3.10.2015

V. S. Naipaul, Among the Believers

V. S. Naipaul, for those who are unfamiliar, is a Trinidad-born British author and Nobel laureate (2001). He is perhaps best known for his novel A House for Mr. Biswas but his nonfiction, and particularly his travelogues, are also quite well-known.

Among the Believers is one of those travelogues, though it is often billed as a commentary on Islam. That's certainly why I picked it up. Naipaul spent six months traveling through Iran, Pakistan,
Malaysia, and Indonesia, writing about his experiences.

The prose was my favorite thing about this book by far. Here's a passage right at the beginning that was part of what drew me in when I picked this up off my dad's shelf:

We came to an intersection. And there I lost Behzad [Naipaul's interpreter in Tehran]. I was waiting for the traffic to stop. But Behzad didn't wait with me. He simply began to cross, dealing with each approaching car in turn, now stopping, now hurrying, now altering the angle of his path, and, like a man crossing a forest gorge by a slender fallen tree trunk, never looking back. He did so only when he got to the other side. He waved me over, but I couldn't move. Traffic lights had failed higher up, and the cars didn't stop. 
He understood my helplessness. He came back through the traffic to me, and then—like a moorhen leading its chick across the swift current of a stream—he led me through dangers that at every moment seemed about to sweep me away. He led me by the hand; and, just as the moorhen places herself a little downstream from the chick, breaking the force of the current, which would otherwise sweep the little thing away forever, so Behzad kept me in his lee, walking a little ahead of me and a little to one side, so that he would have been hit first. 
And when we were across the road he said, “You must always give your hand to me." 
It was, in effect, what I had already begun to do. Without Behzad, without the access to the language that he gave me, I had been like a half-blind man in Tehran. And it had been especially frustrating to be without the language in these streets, scrawled and counter-scrawled with aerosol slogans in many colors in the flowing Persian script, and plastered with revolutionary posters and cartoons with an emphasis on blood. Now, with Behzad, the walls spoke; many other things took on meaning; and the city changed.
Prose like that, the portrayal of an image and a moment like that, is what drew me to this book, but what I really wanted from this book was a big fat piece of religious, social, and cultural analysis, and that's not at all what I got here.

As a cultural critic, Naipaul leaves a lot to be desired.

He is very aware of how the people he meets are culture-bound. He meets businessmen, students, journalists, religious and political leaders, poets, and teachers, and he has a knack for putting his hand on the blind spots in their thinking, the place where their unexamined beliefs are leading them into fallacious thinking. That's actually a great trait in a journalist, but he combines this with a total lack of insight into how his own beliefs are culture-bound.

He pushed hard against the idea he heard over and over that “Islam is a total way of life." What did that mean? he asked them, and never got a satisfactory response. He was frustrated by that and attributed it to a certain failure to examine closely held beliefs, which it may well have been, but he had a total lack of empathy for that position. This exasperated me, given that he himself expressed the value he placed on “secular" or intellectual life and I would be surprised if, when pressed, he could give an adequate expression of what that means. I doubt I could, especially not when pushed by an interviewer from a very different culture.

This lack of insight into the universality of humans not examining their deeply held beliefs led him to sound pretty damn condescending. As he (as I praised him for above) skillfully laid his hand on the unexamined flaws in his interviewees' thinking, I could smell the condescension coming off the page. “Look at these ignorant rubes," was the strong implication.

Additionally, I felt that he was trying to draw lines of causality between the values of Islam and people being ignorant rubes. I am allergic to suggestions like that (I could list a lot of -isms right here but don't want to; also V.S. Naipaul is an author of color himself so . . . complicated), and it turned me sour on the whole book.

If we must paint others as ignorant rubes (which is a questionable move to begin with), it would behoove us to point out that being an ignorant rube is common to the human condition and doesn't  have much to do with country of origin and religion. Thinking that other people are ignorant rubes has a lot to do with class and privilege, though. JUST SAYING, V. S. Naipaul.

JUST SAYING.

After writing the bulk of this post, I searched for other commentary re: Among the Believers, and found that the Christian Science Monitor posted this thoughtful piece from their archives (originally published in 1981, just as the book came out.)

Their take on it is less that Naipaul is Islamophobic (which tends to be my take) and more that he is of the school of thought that Religion Makes You Stupid.

Possible. Possible. This is not an unusual belief in academia. On the other hand, the CSM might also be biased; they may well be over-sensitive to any suggestion that Religion Makes You Stupid. Either way, though, their article is worth reading.

While I have Beyond Belief, the fifteen-year follow-up to this book, sitting on my shelf, I do not think I will be picking it up any time soon. Whether Naipaul is Islamophobic or hates religion in general or just expresses himself unfortunately, or even if I am just being over-sensitive (also possible) I need to give myself some time for my hackles to smooth back down before I want to read more of him. If and when I do, I might go for his fiction, instead.