FINDING THE CENTER  by V.S. Naipaul

FINDING THE CENTER

Two Narratives
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KIRKUS REVIEW

Though some of his early fiction is autobiographical, Naipual seems uncomfortable when writing about himself--and the first of the two pieces here, "Prologue to an Autobiography," is a circuitous account of "my literary beginnings and the imaginative promptings of my many-sided background." Naipaul starts with the mid-1950s day when he drafted his first publishable story, writing in a room at London's BBC and nervously showing the pages to three encouraging young colleagues. ("Such anxiety; such ambition.") The story's subject-matter--his childhood street, the adventurous yearnings of a family friend named "Bogart"--lead him back to memories of Trinidad; his literary strivings lead him back to memories of his tormented father, a sometime journalist (whose old clippings inspired V.S. to love "the idea of print") and unpublished story-writer--whose longest tale became "the greatest imaginative experience" of his childhood. ("Every new bit was read out to me, every little variation; and I read every new typescript my father made as the story grew.") But then Naipaul goes on to record how all of his childhood notions had to be revised, often as part of the discovery-process involved in writing. For his career, that "noble thing," he felt he had to leave the limited culture of Trinidad's Indian community--but actually "it was necessary to go back." Likewise, a 1970s reunion with the once-adventurous Bogart character--who fled Trinidad for cosmopolitan Venezuela only to find dreariness and rootlessness--underlines the difficulty of leaving a native tradition behind. And finally the focus returns to the journalist-father--as Naipual discovers new facts about him in the 1970s: his progressive ideas, which earned him the hostility of his strict, devout Hindu family ("a totalitarian organization"); a dreadful humiliation, when he was forced to kowtow to tribal magic (an actual N. Y. Herald Tribune headline, 6/24/33: "REPORTER SACRIFICES GOAT TO MOLLIFY HINDU GODDESS"); and the mental instability that ensued--a panic that Naipaul now links to the "center" of his own not-so-simple ambition. The second piece, "The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro," picks up on this theme of tribal magic vs. European-style progress--and runs it into the ground somewhat. Naipaul visits the Ivory Coast, one of West Africa's success stories: economic health, benevolent dictator/one-party system, skyscrapers. But, in talking to several residents (including two intriguingly displaced West Indian women), he finds that the Africans still live more in the spirit-world than the Europeans' "real" one--with magic and ritual symbolized by the sacred crocodiles outside the Presidential Palace, fed on live chickens in public ceremonies. Still, if Naipaul belabors this familiar theme (with its implicit distaste for tribal ways), the travelogue is rich in edgy people and shrewd background-details. And though "Prologue to an Autobiography" is too self-consciously structured to be affecting, its curious/charming fragments provide rare personal close-ups of a major writer.
Pub Date: Sept. 24th, 1984
ISBN: 0140073957
Page count: 159pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 1984




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