The Chip-Chip Gatherers, 1973
A Hot Country, 1983 (also known as Love and Death in a Hot Country)
North of South: An African Journey, 1978
Black and White, 1980 (journalism; also known as Journey to Nowhere: A New World Tragedy)
Beyond the Dragon’s Mouth: Stories and Pieces, 1984 (short fiction and essays)
Shiva Naipaul (ni-POHL), who in his fiction and nonfiction explored the deficiencies of Third World countries and the loss of identity among Third World people in the postcolonial era, was the sixth of seven children of Seepersad and Bropatie Capildeo Naipaul. The only other boy in the family was twelve years older than Shiva; he, too, became a well-known writer, V. S. Naipaul. After being educated at Queen’s Royal College and St. Mary’s College in Trinidad, Naipaul followed his older brother’s example, winning an Island Scholarship and going to the University of Oxford to study. When he arrived at University College in 1963 he began reading philosophy, psychology, and physiology, but he eventually changed to classical Chinese and took an inferior degree in 1968. At Oxford, however, Naipaul had begun his first novel and found that his vocation was writing. At Oxford, too, Naipaul met Virginia Margaret (Jenny) Stuart. In 1967 they were married and moved to London, where in 1974 their son Tarun was born.
After the appearance of Fireflies in 1970, Naipaul was awarded the John Llewelyn Rhys Memorial Prize, the Royal Society of Literature’s Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize, and, a year later, the Jock Campbell Award. Two years later the next novel, The Chip-Chip Gatherers, won the Whitbread Literary Award.
Although these novels had gained for Naipaul a considerable following, he ceased writing novels during the next decade but instead traveled widely, writing essays for a number of periodicals. Commissioned by a publisher to write a book about the new countries in Africa, Naipaul spent six months touring Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia. The result was North of South: An African Journey. While he was in San Francisco in 1979 Naipaul became interested in the People’s Temple Cult massacre in Jonestown, Guyana. Naipaul visited Guyana, interviewed dozens of people there and in California, and in 1980 published a journalistic work that also might be termed social criticism, Black and White.
Back in England, Naipaul settled down to write fiction. In 1983 he published A Hot Country, a story set in South America in a country named Cuyama. Meanwhile, Naipaul had been collecting short stories and essays, which appeared in Beyond the Dragon’s Mouth.
Early in 1984 Naipaul once again set off to gather material for a book, this time on Australia. When he returned to England he published an essay about the Aborigines, but he was not able to finish the planned book on the subject, for on August 13, 1985, he died in London of a heart attack.
One of Naipaul’s major themes, an individual’s loss of identity, came naturally to a Hindu of East Indian ancestry who had been born and reared in Trinidad. Belonging neither to India nor to Trinidad, neither to the group that had ruled the colony nor to the subsequent black rulers, Naipaul had personal experience with feelings of alienation. In both Fireflies and The Chip-Chip Gatherers, which are set in Trinidad, Naipaul explored the family structures that the East Indian minority attempted to use as a substitute for national fervor and as a source of identity. Both of the early novels concentrate on clan leaders: In Fireflies it is Govind Khoja, who has been reared as a crown prince and believes himself infallible, and in The Chip-Chip Gatherers it is Egbert Ramsaran, who has come back to the settlement where he was born so that as a transport magnate he can dominate his family and the entire community.
As in most limited societies, the self-proclaimed leaders find it easier to persuade themselves of their superiority than to work toward constructive goals. In both novels, Naipaul stresses this second theme: that of self-deception. The pompous Khoja spends his time writing letters to the newspapers, pretending to an authority he does not possess, and the bullying Ramsaran falls under the domination of a shrewish woman who eventually drives him to his death.
The themes of alienation and self-deception are also the basis of Naipaul’s nonfiction. When he visited Africa he saw the plight of the East Indians who had never identified themselves with the country where they lived and now were threatened with expulsion from it, and he also saw the difficulties of the new countries, torn between the romantic myth of the old colonial system and a dream of progress that led primarily to an alternating of violence and passivity. Even in the book about the Jonestown massacre, Naipaul was preoccupied with these two themes, seeing both the alienation of ghetto blacks and the alienation of the left-wing Californians who sentimentally supported the cult as factors that contributed to the disaster. It seems likely that his unfinished book on Australia would have emphasized the same problems in the emerging society of the Aborigines.
Naipaul’s final novel was a pessimistic study of two alienated young people in a South American country that is about to be overthrown by a dictator. The wife, Dina St. Pierre, complains that she is no more real than the shadowy country in which she lives. While she is preoccupied with the problem of identity, her husband, Aubrey St. Pierre, a liberal bookseller, is consumed by self-deception. When their visiting friend leaves, the couple seems to be waiting helplessly for an end that may bring them death without meaning.
Naipaul’s critics generally praise his careful, effective prose, which sparkles with ironic and even comic overtones in the midst of tragic situations. It is his unwillingness to espouse any cause, romanticize any situation, or sentimentalize any group of people that has resulted in most of the critical attacks on his work. Working from his heritage as an outsider, Shiva Naipaul was able to reject the comfortable myths and the easy answers of those who are less alienated from society. As a result, his complex works have come closer to the truth than those of many of his contemporaries.