Mar 27 2004

V S Naipaul

Last year, reading around a bit to try to come to grips with Islamic terrorism, and the mindset that drives it, I read Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples. Published in 1998, it’s a bit of a seqel to Among the Believers, which was written in the wake of Iran’s revolution of 1979 and published in 1981. My copy of Beyond Belief is dog-eared and underlined, marked up by the kind of active reading I did in grad school, but haven’t done much of since then. A lot of what Naipaul had to say made sense to me. His psychological explanations seemed to open a window into a subject that had been closed to me: not just terrorists and killers, but the people who support them, who venerate them.

Then I read around a bit more and found that Naipaul was regarded as cranky, a dilettante, and that most academic of putdowns – a travel writer. So mentally, I moved his insights into a different column. Anecdotal, interesting, not comprehensive or systematic. That’s part of the reason I haven’t blogged about him before.

A couple of weeks back, I picked up a different Naipaul book, A Turn in the South. The South, as in the southern United States, Dixie, the old Confederacy, and not incidentally my native region. Territory as treacherous and contentious as any in Islam. Layers of history, violence, war, slavery, occupation, poverty, and migration. And deep religiosity. Naipaul wanted to explain – or at least illuminate – the history of the South, both black and white. A tall order.

He starts in Atlanta, a city I knew well, and where I lived for three years in the period immediately after the time that Naipaul did his interviews there. Throughout the book, he talks to people I have either known at one remove, or might well have known. In the first chapter, he stays at the Ritz downtown, which I thought a funny place to get to know the real South, which to me is rural, agricultural at heart, and can only be understood by building on that base. Turns out he was making a metaphoric point about new money in Atlanta, how the city had grown and changed from its origins. Compare that with the only other lodging he mentions, the Ramada Inn in Jackson, Mississippi, a personality-free chain hotel on a highway. Says something about Jackson, too.

Naipaul gets an enormous amount right. I think he does better on the white than on the black, but coming as close as he does is a substantial achievement. He’s up front about his limitations, too.

“Music and community, and tears and faith: I felt that I had been taken, through country music, to an understanding of a whole distinctive culture, something I had never imagined existing in the United States.”

I don’t know why he never imagined a whole distinctive culture existing in the US, but I’m glad that he could overcome that prejudice, and make that admission. The book also has occasional show-stopping revelations that could only come from Naipaul’s Indian, Caribbean, English melange of experiences.

“The past as a dream of purity, the past as cause for grief, the past as religion: it is the very prompting of the Shias of Islam to nobility and sacrifice, the dream of the good time of the Prophet and the first four caliphs, before greed and ambition destroyed the newly saved world. It was the very prompting of the Confederate Memorial in Columbia. And that very special Southern past, and cause, could be made pure only if it was removed from the squalor of the race issue.”

Naipaul is, in short, a very reliable guide for an outsider in very charged and difficult terrain. I not only recognized my native land in his description, I learned about it as well. I hope to write more here of his take on Islam – for Europe faces few challenges greater than understanding and coming to terms with contempoary Islam – and I think Naipaul’s two books are not a bad place to start.

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