“To be born on an island like Isabella, an obscure New World transplantation, second hand and barbarous was to be born to disorder. From an early age, almost from my first lesson at school about the weight of the King’s crown. I had sensed this.”
In his most recent novel published in London in 1967, Naipaul once again examines the dilemma of the “picturesque Asiatic” whose pronounced sense of estrangement, resulting from a relatively recent introduction into an alien landscape, has been further aggravated by a failure to establish satisfactorily his position in the racially-complex society of his own environment. Admittedly this is by no means a new theme for the author. Yet, the very fact that THE MIMIC MEN has won Naipaul the W.H .Smith Award made annually to the author judged to have contributed most to English Literature during a given year, suggests that the work goes beyond a simple re-statement of the problems of an isolated minority. Nor is the reader disappointed. In fact, THE MIMIC MEN reveals very poignantly the deep horror inherent in the unnatural yoking together of races physically mentally and spiritually at variance; more than that, it records a nightmarish experience made even more malefic by the apparent futility of an attempt to escape its oppressiveness.
Outlining the world of the “mimic ” men Naipaul describes a society rendered intrinsically anarchic because of the very cosmopolitan nature of its population. Originally colonised by European plantation owners and their African thralls, the abolition of slavery has irrevocably destroyed the order which existed when the society was comprised primarily of two very clearly distinguished racial groups, filling two equally distinct social roles. The ensuing search for a new order capable of accommodating honourably the displaced descendants of either stratum has been further complicated with the admission of yet another alien group into the island community and the super imposition of a culture foreign to the majority of the inhabitants. The net result has been the emergence of a “man-made” world where not even the flora is indigenous, a world inhabited by the abandoned and forgotten of three continents striving in vain to achieve the fulfilment which, Naipaul argues, may only be gained “,within the security of their own societies and the landscapes hymned by their ancestors ………….. ”
Not unexpectedly, then, interest in the novel arises out of the narrator-protagonist’s struggle to ascertain his rightful place in defiance of a society too fragmented to provide the order he is instinctively urged to seek. Ranjit Kripalsingh is the descendant of transplanted asiatic serfs. This fact he is never permitted to forget. He spends the better part of forty years trying to surmount the sense of placelessness imposed upon him by his origin. Then, eventually persuaded of the hopelessness of his efforts, he attempts a final evasion through emotional annihilation.
This very profound sense of defeat which, in fact, pervades the entire work undoubtedly makes the protagonist appear a much less than a heroic figure, still one must allow that his experiences hardly seem calculated to inspire in him a sense of personal worth powerful enough to combat a legacy of social and economic inferiority. True, on the one hand, his father’s educational qualifications, though limited, have enabled the family to enjoy a relatively comfortable standard of living. Yet, the protagonist is ever aware that, without wealth, only the most tenuous of barriers separates him from those mud-stained figures living crowded together in sodden thatched huts – a people whose squalid deprivation, moreover, causes him only anger and acute embarrassment by proclaiming, in his view, the justness of their subordination:
“To be descended from generations of idlers and failures, an unbroken line of the unimaginative, unenterprising and oppressed, had always seemed to me to be a cause for deep, silent shame.”
Determined, consequently, to avoid the personal violation which he feels is constantly being threat-ened by his unhappy ethnic background, the young Kripalsingh first yearns to be identified with his mother’s affluent relatives. Yet, as he soon discovers, material success does not purchase his grandfather dignity; and so he resolves, even at this early age, to preserve his self-respect by cultivating very strictly the supremely negative policy of non-involvement.