Finally, I met Naipaul in person. It was in Freile, Northern Italy, at the home of the Nonino family, the brewers of a special liqueur, Nonino grappa. The three Noninos, mother and her two daughters, who ran the distilleries, looked more like contestants in a beauty tournament than makers of intoxicants. But I had not left California where I taught, and he, England, where he lived, to drown in liquor. I was there to receive the 2011 International Nonino Prize for the Italian translation of my book, Moving the Center. V.S. Naipaul was chair and member of the jury.
I was with my wife, Njeeri, and he, his wife, Nadira Alvi. She was Pakistani but was actually born in Mombasa, Kenya. So Naipaul and I had Kenya for a common connection. Uganda was another connection. V.S. Naipaul was the first recipient of a two-year Makerere Creative Writing Fellowship. His book, In a Free State, was a product of that stay.
I was the second recipient of the same fellowship in 1969. My book, Homecoming, which talked a great deal about Caribbean literature, was a product of that fellowship. And now, here in Italy, I was receiving the Nonino International Prize from his hands for a book titled Moving the Center, almost echoing the title of his own other travelogue: Finding the Center.
Throughout the dinner celebration, he and I sat next to each other, and so had the time to chat. Naturally we turned to literature.
After I left Makerere in 1964, I went to Leeds University for my postgraduate studies. I worked on Caribbean literature, and, while I focused on the fiction of George Lamming, In The Castle of My Skin and his other novels, I did also read a lot of V.S. Naipaul. These writers were part of the Caribbean literary renaissance of the 1950s, and most of them, as young writers, were often featured in the BBC Caribbean voices. Among the new Caribbean voices, VS Naipaul was the most prolific. He published his first book, The Mystic Masseur, in 1959, which would be followed by many other titles: More than 20 volumes which included novels, short stories, autobiographies and travelogues. Some of his works are set in Trinidad; others in Africa, Asia and Europe.
Although he eventually chose England for a home, his roots were in Trinidad. His best fiction, including the masterpiece, A House for Mr Biswas, is the one set in the land of his birth and youth. Mohun Biswas, the lead character, and his struggles for a house, something that he can call his own, reflect Naipaul's own life. His parents were part of the indentured labour imported from India to work on the sugar plantations, previously done by enslaved Africans. With the abolition of slavery, that free labour that built the industrial capital of the West, was no longer free and as readily available. A son of indentured labourer serving the British, V.S. Naipaul eventually graduated from Oxford University. He also moved his residency to Britain, and so, from being a subject of the Crown he became a citizen of the Crown. Along the way the way he earned many literary awards including the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature. He also earned a Knighthood. By the time I met him in Italy, he was Sir V.S. Naipaul.
But while earning all those laurels, he was criticised by many other intellectuals, including George Lamming, for his attitude to the rising tide of anti-colonial liberation struggles and the rise of new nations in Latin America, Africa and Asia. His books based on Africa, A Bend in the River, and In a Free State, for instance, painted an unflattering portrait of the new states and leadership, sometimes deploying images close to those one finds in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. He admired Conrad. Naipaul's travelogue on India, the land of his ancestors, was titled An Area of Darkness. Like Conrad, Naipaul had a soft spot for the British, and his satire, so sharp in its exploration of the rising middle class of India, Africa and Latin America, was hardly ever turned on the British coloniser.
This has led some critics outside of Europe to see him as the perfect example of the colonised intellectual once described by Edward Said as a prosecution witness, for the West in relationship to Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
But for me, despite his blind spot when it came to imperialism, he remains a brilliant writer, one who holds a mirror of imagination unto society to capture a certain view of reality. But the mirror ends up showing much more than the holder intended.
Mimic Men, one of his titles, portrays very well the mimicry in the language, culture, economic policies, and politics, of the new post-colonial elite who have normalised the abnormalities of the colonial heritage as the foundation of their national and international outlook. V.S. Naipaul is ruthless in his satirical portrayal of the self-image of this mimic ruling elite, which always looks to the West for validation, but at its own people with disdain.
He has turned the genre of the travelogue into an art form. In Italy, that evening, I asked him how he was able to draw fairly accurate pictures of countries he has just visited. I had lived in Britain and America for many years and still I had not had the confidence to write about the countries. I always feel I don't know enough.
He paused, and then asked me to look at the table, piled with all the delicacies of the celebratory dinner. I did not see anything beyond the colours of the cloth, the flowers, and the cutlery, all which matched in a kind of glittering grandeur.
Naipaul pointed at something, a twig or a flower, which seemed different from the rest. This lone flower so at odds with the rest, defines this table, he told me. If I wrote about this dinner, I would concentrate on what is odd or slightly out of place. The odd defines the norm. Maybe Naipaul was right. In cinema the single individual moving in the direction opposite that taken by the crowd attracts the eye of the viewer but helps us realise the crowd size.
That literary lesson helped clarify what I admired in Naipaul. He could irritate, but, like Conrad, he made you see, hear, touch, and smell. He is a writer's writer, and there is always something to learn from his craft.
Africa, like India, always fascinated him, and one of his last travelogues, published in 2010, included his travels in Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria and Ivory Coast. The title? The Masque of Africa. The title takes us back to Conrad and other colonial images of the continent, which saw African faces in terms of inscrutable masks.
His life embodied contradictions, but he drew from the tensions in those contradictions to create great art. He has passed on but his spirit and genius dwells among us in his magnificent literary output.
Ngugi wa Thiong'o is distinguished professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine.