V.S. Naipaul is a creature of paradox. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his essay collection, The Writer and the World
. These essays, selected and introduced by Pankaj Mishra, range from the early 1960s to the mid-1980s. In them, our man travels the world, from his native Trinidad to his ancestral India to America and beyond, always looking with clear eyes at what's right there in front of him. In doing so, he's given us a distinctly Naipaulean journalism: he writes about countries as though they were people. "The politics of a country," he says, "can only be an extension of its idea of human relationships." His writing is, as a result, simultaneously petty and grand. Here, he writes of Belize City:
In the late afternoons Negroes in jackets and ties--famous throughout Central America for their immunity to disease--walk behind the hearses to the cemetery just outside the town, waving white handkerchiefs... It is like a ceremony of bewildered farewell at the limit of the world. But they are only keeping off the mosquitoes and sand flies.
Here is a writer who turns the specific to the universal, seemingly without effort. If Naipaul has a reputation as a grouch, it's only because he never lets go of the specific in favor of the universal. The two always coexist. The pieces contained here--mostly heretofore out of print--are short in length, catholic in interest, and in all a fine introduction to our most cosmopolitan postcolonial writer. --Claire Dederer
From Publishers Weekly
The election campaign is a recurring theme in this comprehensive collection of essays spanning four decades and scattered about the globe: India, Zaire, Grenada, Anguilla, the Americas. Civilization's sharpest tool for self-determination serves as familiar backdrop against which Naipaul, with a robust sense of wonder, examines more ancient yet persistent methods of human interaction ritual, magic, myth, prophecy, clans and castes. The Nobel laureate also tackles U.S. politics, from Norman Mailer's 1969 campaign for mayor of New York City to the surreal and religion-amped 1984 Republican National Convention where the wheels of the image-making machine are in constant motion. Through tenacious yet unobtrusive reportage, Naipaul deconstructs the mythologized among them Eva Peron, Mobutu Sese Seko, John Steinbeck, Eldridge Cleaver, the American Dream and how progress falters in the face of ritualism and single-mindedness. Revolutionary movements often fall prey to these, and Naipaul analyzes those derailments, particularly in postcolonial society. While some of his travelogues date back to the early 1960s, they nonetheless seem fresh, speaking to Naipaul's astute and prescient powers of observation. He uncovers the universal in his subjects: the confrontation between East and West, the tension between old and new, between creators and consumers, the nature of power. A champion of the individual and one of civilization's ardent faithful, Naipaul offers his own exilic heritage and literary experience as an example of modernity's prowess. He is indeed a master stylist, his prose precise and fresh. Yet always beating below the words is a true and tender heart. Densely researched with an omniscient touch, some of Naipaul's meditations are more accessible than others, which may, at times, hinder demystification of the man many consider to be the greatest living writer in the English language.
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