Books

Sir Vidia’s Shadow- book review

The country of Trinidad and Tobago, where I come from, is a tiny pair of islands in the Caribbean with a population of 1.3 million. Many people have never heard of it, especially in Asia, but Trinidad is renowned for a handful of reasons. One would be its Carnival festival and steelpan instrument, another would be star athletes like Brian Lara, one of the greatest cricket batsmen, and then there is VS Naipaul, the writer who won the Nobel Literature Prize in 2001. Naipaul was born and grew up in Trinidad, but he left for England to attend Oxford and since then, has lived there. He has never been shy to criticize where he came from and there are many in Trinidad who feel he has turned his backs on them and would just say good riddance to him.

Naipaul’s critical views towards Trinidad is not unique because he has also been heavily critical, even dismissive, of Africa, India and the Islamic world, all of where he traveled to and wrote books about. In short, he is not a man who cares too much about who he offends and who is afraid to voice his true thoughts, as haughty, arrogant or contemptuous as they might sound. As a person, Naipaul is not much different, having been well-known for mistreating his own first wife and for various incidents at public functions as well as spats with fellow writers. One of these spats was famously with Paul Theroux, another famous writer, who for a long time considered himself a protege and friend of Naipaul’s. They had met in Uganda in 1967 where Theroux was teaching a local university and Naipaul was a visiting writer. Theroux was still struggling to launch his writing career while Naipaul, nine years older, was an established name. A friendship flourished that lasted through decades and continents, until suddenly Naipaul ended it.

Theroux was so affected by their falling out that he wrote a book about their long friendship. The result is Sir Vidia’s Shadow – A Friendship Across Five Continents, a compelling piece of work that lays bare their relationship and sheds more light on Naipaul, who could be perplexing and arrogant, than on the author.

The book is interesting but it did not make me feel sympathetic towards Naipaul and I came away wondering how Theroux could have been so deferential for such a long time. Theroux himself says almost the same thing, explaining how eager and pleased he was to get Naipaul’s praise and respect. He also recounts what he hears concerning Naipaul’s boorish behavior towards the public or to fellow writers. There is also the callous manner in which Naipaul treats his faithful first wife, Pat, who Theroux gets along well with, having affairs and then later courting his second wife while Pat is dying of cancer.

On the one hand, it is understandable why Theroux valued their relationship so much. Naipaul was already a published award-winning renowned writer when they met. Naipaul gives Theroux blunt advice and sparing praise, of which Theroux treasures every last bit. Theroux is wounded when the break-up occurs, and it is only then in the book he makes some intense criticisms of Naipaul, for whom up to that point he had only affection and reverence. While the book is not petty or harsh, Theroux’s recounting of their relationship seems to hint at a change in Naipaul’s personality in becoming more callous and bitter as time goes by over the years.

Naipaul may be the Nobel laureate, but I have more respect for Theroux than Naipaul, both of whose books I’ve read, though not that many. I’ve found Naipaul’s writing, especially his non-fiction to be spare and blunt in tone, though not necessarily always wrong. Theroux is also cantankerous and blunt, though less haughty and, as a white American, certainly not pro-Western and unreservably dismissive of the Third World like Naipaul.

The break-up of their friendship happened after a joint appearance at a 1998 book festival in Wales, but Theroux is not aware of it until he realizes Naipaul has not contacted him in over a year after it. Eventually, the two met again in 2011, which Theroux describes in the postscript. It ends somewhat positively and there is a sense of closure.

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