The Middle Passage by V.S. Naipaul

NaipaulReading “The Middle Passage” is akin to attempting parallel conversations with both Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde. While the book reeks of astounding clarity, the illuminating bits are punctuated by a condescension that is to say the least, infuriating. The style is typical Naipaul – irascible, irreverent and yet, indispensable.

In 1960, V.S.Naipaul undertook a year long journey from London to the Caribbean, a land which not only represented his motherland, but also a region that had left him disillusioned, disenchanted and despondent. This tour which was undertaken at the behest of the Trinidad Government transported Naipaul to distinct Caribbean regions such as Trinidad, British Guiana, Suriname, Grenada, Martinique and Jamaica. This is Naipaul’s first travelogue and is a canvas of contradictions. Lush and verdant rushes of green grapple with corrugated tin roofs and abject squalor as Naipaul encounters Dickensian paradoxes every step of his way. Lame boarding houses manned by lethargic owners and lackadaisical servants come for some scathing revulsion. Naipaul elegantly holds forth on aspects such as colonial inflections and influences/remnants of decolonization. For example in Martinique the overarching influence of the French and in Suriname, the powerful undertones of a permanent Dutch presence, makes the reader wonder about the preservation or rather desecration of the original roots of an indigenous tribe enslaved for centuries before being emancipated. Such an emancipation however is merely symbolic as the controlled populace even in freedom not only take on the veneer and attributes of the controlled but also derive a perverse feeling of pleasure and patrimony.

The raging undercurrents of racial rift which pits an Indian against a black ‘Negro’ (yes the derogatory term was in vogue when Naipaul penned this book); a black against a coloured; and a coloured against the white, is an uncomfortably common aspect permeating the Caribbean like the bauxite that covers the unpaved roads. Phony reconciliations and forced peace represent taut strings waiting for an appropriate opportunity to snap so that violent vent is employed as a most suitable measure to overcome an inherent frustration that is the hallmark of a disgruntled Caribbean national.

Naipaul draws on the earlier works of Anthony Trollope and Patrick Leigh Fermour, the latter’s experiences with the sights and sounds of the Caribbean ranging from the merry to the macabre. Quoting passages from Trollope, Naipaul blends Trollope’s experiences with his own feelings and emotions. As a travel writer, Naipaul is at the peak of his brilliant abilities, exquisitely detailing the contours of the landscape he passes by. Adopting a matter-of-fact yet embellishing tone of narrative, Naipaul seamlessly transitions from one culture to the next. But one can sense an unmistakable bias in the author in his disenchantment with the Caribbean. Highlighting socio-economic, political and cultural deficiencies and resorting to unabashed condescension when writing about the foibles and frailties of an enfeebled mass of humanity, Naipaul comes across as a brash, brusque and blatant critic unwilling to accommodate to either reason or circumstance.

In conclusion “The Middle Passage” makes for some invigorating reading and goes a great way in providing a rudimentary, elementary and fundamental peek into the Caribbean way of life and living.

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