Edward Said on Naipaul

Edward W. Said


Salim, the main character of V.S. Naipaul's novel A Bend in the River, is an affecting instance of the modern intellectual in exile; an East African Muslim of Indian Origin, he has left the coast and journeyed towards the African interior, where he has survived precariously in a new state modeled on Mobutu's Zaire. Naipaul's extraordinary antennae as a novelist enable him to portray Salim's life at a 'bend in the river' as a sort of no-man's-land, to which come the European intellectual advisers (who succeed the idealistic missionaries of colonial times), as well as the mercenaries, profiteers, an other Third World flotsam and jetsam in whose ambiance Salim is forced to live, gradually losing his property and his integrity in the mounting confusion. By the end of the novel - and this of course is Naipaul's debatable ideological point - even the natives have become exiles in their own country, so preposterous and erratic are the whims of the ruler, Big Man, who is intended by Naipaul to be a symbol of all postcolonial regimes. [1994: 36-37]

…. The most attractive and immoral move, however, has been Naipaul's, who has allowed himself quite consciously to be turned into a witness for the Western prosecution. There are others like him who specialize in the thesis of what one of them has called self-inflicted wounds, which is to say that we "non-Whites" are the cause of all our problems, not the overly maligned imperialists. Two things need to be said about the small band whose standard bearer Naipaul has become, all of whom share the same characteristics. One is that in presenting themselves as members of courageous minorities in the Third World, they are in fact not interested at all in the Third World - which they never address - but in the metropolitan intellectuals whose twists and turns have gone on despite the Third World, and whose approval they seem quite desperate to have. Naipaul writes for Irving Howe and Joan Didion, not for Eqbal Ahmad or Dennis Brutus or C.L.R. James who, after noting his early promise, went on to excoriate Naipaul for the scandal of his "Islamic journey," Among the Believers. Second, and more important, what is seen as crucially informative and telling about their work - their accounts of the Indian darkness or the Arab predicament - is precisely what is weakest about it: with reference to the actualities it is ignorant, illiterate, and cliché-ridden. Naipaul's account of the Islamic, Latin American, African, Indian and Caribbean worlds totally ignores a massive infusion of critical scholarship about those regions in favor of the tritest, cheapest and the easiest of colonial mythologies about wogs and darkies, myths that even Lord Cromer and Forster's Turtons and Burtons would have been embarrassed to trade in outside their private clubs…. [1986a: 53]

…on the basis of his being a Trinidadian, [Naipaul] has had ascribed to him the credentials of a man who can serve as witness for the third world; and he is a very convenient witness. He is a third worlder denouncing his own people, not because they are victims of imperialism, but because they seem to have an innate flaw, which is that they are not whites. [1986b: 79]


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Last Modified: 1 March 2002