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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Naipaul: Master of the Essay...

Naipaul is a master of the essay form. So far, "Jasmine" and "Synthesis and Mimicry" and "A New King for the Congo" are examples of a writer's master talent to keep one reading and engaged. In "Jasmine," Naipaul regards the seeming inability for non-Western cultures to embrace and understand a literature that is foreign to them. This, interestingly enough, doesn't seem to be the case the other way around. Take literature from developing countries, say, Latin America, and bring it to the language of the dominant culture, and that literature is almost always embraced and understood by the dominant culture. For example, Garcia Marquez' "One Hundred Years of Solitude" was regarded by "The New York Times" as "required reading for the entire human race." I don't challenge Naipaul's premise, but the truth is that 20th Century Latin American literature took the world by storm when it began to be translated into other languages which were, incidentally, alien to the actual experience of the story.

In "Synthesis and Mimicry," Naipaul examines the ways that India has lost its identity by embracing Western attitudes. This involves everything from industrial development to educational institutions, traditional art and traditional literature, and even architecture. He states that

"In the nineteenth century, with the coming of the British, this great tradition [traditional Indian art] died.... nothing is sadder, in the recent history of Indian culture, than to see Indian painting, in its various schools, declining into East India Company art, tourist art."

This essay is not a condemnation of Indian culture as it is rather a contemplation at the loss of things that irrevocably cannot be brought back. In "A New King for the Congo," Naipaul writes beautifully about a difficult topic. The history of Mobutu and that of Zaire (former Congo) is tragic and difficult to portray unbiasly. Naipaul goes on to debunk many of the formerly held fantasies as to how Conrad traveled the Congo. Most of the Congo was already an established Belgian colony by the time Conrad got there, so "Heart of Darkness" lacks substance if you really look at it--at least, that's what Naipaul is getting at. The critical and desperate condition of politics in Zaire are brought to light and the display is sadder than any of us could conceive. Naipaul states that "an African nihilism" has developed in the country where "the rage of primitive men coming to themselves and finding that they have been fooled and affronted" only creates generation after generation of hopelessness and abuse. I am not finish yet but I have fewer pages than I realized. I might be done with the volume tomorrow.

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At 1:09 PM, Blogger jenclair said...

I read Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta in January of this year. A very interesting look at the changes in India in general, and Bombay in particular. Mehta talks about the longing for India that many Indians have, and the fact that it isn't the same India they left. Not in terms of a century, but in just a few decades. An entertaining and educational read.


At 1:15 PM, Blogger Amelia said...

Reading this post secured my intention to buy Vintage Naipaul.

From what I read in your post, Naipaul touches on an issue that is prevalent in numerous societies. I have a B.A. in Anthropology and in many of my courses, we discussed how cultures not only shift, but can and often do lose their identity while trying to embrace change. What's most difficult is trying to maintain your identity, values, and culture while integrating a new cultural system into your lifestyle. What gets lost in the end? And how can we prevent it from happening when some are willing to let go? Change can be good...but is it ALWAYS for the better?

At 1:16 AM, Blogger Susan Abraham said...

It's so exciting to hear you talk about Latin-American literature in this way, Jose.
Really liked this post.
It seems to echo my own embrace of new worlds recently...the gnawing hunger that wants me to claim literature in a far wider aspect than my own British favourites which have followed me from childhood.
I am now partcularly drawn to the Icelandics and French but there is so much isn't there.
There is even the South American. Of late, I have been diligently reading up on Brazilians. They sound alluring and romantic.
Is it possible to ever accumulate a world of roses. I think through world literature and the classics, yes, certainly! :-)

At 1:18 AM, Blogger Susan Abraham said...

Sorry Jose. An error for the above.
I meant to say, reading up on Brazilian novelists... and not otherwise.


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