V. S. Naipaul: An Area of Darkness. His Discovery of India

This book (first published in 1964) has become somewhat notorious for its narrator’s rather negative attitude towards the country he is writing about. In the preface to the edition I read (from 2010) he lets his readers know that his bad mood during at least the first part of the book was due to a creative crisis he was going through at the time – this might be true, or it might be not; but in any case, it reminds us that, even though An Area of Darkness is a book of non-fiction, its narrator might still be somewhat less than completely reliable.

Also, the Grumpy Traveller is a figure with a long tradition in British travel literature, going back to at least Tobias Smollett’s Travels Through France and Italy, famously poked fun at as “Smelfungus” by Lawrence Sterne in his Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy – indeed, I’d go so far as to say that the Cranky and the Enthusiastic Traveller are the basic archetypes of British travel writing (maybe even of all travel writing). What they both have in common, however, is that for both modes the person of the traveller is at least as important as the countries through which he travels; and this takes us back to Naipaul and his An Area of Darkness – His Discovery of India (do take note of the subtitle here).

I doubt anyone would disagree that Naipaul is very firmly on the grumpy side of things – he does not like India much at all, complains about its shabbiness, the dirt, the lack of manners in its inhabitants, and is particularly offended by the public defecation he seem to encounter everywhere (to a degree that one can’t help but wonder whether there is not some obsession at work there). All in all, there seems to be more than enough reason for the often fierce dislike this book and its author have inspired in many readers. And yet – while I tend to agree that Mr. Naipaul is probably a deeply unlikable person, a closer look at An Area of Darkness shows that there is more going on than just a cranky author venting his petty spleen. A lot more, in fact.

First of all, the reason why Naipaul in An Area of Darkness is an unreliable narrator is paradoxically his scrupulous honesty. He has a very fine and well-tuned sensitivity not just for his surroundings but also for himself, and follows the smallest nuances of his prejudices and motivations. And like no man is a hero to his valet, no narrator remains likeable who is seen from this close – there is no attempt at all from Naipaul to make himself appear more heroic, to smooth his crankiness or to gloss over his petty meanness. Naipaul holds nothing back and throughout remains committed to absolute honesty, reminiscent of Rousseau in his Confessions (but, one assumes, staying somewhat closer to actual facts); which in turn makes it possible for the reader to see just how much this account of India is coloured by the person narrating it.

Second, there is a reason why Naipaul’s attitude towards India is so fraught with tension, and he gives it to the reader at the start of the book (well,a after the prologue, anyway) – even before the narrator sets foot on Indian soil, Naipaul tells us over thirty pages of his childhood in Trinidad where his grandfather had moved from India. Like many emigrants, Naipaul’s family held on to as many things from their homeland as they could, and young Naipaul grew up among a clutter of half or not at all comprehended memorabilia and rituals from which he pieced together his own fantasy of India. And it is this fantasy which at some  – intellectually denigrated, but none the less deeply felt – emotional level Naipaul is looking for in the real India only to be deeply disappointed when – rather unsurprisingly – he fails to find it. This is where things begin to move beyond the sphere of mere individual experience, as it’s quite obvious to see  how Naipaul’s indeed is just a slightly displaced version of what most Europeans – and that, of course, means mainly British – relate towards India, carrying a pre-conceived image of the country when visiting it. Few, however, are as ruthlessly honest in their reactions when India fails to conform to their fantasy.

And this brings us to a third thread running through An Area of Darkness – namely that Naipaul may have been objectively justified in his reaction, for the simple reason that India in 1963 was in a deplorable state. Among the anecdotes and the descriptions, large parts of the book are given to analysis of India’s past, present and future as well as on a host of related subjects, from how Hinduism has become a repository for symbols that have lost their religious significance, over how India seems to construct its self-image by way of mimicry to other cultures, to novels about and from India – all of those subjects treated with equal intellectual brilliance and a certain cool detachment, made possible precisely thanks to Naipaul’s continuous self-scrutiny that enables him to purge his subjectivity from the more strictly analytic parts of this books.

At the same time, Naipaul never lets the reader forget that everything he writes about is ultimately grounded in personal experience – the long, analytic passages are always counterbalanced by a wealth of anecdotes – often quite funny ones, and more than once the joke is actually on Naipaul, more proof that he is after verity rather than self-aggrandizement – or descriptions. And the descriptions alone, whether  of scenery, architecture or the people he encounters, would make reading An Area of Darkness worthwhile because – something I think even his most determined detractors have never denied – Naipaul writes beautifully, capturing sensual impressions in a measured, rhythmic prose, along whose shining surface images move and glitter like sunlight on the moving ocean.

This is the third book about India I have been reading this year – I still hesitate to make this an official reading project, considering that my last one fell totally flat, but there undeniably is a certain tendency here, and considering that An Area of Darkness is only the first of three books V.S. Naipaul has written on India…. Well, we’ll see.

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