CARIBBEAN THROUGH EUROPEAN EYES
by Derek C. Bowe
Since this century's early years, the West Indies has been viewed as an exotic, almost heavenly region. Images of balmy, tropical weather; of calm, translucent waters; and of luxuriant, changeless vegetation dominated this perception. The locale's ever-smiling "natives" were legendary for their tractability and hospitality. Punctuating the rampant stereotype was the romantic beat of calypso, purportedly the ultimate expression of West Indian creativity.
Such was the popular perception. V. S. Naipaul, the celebrated Trinidadian-born writer, does much to debunk this perception in his 1962 book The Middle Passage. Ostensibly, it is the product of a three-months' stay in five West Indian territories during late 1960. In actuality, however, the novelist also draws on the first eighteen years of his life in Trinidad, as well as a lifetime of observing and writing about the Caribbean. In an almost brutally frank analysis, he examines its people, politics, and racial issues, yielding a strange blend of insightful analysis and prejudicial remarks.
For the most part, Naipaul's travel book is charged with an almost palpable negativity and combativeness. Even before he actually begins his critique of the Caribbean, he takes pains to let the reader know that The Middle Passage "is in no way, however, an `official' book, for it sells nothing" (Original foreword; 6). Then he selects an 1887 quotation from Froude that is, at the least, unflattering to the region, while it epitomizes his view of its people:
They [West Indians] were valued only for the wealth which they yielded, and society there has never assumed any particularly noble aspect...there are no people there in the true sense of the word, with a character and purpose of their own. (Dedicatory page; 7)
These are vehemently worded assertions, and one may wonder why he gives them credence. Anthony Boxhill implies a cause in his discussion of a 1964 Naipaul essay. According to him, the writer, in his younger years, had read the usual English and European writers required of West Indian students, but "far from inspiring him to write, these great writers made it especially difficult for him to be fair to the society around him" (Boxhill 9). Naipaul's retreat into "books for fantasy" only made him "despairingly conscious of the poverty and backwardness" of his native land (Boxhill 9). Boxhill continues that "it took courage [for Naipaul] to refer to local places, names and local customs, because they embarrassed him, convinced as he was that they were second rate and ridiculous" (9).
Beyond this perspective, it appears that there is a deeper basis for Naipaul's disgust. It would seem that at a crucial early stage, he never achieved a sense of identity. A second generation Trinidadian whose grandfather had emigrated to Trinidad from Uttar Pradesh, India, Naipaul could not realistically identify with the subcontinent. Furthermore, as the son of a journalist who felt he had not receive his due in Trinidad, perhaps Naipaul was conditioned from childhood to feel no warm affinity for his homeland. In his later years, he was to speak of the father-son relationship as being "the big relationship of my life, and what is odd about it is that I always felt protective toward my father. I never felt he was the man protecting me, I always felt quite the other way around: that it was up to me to look after him" (as quoted in Gurr 81). As the youngster matured, all that was left for him to do was to attach himself to a region whose worth was "unquestioned." That place was Europe, especially England, and it is largely through European eyes that he views the West Indies in The Middle Passage. In doing this, Bruce King reports, "Naipaul hurt feelings in bringing attention to racial conflicts and prejudices, offering dismissive summaries of the region's history, and criticizing the existing culture" (53).
Not surprisingly, the writer heaps abuse on the Caribbean from the very first sentence of his book: "There was such a crowd of immigrant type West Indians on the boat-train platform at Waterloo that I was glad I was travelling first class to the West-Indies" (9; my emphasis). His hostile eyes have a flair for fixation on negative situations. On board The Francisco Bobadilla, he notes, there is "a fat bonneted baby that [is] gift-wrapped in ribbons and frills, with a rubber nipple stuck like a gag and a final flourish in its drooping, dripping mouth" (9). Arrogantly and callously, he refers to mentally ill passengers as "lunatics" (17). He describes "a Negro woman of about eighty, wearing sensationally old clothes" (17). Repugnantly, he focuses on what he regards as "a very tall and ill-made Negro":
His light grey jacket was as long and loose as a short topcoat; his yellow shirt was dirty and the frayed collar undone; his tie was slack and askew.... His face was grotesque. It seemed to have been smashed in from one cheek. One eye had narrowed; the thick lips had bunched into a circular swollen protuberance; the enormous nose was twisted. When, slowly, he opened his mouth to spit, his face became even more distorted. He spat in slow intermittent dribbles. (10,11)
Of course, from a purely descriptive perspective, one could praise Naipaul for his detailed powers of observation, but a deeper look reveals him as devoid of compassion and sensitivity. Here he is reporting not for mere descriptive purposes, but for pejorative ones; he is saying, in effect, what an ugly, revolting brood West Indians are! This approach is broached more fully later in the book. When the boat reaches Trinidad, he says, "I began to feel all my old fear of Trinidad. I did not want to stay. I had left the security of the ship and had no assurance that I would ever leave the island again" (42).
He makes no secret as to why he is afraid. He confesses:
I knew Trinidad to be unimportant, uncreative, cynical. The only professions were those of law and medicine, because there was no need for any other; and the most successful people were commission agents, bank managers and members of the distributive trades. Power was recognized, but dignity was allowed to no one. Every person of eminence was held to be crooked and contemptible. We lived in a society which denied itself heroes. (43; my emphasis)
Earlier, looking at what he considers a moribund society, he claimed that "nothing was created in the British West Indies.... There were only plantations, prosperity, decline, neglect: the size of the islands called for nothing else" (27). Then, hammering the last nail in the coffin, he concludes, "History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies" (29; my emphasis).
That a man of Naipaul's learning could be so manifestly ignorant about West Indian heroes and achievement is troubling, to say the least. Even a casual look at West Indian history up to the point of The Middle Passage's publishing would have documented the region's accomplishments. First, the person making it possible for Naipaul to tour the West Indies was Sir Eric Williams, the internationally recognized historian and author of Capitalism and Slavery. The seminal work maintained that revenue from Britain's West Indian plantations provided her with the basis for her economic and industrial success.
Naipaul's selective memory about West Indian accomplishment neglects mentioning the pioneering literary work of George Lamming, author of In the Castle of My Skin and The Pleasures of Exile. It devalues the economic vision of Sir Arthur Lewis, who was later to be awarded a Nobel Prize. It denigrates the profound poetry of Derek Walcott, himself later to receive a Nobel Prize. Of course, there are more examples of West Indian fecundity, but perhaps the most convincing is Naipaul himself. Trinidad's government awarded him a scholarship as an eighteen-year-old Queen's Royal College student, which led to his reading of English at Oxford and his subsequent writing career. Ironically, for all his aversion to the West Indies, he is deeply indebted to it. The mass of his writing revolves around the region; if there were no West Indies, his subject matter would have been severely abbreviated, if by some other means he had become a writer.
The Trinidadian C.L.R. James, himself a pioneering writer and the author of The Black Jacobins, a study of the Haitian Revolution, made some pertinent observations about The Middle Passage's omissions:
What Vidia said about the West Indies.. was very true and very important. But what he left out was twice as true and four times as important.
In his portrayal of the West Indian people Vidia wrote not a line about Captain Cipriani and the great movement he founded and led. He said not a word about strikes of 1937-1938 which have made us what we are. (As quoted in Hassan 191)
Not every reviewer felt the same way about the omissions, though. Indeed, some, like Norman T. Giovanni, affirm that Naipaul "knows Caribbean history thoroughly and is a clear and sympathetic observer of men" (as quoted in Hassan 189). In fact, so high is Giovanni's estimation of Naipaul that he rates The Middle Passage above The Pleasures of Exile and Mittleholzer's With a Carib Eye (Hassan 189).
Certainly, Naipaul's views do sometimes ring true in his assessment of West Indians. Evidence abounds where this is painfully true. For example, West Indians, particularly when The Middle Passage was first published, too frequently suffer from inferiority complexes, influencing them to disdain themselves and to uncritically accept foreign people, goods and services as intrinsically superior. Therefore, Naipaul's fellow West Indians on The Francisco Bobadilla reject their places of birth in favor of European countries. When a crisis develops, however, their mimicry is exposed; the writer finds that a "Spanish" woman, for instance, "couldn't talk Spanish" and a man claiming to be Portuguese "couldn't talk Portuguese" (14).
Later in Martinique, Naipaul learns that "more than England to the British West Indian or even Holland to the Surinamer, France is the mother country to the Martiniquan" (213). In fact, a Martiniquan tells him, "I am glad I am a Frenchman" (213)! In this vein, there is an insightful passage in which the writer captures the essence of West Indian inferiority complex, as he decries the tendency to value shoddy foreign goods over superior domestic ones:
To be modern is to ignore local products and to use those advertised in American magazines. The excellent coffee which is grown in Trinidad is used only by the very poor and a few middle-class English expatriates. Everyone else drinks Nescafe or Maxwell House or Chase and Sanborn, which is more expensive but is advertised in the magazines and therefore acceptable. (49)
In his discussion of the West Indies' racial concerns and politics, Naipaul is informative but puzzling. While on board the immigrant ship, he evinces his support of racial harmony in the region. He hears several Indian passengers whipping themselves into a frenzy over alleged "miscegenation"--in this case, the union of Indians and Blacks. He writes, "Believing that racial coexistence, if not cooperation, is of great importance to the West Indies, I was disturbed by these Indian views..."(22). His love of racial harmony is open to question when one considers his tactless and incendiary remarks about the region and its people--remarks like those already noted. Interestingly, he titles his book The Middle Passage, alluding to the Triangular Trade's tragedy and privation, but it is not done honorifically. The book's context shows that he does it to vilify the region--to say, in effect, that it is a hopeless, slave society.
When Naipaul berates an emigrant leader as "jabbering" (35), or when he writes of Port-of-Spain as "the toy capital where people took themselves seriously enough to drive cars from one point to another" (24), racial harmony seems to be the least of his goals. When he excoriates the sense of fundamental humanity in the Trinidadian character by declaring that "the humiliation of women [is not] important to the Trinidad audience [of filmgoers]" (63), he is simplistically dismissive. When he says of most West Indian writers "so far only [reflecting] and [flattering] the prejudices of their race or color groups," he is unsophisticated as well as divisive. When he writes of "Indians and Negroes [appealing] to the unacknowledged white audience to how much they despise one another" (87), he is certainly not producing harmony. In all such instances, the possible outcome is anger, defensiveness, and poor self-esteem, yes--but surely not personal and racial harmony.
Again, in all fairness to Naipaul, there are instances where his racial perceptions are accurate. In the Trinidad of 1960, Black models were joining, and displacing, White ones in advertisements. Naipaul perceived an insidious prejudice in these ads, however. Citing one where Trinidadians, "carefully chosen for race," lounged at a bar, he notes that "[N]one was clamorously black. A genuinely black man was used for the garage-hand in the 'I'm going well, I'm going Shell' advertisements for things like bicycles and stout"(51). While observing Jamaican Rastafarians, he makes a remark which, in hindsight, would have greatly altered Jamaica's tortuous political and social paths since 1960 had Jamaicans heeded its warning:
Race--in the sense of a black against brown, yellow and white, in that order--is the most important issue in Jamaica today. The hypocrisy which permitted the middleclass brown Jamaican to speak of racial harmony while carefully maintaining the shade distinctions that preserved his privilege is at last provoking anger and creating a thoroughly black racism which could conceivably turn the island into another Haiti. (241)
Perhaps Naipaul's best opportunity for observation of the region's politics came in the former British Guyana where he fraternized with the Jagans of the ruling Indian party. He attended their political rallies and also met the Opposition Leader, Forbes Burnham. Here The Middle Passage assumes a more compassionate approach. Its writer has an apparently genuine sense of regret that the racial solidarity earlier forged by Jagan and Burnham was later fragmented. At this stage of the book, some readers have observed him as being pro-Jagan, as when he says, admiringly, "The Jagans are the most energetic campaigning politicians in the West Indies" (134). However, he is just as approving in his remarks about Burnham: "Mr. Burnham is the finest public speaker I have heard...; he is utterly calm, and his fine voice is so nicely modulated that the listener never tires or ceases to listen" (143). Naipaul readily points out his demagoguery, however, as when "[Burnham] spoke of Mrs. Jagan, his former associate, as `that little lady, from Chicago, an alien to our shores'; and he played indirectly though not less unpleasantly on the racial issue" (144). At a loss to account for "the Jagan-Burnham split of 1955," Naipaul nonetheless detects "a mutual sympathy and respect stronger than either suspect, each perhaps regretting the other for what he was" (145). To Naipaul, this is small consolation, for a racial rife remains, one that portends ill for the country (145).
Just as The Middle Passage has its blend of insightful analysis and ranting charges, the West Indian response to its controversial points was varied. Two Caribbean writers illustrate this:
[W]hile both St. Lucian poet and playwright Derek Walcott and Jamaican novelist John Hearne admired the brilliance of the book, they criticized its content and the former observed that Naipaul wore "Victorian spectacles" on the tour, and the latter classified the book as a "lively Upper Second essay," "deeply disappointing." (Hassan 189)
In this vein, Richard Kelly notes that Naipaul's "return to Trinidad and his subsequent analysis of the place of his birth prove to be stifling psychological adventures" (76). He opines that the region's ills are presented without accompanying solutions (76). Perhaps Michael Gorra best understands the dynamics behind such responses when he discusses the charge of Naipaul's Anglo-American success resting on his being perceived as White; disappointed by his caustic remarks, West Indians felt he should have been operating as "one of them" instead (75). "Both views," Gorra continues, "depend on his not being white. Both see this as the most important thing about him; both views proceed, in an ultimately sterile debate, from Naipaul's refusal to conform to the role a nonwhite writer is expected to play" (75).
There is merit in the above objections--and more objections could justifiably be made. Nevertheless, it seems that Naipaul is due a measure of qualified commendation, however flawed and injudiciously rendered his vision at times may be. He is to be praised for possessing the bravery of soul to publicly attempt an exorcism of the regional demons that have plagued his being since birth. Through his artistic flagellation, West Indians are presented with the task of remedying ills in their society that can be closeted no longer. He must be respected for performing the artist's fundamental role: he presents the world as he sees it without fear of the consequences. In the final analysis, it is the reader's function to sift through The Middle Passage, accepting its embedded kernels of truth and discarding the irritating chaff that often covers them.
Boxhill, Anthony. V.S. Naipaul's Fiction: In Quest of The Enemy. Fredericton, N.B., Canada: York Press, 1983.
Gorra, Michael. After Empire: Scott, Naipaul, and Rushdie. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997.
Gurr, Andrew. Writers in Exile: The Identity of Home in Modern Literature. Sussex, England: The Harvester Press, 1981.
Hassan, Dolly Zulakha. V.S. Naipaul and the West Indies. New York: Peter Lang, Inc., 1989.
Kelly, Richard. V.S. Naipaul. New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 1989.
King, Bruce. Modern Novelists: V.S. Naipaul. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.
Naipaul, V.S. The Middle Passage: The Caribbean Revisited. 1962. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd, 1969.
© Derek C. Bowe