Naipaul and Theroux: The Cantankerous Travelers

Paul Theroux and V.S. Naipaul shake hands. (Image courtesy of The Independent)

Paul Theroux and V.S. Naipaul shake hands. (Image courtesy of The Independent)

At the 2011 Hay Literary Festival in Britain, Sir Vidia Naipaul and Paul Theroux shook hands. The gesture made news. Bad blood had been assumed ever since Theroux’s memoir, Sir Vidia’s Shadow, had painted Naipaul as a cruel and self-involved crank. “Vidia was the neediest person I had ever known,” wrote Theroux in 1998, sounding like a wronged spouse. “He fretted incessantly, couldn’t cook, never cleaned, wouldn’t drive, demanded help, had to be the center of attention.” Naipaul has been condescending towards Theroux’s travel writing in return. “Travel has become a plebeian, everyday matter, it has become lower-class adventure, and there are books now written for lower class travelers. I think Theroux belongs to that category: he wrote tourist books for the lower classes.”

It’s easy to laugh off Naipaul for being a snob, but his insult is still more stinging than Theroux’s entire memoir. It takes a lot of effort to write 364 pages about someone else’s character flaws. Naipaul found Theroux worthy of only a few sentences and the brutal kiss-off, “Take it on the chin, and move on.” Even in Theroux’s “tell-all” memoir about Naipaul’s monstrous behavior, he seems reluctant to savage his former hero, prefacing his criticisms with the assurance that he still thinks Naipaul is brilliant.

Aside from Sir Vidia’s peculiar 19th-century elitism, it’s hard to disagree completely with his harsh take on Theroux’s writing. If both men are known for their explorations of empire’s aftermath, Theroux is the tourist – a label that has a kind of nastiness to it all on its own. It isn’t at all surprising that a Caribbean writer would look down on Theroux’s Massachusetts upbringing, his Peace Corps earnestness, his adventuring across Africa, his Hawaiian retirement.

It is not Theroux’s fault that his quarrels with the world are less interesting than Naipaul’s. Both men do embody something essential about the immediate aftermath of empire, even if Theroux does not have access to Naipaul’s pain. Both writers can be exasperating. Naipaul’s torment – the torment of the migrant and the colonial – can completely shut him off from questioning his own judgments. Theroux is rarely in the position to have to try.  At various times in Sir Vidia’s Shadow, Theroux notes that Naipaul often fell into sour moods, complaining of “having no country” and “being placeless.” “Out of politeness, I did not mention that he was the one with the British passport, while I carried an Alien registration card,” Theroux writes, missing the point. In another dubious moment, Theroux, having spent a few years teaching in Uganda, attributes his alienation on a visit to Oxford to his African-ness. “Places like this reminded me that I was in many respects an African. I needed a simpler and less demanding world.” This is a strange statement for a lecturer at the University of Makrere in Kampala to make.

What’s at issue here is not only two writers’ very different assumptions about travel and identity, but their completely opposed views on the activity of writing. Theroux and Naipaul conceive of their vocations in inverse ways. Naipaul, running from what he perceives as a provincial place in the world, sees himself, whether rightly or not, as a solitary genius struggling under the weight of history. As absurd as this makes some of his pronouncements, it is what gives his writing its intensity. Theroux, on the other hand, has a much more democratic view of what it means to be a writer. There is something both admirable and irritating about the fact that Theroux’s huge success has come to him despite the fact that he is a good, not a great, writer. By most accounts, his gifts are his determination to live a writer’s life, his confidence and ease around people, and his discipline. In this formula, the key ingredient to achieving success as a writer is not having a unique vision, as Naipaul might say, but wanting it bad enough.

It’s puzzling that Naipaul and Theroux were able to sustain a thirty year friendship on the basis of writing and travel, two things they agreed so little about. To what extent was Naipaul stringing Theroux along when he praised his books? Was it a cruel game at the expense of Theroux’s naivety? And how appeasing must Theroux have been to not agitate the famously prickly Naipaul for so many years? What do these former friends truly think of each others’ work? A handshake says so little.


On “The Roberto Bolaño Myth”

Image courtesy of The UK Guardian.

Image courtesy of The UK Guardian.

“We have enough,” Sam Carter concludes in a review of Woes of the True Policeman, the latest of Roberto Bolaño’s unfinished works to be published posthumously in the United States. Forceful words, but Carter doesn’t doubt Bolaño’s talent. He thinks that the late Chilean writer’s publishers are damaging his legacy:

“The continued publication and popular packaging of [Bolaño’s] incomplete work may actually be diluting his reputation as a writer of varied talents and fearless ambition.”

The way Bolaño’s body of work has been handled in the U.S. has sometimes been confusing, and people are noticing. One commenter on a recent review over at lit-blog The Millions sums up this confusion well:

“… The past 4 or 5 years has seen so many posthumously released Bolaño works that I sort of feel exhausted by them all. So much after the fact praise that I sometimes wonder if much of it is just hype and/or a fad.”

In 2012, Bolaño’s “myth” may be larger than his books. He is more than just a writer. He is the new face of Latin American literature in the United States, where a new generation of allegedly post-national readers are bored with the obstinate regionalism and unfashionable Marxism of the old Magical Realists. Some critics haven’t been so happy with this turn of events, and maybe they’re right. Maybe it’s wise to be suspicious of men who appear to answer so completely the desires of their times.

In a 2009 article entitled “Bolaño Inc.”, Salvadoran writer Horacio Castellanos Moya notes with suspicion that a distorted version of Bolaño’s life story has often been as important to his excited reception in North America as his writing. Castellanos Moya concludes that those who work in the shady realm where marketing and literature meet must be responsible for this villainy. Afterall, Bolaño has been dead for years and, if he is being exploited by large publishing conglomerates, can’t complain.

Horacio Castellanos Moya. Image courtesy of New Directions Books.

Horacio Castellanos Moya. Image courtesy of New Directions Books.

Castellanos Moya argues that a market-ready image of the late Chilean writer as a down-and-out rebel, a social drop-out and failed revolutionary, has been created to sell his books to young and cynical cosmopolitans in the United States (he points out that Paste magazine even gave him the ridiculous title of “The Kurt Cobain of Latin American Literature”). Castellanos Moya is disgusted that the life of a talented writer, and a personal friend, could be fashioned by marketing teams into whatever they felt would compliment a particularly edgy-looking bookjacket photo. He writes:

“The market has its landlords, like everything on this infected planet, and it’s the landlords of the market who decide the mambo that you dance, whether it’s selling cheap condoms or Latin American novels in the U.S.”

This is a cynical view, but the inflation of Bolaño’s time in prison facing down Chilean fascism, and the fabrication of his apparently non-existent heroin addiction do look pretty damning in this light. Castellanos Moya assures us, with evident joy at disappointing those who believe that Bolaño was a cross between Che Guevara and a junkie poet, that the writer died a committed family man living a middle-class suburban life and that he spent most of his time writing.

As a concerned friend of Bolaño, Castellanos Moya’s argument has a lot of force. But then the essay takes a turn. Out of duty or habit he polishes off dusty terms like “The U.S. Culture Industry” and the “North American Imagination” to argue that U.S. readers are also using a false image of Bolaño to confirm their stereotypes about their southern neighbors. If the entire canon of Latin American literature can no longer be reduced to García Márquez, then it can now be reduced to this new discovery: a prickly former Trotskyite/anarchist who wrote huge, labyrinthine postmodern novels, and — did you hear? — was a drug-addict (he wasn’t) and served time in a dictator’s prison (a little over one week).

A young Bolaño (image courtesy of

A young Bolaño (image courtesy of

Castellanos Moya’s complaints are part of the inevitable debates over cultural ownership that arise every time an artist becomes an international phenomenon and the meaning of his or her work becomes, again, inevitably complicated. It’s fine to question what happens to a writer when he or she gets lifted out of his or her cultural context. But there are other related questions that Castellanos Moya doesn’t ask that may be more interesting. Why is Bolaño marketed as an opponent of the neoliberal global order (he fought against Pinochet!), when at the same time he can be interpreted as a defender of its core values (“Nationalism is a statue of shit slowly sinking in the desert”)? This leads to contradictions that may open the door to a more radical critique of his work — and also his “myth” — for those, like Castellanos Moya, who are suspicious of his sudden rise to fame among the powerful.

There is at least one glaring hole in the argument that the “Bolaño Myth” has been constructed by greedy capitalists and ugly Americans engaged in cultural tourism though. Many of Bolaño’s books, most obviously the semi-autobiographical The Savage Detectives, are elaborate works of self-mythology. When asked in his final interview in the Mexico edition of Playboy Magazine what it was like to be regarded as the Latin American writer with the most promising future, a terminally-ill Bolaño responded with the amusement that only a stoic can muster:

“It must be a joke. I am the Latin American writer with the least promising future. But on that point, I am the type with the most past, which is what matters anyway.”

In other words, Bolaño knew what he was doing. That’s not the same as saying that even during his lifetime his narrative wasn’t starting to get away from him. Here are his own words on book publishers’ (and not just U.S.-based ones) fascination with his detainment by the Pinochet government:

“…I was detained for eight days, although a little while ago in Italy, I was asked, ‘what happened to you? Can you tell us a little bit about your half a year in prison?’ That’s due to a misunderstanding in a German book where they had me in prison for half a year. At first they sentenced me to less time. It’s the typical Latin American tango. In the first book edited for me in Germany, they give me one month in prison; in the second book – seeing that the first one had sold so well – they raise it to three month; in the third book I’m up to four months; in the fourth book it’s five. The way it’s going, I should still be a prisoner now.”

It’s true: Bolaño did see an economic angle to the way publishers occasionally mishandled his life story (point one for Castellanos Moya and “Bolaño Inc.”). It seems that he also felt that he was, at least on some level, being stereotyped based on international views of Latin America as a land of dictatorship and revolutionary fervor (point two for Castellanos Moya, although Bolaño refers to Germany; he did not live to see his widespread success in the United States).

But the final sentence of Bolaño’s response — and also the general tone of his many interviews — suggests that he didn’t take any of this too seriously. What he took seriously were books, first other writers’ and then, by extension, his own. It’s that sensibility that may allow Bolaño to outlast not only inferior posthumous cash-ins, but also his own mythology.

J.M. Coetzee: “I am not a Herald of Community”

“Whatever the opposite of native or rooted, that was what we felt ourselves to be. We thought of ourselves as sojourners, temporary residents, and to that extent without a home, without a homeland.”

– J.M. Coetzee, Summertime

J.M. Coetzee. (Image courtesy of

J.M. Coetzee. (Image courtesy of

J.M. Coetzee’s early novels place him squarely in the tradition of “white settler moralists” — those writers who turn against their own imperial histories with a special sort of clear-sighted anger. There’s no shame in being a bastard, Coetzee wrote in his first novel, Dusklands, except that for the illegitimate children of Western Europe — Afrikaners, Pied Noirs, Anglo-Indians — there’s plenty of shame to go around. And Coetzee has spent his career trying to find a moral use for his.

Coetzee’s situation isn’t unique. Even the banal dispossessions of colonies produce sensitive types who evolve, with any luck, from solitary provincial youth into worldly writers. But how does one deal with historical disgrace, guilt, and the paralyzing demands of the present without settling into a refusal to see. “What historical role is available to a writer born into a late colonial community?” Coetzee asks in a 2003  review of one of Nadine Gordimer’s later novels. It’s a good question.

One option is to take a cue from the most famous of the “white settler moralists”, Albert Camus, and follow a route of unwavering political commitment. The obstacles along this path are formidable, but no one admires moralists whose choices are easy. Gordimer herself has chosen this route; “Camus was a strong influence,” she says. But it might be the case that the era of Camus is over for good; earnestness and transparency don’t quite fly in our cynical, confused era. Camus’s anachronism comes in the form of his armor of French humanism — Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité — the sort of humanism that provides confidence and cultural connection, apparently even to poor boys born in Mondovi. Coetzee’s humanism, on the other hand, is a patchy kind of armor – the remains of a discredited individualism left to crack in the dry South African Veldt.

Coetzee is a lousy activist, and this makes him more interesting than most moralists. In a review of Coetzee’s 1983 novel The Life and Times of Michael K Gordimer wrote of the book’s “revulsion against all political and revolutionary solutions” and concluded that the author wouldn’t deny that the revulsion was his own. That’s true. He wouldn’t. Coetzee has described himself as  “alienated, when the crunch comes, by [radical] language – by all political language, in fact.”

What this sort of anti-politics often means is a cowardly crypto-conservatism, and some critics have accused Coetzee of this. I disagree. While It’s hard to imagine the famously aloof Coetzee ever writing anything as open and searching about his country as Camus did in The Algerian Chronicles, his disgust with power and hierarchy in his nation is the engine of his writing. Sometimes the only reaction to an oppressive society is to withdraw from it in the hopes of escaping its poisonous influences: “The alternatives are not placid servitude on the one hand and open revolt against servitude on the other. There is a third way, chosen by thousands and millions of people every day. It is the way of quietism, of willed obscurity, of inner emigration,” Coetzee writes in Diary of a Bad Year. He does not imply it is the morally superior way, but I strongly suspect that he feels it is the way he has preserved his dignity.

A belief in individual dignity won’t take you far as an activist but it helps when confronted with the totalitarian trapdoors of collective identity. Can a person be “morally steadfast in a bad situation” and at the same time withdraw from social commitment to focus on nurturing and healing the self? Even Camus was forced to concede, during the period he remained silent on his own troubled and beloved Algeria, that sometimes “too much is expected of a writer in these matters.”