V.S. Naipaul: A Diasporic Vision

Kavita Nandan

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This essay refutes some of the dominant negative critiques of Naipaul's writing, in particular by West Indian writers and critics such as George Lamming, Derek Walcott, Selwyn Cudjoe, and Glyne Griffith, by offering an alternative reading of A House for Mr. Biswas from the diasporic angle. The novel contains themes that run throughout his writing but it marks a distinctive period in the development of his writing and art. It displays a unique affection for the homeland of his birth. It deals with the historical period of colonialism and indenture and the experiences of migration and displacement with respect to Trinidad. The rawness of emotion present in the novel is missing in Naipaul's later texts which have become increasingly sophisticated in their treatment of home and identity. Naipaul told Rachel Donadio in the New York Times Book Review that "the novel's time was over" and that when "you write a novel ... you weave a little narrative. And its O.K., but it's of no account" (8). However, a rereading of A House for Mr. Biswas suggests that it is an extraordinary narrative which evokes the memory of indenture and the post-indentured unaccommodated man with psychological acuteness and emotional truth.

Even those critics who generally dislike Naipaul's writing admit that A House for Mr. Biswas is a fine work. Still, however, they do not see it in terms of contributing to significant kinds of postcolonial discussion. For example, Cudjoe claims that Naipaul's writing is locked in a colonial timewarp, fixed on the figure of the mimic man who has no subversive or redemptive characteristics.1 But his and the approach of others do not sufficiently critique the kind of diasporic postcolonial politics that Naipaul's writing engages with. A House for Mr. Biswas contains the idea that postcolonial agency is muted in the reconceptualizing or reimagining of postcolonial subjectivity from a diasporic perspective.

This essay sets out to foreground some of these concerns through the trope of arrival. Arrival is a key experience in the diaspora for it constitutes one aspect of the act of migration. That is, migration in literal terms--across national frontiers and from rural to city; and beyond the literal--migration of ideas into images and from old selves into new ones (Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands 278-9). Having migrated to a new land or being connected to histories of migration, the diasporic subject faces the enigma of arrival. In the case of A House for Mr. Biswas, the diasporic condition is narrated as being ambivalent: "far away enough to experience the sense of exile and loss, close enough to understand the enigma of an always-postponed 'arrival'" (Hall 490). In other words, the diasporic past always haunts the diasporic present.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)75-88
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Caribbean Literatures
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2008


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