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Friday, 17 February 2012

Book review: V.S. Naipaul, Beyond Belief (1998)

The subtitle for this book, 'Islamic excursions among the coverted peoples', illustrates the long, historical view that interests Naipaul. In the book's introduction he starts out by talking about the book that preceded this one, which is titled Among the Believers and which was published in 1981, and how comments he received from people about it made him determine to revisit the same countries that were covered in it, and write about them again because "[i]t occurred to me that I had not stood back sufficiently from the material of the earlier book". It must be true also to say that a long, historical view will colour any reader's experience of the second book as we look back, from 2012, past the events of 2005 (London tubes), 2002 (Sari Club, Bali) and 2001 (Twin Towers) to a time and place where it was still possible for a peripatetic British writer of Indian extraction who was born in the West Indies, to go out into the cities and the countryside of Indonesia, Iran and Pakistan, and write about society under the influence of Islam from the perspective merely of a curious outsider. In that sense, Beyond Belief is an under-appreciated little gem. It could not be written today. Or, at least, it could not be written today in the way it was written starting in 1995 when the author set out on his long journey.

Naipaul won the Nobel Prize in 2001. This fact, alone, should help to convince many people to revisit this book. But requirements are odious to dedicated booklovers, those who prefer to wander without a goal among the flowers that bloom on every side in an enlarged literary space, thanks to globalisation. For these people, I think it would be better to remark on the brilliance of Naipaul's craft in this long piece of literary journalism (or creative non-fiction, if you prefer). Here he is setting out with his driver and his translator into the dusty streets of another small town, with his bag and his intense curiosity. Here he is sitting for hours listening to a father or a businessman talking about his life, his past, his family, his forbears, his aspirations. Here he is taking notes while sitting on an uncomfortable chair in a hot, stuffy room. Here he is, back at the hotel, transcribing his detailed notes and writing some of the best journalism you will find anywhere in the world.

As Naipaul listens to his interviewees he thinks, he uses his judgement. This faculty comes into play even more strongly once he is back at the hotel, writing up the latest piece. The Islamicisation that he observes changing the lives of the people he meets in Indonesia, Iran and Pakistan makes him ponder the nature of progress and aspiration, because it is deeply associated with these two elements of the social dynamic. While some might judge Naipaul himself a little severely because of his tough regard, at least he is consistent. No man, not even a leading author of prose, can be expected to possess the wisdom to see how strangers understand the world. Nevertheless, the intensity of Naipaul's gaze enables us to grasp, perhaps, things that the author himself failed to comprehend.

The way that the Western media, today, sees events in Indonesia, Iran and Pakistan is not so far distant from how Naipaul sees them and talks about them in this book. Mixed with curiosity there is a kind of amazement, and mixed with that is a kind of disgust. But while we may regret Islamicisation it is clear that it serves a very real purpose for residents of these countries. Naipaul's achievement is to include enough detail in his journalism so that we may make up our own minds about Islamicisation. In the very-long form, only, are we provided with the means to do this, and Naipaul's very long piece of literary journalism is for this reason a superb addition to anyone's library, and comes highly recommended from me. This time, I think it's fair to say, Naipaul has "stood back" sufficiently far to enable the reader to take in the very broadest view of the countries he covers in the book.

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