Lines of Life: Essays by Experts

"After all, we make ourselves according to the ideas we have of our possibilities."

- V.S. Naipaul


V.S. Naipaul’s Miguel Street and Wartime Port of Spain

Stephen Stuempfle

As World War II escalated during 1941, the United States developed major army and navy bases in Trinidad, with the primary goals of protecting shipping lanes and natural resources in the region and countering German U-boat attacks. While the main army base (Fort Read) was located in north-central Trinidad and the main navy base (Chaguaramas) on the northwestern peninsula, Port of Spain served as the Americans’ command, logistical and recreational center. The army maintained its headquarters at Whitehall on the Queen’s Park Savannah and operated bases at Docksite (on recently reclaimed land south of Woodbrook), in King George V Park and at several other locations around the city. In the course of the war, thousands of American servicemen and civilian contractors poured through Port of Spain and had a wide-ranging impact on its economy and social relations. While much reporting and commentary on this transformation appeared in local newspapers and in the army’s own periodical, Trinidad News Tips (TNT), surely the most perceptive accounts of life in the wartime city were postwar novels by Samuel Selvon (A Brighter Sun, 1952), Ralph de Boissière (Rum and Coca-Cola, 1956) and V.S. Naipaul (Miguel Street, 1959).

Naipaul’s Miguel Street is sharply delimited geographically and temporally, modelled on his personal experience of growing up on Luis Street in Woodbrook. Both the fictional and actual streets terminate at Docksite to the south and intersect Ariapita Avenue. The timeframe of the novel (1938–1950) also corresponds to Naipaul’s childhood and youth. Though he did not live on Luis Street for this entire period, it was his home during the war’s latter years, which are the focus of the book. In an essay titled “Prologue to an Autobiography” (1984), Naipaul reflects on the process of writing Miguel Street. While working in a BBC office in London in 1955, he remembered his Woodbrook neighbour Hat shouting a greeting each morning to Bogart, a family friend who lived in a one-room structure in their backyard. This memory inspired a story about Bogart, which in turn provided a foundation for recollecting and recreating the whole world of the street. Simplification was essential to this literary rendering. While a growing number of Naipaul’s maternal relatives moved into the house on Luis Street after 1942, the narrator of Miguel Street lives alone with his mother and is easily able to observe and interact with the denizens of the neighbourhood, without excessive domestic encumbrances. Looking back on his childhood and teenage years (like Naipaul’s recollections in 1955), the narrator gradually introduces new characters – initially as names, then with passing comments, and eventually in chapters, each of which focuses on one figure. Most characters are not identified by ethnicity – they are simply residents of Miguel Street, urban Trinidadians. As the narrative progresses, the shape of this community becomes increasingly clear in terms of personal relationships, occupations, pastimes, collective sentiment and the daily rhythms of life on the street. Dialogue in Creole, pithy observations, lines from calypsoes of the era and sharp humour all contribute to the setting’s ambience. While the narrator’s memories jump back and forth in time in the course his storytelling, he has matured by the end of the novel and leaves Trinidad, as Naipaul himself did in 1950.1

The residents of Miguel Street are a varied lot who are generally amused by and tolerant of each other’s eccentricities. Bogart lives in his small backyard room, and while the narrator paints a sign for him that advertises a tailoring business, he spends most of his time playing solitaire. He acquired his nickname after Casablanca played in Port of Spain, keeps a picture of Lauren Bacall on his wall and likes to speak with an American accent. Next door to Bogart is Hat, who maintains a cow pen and talks like the British actor Rex Harrison. Hat is something of a leader of the men and boys on the street, constantly reads the Trinidad Guardian, seems knowledgeable about most affairs of the neighbourhood and regularly offers wry comments on passing events. A close friend of Hat and Bogart is Eddoes, who drives a blue scavenging (garbage-collecting) cart and thus finishes work early each day. Eddoes is a “saga boy”, a fellow who attracts women by dressing in stylish clothes (often following the latest American fashions). This trio of individuals, Hat’s brother Edward, the narrator and a few other younger boys frequently gather together to pass the time and observe the many other residents of Miguel Street. There is Popo – a carpenter who works in his backyard galvanized-iron shop on “the thing without a name”, making no actual furniture until later in the story. Man-man, who runs for every election and obtains three votes, spends much of his time writing words. When the narrator tells him that he is on his way to school, Man-man devotes the rest of the day to chalking “school” on the pavement, with multiple O’s, all the way around the block. The narrator’s Uncle Bhakcu, the “Mechanical Genius”, constantly tinkers with his car, often rendering it inoperable. Morgan, the “Pyrotechnicist”, carries out fireworks experiments in his house, igniting it one night and finally attaining the admiration of his neighbours. At one end of the street is Titus Hoyt, who runs a small school in his house. Mr Hoyt tries to teach the neighbourhood boys Latin on his verandah and then forms the Miguel Street Literary and Social Youth Club, which soon devolves into an occasion for the boys’ commentary on the latest movies playing in town.

As the narrator tells stories of these and various other characters, the landscape and community of Miguel Street emerge as an interconnected whole. Within this environment, there is a high level of residential density as well as spatial openness, as manifested in open doors and windows in houses and the use of verandahs and yards as domestic spaces. Yards, in turn, open into the street, where the men and boys gather regularly to talk and the latter play cricket. Occasionally, some of the women join the others on the street to pass judgment on an unusual incident. In essence, the density and openness of the environment facilitate constant social interaction among residents and keen awareness of each other’s business. Such landscapes were (and remain) typical of many parts of Port of Spain.

Though the residents of Miguel Street occasionally venture to other parts of the city and beyond, most of the novel takes place in this single locale. However, there is an intrusion on this familiar world: American servicemen from the Docksite base at the end of the street. In his “Prologue to an Autobiography”, Naipaul discusses the arrival of the Americans at Docksite, where they raised a flag each morning and lowered it each evening to the sound of bugles. At night one could also hear the outdoor cinema on the base, while a house on the street became a sort of brothel. At the end of the war, when a local contractor began tearing down the buildings at the base, Naipaul’s family had the opportunity to gather whatever timber they wanted. Naipaul himself took some to make a gate for his father’s recently purchased house in St James.2 In Miguel Street, the Americans similarly invade the neighbourhood. The unpopular George turns his dilapidated pink house into a brothel, while Hat’s brother Edward gets a job at Chaguaramas, begins chewing gum and wearing American-style clothes, and holds noisy parties for Americans in his house. He tells the narrator that Miguel Street could pass for a sidewalk in the United States and takes him to watch an open-air movie through the barbed-wire fence at Docksite. Meanwhile, Hat runs a racket in which the narrator and other boys hustle servicemen for gum and chocolate. Finally, Bolo the barber, who cuts hair under a mango tree on Miguel Street, only accepts that the war is over when, in 1947, the Americans begin tearing down the buildings at their base in King George V Park.

1. V.S. Naipaul, Miguel Street (New York: Vintage Books, 1984 [1959]); V.S. Naipaul, “Prologue to an Autobiography”, in Finding the Center: Two Narratives (New York: Vintage Books, 1986), 3–72 (see 3–19). Miguel Street could be classified as a collection of short stories or a novel; Naipaul refers to it as a “book” in his “Prologue”. The continuity of the setting, interrelatedness of the characters and growth of the single narrator are all more suggestive of a novel of interlinked chapters than a collection of individual stories.

2. Naipaul, “Prologue to an Autobiography”, 5–7, 27, 30.

Excerpted and adapted from Stephen Stuempfle, Port of Spain: The Construction of a Caribbean City, 1888–1962 (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2018).

Memorials - Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

All the major news channels carried the announcement of V. S. Naipaul death and many quaint and some touching representations emerged. Many of the tweets have already been usefully collected. And tributes from many other sources are widely available. From liberal colleges around the world there was an outpouring of remembrance of the man and his writing. Paul Theroux whose rankled resentment of V. S. Naipaul added to the weight of rejection he had borne throughout most of his writing career had these moving things to say after his death. Many were torn by how much he would be missed and how much he irritated while he was here. Views expressed by Caribbean people were equally complex. The number of YouTube videos that were produced after were also impressive.

We reproduce here one of the texts that would probably be most appealing for the Caribbean reader by celebrated Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, first published in The Daily Nation. In this brief essay, Ngũgĩ reflects on his first meeting with Naipaul who was on the committee for one of the many prizes Ngũgĩ has received for his works.

“V. S. Naipaul, his Kenyan-born wife, me and lone flower at the dinner table” Finally, I met Naipaul in person. It was in Freile, Northern Italy, at the home of the Nonino family, the brewers of a special liqueur, Nonino grappa. The three Noninos, mother and her two daughters, who ran the distilleries, looked more like contestants in a beauty tournament than makers of intoxicants. But I had not left California where I taught, and he, England, where he lived, to drown in liquor. I was there to receive the 2011 International Nonino Prize for the Italian translation of my book, Moving the Center. V. S. Naipaul was chair and member of the jury.

I was with my wife, Njeeri, and he, his wife, Nadira Alvi. She was Pakistani but was actually born in Mombasa, Kenya. So Naipaul and I had Kenya for a common connection. Uganda was another connection. V. S. Naipaul was the first recipient of a two-year Makerere Creative Writing Fellowship. His book, In a Free State, was a product of that stay.

I was the second recipient of the same fellowship in 1969. My book, Homecoming, which talked a great deal about Caribbean literature, was a product of that fellowship. And now, here in Italy, I was receiving the Nonino International Prize from his hands for a book titled Moving the Center, almost echoing the title of his own other travelogue: Finding the Center. Throughout the dinner celebration, he and I sat next to each other, and so had the time to chat. Naturally we turned to literature.

After I left Makerere in 1964, I went to Leeds University for my postgraduate studies. I worked on Caribbean literature, and, while I focused on the fiction of George Lamming, In The Castle of My Skin and his other novels, I did also read a lot of V. S. Naipaul. These writers were part of the Caribbean literary renaissance of the 1950s, and most of them, as young writers, were often featured in the BBC Caribbean voices. Among the new Caribbean voices, VS Naipaul was the most prolific. He published his first book, The Mystic Masseur, in 1957, which would be followed by many other titles: More than 20 volumes which included novels, short stories, autobiographies and travelogues. Some of his works are set in Trinidad; others in Africa, Asia and Europe.

Although he eventually chose England for a home, his roots were in Trinidad. His best fiction, including the masterpiece, A House for Mr Biswas, is the one set in the land of his birth and youth. Mohun Biswas, the lead character, and his struggles for a house, something that he can call his own, reflect Naipaul’s own life. His parents were part of the indentured labour imported from India to work on the sugar plantations, previously done by enslaved Africans. With the abolition of slavery, that free labour that built the industrial capital of the West, was no longer free and as readily available. A son of indentured labourer serving the British, V.S. Naipaul eventually graduated from Oxford University. He also moved his residency to Britain, and so, from being a subject of the Crown he became a citizen of the Crown. Along the way the way he earned many literary awards including the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature. He also earned a Knighthood. By the time I met him in Italy, he was Sir V. S. Naipaul.

But while earning all those laurels, he was criticised by many other intellectuals, including George Lamming, for his attitude to the rising tide of anti-colonial liberation struggles and the rise of new nations in Latin America, Africa and Asia. His books based on Africa, A Bend in the River, and In a Free State, for instance, painted an unflattering portrait of the new states and leadership, sometimes deploying images close to those one finds in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. He admired Conrad. Naipaul’s travelogue on India, the land of his ancestors, was titled An Area of Darkness. Like Conrad, Naipaul had a soft spot for the British, and his satire, so sharp in its exploration of the rising middle class of India, Africa and Latin America, was hardly ever turned on the British coloniser. This has led some critics outside of Europe to see him as the perfect example of the colonised intellectual once described by Edward Said as a prosecution witness for the West in relationship to Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

But for me, despite his blind spot when it came to imperialism, he remains a brilliant writer, one who holds a mirror of imagination unto society to capture a certain view of reality. But the mirror ends up showing much more than the holder intended. Mimic Men, one of his titles, portrays very well the mimicry in the language, culture, economic policies, and politics, of the new post-colonial elite who have normalised the abnormalities of the colonial heritage as the foundation of their national and international outlook. V.S. Naipaul is ruthless in his satirical portrayal of the self-image of this mimic ruling elite, which always looks to the West for validation, but at its own people with disdain.

He has turned the genre of the travelogue into an art form. In Italy, that evening, I asked him how he was able to draw fairly accurate pictures of countries he has just visited. I had lived in Britain and America for many years and still I had not had the confidence to write about the countries. I always feel I don’t know enough. He paused, and then asked me to look at the table, piled with all the delicacies of the celebratory dinner. I did not see anything beyond the colours of the cloth, the flowers, and the cutlery, all which matched in a kind of glittering grandeur.

Naipaul pointed at something, a twig or a flower, which seemed different from the rest. This lone flower so at odds with the rest, defines this table, he told me. If I wrote about this dinner, I would concentrate on what is odd or slightly out of place. The odd defines the norm. Maybe Naipaul was right. In cinema the single individual moving in the direction opposite that taken by the crowd attracts the eye of the viewer but helps us realise the crowd size. That literary lesson helped clarify what I admired in Naipaul. He could irritate, but, like Conrad, he made you see, hear, touch, and smell. He is a writer’s writer, and there is always something to learn from his craft.

Africa, like India, always fascinated him, and one of his last travelogues, published in 2010, included his travels in Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria and Ivory Coast. The title? The Masque of Africa. The title takes us back to Conrad and other colonial images of the continent, which saw African faces in terms of inscrutable masks. His life embodied contradictions, but he drew from the tensions in those contradictions to create great art. He has passed on but his spirit and genius dwells among us in his magnificent literary output.