Arts & Entertainment

V.S. Naipaul’s Heart of Darkness

New York Review of Books

In the December 22 issue of the Review, Howard W. French confronts the “glaring, foundational flaw” in A Bend in the River, one of Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul’s best-known novels: “its extreme essentialization of Africa and Africans—their reduction to pure, simple, almost iconic abstractions.”

“This is no call for the novel, much less Naipaul, to be canceled,” French emphasizes. Instead, by detailing the book’s failures—its glib history of colonialism, incessant and atavistic descriptions of life in the “bush,” and simplistic characterizations—he hopes to identify “its increasingly dramatic dissonance with our times.” Ultimately, French asks “whether a book that was so widely lauded just two decades ago could even be published today.”

Below, alongside French’s article, we have collected from the Review’s archives essays about V.S. Naipaul’s life and work, as well as a travelogue Naipaul wrote from Zaire in 1975, which French faults for “historical obliviousness”: “In it, as he retraces Conrad’s journey on a Congo River ferry, he laments the demise of service standards, especially in the first-class cabin, where light bulbs are missing and the air-conditioning unit is balky.”

Howard W. French
Naipaul’s Unreal Africa

A Bend in the River was acclaimed for its brave truth-telling, but it fails to imagine Africa as anything other than unchanging, untamed, and primitive.

Ishion Hutchinson
Far Away

“When I moved from Kingston to New York, V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival became part of my internal rhythm of resistance in the city, my bulwark against losing the gift of fantasy.

V. S. Naipaul
A New King for the Congo

“This, for all their talk of authenticity and the ways of the ancestors, was their fear: to be returned from the sweet corruptions of Kinshasa to the older corruption of the bush, to be returned to Africa.”

Joan Didion
Without Regret or Hope

“The actual world has for Naipaul a radiance that diminishes all ideas of it. The pink haze of the bauxite dust on the first page of Guerrillas tells us what we need to know about the history and social organization of the unnamed island on which the action takes place, tells us in one image who runs the island and for whose profit the island is run and at what cost to the life of the island this profit has historically been obtained, but all of this implicit information pales in the presence of the physical fact, the dust itself.”

Norman Rush
Naipaul’s Mysterious Africa

“The glamour of Naipaul’s achievements (the great novels, the formidable travel works, the essays, the Nobel Prize) and the sympathy elicited by his heroic overcoming of the obstacles facing a poor ‘Trinidadian of Hindu descent’ in racist London and its literary world of the 1950s and 1960s are dissipated by the horrific account of his conduct with the women in his life.”


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