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The Loss of El Dorado
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naipaul indian

I think I started with “In a Free State” (1971) which captivated me. Then “The Loss of El Dorado” (1969),“The Enigma of Arrival” (1987) and many of his essays. There must have been some others, perhaps even the early novels. Some of those books must be kicking around in the cottage somewhere. That’s enough to tell the basic story.

Naipaul was In a Free State, being genetically Indian, culturally English, and born in the Caribbean, which he regarded as a mistake. He left as soon as he could. In England he was a Wog, finding it hard to get work and, far more importantly, to get girls. He somewhat reluctantly married the one girl he met at university, as shy as him. He depended on her support for the rest of her life. Sex with her was not very sexy. The love of his life was Anglo-Argentine woman, met years later in Buenos Aires, courted in Bariloche, and he lived in a loose menage a trois for 24 years. No respecter of icons, he wrote an essay about Evita and, among other things, her prowess in fellatio (1980). He had sharp words for Africans, Indians and for a selection white people. He was disdainful, did not suffer fools, and wrote with style. He had the knack of comedy, and the grandeur of great novelists in his deep despair at human nature. He took his time over his prose, sometimes three years for one book.

He felt “The loss of El Dorado” deeply, and showed how the colonial search for gold was both a chimera and a curse. The colonists found gold and silver in plenty, and badly mistreated the natives, but their plunder hampered them, so they lost out in the industrial revolution centuries later. Easy money corrupts. Naipaul was a great admirer of Bartolome de las Casas, the defender of the rights of the indigenous natives. Naipaul had great hopes for the book, thinking it would be a best seller in the US, but it bombed. The market for colonial history is smaller than he hoped.

I read his book in Wiltshire, eventually finding out in “The Enigma of Arrival” that he lived much of his time not far away in the beautiful Woodford valley, as English as it is possible to be. But he was never fully there, despite his knighthood, and Nobel prize. He was a dark-skinned kid from Trinidad. As he flew away from there to Oxford a friend told him to sit at the back of the little plane, because it was safer in a crash. As it circled upwards he looked down at his homeland and young life, and thought it all absurd, a pointlessly small island in the vast ocean. Yet, it was that enigma which drove him on an endless quest to find a home: a scholarship boy running away from the sunlight to the cloudy place where books came from.

For any transient Naipaul is a visionary. He was yet another miniscule iron filing being drawn North by a magnetic pole. He was a master of the ambiguity of belonging while not belonging. England Made Him. Many have straddled the Anglo divide, but what Naipaul wrote about was gruel to all immigrants: the sense that they were imposters in every country they touched; that their supposedly exotic childhood was pretty boring; that the real story was in London, Paris and New York; and that after all that the continuing story was a free state which combined enigma and loss, the loss of that very origin which was most disparaged and yet most vivid.

One of my first radio interviews, perhaps in 1980, was in the old Langham Hotel which had been taken over by the BBC and was a stale corporate ruin. It was there that Naipaul started his writing, on the rustle-proof paper specially provided for announcers. As I walked through the corridors I wondered where he had got to. He seemed always at one remove, writing from distant places with detached amusement about human frailty, and travelling around trying to make sense of who he was. India was not exactly to his taste, neither was the Muslim revival, and neither was the England of 1972 and its dismay at having to offer refuge to the Ugandan Asian ejected by Idi Amin.

An author is often a transient, never entirely rooted in cultures they must observe with detachment, in order to be able to laugh at pretensions, point out errors, find points of redemption and, above all, tell a story which engages those too involved with life to be able to notice what travellers see through the back windows of the house.

In the end, it turned out that after decades of searching, that Naipaul was nearby, and I met him on this day two years ago. I say “met” to give it importance. It was little more than a friendly nod, repeated once or twice some months later, no more than that, but a big deal for me.

In the “Enigma of Arrival” Naipaul recounts the walks he took through the countryside during breaks in writing. Sometimes he met an old man, who made his way across the barbed-wire fences by wrapping plastic bags over the spikes, and tying them up with string, so that they made a padded tube over which he could step. Naipaul made it seem a distant relationship, of the restrained head-nodding type, but it was part of his general pensive theme about how everyone fits in to their landscape, though that landscape changes. Later on in the book he notes that, quite without realizing it, he no longer had seen the old man again, and that all that was left of him was plastic bags tied to barbed wire. I sometime think that Naipaul was talking about himself, and thought of his books in that way.

Authors have great power over us readers. We let them drive the car of our imagination, at speeds and on journeys of their choosing, and let them hold the keys for ever.

Thank you, Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul.

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  1. What is Paul Theroux thinking?

    Naipaul said that his A Bend in the River was better than Conrad. Having read it several times I would have to agree with him.

  2. Dear Mr. Thompson — I come to your column for your insights about science. I stay for your heartfelt, writerly probing of the heart. Your new and never-effusive encomium for V.S. Naipaul is a gem, not just as an appreciation but as a small autobiography. The last time you did this was, regrettably, too long ago with your Christmas thoughts ( You might not want to sully your “brand” this these occasional forays, I can say that while I will always value your contributions to science journalism, your writing in itself is always a pleasure, and in particular your small revealings of yourself. Gives us more?

  3. @Christopher Hosford

    Very kind of you. I will write about other subjects every now and then. Theatre review next.

  4. @Christopher Hosford

    I agree – I thought about James Thompson’s Christmas thoughts – the Range Rover, the grass, the loamy soil?, the mass, more than once.

  5. anon[345] • Disclaimer says:

    Thanks, James. I’ve always been a fan of Naipaul too.

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