November 17th 2001

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Articles from this issue:

Cover Story: Widespread support for Development Bank

Editorial: Election 2001 - The issues which must be addressed

TESTIMONIAL: News Weekly: more than a magazine

BIOETHICS: Church leaders reject all human cloning

DEFENCE: Navy League endorses Coastwatch, rejects coast guard

Straws in the Wind: The great wombat race / Inch by inch / Escobar lives!

ECONOMICS: Development Bank - a boost for regional enterprise

COMMENT: Exposing the anti-American Left

Letter: Development Bank

Letter: Pakistan next?

Letter: Knowledge nation

Letter: What jobs?

Afghanistan: War on terror - the scorecard so far

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Baby bonus signals sea-change in family policy

HEALTH: Are too many Australian children over-medicated?

EUTHANASIA: Belgium threatens to go down the Dutch road

ECONOMY: Where competition policy fails

LITERATURE: Nobel winner celebrates life and civilisation

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Nobel winner celebrates life and civilisation

by Jeffry Babb

News Weekly, November 17, 2001

The Nobel Prize for Literature is the world's pre-eminent award for creative writers. While it confers a respectability that is unmatched, it frequently goes to writers whose works appeal to a minority and are often somewhat obscure.

However, with the selection this year of Trinidadian writer V.S. Naipaul, it is an award that is truly well deserved and has been widely acclaimed.

Vidia Naipaul (Sir Vidia since 1989) was born in 1932 to the family of a struggling writer and journalist in Trinidad. As an Indian and a Hindu in a backwater of British colonialism in the West Indies, dominated by an Afro-Caribbean majority, he has always been somewhat of an outsider.

After his education at Queens' Royal College in Port of Spain, he left for Oxford at the age of 18 and never really returned, making his living, after taking his degree, as a journalist and novelist.

His early works are a joy to read. They have the sharp pungency of wood smoke and capture the vibrant life of Trinidad.

He published his first book, The Mystic Masseur (1957) , at the age of 25, followed by Miguel Street (1959), a series of sketches depicting the life of Trinidad through the eyes of a growing boy.

Also from this period was The Suffrage of Elvira (1958), about the coming of democracy to Trinidad. It is truly one of the most wonderful books about politics ever written, full of satire and sharp insights into the democratic process in an emerging nation.

The book that made Naipaul's reputation was A House for Mr Biswas (1961), a story about a six-fingered signwriter whose one aim in life is to have his own house. It spans three generations of the one family. The novel describes the triumph of human decency in the most adverse circumstances and a vitality that can never be defeated.

Mr Biswas is, in Australian terms, a battler. He is never quite on top of things and he gets his fair share of knocks, but eventually he gets his house and his dream - though both are a bit skew-whiff.

Naipaul's vision then shifted to other regions less blessed than the Caribbean, and his major novel, A Bend in the River (1979), is a masterly recreation of life under an African dictatorship. For this, Naipaul won the Booker Prize.

The Booker, while famous, probably foists more unreadable books onto the public than any other literary prize; but while it is a dark story, A Bend in the River is a vision that creates a world that is hard to ignore.

Naipaul's travel books are investigation of culture. An Area of Darkness: An Experience of India (1964) and Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981) both investigate cultures that have been in contact with the West but have never fully been enlightened by it.

For someone born into the many-layered complexity of life in the Caribbean and the life in London, the world's most cosmopolitan city, Naipaul is not overly sympathetic to Islam, being as he is, a man born into multicultural society in its most benign sense.

While not as caustic as his brother Shiva, who sadly passed away at the age of 40 in 1985, Naipaul is a sceptical traveller. Naipaul, unlike his former friend Paul Theroux, is always an honest observer and, despite his fearsome reputation as an interviewee, obviously loves people and their complexities.

Theroux started out in a similar vein to Naipaul, with hilarious "tales from the outposts" such as Saint Jack, set in post colonial Singapore, but while his vision, like Naipaul's, grew darker as he grew older, Theroux's later novels and travel books have a bleakness and misanthropy that Naipaul lacks.

The two authors' falling-out is the stuff of legend.

While Naipaul is a post-colonial writer, describing people on the edge of greater cultures, his books are not without hope.

For anyone who has not read V.S. Naipaul before, it is best to start out with his joyous first novels, a celebration of eccentricity and the triumph of the human spirit.

These early novels show the positive side of multicultural society.

In his later encounter with Islam, Naipaul sees it as a society with a single vision, unlike the Trinidad of his youth or the cosmopolitanism of much of the West.

While critics make much of Naipaul's sense of "marginalisation" and that 1970s fascination of the Left, "alienation", Naipaul life and his works prove that a talented individual can triumph against all odds.

In a series of letters to and from his father, a talented writer himself who sacrificed much so his sons could succeed, Naipaul deals with the complexities of life and the will to succeed.

I am sure his father would have been proud of his son's remarkable achievement, in always making his living by his pen.

  • Jeff Babb

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