November 28, 2010 By Pete Willows Word count: about 800

V.S. Naipaul, in the gathering twilight of his career
V.S. Naipaul was recently in Buffalo, New York—a short drive from Toronto—to promote his latest non-fiction work, The Masque of Africa: glimpses of African belief. I had a chance to speak with Naipaul, a Nobel laureate in literature whom, has voiced controversial ideas on society, culture and religion. Naipaul also signed a copy of his book. Naipaul has won almost every major prize in English composition. He has been knighted. And is considered by many the greatest living writer of the English language—certainly one of the most important writers of the last fifty years. Naipaul, with such august credentials, could certainly have been a difficult man to interview. He was not. At age 78, Naipaul, compact and alert, was assisted while walking into the room and helped into his chair. When I told him I wrote for The Egyptian Gazette, he looked at me curiously and said, “how very ... strange.” I liked him immediately. Naipaul has been a vocal critic of Islamic dress in the West, long before France’s ban of the hijab and burka, having said in a 2001 New York Times interview that Muslim women shouldn’t wear headscarves in the West. “If you decide to move to another country and to live within its laws you don’t express your disregard for the essence of the culture. It’s a form of aggression.” Almost ten years later, when asked, Naipaul still believes this.

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“The world is what it is. Men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” These are the opening lines to Naipaul’s book A Bend in the River, the lines considered Naipaul’s world view—a theme that resonates passim in Naipaul’s fiction and nonfiction. Many left-leaning intellectuals, like the late Edward Said, viewing the world through the narrow prism of colonialism, have accused Naipaul of being an apologist with a neo-colonialist world view: ‘globalisation’ is the mot-du-jour. Naipaul who grew up in the Caribbean nation of Trinidad, left the island at an early age to study at Oxford, earning his living exclusively as a man of letters across the globe. When asked about the idea of being caught between cultures, Naipaul dismissed the idea as myth perpetuated by publishers, and that this was a romantic idea. Yet Naipaul told me he was a man without a country, and that he did not need a country. Statements like this tend to transcend borders, colonies and nations, leaving critics and intellectuals at a loss, when attempting to tree Naipaul on his political and economic views. Naipaul explores a grander picture, it would seem. The Masque of Africa, Naipaul told me, was a study intended to go beyond politics and economics, into spiritual beliefs. In the book, Naipaul chronicles his travels through sub-Saharan Africa in nations like Uganda, Gabon, Cote D’Ivoire and South Africa. His trips to visit temples and witchdoctors is contrasted with his earlier visits, sometimes 25-30 years ago. Naipaul talks of Victorian-era explorers like Speke and Burton. Throughout the book, Naipaul also talks of the innocent, helpless and discarded kittens he sees along the way—almost as if he is trying to say something more here—that are left to expire among the fetid waters of Africa as progress

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marches along without them. “It would take so little to save that crying kitten. Nothing more than a saucer of milk to relieve their suffering.” In Gabon, Naipaul witnesses an egoba ritual. This hallucinogenic indigenous tree root has had its active ingredient synthesised (Ibogaine) and patented in the US, ironically, where the drug is illegal for its use as part of a miraculous cure for addiction to opiates, nicotine and alcohol. The profound insight into one’s psyche that is gained from an experience on eboga has been known since times immemorial in West Africa—the spiritual rituals continue today in local communities. After observing an eboga ritual in Gabon, Naipaul opines on the distance required for observation and objectivity in proper travel writing, “one can be an observer up to a certain point. Beyond that point one was an intruder.” The difference between writing fiction and non-fiction, Naipaul told me, was that fiction requires a complete understanding of the topic in order to succeed. Non-fiction simply requires an interest in the subject matter. The novel as a form is about two-hundred years-old, Naipaul said, and is merely repeating ideas. There is nothing new in the form: even in the case of emerging literary movements within cultures who are writing their novels for the first time. And of course what everyone wants to know, is this Naipaul’s last book? “Probably,” he said, “writing requires an intense level of energy.” V.S. Naipaul is the second Nobel laureate in literature I’ve been fortunate enough to have met, along with Naguib Mahfouz.

Willows is a contributing writer to The Egyptian Gazette and its weekly edition, The Egyptian Mail. He studied at the American University in Cairo, and now lives in Toronto. He can be reached at: willows@aucegypt.edu