That the man has a love-hate relationship with his birthplace is as clear as the image painted on the Nobel diploma designed by artist Bo Larsson that Naipaul received when he won the Nobel Prize in 2001. The diploma, on parchment, has the image of Trinidad in the midst of a profusion of red hibiscuses. The implication is clear. Trinidad is central to Naipaul. And The Middle Passage may just contain some of the most honest passages ever written about Trinidad.
Two years before Trinidad and Tobago’s Independence, Naipaul was invited by the late Dr Eric Williams to visit the Caribbean and write a non-fiction book. The Trinidad Government paid for the trip, and if they expected a sun-filled tourist brochure they may have been surprised by what they got.
“Twenty million Africans made the middle passage, and scarcely an African name remains in the New World,” Naipaul declares in the Trinidad chapter of the book, which is the first chapter any right-minded Trinidadian will flip to.
Trinidad is described as a place that almost triggers neurosis for Naipaul. Here is how he describes arriving: “I began to feel all my old fear of Trinidad. I did not want to stay....I had never examined this fear of Trinidad. I had never wished to. In my novels I had only expressed this fear; and it is only now, at the moment of writing, that I am able to attempt to examine it.”
But out of this raw neurosis Naipaul feels his way around Trinidad society and makes observations that remain as acute today as they were in 1960:
“The only professions were those of law and medicine — the most successful people were commission agents, bank managers and members of the distributive trades.
“Power was recognised, but dignity was allowed to no one. Every person of eminence was held to be crooked and contemptible. We lived in a society that denied itself heroes.”
On the island, talented people are made to ‘boil down’ and are labelled snobs:
“It was... a place where a recurring word of abuse was ‘conceited’, an expression of the resentment felt of anyone who possessed unusual skills...Generosity — the admiration of equal for equal— was therefore unknown.”
Of race in Trinidad, Naipaul says that “the past has to be denied, the self despised.
“Black will be made white.... the West Indian accepted his blackness as his guilt..he never seriously doubted the validity of the prejudices of the culture to which he aspired.”
Much has been said of Naipaul’s purported antipathy towards “Negroes,” but here is how he describes the Indian community in Trinidad:
“A peasant-minded, money-minded community, spiritually static...historical accidents and national temperament has turned the Trinidad Indian into the complete colonial, even more philistine than the white.”But believe it or not there are good things in Trinidad: “It is only in calypso that the Trinidadian touches reality.” Yet, foreigners and Trinidadians alike have “debased” and “bastardised” the art form, turning it into a tourist feature, a caricature on the island.
“A hundred foolish travel-writers (reproducing the doggerel sung ‘especially’ for them) and a hundred ‘calypsonians’ in all parts of the world have debased the form, which is now generally dismissed abroad as nothing more than a catchy tune with a primitive jingle in broken English.”
But “the pure calypso, the best calypso, is incomprehensible to the outsider.
“Wit and verbal conceits are fundamental; without them no song, however good the music, however well sung, can be judged a calypso.”
Of politics and corruption, the writer has this to say:
“Politics were reserved for the enterprising, who had seen the prodigious commercial possibilities. There were no parties, only individuals.
Corruption, not unexpected, aroused only amusement and even mild approval: Trinidad has always admired the ‘sharp character.’” So that years before Tesoro or Piarco, Naipaul was analysing a society “where it is felt that all eminence is arrived at by crookedness.”
The best way to judge a writer is through his works. “Living in a borrowed culture, the West Indian, more than most, needs writers to tell him who he is and where he stands,” Naipaul says. What a fate, then, to despise a man for giving us what we need.