- Fictional Murder and Other Descriptive Deaths: V.S. Naipaul’s Guerrillas and the Problem of Postcolonial Description
“The sea smelled of swamp; it barely rippled, had glitter rather than colour; and the heat seemed trapped below the pink haze of bauxite dust…”—V.S. Naipaul, Guerrillas
“Nothing that happened here could be important. The place was no more than what it looked” (45). In V.S. Naipaul’s 1975 novel Guerrillas, the bauxite dust of American factories hangs in a haze over the pages, stagnant, heated, prescient. In an atmosphere of anticipation, where real guerillas never materialize, and political revolution is a fictional abstraction, it is descriptions of landscape that hold a charged textual potential: the trapped heat, the smeared slogans, the chain of hills all seem to indicate a violent end. As Naipaul himself points out on the blurb to the 2002 Picador edition, “The violence actually is in the tone. It wasn’t angry. It was just violent.” That violence snakes its way through narrative depictions of a Caribbean landscape, the shantytowns and the sea, until it erupts in the brutal rape and murder of a white woman on the compound of Jimmy Ahmed, the half black, half Chinese, British rabble rouser, the [End Page 289] criminal deported for sexual misdeeds, the new “guerrilla.” The two are mediated by Roche, the former apartheid activist turned liberal corporate do-gooder, and Bryant, Jimmy’s tormented child-slave, member of the commune.
Why return to a forgotten novel, even one that is singular in its misogyny as well as its critique of a “misguided socialism”? Guerrillas is, while also conjuring, a suggestive place to begin a discussion of literary description and the question of a “postcolonial narratology.” Based loosely on the political life of Michael X, the British black power leader who organized an agricultural commune in Trinidad and was hanged in 1973 for the murder of Gayle Ann Benson, the novel is claustrophobically organized despite the constant figuration of the outdoors, the hillsides and beaches, the Ridge and the town, the narrow furrow of earth in which Jane’s body is interred.1
In fact, the majority of the text seems to be comprised of non-narrative landscape scenes that punctuate dialogues and the slow unfolding of tragedy. Until that final terrible and, presumably, literarily unprecedented moment, however, it is description that does the work of violence as well as disdain, both of which emerge from the glittering swamp and presage the murder to come. Scene after scene fixes the narrative eye on bauxite dust, the stink of the sea, or the heat of the bush: “The sea, when they came to it, gave no feeling of air and lightness: the fine red powder of bauxite, sheds of corroded corrugated iron, the reek of the burning rubbish dump: everything here, hillside, forest, sea, mangrove, turned to slum” (22). Repetition is, in fact, a constitutive feature of the novel, repetition of the landscape scene and of the language of its construction. The sea is seen many, many times, the bush “smokes” again and again, slogans are “daubed” more than once.
Is this a pedagogy? A preparation? An anti-orientalism? What is the work of description in this novel of failed revolt? This article will consider the historical genealogy of literary description and its role in the contemporary postcolonial novel. But it will also probe the relation between literary description and literary murder in the context of a nameless neocolonial state, a liberal intelligentsia, a failed revolution, and the perverse logics of domination constructed by race and gender. Mieke Bal writes, “Like eyes, words can kill. The yellow patch does not exist, but it does kill a character. Killing a character: what better place than fiction—where no [End Page 290] live subjects are endangered—to explore the dangers that cultural habits such as language, voyeurism, and ethnographic othering allow us to incur?” (594) It isn’t entirely clear if Proust’s Bergotte, the ambitious artist, actually dies from the stunning yellow patch of Vermeer’s painting figured in the fifth volume of A la recherche du temps perdu, but it is true that literary deaths have...