, which showed dishonesty as well as a singular lack of imagination, that kept him from being a great writer.
In a way, Naipaul was a literary version of Trump. Like Trump, he hid behind the mask of a made-up truth to advance narrow ambitions (we should ask: what price an illustrious literary career if it leaves the world smaller, poorer?). All the beauty of his sentences—and there are genuinely beautiful sentences in some of his writing—cannot mask his failure of imagination. At most, with the exception of one or two early books, Naipaul was a talented and industrious writer of sentences rather than a great writer. Consider: Trump is a talented and industrious manipulator of the media but that doesn’t make him a statesman and a leader. What stops us from making a similar literary judgment with regard to Naipaul?
Kant does. Ever since Kant, our cultural gatekeepers have learned to separate ethics and politics from art. I don’t subscribe to this separation—which is why I can disagree with the many reviews that have greeted the passing of Naipaul by calling him great. Can a writer lacking moral imagination (otherwise known as compassion) ever deserve the mantle of greatness? I have to say no, even at the cost of being dismissed as naïve.