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An area of darkness Paperback – Import, 1968
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Top Customer Reviews
Naipaul's bluntness produced a scandal and much misunderstanding. At closer inspection, however, his unflinching look at unpleasant realities (beyond his politically incorrect asides) reveals a man who is deeply troubled by what he sees. When he writes he transforms his anger into lucid, detailed observations. It is a stylistic attribute that also defines his later travel writing about India ("India: A Wounded Civilization," 1977; "India: A Million Mutinies Now," 1991) and about the predominantly Muslim countries of Asia ("Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey", 1981; "Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among The Converted Peoples", 1998).
In this early book published in 1964, his working method is revealed in more detail than in the later books. Naipaul decided to write about the flagrantly visible things whose existence is being denied, and about those personal experiences that are fresh and not worn out by having been described by other authors of travelogues.
The themes of the first four chapters can be summarized in the words poverty, caste, defecation, and failure. But Naipaul being Naipaul manages to transform the squalor of the world he observes into clean, cold and lucid prose. His language is, for the most part, that of a surgeon who feels neither contempt nor pity when he dissects. Naipaul writes that the "sweetness and sadness which can be found in Indian writing and Indian films are a turning away from a too overwhelming reality; they reduce the horror to a warm, virtuous emotion. Indian sentimentality is the opposite of concern." This explains why Naipaul's apparent detachment is so misleading: for Naipaul unsentimental description is - quite unexpectedly for the reader - a way of showing concern.
Naipaul is most effective when he is sarcastic. His book sparkles with rhetoric fervor when he quotes Gandhi on the squalor and shortcomings of India and points out that Gandhi's observations are still valid today. Chapter 3, "The Colonial," depicts the colonial's view of India. Incidentally, the colonial happens to be Mahatma Gandhi, and Naipaul quotes extensively from Gandhi's early writing. It starts with a quote just below the Chapter heading: "Well, India is a country of nonsense." Naipaul effectively turns one of the founding fathers against his successors who, in Naipaul's opinion, let the country rot in its stagnancy. Naipaul feels that India undid Gandhi: "He became a mahatma. He was to be reverenced for what he was; his message was irrelevant"; and that "his failure is there, in his writings: he is still the best guide to India. It is as if, in England, Florence Nightingale had become a saint, honoured by statues, everywhere, her name on every lip; and the hospitals had remained as she had described them."
When Naipaul writes about Gandhi, he also characterizes his own way of seeing and writing: "He looked at India as no Indian was able to; his vision was direct and the directness was, and is, revolutionary. He sees exactly what the visitor sees; he does not ignore the obvious. He sees the beggars and the shameless pundits and the filth of Banares; he sees the atrocious sanitary habits of doctors, lawyers and journalists. He sees the Indian callousness, the Indian refusal to see. No Indian attitude escapes him, no Indian problem; he looks down to the roots of the static, decayed society. And the picture of India which comes out of his writings and exhortations over more than thirty years still holds: this is the measure of his failure."
Bottom-line: opinionated and brilliant as most of Naipaul's writing, surely not a balanced portrait of India in the early 1960s, but definitely a must-read for anyone trying to understand Naipaul, and a good case-study how easy it is to misunderstand the intentions of a writer or how easy it is to use quotations out of context to malign someone.
It begins inauspiciously enough with some amusing but not too jarring description of the endless troubles involved in bringing a bottle of liquor into India. We've all heard of India's elephantine bureaucracy, and Naipaul confirms to us that this is (was?) the case. Of much greater interest are the little fables he weaves to explain his view of how in India function is more important than action (i.e., ritual cleanliness is much more important than actual cleanliness) and gestures count more than reality (although this is common to many third world countries). Contrary to the impression a foreigner might have of chaos and aimlessness, India is in fact strictly regulated to a degree unknown in the West. Everyone has a place and a function, and such place and function are infinitely more significant to an Indian than what a Westerner's profession or skin colour might be to him. This provides a transition to another of Naipaul's interests, which is the nature of the relationship between the Indian Republic and the British Raj. According to Naipaul, the idea of Britishness is inextricably bound up with the Indian empire, and the British created themselves as an imperial people with a God-given mission, even as they created the Indians as a subordinate (inferior) race and state. Bound up with these deep meditations are the stories of his dealings with various landlords and hoteliers. Particularly amusing is his running relationship with the staff of a small hotel on Dal Lake, in Northern India, where he experiences the mutual dependency between masters and servants familiar to russian and ancient regime writers. He (the master) is often abused by the staff (the servants) and forced to perform meaningless or denigrating activities. The staff, however, treat him with an almost comical respect when confronted by third parties. Clearly the servants derive their respect from the respect shown to their master. The relationship is almost medieval.
And this is Naipaul's next point. India is not a modern country because there is no sense of the passage of time, but rather passive acceptance of everything, and an escape into the land of imagination to compensate for what otherwise would be a reality too painful to bear (but again, this is also a feature of other third world countries such as that of Colombia, and a source of Magical Realism a la Garcia Marquez).
The book's final part has a fascinating reflection on the nature of English writing on India and Indian writing. Naipaul disparages virtually all literary creation in the sub-continent (with a couple of minor exceptions including Narayan). He likes Kipling and has no clear opinion on Forster (he would eventually develop a strongly critical perspective on this author as well, deeply tinged by his antipathy to the writer's homosexuality). The ending is bleak, punctuated by his frightening falling in with a racist Sikh (who is a dead ringer for Europe's skinheads of a decade later) and a depressive visit to his grandfather's hometown, when he realizes that the distance between himself and India is unbridgeable. The backdrop is provided by the Chinese invasion and Indian defeat (this defeat is the last of endless defeats over the past millenium, and an emblem for them all).
The book, although picturesque in some points is extremely bleak and really justifies Naipaul's famed ability to stare at reality in the face, and not flinch. Whoever believes Naipaul has singled the Muslims for special abuse (in such works as "Among the Believers" and "The Suffrage of Elvira") only needs to read this disconsolate book (his first of a couple) on his own homeland to confirm that Naipaul does not believe in playing favourites, and will shine the passionately cold light of his wit on everything that catches his eye. The book is in parts obscure and disorganized, but very insightful. This reviewer shared Naipaul's sense of grossness and void, as he contemplates utter misery and hopelessness (this is a feeling many peoples might have today: former Zaireans, Sudanese, Palestinians, Colombians, Bhurmans, to name just a few). His refusal to compromise is not fuelled by self-hatred (as has been suggested by some commentators) but rather by a powerful self-awareness. It's no wonder many Indians hated the book. Not being Indian, and not therefore needing to be appeased, I liked it very much.