Theroux's Naipaul: Intended betrayal?

October 18, 1998|By Steve Weinberg | Steve Weinberg,Special to the sun

"Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents," by Paul Theroux. Houghton Mifflin. 358 pages. $25.

Sir Vidia's Shadow" is a memoir about V.S. Naipaul, one of the contemporary era's most acclaimed writers of fiction and non-fiction, by Paul Theroux, another versatile, acclaimed contemporary writer.

Given that combination of subject and author, "Sir Vidia's Shadow" ought to be a fascinating book about writers and writing. Well, it is fascinating, but only in the sense that the Kenneth Starr report about the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky relationship is fascinating. Instead of writing an introspective, insightful book, Theroux - Naipaul's one-time acolyte and friend - attacks his elder on page after page until the only reason to keep reading is prurient interest.

Let us back up briefly, for readers who had no reason to link Naipaul and Theroux so inextricably. With a heritage grounded on the Indian subcontinent, Naipaul grew up in the West Indies. An accomplished writer at an early age, Naipaul (nicknamed Vidia, the Sir coming later with British knighthood) met the American Theroux, about a decade younger, in the African country of Uganda.

Naipaul hated his writing and teaching arrangement in Uganda, so planned his escape to London. Theroux enjoyed writing and teaching in Uganda, so stayed long after Naipaul left. Naipaul, despite being a person of color according to most standards, is portrayed by Theroux - in Africa and elsewhere - as racist, not to mention sexist, intellectually condescending and socially rude. Despite their geographical separation and differing world views, Naipaul and Theroux rarely lost touch for long.

Theroux calls the relationship a friendship that cooled only in the past few years. It is impossible to know if Naipaul would use the word friendship - if Theroux's portrayal is accurate, Naipaul had no friends, except maybe his beleaguered wives.

If Theroux's portrayal is accurate ... That is the question. I have always trusted Theroux the author, starting with his successful travel book "The Great Railway Bazaar." I have admired many of his novels, especially "Saint Jack" and "The Mosquito Coast."

But Theroux's account of Naipaul shakes my faith. This is a biography of sorts, but I have never met a biographer (myself included) with Theroux's apparent total recall of conversation after conversation, meal after meal, walk after walk, drive after drive, compliment after compliment, slight after slight.

Even conceding Theroux's factual accuracy, the book is suspect. Theroux, despite many bows to Naipaul's literary prowess, is transparently nursing grudges, settling scores. A book can be factual yet misleadingly selective, manipulating the context for readers who have no idea they are being manipulated.

Such manipulation is my suspicion only, but a suspicion based on Theroux's mean-spiritedness. Does Theroux understand that he comes across as a betrayer, as someone to be despised far more than Naipaul? Probably not. No writer as vain as Theroux seems to be would want to portray himself so negatively.

Steve Weinberg is writing a biography of Ida M. Tarbell under contract to St. Martin's Press. He is editor of a bimonthly magazine on information-gathering published by Investigative Reporters and Editors, based at the University of Missouri Journalism School. He is the author of seven nonfiction books.

Pub Date: 10/18/98

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