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V.S. Naipaul: Chronicling Postcolonial Experience

V.S. Naipaul: Chronicling Postcolonial Experience

Picture of Lindsay Parnell
Updated: 28 October 2016
The work of V.S. Naipaul is not set in the mythical worlds of fantasy or the futuristic abyss of science fiction. His characters and thematic interrogations are embedded in the dark realities postcolonial societies often face. Lindsay Parnell looks at Naipaul’s life and work which has been devoted to the elaboration of postcolonial life.

V. S. Naipaul’s realist fiction and application of postcolonial observations has resulted in a celebrated literary career spanning over fifty years. A celebrated author and contemporary thinker, Naipaul’s canon has been praised for its meticulous political perspective and its interrogation of the political ideologies underpinning society and culture. The focus of his work simply is the work—transcending the temptation of articulating a specific political agenda or motive, which he himself has explicitly regarded as prejudice. Admired for both his wealth of talent and his respect for his art, Naipaul is a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, named laureate in 2001, and considered a definitive voice of contemporary English Literature, and one of the preeminent writers of post-colonial fiction, a genre of writing which he has done much to define.

Born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1932 to Indian parents, V. S. Naipaul found a passion for the written word early in life. Raised in a family of writers and journalists, Naipaul was educated at Oxford where he further explored his literary gifts. His debut novel The Mystic Masseur, a comic novel set in colonial Trinidad,was published in 1957, setting the tone for his career to come. The story of a disappointed and struggling writer who possess an interesting skill of sorts; his massages prove to be a medicinal alleviation of illness and disease. This talent then allows him to navigate a rise from poverty to wealth. Although an accomplished debut, Naipaul would not find success until the release of A House for Mr Biswas, which served as Naipaul’s introduction to international fame. Published in 1961, A House for Mr Biswas tells the story of Mohun Biswas. Driven by his desire to break away from the oppressively dominant family which he was forcibly married into, Mohun Biswas’ pursuit is one that appears deceivingly simple, to own a home. Naipaul’s brilliantly crafted novel explores his thematic preoccupation with the shifting terrain of post-colonial and political perceptions.

A decade following the release of A House for Mr. Biswas would see Naipaul receive the coveted Man Booker Prize. In a Free State was published in 1971 to instant critical praise. This free-flowing narrative framed with an over-arching story begins with a narrator traveling by ferry to Egypt, and ultimately closes with this narrator on holiday in Egypt. What connects these two plot points are three interconnecting short stories: the tale of a Bombay servant who ventures on an diplomatic expedition with his master to Washington D.C. in the United States, the story of the tumultuous and often emotionally violent relationships that define a family in rural Western India, and the final chapter, titled A Free State, the story of a young homosexual government official and his colleague’s wife as they drive home after a professional engagement in a recently liberated and independent African state. A well deserving recipient of 1971’s Man Booker Prize, In a Free State is an inspired act of storytelling in its innovative use of both structure and language.

Although known for his stimulating fiction, Naipaul is also a celebrated author of essays and travel writing. Most recently Naipaul has published a number of celebrated non-fiction collections including The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief, A Writer’s People: Ways of Looking and Feeling and Literary Occasions: Essays. Much like his fictional contributions to contemporary literature, his non-fiction explores the themes of post-colonial societies in the wake of independence. He is notorious for his often controversial public proclamations, having famously launched an attack on women writers and his conservative politics in relation to India. He has also been attacked by leading post-colonial thinker Edward Said for merely restating the categories of colonialism in his work, rather than discrediting them. Despite these criticisms Naipaul remains a fascinating figure, and one who has introduced the term post-colonial fiction into the lexicon of English Literature.