Fiery & Vivid: V. S. Naipaul, Nikolai Gogol and the Illumination of Darkness

By Kevin Hilke

So V.S. Naipaul finally gets the prize.
It’s said he’s willing, through unblinking eyes,
To make his observations, then recall
The bleakest Third World countries, warts and all.
While valuing his writing, I still think
It wouldn’t hurt if, now and then, he’d blink.
—Calvin Trillin, “On V. S. Naipaul’s Nobel Prize”

Nobel Prize-winning novelist V.S. Naipaul is a provocative and contentious figure. He is of mixed race, conflicted heritage, and divided sentiment. His family is Hindu; he was raised in Trinidad; he is half Indian and half Trinidadian; he lives in England; he is haunted by the colonial histories of all his homelands. His relationship to his complex background comes through in most of the 16 novels and 15 works of nonfiction he has published between 1957 and the present. As David P. Lichtenstein puts it, Naipaul’s “inability to form spiritual connections with his heritage, be it Trinidadian, Indian, or even British, dominates his thought as it appears in his work.” In his 2001 Nobel lecture, Naipaul puts it this way: “When I became a writer [, the] areas of darkness around me as a child—“[t]he land; the aborigines; the New World; the colony; the history; India; the Muslim world, to which I also felt myself related; [and] Africa”—“became my subjects.” For Naipaul, the struggle to connect with his heritage is a struggle to illuminate darkness.

Many critics, notably Edward Said, see Naipaul’s project of illuminating “areas of darkness” as biased and insufficiently supportive of postcolonial, nonwestern causes. For Said, in conceptualizing his subjects—most of whom are natives of the developing world—as beings of “darkness,” Naipaul “allow[s] himself quite consciously to be turned into a witness for the Western prosecution,” sustaining rather than subverting “colonial mythologies about wogs and darkies.” Similarly, Hilton Als accuses Naipaul of ridiculing and disdaining many of his subjects, of being “dismissive…toward everything ‘peasant’ and ‘tribal’—which is to say, black, poor, [and] illiterate.” Many writers, too, like Naipaul’s fellow West Indian Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott, are uneasy about his attitude toward the nonwestern world. Walcott chides Naipaul for dismissing Trinidadian artists as primitive, cultureless “bongo islanders”; for Walcott, the artistic life of the West Indies is “quite nurturing and rich.” Many contend that Naipaul minimizes or misses this richness, choosing instead to portray postcolonial societies as backwards and unenlightened. Naipaul’s supporters answer that though Naipaul’s work perpetuates stereotypes like that of the “bongo islander,” it also forces us to confront our own fictions about the developing world. As Lichtenstein puts it, Naipaul employs his “penetrating vision” to “[knock] down idealized views of the places he journeys to…in favor of a more complex, bitter, sometimes even contradictory truth.”

The debate between those who see Naipaul’s project as productive and those who do not recalls a contemporary debate about the prejudices of one of Naipaul’s literary ancestors, Joseph Conrad. In awarding Naipaul the Nobel Prize, the Swedish Academy called him “Conrad’s heir as the annalist of the destinies of empires in the moral sense: what they do to human beings.” Both authors depict how imperialism affects humans; but for some, these depictions themselves smack of imperialism. As Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe famously puts it, speaking of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, an inquiry into imperialism can also be a “celebration” of “dehumanization.” Achebe accuses Conrad of depicting Africans as unhuman—as a melee of “limbs” and “rolling eyes”; that “[leap] and sp[i]n and ma[k]e horrid faces” in a “black and incomprehensible frenzy.” For Achebe, Conrad means this frenzy to be the antithesis of “Europe [,] and therefore of civilization.” Conrad, Achebe asserts, is haunted by “the lurking hint of kinship” between himself and the Africans he represents—he is worried that the black frenzy may spread to white men.

Naipaul echoes Conrad in ways that are unlikely to please Achebe—he, too, can be read as positing a frenzied non-west against an enlightened west. In Naipaul’s novel A Bend in the River, he speaks of the “frenzy” of “faces of Africa.” This Conradian description is amplified in “A Little Paperwork”—the “Traveller’s Prelude” to Naipaul’s 1964 travelogue An Area of Darkness—in which Naipaul, traveling by boat from Europe to India, feels Europe giving way to “chaos of uneconomical movement”; he feels its “physique” “melt[ing] away” “into that of Africa,” in which “men [are] “diminished and deformed.” When Naipaul’s ship confronts “the tedium of the African ports,” he laments that “four of the passengers [have] not been inoculated against yellow fever.” This is partially Naipaul’s concern for his fellow passengers; nonetheless, like Conrad, Naipaul depicts a “fever”—a frenzy—of African origin as a threat to enlightened Europeans. And Naipaul’s fever is contagious: one needs only to touch Africa’s darkness to catch it. Naipaul may see himself as a light-bringer, but for critics like Said (and presumably for Achebe), his implicit assumption that “the aborigines; the New World; the colony; the history; India; the Muslim world…[and] Africa” require Naipaul’s illumination makes Naipaul presumptuous, callous, and perhaps even subtly racist. If nothing else, in casting the nonwestern as dark, Naipaul certainly seems to favor the west: to regard him “as anything other than reflexively pro-West,” Brian May comments, “is to go against a tough grain in recent postcolonial criticism.”

This essay goes against that grain. Naipaul’s depictions of nonwestern darkness are not as simple as his parallels to Conrad suggest; they can, in fact, be seen as challenges to the western literary tradition. Although Naipaul writes very much in this tradition, he uses it in a way that subverts it, adopting and modifying conventional western modes, styles, and motifs, then deploying the products in ways that both celebrate the western tradition and highlight its drastic shortcomings. And in Naipaul’s refigurings, Naipaul himself and the west as a whole—not the nonwestern—end up distorted.

His depiction of the Indian bureaucracy he encounters in “A Little Paperwork,” for instance, reflects the bureaucracy of Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 short story “The Overcoat.” In Gogol’s story, the lowly clerk Akaky Akakievich negotiates the bureaucracy of Saint Petersburg in a vain attempt to regain his stolen overcoat; in Naipaul’s, Naipaul negotiates the bureaucracy of Bombay in a vain attempt to regain his confiscated liquor. Both bureaucracies are infuriating and unnavigable—but these are characteristics of most bureaucracies, and are alone insufficient to draw a significant line from Gogol to Naipaul. Other similarities help to draw this line more clearly. First, the strict system of occupational roles in Naipaul’s Bombay—in which an individual’s caste dictates what he can and cannot do, in all sectors of life—recalls a similar system in Gogol’s Petersburg. Second, Gogol’s bureaucracy is permeated with paper: his protagonist is a copyist; Naipaul’s bureaucracy references and develops this permeation by making paper an element of bureaucratic oppression. Finally, the embodiment of bureaucracy in Gogol, an “important person” who dashes Akaky Akakievich’s final hopes of recovering his overcoat, reappears in Naipaul—but in a radically different context. .

Whether or not Naipaul’s allusions to Gogol are intentional on Naipaul’s part is largely irrelevant to this essay, which seeks to show that reading Naipaul alongside Gogol demonstrates that Naipaul’s illumination of Indian darkness is equally an illumination of the darkness that allows the west—allows Naipaul—to misunderstand India.

Gogol occupies a complex niche in the western canon. He can be seen as a father of the western short story, a precursor to modernism, and even a starting point for postmodernism. In entering into dialogue with Gogol, Naipaul engages with the west. He mimics Gogol’s satire, but he also expands on it in a way that indicts both himself and the west. He illuminates India, but in doing so, he also illuminates his western prejudice, thus providing something of an answer to charges from critics like Said. For Naipaul, the discovery is not only of India itself, but of his own complex relationship to India and the west.

One could object that in borrowing from the western canon to depict a bureaucratic Bombay, Naipaul idealizes the west and degrades India. From this perspective, Naipaul’s appropriations from Gogol buttress Said’s case, suggesting that Naipaul believes the nonwestern can be depicted only through the use of western models. One could also object that Naipaul is presumptuous in using India to make a point about the western psyche—as though for Naipaul, India were valuable only as a subservient element of an argument about the west. Such a protest would be in the vein of one of Achebe’s objections to Heart of Darkness, which maintains that Conrad displays a “perverse arrogance” in using Africa as the backdrop for “the break-up of one petty European mind.” These objections would be misguided, for two reasons. First, the aspects of the west that Naipaul borrows are not exactly worthy of idealization—stifling bureaucracies are nothing to brag about—which is why “The Overcoat” is usually seen as a satire of western bureaucracy, not as a glorification of it. Second, if Naipaul exalts the west, this exaltation comes alongside an indictment of western complicity in the construction of the nonwestern: Naipaul amplifies Gogol’s satire, turning Gogol’s social order on its head to chastise the west for its flawed conceptions of India. To see Naipaul as simply impugning India is to ignore the complexity of his perceptions and his project.

“A Little Paperwork” and “The Overcoat” share much textually, especially with respect to their depictions of bureaucracy. But Naipaul borrows from western giants other than Gogol, too; “A Little Paperwork” engages with Franz Kafka’s 1925 novel The Trial, for instance, perhaps more intensively than it engages with “The Overcoat.” Why compare Naipaul to Gogol and not to Kafka? Simply put, accounting for differences of temporal and national context, Naipaul and Gogol share almost as much as their fictions. Particularly, they share a complicated and conflicted orientation to the west. In Gogol’s case, this conflict is partially a product of his location in the Russian literary tradition, which straddles an unstable line between occident and orient. But Gogol is more torn than most Russian writers. Like Naipaul, his background is a patchwork of ethnicities, cultures and nationalities.

Gogol was born in 1809 to a noble family in a Ukrainian-dominated segment of Ruthenia, a culturally diverse Eastern European territory now geographically divided among Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Slovakia and Poland. His childhood was spent “in [a] mixed surrounding of local small-time nobility and everyday village life”; his family was Ukrainian, but it also professed ties to both Russia and Poland. For whatever reason, Gogol declared his connection to Poland “artificial” and looked instead to Russia, writing in Russian as opposed to his native Ukrainian and moving to Saint Petersburg in 1828. While in Russia, he retained ties to the Ukraine, seeking a university appointment there and even undertaking to write a history of his “Little Russia,” but he resisted allegiance to any nation: “I do not know,” he wrote to his friend A.O. Smirnova in December 1844, “whether my soul is Ukrainian or Russian.” Despite Gogol’s resistance to national definition, he was seen in Ukrainian literary circles as a symbol of Russian empire during the country’s “post-colonial rebirth” in the early 1900s, in the course of which the Ukraine won independence from Russia in 1917—only to lose it, to the Soviet Union, in 1922. But Gogol was soon in vogue throughout the Soviet Union as one of a group of suppressed Soviet writers who enjoyed a propagandistic but sincere revival at the beginning of the Cold War. (By “propagandistic but sincere,” I mean that though Gogol’s work was revived largely to serve as a source of allegories that could be used to glorify the Soviet Union, Soviet leaders and critics did not, by and large, misrepresent his work, either maliciously or unintentionally—they merely simplified it to serve as propaganda.) At a state celebration of Gogol in 1952, V.V. Erlimov deemed Gogol “a great ally in the struggle to oppose” “darkness.”

Gogol—a writer with a complex heritage who writes in the language of empire and fights darkness—sounds a lot like a Slavic 19th-century V.S. Naipaul. There are of course major differences: Naipaul’s empire is British and Gogol’s is Russian; Naipaul writes after colonialism and Gogol writes at its height; Naipaul conceptualizes his own project as an “illumination of darkness,” whereas in Gogol’s case, that conception is critically imposed. Despite these differences, Gogol nonetheless struggles with the same issues of hybridity and divided allegiance that characterize Naipaul’s work, Naipaul’s life, and contemporary postcolonial discussions in general. Comparing Naipaul to Kafka would be useful to contextualize Naipaul’s view of bureaucracy. But to see how Naipaul’s bureaucracy can contribute to an indictment of the west, Gogol serves us better: Gogol is both a giant of western literature for Naipaul to expand upon and subvert and a kindred spirit for him to echo and commune with. He is, in short, an especially enlightening counterpoint for comparison with Naipaul, both textually and biographically. On, then, to such a comparison.

In “The Overcoat,” Akaky Akakievich is caught in a bureaucratic machine similar to the one that ensnares Naipaul in “A Little Paperwork.” When Akaky Akakievich’s overcoat is stolen, he must navigate an arduous network of “departments, regiments, offices” and “officialdom.” A policeman witnesses the crime, claims ignorance, and sends him to an inspector; but the inspector seems more likely to cheat him than to help him. “Early [the next] morning” Akaky Akakievich seeks help from “the superintendent,” “but [is] told that he [is] asleep; [Akaky Akakievich] c[omes] at ten and again [is] told: asleep; he c[omes] at eleven o’clock and [is] told that the superintendent [is] not at home,” and “at lunchtime” he is flatly refused entry. When Akaky Akakievich finally gains an audience, “the superintendent t[akes] the story about the theft of the overcoat somehow extremely strangely” and Akaky Akakievich leaves “not knowing whether the case of his overcoat [will] take its proper course or not.” Naipaul must negotiate a similar system—a seemingly endless maze of contradictory officials and superfluous permits—in an attempt to regain his liquor. The following passage is representative of his trials:

The officer who had sent me on the track of the transport permit was pleased to see me back. But the transport permit wasn’t enough. I had to go to Mr Kulkarni to find out about the warehouse charges. When I had settled what the charges were I was to come back to the clerk over there, with the blue shirt; then I had to go to the cashier, to pay the warehouse charges; then I had to go back to Mr Kulkarni to get my bottles.
I couldn’t find Mr Kulkarni.

Cumbersome bureaucracies thwart both Akaky Akakievich and Naipaul.

These bureaucracies share much with one another aside from simply being bureaucracies. Both, though confounding, are strictly ordered: Gogol’s by ranks of the Russian civil service and Naipaul’s by the caste system. The narrator of “The Overcoat” declares that “rank must be announced first of all,” then gives us Akaky Akakievich’s rank as “eternal titular councillor.” With this eternal rank, Akaky Akakievich works as a “copying clerk” in a system in which “everything go[es] in the strictest order”; he is “always to be seen in one and the same place, in the same position, in the same capacity.” The bureaucrats in Naipaul’s Bombay are similarly mired in their roles. This is illustrated when Naipaul’s companion faints in a customs office, and Naipaul asks a clerk for water to help relieve her. Neither the clerk nor her supervisor moves to retrieve water, instead advising Naipaul to “[l]et her rest.” Naipaul shouts “Water!” at a third clerk, who leaves the room and returns “waterless.” When Naipaul asks him where the water is, “[h]is eyes distastefully acknowledge [Naipaul’s] impatience,” he “neither shrug[s] nor speak[s],” and “presently” “a messenger appear[s],” “carr[ying] a tray” on which “st[ands] a glass of water.” Naipaul chides himself: “I should have known,” he says, “[a] clerk [is] a clerk; a messenger [is] a messenger.” In Gogol’s Petersburg and Naipaul’s Bombay, individuals have set roles in strict, hierarchical systems.

But far from feeling trapped by these roles, Gogol and Naipaul’s clerks take pleasure in them and refuse to deviate from them. Gogol’s narrator tells us that “[i]t would hardly be possible to find a man who lived so much in his work” as Akaky Akakievich; “he serve[s] with love,” “[d]elight,” and “zeal.” When a director “order[s] that he be given something more important than the usual copying”—“changing the heading and changing some verbs” in “an already existing document”—“[t]his [is] such a task for him that he g[ets] all in a sweat, rub[s] his forehead, and finally sa[ys], ‘No, better let me copy something.’” Naipaul’s clerks are similarly dedicated to their prescribed work and reluctant to stray from it. They care for papers and folders with “reveren[ce],” and they decline Naipaul’s perfunctory thanks for doing what they see as their privilege. Naipaul even describes one clerk who “after many years” on the job must “subdu[e]” his “excitement” at continually “discovering the richness and variety of his work.” And later in An Area of Darkness, Naipaul describes Ramnath, a “happy” “clerk in a government department” who serves as a stenographer, or “steno.” When Ramnath’s supervisor demands that he begin typing in addition to dictating, he respectfully declines—typing “is not [the] job” of “a steno.” Gogol and Naipaul’s clerks are confined in prescribed roles, but they revel in their confinement.

In addition to similarities with respect to ranks and roles, Gogol and Naipaul’s bureaucracies share a preoccupation with paper. Gogol’s entire system—from the devoted copyist Akaky Akakievich to the forces that thwart him—is linked to paper. When Akaky Akakievich seeks the help of the superintendent in locating his overcoat, it is the superintendent’s scriveners, rather than general clerks, who attempt to send him away. Naipaul’s system is also suffused with paper. Naipaul must negotiate “badly printed illiterate forms” which the customs clerks fill in with a “blunt, indelible, illegible pencil which government offices throughout the former Empire use, less for the sake of what is written than for the sake of the copies required.” These government offices are saturated with paper—it is “in the hands of clerks,” and “in the hands of khaki-clad messengers”; it is “shaggily staked” “on desks,” “on chairs,” and “on shelves rising to the…ceiling.” Clerks exist “scattered” among “mounds and columns and buttresses of paper,” “camouflage[d]” by it. In Naipaul as in Gogol, paper pervades the bureaucratic system.

Gogol and Naipaul’s depictions of bureaucracy share much, but major a difference between their protagonists points toward Naipaul’s subversiveness. Gogol’s protagonist, Akaky Akakievich, is both an element and a victim of “all [the] officialdom”; he—like those who turn him away from the superintendent’s office—is a scrivener. Naipaul’s protagonist is Naipaul himself, and he seems, unlike Akaky Akakievich, to have no part in constituting the bureaucracy that frustrates him. But by alluding to Gogol, Naipaul implicates himself in the bureaucracy by placing himself at its highest levels; then he undercuts both himself and the west.

The important person is an embodiment of Gogol’s “irascible…officialdom.” When Akaky Akakievich’s efforts with the superintendent fail, he is advised by one of his fellow clerks that “the best thing would be to address a certain important person,” who “by writing and referring to the proper quarters, could get things done more successfully.” This course of action proves more calamitous than previous ones. Much like the police, the inspectors, and the superintendent, the important person impedes Akaky Akakievich, cruelly detaining him “in order to show” a visiting friend “what lengths of time clerks spent waiting in his anteroom.” When he finally admits Akaky Akakievich, he chides him for breaking rank, telling him that he “ought to have filed a petition about it in the chancellery,” which “would pass to the chief clerk,” then “to the section chief, then be conveyed to [his] secretary,” and finally would come to the important person himself. To emphasize his displeasure and his authority, the important person “stamp[s] his foot” and “raise[s] his voice to” “a forceful note.” Akaky Akakievich is so “stricken” with fright that he collapses; and after a trying trek home, he takes to his bed and dies. The dead Akaky Akakievich haunts the important person, leaving him “pale, frightened, and minus his overcoat”; but the important person is ultimately permitted to return home safely. Gogol’s important person is the most powerful manifestation of the bureaucracy that oppresses Akaky Akakievich.

An important person appears in “A Little Paperwork,” too, but not as a manifestation of bureaucracy: Naipaul himself is described as a “person of importance” by a customs clerk (16). Gogol disrupts the social order he presents by allowing Akaky Akakievich to steal the important person’s overcoat; Naipaul goes further, making the important person a victim of bureaucracy. Gogol’s important person, though disrobed, remains in control of the system; Naipaul’s person of importance—Naipaul himself—is trapped within it.

Naipaul is both victim and perpetrator; he suffers under bureaucracy even as he helps to perpetuate it. After leaving the customs office and retiring to a friend’s flat, he tells an acquaintance that his companion fainted at the customs office, “[p]erhaps” from “the heat”—his way, he indicates, of veiling his frustration and trying not “to sound critical.” The acquaintance recognizes his obfuscation and calls him on it: “It isn’t the heat at all. It’s always the heat or the water with you people from outside. There’s nothing wrong with her. You make up your minds about India before coming to the country.” Not only is Naipaul wrong about what ails his companion, he is wrong in a telling way. What ails her—be it heat or bureaucracy, be it in reality or in Naipaul’s fib—is of Naipaul’s own construction. Naipaul’s companion is overheated by the customs house because he expects she will be. Naipaul encounters a bureaucratic nightmare in India because from the moment the “quarantine flag c[omes] down” on his ship in the Bombay Port, he expects to encounter one—indeed, the first Indian Naipaul mentions is a guide “sent by the travel agency to help” him navigate “the customs.” Naipaul helps birth the Bombay bureaucracy through his biased preconceptions of India. And the target of the acquaintance’s charge is larger than Naipaul alone: his criticism of “you people from the outside” sounds very much like an indictment of touristy westerners. Perhaps things could be different, the acquaintance suggests; but not so long as “you people” continue in ignorance of India, not so long as “you” continue “reading the wrong books.”

Naipaul the character may be reading the wrong books, but Naipaul the author is writing the right ones. In Naipaul’s conversation with his acquaintance, we can see what Robert D. Hamner calls Naipaul’s “humiliating” “philosophical detachment”: Naipaul simultaneously bares his own prejudice and impeaches himself for it. An Area of Darkness has been criticized for distorting the realities of India. But it has also been praised for the exact opposite, for “bring[ing] the essence of a social situation so vividly to life” that Ashish Roy wonders “whether all the sociologists, anthropologists and political scientists” “have not labored in vain.” Naipaul may or may not distort India, but in his detachment, he does give us a distortion of himself. As Bruce Bawer puts it, Naipaul must acknowledge the complexity of his experiences—he must “notice and remember…the[ir] ambiguities”; he must represent “the whole human person rather than to reduce him… to a one-dimensional symbol.” Naipaul must give us a version of himself that appears contradictory and distorted; anything else would be overly and falsely simple. Naipaul recognizes his prejudice, the west’s prejudice; and he illustrates bias—personal and cultural, his own and the west’s—without offering easy solutions. Said calls Naipaul “a witness for the Western prosecution” (53). Naipaul is a witness. Like a good witness, Naipaul, in Bawer’s words, recounts “testimony”—his own or that of others—“and states his conclusions without regard to whether they square with anyone’s ideology” (379). If Naipaul is a witness for the west, he is equally a witness against it; for in illuminating the darkness of India, he illuminates the western darkness within himself.

Gogol had ambitions for himself as a witness of a sort: he badly wanted to be a historian. As he wrote to his Ukrainian friend M.A. Maksimovic in November 1833, history was his way of saying to the Russian and European worlds “what before [him had] not been said” about the plight of his “unique poor Ukraine.” History, in other words, was Gogol’s way of illuminating Ukrainian darkness. And like Naipaul, he was not about to stop with his ancestral homeland. In addition to his history of the Ukraine, Gogol had plans for a history of the Middle Ages, “in eight or, perhaps, nine volumes”; and for “a universal history,” which would fill “four large or six small volumes.” Gogol’s ambitions amounted to only one publication, an introductory article “in the April, 1834, issue of the Journal of the Ministry of Pubic Instruction” entitled “‘Excerpt from a History of Little Russia. Volume I. Book I. Chapter I..’” Gogol produced no further historical volumes, books or chapters, on the Ukraine or any other subject.

Fortunately, Naipaul has been more prolific. Gogol, one thinks, would be pleased with Naipaul’s controversial success. In December 1833, while hard at work on his history of the Ukraine, Gogol wrote to his friend M.P. Pogodin: “My history of Little Russia is extremely unrestrained, and how should it be otherwise? I am criticized…that it is unhistorically fiery and vivid; but what sort of history is it if it is boring?” Naipaul’s illuminations of nonwestern darkness may be too vivid for some, but they are anything but boring. Naipaul’s intricate light is blistering, but it is also indiscriminate—the nonwestern, the west, and Naipaul himself are all left scorched.

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