History as fodder for discovery of self

June 19, 1994|By Michael Boylan

V. S. Naipaul is sometimes viewed as a writer who represents the conflicts between the New World (his native Trinidad) and the Old World (colonial Europe). Along the way are the inevitable conflicts of class and race that this interaction often occasions. This view of Mr. Naipaul is too limiting, though, and "A Way in the World" -- his 11th novel and 22nd book -- clearly sets the author as an engaging novelist of depth and complexity.

The actions are various, encompassing the historical figures of Columbus, Sir Walter Raleigh, Simon Bolivar and Venezuelan revolutionary Francisco Miranda. These are set against the contemporary persona of the author himself, who is about to leave home to travel to England for his education.

This structural setting does several things. First, it places contemporary action into the context of history. "Most of us know the parents or grandparents we come from. But we go back and back, forever; we go back all of us to the very beginning; in our blood and bone and brain we carry the memories of thousands of beings."

The theory of history invoked is cyclical. This fits into the Indian, Hindu roots of the author's own family. Automatically, the Old World transforms to an older world: one that has existed from the beginning of this current 50,000-year cycle (according to Hinduism). What we see has happened before and reveals aspects of human nature that continue to develop anew -- though always according to deep laws that govern us all.

Second, the structure allows the author to create a metaphor for what we, as people, do during our lives. We create ourselves as we pursue various missions of discovery. Columbus and Raleigh took an epistemological view that what was new to them was really "brought into being" for mankind. Obviously, from the point of view of the native peoples already here, this is false.

Bolivar pursued a dream, too -- one that was only partially realized. How things play out is not the important thing here, but it is a way that we give our lives significance. An ideal is created, and we move toward it. In the process, we create a persona that we identify as ourselves.

Francisco Miranda is less well-known. He is central to the counterpoint with the author because Miranda, like Mr. Naipaul, traveled in the opposite direction from Columbus and Raleigh. Miranda went from the New World to the Old World. He was a conqueror of a different sort.

Miranda leaves his home at 21 to seek his fortune in Europe. Miranda keeps a journal of his adventures, which include becoming adept at impressing the aristocracy with whatever they wanted. He is a con man, but one who can succeed only because of the nature of his audience. This aristocratic audience is only too happy to enjoy his company and is thoroughly impressed by him.

This is an emblem of the artist and his audience. An artist creates characters and actions that an audience desires. The success of certain books is directly related to the social and personal nature of the readers of the book. The writer, too, is a con man.

But even a con man speaks the truth. The truth is one that the self-reflective reader begins to observe about himself. Thus, the XTC context of reader to book is parallel to the context of individual to historical personages (which is the general structure of this novel).

This last point is the third way that the structural setting of the book reinforces its message. The book is about creation. Creation is novelty expressed via the individual. This can occur through someone being an author or through the ordinary activity of daily life. We must situate ourselves in a tradition and then break free from the tradition.

In "A Way in the World," the tradition and its tyrannical side is symbolized by colonialism. Like the central figures in the book, we cannot rest by merely situating ourselves in an historical context. We must go further, as revolutionaries, and rebel against the tradition.

Theme, story and structure operate on complementary levels. Ideally, this should always be the case in any work of fiction. But the brilliance of their interaction here makes "A Way in the World" a wonderful book.

Michael Boylan is a poet and professor of philosophy at Marymount University.

Title: "A Way in the World"

Author: V. S. Naipaul

Publisher: Knopf

Length, price: 386 pages, $23

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