This is a book about people, in V S Naipaul’s opening words, a book of stories. He sees himself returning to his initial literary vocation, as a manager of narrative, giving news about others. The stories concern humble men and women, for the most part, almost all Muslims, in Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia. In themselves, many of the stories emerge from the sort of encounter that any curious-minded traveller to these far-flung places might have, a matter of accident as much as meaning. Taken together, the stories amount to a portrayal of overwhelming distress. These people are trapped in their history and religion, but do not know why or what to do about it.
Naipaul’s first journeying to these countries was in the immediate aftermath of the Islamic fundamentalist revolution in Iran. Among the Believers, the book he published in 1981, caught the shock waves of that event, and of what he called ‘passion without a constructive programme’. A new variety of nihilism had been unloosed. Western civilisation was in fact immune to this rage, beyond its reach. Even the nihilists sensed that they were able to indulge themselves only because the West would go on its way unchanged.