"Every writer is, in the long run, on his own," wrote V. S. Naipaul in 1964, "but it helps, in the most practical way, to have a tradition." A Trinidadian Indian educated in British colonial institutions, Naipaul discovered early in his writing career that although "the English language was [his], the tradition was not" ("Jasmine"). To John Thieme, Naipaul's particular success lies in his subsequent creation of his own "tradition," one that in its eclecticism reflects his exceptional heritage.
Paul Theroux praises Naipaul as "wholly original . . . the only writer today in whom there are no echoes of influence," whereas other critics attempt to place Naipaul squarely within the Western literary tradition by revealing his indebtedness to a host of Western authors—Dickens and Thackeray, Joyce and Conrad, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy among others. Rejecting such readings of Naipaul as either extreme or narrow, Thieme maintains that Naipaul does make extensive use of allusion but that his technique makes him "truly original" in Eliot's sense: he extends and modifies Western literary tradition to accommodate his [End Page 656] own fictive world of colonial and postcolonial societies.
To assess the role of allusion in Naipaul's fiction, Thieme proceeds through the works chronologically, analyzing evolving allusive patterns at the same time that he addresses larger thematic and technical concerns. Painstakingly researched and refreshingly original, The Web of Tradition proves to be both an informed commentary on intertextuality and a useful general introduction to Naipaul's fiction.
Chapter One discusses Miguel Street as a reflection of Trinidadian calypso culture in the 1930s and 1940s. Thieme demonstrates that the numerous allusions to specific calypsos, the portrayal of calypso themes, and a calypsonian ironic stance reveal Naipaul's ambivalent attitude toward urban Trinidadian existence. Extending Naipaul's references to Spanish picaroon society in The Middle Passage, Thieme analyzes The Mystic Masseur and The Suffrage of Elvira as Caribbean picaresque novels in Chapter Two. Their portrayal of trickster heroes encountering the amorality of Trinidad's "new politics" and the historical determinism inherent in colonial society leads Thieme to compare them to such sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish novels as Lazarillo de Tormes and La Vida del Buscón.
Despite its many Western allusions, A House for Mr. Biswas is, as Chapter Three illustrates, a consummate "Hindu fable." Its very origins Hindu—the novel is on one level a fictionalized biography of Naipaul's father—Biswas can, in Thieme's view, also be read as an allegory of the deracination of most pre-Independence Trinidadian Indians. The allusions to Hindu mythology and to the concept of karma combine with Naipaul's transformation of traditional English novelistic plot structure and mock-heroic mode to create a distinctively modern narrative.
Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion, although it lacks the rich allusive fabric of Biswas, succeeds as a portrayal of the "little man" in England at least in part because of its revealing ironic references to drama, role-playing, and Arthurian legend; in Chapter Four, Thieme points out how such allusions are employed to underscore the trivial nature of modern English society. In contrast to his narrow use of allusion in Stone, Naipaul makes The Mimic Men resonate with literary, cultural, and historical references to expose his cerebral narrator-protagonist's posturings. Chapter Five traces the Conradian allusions in particular: the themes of imperialism and lost idealism, the nonchronological narrative, and the complex first-person narrator of The Mimic Men are viewed by Thieme as reminiscent at once of Nostromo and "Heart of Darkness."
Chapter Six interprets the parodic use of cinematic form and allusions to Hollywood films in A Flag on the Island as formal correlatives of the Americanization of post-World War Two Trinidad; the chapter then examines the central Conradian metaphor in In a Free State and its role in amplifying the themes of neocolonial displacement and paradoxical freedom-in-exile. Chapter Seven discusses how the ironic references to nineteenth-century English novels of manners in Guerrillas point up the distance between Naipaul's deterministic colonial world...