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The Mystery of the Existence, the Making of an Identity:VS Naipaul’s A Way in the World
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by [emee ]

2007-08-03  |     | 

“Most of us know the parents or the grandparents we come from. But we go back and back, forever; we go back all of us to the very beginning; in our blood and bone and brain we carry the memories of thousand beings. I might say that an ancestor of Leonard Side’s came from the dancing groups of Lucknow, the lewd men who painted their faces and tried to live like women. But that would be only a fragment of the truth. We cannot understand all the traits we have inherited. Sometimes we can be strangers to ourselves.”(7, p.9) These lines belonging to VS Naipaul and taken from his book A Way in the World represent one main issue that the writer Naipaul has always been preoccupied with: the search for the roots and the identity/alterity inside and/or outside himself. They echo the cry of a man who was born in a country where he could not find his place, then the experience of a migrant outside this country and who continually, throughout literature and writing shaped his own identity. A Way in the World is, thus, the way back to the roots, through the sinuous but attractive paths of the collective memory of the colonists of the Trinidad and Venezuela, following the imaginative map derived from research, fiction, history and his-story. Our lives are surrounded by enigmas, there is little we can account for in an unquestionable manner, our identities being enigmas themselves. VS Naipaul tries to offer a possible answer to the mystery of how an existence, an identity finds its way in the world. He actually, through the A Way in the World follows the way back of the trajectory exposed in the Dictionary of Alterity: Identity is not something rigid and imuable, it is fluid, a process always in development, through which we continually get away from our roots; any endogamy – any identity pretending to be pure is suffocating and incestuous. (2, p.175) Consequently, we shall attempt in this paper to follow VS Naipaul’s journey back to the roots, in search of the identity of the peoples populating the region he comes from, and also identify the making of the narrator’s identity speaking in the book.
In the opening quotation of the book presented above, we encounter Leonard Site, a strange human being, who fascinated the author when he was a child: “He was like so many of the Indian men you see on the streets in St. James, slender fellows in narrow-wasted trousers and open-necked shirts. Ordinary, even with the good looks. But he had that special idea of beauty.” (7, p. 7) What does the narrator mean by that special idea of beauty? “That idea of beauty – mixing roses and flowers and nice things to eat with the idea of making the dead human body beautiful too – was contrary to my own idea. The mixing of things upset me. It didn’t upset him.” (7, p. 7) It is precisely this idea of beauty that makes the narrator ponder over the years over the mystery of this man’s existence, and perhaps of his own existence. To a certain extent, the narrator almost identifies, in time with the serene view Leonard Site had on things, this idea of seeing flowers, cakes and a dead body in the same row of genuine beauty, perhaps a philosophy of life acquired from time immemorial. Leonard Site seems presented in a way like a mythical figure, mythical not by having n imposing personality, but by living life in a genuine, clear and serene way, he is a self-sufficient identity. And with Leonard Site starts the range of past identities whose existence line VS Naipaul will trace in his book, by mixing history and his own imagination, by putting together both elements of real geography and imaginative geography. His main instrument is memory, but not only the memory of his own, also the memory of the hundreds of years the island of Trninidad and other islands in the neighbourhood experienced.
In one of his latest books, Philosophie des images, Jean-Jacques Wunenburger approaches memory as source of generating images. He states that memory is not only a deposit of conserved images or abstract information. Memory is a logic activity which implies an organisation of both concrete and abstract images with the aim of a future re-usage. Thus, in the process of memory, image comes and re-organises the knowledge of the past, being not a passive authority which only re-calls but an active one which re-creates. (10, pp. 281-282). Consequently, our inner life is continually re-constructed with everyday after construction and our identity is a long chain of images constructed and then re-constructed. With VS Naipaul, the mechanism of memory is very interesting, it is a game of playing with impressions: “To go back home was to play with impressions in this way, the way I played with the first pair of glasses I had, looking at a world now sharp and small and not quite real, now standard size and real but blurred; the way I played with my first pair of dark glasses, moving between dazzle and coolness; or the way, on this first return, when I was introduced to air-conditioning, I liked to move from the coolness of an air-conditioned room to the warmth outside, and back again. I was, in time over the years, and over many returns, to get used to what was new; but that shifting about of reality never really stopped. I could call it up whenever I wished.”(7, p. 2). Consequently, the metaphors he uses to explain the game of memory are suggestive as they actually show exactly this continuous modification of reality that takes place both within our minds and outside ourselves by the simple evolution of things. A Way in the World is a personal recollection of the past on his returns home, in the way he presents these recollections. Moreover, every return home means a double return: first, it is the return to a homely place, seen as homely only after several years of staying in London, then it is an imagined return through the reconstruction of the trajectory of the colonists who saw the Trinidadian land in an original shape. Whenever the narrator tells a story, this story is again triggered of by a double journey: the narrator takes small trips on the island or on the islands in the neighbourhood and the reconstruction of the images of these islands is again double: first, it is the personal reconstruction of the adult who rebuilds the world around with the scraped images of the former child, and second, it is the reconstruction of the original geography and world of the island through the imagined minds of different figures who at one moment lived there: “Later in London, when I was writing a book of history, I studied for many months the historical documents of the region. The documents (the early ones were copies of Spanish originals stored in Seville) took me back to the discovery. They gave me a sense of a crowded aboriginal Indian island, busy about its own affairs, and almost without relation to what I had known. A sense, rather than a vision: little was convincingly described in those early documents, and few concrete details were given. In my mind’s eye I created an imaginary landscape for the aboriginal peoples living – on what was to become my own ground – with ideas I couldn’t enter, ideas of time, distance, the past, the natural world, human existence. A different weather seemed to attach to this vanished landscape (like the unnatural weather in an illuminated painted panorama in a museum glass case), a different sky.”(7, pp.207-208) This is the world that will become inhabited in turns, by different figures of the past: the negro Blair – a former colleague of VS Naipaul, an imaginary Narrator who experiences the former land and people of Guyana, the English writer Foster Morris he himself having once produced a book about Trinidad, the famous Sir Walter Raleigh, Francisco Miranda, Degroot jr. whom Naipaul meets in Africa, an many other second characters, but portrayed just as lovingly as the others. These figures are all linked to South America, in its different stages of evolution, and become, one by one, figures of the narrator’s own self.
His motivation of (re)creating the world of Trinidad, or Venezuela comes from a scattered past, or, as Naipaul puts it himself: “We didn’t have backgrounds. We didn’t have a past. For most of us the past stopped with our grandparents; beyond that was a blank. If you could look down at us from the sky you would see us living in our little houses between the sea and the bush; and that was a kind of truth about us, who had been transported to that place. We were just there, floating.” (7, p. 79) This is a double discourse again: it is the discourse of the people in Trinidad, who found themselves in time without a precise identity and second, the discourse of his own identity, who was anxious to find the origins of his being.
Helen Hayward in her book The Enigma of VS Naipaul strengthens this acute need of every migrant writer to go back to a past, not necessarily only his, making a comparison to Salman Rushdie’s similar aim: “The impulse behind these texts is akin to what Salman Rushdie describes when discussing the originating motive of Midnight’s Children: ‘I realized how much I wanted to restore the past to myself’. He argues that it is characteristic of writers in exile that they are ‘are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt’”.(3, p.14) The whole discourse of the book is thus voicing the search for identity, but this identity is mirrored against the multiple alterities accompanying it all over, that were present in the West Indies. General Miranda, with whom Naipaul seems to identify most, experiences himself the change of identity: he is the representative of the local Venezuelan people, a deceiver in his way, just as Raleigh is, “the revolutionary makers of mischief” as they were named by Helen Hayward (3, p.90), but he is also a revolutionary without a revolution. The Venezuelan land, where he wanted to become liberator does not receive him open-heartedly, on the contrary, he becomes a sort of prisoner in Trinidad and he comes to realize the following: “In England, France, Russia, I became known for my political cause. I have always been somebody. Here, now, so close to home, I see no kind of recognition in people’s eyes, and I feel as though I am losing pieces of myself.” (7, p. 301) He was a man of exception, a man of culture, but he was the representative of a borderline row of people: “He was born in Caracas in 1750. His father was a Canary Islander and a linen merchant. That is, neither a proper Spaniard from Spain, nor someone accepted by the creole Spanish aristocracy.“ (7, p.244) He was a misfit himself; this may be one of the reasons why the writer feels so attached to him. When the narrator speaks about himself in the chapter of his literary formation with the help of Foster Morris, he echoes the same sense of loss: ”The fact was that at the age of twenty-two, unprotected and feeling unprotected, with no vision of the future, only with ambition, I had no idea what kind of person I was.”(7, p.64) Miranda’s destiny reflects the epoch he lived in, even his identity was reinvented with the help of his father who paid a notary “to create the genealogical account of the Mirandas, proving their Castilian purity and nobility through seven generations.” It was the time of continuous flow and change in the West Indies, a time when the alterity between slave and master was profound, when these categories were even more than alterities, when they saw each other as alienus i.e. enemy, rival. (2, p. 16) The description of the Chinese brought recently to Trinidad to work on plantations is impressive, as their mute staring at Miranda is the saddest cry for help ever, and this crying mute staring is only because he was simply seen as one of them because of his pigtail, and even he is touched by this form of loneliness and desperation: “They’ve gathered to look at you. I think it’s because the long white pigtail you have. It’s unusual here. It’s longer than the Navy pigtail, and you are older than most Navy people. They probably think you are one of theirs, come to take them back home.”(7, p.324) This staring of the Chinese slaves represents the symbol of the acute relations existing at the time in Trinidad, and in the rest of the West Indies, it is also the symbol of the uprooted self, taken and left in an unknown land. Miranda was impressed, he was a fighter for justice and his meditations regarding the journey back of the Chinese bring him even closer to the identity of the writer: “A six or seven months’ journey back. The same time to come over. A year or more here. I wonder what memories the survivors will take back to Calcutta of this part of their lives. Will they know where they have been? How they stare!”(7, p. 324)
Through Miranda we meet the colonial world of the 19th century in the West Indies, so coloured by so many nations: Negroes, Chinese, British, Creole, Spanish, Americans, native Americans; the story is as much coloured as the book itself, and it is more a book of the world than only of a single place. It voices the identities of the many and of the one at the same time. Through the character of Blair, we meet the identity of both the Trinidadian Negroes and that of the African ones, his cause of abolishing racism causing his death exactly in the land of his forefathers, Africa. The narrator’s journey to Africa is again a double journey: first it is a journey into the Black Continent and his history and development and second, it is a journey in his own past, when he met Blair first, in the Trinidad of the black people. Even the moment when Naipaul met Blair is symbolic because of the job Naipaul had in Trinidad i.e. to make copies of birth, marriage and death certificates at Registrar-General’s Department, where Blair worked as well: “All the records of the colony were there, all the births, deaths, deeds, transfers of property and slaves, all the life of the island for the century and half of the colonial time.”(7, p.21) Blair and the narrator represented a mystical alterity for each other, they were different and yet on the same borderline: “Blair was courtesy itself to me; but I felt about him that, though we met with ease in the government office, there eas much in his background I would never get to know. That all African village in the north-east, isolated for some generations, without Indians or white people, would have its own subterranean emotions, its own faith and fantasies. Blair no doubt felt the same about me; my Indian and Orthodox Hindu background might have seemed to him even more closed.”(7, pp.24-25) The way the narrator imagines at the end both Blair’s end and his funeral return home is a sign of the closeness he actually felt as a result of their last meeting, an acknowledgement of their positioning on similar borderlines.
Phyllis is another exponent of the black people in the West Indies, but she was from Martinique, the French West Africa. She is another kind of alterity for the writer who is in search of his own identity and whose final image will be constructed out of the so many alter-identities he populated his book with. If Miranda and Raleigh are the exponents of the colonial period, Lebrun, Blair, Phyllis and the Venezuelan Manuel Sorzano are the exponents of the postcolonial time, and through all of them VS Naipaul creates a dialogue between the two: colonial and postcolonial, both tormenting periods, shaken by the never-ending rhythm of racial conflicts.
A marking personality for the development of VS Naipaul as writer is the British writer Foster Morris. He himself had written a book on Trinidad, The Shadowed Livery, a book characterised by the narrator as follows: “What was missing from Foster Morris’s view was what we all lived with: the sense of absurd, the idea of comedy, which hid from us our true position. The social depth he gave to ordinary people didn’t make sense” (6, p. 79) We find in these words the same image in The Mimic Men, where the Trinidadian people live life as an illusion: “We, here, on the island, handling books printed in this world, and using its goods, had been abandoned and forgotten. We pretended to be real, to be learning, to be preparing ourselves for life, we mimic men of the New World, one unknown corner of it, with all its reminders of the corruption that came so quickly to the new.”(6, p. 175) This is, in fact the state VS Naipaul himself felt when living the island at the age of seventeen, and his search for an identity, for the status of the writer was actually the fight he fought to escape the mimicked mist of the island that had no past. The author experiences in London both the unhappiness of the migrant but also the disillusion of the writer in search of his own style. It is Foster Morris’s critical letter to his manuscript that awakens what his father long before had told him in his letters, when he urged him to write and find his own style: “Only see that you have succeeded in saying exactly what you wanted to say – without showing off; with utter, brave sincerity – and you will have achieved style because you will have been yourself.”(8, p. 29) Finally, with the help of a total stranger manages to be himself and reach his style, writing about his own land and people: “Day by day my book grew; I felt myself becoming a writer, someone in control, someone more at ease. In six weeks, no more, my book was done. My life in London at last had a purpose. And I blessed the name of Foster Morris, this unlikely figure from the past who had set me free.”(7, p. 88) He becomes the character Narrator in the story New Clothes, he manages to see beyond the surface of things and his life becomes that of the Narrator, that of aesthetic experience.
With the so many different colours the book has, with the so many places and periods of time it includes, with the so many identities and alterities it is made of, VS Naipaul manages to create a cultural, ethnical and yet worldly dialogue of the colonial with the postcolonial, of the past with the present, of history with imagination and A Way in the World is a piece of literature in the form Andrés Belo, Venezuela’s legislator and poet saw as the solution to the unknown past of the Americas: “[W]hen a country’s history doesn’t exist, except in incomplete, scattered documents, in vague traditions that must be compiled and judged, the narrative method [is] obligatory.”(9, p.77). He even wonders “whether the narrative supplement itself isn’t history’s truest form.”(9, p.77) He tries to account for the mystery of Leonard Site’s inheritance, and accordingly, of his own, projected in his identity as a writer, which id the sum of all these experiences, journeys and people that marked his aesthetic development.
The double valence of all the stories in the book, of all the places presented and of the discourse itself proves the double Homi Bhabha speaks of in his essay DissemiNation: “We then a contested cultural territory where the people must be thought in a double-time, the people are the historical objects of a nationalist pedagogy, giving the discourse an authority that is based on the pre-given or constituted historical origin or event; the people are also the subjects of a process of signification that must erase any prior or originary presence of the nation-people to demonstrate the prodigious, living principle of the people as that continual process by which the national life is redeemed and signified as a repeating and reproductive process.” (1, p.297) Consequently, the discourse in A Way in the World marks both the transitive moments of his and his characters’ life, but also creates a chain in the historical time that finally fills the gaps of the past and gives at least some hints of the origins of the self.


1. BHABHA, Homi, Dissemination in Nation and Narration, London, Routlege, 1990.
2. FERREOL, Gilles, JUCQUOI, Guy, Dicþionarul alteritãþii si al relaþiilor interculturale, Iaºi, Polirom, 2005.
3. HAYWARD, Helen, The Enigma of V.S. Naipaul, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.
4. KRISTEVA, Julia, Étrangers à nous-mèmès , Paris, Gallimard, 1988.
5. NAIPAUL, V. S., The Enigma of Arrival, London, Penguin, 1987.
6. NAIPAUL, V. S., The Mimic Men, London, Andre Deutsch, 1967.
7. NAIPAUL, V.S. A Way in the World, London, Heinemann, 1994.
8. NAIPAUL, V. S., Letters Between Father and Son, London, Little, Brown and Company, 1999.
9. SOMMER, Doris, Irresistible Romance in Nation and Narration, coord. by Homi Bhaba, London, Routlege, 1990.
10. WUNENBURGER, Jean-Jacques, Filozofia imaginilor, Iaºi, Polirom, 2004

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