[Caribbean Literature]

Naipaul's Illusions?

Part Three of The Double and the Center

David P. Lichtenstein '99, Brown University, Contributing Editor, Caribbean Web

V.S. Naipaul's narrator must overcome quite another, even deeper obstacle (than the ones represented by foils like Alan or the landlord) in his quest to write, to be a man writing. For his difficulty in shedding his illusions really represents a difficulty in shedding his allusions. The confusion Naipaul experiences in writing, and his inability to access directly his experiences as a Postcolonial man, spring directly from his cultural confusion. The narrator arrives in England expecting to see the storied land as portrayed in British art and literature, in which he has been steeped (to the exclusion of Trinidadian or even Indian culture to which he might lay a greater personal claim). Thus his statement that "the river was called the Avon; not the one connected with Shakespeare"(11), reveals not only Naipaul's distinct awareness of Shakespeare and his river, but also foretells his eventual refusal to see England solely through the lens of the mandated British culture. In his early days, Naipaul stuck to this British romanticism of England, ignoring both the man made growth and ruin of the land, and even more importantly how this growth came at the expense of him and his fellow colonial compatriots. At the outset the narrator denies his own culture, his race, in order to fit in and to favor the culture of the great writers of the past, in some way sacred to him. Naipaul illustrates his closeted cultural identity with examples such as the narrator's eating of the chicken from Trinidad in his dark New York hotel room, alone and guilty, or his acceptance of Angela's renaming him Victor, much as many slaves had to accept the new names masters gave them according to their whims. In the beginning the narrator seems to balance his lack of historical roots (a condition marking the majority of Caribbean citizens) with the ancient history of Stonehenge. But gradually, as he explores in more and more depth the history of the countryside in which he wanders, coupled periodic visits to Trinidad, now the foil to the mother island (England), his views begin to change. He sees ruin on both sides of the Atlantic, and from that point begins to accept his own cultural standing. Although he may not fully embrace his own racial, Postcolonial status, neither will he deny the reality of his own experience, an experience which must accomodate the culture of both colony and imperial power. Access to this experience allows the narrator to enjoy the double vision with which he had struggled for so long. Finally he has reached a point where he can write and live honestly, exploring his feelings of foreignness in rural England, or speaking of the black man's experience of racial prejudice on his first boat trip to England. He no longer has use for masks to hide his Postcolonial identity nor allusions to filter his experience of England.

Thus in the end the narrator has taken up into himself -- indeed into this novel -- forces both of life and death, ruin and decay. He has discovered a stereoscopic vision in which opposing force such as these, or even the conflicting tides of empire and colony which inform his cultural upbringing, come together. In effect, by the end of the novel he has moved away not just from the man/writer struggles of Alan or the landlord, but also from the final two foils worthy of mention -- the story "Gala Night" and the origninal "The Enigma of Arrival". He has rejected the pretended urbane, witty culture (which he must recognize lies not only beyond his reach but would strive to exclude him) of "Gala Night", as well as the ancient history of "Enigma". Instead

The story had become more personal: my journey, the writer's journey, the writer defined by his writing discoveries, his ways of seeing, rather than by his personal adventures, writer and man separating at the beginning of the journey and coming together again in a second life just before the end (309).

Naipaul has taken lessons of life and death from the periphery -- other characters, the landscape, the past -- and come to see man as the true subject, the true enigma. By fusing man and writer, by centering himself spiritually and by placing himself and his quest at the center of the novel (a great leap from the marginal status traditionally accorded to one in his racial/cultural position), Naipaul has in effect offered up himself -- incarnated in the narrator -- as the true mystery, both for the reader and the narrator himself.

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