Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles

Naipaul's Strangers
Dagmar Barnouw
Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2003.
$22.95, 176 pages, ISBN 0-253-34207-4.

Judie Newman
University of Nottingham

Dagmar Barnouw's study of V.S.Naipaul is not only interesting to readers of Naipaul, it constitutes an invitation to postcolonial critics to take stock. Barnouw focuses on Naipaul's documentary interests (in both fiction and travelogue) to argue that the symbiosis of writing and recording in his work reflects the responsibilities of writing out of others' articulated experiences, of transforming something already framed—a technique which almost amounts to an intertextuality of history. One chapter centres on novels (A House for Mr Biswas, Guerrillas, A Bend in the River) and five are dedicated to Among the Believers, Beyond Belief, Finding the Centre, The Enigma of Arrival, and A Way in the World. Throughout, literary strategies are discussed in relation to the meanings of Naipaul's cultural critique. Inevitably, perhaps, the weaker analysis relates to the fiction. Not much is made of the narrative complexities of, for example, Guerrillas, or to the economic arguments underpinning the novel, and the debt to Fanon established by Michael Neill. Barnouw is plain wrong to describe Jimmy's work farm as a guerrilla base. The whole point is that there are no guerrillas, merely a simulacrum of resistance which is used by the authorities to lure potential opposition into the open, to be suppressed.

On the more obviously documentary works, however, Barnouw is superb. The discussion of A Way in the World, in particular, deserves to be singled out, as a work which explores differently acculturated ways of seeing for the sake of the differences themselves. In the mature documentary texts, Naipaul combines a variety of narrative strategies: the narrator's questions, direct quotation, free indirect discourse, retention of elements of the speaker's voice, the narrator's paraphrases, editing, information presented in his own voice, direct and indirect comments, "straight facts," and fictional inventions, including wholly invented characters. Writing of this calibre demands a highly sophisticated and attentive reader, and Barnouw is head and shoulders above many of Naipaul's less skilled critics. As she explains it, in his works, different people's stories move into the foreground as pieces of cultural puzzles, which the author puts together in front of the reader, with the emphasis on reconstructing the speakers' cultural environments from their stories, while retaining individuality. As Barnouw describes it, Naipaul develops a gestalt principle of people in their cultural context, much as a good chess player can rapidly sum up the meanings of a complex constellation. Not all pieces of the puzzle will fall into place. As in an Oriental carpet, there is always a marker for incompleteness. Quite explicitly Naipaul treats the problem of narrating from a position of partial knowledge, with the result that the interviewed person assumes something of the nature of a fictional character. The same is true of the narrator, also in some ways a stranger to himself, and of the past, perhaps the ultimate stranger, more unknown to us than the most distant physical phenomenon. In this exploration of strangeness, the result is an understanding of the instability of difference, as something that changes in the process of looking and listening.

It is important here to distinguish Naipaul's practice form any easy celebration of postcolonial difference, or the "creative" reading-against-the-grain of some theorists. Like Iris Murdoch or Simone Weil, Naipaul vests his morality in a vocabulary of attention, offering a concrete and careful understanding of the historicity of human conduct. The "Other," that enduringly distinct, inviolable, late-twentieth-century shibboleth, is simply discounted by Barnouw, for whom

Celebration of difference for its own sake is a luxury affordable only from the distance of “theory,” after “the other” has been safely purged of historical agency. [p. 51]

This attention to historical agency is very much the key to Barnouw's sympathetic discussion of Naipaul—and to her withering demolition of the poetics of postcolonial criticism. Naipaul's strangers are in some fundamental way unknown, as opposed to the "Other" of postcolonial theory, now almost a familiar face to readers; we "don't know" the Other only as a Henry James’s hostess does not "know" her social inferior, not as a mysterious stranger but as the object of liberal condescension and trivializing multiculturalism. The "Other" in short is something of a myth, whereas Naipaul, sharply aware of his own historicity, documents both the modern necessity of history and the dangerous seductions of myth. It is unsurprising therefore that he has fallen foul of the myths of fundamentalist or Manichean postcolonialism. Critics of rationalism rarely consider all the damaging effects of irrationalism. Barnouw clearly supports Naipaul's defence of both a differentiating historiography of colonial and postcolonial cultures, and the value of Enlightenment reason. Nailing her colours to the mast at the outset, she declares

If today's postcolonialists easily denounce “the” European Enlightenment, they tend to forget that for the people who lived at the time the importance of finding their way in the world was self-evident since they were in real terms much more likely to get lost; so are many people now who do not live in the proverbially well-lit developed countries. [p. xiv]

Where Western readers have tended to be shocked by the perceived "metacolonial" tentativeness of Naipaul's observational position, Barnouw mounts a spirited defence. Paul Theroux may decry Naipaul for his fear of merging with the Indian crowd, but as Barnouw points out, Theroux, a tall stranger, was assured of his physical distinctness. Naipaul was in the crowd, apparently a small Indian. Naipaul breaks the taboo in multicultural critique in pointing out the limitations of particular peoples or cultures, and refuses to freeze the postcolonial subject as a perpetual victim of colonialism, whose condition can only be improved by those all-powerful oppressors. As early as 1967, Naipaul declared that "the oppressed have their responsibility as well" [p. 10].

For Barnouw, postcolonial criticism risks becoming the monopoly of a comprador intelligentsia, mediating the trade in cultural commodities and marketable alterity. Said (seen as having near-Biblical authority in the field, despite his ahistorical eclecticism), Bhabha and Spivak come in for sideswipes along the way, but Barnouw's most incisive critique is reserved for Fawzia Mustafa's volume on Naipaul (in the Cambridge Studies in African and Caribbean Literature series), taken as representative of the effects of postcolonial discourse, which leaves texts disfigured and unrecognisable. Mustafa is demolished for dehistoricising Naipaul, for leaving aside notions of textual complexity, for being anachronistic in the disregard for the temporal contexts of text, and for typifying "the purple academese and uninformed Utopianism of much of postcolonial discourse" [p. 15]. Mustafa (omitting Naipaul's own references to the importance of social and political realities which present obstacles to autonomous artistic decisions) envisages him as writing out of incomplete understanding, whereas for Barnouw that is part of Naipaul's value. Mustafa's "striking limitations as a reader" [p. 17] prevent the appreciation of rich, truthful ambivalence, as expressed in Naipaul's presentation of the messy, inconclusive, incomplete experience of sociopolitical reality which resists easy summary or conventional literary representation. One of the sadder comments on the academy is tucked away in a footnote, recording the experiences of English majors on several campuses who (prior to the Nobel prize) had never heard of Naipaul but had heard "incomprehensible" lectures from Spivak and Bhabha [p. 155].

Barnouw may be a little too sweeping in her argument. Not all postcolonial theory has "lenient literary strategies" [p. 25] and literary study is certainly no less arduous (properly conducted) than the coherent research in archives which Barnouw recommends. Nor does it necessarily sidestep linguistic skills (Barnouw's targets appear to be Anglophone postcolonialists). History can itself become a master narrative of considerable obscurantist power. Salim, in A Bend in the River, observes a Belgian historian who is so entranced by the abundance of raw material for his study that he fails utterly to make Africa intelligible. Nonetheless as an iconoclast, Barnouw does a fine demolition job, opening up a vision of Naipaul as a writer in tune with the present, as the globalising energies of the modern world create new cultural and political constellations, much too large and complex for postcolonial certainties.



All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.