Paul Theroux met VS Naipaul in the 1960s at Makerere University, where they both taught literature.
That was the beginning of a long friendship which would end abruptly.
In Sir Vidia’s Shadow, Paul Theroux writes about that friendship, and gives intimate observations of his friend and one-time literary mentor.
The book is an unflattering portrait of Naipaul. He is cruel and self-absorbed. He has prejudiced views of people of other genders, races and religion. But Theroux also writes how Naipaul himself was often exasperated by his own prejudices.
The book was received with the attitude of schoolboys towards a snitch. It was considered gossipy, and even, to some, the betrayal of a friendship.
And yet the book is not an ill-tempered vengeful rant. It paints a complex picture of one of the greatest writers of the last and this century.
Yes, Naipaul is rude, or perhaps brutally frank. He has prejudices. But his language is peppy, bubbly, cheeky, even at its most caustic. Of Wole Soyinka winning the Nobel Prize, Naipaul remarked that the Nobel Committee had pissed on literature from a great height.
This remark lacks magnanimity, and some may say is informed by prejudice, but its vulgar imagery sparkles with a cheeky subversiveness.
Naipaul’s dismissive attitude towards “others,” and his hubris however do not colour his writing.
In his masterpieces, Miguel Street, The Mystic Masseur, A House for Mr Biswas and A Bend in the River, characters, whatever their gender, religion or race, have equal opportunity to sin, to be malicious or gracious, to be greedy or selfless.
The world of Salim, the main character in Bend, is populated with people of all kinds, all of whom have propensity to do good or evil. The story is set in an African country emerging from colonial rule, almost certainly the city of Kisangani in the then Zaire It is art imitating life as it traces the contradictions, pitfalls, chaos and ruthlessness that characterised African countries in the1960s and ‘70s.
However, even in this chaos, life thrives as in other more stable and predictable environments. There are moments of terror, betrayal, love, adultery, friendship…
We have lost a literary titan; a man who, in short simple sentences, unlocked for all to see the secrets of individuals and society, their humour, and their humanity.