Thursday, February 2, 2017

An Area of Darkness by V.S. Naipaul 

An Area of DarknessAn Area of Darkness by V.S. Naipaul

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I do not recall how I came to own An Area of Darkness by V.S. Naipaul. It's not a genre I normally read, but I did own it, and having it I decided to give it a try. It was worth it.

At first I was put off by the lack of emotion in the narrator's voice. He spoke of his family, his upbringing on the island of Trinidad, his family's Indian heritage, all as though he were an alien who was making observations and taking notes to report back to his home planet ("species seem to believe in many gods.....caste system...certain cultural values differ from fellow inhabitants of the island...").

As his journey progressed, for it was a journey on several levels, he became, if not more emotionally involved, at least interested.

And interesting. I have never traveled to India, although I did live in the Caribbean not far from Trinidad. My landlady and her family in Grenada were Indian and also from Trinidad. If I had not lived there I would not have known what a significant percentage of the population on the East Indian islands are descendants from India.

So I started reading the book with some understanding as to where the author was coming from. Naipual wrote this book in 1962-64 and I think some of his experience was different than the many Indians I interacted with on Grenada.

For one, he speaks of feeling something of a foreigner even though he grew up there. I lived on Grenada in the nineties and the Indians I met had absorbed the culture. They were Christians, regular church goers and interacted easily with other racial groups (mostly of African descent but also European). Naipaul's grandparents immigrated to Trinidad so he was closer in spirit to the home country. Or so he thought.

An Area of Darkness is Naipaul's record of his travels to India and his experiences there. He learned quickly that he was as foreign as any European. There were many cultural conflicts.

He quickly tired of the class system. He describes another Indian/European's frustration when he tried to get work done but was not getting his letters mailed quickly enough. He called in the clerk who took down his dictation to solve the problem.

"The secretary has many letters to write and she is backed up, so sorry."

"What do you mean? You take the dictation. Write out these letters for me so I can send them out. They are urgent."

"That is not my job. That is the secretary's job."

"It is now your job. Write out these letters and send them out."

Stubborn silence and noncompliance. Reporting his clerk to the job bureau accomplished nothing. So he called in his clerk again.

"I need to write another letter. Please scribe. "You're fired." Deliver that to the secretary and put it on the top of her pile as priority."

The clerk, realizing that if he gave such a letter to the secretary he would be humiliated, ran off and wrote out all the letters for the man. That is how things operated in India.

Another time he was in a train and had the bottom bunk. This is a coveted bunk because climbing up and down to the upper bunk was considered too much effort and beneath the dignity of the class of Indians who could afford to have a bunk while traveling on a train. The man assigned to the bunk above him was put out.

Naipaul who considered the lower bunk an inconvenience offered to change places with him. The man gladly agreed.

But the man remained seated on the upper bunk. By this time the train had already moved off and the porters had left the train, which meant the passengers would have to move their own belongings until the next stop when the porters would again be available. One of his class did not move his own things. That was the porter's job. Exasperated, Naipaul moved both his and the man's belongings.

Naipaul describes India as a country of form but not substance. What he means by this is that form is followed strictly to the letter but there is no substance to it. The untouchables come to a building. One flings dirty water out across the floor, another one swishes a dirty rag around and a third sweeps the water back into the bucket. The floor is as filthy as ever but no one notices because the form has been carried out to the letter.

Indians comment on the unhygienic practice of Westerners only using toilet paper while Indians also used water to clean themselves after using the bathroom. Meanwhile the city and countryside all over India is used as an open latrine. But nobody sees it; they only see what they believe is true. The form of their culture and religious practices.

Brahmin cows stagger around starving to death because they are holy. People starve to death or live off garbage because that is their Karma.

I could insert here my own observations as to how ideologues exist in every country. Worldwide people cling to beliefs and social systems even when they have been proven not to work but that is a discussion for another time, I suppose.

Naipaul calls Ghandi one of the greatest failures of India. He brought in ideas of an egalitarian society and human rights that were never put into practice. The Indians did what they always did. They made Ghandi into a Holy Man to be revered and enshrined while ignoring his teaching. Form is worshiped even though it is devoid of substance.

But the author does more than philosophize on the failings of Indian society. He carefully describes the people he comes into contact with and the places he visits. He goes on a pilgrimage, lives in a houseboat for a while, figures out how to get licenses for this and for that because apparently everything one does in India needs the permission of the government. He works and lives with Hindus and Muslims.

While Naipaul describes India and its people in rich colors, I think it would have helped if he had felt any kind of compassion or feeling of any kind because the book, while a vicarious traveler's treat, left me unmotivated to visit. I now long to read a book from a different perspective.

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  1. Interesting comments that he has with regards to Gandhi. If I remember correctly from Gandhi's biography, even he was frustrated with the lack of progress the people made in their thinking. What is the saying? .... You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink .....

    Was it fun to live in the Caribbean? I would have loved to have lived elsewhere for a period of life.

    As for Naipaul, I just read up about him and he seems an abhorrent man. In spite of your most excellent review I'm going to have to think about whether I want to read him or not. I have A Bend in the River on my TBR. I'll have to see if it stays there .....

    1. Hi Cleopatra! It was fun to live on Grenada. Especially in the nineties because it was still largely a virgin island with not many tourists. I never tired of the breath-taking beauty.

      That is interesting and disturbing what you say about Naipaul. Do I dare ask what you found abhorrent about him? I hate to find out because I just bought a few other books by him.

      He strikes me as a cold fish, but I still would like to read what he says. But I fully understand if what you read about him discourages you. It's not like there is a shortage of books for us to read.

    2. I'll leave it to you to look up. If you have a few other books of his to go and can be affected like me, you might want to wait until you read them. It's not that people make mistakes or have faults that bother me, because we all do .... in his case, it was a lack of empathy and contrition. I think you were very insightful when you remarked on his emotional detachment. You must be adept at reading people!

    3. Hi Cleopatra. Since I bought the books I'll wait and see if I can't pick up what you're saying from the books. James likes his fiction but I think I only have bought his nonfiction.

      You know, stuff is cheap on ebay and I get carried away.

      As far as reading people. Sometimes I think I'm a little too sensitive. Asking myself "Why are they looking at me like that? Why did they respond that way to what I said? Why didn't they react? Did I offend them?"

      It's something I'm trying to work on. :)

  2. I can see that about Ghandi - that is, that the people turned him into just another idol. And he was so distracted about being worthy of his own existence, that he failed to lead them to truth.

    1. Hi Ruth. I think that human nature wants to do that. We idolize people, even when we don't follow their example. In the long run, it's easier to make ourselves feel virtuous rather than actually practice what we profess to believe. That's something I have to work on.

  3. Hi Sharon-

    I also do not read a lot of books like this but I think that I should. It is a good thing to get a look at another's perspective especially when they come from a different place and a different culture.

    With that, the lack of emotion that you refer to here prevents me from wanting to read this.

    1. Hi Brian. Naipaul is indeed off putting in his emotional detachment. It was a worthwhile read but only in the context of considering the source and that it was only his perspective. As I wrote, I would like to read a book by someone who had compassion for the people of India.

      There is one very good book I read: the autobiography of Ravi Zacharias. He is from India and one of our greatest living intellectuals. It's called: From East to West.

  4. I have only read novels by V. S. Naipaul and immensely enjoyed them; they have mostly been set in England, Trinidad, and Africa. His The Enigma of Arrival is particularly good at conveying the experience of a Caribbean immigrant's experience when newly arrived in England. This book sounds very different from Naipaul's fiction that I have enjoyed.

    1. Hi James! I'm encouraged to hear you like his fiction because I bought a few other books of his, although I think they are all nonfiction.

      Even though I don't particularly care for his narrator's voice, I found myself wanting to read more of his books. Thanks for giving me another viewpoint.

  5. distance is a form of fear, isn't it? he's afraid to get too close to his subject, so develops defensive mechanisms to maintain himself... very analytical people are like this, i've found... re India: i've read several books about Gandhi and agree with the comments above; but in addition he was a very aware person who felt driven to help in the only way he could: by stripping himself of all possessions in order to keep distraction at bay... also to eschew topics of altercation with those with whom he attempting to deal... interesting post...

    1. Hi Mudpuddle! That's an interesting point you bring up. I wonder if Naipaul was fearful. After all, if you invest in other people, you make yourself vulnerable. I'm analytical and my problem is I tend to find fault with others and I firmly believe it is a defense mechanism. A method of emotionally detaching myself from others so I don't get hurt. It is something I am trying to overcome.

      I have not read enough about Gandhi and your comment makes me think that I should find a good biography. I'm open to suggestions...

  6. i forgot... Sharon, tx so much for mentioning the book about Vivaldi (Heller); i'm about half the way through and greatly enjoying it... did you know that what was published of his work is only about 10% of what he actually wrote? apparently it was advantageous to sell the manuscripts before they were printed, thus avoiding delay and printing costs... there's a picture of one his manuscript pages and it looks it was composed by a pirate in a hurricane: not really legible... very interesting guy... and i love his music...

    1. HI Mudpuddle. You're welcome. After recommending the book to you, I went and bought myself a copy (hee, hee) so I'm glad it's worthwhile.

      I didn't know that about his composition out put. What a travesty for the rest of us. I hope some of his unprinted works were somehow salvaged.

    2. some of them, at least, were... the last i heard (a long time ago) was that they were still trying to compile his bassoon concerti... a lot of the information in the book is fairly recent, so scholars are still researching him...

    3. Wow, this makes me want to read this bio all the more. Right now it's in line behind Schubert and Wagner. Maybe I'll bump him up.

    4. i've finished the Vivaldi; overall, i'm glad i read it... it had a bit more information of a musicological nature than i wanted, but i now know a lot more about el preto rosso than i did before... tx a lot for your help! it makes me curious about what kind of music you do, although i know it's none of my beeswax...

    5. Hi Mudpuddle. I would probably like the musicological nature of the book. I'm a bit of a nerd, that way.

      I don't mind talking about myself :) I am a classical pianist who also plays organ and keyboards professionally.

      In my youth, before I became a mother I performed solo recitals of classical repertoire, in fact that was my dream: to be a concert pianist.

      I realized when I had a family that you cannot serve two masters and I wasn't sacrificing my family for a career so the concert career to a back seat.

      I currently work as a professional accompanist at a local university where I accompany vocalists and instrumentalists. I perform with them on their student and degree recitals. Right now I working with a tubist on his recital. One of the pieces is the Hindemith Tuba sonata which I love because I adore twentieth century music (not everyone does, I understand).

      Anyway, that is my day job and I love it! I love reading the biographies of composers because I think it adds to my insight in performing their works and also just the overall enjoyment of their music.

      If you're interested, here's a link to a recital I performed with a saxophonist. (I'm the one at the piano :)

      Take care!

    6. fascinating!! i knew some of Hindemith's work, but not his tuba sonata... as i remember i was in a group that did some chamber music by him... i couldn't get the address to come up; it might have to do with the security parameters on this computer... but it sounds like a lovely job and a thrill helping diverse students like that... (see Vivaldi Concerti for Diverse Instruments) btw my background is clarinet and recorder...

    7. Hmmmm. I couldn't pull it up either. Well, if you go to youtube and type in "David Buroker Saxophone" there are two videos where we play together. One is the Glazunov Concerto and the other is the Ibert Concertino da Camera.

      David plays Sax and I play the piano. He's back in Seattle now but he was a great guy to play with.

      Very cool about clarinet and recorder. You must play a lot of Renaissance music. Even though the piano can only play transcriptions, Renaissance is one of my all time favorite eras.

      I especially love William Byrd. I have all his keyboard music for harpsichord and other claviers. And also the Pavanne and Galliards transcribed for piano and performed by Glenn Gould (I LOVE Glenn Gould).

      Wow. I'm not used to talking about my first passion (Music) with other people. Thanks for the refreshing diversion. Take care!

      Do you still get to perform any?

    8. tx for the comeback... i'm 74 and my music stuff had to end when i needed to make a living forty years ago... my interest has continued, though... Renaissance music is great: i try to play a little Dowland on the guitar once in a while but it's strictly an amateur effort... Ibert wrote some things for clarinet as i recall: quite French modern and lacy in memory, but i might be thinking of another piece... i'll try the YT again...

    9. Glazunov: impressive technical display piece for sax; you played very well together i thought with a lot of balance... remarkable tempi changes and the forms were striking, especially the fugue/canon sections... i enjoyed it... tx...

    10. Hi Mudpuddle. I know what you mean about making a living. I could never give up music. I had to give up performing solo work and when I got divorced I had to make a living that would support my son and me (ex husband left the country so no child support). That's when I become a music teacher at a Title One school. That was a harsh and rewarding experience all at once.

      Thanks for listening to the Glazunov. When I was in my twenties that piece ate my lunch. So it was my personal giant when I came back to it a few years ago and finally was able to conquer it.

    11. i ran across this and thought i'd share:"Then, a gypsy-like little individual, wiry and un-kempt, who looks as if he had spent his life listening to the voices of the night in Heaven knows what Lithuanian forests, with wolves and wild-boars for his familiars, and the wind in the trees for his teacher, seats himself at the great brass-bound oaken Broadwood piano-forte. And under his phenomenal fingers, a haunting, tender, world-sorrow, full of questionings-a dark mystery of moonless, starlit nature-exhales itself in nocturnes, in impromptus, in preludes- mere waltzes and mazurkas even! But waltzes and mazurkas such as the most frivolous would never dream of dancing to. A capricious, charming sorrow-not too deep for tears, if one be at all inclined to shed them-so delicate, so fresh, and yet so distinguished, so ethereally civilized and worldly and well-bred that it has crystallized itself into a drawing-room ecstasy, to last forever. It seems as though what was death(or rather euthanasia)to him who felt it, is play for us-surely an immortal sorrow whose recital will never, never pall- the sorrow of Chopin.
      George du Maurier: Peter Ibettson

    12. Wow. What an incredible description of Chopin. Thanks for sharing that.

      When I was in Paris this past December I went the the Pere LaChaise Cemetery and found Chopin's grave. My husband doesn't understand why finding the graves of composers and writers was so important to me but I feel like it's the closest I can get to them. Imagine standing only a few feet from Chopin.

      Have a great weekend! I forgot to post my next review. I think I'll wait until Monday. Take care and have a good weekend!

    13. I just looked up the reference. I'm going to have to get the book. I'm glad I know of it. Thanks.

    14. that excerpt didn't indicate the kind of book it was... it's kind of early sci fi and not really about music... just didn't want you to be misled...

    15. I finally found a description of the book. It actually sounds intriguing. So does the movie. I bet Josh would like to watch. Maybe that's what's on for tonight.:)

  7. Fascinating excerpts you've shared. I can see why you long for a book from the opposite perspective!

    1. Hi Marcia! It would be nice to read a book that was as well written but with a more compassionate attitude towards its subject.

  8. i loved your heading writing ,you sound very honest person friend!
    your photos at side bar are lovely!
    through your wonderful way of expression i am sure one day you will writ your own book and be rich.
    India is our neighboring country[i live in Pakistan]In 1947 Pakistan separated from India and became a free country after British rulers left.
    India is huge and very rich in warm colorful civilization and hope you will visit and admire it's culture and heritage some day.

    1. Hi Balli! I had some good friends from Pakistan when I was college. I enjoyed getting to know them very much.

      I'd be interested in your opinion of Naipaul's book if you ever get a chance to read it. How accurate you think it is.

      Thanks for visiting my blog!

  9. From East to West was a great book. I have 'A Suitable Boy' by Vikram Seth sitting on the shelf. 1474 pgs & I haven't had the wherewithal to start it but I've read some good reviews. I always had a fascination about India and got to travel through a good bit of the country by train in the mid 1980's. It is a paradoxical place in many ways & I sort of understand why someone would detach themselves from the place emotionally or become frustrated with the way things are done, although I realise it doesn't help the reader.

    1. Hi Carol. I looked up A Suitable Boy. It looks like a good novel. It will have to go on my wish list for Amazon.

      That's so interesting that you got to travel through India. It's a country I've never been to but was always interested in, especially in College because I had a lot of friends from India and Pakistan.
      The review of ASB says that the girl is Hindu and wants to marry a Muslim. I wonder if that would happen now?

      Apparently Naipaul is a detached writer. I have bought some books that he writes about his native Trinidad and according to the reviews, he writes with similar lack of emotion.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.