Patrick Marnham

Lines from the Laureate

An Interview with V S Naipaul

Sir Vidia Naipaul lives with his wife Nadira in Wiltshire, in a house surrounded by fields, with the River Avon running past the foot of the garden. Outside the study window a roe deer and fawn stand motionless. A second glance reveals that they are lifelike wicker-work shapes, the gifts of an anonymous admirer, possibly someone who approves of Naipaul’s passionate concern for animal welfare. He believes that when the local hunt is up, wild animals take shelter in the garden. We talked over two days about his interest in Africa, his latest book, ‘The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief’, and his long writing career.

LR: You went to see a fortune teller in West Africa on your recent journey. What did you ask him?

VSN: Oh, I always ask them a few specific questions. Will I own a house of my own one day? Will I find emotional satisfaction with someone? Will there be a book next year? Next year … For me that is always a sign of life. But I pay no attention whatever to the replies. I’ve never had any wish to penetrate the personal future. The bigger future is always interesting, but I don’t have this personal wish.

Was the African seer any good? 

My favourite answer, which is quite common, is ‘Government help will be forthcoming’. After the Nobel I received a long letter from one fortune teller who had given me this assurance a few months earlier. So they remember their customers. You went to the Congo?

Kinshasa …

Was it fun?

I hadn’t been since the Seventies. I couldn’t believe what had happened to it. It was smashed up in a civil war and fifteen years on it is still a complete mess. You had a similar impression in Uganda, I think. 

Kampala is horrible now. I think the population has just got out of hand. And there’s no one worried about it. The man in charge, Museveni, appears in the newspaper every day, walking somewhere and being photographed. Walking and being photographed. It’s pathetic really.

When he first came in it all seemed so hopeful.

Yes. But that was a long time ago.

You have been writing about Africa for many years. When you first went to Uganda in 1966, were you immediately drawn to the place? Did you think this would become part of your life?

No, no. There were people around me who spoke to me in that way about it, but I couldn’t see it. Now I can see a little bit more of what they meant. But I didn’t think that that limited community would be a place where I could flourish. Or develop. 

And yet you’ve gone back to it time and again.

Yes I do that a lot. And for this reason: I worry about what I have written – which is quite separate from any sort of response to critics or the politicians. It’s because I think about what I have written and I sometimes feel I could have done that differently; I could have done that better; I was not fair there. So I write a second piece, making good what I had done imperfectly. 

When I read your latest book, ‘The Masque of Africa’, I wondered whether you were intending to make good a little bit there, returning as you do to so many of the themes you have touched on before.

There is something in that. I feel that when a subject is quite big, one look is not enough. One should have a second take.

There is also the return to ideas you have covered before, the disintegration of the postcolonial project, the return of the bush, and this terrible sense of abandonment. Africa repeatedly becomes a very frightening place.

I first saw those abandoned buildings in 1966 during a journey from Rwanda to Uganda, and it was staggering to me. There was a town called Gisenyi. One had an idea of towns as places with roofs, with drives, places looked after. In Gisenyi because of the rain the roofs had fallen in; the drives had poured into the road. It was very disturbing. And there were these ruins within the ruined buildings. What I saw were people trying to recreate the ‘hut life’ within a modern bungalow. At different times in my life I’ve come across the same thing. About nine years later I was in the Congo, Kisangani – Stanleyville as it was – and I was taken to see what remained of the town. And I saw streets that had been swamped by bush. And I saw name signs, still looking new, for nightclubs – ‘Château de Venise’, that sort of thing. It was very upsetting. But this is not true of West Africa. This is not true of Ghana. They’re sharper, they’re kinder, more equipped to deal with foreigners. And I was very impressed with the people I met in Nigeria ­ intellectuals. Once that process starts it carries on. 

I was wondering where your initial interest in Africa came from. Perhaps your Trinidad background played a part?

Trinidad, yes. That was a great help to me, especially when I was in the Congo. The first time I was in Kinshasa I saw workers being brought into the city in open railway trucks. And when I saw those people I felt at ease because I felt, ‘I know them. I’ll be able to talk to them.’ So my Trinidad background enabled me to have an illusion of knowledge. It’s a superficial idea but it removes the excessive strangeness, the exotic quality, that places might otherwise have.

Your African fiction started withIn a Free State’ in 1971, then ‘A Bend in the River’ and then ‘Half a Life’. In the first book an English couple are travelling through a disturbed country under curfew and are seeking refuge in a European compound. They live in a state of fear. In the second the hero, an Indian merchant, has no refuge and his life is eventually saved by an African friend. Then in ‘Half a Life’, Willie lives in the bush in Mozambique for eighteen years, mostly at ease.There seems to be a developing sympathy with Africa, a developing engagement. Does that reflect a developing sympathy within you for the African predicament?

Yes, you’re quite right, a developing sympathy. In a Free State was in a way a colonial book.

The English couple, Bobby and Linda, are surrounded by menace; Africans are frightening …

One wouldn’t do that now; times have changed. So one has to write of Africa in another way. And for The Masque of Africa I was looking for something different. I was looking for the human breakdown, as it were. I had to be very particular. I didn’t want to write about politics, or local internal trouble. I just wanted to stay with fundamental beliefs, if I could find them.

Of course this is a subject that is very seldom written about, African belief, the secret part that they don’t talk to us about.

Exactly. But if you want to talk to them about it they will and it wasn’t difficult. 

But it was going in pretty deep, wasn’t it? The subtitle is ‘Glimpses of African Belief’. Was that as far as you got, a glimpse? 

Yes. Because if you look at a book about ritual for instance, you’re getting into really deep water there. So I had to be careful. I wanted to understand what African belief represents. It needs to be looked at, as Susan, the Ugandan poet, told me. She was a Christian but she respected her people’s traditional religion. I’m interested in early religion, in the beginning of things, the beginning of religion.

In ‘A Bend in the River, Salim, the Indian merchant, who is a pretty secular figure, discovers the melancholy that is the basis of religion, since ‘religion turns that melancholy into uplifting fear and hope’. 

I didn’t know I had said that but that’s good.

What is your own reason to be interested in the basis of religion? Is this a growing interest of yours? 

I’ve always had a little interest in it, but I haven’t gone into it because I’m afraid that if I do I will start sinking into it. 

In your own childhood was religion important?

No. I actually have no belief. I was very fortunate that way. It would have been a drag on one’s intellectual development. 

In ‘The Masque of Africa’, you meet a sort of guru in Gabon called Rossatanga who has some pretty harsh things to say about Africa. At one point he says, ‘This land was not made for humans.’ He’s thinking of the forest.

Oh, but he said this in a romantic way. He wasn’t condemning it. He was thinking of African belief and he was telling you that if you lived here you too would have to find ways of dealing with this kind of flora and fauna. When I was in Gabon I went walking in the forest and it wasn’t at all frightening. I was quite calm. My only concern was that I could not walk in the elephants’ footprints because they were full of water and too deep for my shoes. But I liked all of that because I love the smell of the wet forest.

The forest has always seemed to be a frightening place for outsiders. It was an image of fear for Conrad.

Yes. But I did not go very far into the forest. There was no worry for me of being swallowed up in bush. I love the idea of the very big trees. Inevitably you think about the age of the trees, how slowly they have been growing, and you feel very warm towards them. And you understand the Gabon feeling that to cut a big tree down is like taking away a human soul.

But they cut them down all the time.

All the time, all the time. And now it will be done more industrially; the Chinese and the Malaysians will be much more efficient and more ruthless. 

So, what does the forest tell us about the African psyche?

I don’t think it tells us anything. What Rossatanga was saying was that the land is so hostile to men, that it is not a place for men, you can’t even keep cows there for milk. He was saying that agriculture needs a more benign setting. And he’s probably right. I never thought of that until he mentioned it. We think of agriculture as the beginning of human activity. But no, here agriculture comes much later, it is an act of self-improvement. Rossatanga talking about a particular place in Gabon, where you can see the big animals, the whales and the dolphins, the elephants: that feeling of wonder, I had a respect for that. But I found it in nobody else. Rossatanga talking like that about the landscape was interesting to me. It was poetic, it was mystical, it was good.

In the book you emphasise the importance of African belief but you also noticed that there was a lot of cruelty involved. Of the Ivory Coast you wrote, ‘the land was full of cruelty’. You were referring to ritual sacrifice and ritual murder, and you tell stories about those practices, some of which I too heard on my travels. So isn’t this a complication of the problem? Africa confronted by a loss of traditional belief, but a kind that can be, that is, intrinsically, cruel?

I think we have to lay out the problem and live with it. You can’t always make a whole of things. If we consider Roman belief, the lowing oxen being led up the Via Sacra, I think that we don’t pay sufficient attention to that side of ancient belief. We don’t quite take it in. We don’t see the blood and the unhappy animals. The Romans saw it all the time, but they saw it in a different way, as the prayers being received. I think we are much better rid of all these beliefs. I know very little about Christianity but I think that its purification of sacrifice was a very fine thing.

But you don’t approve of what the Christian missionaries have been doing in Africa at all.

What Susan, the poet from Uganda, said about the missionaries was slightly hair-raising.

She said: ‘My people had a civilisation. It was very different but it was their own … The missionaries took away our land, religion and customs … they brainwashed us … When a person or race comes and imposes on you, it takes away everything, and it is a vicious thing to do.’

It’s an intellectual vanity isn’t it – to come among people and tell them that you, the outsider, have the answer for them. Susan suffered from that a little bit.

Yes, because it complicated her sense of identity. It sometimes seems that there are two Africas, the official world of the NGOs and the World Bank that we are allowed to discuss, and this parallel world that overwhelms the official picture as soon as we go there. And one unusual thing about your writing is that it often describes the second place. And this may be why it has sometimes been criticised.

One has to live with that. 

In your travel essay ‘The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro’, you wrote, ‘Men knew another reality. They lived easily in the world of spirit and spirits.’ And you had the sense of this other reality even outside a souvenir shop in a big tourist hotel in Abidjan. That is what is so difficult for people from our part of the world to accept. That there could be this other reality, in which Africans look on us as phantoms designing a future that will never exist and arriving with our psychic sickness, which includes our racism that grew into apartheid and has crippled the relationship between Europe and Africa.

Yes, absolutely. 

Instead of striving to understand we offer the official programmes and we have the progressive consensus. Which do you think have done more harm, the colonials or the progressives?

Oh the second group, the more recent. Because they haven’t taken the argument on at all. If they had been willing to deal with Africa properly, it would have helped Africa. Instead they have their own set of beliefs – they’ve just taken their blueprint and applied it. I really hope that Africa can finds its feet and pick itself up and no longer need this kind of nonsensical patronising tolerance. 

Let’s go back to something that I experienced in 1975. One day in Kinshasa I had the inspiration to leave the hotel and take a taxi to the university. They were very all very nice, very welcoming, although they had no idea who I was or what I did. And I thought then, here are all these very bright people, whose minds are going to be turned to lead very soon – this was in Mobutu’s country, and they had to be turned to lead if they were to earn a living. And I wondered how this could be done. And I had a feeling that it was done through this old belief. And Mobutu gave to it a nice name, authenticité. There are these brilliant young people who would talk to you about Stendhal, something so far from their experience, and talking quite intelligently about it. And yet when you met them in their next incarnation as government officers, all that had gone away.

In a recent article Chinua Achebe said something that suggested some support for part of your argument in ‘The Masque of Africa’. He said, ‘Africa’s postcolonial disposition is the result of a people who have lost the habit of ruling themselves, forgotten their traditional way of thinking.’ Do you think that’s on the same sort of lines as …

No, no. That is a polemical point, that is almost a professional point that Achebe would make. It’s a kind of standard thought, isn’t it? I’m not greatly taken by Achebe. I read his book, the first one, Things Fall Apart. I think it was so simple it probably didn’t deserve the novel form. That form assumes enquiry. Whereas Achebe’s attitude to traditional belief was not one of enquiry but of acceptance. And belief is such a fluid thing, so liable to change, and change is so necessary so often. In all the converted Muslim countries, which they see as places of improvement and success, there has been this great revolution in belief. Take someone like Iqbal, the poet of Pakistan, he said that Islam has been very successful in the subcontinent because it has done something new for man. I think Achebe should have kept a more open mind on that.

In 1975, Achebe delivered a university lecture, now regarded as seminal in Conrad studies, in which he stigmatised Conrad as a racist, citing ‘Heart of Darkness’. He has since taught entire courses reiterating this point. Did you read his text?

Yes and I found it extremely foolish. Early in the novel Conrad describes a European warship, which is firing shells into the bush. Achebe has made the point that it is not bush: people are living there. I would have thought that the people firing the shells would have known that very well. What is bad about Achebe’s observation, too, is that if you look at the passage describing the warship in its context, in the narrative, you’ll see that there’s so much going on around the shells being lobbed into the bush. Because Conrad is a very careful writer, a very profound writer. He does not use ideas carelessly, so he had worked it all out, contrary to what Achebe is suggesting – which is that Conrad is describing some kind of wanton nonsense. 

You have a high opinion of Conrad. Some months before Achebe gave his lecture, you wrote in the ‘New York Review of Books’ that Conrad’s value to you was that he was ‘someone who sixty or seventy years ago meditated on my world, a world I recognise today’. Has this judgement held true?

Yes, he ‘meditated’ on it, took it very seriously. And by ‘a value to me’, I meant that if I was going to write about that world now I should write with a similar regard for the profundity of the place. Because Conrad did not just regard Africa as a landscape or a bit of bush. He peopled it. Having said that, I recently read Heart of Darkness for the fifth or sixth time and I am unhappy about it as a piece of writing, as a piece of fiction. I prefer the Journal that Conrad based the story on. There’s enough in that Journal to support any life of the imagination. Whereas the fiction ends with the absurdity of the narrator going to see Kurtz’s woman. It’s a bit of storytelling. He was just making it neater, making a story of it.

Some reviewers of ‘Masque’ were surprised by your concern over animal suffering in Africa. I wondered whether you were using this visible suffering as a symbol for the human suffering that you were not shown?

No, no. It was just what it was. Concern about animal suffering was one of the big things in the great eighteenth-century revolution of feeling. Hogarth tried to encourage it. He did a series about cruelty to animals and he said that if it had any effect he would consider those pictures as good as anything that Raphael had done. One understands then how our attitudes are made to change, in small ways at first, and then it becomes a flood. There was a man, Captain Coram, in the eighteenth century, who was so moved by the sight of naked babies dying in the road that he decided to do something about it. Everyone else was living with that sight and it needed a special kind of person to say we must do something. So you see change has to be incremental, no revolution of feeling can do that. It’s a series of little things. When I was in Thailand I began to talk about this to people at the university there and one said, in a very knowing way, that that absolves everyone of responsibility – ‘People who worry about animals don’t worry about human beings.’ But I think the opposite is true. I think if you worry about animals it leads automatically to a concern for human beings. 

Do you think that the animals know the difference between happiness and unhappiness? 

Oh yes, oh yes. That’s why Augustus [Naipaul’s cat] purrs. If he does not purr you are not pleasing him.

One of the early reviews of ‘Masque’ for some reason wandered away from Africa in order to focus on Oswald Mosley and the Notting Hill race riots. This reminded me that in ‘Half a Life’, Willie, during his years in London in the 1950s, experiences the fear of those events. Were you yourself in London at that time?


Willie overhears an old man in a pub casually saying, ‘Those blacks are going to be a menace.’

Yes I actually heard that said at the time. I thought it was a strange thing to say. There they are being killed or hounded and this man is saying they are a menace. I was in London but I was not affected, I felt it was far away. 

We were talking about racism, and of how the word seems to be quite recent, early twentieth century, first used it seems – perhaps by Gandhi – in relation to British policy against the Indians in South Africa. Have you yourself experienced it?

Yes, in Trinidad in 1956, the Prime Minister, Eric Williams, was encouraging anti-Indian racism. I wasn’t prepared for it. I used to walk down those streets in Port of Spain when I was a small boy going to school quite unprotected and getting nothing but goodwill from the people I saw. This was a new thing to live with. My family was affected by it; everybody was. There were riots, and they maltreated the records department in Port of Spain. But today they’ve gone through the cycle and reached an equilibrium again.

In 1956 they were playing little games. If you wanted a taxi and you hailed a black taxi driver he wouldn’t stop for you. Little things like that, very bad games. Some people thought this was wonderful, that it was the new dawn. Eric Williams also had the clever idea of detaching the Muslims from the bulk of the Indian population. And to some extent that is still there. 

In ‘Half a Life’ there is a wonderful passage when Willie, leaving England to go to Mozambique having started in India, has this idea that if he loses his language he will lose his identity.

I mustn’t give away too many of my secrets.

Please do.

There was a time when I was slightly lost creatively. I had done a lot of work; I was mentally exhausted. I couldn’t think of a new book. I was going to India in 1962 and this creative vacancy tormented me. And I was on a freighter with four or five other people. They played bridge and I didn’t know the game. And I had this fear of losing not only the gift of narrative, or the talent that I had been developing as a writer. I had the fear about losing language itself. And it was, as you’ve spotted, a terrible fear. And I lived with it, because on a ship with four or five people you are solitary most of the time and there are the waves around you and the sky. And so you can surrender to these big emotions or big ideas. The fear was very real. It spoiled that journey for me. But I later was able to write about the journey [An Area of Darkness] by concentrating on the externals of it. Leaving out the internal side of it. But that’s very personal. How good of you to spot it. It must have had some deep emotional charge in it, for it to stick with you. 

Yes. So would you agree with those who consider that language is perhaps the basic condition of our humanity? 

I would. It’s one of these miracles. If you start thinking about it you get lost, like looking at the sky or trying to deal with the distances of the universe. 

When I think of you and your life and your work and your journey and your achievement it seems as though the English language has become your native land. It seems to be what unifies your life.

It’s a very good thing to say. It’s part of my luck actually, that I should have had a father who inculcated a great love of the language in me. And you know I worked very hard for the English language. I was never able to take it for granted. Not only in the way we were talking about – people who are nervous about losing it and losing identity. I couldn’t take it for granted because I had to learn it at times almost the way I had to learn French or Spanish. I learnt French in this way, not just doing the vocabulary but getting the sentence in which the word had occurred and by committing the sentence to memory. And I remember quite late in the 1950s, doing this with certain writers in English. I took it very seriously; I went about learning English locution by locution – that’s the word I think – quite late in life. I never just studied the language for the sake of the vocabulary. I tried to get the sense around the words. I wasn’t thinking of the beauty of the language. I always thought about meaning.

So Trinidad has given you an entrée, not just to Africa, but to Europe, to South America and to India. It’s the perfect starting point. Or it certainly looks like it, if one makes as much of it as you have.

I didn’t intend to make much of it when I began. It just grew on me, you know. All writing has this element of discovery and the unexpected, not only in the forms that you practise but also in the books that you might attempt to write, there is an element there too of surprise. You must be surprised a little bit by what the book tells you. Don’t you find that?

I recognise what you say. You said that you did not intend to make much of it, but you knew it was what you wanted to do. 

When I began I had no idea what I wanted to do. It’s all been a great, great mystery tour. It looks obvious now, as though it was there waiting to be done but it didn’t seem so to me at the beginning. How do you write about India? You have to learn how to write about India. You have to learn how to write a book about the Islamic world. 

Which was the breakthrough book do you think, the one that made you feel that you were under way?

A House for Mr Biswas – that was the book I was thinking of when I once said that if a man came to me and offered me a million pounds to stop writing, I would have to say ‘No’. I had realised that I wouldn’t give up this book now for any price. I had this conviction of its worth. Wonderful, wonderful to have that conviction, when you are writing something. It supports you.

I recently talked to a gathering of people in the Langham Hotel opposite Broadcasting House where I used to work for the BBC. I told the audience about this emotional moment coming through the same front door and taking the same lift up to the second floor. But what I forgot to tell them was that everyone I saw on my first day had died. All those young men had vanished. It happens like that at a certain stage in your life, don’t you think?

I looked up an interview you gave in 1972 …

Oh, what did they make me say? 

‘I have never had to work for hire, I made a vow at an early age never to work, never to become involved with people in that way. That has given me a freedom from people, from entanglement, from rivalries, from competition. I have no enemies, no rivals, no masters, I fear no one.’ That is an extraordinary vow to take.

It’s a young man speaking: I was not forty. 

You’ve kept that vow? 

I managed to keep it. I managed to keep it.

Elizabeth Bowen once said, ‘I have a certain amount of small-change intelligence which I carry around for the needs of the non-writing day, but I am fully intelligent only when I write.’ 

I think that’s a wonderful thing to say. What I always try to tell people is that I am only fully responsible for what I put my name to. And as a writer one thinks properly when one is writing. That is the work. That is when you do your work.

I will read you a passage from ‘A House for Mr Biswas’. It’s a very powerful passage: ‘His satirical sense kept him aloof … satire led to contempt and contempt, quick, deep, inclusive, became part of his nature. It led to inadequacies, to self-awareness and a lasting loneliness. But it made him unassailable.’

I think I’m writing very accurately about my attitude as a young man. I think it’s very good for what it says. 

It gives you strength and courage.

That’s it.

Would you have been able to deal with all those problems if you had not been a writer?

Probably not. The fact of being a writer gave one a great inner strength. One had such an idea of what it was to be a writer. The thought of being a writer – there’s a kind of purity, a blessing, a certainty that all is going to be all right since one was serving this noble cause. I’m trying to define this thing about being a writer. This sums it up quite well. It gets the solitude, the touch of aggression and it also makes clear why people don’t always like young men who are writers – not always attractive, because unhappy a lot of them, unfulfilled. I used to suffer from rages during this period. In public. But that was a passing phase. 

No more rages?

No more rages. Now I don’t have rages at all.

Antony Beevor has described Britain as ‘a post-literate society’. Do you think that is a fair comment?

It might be true. If one thinks about the importance of television, the absence of judgement. When I began to write there was a feeling of a vision outside that would pick up the writing if it were any good. I don’t think that exists any more. A lot of it is not about writing at all. It’s about promotion and sensationalism. But already one is sounding like an old codger. If I opened a bottle of Beaujolais for you now, would you like that, good Beaujolais, Morgon perhaps? I’ve fallen in love with Morgon, there’s a grower called Rigaud. It’s very beautiful. I must have drunk several cases of his wine already. Would you like that? 

Follow Literary Review on Twitter