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Gothic Horror and Muslim Madness in V. S. Naipaul

Written by eastern writer on Friday, September 24, 2010

Gothic Horror and Muslim Madness in V. S. Naipaul’s Beyond Belief: ‘Orientalist’ Excursions among the Converted People

by Wendy O’Shea-Meddour
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.

V. 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

Naipaul is safe while Imaduddin remains in the room. But when he answers the adhan (call to prayer) and deserts Naipaul, the very presence of what Naipaul suspects to be a set of “Islamic books” (he cannot read Arabic and is therefore forced to hazard a guess at the books’ contents) is enough to provoke serious health implications. We are informed that,
... without the man himself […] his missionary paraphernalia felt oppressive […]. It was only someone like Imaduddin who could give point and life to the electric-blue Egyptian paperbacks on the glass-topped desk.11

In his heightened state of anxiety, Naipaul transforms Imaduddin’s private reading material into “dangerous missionary paraphernalia” with awesome powers. They are the “meat and drink,” the life-blood upon which Imaduddin apparently survives. The “electric-blue” covers suggest that these books are made of hazardous, explosive materials and, being only “shoddily produced,” they are set in stark contrast to the laptop computer and glass-desk upon which they rest. Naipaul prefers not to ask Imaduddin about the content of these books, for doing so would deflate the passage’s tension.

Rather, he reassures himself with the thought that this possible “commentary on the Koran is something that only a man like Imaduddin could give point and life to.” However, mere proximity to these potentially “Muslim” books causes him to suffer from the “oppressive” atmosphere that they generate.12 This episode offers a foretaste of what is to come, and Naipaul endures far more severe reactions when he is exposed to the material presence of Islamic literature in Pakistan.

The second change in atmospheric quality occurs when Naipaul visits Mohammed Akram Ranjha at a commune run by, in Naipaul’s words, “the most important of the fundamentalist groups: Jamaat-i-Islami.” Imprisoned for kidnapping and possibly helping to murder his brother’s wife (Naipaul’s choice of Muslim “interviewees” are far from being, as he claims, “representative”), Mohammed is imprisoned and shares a cell with a “political prisoner.” This leads to his “jailhouse conversion.” Eventually, a lawyer who we are told is “crazed with religion” helps Mohammed get into law college. While practicing law, Mohammed becomes politically active on behalf of Jamaat-i-Islami.

His son Saleem, a 34-year-old senior customs officer, agrees to drive Naipaul to the commune on the edge of Lahore. This is when Naipaul realizes that he has made his first major mistake: He failed to accept Saleem’s “offer of air-conditioning.” Naipaul refused the offer because he feared that he might catch a “chill.” He comes to regret this decision because the closer he gets to the commune, the more “choked” he becomes. Significantly, Naipaul’s breathing restrictions once again coincide with the call to prayer (like Imaduddin before him, Saleem deserts the afflicted Naipaul in order to go to the mosque).13 When Saleem returns, he takes Naipaul to his study and library.

At this point in the journey, Naipaul encounters yet another set of “Islamic books”:

Half the wall facing the door carried those Islamic sets in decorated binding […]. I soon stopped looking at the books. I began to choke in the stale, enclosed air. I felt I was becoming ill.14

This room of “Islamic learning” appears to be drained of oxygen. We are told that it is “entirely sealed” (by this, Naipaul later clarifies that he meant that the window was closed). Naipaul tries to rectify this and demands that someone open the window and switch on the “air-cleaner.” Sitting on the only chair in the room, one that has been brought up for him at his specific request, he sits by the window, inhales some slightly less polluted air, and begins to recover.

But the relief that he enjoys is short-lived. Having survived the stifling atmosphere produced by the adhan, the mosque, Islamic literature, and Muslim households, Naipaul’s breathing restriction returns during the following dialogue, in which Saleem proudly introduces his young son:

Saleem said, ‘He is going to learn the whole Koran by heart.’
‘The whole Koran,’ the old man said, picking up the duet with his son.
I asked, ‘How long will that take?’
Saleem said, ‘Five or six years.’
I couldn’t stay. My breathing had become very bad. Downstairs, the servants,
thin and dark and dingy, behind the sacks with the split golden paddy.
Outside, the fumes and grit of the Multan road. Saleem’s driver drove me back to the hotel. Saleem didn’t come with me.15

Naipaul’s reaction to the tradition of learning to recite the Qur’an is so violent that he flees back to the relative safety of his hotel in Lahore without delay. The little boy is left unheard.

As one can see from these passages, Naipaul’s fear of Islamic literature, mosques, or indeed any form of Muslim worship are clearly reflected in both his environment and his physical ailments. In Beyond Belief, poor air-quality is an indicator of the Islamic faith, and Naipaul’s asthmatic responses are symptomatic of the emotions that he experiences during close encounters with Muslims. In her study of Naipaul, Fawzia Mustafa observes that he uses “physical discomfort” as “a gauge for reading the functioning, or completeness, or societal health of the place in which he finds himself.”16

This is correct, but she fails to mention that Naipaul’s physical discomfort is most acute when he is in the presence of “the believers.”

Muslims of various races, traditions, and character induce violent physical responses from this narrator of supposed “moral integrity.” His dislike of Islam is so intense that he is compelled to rush out of “interviews,” escape an “oppressive” atmosphere, reach for “air-cleaners,” and struggle to open windows when in the presence of practicing Muslims. Although Naipaul may well have a sensitive physical disposition, his commitment to literary conventions in nineteenth-century fiction helps to explain both his recurrent breathing restrictions and the faith-dependent air quality that he “discovers” in Indonesia, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Iran. [source]

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