• 04 Dec, 2022

Why isn’t the National Library named after Sir V.S. Naipaul

Why isn’t the National Library named after Sir V.S. Naipaul

Why isn’t the National Library named after Sir V.S. Naipaul

THE fresh hoopla  over the Dr. Eric Williams Memorial Library stokes a question that has never deserted me. Why isn’t the National Library named after Sir V.S. Naipaul? And there are attendant matters. Is there more in the mortar besides the pestle that precludes the honouring of Trinidad and Tobago ’s brightest literary son?   

Does T&T appreciate the scholarly gift of Naipaul, a Nobel Prize winner who was dubbed by Time magazine as the greatest writer in the English language? Sure, he had a pessimistic view of the land of his birth, but most of his incisive observations still hold true six decades after political independence. He utilised his mastery of the language to shine a critical light on T&T and other developing countries, including India, which, early in his career he branded as “an area of darkness.”     

Naipaul’s cynical view has been seen as toxic, but who could say that T&T has met its lofty independence goals or that our leaders have displayed vision and resolve? Upon his death in 2018, the British Guardian wrote that he was critical of West Indian societies “because they lacked the self-knowledge or the will to reinvent themselves in the independence period.” He was panned for his damning comments in The Middle Passage , a book of 1962, the year of independence. “History is built around achievement and creation,” he wrote, “and nothing was created in the West Indies.”    

He was labelled arrogant, cantankerous, divisive, a snob. He was all of that – and then some. His bitter outlook was informed to a large extent by his frustration over the undeveloped T&T he left behind in 1950. He once sneered: “I was born there, yes; I thought it was a great mistake.” He called developing lands like T&T, “half-formed societies... doomed to remain half-made,” but in 2022 that label sounds generous, with our heap of social and economic issues. “If people wish to draw unreal conclusions from what I have written, that is their affair,” he told an interviewer.   

Why name everything after Williams?   

Naipaul was an equal opportunity offender, ruthless about the lack of growth, the ethnic divide, and the absence of identity and ambition. “I felt I was in the wrong place,” he scoffed.   

“The world is what it is,” Naipaul, said, “men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” The absence of an enduring tribute to the principal of prose continues even as T&T debates the removal of colonial relics and their replacement with symbols of our independent society.   

There are some new T&T figures dabbling with literature, none of whom has scrutinized Naipaul’s narrative in our 60th year of post-colonialism. Also, the academic old guards who used to advocate for Naipaul’s rightful place in our society have slinked back into the woodwork and become part of the status quo. But Naipaul’s works are as compelling and relevant as ever, even as there is a need for another outspoken and knowledgeable commentator on our national condition, one who is unafraid to offend the elites. Maybe that time would come.    

Note that Williams’ 1938 dissertation – that slavery was stopped because of declining economies – is only now being accepted by the international academic community. It was economics, not generosity, that led to the scrapping of slavery, Williams argued. The cancellation of the transatlantic trade had nothing to do with the conscience of slave owners, he said. Today, Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery has won new credibility, there are reprints of his book and lively engagement by the academic community.   

The relocated Williams library brings the first Prime Minister back into focus and acknowledges his distinctive academic and political work. Maybe T&T would one day hold dispassionate discussions on Naipaul’s literary legacy, and his life and works would appear on school curricula and university modules. Maybe there would be an annual lecture in his name. As the land of his birth observes 60 years of independence, hopefully, there would be a rigorous study of the writer whom Time  magazine described as having “resoundingly succeeded in reshaping the entire terrain (of postcolonial literature) in relation to his work.”   

The magazine notes that Naipaul “is fundamental to working out roots and routes to where we stand and how we got here.” Maybe Naipaul’s name would one day be emblazoned on our national library and he would be memorialised as the literary giant he was. Failing that, we would remain guilty of another unflattering Naipaul remark. “Most people are not really free,” he snapped. “They are confined by the niche in the world they carved out for themselves. “They limit themselves to fewer possibilities by the narrowness of their vision.”