I drive to Wiltshire on a rare sunny English summer’s day to interview V S Naipaul in his country home. All his books, fiction and non-fiction, are to be reissued (by Picador in Britain and Knopf in the USA), and this interview anticipates the publication next month of his new novel, Half a Life. Before we begin our conversation, Vidia shows me round his garden, which stretches for an acre down a slope to the water meadows of the River Avon. It contains myriad shades of green, the deep purple of copper beech, several varieties of holly, some white blossoms, but no flower beds. Vidia tells me the names of the trees and the prospects for their growth, saying two or three times what a copse or hedge will look like in years to come, ‘when I shall be gone’.
You said long ago that the novel doesn’t interest you any more, that ‘the novel is finished’. But you’ve written one now. Was that declaration just a tease?
No. The novel is so bastardised a form, and it’s so passing. Everyone writes a novel, and it’s so much a copy, unconsciously, unwittingly, of novels that have gone before. The really true books are the ones that last – not the copies. I was saying that I preferred reading the originals.
This latest novel finds a new way of telling a story. Why is it called ‘Half a Life’?
It’s a lovely title.
It does fit.
Yes, it does fit.
But you don’t want to give the game away?
You must allow me to keep a few secrets.
All right. It’s not set out in dramatic scenes. I was reminded of your non-fiction, of ‘India: A Million Mutinies Now’ and of ‘Beyond Belief’, where you re-create the stories real people tell you.
Plain narrative, yes.
It’s different from your other fiction. If one adapted ‘A House for Mr Biswas’ for the screen for instance, the dialogue is all virtually there. To adapt ‘Half a Life’ would be different.
I’ve always tried not to write the same book. Every book is new. It does different things. The material was knocking around in my head for a quarter of a century. I don’t keep a journal, but sometimes when I’m moved by certain things I just make very brief notes in a particular notebook. So there have been notes about this for a long time. But I didn’t find any way of putting it together. I got taken up with these major books you mentioned. They were very taxing. But I had this material, and my publishers and my agent required me to do a work of imagination. I was required to do it.
Well, it’s a very powerful work of the imagination. It takes us through three different settings, and three different eras, and we meet people in different ways. We follow its central character, Willy, from pre-independence India, to postwar London, to a Portuguese province in Africa.
I tried to make it easy, and light, and a small book, and yet full of things.
The theme is that of man in our times looking for a life and perhaps having to borrow a life. Never living life to the full?
Don’t you think most people or many of the people we know are like that?
Possibly, but I hadn’t thought of it in those terms before. I didn’t estimate the percentage of life people had acquired for themselves. But it’s a telling way of estimation.
I think most people think about it, and you feel less critical of yourself for not achieving a full life. You will understand that many people are living only fractions of lives.
There is a sense of sadness throughout in the failures of Willy, of his family. And what comes out strongly is sexual failure: his own experience, his conviction that his parents never achieved proper sexual experience.
You know we are not responsible for what comes out in a book. We are not fully in control of it. What comes over is probably quite different from what we intend. I spent much more time working out the narrative very slowly, almost picture by picture. Now that you’ve said that about the sex, I suppose it is true. I think it probably reflects something in my own life, a lack of sexual fulfilment until quite late. And then although sex may be very prominent in this, as you’ve discovered, there is no absurd description of sex at all.
Nothing that would qualify for the ‘Bad Sex Prize’.
(Laughs) Nothing like that.
You’ve used four-letter words a few times, which you’ve not done in previous books.
I tried to leave them out and it looked absurd, so I went back and spelt the word out. I made them say it as they would say it. On the sexual theme, I think everybody’s sexuality is very important. Seduction is important, and the grossness of pornographic writing annihilates the importance of it. It suggests that you just have to deal with it in this gross way, and you’ve handled the matter. But it’s too profound to be dealt with in that way. In a way the physical description of sex, which is what people go to the books for sometimes, is very far from the difficulties of fulfilment.
My concern in the book is also the historical side of things. Willy runs away from his background, and even when he gets to Africa, this Portuguese province, he is reminded of the background from which he came.
We will return to the new book later. Can we go back to when you started to write? You have written about waiting for an agonising time before you knew what it was you had to write. You describe the first sentence that came to you when you were working in the Langham Hotel building of the BBC. It’s from ‘Miguel Street’. And yet that wasn’t your first published book. Could you clarify the chronology?
It’s actually an important question: it’s part of the pain I suffered when I was beginning. I wrote Miguel Street first, and it was taken by Andrew Salkey, a friend, to André Deutsch. Diana Athill, the editor at Deutsch, liked it, but Andre Deutsch, who knew about these things, said ‘short stories don’t sell’. And they kept the book for a long time. I had little moments of terror, panic. They wanted a novel first, so I wrote The Mystic Masseur. I finished it in January 1956. It should have been published that year. To a destitute man it mattered to be published. Of course you can’t wait six months and then six months again. But The Mystic Masseur wasn’t published until May 1957, and then another novel, and finally, in 1959, they published Miguel Street. The stories, which had been written in 1955, have never been out of print; they’ve made a fortune for André Deutsch. But look at the trouble they gave me. The publishers could have eased my path a little, but they didn’t. It was the trouble I had with André Deutsch. He believed that only one person’s interest had to be served. But it must be said that at that time, in 1955 or thereabouts, it would have been hard for my material to be considered a real book by any London publisher. André Deutsch took it up and I think it was because of Diana Athill. She was a remarkable editor, she always softened the awfulness of the man Deutsch.
You say softened – and you often use the word ‘hard’ in your autobiographical pieces. You use the same word about your father and his life and ambition. What does the word mean?
A very simple thing. Shall we say for my father it means – heaven knows where the spark came from, in that plantation colony of Trinidad – getting the wish to be a writer and not having anyone interested. To this day they’re not interested. I would say that my father’s grandchildren are not interested in his work. It’s bitter, isn’t it?
Why was it so?
Well, my wife’s daughter has recently been looking at some of my father’s writing. She’s from Pakistan. She’s enchanted by the writing, because the people he was writing about are closer to the subcontinent. That’s one reason. And the other reason is that we come from a peasant culture. It’s not a literary culture. There’s no tradition of reading. There’s sacred reading, there’s reading of the epics, there’s reading of the scriptures on religious occasions. And there is an oddity, then, in his ambition, that he should want to write when in his culture there is no tradition of reading or writing.
That becomes a theme in ‘Mystic Masseur’ doesn’t it? The main character wants to write and doesn’t know what on earth to write about. So he reads all these books, orders them by mail.
You know the Masseur is slightly autobiographical, symbolically, because the wish to be a writer represented my own wish. The hardness for me was actually learning how to write.
But the Masseur doesn’t. His first book is a hundred questions and answers about Hinduism.
Yes. That’s his book. And the author of the book is wishing that it could be so easy for him too. Actually I had an uncle who wrote a book like that.
But after these first few books you were well established, so it must have been easier.
It didn’t feel easier even then. I was still poor. I mean actually destitute for a very long time, and it was all made worse because I didn’t see myself becoming a writer, I didn’t see how to move. People have aid, looking at the letters that were published two years ago, ‘the writer was always there’. But I think that becoming a writer means knowing exactly who you are. Are you funny, are you grim? Are you heavy, are you light? You have to know. In the beginning I tried to do farce. I began a novel in 1949, when I was seventeen, and finished it at Oxford. I gave it to a friend and he said cruelly it reminded him of Evelyn Waugh and he was right.
What happened to that novel?
Oh, nothing happened to it. Farce wasn’t right for me.
You never used it again?
I’m sure I did. I may have used ideas and bits. The Mystic Masseur had something of it. And I think the African characters in The Mimic Men occurred there.
Was the hardship of those early years something to do with not having an assured audience? Because today an Indian writer, say, or a black poet has an assured audience, at least amongst the Guardian readership. When you set out there was no such audience evident.
I was unaware of any audience here or elsewhere. I had never thought of the problem of who would read the books. If I had thought of it, I probably would have stopped writing. I didn’t think of it like that. I believed in the purity of literature. I believed that if one wrote, and one wrote well, there would be readers.
So you wrote, oblivious of whom you were addressing?
No, not oblivious. Later, it began to wear me down, the fact that I had no audience. I almost began to envy people who had a direct link with a particular audience. I was always a foreigner: to use an American word, I was always an import; so that was hard, and became harder as time went on. In the beginning I was much simpler, I addressed my writing to one person. I wrote for Pat, my wife. I read everything out to her. And then sometimes I was also mentally addressing, in those early days, Francis Wyndham or Diana Athill.
But don’t you think success came, as you progressed, quite soon?
I had no success.
You were immediately commissioned to write other books, like ‘The Middle Passage’.
That was an accident. That was Eric Williams, Prime Minister of Trinidad. The Trinidadian government came to power in 1956 and, in this flush of wanting to be grand, gave me a scholarship to return to Trinidad for six months. And when I was there Eric Williams invited me to have lunch, and a very simple lunch as I remember – I think it was plantains or something like that – and then raised this question, would I travel and write a book about the colonial territories in the Caribbean? The expenses were to be paid by them. I think I was required to hasten the process of decolonisation. And because Williams had approached me, André Deutsch had to publish the book. But the book I wrote as a result was never acknowledged by Williams.
I think ‘The Middle Passage’ is an important book in several ways. It sets the tone for the explorations that you have undertaken among the new nations, civilisations, awakenings of the twentieth century. This is the first real book about the newly decolonised world and it’s funny and full of unexplored truths. How did you approach this task?
I was very nervous. I simply didn’t know how to travel for a book, I didn’t know what to do. I enjoyed travelling, I enjoyed going to Guyana and Surinam, finding a little hotel and staying in it, seeing locals, going to dinner with people, and being invited. I didn’t know how to make a narrative of that. The making of the book is more important sometimes to the writer than the things said. I thought I was writing the obvious in The Middle Passage, and I dealt with the problem of not knowing how to make a narrative of my travelling by being autobiographical in one section, and then by following a politician, Dr Cheddi Jagan of Guyana, in the second section.
But there were objections to the book at the time, from the Caribbean.
There are quotations in it from the Chancellor or the Vice-Chancellor of the new University of the West Indies, who says: ‘We come from the Christian tradition or Judaeo-Christian heritage.’ At the time there was a belief in the Caribbean that they were a European people and I was saying, you are Africans. And my stressing the fact that they were people of African origin was unacceptable. It was as though I was making simple statements look like wicked jokes, that black could be white and things like that, which offended a lot of people.
But ironically in the early Seventies…
It became radical, it became the received wisdom. By then they began to assert something else, an African identity, but by that time the writer’s myth was established. The myth was ‘this man against me’. And people don’t even read the book any longer, they just babble on about it. But it has come full circle.
And then in your next book of travel, a journey through India called ‘An Area of Darkness’, there are more unacceptable truths. It created a huge stir in India. I must confess that reading it at college was a revelation: it made one aware of things that were hitherto invisible, but right in front of one’s eyes. And yet I found it difficult to argue wholeheartedly for the book amongst my friends. My admiration had to be a sly secret. Tell me how you came to write ‘An Area of Darkness’. Why India?
Oh, ancestral land. I was close to India in my upbringing. I grew up in a very, very Indian household. That was the world for me. And there was also the independence struggle, which was taking place when I was in my teens. That mattered to me.
And you had kept abreast of it?
Oh absolutely. All our family did.
So India was self-discovery?
Well, the truth was that I was shattered by India, by what I saw. The things I saw just seemed to be repetitive, and I didn’t think there was a book there. I felt there wasn’t a book in my travels. And for three months afterwards I did nothing. I was faced with the possibility of having to give the £500 advance back to André Deutsch, so I wrote the book. What I did was I opened an exercise book, and put down on two sheets all the things that struck me, with little headings, and I looked at them; and I made a shape, and more or less followed that shape. The book changes in mood and manner. It’s now writing about literature, it’s now telling about the writer being in Kashmir, it talks about arrival and then talks about visiting ancestral villages – but that was the way it was done.
The book violated our central Indian preserve of nationalism, an uncritical and often mendacious glossing over history, over poverty, prejudice, superstition, caste, cruelty, hypocrisy, filth, etcetera. India didn’t want any of that talked about. Didn’t that reaction come back to you?
Not really. I was doing my work, I had to keep alive, I had to write another book. And you must remember at a very early stage I stopped reading the critics. I didn’t like seeing my name in print, and hurried past it whenever I saw it. That’s still true.
Nessim Ezekiel, a well-known poet, edited a collection of essays against ‘An Area of Darkness’.
I didn’t know. I didn’t think of it that way, as an attack on India. I thought of it as a record of my unhappiness. I wasn’t knocking anybody, it was a great melancholy experience actually. Mark you, it’s full of flaws: what it says about caste is influenced by ideas I had picked up here, British ideas. I think differently about caste now. I understand the clan feeling, the necessity of that in a big country. And the book was bad about Indian art. I should have understood that art depends on patrons, and that in Independent India, with the disappearance of Indian royal courts, the possibility for art had been narrowed – instead of thinking that this was rather terrible, that there was no art. It will nag at me now, it will nag at me for some years.
Years later you return to India and that journey results in ‘A Wounded Civilization’, which is much less a travel book. It brings to the surface movements from below that haven’t been looked at by Indian writers.
Yes, the book is different. The result of an American commission. The publisher asked me to go and look at the Emergency that had been imposed on the country by Indira Gandhi’s government. A modern way of doing that, a cannier way, would have been to go to India, chat to a few dissidents and journalists, and do that kind of report. But I preferred to do this.
The book is unusual. It tries to make sense, in one section, of the Shiv Sena, regarded in India as a provincial, even a fascist movement. You express empathy and see them as the only party who care about hygiene, about health, about the destitution of the slums in which they operate. The main characteristic of the book is its urge to get under the surface of these phenomena with a tremendous sympathy. It is the opposite of ideological. What compelled you to attempt that?
Because of my background I have the most sympathy with these movements coming from below. I don’t forget my peasant origins in this way, and that we were unprotected, our family, people like us in Trinidad. We had no voice. And in this way I’m quite different from Indian writers. I’m different from Mr Nehru and people like Indira Gandhi. I don’t think those people ever knew the Indian peasantry. I think very few Indian writers know or have a feel for their mentality and their lives even now. They’re middle-class chaps. But I came directly from the other. In spite of the transplantation, my ancestors going to Trinidad, and in spite of education, and being a writer and everything else – those are my origins and perhaps this is why my sympathy is there. And I could always understand them, the peasantry, the landless, the people below giving themselves a break for the first time for centuries, perhaps even for a millennium or more.
And that was the book in which I began to understand the nature of the Indian calamity, what had happened to India: and that was when I began to question, where I went against, the teaching of the independence movement that spoke of the two cultures, the two religions being one really – and I saw that India had been crushed by the Muslims. I didn’t see this clearly, I saw it later, but that book begins to deal with that idea. And I think this is a book which only someone of my background could write, because middle-class, self-deceiving Indian people wouldn’t think like that.
Underlying your observation of India there is the historical perception that the Muslim rule if India which spanned perhaps five or six centuries destroyed much of Hindu India. The wounded civilisation is seen as a society which was been historically mutated, truncated and damaged by proselytising and intolerant Islam. You begin to see this in ‘India: A Wounded Civilization’.
In my analysis of Narayan’s novel at the beginning of India: A Wounded Civilization, I think it’s clearly stated about the invaders. But Narayan speaks about the invaders in this general way, and I suppose I myself was just dealing with the invaders in this general way, not specifying or researching the acts of the Muslim conquerors, the rulers and their governors.
The thing about being an Indian, and it remains true of Indian writing now, is that it seems to work without history, in a vacuum. Indian writers don’t know why their country is in such a mess. They can’t understand the poverty of India, they don’t know why seventeenth- and eighteenth-century travellers talk of a derelict countryside. Very easy to think that it might be because of the British, but much easier in fact to pay no attention to it at all. This lack in Indian writing, even in Narayan’s writing, is a fatal flaw.
Narayan grew up a day’s journey from Hampi, where there are these extraordinary ruins of the city of Vijayanagar, capital of the ancient Hindu kingdom, which I went to see in 1962. And this destruction had been done in 1565. I think a writer like Narayan should have understood what had happened, especially as he’d written a guidebook to the area. But he didn’t respond to that. In a way perhaps the defeat had been too great. How can you write about your setting, your culture, if you can’t see what happened 400 years ago? He has a really magical way of writing and looking, but his picture is incomplete.
Because it has no historical perspective?
It stands on no history. It hangs in the air.
But he writes about a place he has created, an imaginary town, Malgudi, like Hardy’s Wessex.
Yes, and he thinks it’s eternal. In fact, his India is a ruin, he’s writing about a ruin. And indeed you should ask, who created the ruin? Why is there this ruin? The ruin wasn’t eternal.
You explore the theme in great detail in your last and major work about India, ‘India: A Million Mutinies Now’. It has a huge sweep and a powerful underlying theory of the progress of a myriad classes and kinds of people. And the form is startling too. It is virtually a chain of biographies that define the subcontinent, biographies of ordinary and extraordinary but neglected people. Why do you call them mutinies?
It discovers modern India through the revolts, then further revolt, the individual mutinies. And ‘mutiny’ is a simple word meaning people wishing to assert themselves. People coming up, the wounded people, the wounded civilisation, using these British-given institutions to assert themselves after independence. They have had no voice for so long, but now they are in the process of being someone. To me that’s very moving.
It is a very hopeful book. And again embodies the compassion from below. I remember you correcting me when I first asked you about it, telling me they were ‘stories’ not ‘interviews’.
They are stories. In an interview you are getting someone’s opinions, and I was very particular in this book, I wanted people’s experience, and for the experience to illuminate something. One experience, one illumination, linked to another – it’s linked in that way, it makes a pattern.
I remember when I began it I spent so many days in the Taj Hotel in Bombay, wondering how to move. Where do you start? Then a reporter, Laxman, a person I had been in touch with, began to understand what I wanted, and he took me to the Shiv Sena, which had now become a political force in Bombay. It was just one of these happy accidents, we began like that. I talked to people who people would not have looked at before. Indian writers wouldn’t want the stories: they would do social surveys about the very poor and the very wretched. And then I met a man from the Atomic Energy Commission whose grandfather had been a priest in a temple. So when I went down south I looked for this person, to understand how over a couple of generations one can breed atomic scientists from families steeped in ancient religion. I was interested in that sort of discovery.
It has been said that your historical analysis of the Islamic conquests and destruction in India plays into the hands of divisive politicians, setting Hindus against Muslims today, and gives succour to the Hindu extremist.
People who say that have no wish to understand history, or what is created by history, or the movements that are part of a response to history. They have their own idea of history in this respect. It’s – to use this word, which is actually a good word – a construct. It’s a construct that came about during the independence movement.
Whose construct? Was it Nehru’s, Gandhi’s?
I think Nehru had a hand. Gandhi didn’t construct it. Gandhi in a way had a pretty good idea of the damage, but he felt that India had survived it all. But he knew what had happened.
What evidence is there that Gandhi knew or shared the idea that the Muslims had destroyed Hindu civilisation?
No, I’m not saying it as boldly as that. I’m thinking of his book about Indian Home Rule, Hind Swaraj, where he talks about the anguish of India, etcetera. I’m assuming he knows a little bit why the anguish is there. He thought the British made it all; the British made it, yes, but it started long before then.
You do understand the argument of the nationalists, like Nehru…
They had to get people together for the independence movement, and they had to tell stories.
Is it dangerous to violate that story? To point at the Muslim past?
I don’t think it’s dangerous. I think it’s necessary to violate that story. Indians wonder why their country is a country of misery. I have some idea of this land trampled over, and why it was trampled over. Every country has a history. Indians live in a country without seeing the history.
So without understanding there is no redemption?
No, I don’t think so.
You don’t think that knowing the truth about that history would predispose anybody to be anti-Islam or anti-whatever?
I think that the Muslim people of India should know the history too, and in fact just across the border in Pakistan they know the history. They boast of the history. So why should people just across the border in India pretend it doesn’t exist? What kind of nonsense is this? In their junior history books it’s there. ‘We conquered, and looted. And we destroyed. We did away with all the idols, we did away with all the temples. Yes, it was our land’. The Pakistani dream is one day that there’ll be a Muslim resurgence and they will lead the prayers in the mosque in Delhi. You can hear that in Pakistan.
Can you? I didn’t know that the Pakistanis were about to do that to India.
But it is a kind of dream.
Well, let’s hope they see sense.
It wasn’t just the nationalists, you know. People write such rubbish about the three religions of India. People like E M Forster make a pretence of making poetry of the three religions. It’s false. It’s a pretence. It’s utter rubbish.
You are alluding to ‘A Passage to India’, which is divided into sections entitled ‘Temple’, ‘Mosque’, etcetera.
I don’t know what it means, and I don’t think Forster knows what it means, or knew what it means. Forster wrote so many prefaces to that book, he couldn’t decide. It has only one real scene, and that’s the foolish little tea party at the beginning. I don’t think there is another real scene. Forster of course has his own purposes in India. He is a homosexual and he has his time in India, exploiting poor people, which his friend Keynes also did. Keynes didn’t exploit poor people, he exploited people in the university; he sodomised them, and they were too frightened to do anything about it. Forster belonged to that kind of nastiness really. I know it might be liberally wonderful now to say it’s OK, but I think it’s awful. That’s the background to all the mystery and the lies.
And you think that ‘A Passage to India’ reflects this background with mysterious lies, or lying mysteries?
I think people don’t actually read it, you know.
F R Leavis, in ‘Scrutiny’, published a sceptical review saying that there was a hollow mystery at the heart of the novel which Forster didn’t quite understand himself.
Yes, it’s a lying mystery.
Don’t you think Forster gave us anything about India?
He encouraged people to lie. He was somebody who didn’t know Indian people. He just knew the court and a few middle-class Indians and the garden boys whom he wished to seduce.
In ‘Among the Believers’ and then seventeen years later in ‘Beyond Belief’, you visit and revisit the countries which are converts to Islam – Iran, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan – and again write the stories of people there, from ordinary people to Vice-Presidents and the murderous Mulla Khalkhali.
I was interested in these convert societies, converted to Islam, whose history now begins in Arabia. It’s as though they have no history before the coming of Islam. All that is wiped out. Look at Indonesia: these converts, encouraged by Saudi money, are destroying the native culture of those islands. Destroying their own culture and country.
Yes, but saying so doesn’t make you popular. I think both books explain these societies in a way that no-one has done before and they point to real dangers to civilisation. I would say that ‘Beyond Belief’, apart from embodying this theory, is a book full of compassion for the people and their experience. Still, the opinion persists, perhaps among those who don’t read your books, that you are a pessimist – an acerbic, critical writer. Why do you think this is?
These things happen over the course of a writer’s life. I used to be called a satirist. I don’t know what I was supposed to be satirising. The reason is probably that I’ve never been an official writer – many colonial chaps, their passion is to be an official writer. Latin America is full of nothing but official writers.
You mean as they were in the Soviet Union?
No, an official writer is someone whose views do not harm the Establishment, the government, authority of all kinds. I was thinking about Latin America, where most writers are trying to be official writers, who do what is required of them, who do what they feel they are expected to do. It is full of official writers who offend no one, and leave Latin America eternally in its mess, because they offend no one. The truth is dodged, the mess continues.
Can you say the same about Africa? For instance, writers like Soyinka were persecuted in Nigeria.
I think Soyinka’s a marvellously Establishment figure actually.
You have written about Africa quite extensively. You’ve written. novels, essays. The problem of writing about Africa would seem to me to go much further than simply being anti-government. The continent’s writers don’t seem to be critically penetrative of their own societies in any profound way.
A certain kind of society stimulates a kind of profound writing. Other societies, which are not profound, offer little scope for intellectual adventure. Certain societies are quite limited. It is difficult anyhow to be profound about them.
‘In a Free State’, ‘A Bend in the River’, ‘The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro’, and now part of your latest novel, ‘Half a Life’.
I’d never have imagined writing so much about Africa.
You’ve written about territories that weren’t looked at – Congo; Rwanda; Burundi, in ‘In a Free State’ … it’s thereabouts?
Around there, yes.
And you were predicting, in fiction, the violence to come forty years later? The child soldiers who kill and eat each other?
It’s terrible. It’s terrible.
What made you venture there?
Again, because of the background, the Trinidad background. I grew up in that little island where there were Indians and Africans. Just as I have a feeling for Indian peasant movements or Indian working movements, so I have some kind of feeling for Africa. I wasn’t going to Africa cold – or with any sexual intent.
You are endlessly curious about emerging societies. In the Africa you write about, the Congo is in turmoil, Idi Amin expels the Asians from Uganda, the colonials are in retreat from guerrillas, dictators set themselves up and are worse despots than the colonial rulers – you go and observe and write. Now for a writer to go into that you must have some certainty about yourself, some certainty of belief, some moral centre. Even if it’s as minimal as ‘eating people is wrong’.
There are two sides to the thing about Africa and about what I wrote. I had a great interest – an ignorant interest, I should say as well – in African art. And through that I have a feeling for the religions of the earth, if you can call or classify African religions as that. They’re so mysterious, and really to me quite wonderful. The missionary who wants to convert them all to a revealed religion is arrogant and destructive. I’m interested in this ancient thing from the earth. Religious Africa. If one reads Virgil, there is a lot of mystery about Rome, the founding of Rome, Roman religion, its antiquity. And there is the same thing of course in this culture, African culture, the dark continent. They come from very far back. They are very mysterious things, I find these things wonderful. That was my initial interest in Africa, a reason for going there.
But you asked about this belief, the central belief, a moral scheme. When I began to write years ago, you could have said: ‘You are writing about these simple people as though you knew a better world, and of course you don’t, so why are you writing like this?’ My wife said this to me – she was not my wife in 1952, she was a friend, a great encourager of my writing, but one vacation she wrote me this letter. (I was reading the reply about two months ago, and it remains true, although I was only nineteen then.) I said to her that I believe in a kind of cumulative conscience of mankind. We all possess this conscience. I will stick to that.
An instinctive right and wrong?
It’s more like knowing yourself. I feel that that gives you the place where you stand. You don’t have to know something better, but you have a place where you stand.
Where does that come from?
In my own case it came from certain circumstances, it’s difficult to explain – the fact that my father was a writer and I found a great moral quality in his writing, and so I had this at an early age. And it gave one a place to stand, the moral centre.
Does all writing need to do that? Should it be an expression of moral sensibility?
Inevitably if you write narrative there must be a moral sense, because a moral sense explains causes. Otherwise everything becomes irrational. If you don’t have a moral sense you can’t say why things happened.
A writer like James Joyce is not primarily concerned with narrative, though. He is more concerned with allusion and wordplay. And he begins the century of writing with an amoral style.
I can’t read it. Joyce was going blind and I can’t understand the work of a blind writer. Where did he live? In Trieste. In the last days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. But he is not interested in the world. He writes about Dublin and his own convolutions, Catholic guilt. He is not interested in the world.
Does a writer have to be?
Yes. To illuminate something for people. You see, coming from where I did, I had to write about the history of where I came from – forgotten people. I had to write about India. I had to, as it were, approach it in my own way. It took a lot of work.
We have talked about the approach to India but your next work on the Caribbean can properly be called a historical work, albeit an unusual one. ‘The Loss of El Dorado’ tells the story of Trinidad, of Walter Raleigh’s doomed search for a city of gold, of the extermination of the Caribs and then of a troubled and tragic history. Why did you get interested in that kind of history?
I believe that all writing has some element of accident about it. An American publisher was doing a series about cities, and the proposal first came to my agent, and I thought I would do a very quick book. And then I found that the history of Port of Spain had not been written. One had to go to the documents, the original ones. I looked at more and more of the source material and the narrative altered. We were brought up to believe that Trinidad had almost no history, that slavery had affected the other islands but it hadn’t affected Trinidad to any great extent. And I went and found that it was not so. It had an awful story. I wrote it in the way I did all my other writing – I attempted a narrative, I wrote about people, a human story. I wasn’t looking to make points about history, I wasn’t writing a textbook, I was trying to make evetything live.
And it does.
Then at the same time I was trying to see the slave society, seeing this awful thing at work. I was concerned with the way men behaved when unbridled, when there is no control. It’s dreadful. So that was the subject of the book. I was marked by the labour for a long time actually.
And the response to the book? I’ve always looked at it as a unique way of doing history.
It’s a human story. It was written between 1966 and 1968. The publisher who commissioned it rejected it. It was not the book he wanted. The great labour was not required: he wanted a tourist guide about shops and things.
Ten thousand dollars advance. I didn’t get the second five thousand. I didn’t give back the first five because Knopf took the book over. Diana Athill liked it. But when the book was published here it had a poor response. People simply didn’t know what I was writing about. In the year of its publication, 1969, the best-selling book was The Conquistadors, by the thriller writer Hammond Innes. It was the old story about the glories of Cortez and the Spanish conquest of the Americas. But The Loss of Eldorado has made its way very slowly. Historians don’t like it. Historian friends didn’t think it was a real book. I suppose they wanted theories, comments about the Spanish Empire, they wanted me to be like themselves.
But there is a theory, except it’s not a historical theory: a particular brand of adventure led to a particular brand of immorality, which rebounds on itself. That’s the moral of El Dorado, the greed for gold leads to great tragedy in the island – hangings, floggings, burnings, irrationality and death.
Terrible. In 1968 I was taken into this world, and it’s very hard to forget it. So I was learning. The world is expanding around me all the time. I’m getting social ideas. Knowledge came to me very slowly, and through the books I wrote.
In two books, ‘The Killings in Trinidad’, a non-fiction account, and then in ‘Guerrillas’, a novel, you use the same material to do quite different things. Both tell the story of Michael X, who turned up in London and became a sort of fraudulent black leader.
He came from Trinidad. When there is nothing at the back of people, when there is no achievement, no career, then fantasy and lies take over. Michael came to London as Michael de Freitas. He was a pimp in London in the Fifties and found that it was profitable to promote himself as a racial victim. And he found a lot of encouragers. He went out to Trinidad and he was encouraged by all kinds of people there who looked forward to him becoming the ruler of Trinidad, the leader of revolution and everything else. He changed his name a few times and finally this Michael X was the leader of the blacks, to his rich patrons here.
I think that book explores the rise of a particular kind of fraudulence in our times. False histories, made-up identities, people becoming famous because other famous people said that they should be famous. You know John Lennon endorsed Michael X and gave him money?
Well, I’ll tell you what happened. I actually was in Trinidad at the end of 1971, by which time this Michael X had murdered and buried people. And out of interest I went to look at the house and the holes where the people were buried, and I followed the story there. I had no intention of writing about it, and then my friend Francis Wyndham of the Sunday Times asked me to write about it. And I went back and did a lot more research, got a lot more documents and everything and did that story. And in doing it I learnt something about people who support revolutions, and that was not greatly different from what Conrad had discovered, in The Secret Agent.
What did he discover?
This woman who supports the anarchist believes she is so secure and so aristocratic, that when the world is blown up only the others will be destroyed. She will float serenely above the wreckage. So there are secure people who encourage revolutionaries. When societies are not secure it’s a different matter.
And your research suggested the novel ‘Guerrillas’?
Completely, yes. The fact that these murders had been committed gave one the courage to write about an act of murder. I had done the investigation, the journalism. But to write a work of fiction – it requires a different approach. Yes, they are based on the same occurrence; but the books were quite different to write. I spent a long time getting the fictional story right.
But it was about such an adventurer?
Yes. And I took that and I created a new setting, new motivation, new people. It is a murder book actually, but it’s a real murder, it’s not a joke murder.
It’s not a detective murder.
Detective murders are for people who are very secure. I think when you are not so secure you can’t be entertained by murder, and in the novel, it hangs between two acts of sex, quite awful acts of sex. It’s very violent. I don’t know where the violence came from. It’s a kind of moral violence as well, which began to creep up on people.
In the writer’s sensibility is there a divide between fact and fiction?
I think that the person on the outside has to consider it, and he will see that fact and fiction are entirely separate creations. Fact has to be scrupulously true to the reality, scrupulously. One must never tamper with events or statements to make a story nicer. With fiction, one has been given courage by what had happened to do this story of murder, and so all the motivations for the murder have to be evident within this manufactured story. It is not enough, in a work of the imagination, to say that X decided to murder Y. You have in fiction to give an illusion of cause, an illusion of a reason, so it requires another kind of narrative. In real life there might have been no reason.
You say ‘Guerrillas’ was a violent book, but it was a very angry book too. You were looking at something of which you disapproved.
No. I don’t think it works like that; I don’t think one disapproves. The story was given me to meditate on. I was able to add knowledge of people I knew in many places, and the book came. The violence actually is in the tone. If you read the book aloud you will see that it’s violent in its rhythm. It wasn’t angry, it was just violent. The earlier book, In a Free State, that is horribly violent. The violence runs right through. It is full of humour, but every joke freezes. If you’re reading the book aloud to an audience, every time they start laughing the laughter freezes, because what’s happening is too awful. Guerrillas is a continuation of that mood.
A lot of the trouble was in how to construct Guerrillas. I began it several times and gave up. And then what I did instinctively – not out of any deep plan – was that different characters took on the story, so the story developed through people, and each of the people became more important at different stages. I remember I had spent about three months trying to write the book – it was a very long time, it was my first book for three years, I was getting very anxious. And I was in Wiltshire, in my cottage, and I began to rake up the leaves one day; I’d tried so often to see the way ahead, and then I saw the complete way the story had to be done, and I went back and gave up the leaf-burning, and wrote out very quickly the briefest of notes, which I then followed scrupulously.
You have written works which defy classification, like ‘A Way in the World’, which is partly autobiographical, partly history, partly fiction.
The form represents a developing knowledge of the world.
‘The Enigma of Arrival’ was also a compound of autobiography and fictional narrative.
The Enigma is a book about the writer as a writer, and it’s a book about England, and the two things come together. The bit about the writer, the man who came to England in order to be a writer, and has cheated himself and didn’t see great subjects – that’s one story. And the other is a mock-pastoral story of the English village in which he comes to rest when he’s wounded and hurt. There are many ironies in that story. He comes to rest on an estate owned by a family with colonial interests; and, as time passes, England, the country the writer has come to, changes. This place itself in which he’s come to rest begins to fade away. That’s the way the book occurred to me. I couldn’t have made it an autobiography. It would have been tedious – that was not my purpose.
You once told me that you could not or would not write an Indian novel, because it would entail inventing somebody like yourself, and why take all that trouble when you can write in other ways about it. I always thought that was a slightly enigmatic statement.
To write about a place, you need really rather full knowledge. I decided to write about England in this way, in The Enigma, when I’d been here for more than thirty years. To write about India … I’ve always been a visitor – it’s a superficial kind of knowledge. It would make me a semi-interior writer, to create a figure like myself coming to India, and describe events and fit the narrator against the Indian background.
In the Twenties and Thirties Somerset Maugham travelled in the Pacific and in Asia, and he did those stories – ‘The Trembling of the Leaf’, ‘Rain’, and stories like that. I wonder, if Maugham had simply written realistically about the people he met and had explored them fully, whether that putative book wouldn’t have been more lasting than the stories, which have gone with the wind now, and are part of the dust, part of the imperial dust. Ten or twenty years later, it was all to collapse, and the Maugham stories suggest a permanence, falsely suggest something eternal about the setting. A real book about his observations would have been much more interesting for us today. We’d have had a snapshot of Asia at a critical time. If he’d been very fair with the material, and had asked the correct questions of various people, we would have had a sense of China awakening, of Japan in the distance, and India also. So it would have been more interesting than these so-called ‘universal’ stories, which are not universal at all. They are very colonial, provincial, insular, and they haven’t lasted.
Can you point to writers who deserve to last?
They would be the originals. Writers who have done something new.
And who would you choose as originals?
Flaubert’s original. Gogol, Balzac – I’m talking about prose writing. Maupassant’s original. And the Indian stories of Kipling.
Early Dickens. The element of self-parody becomes overwhelming in Dickens after a time.
He imitates himself?
He died from the self-parody.
But he does do something fresh earlier on?
Very early on, when he’s 24, 25, 26, between Sketches by Boz, The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickleby – these are the great books. And David Copperfield. I know the academics love the dreary ones, like Bleak House and Dombey and Son, etcetera, but they can be pushed to one side. And terrible books like Hard Times – a terrible book. But there is some kind of political angle to the appreciation of that book. If you look at the dates of the writers I mentioned, you’ll find that the date begin at 1834: that’s when Balzac – and then, shortly after, Dickens – began. Flaubert, 1857 – Madame Bovary. Maupassant is later, in the 1880s. So in less than fifty years all the great models have occurred, one after the other. It was an extraordinary period in writing. I do not think there’s ever been a period like that, because this imaginative writing enabled people to possess their societies. That’s the most extraordinary gift that these writers gave people – the ability to see their societies. In addition, you have, in 1861, du Chaillu, writing about travelling in Africa, and in 1864 or thereabouts you have Speke, writing about his travels in Uganda. You have Wallace, in Malaya.
Are they doing a new sort of travel writing?
Absolutely new, and the books remain great, however much one may not like them.
Mungo Park or…
Mungo Park is a little earlier, but that was great too. I’m talking about this period when knowledge of society and the world widens. It lasts a short time. Du Chaillu, a very attractive writer – he’s an American, in spite of the name. And you must add there 1869 – Mark Twain and The Innocents Abroad. And Huckleberry Finn, 1884, or was it earlier? It’s very special. It’s a remarkable book. It cannot have a sequel. It cannot be copied. The names I gave you are people who were describing societies, big societies – France and America.
And I should add, there’s something very interesting in that flawed writer Stendhal. In The Red and the Black his hero reads Rousseau’s Confessions. That book was finished in 1770, much earlier than the period Stendhal was writing about, but his hero reads Rousseau to understand society. So you see that serious function of writing at that time. The writers today are copying the forms and yet their intention is much more frivolous: to show off, to do a new kind of sensation, and above all to tell people what they already know.
I talked earlier about the official writers of Latin America. There are people who say, about the problems of Latin America: our history is so bad we can only write about it in a surrealist way. This, of course, is rubbish. Nothing is so bad that mind cannot be brought to bear on it.
You said you were working on two books?
Yes, one is about England and one is autobiographical … but that’s later.
And for now, the new book – which will be reviewed and make its way in the world. How would you like people to react to this book? What would you like them to take away from ‘Half a Life’?
I would like them to feel: ‘It’s me.’