Sermons from On High

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The popular notion of V.S. Naipaul is of a remote and forbidding figure, part Yoda, part Brahmin, author of sour essays and dense novels, whose favorite riposte is "I told you so." But this detachment is recent, an effect of various elevations: the knighthood in 1990, the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. The truth is that he has spent much of his life enmeshed in current events, making a living as a freelancer and giving permanent form to subjects such as teacup tempests in Anguilla and Grenada. It's hard these days to imagine Naipaul following the Norman-Mailer-for-mayor campaign around New York City, but there was a time when he willingly did so. He sought such assignments because, as he was once fond of saying, he needed "to earn a few pence."

Many of the pieces in his new collection The Writer and the World, were assignments for magazines and newspapers. They sent him to India to reminisce, to the Caribbean to cover political discontent or crime stories, to America to write about the Republican Convention of 1984, to Africa, South America, and elsewhere. What Naipaul brought to every assignment was his distrust of cant and his own strong opinions.

The long trajectory of Naipaul's writing career is well represented in this book, which spans 40 years. In the first piece, he is a harassed and hard-up Trinidadian traveler in India in 1962. In the last essay he is venerable, addressing rubious generalities on such precepts as the Golden Rule to an august gathering at the Manhattan Institute in New York. His topic: "Our Universal Civilization." In the past, stuck for a book-length subject at home, he hoped to find it abroad as a reporter with a round-trip airfare. Except for one piece, all the essays here have appeared in print before, most in collections. But you can't blame Naipaul's publisher for hurrying a book out, even a recycled one with a slurpingly adulatory introduction that reads like a pitch from a candidate for official biographer. After all, it is not every day that someone on the publisher's list wins the Swedish lottery.

Any reader looking for the source of Naipaul's inspiration will be rewarded here, finding in several essays early drafts of episodes that became part of his Indian travel narrative, An Area of Darkness. Many of the details and themes in a long and truly frightening piece, "Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad," he turned into his novel Guerrillas. In "A New King for Congo," his meditation on the late Zairean kleptocrat President Mobutu, he alludes to Heart of Darkness, comparing Conrad's Kurtz to Mobutu: "Seventy years later, at this bend in the river, something like Conrad's fantasy came to pass. But the man was black, and not white; and he had been maddened not by contact with wilderness and primitivism, but with civilization." This is Naipaul's first use of the phrase "bend in the river," which became the title for his race-themed novel set in Africa.

Race is a frequent subject in this book, and not a happy one. Naipaul has been praised for being consistent in his crustiness, but his consistency is often little more than the rehashing of tired observations. "They have the Negro openness to new faiths," he writes of the black population of Anguilla. In Belize, "Negroes in jackets and ties - famous throughout Central America for their immunity to disease - walk behind the hearses" and "The Premier is a man of mixed race: Maya Indian, European, some seepage of African." In Mauritius, he insists that the Foreign Minister Gaetan Duval "isn't black. He is a brown-skinned, straight-haired man of forty." Though some of the numerous racial distinctions in this book might be described as old-fashioned, others are less ambiguous - at best patronizing, at worst suggesting quaint inadequacies in the author, if not moral faults.

Naipaul's early novels are hilarious, but his essays, sententious and sermonizing, have an unflagging seriousness. Even when he is traveling he is wagging his finger. He mocks the West Indies; he is unsparing on India. For him, Africa is simply a study in nihilism. He misses the joy in Africa, is panicked by the sight of bush, takes African leaders to be representative of their people. The point about Africa is not that it is hideously governed - anyone can see that - but that its people have learned survival skills and thrive in spite of their greedy governments.

Ironically enough, much of Naipaul's contempt is reserved for title-conscious ex-colonials. "Calcutta still has an isolated aging set with British titles," he writes. On St. Kitts, "the governor is a Negro knight from another island." And in Belize, "the Premier likes to use titles." These are unlikely observations from a Trinidadian of Indian descent who accepted a British knighthood with both hands. But, along with many other characterizations in this collection, they are from the archive. Naipaul has ceased to be so breezy and has stopped accepting the sort of assignments that in the past resulted in such essays, some of them exquisitely subtle, others just excruciating.