21 August 2018

Uganda: Nobel Prize-Winning Author VS Naipaul Dies Aged 85

Kampala — Novelist Sir VS Naipaul, or Sir Vidia, who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2001, had a close connection to Uganda.

His name resonates with many scholars because they know him as the famous author of 'Miguel Street' a novel which has been a fixture on Uganda's O'Level literature syllabus.

Naipaul was also writer-in-residence at Makerere University Kampala in 1966 and held the Creative Writing Senior Fellowship in the Department of Literature. It was the same fellowship held by some of Uganda's greatest writers ever, including John Ruganda, of 'Black Mamba (1972)' , Robert Serumaga of 'Return to the Shadows', and Ngugi wa Thiongo of 'The River Between'. All of them published many other books and were at Makerere in the same period as Naipaul. Ruganda, for example graduated in 1967. Other great writers at Makerere at the time included David Rubadiri, Taban lo Liyong, and Okot p'Bitek.

It was in Kampala that Naipaul met another famous author, Paul Theroux, who was to be his lifelong on and off friend and foe. In an article in The New Yorker of August 3, 1998, Theroux reveals that they met in early 1966 at a party in Kampala, Uganda, which was given by Makerere University, where the author was a member of the Department of Extra-Mural Studies as a visiting professor for one year.

They became friends and Theroux compares Naipaul to a brilliant, demanding child and Naipaul's wife, Pat, as a pretty petite woman in her 30s who seemed rather frail. He says Naipaul looked down on his university colleagues and expatriates and considered them intellectually inferior. He was equally dismissive of his students' talents. He says the longer Naipaul stayed in Uganda, the more morose he became and couldn't stand the noise around his house. He decided to move to a hotel in the highlands of western Kenya. Together, they travelled to Tanzania. In late May, 1966, when the political situation worsened and a curfew was imposed during the Buganda Crisis, Naipaul moved out of his hotel and in with the writer for the final month of his professorship.

Naipaul had showed interest in the great culture, history and traditions of the Baganda people. And when then Uganda's prime minister Milton Obote deposed, militarily, the President of Uganda, Fredrick Mutesa who was also the Kabaka of Buganda, Naipaul was critical of the British press for not condemning the action enough. He also travelled in rural Uganda to the Kisoro District on the south-western border with Rwanda and the Congo.

He fell out with Theroux after Theroux discovered a book he had given Naipaul in a second-hand bookshop. They later reunited.

While at Makerere, Naipaul rewrote a novel he had been working on with little success in England titled 'The Mimic Men'. He completed it quickly this time.

But, according to another online report, Naipaul's African experience also influenced his writing of his next book, "In a Free State", published in 1971.

In the title novella, "In a Free State", two young expatriate Europeans drive across an African country, which remains nameless but which offers clues of Uganda, Kenya, and Rwanda. The novella speaks to many themes. The colonial era ends and Africans govern themselves. Political chaos, frequently violent, takes hold in newly decolonized countries. Young, idealistic, expatriate whites are attracted to these countries, seeking expanded moral and sexual freedoms. They are rootless, their bonds with the land tenuous; at the slightest danger they leave. The older, conservative, white settlers, by contrast, are committed to staying, even in the face of danger. The young expatriates, though liberal, can be racially prejudiced. The old settlers, unsentimental, sometimes brutal, can show compassion. The young, engrossed in narrow preoccupations, are uncomprehending of the dangers that surround them. The old are knowledgeable, armed, and ready to defend themselves. The events unfolding along the car trip and the conversation during it become the means of exploring these themes.

He became one of the first winners of the Booker Prize for the novel in 1971.

Naipaul returned to Makerere University in March 2008 as a guest of the literature departure. He also gave a public talk in the University Main hall which attracted a full capacity crowd of scholars and curious observers.

Sir Vidia, who was born in rural Trinidad in 1932, wrote more than 30 books including 'A Bend in the River' and his masterpiece, 'A House for Mr Biswas'.

According to the BBC, his wife, Lady Naipaul, called him a "giant in all that he achieved".

She said he died at his home in London "surrounded by those he loved, having lived a life which was full of wonderful creativity and endeavour".

Geordie Greig, editor of the Mail on Sunday and a close friend, said his death leaves a "gaping hole in Britain's literary heritage", but there is "no doubt" that his "books live on".

According to the BBC, Theroux, who had a bitter 15-year feud with Sir Vidia before reconciling, said: "He will go down as one of the greatest writers of our time."

Paying tribute to his friend, who he said had been in poor health, Theroux added: "He also never wrote falsely.

"He was a scourge of anyone who used a cliché or an un-thought out sentence. He was very scrupulous about his writing, very severe, too."

Salman Rushdie, who also disagreed repeatedly with Sir Vidia, said he was "as sad as if I just lost a beloved older brother".

Farrukh Dhondy, a writer and long-time friend of Sir Vidia, told BBC News that his writing was distinguished by its clarity, lack of self-indulgence and for his unique perspective on the post-colonial world.

"It's window pane prose. You're looking through a very clean, polished glass window at the object beyond," he said.

"He was one of the greatest literary talents of the last century, and he was quite a remarkable personality, with insights which I don't think anybody else had - on a personal level, on a broader civilisational level."

On social media, fans paid tribute to Sir Vidia and expressed their sadness.

Author Laila Lalami described him as a "wonderful stylist and a terrible curmudgeon", adding: "At his best, he could write with great tenderness and good humor [sic] about people whose lives were erased by colonial narratives."

British novelist and journalist Hari Kunzru recalled interviewing him and said: "When we sat down, the first thing he said was 'tell me what you've read and don't lie'. Only then would he consent to be questioned."

Writer Jeet Heer called him a "powerful novelist" who "at his best approached Conrad and even the shadow of Dickens", while blogger Patrice Yursik described him as a "titan of Caribbean literature".

One fan said "no-one inspired me to read more than Naipaul" while another tweeted that his novel 'A House for Mr Biswas' stayed with me as a lasting memory for 30+ years".

'Modern philosopher'

Sir Vidia, who as a child was read Shakespeare and Dickens by his father, was raised as a Hindu and attended Queen's Royal College in Trinidad.

He moved to Britain and enrolled at Oxford University in 1950 after winning a government scholarship giving him entry into any Commonwealth university of his choosing.

As a student, he struggled with depression and once attempted to take his own life.

His first book, 'The Mystic Masseur', was published in 1957. It was made into a film directed by Ismail Merchant in 2001.

In 1961 he published his most celebrated novel, 'A House for Mr Biswas', which took more than three years to write.

Sir Vidia was a broadcaster for the BBC's Caribbean service between 1957 and 1961.

Awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 2001, the committee said Sir Vidia had "united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories".

It added: "Naipaul is a modern philosopher. In a vigilant style, which has been deservedly admired, he transforms rage into precision and allows events to speak with their own inherent irony."

His first wife, Patricia Hale, died in 1996 and he went on to marry Pakistani journalist, Nadira.

Sir Vidia was outspoken and became known for criticisms of Tony Blair - who he described as a "pirate" - as well as Charles Dickens and EM Forster.


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