“Mr Naipaul? Are you coloured?” the prospective London landlady is reputed to have queried down the telephone line.
“Hopelessly, I’m afraid,” came the world-weary voice, in a tone one imagines dripping with all the complexity and ambiguity that only VS Naipaul could meld into three words.
This was 1950s London, a place that was mad, bad and dangerous to know for West Indians, immigrant and student alike, and raw with postwar racism and rationing. “No blacks, no dogs, no Irish,” read the signs of rooms to let.
The Trinidadian native of Indian descent, fresh from Oxford, had come to the metropolis in 1954. There he would remain for the rest of his life, evolving from a steadily rising star to a literary supernova, a Nobel laureate.
And yet for those 60-odd years, Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, would win converts and wrench hearts, amuse and amaze, befriend and disdain fellow artists, and forever shun labels and logic of place, race and relationships.
He was a contradiction, wrapped inside a conundrum, inside a puzzle.
The critical and the conflicted lost this giant of letters on Saturday who was present at the creation of modern West Indian literature; an iconoclast of what has since come to be known as postcolonial literatures in English.
This art-form was the vanguard of an emerging identity of the colonized peoples of the crumbling British Empire – the pink bits on the atlas – an interlocutor for a complex relationship with the so-called Mother Country.
Yet Naipaul, for all his contribution to the forging of that identity would remain alone, aloof, savagely critical even of the black and brown and yellow who inhabited that tropical world.
He would become for generations of Caribbean readers the writer we loved to hate but loved to read.
Even in playful prose, his first novel, The Mystic Masseur (1957) – a comic tale of an Indo-Trinidadian writer who rises from poverty to politics with a dubious claim to fame as a masseur who can claim cure illness – is by turns biting satire on anything and everything about the colonial Trinidad he left behind.
So began a curious quest for a truth he claimed he found not so much in his travel writing, essays and memoirs but in his fiction.
“An autobiography can distort, facts can be realigned. But fiction never lies. It reveals the writer totally,” he wrote.
His initial literary offering, Miguel Street, a collection of stories that were at once tender and beguiling, was rejected by publisher André Deutsch, unsure of the profitability of this nascent thing with no name that would become West Indian literature. Never mind that for three years, Naipaul had contributed immensely to the standard-bearer of this new artform – the BBC radio programme, Caribbean Voices.
He had joined the soon-to-be great and good of West Indian writing – George Lamming, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Derek Walcott, Samuel Selvon John Figueroa, Michael Anthony, Edgar Mittelholzer, Ian MacDonald, and others.
It would take another comic turn, The Suffrage of Elvira (1958) – a thinly veiled satire of Trinidadian politics that was quickly crafted from recording the foibles of fellow ocean liner passengers on a trip from London to Port of Spain.
It took the success of this second novel to convince Deutsch to publish Miguel Street in 1959. The short story collection, which recalled his childhood on Luis Street in Port of Spain, was rewarded by the literature giant W. Somerset Maugham himself who chose Naipaul as the first non-European for the eponymous prize.
Two years later, Naipaul’s magisterial art would become the masterpiece for which he is perhaps best known, A House for Mr Biswas (1961).
Beginning with Biswas, Naipaul would substitute scalpel for satire, exposing a gift for psychological examination rarely seen in English literature since Joseph Conrad in the late 19th Century.
This novel about Mohun Biswas, an Indo-Trinidadian obsessed with building a house to atone for his multiple failures in life, is a tangential expose of a profound relationship with his own father, a journalist and failed writer himself.
The searing, soaring exploration continued in non-fiction The Middle Passage (1962), An Area of Darkness (1964), The Loss of El Dorado (1969) with themes that recalled the dark underbelly of life in these emerging nations of the South: failure, fraudulence, ineptitude, poverty, ignorance.
Naipaul’s wretched personal relationships, his bad manners, his aversion to being considered a Indian, Trinidadian or West Indian writer, are all well documented and need not be repeated here.
But we would be remiss in not recognizing the passing of a master of language who once lived among us and apart from us. Indeed, it is that distance for which Caribbean readers should be most grateful, for it has provided us with a critical mirror of the worlds whence we came, African, Indian and European.
Farewell, VS Naipaul. We loved your art, loathed your ways, were conflicted and duplicitous and schizoid about you – just like the colonized civilisation whence you came, whose modern literary art you helped put on the global stage, warts and all.