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V.S. Naipaul in 2016 (Faizul Latif Chowdhury CC BY-SA 4.0)

The death of V.S. Naipaul last month marks an epoch in English letters. He was firmly rooted in a tradition that goes back to the origins of the modern novel in the 18th and 19th centuries, but he was also wholly modern. Above all, he faced the grim reality of existence, what Conrad called “the horror, the horror”, with an unflinching courage and a sardonic sense of humour. Naipaul foresaw the dangers to Western civilisation, notably the failure of intellectual elites to defend it — a campaign he prosecuted with a ferocity that offended many. That is why he read Standpoint from its inception a decade ago and joined our editorial advisory board, ably supported by his second wife, Nadira. The man himself is evoked with a few sharp but sympathetic strokes in Miriam Gross’s pen portrait. Naipaul is an irreparable loss, but his astonishingly rich and varied corpus of works will live on to nourish the hearts and minds of posterity.

The objections to Naipaul’s work, and indeed its relative neglect, arose from his uncompromising devotion to telling the truth as he saw it. This was clear from his very first novel, The Mystic Masseur, published in 1957. It is an incisive satire about an upwardly mobile Trinidadian who, like Naipaul himself, has his cultural roots in India but whose ambitions are Anglophile. A failed teacher and autodidact who takes up massage and mysticism, Ganesh Ramsumair rises to become a politician, albeit an inept one. The unforgettable epilogue depicts the narrator greeting the guru-turned-statesman on his visit to England:

The day of the visit came and I was at the railway station to meet the 12.57 from London. As the passengers got off I looked among them for someone with a nigrescent face. It was easy to spot him, impeccably dressed, coming out of a first-class carriage. I gave a shout of joy.
    “Pundit Ganesh!” I cried, running towards him. “Pundit Ganesh Ramsumair!”
    “G. Ramsay Muir,” he said coldly.

More than 60 years later, it would be inconceivable for such a passage to be written by a contemporary writer. A word such as “nigrescent” no longer belongs in the postcolonial vocabulary, any more than the merciless mockery of the protagonist’s pretentious efforts to ingratiate himself with the British. In part this is because Naipaul’s targets, the “Mimic Men” (as he called them in a later novel), no longer seek to transform themselves into ersatz Englishmen, preferring to emphasise their anti-imperial credentials and their resentment of the West. There was no such cult of the victim in his first big success, A House for Mr Biswas, which depicted his own father’s quest to achieve intellectual and domestic independence. But the human conflicts of Naipaul’s early works seem remote, because any positive acknowledgement of the imperial heritage, or even of the civilisation that it represented, is now more or less frowned on.
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