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  • Elitist versus Vernacular Cosmopolitanism in Naipaul's Miguel Street
  • Weiwei Xu (bio)

V. S. Naipaul began his career in the 1950s as a comic writer with four novels set in Trinidad—The Mystic Masseur (1957), The Suffrage of Elvira (1958), Miguel Street (1959), and A House for Mr Biswas (1961). Written from the viewpoint of a young writer describing the social circumstances in which he grew up, the novels are clever, funny, and accomplished, as well as original in their technique and vision. These early social comedies of Naipaul are poker-faced, instilled with strong streaks of irony and satire. The comic effects arise not so much from events and incidents as from characters and dialogue. The eccentric way that people behave and speak is one example. There is, in Naipaul's amused or satiric manner, contempt, even brutality. He consciously presents a situation of absurdity, ignorance, knavery, self-interest, and superstition as the farcical reality in Trinidad of the 1930s and 40s. What underlies this partial representation is his mockery of the all-consuming poverty of Trinidad, its concomitant conservatism, narrowness, passivity, and lack of authenticity. George Lamming has stoutly questioned this authorial implication. Commenting on Naipaul's first three novels, Lamming states in The Pleasures of Exile: "His books can't move beyond a castrated satire . . . When such a writer is a colonial, ashamed of his cultural background and striving like mad to prove himself through promotion to the peaks of a 'superior' culture whose values are gravely in doubt, then satire, like the charge of philistinism, [End Page 287] is for me nothing more than a refuge" (225). From Lamming's point of view, satire precludes sympathy, and allows Naipaul to berate Trinidad from a stance of superiority, which Lamming interprets as a position of complete detachment. His charge is that the cultural values and societal norms by which Naipaul measures the distortions in Trinidadian society are basically Eurocentric.

In a 1971 interview with Ian Hamilton, Naipaul admitted to having been "a thorough colonial" when he first arrived in England. He reflected on his "complete colonial attitude" at that time: a kind of existentialist impotence, a condition in which he felt powerless to exercise freedom of choice (14). This idea of a colonial background providing security for a colonial subject deprived of choice sets up an important basis for the reader to form a picture of Naipaul's early cultural and political orientation as well to the right of the Trinidadian norm: it points the way to a staunch conservatism founded on an acceptance of the status quo. A colonial subject when he began writing, Naipaul seems to have been unable to fulfil his later, more mature conception of the writer's duty: "The artist who, for political or humanitarian reasons, seeks only to record abandons half his responsibility. He becomes a participant; he becomes anonymous. He does not impose a vision on the world" ("The Documentary Heresy" 24). Andrew Gurr reads this statement as Naipaul's rejection of his first four novels (87). Later, in a 1995 interview, Naipaul further confessed that "the early comedy was really hysteria, the hysteria of someone who was worried about his place as a writer and his place in the world. When one is really stressed one makes a lot of jokes. You can make jokes all the time. That's not healthy. The profounder comedy comes from greater security" (Niven 6). This might be Naipaul's most candid verdict on his colonial hangover: in these early novels, he mockingly distorted scenes of Trinidadian life from a Eurocentric or Western perspective.

Drawing on Homi K. Bhabha's theory of vernacular cosmopolitanism, this essay contends that Naipaul adopts a rather unique narrative technique of doubling in Miguel Street to depict two kinds of cosmopolitanism: vernacular versus elitist. Through the boy narrator, the novel, which presents the lived cosmopolitan experience arising at a local, micro level, can be read as a Trinidadian example of vernacular cosmopolitanism. However, through the adult narrator who used to be the boy narrator, Naipaul obliterates the cosmopolitan ethos of a hybrid community and reveals a longing [End Page 288] for the status conferred by elitist cosmopolitanism in...


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pp. 287-311
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