I picked this book up from the Little Free Library beside one of the Cubes of Herne in January, and read it on the ferry coming back from Ireland (a month ago now, I have a substantial backlog in my bookblog). It consists of four essays from the Nobel Laureate; it is notable that although the first and the longest of the pieces is about Trinidad, it is Eva Perón who is given top billing in the book’s title and cover. It’s an important book and I will describe each of the four essays briefly.
The second paragraph of the third section of “Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad” is:
Trinidad in 1971 was his perfect setting. Trinidad, with its oil economy, was rich, with a standard of living equalled in South America only by Venezuela and Argentina. Every consumer comfort was at hand, and Malik was soon pleasantly settled in the country town of Arima, in a newish house with a large garden. But Trinidad was far away. In London, Chicago and Toronto, fund-raising centres, Trinidad could pass as an impoverished island where a black leader, fleeing persecution, and also reacting against ‘the industrialized complex’, might settle down, in a ‘commune’, to constructive work with despairing blacks, who needed only this leadership, and little gifts of money, to get started in black agriculture, black fruit-growing. And, later, even a little black fishing: a trawler (obtainable through ‘contractual relationships with … Schichting-Werft shipyard, Travemuende’) would cost £18,000, but ‘initial feasibility studies indicate that the profits … would exceed £30,000 a month’. Remote Trinidad held this kind of possibility for its enthralled blacks; all that was needed was the leadership.
I was not familiar with this grim story: Michael X, a political activist and effectively a cult leader who had ended up back in his native Trinidad after developing his activist career in London, had two of his followers brutally killed in 1971, and was eventually arrested, convicted and executed for the crimes. Naipaul goes into the rhetoric of Michael X’s particular version of Black Power in detail, which helps us understand why his followers (and others including John Lennon) took him so seriously. Naipaul doesn’t make the connection with Charles Manson, but I must say that I also saw similarities with other homicidal cult leaders before and since.
The third section of “The Return of Eva Perón” is actually about Uruguay rather than Argentina; its second paragraph is:
Now it is a little less frenzied. The Tupamaros — there were about five thousand of them, mainly townspeople from impoverished middle-class families — have been destroyed. The army — essentially rural, lower middle-class is in control and rules by decree. Interest rates have dropped to around 42 per cent, with the taxes; and inflation this year has been kept down to 6o per cent. ‘Prices here don’t just rise every day,’ the businessman said. ‘They also rise every night.’
This is a lyrical and detailed essay about the extraordinary story of Juan and Eva Perón, and how Argentina (and Uruguay) descended into economic and political hell despite being blessed with natural resources and reasonably skilled populations. From the mid-1970s, when Naipaul was writing, it did all look pretty awful; now things look a bit better, but still fragile. He makes the point that Eva Perón would only have been in her fifties, and presumably still dominating the country’s politics, if she still been alive in 1977. He pulls in fellow writer Jorge Luis Borges for some interesting and disturbing observations.
The last two essays are both about the country then known as Zaire and now as the Democratic Republic of Congo. The first, “A New King for the Congo: Mobutu and the Nihilism of Africa”, is about the Mobutu regime, which had then been in power for over a decade and had another twenty years to go. The second paragraph of the third section is a report frmo a newly appointed district commissioner:
At the very entrance to the canal [according to the official report in Elima], thousands of mosquitoes cover you from head to ankles, compelling you to move about all the time … After a whole night of insomnia on the Lubengo canal, or rather the ‘calvary’ of Lubengo, where we had very often to get out in the water and make a superhuman effort to help the paddlers free the pirogue from mud or wood snags, we got to the end of the canal at nine in the morning (we had entered it at 9.3o the previous evening), and so at last we arrived at Bomongo at 12.30, in a state that would have softened the hardest hearts. If we have spoken at some length about the Lubengo canal, it isn’t because we want to discourage people from visiting Bomongo by the canal route, but rather to stress one of the main reasons why this place is isolated and seldom visited.
The Mobutu regime eventually collapsed in a war that drew in all nine of the neighbouring countries at one time or another, and in the meantime other African regimes had followed it down the path of brutality and corruption. Naipaul’s analysis of the weaponisation of the cult of personality and the meagre but sufficient resources of state power is brief and forensic.
The final essay, “Conrad’s Darkness”, looks at Conrad’s work as a whole, but at Heart of Darkness in particular. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:
Most imaginative writers discover themselves, and their world, through their work. Conrad, when he settled down to write, was, as he wrote to the publisher William Blackwood, a man whose character had been formed. He knew his world, and had reflected on his experience. Solitariness, passion, the abyss : the themes are constant in Conrad. There is a unity in .a writer’s work; but the Conrad who wrote Victory, though easier and more direct in style, was no more experienced and wise than the Conrad who, twenty years before, had written Almayer’s Folly. His uncertainties in the early days seem to have been mainly literary, a trying out of subjects and moods. In 18496, the year after the publication of Almayer’s Folly, he could break off from the romantic turgidities of The Rescue and write not only ‘The Lagoon’, but also begin ‘An Outpost of Progress’. These stories, which stand at the opposite ends, as it were, of my comprehension of Conrad, one story so romantic, one so brisk and tough, were written almost at the same time.
Naipaul spent a lot more time thinking about Conrad than I have, but comes out in the same place: Heart of Darkness is a masterpiece and the rest of his work is remarkably good.
This was my top unread book by a non-white writer, and you can get it here. Next on that pile is The Cartographers, by Peng Shepherd.