Local writers and readers mourn Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul

V. S. Naipaul died aged 85 on Aug 11, 2018.
V. S. Naipaul died aged 85 on Aug 11, 2018.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SINGAPORE - Local writers, academics and readers mourned the loss of Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul, who died aged 85 on Saturday (Aug 11) and who they described as one of the finest writers in the English language at his height, even as he drew controversy for his depiction of post-colonial societies.

"His literary impact is massive," says writer and former Straits Times literary editor Koh Buck Song, 55. "His relevance will always be enduring, for example, on the complexity and ambivalence of the legacy of British colonialism, as Singapore prepares to mark its own bicentennial next year."

What stood out for many was the precision of his language. Writer Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingde, 47, says: "He makes bold gestures about the fractured world he witnessed and imagined. The wit is sharp and crisp, his observation of ironies simply striking. In (his) own words, 'the world is always in movement'.

"Whenever a writer of such brilliance and flair leaves us, there's a deep sense of loss."

Naipaul was a controversial writer, acknowledges Yale-NUS College Division of Humanities director Rajeev S. Patke, who has taught several of his works. "He wrote well, always. His views, on the other hand, ranged across the entire spectrum from opinion to prejudice dissembled as neutral observation.

"The good thing about the mix was that a style as lucid and sharp as his always made for memorable - and sometimes, provocative - reading."

National University of Singapore law dean Simon Chesterman recalls the "dislocating experience" of reading Naipaul's novel The Enigma Of Arrival (1987) as a teenager before he left his home country of Australia for the first time. He went on to backpack around India with a copy of Naipaul's travelogue India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990).

"Like (the early Modernist Polish-British writer) Joseph Conrad before him, Naipaul had a complicated relationship with colonialism," says Prof Chesterman, 46, who is author of the young adult Arcadia trilogy.

"Books like A Bend In The River (1979) are, understandably, criticised for a seeming lack of empathy for the natives of its unnamed African country. Yet the starkness of his vision, even his pessimism, does not diminish the power of his narrative."

 

Former ST Life editor Richard Lim, 69, once received a letter from the man himself in 1985, after he sent him an article he wrote about him. Naipaul, who is said to have rarely replied such mail, wrote that he cherished readers like Mr Lim, who "to some extent share my background and are truly affected by the issues my books raise".

"Like him, I was a post-colonial who remembered life under the British," says Mr Lim, who had the letter framed. "He had a chip on his shoulder - he felt he was an Indian who came from a nowhere place in the West Indies and tried to fit into British society, but was never accepted even when he became famous."

He quotes the opening line of A Bend In The River, which has come to him at key moments in his life: "The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it."

In bidding farewell to Naipaul, Poetry Festival Singapore director Eric Tinsay Valles, 50, refers to the 1961 novel A House For Mr Biswas: "Like his newspaperman character Mr Biswas, V.S. Naipaul is finally at home, bathed in sunlight."