I lived a secret life in a world of endless pains, tall bare mountains, white with snow at their peaks, among nomads on horseback …. I was a Singh. And I would dream that all over the Central Asian plains the horsemen looked for their leader…………..
Nor does his sense of aloofness feed only on these romantic flights of fancy. A daily surfeit of European culture at school convinces him of the desirability of maintaining this attitude of detachment towards all aspects of local life; and his approach is far from unique:
Anything that touched on everyday life [he recalls] excited laughter when at was mentioned in a classroom: the name of a shop, the name of a street, the name of street-corner foods. The laughter denied our knowledge of these things to which after the hours of school we were to return. We denied the landscape and the people we could see out of open doors and windows, we who took apples to the teacher and wrote essays about visits to temperate farms. Whether we dissected a hibiscus flower or recited the names of lsabellan birds, school remained a private hemisphere.
Thus, in its essential spirit of separateness, by its innate incongruity, the system of education is seen to perpetuate, for yet another generation, the dis-order already so manifest in the society at large, to aggravate the frustrations of those who, coming together from widely disparate racial backgrounds, encounter at every hand cultural and social barriers insurmountable by any common sense of objective.
Indeed, it is this fundamental disunity that Naipaul suggests very forcefully in his delineation of the social hierarchy. Considering the French creoles of whom the Deschampneufs family are effective representatives, the author reveals the basic insecurity of these island “aristocrats”, jealously asserting their French heritage yet, conscious of the futility of their European pretensions, and so protesting, often vulgarly, their sense of commitment to the society. Still, as Naipaul is at pains to point out, a carefully preserved sense of superiority makes the odd gesture of contempt irrepressible, and alleged liberality is shown to evince itself only in the form of a most condescending benevolent patronage. Significantly enough, this attitude, far from being resented, is generally allowed to be unchallengeably just; and any active participation by a member of this class in the affairs of the underprivileged is hailed with gratitude and affection as a gesture of the most momentous charity.
Turning to the other end of the social scale Naipaul sees the workers – Africans, Asiatics and Mulattos – all illiterate and economically depressed, yet attitudinally poles apart. The negro element which predominates, having been methodically deprived of all traditional links with their African heritage, flounder around, like the Browne family, in a cultural morass, wishing on the one hand to achieve some degree of social distinction yet ambivalently accepting, and even innocently perpetuating, the often reiterated idea of themselves as a carefree irresponsible race of self-mocking comedians. Their Asiatic counterparts, on the other hand, continue as intruders, sharing in the general distress, yet unable to identify with their fellow subordinates; and the mulattos, for their part, having elected somewhat incongruously to preserve the “purity” of their race, succeed in contributing even further to the fragmentation of this stratum. Disorder at both levels. Yet, in Naipaul’s view, the most disoriented group of all is that formed by the educated descendants of slaves and their coloured superiors – displaced individuals, all vainly looking to England in an attempt to discover an honourable identity and seeking, by the imitation of their colonial overlords, to conceal even from themselves the irrelevance of their very existence.
It is, perhaps, indicative of Naipaul’s much bruited pessimism, that he continues to deny the tenability of a satisfactory and positive solution to what is, quite demonstrably a chaotic social situation. Mimicry or evasion – these are the only alternatives he will allow, and so the protagonist, faced with the necessity of having to admit the demoralising realities of his environment, seeks what solace he can in the secret and somewhat desperate affirmation of his own individuality:
I felt, to give my own symptoms, that I was in some way protected; a celestial camera recorded my every movement, impartially, without judgement or pity. I was marked; I was of interest; I would survive.
Less privately, this wish to reassure himself of his uniqueness urges him to exaggerate, for the benefit of his school-mates, the “nervous” disposition gratuitously attributed to him; it promotes his apparent gesture of nobility at a school sport-meeting; it makes him bitterly resentful of his father’s role as leader of a lower class movement; arid, above all, it exacerbates the sense of violation which floods him whenever he feels himself in danger of being lost in the “camouflage” of the socially oppressed masses: “It was hideous and diminishing, this devotion, this assumption that I was one of them. I felt threatened. My chieftaincy lay elsewhere. “Accordingly, the frenzied sense of impending doom persists, eventually manifesting itself in a neurotic preoccupation with his own physical safety and a pronounced fear of contamination overcome only once, and then temporarily, through an incestuous relationship with his young aunt.
Still, the urge to escape remains. It takes him to London; and here in this city of enchanting light, he knows to his despair a solitude which in its very completeness seems to mock any former sense of isolation:
“Here was the city, the world. I waited for the flowering to come to me. The trams on the Embankment sparkled blue. The river was edged and pierced with reflections of light, blue and red and yellow. Excitement! Its heart must have lain somewhere. But the god of the city was elusive. The tram was filled with individuals, each man returning to his own cell.”
And so, the desire for fulfilment is left ungratified. Once again he has failed to establish the much sought rapport with his landscape. Once again he finds himself forced to assume a “character” to survive – to present, as so many of his new acquaintances, an artificial two-dimensional picture of himself. The eagerly awaited period of self-realization becomes charged not with excitement but with fear, fear of annihilation -“not the panic of being lost or lonely, the panic of ceasing to feel a whole person”. Nor does his contact with countless prostitutes provide the required re-assurance: “Each occasion pressed me deeper down into emptiness, that prolonged sensation of shock with which I was every minute of every day trying to come to terms”. The result is, in consequence, a mounting terror attended by a growing consciousness of his own in-effectuality, a longing to yield to the oblivion so faithfully promised by the loaded luger and, ultimately, the decision to accept the asylum offered by marriage to a young English girl with “the gift of the phrase”.
To me, drifting about the big city that had reduced me to futility, she was all that was positive . . . it seemed to me that to attach myself to her was to acquire the protection which she offered, to share some of her quality of being marked, a quality which once was mine but which I had lost.
Thus, the salvation originally expected to flow so providently from a temperate landscape, is now thought to rest in the keeping of the luckless Sandra. Her proposal is accepted, the wedding follows; and, later, there is the celebratory return to the familiar lsabellan scenery and a ready-made way of life. Briefly he knows an unprecedented degree of composure:
I felt I had changed, I recognized that the change was involuntary, so that at last my “character” became not what others took it to be but something personal and ordained. This placidity at the heart of celebration, I felt to be my strength.