The death of the towering writer V.S. Naipaul prompted me to plunge back into his world. His vast literary legacy is as complex and multitudinous as that of Jorge Luis Borges, but so cruelly real that re-reading him was a traumatic experience. I am still shaken by it.
What struck me was how much he has written about Argentina. He seems to have been haunted by the country that he visited only three, maybe four, times. Apart from his first visit in 1972, when he spent a few months in Buenos Aires, his visits were brief. Of course, his feelings for Argentina were influenced by the fact that, like so many of us who came to those shores, he fell in love. An Anglo-Argentine was his mistress for 24 years until, with typical Naipaulian cruelty, he dropped her and told his biographer that he”stayed with [her] until she became middle-aged, almost an old lady.”
When he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001 he devoted a major passage of his acceptance speech to Argentina:
Nearly thirty years ago I went to Argentina. It was at the time of the guerrilla crisis. People were waiting for the old dictator Perón to come back from exile. The country was full of hate. Peronists were waiting to settle old scores. One such man said to me, “There is good torture and bad torture.” Good torture was what you did to the enemies of the people. Bad torture was what the enemies of the people did to you. People on the other side were saying the same thing. There was no true debate about anything. There was only passion and the borrowed political jargon of Europe. I wrote, “Where jargon turns living issues into abstractions, and where jargon ends by competing with jargon, people don’t have causes. They only have enemies.”
And the passions of Argentina are still working themselves out, still defeating reason and consuming lives. No resolution is in sight.
It is sobering to note that those words seem valid today. The country is still full of hate, jargon competes with jargon and it is still true that no resolution is in sight.
Re-reading the rivers of words that Naipaul wrote and spoke about Argentina since his first arrival in Buenos Aires almost half a century ago gave me pause.
Back in 1972 when I heard that Naipaul was in town, I went searching for him. I wanted to meet the author of one of the greatest comic novels in the English language, A House for Mr. Biswas. It is a warmly human book that I have treasured and loved for most of my adult life. Although the book was successful in England, Naipaul was not a well-known writer then. His modest fame had not crossed the Atlantic to the United States and had certainly not travelled south to Argentina.
He came with introductions from English literary figures and was received by some of the local literary luminaries, who expected a different kind of author. One of them told me: “We were expecting someone like an English professor. We knew he had been to Oxford. Yet he …” Not wanting to be impolite, his voice trailed off. But Naipaul felt their unease in meeting a West Indian of Hindu descent, a man with a brown face. It was also unsettling that Naipaul spoke beautiful English. As the poet Derek Walcott, also born in the Caribbean and also a Nobel laureate – but bitterly critical of his rival – acknowledged: Naipaul is “our finest writer of the English sentence.” He called him VS Nightfall.
Alone and perhaps also lonely in Buenos Aires, Naipaul became a member of a circle of friends connected through the Buenos Aires Herald. In those days, Naipaul was a delight although I would sometimes catch him staring into space, concerned and depressed by the thought of the seven-year hiatus since his last novel had been published. But Naipaul had long earned a living writing travel articles and was in South America for the Sunday Telegraph Magazine.
I invited Naipaul home late one night after seeing the newspaper into print. Everyone was asleep when we arrived. My wife recalls “hearing this beautiful voice.” She got out of bed and joined us. We saw Naipaul again next year in London and enjoyed luncheon with him at The Gay Hussar, one of his favourite Soho restaurants.
We didn’t see him again until many years later when he called on us at our home in Charleston. He was passing through gathering material for his 1989 book, A Turn in the South. We invited him to tea and my son David, who recalls me making cucumber sandwiches for him, was enchanted.
But I saw a very different Naipaul. He was now a successful writer, although the great prizes, a knighthood and the Nobel, were yet to come. He had become a snob, a caricature of his former self. He spoke of hobnobbing with Britain’s superconservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and said was so relieved that she had “stopped them (the Labour Government) from taking our money.”
He was staying at the best hotel in Charleston. It was worse, he said, than his hotel in the Congo. He was certain that the soup he was served was “from a can” I invited him to dinner at what was then the best restaurant in town Philippe Million. He thought at first that the restaurant was called “Filet Mignon” and was appalled. It was a ridiculous pose, of course. It was Naipaul attempting to establish a clear distinction between himself in society and himself as a writer. He quotes Proust: “[A] book is the product of a different self from the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices. If we would try to understand that particular self, it is by searching our own bosoms, and trying to reconstruct it there, that we may arrive at it.”
Most of the obituaries spoke of “a brilliant writer but a flawed human being.” I came to know his flaws too well. As for the brilliance of his writing, I think that it masks the flaws in his reasoning, particularly in his nonfiction work and specifically in the case of his obsessive writing about Argentina. I thought, back in 1972 when the The Corpse at the Iron Gate, the first of two essays about Argentina, appeared in The New York Review of Books, that he had insights that were worth considering, indeed helpful in revealing truths to us. Thanks to Naipaul himself, who graciously arranged for us to publish the essay for a fee we could afford, it appeared, uncut, which the author insisted was to be part of the bargain. It offended a lot of people, including the Montoneros. But that is a story that should be left to Andrew Graham-Yooll to tell. (See page 12).
Naipaul certainly contributed to Argentina’s black legend in which Nazis, torturers, guerrillas, jack-booted dictators, necrophilia, misogyny, corruption are mixed up to make a heady brew both distasteful and alluring. I cannot recall any redeeming values that he wrote about. But I still think that he is worth reading.
I have not read an infamous biography, in which many, if not all of Naipaul’s flaws were revealed. I recall an observation attributed to G.K. Chesterton. He said that people who like the work of a particular writer and want to meet him/her should bear in mind that while you might like pork, you would not want to invite the pig to dinner.
Vidia, as we all came to call him, was delightful all the time I was with him. He had another dark side, and his first wife and his mistress of almost a quarter of a century were treated shamefully.
And, I think now, after examining the exaggerations that he created while seeking an effect, that Naipaul, who called Argentina “a half-made country” told only half the story by accentuating the negative and leaving out all the positives of the country he never learned to love.