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V.S. Naipaul was born on 17 August 1932 in Chagunas, Trinidad.  His family had fled India two generations before his birth.  In 1950 he went to Oxford University in England, and by 1957 his first novel, The Mystic Masseur (1957) was published.  Naipaul then began his career as a prolific writer of novels, travel books, and journalism.  He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001 after being shortlisted several times previously.

Naipaul overtly resists being labelled a West Indian, Trinidadian, Caribbean or Third-World writer.  While he does not deny his origins, he objects to being labelled on the basis of geography, ethnicity or race, as this would bind him to something that for him is meaningless.  However, his fiction usually has strong social and political implications. 

Naipaul's narrative technique is realist and traditional, with an ironic and unobtrusive style.  His most popular novel, A House for Mr. Biswas (1961) and other major novels The Mimic Men (1967), Guerrillas (1975), A Bend in the River (1979), and The Enigma of Arrival (1987) all conform to realist conventions.

The concept of truth and a person's response to the world is perhaps the overriding concern in all of Naipaul's works.  Naipaul's world has been as vast as his oeuvre: living in colonial Trinidad in his youth, studying in England and living there as a writer, then his extensive travels throughout the West Indies, South America, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Zaire, Iran, and the United States.  In both his fiction and non-fiction, he has explored the connections between human history and the forces that determine its directions.  His reactions to these countries and their inhabitants comprise narratives of a search for truth and self-creation.  His works portray the language of selfhood words, gestures, acts as a vehicle for truth. 

Self-reflection recurs throughout his work, of both his personal history and his efforts to become a writer.  Three of his travel books in particular delve into his development as man and writer in relation to the society he writes about:  An Area of Darkness (1964), India: A Wounded Civilisation (1976), and India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990).  His novels are also frequently overtly autobiographical, for example The Enigma of Arrival (1987) and A Way in the World (1994), but are not to be taken as literal versions of the author's life, as he splits facets of himself among narrators and characters.  As well as autobiography, Naipaul draws on historical events.  A Bend in the River, for example, is based on events in Zaire.  Other novels that draw on history are The Mystic Masseur, The Mimic Men, In a Free State (1971), The Enigma of Arrival and A Way in the World.

Naipaul's works have been the subject of polarised opinion.  On the one hand he has been acclaimed for his representation of the impairment of postcolonial societies, and particularly of individuals within those societies who inherited a history of exploitation.  Conversely, he has been criticised for being loyal to imperialist values.  Critics have been laudatory of his use of autobiography and for blurring autobiography and fictional genres, and then accused him of projecting his own neuroses and opinions onto his characters.

 

Simon and Delyse Ryan ACU National