Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Colonial diaries

Those of us who have moved from the villages into big cities in the hopes and dreams of making it big will resonate with James Wood's thoughts as he reviews Patrick French's biography of V. S. Naipaul (that Indian writer whom some love to hate with a passion). Personally, I am still unsure if I like him or detest him.
In his writing, Naipaul is simultaneously the colonized and the colonist, in part because he never seriously imagines that the colonized would ever want to be anything but the colonist, even as he uses each category to judge the other. This dialectic seems familiar because it may have less to do with race and empire than with class; it is the classic movement from province to metropolis, whereby the provincial, who has never wanted to be anywhere but the metropolis, nevertheless judges it with a provincial skepticism, while judging the provinces with a metropolitan superiority.
Naipaul's words on making sure that the Free World (read The Brits) feel the guilt in their colonial sojourns is searing...
Put yourself in my place for a minute . . . If my father had 1/20 of the opportunity laid before the good people of British stock, he would not have died a broken, frustrated man without any achievement. But, like me, he had the opportunity—to starve. He was ghettoed—in a sense more cruel than that in which Hitler ghettoed the Jews. But there was an element of rude honesty in the Nazi approach; and they at any rate killed swiftly. The approach of the Free World is infinitely subtler and more refined. You cannot say to a foreign country: I suffer from political persecution. That wouldn’t be true . . . But I suffer from something worse, an insidious spiritual persecution. These people want to break my spirit. They want me to forget my dignity as a human being. They want me to know my place.
The story of his life is succinctly put in a review of the same book in Harpers recently...

We gather that he was a pessimist, a narcissist, and a misanthrope from his West Indian beginnings—disdainful of Trinidad, especially its “Negroes”; his own family, except for his ambitious failure of a journalist father; and those very teachers and politicians upon whom he depended for a scholarship to England. Once sprung from the provinces to Oxford and London, he expects to be indulged by everyone in his difficult apprenticeship, even as he finds everything around him mediocre. He will marry Pat, a smart, socially insecure, masochistic young Englishwoman, to make himself comfortable. He will neglect her to look for dirtier sex in brothels, abandon her when he travels abroad with his Argentine mistress to research his books on India and Islam, and then propose to a Pakistani journalist whom he marries within days of Pat’s dying of breast cancer. Colleagues and friends are shamelessly exploited and suddenly shunned when they presume too much intimacy or even dare to express a contrary opinion. He has no interest in movies; detests music; refuses to sign a letter protesting the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, a “leftist” whose books he pretends not to have read; and scorns Gabriel García Márquez, whose Caribbean is more magical than V.S. has even fantasized.

Images of sculptural artwork from the website of Ukrainian artist Tamara Pivnyuk. "My dolls are made from air-hardening or oven-baked clays. I use in my work natural materials – natural fabric, leather, fur, wood. I use different hand craft techniques like embroidery, patchwork and others."

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