Went to British Council for V S Naipaul book launch last evening. Can’t recall the last time I yawned so much. Let me admit this at the outset: I haven’t read much Naipaul, and almost nothing he’s written in the past 20 years or so. It’s one of my guilts as a book-lover (though it’s almost turning into a guilty pleasure now). But that hasn’t stopped me from forming strong opinions about the obnoxiousness of the man in general and shaking my head in wonder at the stridency of some of his statements. Based on all I’ve read and heard, I could safely have said that I had no inclination to ever be in the same room as him, not even with free cocktails a-waiting after the event.
Which is why, paradoxically, I felt a peculiar excitement while sitting in the auditorium last evening. The way I looked at it was, when expectations are so low, there’s bound to be something interesting to take away from this experience: a hitherto unseen side of the man, an unobtrusive little remark that might suggest he’s more than a caricature. Being open-minded in this way has worked well for me on previous occasions.
Unfortunately, it didn’t this time. The man SO lived up to the caricature. There was nothing interesting beneath the surface. He’s everything you’ve ever read about him. Nothing he said or did fell outside the borders of what I could have conjured up in my own mind had I chosen to just sit at home and imagine what the launch/discussion/reading would be like.
Naipaul sat, legs crossed, looking for all the world like a walrus that knows it’s constipated and is resigned to the fact. He said things I don’t even remember now, they were so forgettable. Death of the Novel, writing when young, writing when old, nationality, identity. Someone in the audience asked him "Sir Viddiyyaa, what do you think of the Hindu nationalist movement?" He replied, "I didn’t hear the question." (At this point I thought, ah, there’s something interesting, he’s side-stepping the question. Cheap tactic for a Lord, or Knight, or whatever he is. But a little later Naipaul responded similarly when asked an innocuous lit-related question and then I thought, what the hell, he’s just deaf, which isn’t very interesting at all, given his age, and all the years of hearing his own thoughts in his head.)
I don’t like being so dismissive about someone, and like I said before I don’t know enough about the man’s work to pass anything approaching a summary judgement. Guess I’m just expresing the disappointment that comes from being in the presence of an important writer for an hour and coming away with nothing worth cherishing.