In a Demon-Haunted World: Reading Shiva Naipaul in the 21st Century
In a Demon-Haunted World: Reading Shiva Naipaul in the 21st Century
You have education – or say you have. What you do with it? Where you hiding it? Monsters. That is the only name for all-you. Educated monsters, which is the worst kind of monster it have. (260)
Shiva Naipaul, The Chip-Chip Gatherers
We are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned and where it is common for young men and women, who have had years of education, to know nothing of the world, to have read nothing, knowing only some specialty or other, for instance, computers.
Doris Lessing, “A Hunger for Books”: The Nobel Lecture, 2007
Shiva Naipaul’s (1945-1985) finely portrayed melancholy truths, often both absurd and funny, provoke what are perhaps the most sympathetic responses to our species I have yet experienced in many years of serious reading. His prose has an unforgettable blend of tenderness and sobriety, which never loses its sense of justice, no matter the character and background of the person he is describing. In our dehumanized and dehumanizing world, I turn to Shiva Naipaul’s stories to check my own decline: from the stubbornly enduring Mrs. Baby Lutchman of Trinidad, who never gives up, in his first book the novel Fireflies (1970), to the lovable Sri Lankan Tissa in An Unfinished Journey (1986), who asks, in what is almost certainly the final sentence Shiva Naipaul ever wrote, “Is it like that in your island as well?”
Whatever he wrote about and wherever he went Shiva Naipaul was always an expat, always a Trinidadian, always seeing East and West, North and South, from the island of his birth – a place where the entire world has met. Derek Walcott said V. S. Naipaul crafted the finest sentences in English, and shanti to his pen. Shiva Naipaul crafted the most civilized sentences in English of the 20th century, as I see it, and among the best too. His sense of compassion, of reasonable temperament and human grace blend into nearly every line he wrote. Their uniform rejection of humbug, stupidity and destructiveness everywhere he found them, amount to nothing less than the greatest contribution a human being can make toward a worthwhile civilization.
I do not recall Shiva Naipaul ever being unjust or entirely wrong in anything he wrote, no matter where he went. Perhaps, though, the critic Rob Nixon has a point in his essay “Preparations for Travel: The Naipaul Brothers’ Conradian Atavism”, when he agreed with John Darnton, who reviewed North of South: An African Journey (1978), saying there are no encounters with “a single non-racist white or a single articulate, intelligent black” in the book. Nixon’s main argument examines why Shiva Naipaul avoided particular incidents, people, and the works of established East African authors, preferring not to see and learn, according to Nixon, but to confirm his Conradian preconceptions about East Africa. The point is worth considering, I suppose; however, we should remember, unless we are writing tourist brochures – a pastime that’s been taken up by many politically correct academics, one even as far away as Kent, England (I must add here, no reference is being made to Nixon, not yet, who is a masterful essayist and does not reside in Kent) – that the purpose of travel writing is to seek out the unacceptable, the different, the wrong, situations and characters that are exceptional and unexpected, and entertaining. (I would confidently say the purpose of fiction is similar.) North of South by this definition is one of the most delightful, moving, insightful and informative non-fiction books I have ever read. It made me want to go to East Africa, but religious conflict, of the 21st century variety, prevented me. The writing alone is an absolute pleasure, as exhilarating and accomplished, at times, as the prose of a major author. And it would be witless of me to fuss with Shiva Naipaul for suggesting the hunger problem in late 1970s East Africa could have been solved by allowing hunting in the game parks. It’s one of his cheeky observations, energized with irony and humor, his own charming mischief. Clearly, Shiva Naipaul did not approve of tourist brochures either. We shall leave the fussing to Rob Nixon (and there is much of it in his essay, as you can imagine; after all, it’s the Naipaul brothers he’s discussing) and the distortions to the politically correct academics of Kent who aspire to write tourist brochures that, all too frequently, seem to condone the post-colonial crimes of Atlantic history.
Tissa’s was a toxic world, as was Shiva’s, as is, no doubt, ours – fanatical and as lost as it ever has been. But today the dangers we face have multiplied alarmingly, and intensified; to list them here would be tiresome, for it would be necessary to categorize them, a tedious exercise that would take the better part of our evening’s hours. These dangers were still somewhat distant during Shiva Naipaul’s time; now they have closed in; are closing in. News remains a DeLilloesque form of entertainment, titillation for the common light of our days, for those of us lucky enough to have it. And while there are no real demons (as I gently remind my students on occasion, almost invariably without success), we have created a darkness on our earth in which they seem to thrive; their acts are witnessed daily; and every month, virtually every week, brings news of another catastrophic failure in what it means to be civilized.
One recent bit of news: In Africa, ivory poachers slaughtered 30,000 elephants last year, finding increasingly destructive and effective methods of killing: the latest is waterholes laced with cyanide. With or without tusks, the elephants die.
We live in a world of insane veneration, actions, and neglect, of thuggish, cultish politicians; horrendously brutal high-tech violence, massive environmental destruction, and torture carte blanche – of children, women, men, and animals… How easy it is to torture: in Kuwait, where I teach in reasonable comfort but against troubling odds at times, as I’ve indicated, the Iraqis never bothered to exert themselves in the 1990-91 Gulf War if they were tired and had time. The Kuwaiti prisoners they wanted alive for questioning were simply fed roasted lamb or beef kebabs (Kuwait is a rich country), dried and salted, then forced to sit in pens in the blasting sun. In a few hours the men were delusional from thirst, their mouths as dried out as the sand and air; their bodies shutting down, their minds filled with a demonic, desert light.
It was, and is, such barbarism, this unraveling of the post-colonial world, some say. But can we honestly still say that? Do we know? Is it possible to know? Must we continue to read the tourist brochures by academics consistently explaining away in tit-for-tat fashion reasons that read far too much like excuses for the post-colonial crimes of our time? This long and grinding operation of one repugnant, demoniacal nightmare replacing another, of old empires collapsing and the resurgence of fascist dictatorships, theocratic and not, in the roomy molds of ancient ones, or those of the recently shucked colonial rulers, persists with a relentless, religious- cult-driven mayhem. The Congo River Basin, Yemen, Syria, Russia, Mexico, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, Lybia, Iraq, Venezuela, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, Columbia, Haiti, the former Yugoslavia (where again there are stirrings of ethnic tensions), Zimbabwe, Iran, Lebanon, Central African Republic, Israel, Palestine, North Korea, the USA – these are merely just over two dozen of the more worrying places. Even countries that produced the Enlightenment and Renaissance seem destined to become failed states, if we believe our television and Internet screens. The demon-like spirits of the old colonial narratives, and of the ancient world, continue to haunt us in the 21st century, and we have permitted it.
I mention all that to point out what is a major problem, maybe the worst one for Trinidad and Tobago, and indeed the world: there are, simply put (yet this is not a simple problem at all), not enough readers of the kind of work Shiva Naipaul produced; and the kind of work he gave us is highly distinctive, not just for this island, but for the world, his own unique blend of pathos and comedy, sobriety and truth, the kind of literature that matters greatly in our time – because, among other things, it is the news.
Trinidad is not improving; it’s divided, and violent, and, I think, overall indifferent to the idea of a worthwhile democracy, which can only be achieved and maintained by a system of education that would require a revolution in present cultural values and that has books, not The Books, as our grounding. Trinidad needs many more good readers than we have now. Joseph Brodsky said that about the world in 1987. And Walcott showed what the deterioration of language in Trinidad, begun with enthusiasm in the 1970s, would do to the island. That was around the time V. S. Naipaul said we would go back to the bush. It’s obvious today that both the red nigger, as he likes to call himself, and the Victorian Bitch, as the tourist brochure writers like to suggest Naipaul is, were pretty much right. And this problem, our lack of readers, and of an education system that no longer values books as it once did, and has never, in fact, valued books enough, this is our real problem – despite the efforts, laudable and even profound by people who work here and overseas addressing, and grappling with, the question: How do you educate a place such as Trinidad and Tobago in the 21st century?
The question of whether or not Trinidad, and the world it lives in, has become largely “uneducable”, to use one of Shiva Naipaul’s words, is a possibility, indeed a creeping tragedy, we need to face.
Repeatedly in Shiva Naipaul’s books, in everything he wrote, actually, the underlying theme is lack of education, or rather call it an inability to see the real problems of the world, an inability to look around at the world and recognize what is ultimately valuable to, and good for human beings. The kind of education I mean is the one essential to maintaining the tradition, or at least the potential, of what is best in human beings; that is, the humanities, the life of the mind found in literature, philosophy, art, history, science – which, let me be clear, is not necessarily the life of the intellectual or academic, words I have become deeply mistrustful of. I’m talking about human beings generally, who are creatures of mind, of narrative, no matter where you find them. Shiva Naipaul once wrote that the novel Ulysses by James Joyce was really a book for academics, professors; it was how he felt, and while he is maybe more wrong than right, the point attests to his enduring concern for the creation of human beings, for the nurturing of an imagination capable of seeing the world, and all living things in it, with reverence and wonder – a seeing free from sects and institutionalized gods. Yes, more than anything, Shiva Naipaul was about that. Realization of our selves and the inventing of our individuality are experiences that happen in the best sense when we read well. For example, I will soon be a better human being after I read War and Peace by Tolstoy (finally, a translation to my liking has appeared!); I’m pretty sure about this, because I’ve already read several of Tolstoy’s shorter works and know from others I trust that his mastery of the longer form rewards with such richness of humanity, of life, that readers, good readers, no matter where they originate, cannot help but be enlightened or further enlightened on the human condition, especially their own. I knew this to be true, too, a long time ago because it happened to me when, at nineteen, I read A House for Mr. Biswas for the first time: Trinidad, in a much fuller sense, began to exist for me, to be more real in my imagination. It happened again when I read Fireflies, a novel extremely important to me for its singular melancholy, as I’ve said, for its truth of place, and the poignant human warmth of its absurdities, set against the landscape of indenture; for its emerging Trinidad, in which every creed and race is given enough place (when you note the culture from which Fireflies arises) in the post-modern age.
Trinidad was, then, in that time of Fireflies, and of The Chip-Chip Gatherers (1973) – and I mean the whole island, not just the people who figure most prominently in the novels – emerging into a world it did not understand, one in which the pursuit of power, the owning of things, and of holding onto ancient ways, tentatively and not, were basically the only things it knew. What tempers this violence is an inquiring mind that comes from the kind of education Shiva Naipaul lamented the decline and absence of in so many ways throughout his unfinished oeuvre. It’s an education you encounter, and discover, I should stress, in good libraries and good bookshops (two things many universities today no longer have), wherever you find them. Naturally, of course, you will need curiosity to take you there; and not just any curiosity, but one that lifts you, and carries you sailing into the wonders of our world, and ever deeper into human life.
See Govind Khoja; see him dramatizing the Trinidad curse of a mediocre education and, therefore, a lack of personal identity. He is not a mimic man; he cannot even mimic. Jagdev, his political opponent, is such a creature, I sense, and while we get very little of him, it’s a safe assumption that that type of character had already found a home in The Suffrage of Elvira, another kind of novel by V. S. Naipaul. Mr Khoja’s urges are toward a dictatorship of the family after his mother’s death, the classic desire of hollow men, but that too cannot be accomplished because he is, sadly and regrettably – and this is what Mr Khoja is, this and only this – a clown, and as empty and as meaningless as any circus ever was. He could easily stroll into Beckett’s Waiting for Godot without jarring open-minded readers. His spell in politics is another example of his clown status. He is not a man seeking definition through purpose, through action, of course, since he is floundering in his impotence, incapable of achieving any meaningful path to a goal because what he really wants is self-validation and love, two necessary human qualities his family cannot give, being, overall, as flawed as he is. Worse, he is yoked to history, therefore not free. His family binds him to it. And his dreams of being a tropical Jean-Jacques Rousseau trip into increasingly outrageous beliefs and antics.
Thus, since he was to be debarred henceforth from playing the guru to his own family, he would be guru to the people at large. The purveyor of an incomprehensible doctrine on education could not be challenged or called to account: the masses could only listen, be mystified and obey… Refusing to join any of the already established political parties, Mr Khoja did the next best thing. He formed his own. It was called the People’s Socialist Movement. To a large extent, the party existed only in Mr Khoja’s mind, despite the elaborate constitution he had worked out for it. Apart from his own theories on education, set out at length in a pamphlet written by himself, the party had little to say about other social issues. ‘Education is at the root of all our troubles,’ he wrote in his preamble and steadfastly refused to discuss anything else. However, the lack of a comprehensive programme was merely part of the trouble (and not a very important part either, since the rival parties had little to say about anything). More serious was the shortage of funds and consequently candidates. Mr Khoja refused to donate more than a thousand dollars. “I’m no fool,’ he told his wife, ‘to go and throw away thousands of dollars just like that.’ All the persuasions of the disciples were in vain. ‘Collect from the people,’ Mr Khoja advised them. ‘The People’s Socialist Party’ (Mr Khoja tended to forget the name of his party) ‘is a party of the people, for the people, by the people. What do you think the word Socialist means? It is up to the people to support us and provide the funds we need. Back to the people!’ (264)
We laugh and sympathize with Mr Khoja while nurturing a consistent dislike and/or regret for his failings of character and his predicament, which, despite his loss in the elections, showcase him as a model for all the politicians that have diseased independent Trinidad and Tobago. And how fitting that he, like the politician who assisted in bringing Trinidad and Tobago independence from England in 1962, was educated at an illustrious English university, Cambridge in his case.
From our canine friend Rover, who Mrs. Lutchman treats with a kindness comparable to that she bestows on her sons, Bhaskar and Romesh, and from the neglect shown to Shadow and Shadow II, the Khoja’s dogs who befriend the maid Blackie out of a desperate need for human kindness, something the Khojas are incapable of; to the numerous hobbies and pursuits of Mr. Lutchman, his life as mundane (yet not) and predictable as our island politics, we’re entertained and instructed, which Isaac Singer said is the purpose of literature, entertained and instructed, in that order, to the degree we accept these characters and their conflicts as part of who we are. What we’re from. So we understand something of ourselves, and our landscape, and our island world.
That is my hope.
Now there are two men who make Govind Khoja, the pseudo-dictator of Fireflies, a man as fed up, as they are, with his people, place, himself and culture, seem a schoolboy walking along behind them, but getting waylaid along the path to power and destruction because of his childish deviations. They are, these two men, the main figures in Black and White (1980; published in the USA as Journey to Nowhere: a New World Tragedy): Forbes Burnham, Kabaka of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana, and the Reverend Jim Jones, messianic leader of the People’s Temple, California, USA; and latterly and finally, of Jonestown, Guyana.
About these two men, one American and as anxious for nuclear holocaust as an evangelical Caymanian flummoxed by yet another no-show of the Second Coming, a man tormented by emptiness and the need for power, for self-definition, for love, a man who nurtured his self-hate and hatred for his people to the point of participating in and executing a mass suicide of over nine-hundred of his Temple followers in the jungles of Guyana (“Conradian Atavism”, indeed); and the other man, who failed in death to be embalmed but who succeeded in life to appear thoroughly so while pouring a racial venom into his country with the help of the British Foreign Office and the CIA, this man, Kabaka Forbes Burnham, murderer and thug, avaricious thief and rapist of the future of Guyana, terrorist and bully, liar and mercenary, Caribbean politician and one of the true demons of the New World, who was educated, in a manner of speaking, at yet another fine English university – about them I have long wondered: What did these two bipedal monsters read? Brodsky asked the same question of Europe’s 20th century leaders.
In the case of Jones, Shiva Naipaul lists the usual popular documents of communist and socialist propaganda of the time, in addition to books that promised to improve lives and bring eternal happiness, very much reflective of the cultish politics and religions of the 1960s and 1970s (and yes, of today too), particularly of the Californian style. Jones is the sympathetic character in Black and White, a man of intelligence and compassion, in the beginning, who genuinely wanted to tackle the racial mess in America. Burnham is a ghost, a shadow that moves across the landscape, invisible, omnipotent – well established in demon status. With Jones, Shiva Naipaul had the gift of Nabokov: to detect and bring out the humanity in a person regardless of how abhorrent they were. For Jones, the world was inundated with demons, the FBI, the CIA, the LAPD and other Californian and national police departments, and right-wing organizations, determined to undermine him and his People’s Temple. Jones’s views on such hostility are not without truth, the persecution by White America was real, fascistic; and Shiva Naipaul is astute, too, about the stress, the drug use, the creeping insanity in the form of paranoid delusions that shaped Jones’s final solution which, even from the early years, was intimated. Jones was even then seeking a place to flee to, and in this passage he wonders about his situation and Belo Horizonte, a region in Brazil that, due to wind currents, would be one of the safest places in a nuclear war.
“… same thing as always – search out a place where an interracial family could live. Interracial mixture of my family and my church – I thought America was incompatible. And I really felt that more, more than anything – interracial family was just fundamentally at odds with the capitalist development in the U.S. The thermonuclear reality was there too. I thought how people could be mad enough to make such weapons and then sane enough not to use them. I didn’t give a damn about living, but I thought children should be given a chance. The hemispheres were somewhat separate in wind currents and in that period there was some chance of more likelihood of survival…” (244)
Jones was not a religious man, never mind his titles of Pastor and Reverend. He genuinely wanted to help people at the start, Shiva Naipaul writes, was committed to serious social change for a number of years, and that was the only thing he believed in. He was a genuine politician, and genuinely caring, but by 1973 engaging in sadistic practices: one former Temple member said a child was made to eat his vomit after bringing up food forced down his throat. Near the end, Jones sought escape again, that ancient and yet still contemporary need for exile in our world; but in his case it was to the long, sought-after Paradise, or pre-Paradise, on earth – one of the greatest excrescences of the Modern Age and one whose fertility and perennial growth lie in The Two Big Books of Our Human History and Purpose. And it was there, in the jungle of Guyana, that Jones achieved the full effect of his murderous hate. But in America it had already been flourishing. Shiva Naipaul writes:
Deep racial terror was mercilessly exposed and exploited in the People’s Temple. Jones stripped bare his following and left them naked and defenseless. He did not liberate: he assaulted and traumatized those who believed in him. One can sense at a certain level his raging hatred for the blacks whose God he claimed to be; a hatred so deep-seated, so tormenting that, in its fury, it turned itself inside out and called itself Love…. Jones… would cast doubt on the Virgin Birth, fling his Bible to the floor, spit on it and encourage others to do the same. ‘When this preacher Jones advised my aunt to throw away her Bible,’ one Eugene Cordell told an Indianapolis newspaper in 1972, ‘we started fighting.’ But it did not do any good. His seventy-year old aunt remained steadfast in her devotion to Jones. Her nephew believed that he had practiced some kind of sorcery on her; that she was literally under a spell. His aunt was one of those who, in 1965, would make the hegira to Redwood Valley. Thirteen years later, she would be listed among the Jonestown dead, faithful to the end. ‘Just the sound of his voice made you feel like you had power,’ recalled a girl who joined the Temple when she was sixteen. Until she heard Jones preach, she had felt herself to be no more than a ‘single ant in the whole world. I was nothing, going nowhere.’ Jones changed all that. (235, 236, 243)
Jones, like Burnham, arose out of a plantation society. He, too, was a Kabaka, a white one if you like, in the jungles of Guyana. And Leo J. Ryan, representative of the fascistic and imperial USA, was sent to bring him to account.
Absurdity in our reality, then and now, as you can see, with its Conradian element enduring, enduring, and enduring: is there no getting away from Conrad?
Absurdity in the travelogues of Shiva Naipaul, the academic drones would have you believe is not the true reality, is not truth worthy of your attention, because Shiva Naipaul, they say, has neglected to view things in East Africa and Guyana that they deem necessary for palatable, metropolitan-like consumption. We deem it necessary, they say, to create a reality – to report a reality – that shows and advocates a progressive development away from slavery and colonialism, and the barbarities that ensue from both in the post-colonial world.
American Jim Jones was a Caribbean politician, a dictator, a Conradian character, specifically a Kurtz-figure; he was Caveman atavism incarnate and supreme, his mind ablaze with the simultaneous discoveries of the powerful and infectious forces of the fire of hatred and religion. By the end he was a totally messianic leader of a people broken, lost and rejected by the racist plantation history of the USA; he was their educator, leader, and Kabaka for life; he was their creator, their weaver of realities. And he believed in nothing, like most tyrants and dictators, by November 18th, 1978 except his mastery of rhetoric, his power.
Many thousands of people black and white, poor and rich followed Jones at one time but by that November it was just the poor and mostly black congregation of nearly a thousand, who believed in nothing but the sea of green jungle around them and the never-ending ranting voice of Jim Jones preaching apocalypse in a world gone insane and run by demons.
Jones takes his place in the history of post-colonial barbarity somewhere in the vast between of the – by comparison – benign Govind Khoja, whose potential for barbarity circles in a retardation amusing and sad, visceral and human; and Forbes Burnham, who is one of the purest expressions of obscenity in the Modern Age.
Yet, amid the general air of dilapidation, Indrani maintained, in those parts of the house she inhabited, a scrupulous though arid cleanliness. It was a closed world, in which all that was meant to happen had already happened. Everything had long ago been assigned its place and there was no room now for a change or improvement. To do so would have been a desecration. An inexorable decay was the sole law Indrani recognized. It was the ultimate passivity to which she had surrendered and Indrani, living at the heart of it, had no need for the company or the solace provided by the living. (275)
— Shiva Naipaul, Fireflies
Thirty years ago, Shiva Naipaul’s third and last novel was published. A Hot Country (1983), published in the USA as Love and Death in a Hot Country rankled numerous critics, especially those cloistered in the politically correct institutions of British and American academe.
These readers were unable or refused to see the deeper consequences of colonialism in the Caribbean as portrayed in the novel. Some even refused to accept the physical setting as valid: Guyana with hills? Bush folk? Surely it was Surinam he meant and not Guyana. Is Trinidad: they have those hills. Wait, wait: it’s really Guyana: that dictator is Forbes Burnham, the invisible demon. Nah nah, look here: the maid Selma in the St. Pierre house is a real insolent, out of place so-and-so – she is PNM right through! Is Trinidad, I telling you!
The obsessive concern with whose country it is in the novel is tantamount to a nationalism that inspires a bovine complacency to other places and people, to the world as one island, turning against the greatest odds in its history: the incessant trauma on all fronts that is the human condition in excess, and perhaps in extremis.
A fashionable demeaning our cloister-minded critics attempt on A Hot Country is listing the historical references in the book as being the same as those in the novelist’s older brother’s historical books, among them The Middle Passage. The claim is unfair: certain periods of colonial history, surely, are accepted as common knowledge. The larger vision of A Hot Country, its big picture, is set up in the first two chapters: Shiva Naipaul merely agrees with his older brother’s view of Caribbean history: that it was brutal both psychically and physically. And it is on this basis that Shiva Naipaul has Dina St. Pierre paraphrase V.S. Naipaul’s dictum that nothing was ever created in the West Indies and nothing ever would be. Many readers over the last thirty years are convinced Shiva Naipaul felt this way too and is simply using his protagonist to express his brother’s scathing opinions. Detractors of the Naipaul brothers have long experienced discomfort over this statement. Frankly, I’m not convinced it’s relevant to anything worth our attention. To be quite honest, I don’t even know what it means. Fictionally, however, in A Hot Country by Shiva Naipaul, it expresses something of Dina’s spiritual malaise, and that is what I need to know; it is the truer reality, not the squabbling of who said what and what does it mean and this is so insulting and, oh, oh what does it all mean: such fluff was addressed by Shiva Naipaul in the essay ‘My Brother and I’, an elegant (his writing always is) if axiomatic and yet necessary riposte to those unable to read properly.
In addition, the cloistered critics were and are eager to cry racism, anti-nationalism and pessimism at the novel, which dares to confront the genuine failures of independence in the Caribbean, proof of which abounds in the region’s daily newspapers – especially those in Trinidad. Though his older brother V.S. Naipaul has been the target of far more numerous attacks for showing the squalor of Caribbean societies, Shiva Naipaul was also dismissed by far too many critics – who should have known better (and perhaps do) – for the sake of their nationalistic and, sometimes, even racist agendas. They painted Shiva Naipaul as a writer who refused to accept – indeed, had rejected – his background, his home island of Trinidad, including the wider Caribbean. These are easy conclusions to make when we read a novel as psychically penetrating as A Hot Country, a novel in which Shiva Naipaul partly moved away from the setting of his earlier novels. While the Caribbean remains the general geography of A Hot Country, the novel is an amalgamation of three Caribbean territories, Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname, though we can argue the case of the second and third not being strictly Caribbean, but also South American. The purpose, however, of A Hot Country is a pan-Caribbean commentary, if you like: and Suriname has, as have Trinidad and Guyana, the most culturally and racially mixed populations in the Caribbean, possibly the world. There are also the matters of class and politics. A Hot Country portrays a middle class couple in a loveless marriage and the post-independence malaise of a country called Cuyama (which is a river in Southern California whose local Indian name also means to rest, to wait) about to erase the few democratic values it has left in order to legitimize a dictatorship. The political situation, not really one at all but more accurately a Medieval tribal squabbling and killing, is Forbes Burnham’s dictatorship in Guyana in the 1970s. The story in the novel is seen through Aubrey St. Pierre, a white Cuyamese from an old plantation family; Dina, his wife, who is of East Indian and Portuguese background; and Alexander Richer, a British journalist and old university friend of Aubrey.
Much of the novel uses skilful flashbacks that deepen its vision and enhance Dina’s despair and Aubrey’s disillusionment with his efforts to prevent Cuyama from slipping into dictatorship. Such a story, especially when it involves the almost total loss of faith of two main characters, will have difficulty endearing itself to most readers. Yet what keeps you reading is Shiva Naipaul’s masterful ability to maintain your interest, not just with beautiful writing, but with characters especially intriguing, more so than the cloistered academics would have you believe. In this scene, Dina St. Pierre questions Selma, the maid, about a few concerns truly relevant to the Caribbean past, the novel, and the Caribbean now.
Selma’s sullenness intensified. She moved her shoulders enigmatically, slowly scratching her arm. Her nails left whitened trails on her skin.
‘If you voted, would you support the President?’
Sullenness congealed into defiance. Her mulish ambiguity was not hard to interpret.
‘You disagree with Mr Aubrey…’
Selma stared at her.
Dina laughed. ‘Tell me something, Selma. Why don’t you like me?’
Selma, immobile, expressionless now, fixed her attention on the point in space. ‘Is you who don’t like me.’ Her voice was barely audible.
‘Why shouldn’t I like you?’ Dina tried to seem amused.
Selma lowered her gaze. Briefly, their eyes met. Dina looked away.
‘Is Mr Aubrey who bring me here,’ Selma said. ‘I never asked to come.’
Dina nodded. ‘That is quite true. Do you like Mr Aubrey, Selma?’
‘I have nothing against Mr Aubrey.’
‘But do you like him?’
Selma’s eyes dilated reflectively. ‘Mr Aubrey tries to be a good man. He never do me any harm.’
‘Have I done you harm?’
Selma did not answer.
‘That’s all right, Selma. You can go now. Thank you for talking to me.’
Selma headed back towards the kitchen. On reaching the doorway, she paused. With deliberation, she turned round to consider her mistress. ‘One day,’ she said, ‘black people going to rule the world. You hear me?’
‘I hear you, Selma.’
‘Black people ain’t going to be slaves no more. We done with that.’
‘I hear you Selma.’
Selma vanished into the kitchen.
When she had gone, Dina stepped down from the veranda and paced slowly about the garden. (119)
The novel is a disquieting and convincing story of the present situation in the Anglophone Caribbean. It’s presumptuous certain readers should think Shiva Naipaul, because he wrote such a dark novel, hated Trinidad and the wider Caribbean. People, too often, read badly, or too little, which compromises their sense of reality, so when it comes to works like A Hot Country, they are lost, locked away behind the walls with the hardcore political readers who traffic in distorting truth.
In an uncollected essay by Shiva Naipaul called “I Cannot Disown Trinidad and It Cannot Disown Me” (The Listener, June 1982 – three years before his sudden death, we should note), he writes:
The fervours of patriotism are unknown to me. I gaze in wonder at those who wave flags. Sometimes I think it would be nice to have a flag to wave – but that mood soon passes. Yet the ragged landscape of Trinidad lives on in me. Its smells, its textures, its squalor and its beauties run in my blood. I cannot disown it and it cannot disown me. Whatever I am, whatever I may become, it and I are yoked together. (14)
The essay contains many examples of Shiva Naipaul’s recognition and love for the island of Trinidad. Beyond the Dragon’s Mouth: Stories and Pieces, his sixth book, could suffice in this part of my discussion as it too contains signatures of Shiva Naipaul’s ties to and affection for Trinidad. But I decided to use the uncollected essay mentioned above, which I had the luck to encounter through a friend many years ago, because Shiva Naipaul is far more direct about his feelings for Trinidad than in the collected essays and stories.
Unlike his two earlier, much lengthier novels (Fireflies 1970; The Chip-Chip Gatherers 1973), Shiva Naipaul set himself the task in A Hot Country of getting at a middle class post-colonial situation. In many ways this is a more difficult objective because the characters are not as easy to sympathize with when their fortunate circumstances are contrasted with the wrenching poverty they witness daily. The characters’ aloofness, malaise, awkwardness and inability to truly believe in changing things (with the exception of Aubrey St. Pierre’s futile letter writing to the international press), along with Shiva Naipaul’s method of writing a novel to mainly address the disintegration of Dina St. Pierre as it relates to her position in colonial history, is not the material mainstream readers will find attractive. Such an endeavour for a writer – when we keep in mind the middle class setting and the author’s presentation of landscape/history as a “character” whose power and influence are monumental – requires a different method of presenting reality than was used in the earlier novels.
An example: barely nine pages in length, the first chapter of A Hot Country is a summation of the history of the Caribbean – and how that history has already begun to work on the childhood of Dina St. Pierre.
Cuyama, a tract of land perched uneasily on the sloping shoulder of South America, a degree or two north of the equator. Cuyama, a tract of land on the fringe of an Empire whose interests had always lain elsewhere. On their blue copybooks were portraits of British kings and queens. It was told how Sir Walter Raleigh had come to this wilderness. But he had found nothing worth finding – only the overwhelming forest and tribes of miserable aboriginals; men barely progressed beyond the Stone Age; who painted their bodies; who lived off roots and small wild animals; who shot fish with poisoned arrows; who, occasionally, hunted each other’s heads. He came and went away to be beheaded in the Tower of London. (1)
The historical summation becomes a history lesson, prose poem-like, in a classroom scene. It is interesting to note the barbarity of Raleigh’s fate, which Shiva Naipaul places alongside the supposed Stone Age predicament of the Amerindians. The source of Dina St. Pierre’s malaise is being set up, so naturally Shiva Naipaul locates her in a colonial reality, our reality. The psychological inertia developing in the early part of chapter one is brought to full completion when Dina is abused near the end of it in the name of a Catholic god. The combination of a mediocre colonial education, a psyche shadowed by centuries of brutal empire and the abuses of a religious institution based on misinterpretation and ignorance of reality is effectively presented in the first chapter.
Here, in A Hot Country’s first chapter, Dina’s sister, Grace, has reported to their father that Dina has said she does not believe in God. Her father summons her.
‘Are you aware of what happens to blasphemers?’
She breathed with difficulty.
He got up and, turning his back on her, gazed out at the fading afternoon. ‘I’ve built my life on faith in Christ,’ he said. ‘If there was no God there would be no reason for anything. Life would be one big joke.’ He swung round to face her. ‘Is my life a joke to you?’
She stared at him dumbly.
He pulled open one of the drawers of the desk. Taking from it a stout leather strap, he came towards her. She raised her hands and covered her face.
She does. Then he beats her, while together they recite “Our Father Who Art in Heaven…” To read A Hot Country today is to confront all of Trinidad’s, and Guyana’s demons.
Shiva Naipaul has memorably set up the psychological inertia of Dina. And to show how this perpetuates itself in our societies, Dina as an adult later visits a fortune-teller; and this is not the kind of fortune-teller visits we have in Fireflies; here, it’s an act of desperation. The extremely effective descriptions of the squalid environment she enters, seemingly in search of something to believe in, for some sort of guidance, is a harsh irony that confirms the final erasure of her middle class hope (176-80), or an entrenching in her, of her rest-waiting, her Cuyama state, if you prefer.
It’s as if there is a form of stasis, of Cuyama, and of atavism occurring in the wider Caribbean. The first is the condition Shiva Naipaul defines Dina with in A Hot Country: that despairing spiritual masochism whose culmination she experiences near the end of the novel is symbolic of the Caribbean with its present lack of politics and its destructiveness. The final horrific nightmare (one of several) Dina has is what drives her to Madame’s fortune-telling skills, seeking assurance that she – Dina – is indeed alive, not just a ghost of herself, which notion she entertains at various points throughout the novel. She strikes me as a modern literary sister of Antoinette in Wide SargassoSea by Jean Rhys, a novel Shiva Naipaul greatly admired and which he may well have had in mind when writing A Hot Country. There is something of the douen in Dina (and in the Caribbean Shiva Naipaul portrays), which, in Caribbean folklore, is the ghost of a child who has died before being baptized. Douens, all sheet-white, with their hands, feet and faces turned the other way, so they seem to be moving backwards while going forwards, appear in the late afternoon when it is cool, when dusk is approaching, to play. They can never, as Dina seems unable to do, be released from their state. It’s curious to see how many scenes Shiva Naipaul sets during that time in A Hot Country: he can, because he’s so adept a novelist, make Dina’s despair almost tinged with sweetness in the late-afternoon tropical setting. Dina’s condition is a politically apt metaphor for the Caribbean: it suggests some kind of historical vengeance, a process of self-destruction, one malicious enough to include in its wrath the people emancipation and independence sought to free.