The heart of the pathetic: V.S. Naipaul’s religious journeys

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Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey, by V.S. Naipaul (Random House, 1982), 430 pp.
A Turn in the South, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1990), 307 pp.

One of the advantages of getting your reading material from public libraries is finding handwritten notes and comments from your fellow readers in the pages of a borrowed book. Usually these are limited to inscrutable underlining and earnest corrections of minor facts. Occasionally, though, the comments are more entertaining: angry little essays scrawled in the margins. These protestations are, I would submit, one of the more gratifying forms of vandalism: a reminder to the solitary reader that he is but one of a league of citizens through whose hands, over the course of decades, this particular book will pass.


Two Aprils ago, when I checked out a copy of Among the Believers, V.S. Naipaul’s account of his 1979 travels through four non-Arab nations in the process of remaking themselves as Islamic republics, I discovered one of the best of these sets of marginalia. Over several pages, neatly inked letters explained the readers’ fervent if somewhat vague grievances. Come on, Naipaul, one of the little essays said, you haven’t been listening at all—a serious accusation for a book composed largely of transcribed conversations—from the start you’d already arrived at your own arrogant conclusions—another serious accusation for a book whose purpose, according to its author, was to find answers for questions that were not being addressed in the news media’s coverage of Islamic revolution, upheaval, and revival.

What’s noteworthy, though, about this little critique is not so much its content, but rather where in the course of the book it came. That a library patron in a liberal university town would find offensive a book that suggests that, basically, Islam is bad—unsurprising. But consider this: our reader—essayist worked through more than 400 pages of dense prose before adding his little graffito. Which suggests to me that before he was enraged, he was almost certainly enthralled. So it goes with Naipaul.

For my part, the enthrallment began during my sophomore year of college, with the epigraph to an article in, of all places, Wired magazine. This sentence has remained etched in my memory: “It was here … that the East began: in this chaos of uneconomical movement, the self-stimulating din, the sudden feeling of insecurity, the conviction that all men were not brothers and the luggage was in danger.”

The article was about Bangalore, India, which happened to be where I was heading for the summer, so I nodded gravely and headed to the library for the source of the quotation, Naipaul’s 1964 travel narrative An Area of Darkness. In the months before my departure, I worked my way through that book and its sequel, 1990’s India: A Million Mutinies Now. What I absorbed from those readings was not so much an argument as a tone and texture—a bleak style that seems both spare and full of detail, that plods along and yet advances with alarming quickness, and that manages to give the sense of a man trying and failing to comprehend what he sees, even as he knows from the start precisely what it all means.

Not that I thought all this at the time—all I knew then was that I liked what I read. I was enchanted, though not so much so that I didn’t pick up on Naipaul’s distaste for religion. In those first readings, I assumed that his unkind opinions of religious Indians were simply the product of Naipaul’s own past. His grandparents had immigrated to Trinidad from northern India two generations before; the Hinduism he inherited was long cut off from its source; the sacred places existed only in printed devotional posters and images. Coming to India to discover his roots, Naipaul discovered instead that the religion of India seemed alternately abhorrent and unfathomable.

So when Naipaul set out, in 1979, to scrutinize revolutionary Islam at the ground level, it was to be expected that he probably wouldn’t like what he saw. Among the Believers describes Naipaul’s visits to four non-Arab nations undergoing radical social changes driven by people who professed revolutionary Muslim ideals: Iran, where the shah’s totalitarian regime had been ousted and replaced with a government of clerics led by the Ayatollah Khomeini; Pakistan, a self-proclaimed land of pure Islam that, in four decades of independence, had only managed upheaval after “purifying” upheaval; Malaysia, where Islam had become a channel for the rage of once isolated, now alienated peasants; and in neighboring Indonesia, where a similar sort of anger was leading to rifts in a formerly thriving civilization.

Among the Believers sets forth its stories in Naipaul’s refined and highly controlled nonfiction style, which favors spare, conversation—heavy and symbol-laden novelistic prose over the mix of journalism and memoir that characterizes most books on travel. To be sure, there are elements of the latter two genres in Naipaul—interviews with government officials and religious leaders mingle with accounts of taxi negotiations and hotel difficulties. But the author’s genius lies not in the conversations and incidents he describes, but in the way he transforms them—extending the smallest of words and details far beyond themselves, investing them with an extraordinary symbolic weight.

Among the Believers is constructed as a book of portraits. And although Naipaul favors the usual serious journalist’s range of informants (students, editors, peasants, teachers, businessmen, poets, clerics) the people with whom he most closely connects, whose stories consequently have the greatest heft, are of the same cast as the characters in Naipaul’s novels: small men on the rise, blessed with the slim hope of real success, but doomed in the end to failure. For Naipaul, the most compelling stories are of men (and they’re nearly always men) cut adrift both from their roots and from the modern world. “The world is what it is,” says the narrator in Naipaul’s A Bend in the River; “men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”

Among the Believers portrays revolutionary Islam as deeply nihilistic, burdened by self-destructive tendencies, and rooted as much in Marx as in Mohammed. While among the Arab peoples Islam was a unifying force that created a locally-rooted and cohesive culture, in its waves of eastward expansion the faith became a colonizing force, creating unity largely through the suppression of local religion and language. What the converted peoples are left with, then, is a sense of the inferiority and irrelevance of their former cultures in light of the true faith, and a deep—but undirected—rage. It’s this ingrown anger, Naipaul says, that has made these nations so vulnerable to destructive frenzies of religion and politics. And so he sees little difference between the ideas of Behzad, the secular Marxist student who guides him through Iran, and the Islamic faiths he encounters in Pakistan and in Indonesia:

His communism was like a version of the Shia faith of Iran, a version of the Shia rage about injustice: a rage rooted in the overthrow by the Arabs of the old Persian empire in the seventh century. Good Muslims believed that the best time in the world was the time of the Prophet and the first four, good caliphs; Behzad believed that the best time was in Russia between 1917 and 1953.

For the revolutionary Marxist, the present must be destroyed to make way for a glorious future. But in the Islamic version, the present must be destroyed to make way for a glorious past—one that is both temporally and culturally distant. Whenever Naipaul asks his informants to describe the sort of Islamic republic they wish to see created, the answers invariably slide from minor specifics into devastating abstractions and negations. After a few vague comments about Islamic urban planning or banks that would charge no interest, conversation quickly shifts to what the republic would not be (not Western; not decadent; not like the current, impure regime); and then to what, and who, must be destroyed to usher the republic in. “We have to kill a lot of people,” a successful Indonesian businessman tells him. “Millions will have to die,” declares a despairing Pakistani. These are not the voices of extremists, of the men with whom Naipaul finds no common ground. They are, in fact, the men with whom he has established the closest rapport, “sensitive men who were ready to contemplate great convulsions.”

It’s about at this point that Naipaul’s readers begin to get angry. Theirs is the precise feeling of a traveler realizing that the porters are about to steal his suitcase: equal parts suspicion, bewilderment, and betrayal. Emphatic marginalia ensues, or—in my case—one at least begins to hope rather desperately that all this is just a big misunderstanding. Naipaul must have misheard, perhaps spoken with the wrong people. He should have studied the Koran or at least read a copy of The World’s Religions before reaching his chilling conclusions. Or maybe his disbelief, and his doubts about religion, have really tainted the whole narrative—dictating what he sees and what he records.

I closed the book feeling a bit conflicted. My own religious position made me both better and worse off than the religious pluralist who I imagine penned the comments in my book’s margins. I was ready to accept that not all faiths are equally true or noble or beneficial, but I suspected that Naipaul might draw the same conclusions about Christianity as about Islam. And before I could trust his criticism of another faith, I wanted to see what he would say about my own.

So I tracked down a copy of A Turn in the South, Naipaul’s more recent account of his travels with fundamentalists of a different sort. What I found in Naipaul’s survey of race, religion, and modernization in the late 1980s American South was revealing. Naipaul hits on many of the same themes as in Among the Believers—people’s struggles to make sense of their lives in the light of social change, and their tendency to turn towards the past, and to religion, for guidance. In the book’s prologue, Naipaul describes an Easter service at an African-American church in rural North Carolina:

Finally the educated young pastor in his elegant gown with two red crosses spoke. “Jesus had to pray. We have to pray. Jesus had to cry. We have to cry … God has been so good to us. He has given us a second chance.”

Torture and tears, luck and grief: these were the motifs of this religion, this binding, this consoling union—union the unexpected, moving idea to me. And, as in Muslim countries, I understood the power a preacher could have.

Six states and several hundred pages later, Naipaul concludes that fundamentalist political activism in the American South reflects the same kind of response to change that he has observed in Islamic societies: “It was strange that in a left-behind corner of the United States—perhaps the world motor of change—the same issue could come up, the same need for security.”

These were, sadly, the kind of conclusions I had expected—thoughtful, but with a cynical misapprehension: religion as a refuge for small men afraid of the future.

And yet, despite this viewpoint, I was surprised to find many of the stories Naipaul tells in A Turn in the South so compelling, so religiously moving, so correct in tone. For six pages he transcribes, largely without commentary, the conversion story of a young black musician: the vainglory of his past, the crisis point, the moment of conversion, and the emergence into new life and renewed mission: “I tell this story, and would have it known, so that some people would be touched by Jesus.” Portions of a later chapter are devoted to the equally gripping testimony of a Southern Baptist, fourth-generation Mississippian named Will Campbell, whose faith spurred him to join the civil-rights movement in the 1960s, and then propelled him further: “beyond the black cause to the cause of the rednecks,” to a call to minister to members of the Ku Klux Klan.

One can, from a believer’s perspective, hardly accuse Naipaul of not having spoken with genuine and sincere Christians. But following one well-rendered story of deep and moving faith after another, Naipaul decides to give the last word to a more pathetic sort of believer. The last of the lengthy conversations on religion he records is with waitress in the midst of religious and relational turmoil, about to pack up and rejoin a rather questionable-sounding husband who’s left her—or did she leave him? It’s hard to make out the details amidst her references to getting saved by God, being tempted by the devil, praying to get back together with her husband, and praying to get back together with another ex-boyfriend. It’s the kind of story one would expect from a nonbeliever, from an outsider writing on religion in the South—the sort that makes the faithful cringe and plead that we’re not all like that. And, true to anti-religious form, Naipaul crows:

Satan and God were fighting for Paula’s soul, Paula herself not responsible for the movements of her passion, helpless, capable only of choosing salvation and asking God to reveal his will: a medieval idea of chaos, and the solitude and helplessness of man, and the necessity for salvation.

And so in the end we are left wondering: can Naipaul’s wonderful stories and beautiful writing be separated from the scorn and derision and overwhelming chill? For years it was reckoned that Naipaul was denied the Nobel Prize largely because of his views on Islam. And when he finally did get the award—just a few weeks after the 11 September terrorist attacks—it was suggested that now he was getting it because of those same views. All this controversy shows just how difficult it is to separate Naipaul’s brilliant and sensitive writing from his anti-religious prejudices.

In his Nobel lecture, Naipaul said: “I have no lecture to give … everything of value about me is in my books.” And it is in the center of the books—not just in the conclusions—that we find what is of value about Naipaul: he is himself a sensitive man willing to contemplate great convulsions. When a writer recounts, with care and accuracy, the stories of those he seems to mock, he honors them far more than the one who, for fear of criticizing others, would never care to listen at all. At the heart of the pathetic, when you strip away the scorn, you can find compassion.

Originally published in the Spring 2002 issue of re:generation quarterly

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