This article is written in response to the favorable critical reception that V. S. Naipaul’s writings about the Muslim world have received in mainstream western culture. Since the publication of his travel narratives, Among the Believers and Beyond Belief, Naipaul has enjoyed a reputation as an authority on the Muslim world. The critical acclaim that he has received has been accompanied by official recognition, including a knighthood and the Nobel Prize for Literature.
However, many critics beyond the periphery of mainstream western culture have voiced concerns about his hatred of Islam. In this article, I offer a revisionist reading of Naipaul’s most recent Islamic travel narrative, Beyond Belief, arguing that Islamophobia has been disturbingly misinterpreted as expertise. Focusing on three main literary themes – nineteenth-century literary conventions, the gothic genre, and neurosis – I expose this bigoted worldview and call for his status to be reconsidered.
- S. Naipaul’s writings about the Muslim world have become increasingly influential in mainstream western culture. Since the publication of his travel narratives Among the Believers and Beyond Belief, in which he offered an account of his travels in Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia, Naipaul has established himself as an authority on “Islam in action.” With specific reference to his “Islamic journeys,” critics have commended Naipaul for his “moral integrity,” “fearless truth-telling,” and loyalty to the “proof of evidence.”1 The favorable critical reception that Among the Believers and Beyond Belief elicited has given rise to the inclusion of Naipaul’s work in books that promise “new levels of understanding about Islam.”2 Critical acclaim has been matched by official recognition: In 1990, Naipaul received a knighthood for his services to literature and, in 2001, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
However, in contrast to this impressive résumé, critics beyond the periphery of mainstream western culture have referred to him as a man “incapable of restraining his loathing for the Islamic world and its people.” 3 Concerns about Naipaul’s hatred of Islam, as voiced by Eqbal Ahmad, Amin Malak, Caryl Phillips, and even Salman Rushdie,4 give Naipaul’s prominent status in mainstream western culture a rather more sinister aspect. In this article, I shall expose how his Islamophobia has been interpreted as expertise by offering a revisionist reading of Beyond Belief. Focusing on three main literary themes in Naipaul’s most recent “Islamic excursion,” namely, nineteenth-century literary conventions, the gothic genre, and neurosis, I shall argue that his standing as an authority on the Muslim world needs to be reconsidered.
Literary Conventions and Naipaul’s Restricted Passages
Although literary critics overwhelmingly accept that there is an ambivalent relationship between travel writing and fiction,5 travel writing is still largely referred to as non-fictional literature. This label is misleading, for it detracts from the fact that travel writing is an established literary genre full of narrative conventions and fictional devices. Travel writing and fiction frequently overlap and intertwine. However, while critics celebrate Naipaul for his “moral integrity” and “commitment to truth,” it is not surprising that Beyond Belief has been predominantly read as an informative, factual text. We are repeatedly promised that Naipaul’s travel writing will “enable” western readers to gain an “insight” into the life of Muslims.
Naipaul does everything possible to reinforce this sort of reading. In the prologue to Beyond Belief, the narrative voice assures us that “THIS is a book about people. It is not a book of opinions.”6 We are guaranteed that “the truth” will be presented to us in an undistorted manner. Sensitive to the ways in which an obtrusive narrator can undermine the authority of a “non-fictional” text, Naipaul promises that the “writer will be less present, less of an inquirer”; instead, he will be “in the background, trusting to his instinct.”7 Modelling himself on a figure esteemed by nineteenth century English romantics, Naipaul claims to be a pure, natural, and instinctive artist. In this manner, he assures us that we can rely on his objectivity.
Nineteenth-century literary conventions do not only provide Naipaul with inspiration regarding the narrator’s role. During this literary period, the English novel as a genre had not yet found a narrative device that could provide the illusion that the reader could enter into the character’s mind. Modernist conventions such as the “stream of consciousness” were yet to emerge. Consequently, the “internal” drama was displaced onto an excessively responsive physical body or environment. Nineteenth-century literature twitches with hysterical characters prone to excessive blushing, hyperventilation, trembling, and faints. For example, in Wilkie Collins’ novel The Woman in White, “womanish tears,” shivering skin, and severe bouts of “nervousness” besiege the main characters. All of the characters’ doubts and concerns are played out on the skin’s surface.8
Similarly, in a novel such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, we know when the central character is angry or frustrated, because at these moments of crisis, a sudden backdrop of scarlet-colored soft furnishings and violent rainstorms appear.9 This sort of narrative displacement is a technique that Naipaul employs to great effect when encountering Muslims in Beyond Belief.
Writing himself into the role of the central character, Naipaul displaces his emotions onto both his physical body and the local environment. However, the symptoms that he exhibits are not the typical shivers, faints, or sweats of the nineteenth-century hero or heroine. Rather, Naipaul’s internal anxiety and, in some cases, clear disgust manifest themselves in a very specific manner. On encountering practicing Muslims, Naipaul begins to suffer from severe breathing restrictions. He also experiences an accompanying change in air quality.
The first incident occurs when he visits Imaduddin’s office. Imaduddin, who lives in Indonesia, is referred to as an “unusual man” because he is “a man of science” and “a dedicated man of the faith.” Naipaul is uncomfortable with this “contradiction” (despite their long and intertwined history, science and Islam are, in Naipaul’s view, incompatible). It is clear that he also considers Imaduddin to be a hypocrite: He takes exception to Imaduddin’s wealth, preferring “his” Muslims to be pious and poor. Despite the kindness that Imaduddin shows to his guest, his “Muslimness” causes Naipaul to suffer from unpleasant physical reactions.
Naipaul enters the office and, loyal to nineteenth-century realism, begins to make his inventory of the room:
On one side of the laptop was a well-handled Koran; on the other side was a pile of shoddily produced paperback books, perhaps a foot high, of similar size and in electric blue covers, which had been published in Egypt and might have been a very long commentary on the Koran: no doubt like meat and drink to Imaduddin.10