V.S. Naipaul, our phenomenal West Indian son, has resigned leaving behind a substantial space our society, which we can only hope would one day be filled again. The passages detailing his passing have been marked with sadness on all sides of the discursive divide of the subject he centred with sensational success—the naked and hidden truths of the post-colonial world. West Indian society was blessed to have produced and unleashed him upon a world much in need of self-liberation.
For over half a century the master scribe was magisterial in pursuit of his mission. All who read and heard him marvelled at his intellectual insights though his panache for pinching the raw nerve extracted fury from a few. The mega-narrative of the literary icon was the primary inner theme of our times—freedom. Imagining a legitimate literary ‘West Indianness’, as a celebration of cultural creolity, was for him, at times, nothing more than frivolity; more meaningful were the possibilities embedded in the ontologies of ancestry.
He reserved his satirical sting for the emerging societies of what he termed the ‘bourgeoisie banana democracy’ that proliferated the peripheries of empire. Migration, he said, the brick and mortar of the West Indies, has made us all mad as we imagine the attainment of freedom from colonial ideals. The very idea of ‘madness’ proved to be a metaphor of nationhood embedded in Naipaulian dimensions.
From Biswas to Mimic Men, the West Indian journey to justice is narrated in the contradictory pains and passions of our attempts to detach and depart from the colonial scaffold. Naipaul was not confident in the sincerity and integrity of the detachment, and as a result delved deeply and described the political brutality, cultural banality, and heroic vanity of the effort.
In many respects, Naipaul was the all-seeing, inner eye that witnessed inconvenient truths daily brushed under a mountainous Caribbean rug. V.S. was very special in every sense. His ‘Trini’ roots were as deep as can be imagined; every branch of his work drew upon Indian springs that fertilized his Caribbean comprehension of the ontological encounter so lyrically captured as the Nile-Ganges discourse.
Inserting this indigenous Caribbean mindscape into the open field of British imperial brutishness provided the core of his global view about the world and everyone’s place in it. He admitted to adoring aspects of Englishness, and was contemptuous of ‘creole’ versions of it, a pivot that drew attention to popular mimicry. His crave for notions of essence led him to experiencing ‘home’ as nothing more than ruins filled with “despair and rootlessness”. Redemption, and less so, reparations was not an item on his radar.
Our literary genius was quintessentially a West Indian intellectual, struggling with the contradictory consciousness of post-colonialism, including the parodies and pleasures of imperial culture. He was torn and tortured at every turn and never sought to find solace or inner peace in any conciliatory conceptual discourse. Instead, he dug deeper into the reality he felt could not be repaired. Home, he felt, was filled with pain, and now he will never return to it again.
Writing provided the inspirational use of his abundant existential turbulence, and served as a cocoon for his complex, hyper-critical consciousness. Without words and ideas, he would have long ceased to be. His persistent melancholy was as West Indian as cricket, carnival and picong. He will dwell amongst us for ever. We bid farewell and send blessings to accompany him to ancestors. Here resides the great V.S. Naipaul, in a special way, the St. Paul of Caribbean civilization.
(Sir Hilary Beckles is a Barbadian historian and the current vice chancellor of the University of the West Indies)