By Amitava Kumar
I’m writing this on VS Naipaul’s birthday. He has turned 80.
In the manner of brave hagiographers, who look to childhood to present evidence of early genius — so-and-so was a composer at four, so-and-so performed surgical operations when only seven — allow me to present a fragment of a letter penned by the writer when he was only 14. The letter was unearthed by Patrick French while researching his justly-praised biography of Naipaul, The World Is What It Is; the 14-year-old in Trinidad had written this letter to a pen-friend named Beverly, who lived in Hawaii. Young Vidia wanted Beverly to know about the calypso ‘Rum and Coca-Cola’. He tells her about what he thinks is the best part and provides a helpful translation of what the words mean:
‘The Andrews Sisters and Bing Cosby/ Should make a trip to the West Indies,/ Siddong (=sit down) under de (=the) silvery moon/ Lissening (=listening) to dem (=them) calypsonian croon.’
This swift exegesis is followed by examples of what can be called street talk, each sentence similarly decoded. (Our young writer introduces them by telling his penfriend: “It would be very amusing to tell you how native Trinidadians speak English—the uneducated ones, of course.” Of course.) The letter ends with a riff on the ways in which the word ‘lick’ is used. It starts with this: ‘Ah go lick in she features wid a rock stone’ = I will smash her face with a stone. (Note the characteristic mix of wry humour and brutality.) The list ends with this: ‘Lick the stamp’ = Literal meaning… (For a writer who gained such renown for his perfect placement of the period, the above choice for closing the list reveals comic genius.)
The ear for comedy, so richly announced in Miguel Street and other early books, gave A House for Mr Biswas its wonderful depth and sparkle. Naipaul called Biswas his funniest work and said that he’d “no higher literary ambition than to write a piece of comedy that might complement or match this early book.”
It is not in the achievement of comedy but the blending of forms, particularly with documentary blurring with autobiographical narrative and even fiction, that Naipaul has found his most devoted followers. I should clarify here that I believe Naipaul has many followers, even when the latter are unaware that he is an influence. If we have written as the wounded, communicating a sense of hurt or loss, we are following his example; if we are writing to wound, then again we are following his example, despairing or sometimes ourselves becoming despicable.
My own imagination has long been chained to Naipaul’s repeated depiction of the literary enterprise. For example: “It is now nearly thirty years since, in a BBC room in London, on an old BBC typewriter, and on smooth, ‘non-rustle’ BBC script paper, I wrote the first sentence of my first publishable book.” This first sentence from his autobiography — about a first sentence — has conveyed to me, through its movement and rhythm, a history of repeated striving and of things coming together, at last, in the achievement of the printed word.
For me, Naipaul stands at the beginning of things. He allows me to imagine myself as a striver. I’ve been satisfied with that. What startled me out of my complacency about writing and beginnings was reading Rahul Bhattacharya’s The Sly Company of People Who Care. Its Indian narrator visits Guyana; he records conversations and describes people and places. What is extraordinary about Bhattacharya is his quality of listening, returning us to the magic of speech we’d seen in Miguel Street. What is no less extraordinary is that Sly Company combines a mysterious mix of forms and, like The Enigma of Arrival, uses a bordercrossing genre to inscribe one’s presence in a new land.
VS Naipaul has written more than 30 books of fiction and non-fiction. More than a writer of beginnings, he is a writer of grand achievement. His work will last, of course, but it will also endure through the work of younger writers who have discovered new continents.
Amitava Kumar is a writer and journalist. Kumar’s book A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb received the 2011 Page Turner award for nonfiction from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop