- London Calling: V.S. Naipaul, Postcolonial Mandarin
A prominent, if controversial, figure in contemporary literature, V.S. Naipaul has been the subject of numerous serious studies; Rob Nixon's six-chaptered text is one that focuses on Naipaul's travel books. After making his mark as a fiction writer, Naipaul has been made into "a mandarin possessing a penetrating, analytic understanding of Third World societies"; as such his stature has grown to that of an "institution," and an "expert" whose assertions claim an authority and receive an exceptionally wide circulation in Western media.
Nixon's central premise is that Naipaul's fundamental affiliation is to the London-New York metropolitan axis; what follows this thesis is a relentless, thorough, if only occasionally belabored, critique of Naipaul's acerbic treatment of his subjects from the Caribbean, India, Africa, and the Islamic world. Of course, it is well-known that the critical response to Naipaul's pronouncements are characterized by a clear, cultural cleavage: Anglo-American critics celebrate him as the uncompromising truth-teller; third-world critics condemn him for insensitivity and arrogance that pander to Western prejudices. [End Page 969]
Nixon's book reintroduces all the familiar arguments that expose Naipaul's ideological underpinnings, yet the clarity and consistency of its discourse—couched in elegant, forceful prose—evince freshness and novelty. Nixon starts by debunking what he sees as a self-made Naipaulian persona of the globally rootless, ideologically aloof, objective interpreter of the postcolonial condition; he then situates Naipaul's nonfiction within the nineteenth-century English tradition of travel writing.
Given the polymorphic possibilities of travel narrative as a genre, Nixon proposes, rather convincingly, a reading of Naipaul's writing as a blend between autobiography and ethnography; as such Naipaul's oeuvre manifests the limitations of these two disciplines: a narrow, myopic vision, selectively projected from an imperial vantage point and aggressively articulated in supremacist terms that describe third-world societies in a bundle of stereotypical labels such as "simple, "static," "primitive," "parasitic," and "barbaric."
More specifically, I find Nixon's analysis of Naipaul's obsessional fascination with Conradian atavism quite engaging, and his rebuttal of Naipaul's precious concept of mimic dependency is lucid and cogent. Cunningly appropriating George Bush's idiom, Nixon entitles his conclusion "A Kinder, Gentler Naipaul?" His discussion of Naipaul's last three books to date—including the half-fictional half-autobiographical Enigma of Arrival —is fair and precise, registering certain tonal and conceptual shifts in Naipaul's writing.
Rob Nixon's London Calling then fulfills the reader's expectations by appropriately and exclusively devoting itself to a segment of Naipaul's work that has always excited controversy. With Naipaul no one is neutral or indifferent. In Nixon's emphatic judgment, Naipaul's discourse is biased, reductive, deterministic, and resignedly pessimistic. Paid in his unmistakable coin, Naipaul meets his match in Nixon. [End Page 970]