V.S. Naipaul, Delver of Colonialism Through Unsparing Books, Dies at 85

V.S. Naipaul, Delver of Colonialism Through Unsparing Books, Dies at 85

V.S. Naipaul, the Nobel laureate who documented the migrations of peoples, the unraveling of the British Empire, the ironies of exile and the clash between belief and unbelief in more than a dozen unsparing novels and as many works of nonfiction, died on Saturday at his home in London. He was 85.His family confirmed the…

V.S. Naipaul, the Nobel laureate who documented the migrations of peoples, the unraveling of the British Empire, the ironies of exile and the clash between belief and unbelief in more than a dozen unsparing novels and as many works of nonfiction, died on Saturday at his home in London. He was 85.

His family confirmed the death in a statement, The Associated Press reported.

In many ways embodying the contradictions of the postcolonial world, Mr. Naipaul was born of Indian ancestry in Trinidad, went to Oxford University on a scholarship and lived the rest of his life in England, where he forged one of the most illustrious literary careers of the last half century. He was knighted in 1990.

Compared in his lifetime to Conrad, Dickens and Tolstoy, he was also a lightning rod for criticism, particularly by those who read his portrayals of third-world disarray as apologies for colonialism.

Yet Mr. Naipaul exempted neither colonizer nor colonized from his scrutiny. He wrote of the arrogance and self-aggrandizement of the colonizers, yet exposed the self-deception and ethical ambiguities of the liberation movements that swept across Africa and the Caribbean in their wake. He brought to his work moral urgency and a novelist’s attentiveness to individual lives and triumphs.

Nadine Gordimer, the South African novelist and later a fellow Nobel laureate, called it “magnificent.” It was eventually published by the Modern Library of 20th-century classics.

Derek Walcott, the Caribbean-born poet and winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature, called him “V. S. Nightfall” in a poem, and said his prose was scarred by his “repulsion towards Negroes” and the “self-disfiguring sneer that is praised for its probity.” Yet Walcott was pleased when Mr. Naipaul won the Nobel Prize. “It will mean something for the region,” he told The Guardian.

In 1964 Mr. Naipaul published the first of three travelogues about India, “An Area of Darkness.” He found that in spite of his Indian origins, he did not belong there at all.

“No other country was more fitted to welcome a conqueror; no other conqueror was more welcome than the British,” he wrote. “While dominating India they expressed their contempt for it, and projected England; and Indians were forced into a nationalism which in the beginning was like a mimicry of the British.”

Mr. Naipaul began to travel in Africa in the 1970s. His collection “In a Free State,” from 1971, about a gay English civil servant and a “compound wife” who take a road trip through an unnamed African country that closely resembles Idi Amin’s Uganda, won the Booker Prize that year.

“No one else around today, not even Nabokov, seems able to employ prose fiction so deeply as the very voice of exile,” the critic Alfred Kazin wrote in The New York Review of Books.

Mr. Naipaul’s novel “A Bend in the River” (1979) centers on an Indian from East Africa in an unnamed, newly independent African nation that resembles Zaire under the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Mr. Naipaul had written about Mobutu in his 1975 essay “A New King for the Congo,” in which he compared the contemporary place to the one Conrad had described in “Heart of Darkness.”

“Seventy years later, at this bend in the river, something like Conrad’s fantasy came to pass,” Mr. Naipaul wrote. “But the man with ‘the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith and no fear’ was black, and not white; and he had been maddened not by contact with wilderness and primitivism, but with the civilization established by those pioneers.”

In a 1974 essay that marked a breakthrough in his own understanding of himself as a writer, Mr. Naipaul wrote of his debt to the Ukrainian-born Conrad, who had also willed himself to be an artist in England and also traveled to the far corners of the colonized world. “I found that Conrad — 60 years before, in a time of a great peace — had been everywhere before me,” he wrote. But in an interview with The Times in 2005, Mr. Naipaul revised this judgment. While conceding that Conrad was “great,” he insisted that he “had no influence on me.”

“Actually, I think ‘A Bend in the River’ is much, much better than Conrad,” Mr. Naipaul said.

Mr. Naipaul’s writing about Africa drew criticism from many who were unsettled by his portraits of Africans. The Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe called him “a new purveyor of the old comforting myths” of the white West.

He was also criticized for his unflattering portrayals of women. In “A Bend in the River,” the protagonist spits on the naked body of his Belgian lover. In his 1975 novel “Guerrillas,” the English girlfriend of an exiled South African resistance hero acts on her fantasies of native sexual power to disastrous effect.

Always attuned to the tides of history, Mr. Naipaul began to travel in non-Arab Islamic countries around the time of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. He visited Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia in the late 1970s, when they were witnessing a rise in political power and Islamic fundamentalism. His first travelogue, “Among the Believers,” was published in 1981. A sequel, “Beyond Belief,” followed in 1998.

He started his inquiry, he later explained, by asking simple questions: To what extent had “people who lock themselves away in belief shut themselves away from the active, busy world?” “To what extent without knowing it” were they “parasitic on that world”? And why did they have “no thinkers to point out to them where their thoughts and their passion had led them?”

The books are grounded in Mr. Naipaul’s belief that Islamic societies lead to tyranny, which he essentially attributed to a flaw in Islam, that it “offered no political or practical solution.”

“It offered only the faith,” he wrote.

These books were harshly criticized. The critic and Palestinian rights advocate Edward Said argued that Mr. Naipaul had interviewed only those who would confirm his pre-established thesis about flaws in Islam while playing down local political situations that might better explain the rise in Islamic fundamentalism.

Observing America

Mr. Naipaul also wrote perceptively about America. “A Turn in the South” (1989) is a travelogue about the Deep South, and in an essay on the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, “The Air-Conditioned Bubble,” he dissected American political pieties. “The fundamentalism that the Republicans had embraced went beyond religion,” he wrote. “It simplified the world in general; it rolled together many different kinds of anxieties — schools, drugs, race, buggery, Russia, to give just a few; and it offered the simplest, the vaguest solution: Americanism, the assertion of the American self.”

Mr. Naipaul increasingly lamented the limitations of fiction. The novel had reached its peak in the 19th century, he said, and Modernism was dead. Instead, he thought nonfiction better captured the complexities of the world. He said he wrote his novel “Half a Life” (2001) only to fulfill a publisher’s contract.

In 1996, two months after the death of his first wife, Mr. Naipaul married Nadira Khannum Alvi, a divorced Pakistani journalist more than 20 years his junior. She survives him. He had met her at the home of the American consul-general in Lahore. In 2003 Mr. Naipaul adopted Nadira’s daughter, Maleeha, who was then 25.

A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

The writer Paul Theroux, who was one of Mr. Naipaul’s closest friends, had a falling out with Mr. Naipaul not long after the marriage to Ms. Alvi. In his book “Sir Vidia’s Shadow” (1998), Mr. Theroux documented the arc of their complicated literary friendship, which began in Uganda in 1966 and ended abruptly in 1997 after Mr. Theroux saw books he had written and inscribed to his mentor listed for sale in an auction catalog. He depicts Mr. Naipaul as a great inspiration as a writer, but also petty, cruel and needy. The two men later reconciled.

For all his pessimism, Mr. Naipaul was confident that what he called “Our Universal Civilization” would prevail. In a 1992 lecture, he said his optimism derived from his belief in the idea of the pursuit of happiness, which lay “at the heart of the attractiveness of the civilization to so many outside it or on its periphery.”

“It is an elastic idea; it fits all men,” he said. “It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit. I don’t imagine my parents would have been able to understand the idea. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.”

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