Last year’s Nobel laureate in literature gathers various nonfiction reports and reflections.
“Guyana was the first place I travelled to as a writer. . . . I was twenty-eight. I was an artless traveller, and was soon to discover that, whatever the excitements of new landscapes and of being on the move, a journey didn’t necessarily result in a narrative on the page.” So Naipaul (Half a Life, 2001, etc.) observes toward the end of this collection, which takes in a range of occasional pieces, some already available in previous books such as The Overcrowded Barracoon (1972) and The Return of Eva Peron (1980). Those pieces reveal, for those who did not already know it, that few contemporary writers are as well traveled as Naipaul, especially in landscapes others know too little to interpret: Congo, Mauritius, India, Trinidad. They also reveal that Naipaul has virtually no peers as a writer of intensely literary but thoroughly well-reported journalism; only Ryszard Kapuscinski and Joan Didion approach his skills in weaving bookish learning with experience into coherent, often exciting narrative. Among the best pieces here are his dissections of the now-extinct regimes of the Zairian dictator Mobutu (“the great African nihilist”) and the St. Kitts tinhorn Robert Bradshaw (all “drama for the sake of drama”), as well as a descent into a true heart of darkness, a conference of American Christian conservatives. Naipaul, who has long delighted in pricking bubbles of political correctness, will doubtless offend cultural relativists with the bit of Western triumphalism he closes with, but it seems timely in an era of imploding tyrannies: “The idea of the pursuit of happiness . . . is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.”
A welcome summing-up of a distinguished journalistic career that matches Naipaul’s accomplishments as a novelist.