BEYOND THE DRAGON'S MOUTH: Stories and Pieces by Shiva Naipaul


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Memoirs, travel-reportage, and short stories, 1969-1984--all reflecting, one way or another, Naipaul's preoccupation with rural/urban, traditional/modem, white/ non-white tensions: like his subtler, more artful brother V.S., the younger Naipaul (b. 1945) has a Trinidad/Indian background rich in conflict and complexity. The title piece, recently published in The New Yorker, focuses on Naipaul's ""no-man's-land"" childhood--the Negro/Indian/Creole neighborhood, the family's faded Hindu heritage, his bookish father, the emphasis on academic/financial success, young Shiva's discovery of philosophy, his naive departure for Oxford; but, though crisp and modestly intriguing, this memoir is often too heavy and prosy with its theme--""Every day, I have to redefine myself""--and it lacks the circuitous intensity of V.S. Naipaul's similar ""Prologue to an Autobiography"" (in Finding the Center, 1984). Throughout, in fact, Naipaul's didactic tendencies (cf. North of South, Journey to Nowhere) weaken the generally strong work here. Reports from Britain include a hate-letter to London's Earls Court neighborhood (racist, noisy), a firm sketch of the identity-crisis of refugee Ugandan Asians with UK passports (""the ultimate flowering of their dependence""), plus grim visits to ghastly Hull and ghastlier Liverpool--all persuasive, ironic, yet marred by Naipaul's above-it-all, despair-embracing tone. In India, Naipaul sees the vigor of Bombay behind ""the veil of apparently hopeless dereliction"" (""Bombay lives,"" however, ""because it denies its terrors""); he's appalled by the squalor and corruption of Bihar, ""ancient but degenerate heartland of Hindu culture""; he's understandably fascinated by the late Sanjay Gandhi, ""a purveyor of urban values"" whose illusory vision of a modern India galvanized many young Indians. Other travel pieces ponder the ""hollowness"" of the Shah's White Revolution for Iran (1978), the odd Surinam fusing (""a little late in the day"") of Marx/st radicalism and tribal conservatism, and yet another cultural identity-crisis--on the Seychelle islands. And the eight short stories here--usually dealing with the doomed strivings and pretensions of black or Indian Trinidadians--are shrewd, often cutting, but, again, somewhat unshaded and heavyhanded. Despite this pervasive limitation: a generous, stylish sampling of Naipaul's descriptive talents and edgy sensibilities.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1985
Publisher: Viking