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An Area of Darkness by V. S. Naipaul
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An Area of Darkness (1964)

by V. S. Naipaul

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My eyes don't let me read this in bed (light not bright enough), so I poike into it now and again. But the man sure can write ... and observe. Very intelligent coming-to-terms with his Indianness, and with growing up in Trinidad. I actually purchased this tiny-print paperback during my McGill years for use on my honours essay on the literature of travel. I never did read far into it--not since 1983! I wonder at getting that degree and the "honours" at all. ( )
  Muzzorola | Aug 24, 2016 |
A very visceral dissection of Indian Society in the early 60s. This guy speaks his mind and we are all so much the better for it.
  danoomistmatiste | Jan 24, 2016 |
A very visceral dissection of Indian Society in the early 60s. This guy speaks his mind and we are all so much the better for it.
  kkhambadkone | Jan 17, 2016 |
This book (first published in 1964) has become somewhat notorious for its narrator’s rather negative attitude towards the country he is writing about. In the preface to the edition I read (from 2010) he lets his readers know that his bad mood during at least the first part of the book was due to a creative crisis he was going through at the time – this might be true, or it might be not; but in any case, it reminds us that, even though An Area of Darkness is a book of non-fiction, its narrator might still be somewhat less than completely reliable.

Also, the Grumpy Traveller is a figure with a long tradition in British travel literature, going back to at least Tobias Smollett’s Travels Through France and Italy, famously poked fun at as “Smelfungus” by Lawrence Sterne in his Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy – indeed, I’d go so far as to say that the Cranky and the Enthusiastic Traveller are the basic archetypes of British travel writing (maybe even of all travel writing). What they both have in common, however, is that for both modes the person of the traveller is at least as important as the countries through which he travels; and this takes us back to Naipaul and his An Area of Darkness – His Discovery of India (do take note of the subtitle here).

I doubt anyone would disagree that Naipaul is very firmly on the grumpy side of things – he does not like India much at all, complains about its shabbiness, the dirt, the lack of manners in its inhabitants, and is particularly offended by the public defecation he seem to encounter everywhere (to a degree that one can’t help but wonder whether there is not some obsession at work there). All in all, there seems to be more than enough reason for the often fierce dislike this book and its author have inspired in many readers. And yet – while I tend to agree that Mr. Naipaul is probably a deeply unlikable person, a closer look at An Area of Darkness shows that there is more going on than just a cranky author venting his petty spleen. A lot more, in fact.

First of all, the reason why Naipaul in An Area of Darkness is an unreliable narrator is paradoxically his scrupulous honesty. He has a very fine and well-tuned sensitivity not just for his surroundings but also for himself, and follows the smallest nuances of his prejudices and motivations. And like no man is a hero to his valet, no narrator remains likeable who is seen from this close – there is no attempt at all from Naipaul to make himself appear more heroic, to smooth his crankiness or to gloss over his petty meanness. Naipaul holds nothing back and throughout remains committed to absolute honesty, reminiscent of Rousseau in his Confessions (but, one assumes, staying somewhat closer to actual facts); which in turn makes it possible for the reader to see just how much this account of India is coloured by the person narrating it.

Second, there is a reason why Naipaul’s attitude towards India is so fraught with tension, and he gives it to the reader at the start of the book (well,a after the prologue, anyway) – even before the narrator sets foot on Indian soil, Naipaul tells us over thirty pages of his childhood in Trinidad where his grandfather had moved from India. Like many emigrants, Naipaul’s family held on to as many things from their homeland as they could, and young Naipaul grew up among a clutter of half or not at all comprehended memorabilia and rituals from which he pieced together his own fantasy of India. And it is this fantasy which at some – intellectually denigrated, but none the less deeply felt – emotional level Naipaul is looking for in the real India only to be deeply disappointed when – rather unsurprisingly – he fails to find it. This is where things begin to move beyond the sphere of mere individual experience, as it’s quite obvious to see how Naipaul’s indeed is just a slightly displaced version of what most Europeans – and that, of course, means mainly British – relate towards India, carrying a pre-conceived image of the country when visiting it. Few, however, are as ruthlessly honest in their reactions when India fails to conform to their fantasy.

And this brings us to a third thread running through An Area of Darkness – namely that Naipaul may have been objectively justified in his reaction, for the simple reason that India in 1963 was in a deplorable state. Among the anecdotes and the descriptions, large parts of the book are given to analysis of India’s past, present and future as well as on a host of related subjects, from how Hinduism has become a repository for symbols that have lost their religious significance, over how India seems to construct its self-image by way of mimicry to other cultures, to novels about and from India – all of those subjects treated with equal intellectual brilliance and a certain cool detachment, made possible precisely thanks to Naipaul’s continuous self-scrutiny that enables him to purge his subjectivity from the more strictly analytic parts of this books.

At the same time, Naipaul never lets the reader forget that everything he writes about is ultimately grounded in personal experience – the long, analytic passages are always counterbalanced by a wealth of anecdotes – often quite funny ones, and more than once the joke is actually on Naipaul, more proof that he is after verity rather than self-aggrandizement – or descriptions. And the descriptions alone, whether of scenery, architecture or the people he encounters, would make reading An Area of Darkness worthwhile because – something I think even his most determined detractors have never denied – Naipaul writes beautifully, capturing sensual impressions in a measured, rhythmic prose, along whose shining surface images move and glitter like sunlight on the moving ocean.
2 vote Larou | May 6, 2015 |
V.S. Naipaul has a genius for crafting the most beautiful stories. Part of his genius I think lies in his acute observatory skills. In this book, he travels to India, Kashmir and the Himalayas and his observations of the land are described with poetic beauty. You feel the dust and noise of Bombay, the breathtaking secrets of the Himalayas and the fragility of Kashmir. He certainly entices you to start looking into plane fares to India and dusting off your hiking boots.

The caste system of India seems to govern everything from the kind of jobs one can hold, to whom a person can marry. His description of the caste system was fascinating. His anecdotes of people he met or observed ranged from disquieting to hilarious. At times I found his manner a little condescending in his descriptions of the corporate officers or box-wallahs who adopted mannerisms of the British after India's independence. His descriptions of the emaciated children living in the slums were heart-wrenching although through it all, he manages to capture the quiet dignity with which they carry themselves.

Things have changed a little in India since the days of the British Raj, but not by much. ( )
2 vote cameling | Jan 28, 2010 |
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As soon as our quarantine flag came down and the last of the barefooted, blue-uniformed policemen of the Bombay Port Health Authority had left the ship, Coelho the Goan came aboard and, luring me with a long beckoning finger into the saloon, whispered, 'You have any cheej?'
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For me the East had begun weeks before. Even in Greece I had felt Europe falling away. There was the East in the food, the emphasis on sweets, some of which I knew from my childhood; in the posters for Indian films with the actress Nargis, a favourite, I was told, of Greek audiences; in the instantaneous friendships, the invitations to meals and homes.
And it was clear that here [Egypt], and not in Greece, the East began: in this chaos of uneconomical movement, the self-stimulated din, the sudden feeling of insecurity, the conviction that all men were not brothers and that luggage was in danger.
Here [Egypt] was to be learned the importance of the guide, the man who knew local customs, the fixer to whom badly printed illiterate forms held no mysteries.
The Pyramids, whose function as a public latrine no guide book mentions, were made impossible by guides, 'watchmen', camel-drivers and by boys whose donkeys were all called Whisky-and-soda.
Then came the tedium of the African ports. Little clearings, one felt them, at the edge of a vast continent; and here one knew that Egypt, for all its Negroes, was not Africa, and for all its minarets and jibbahs, not the East: it was the last of Europe.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375708359, Paperback)

A classic of modern travel writing, An Area of Darkness is Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul’s profound reckoning with his ancestral homeland and an extraordinarily perceptive chronicle of his first encounter with India.
Traveling from the bureaucratic morass of Bombay to the ethereal beauty of Kashmir, from a sacred ice cave in the Himalayas to an abandoned temple near Madras, Naipaul encounters a dizzying cross-section of humanity: browbeaten government workers and imperious servants, a suavely self-serving holy man and a deluded American religious seeker. An Area of Darkness also abounds with Naipaul’s strikingly original responses to India’s paralyzing caste system, its apparently serene acceptance of poverty and squalor, and the conflict between its desire for self-determination and its nostalgia for the British raj. The result may be the most elegant and passionate book ever written about the subcontinent.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:58:44 -0400)

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Nobel Prize winner Naipaul's account of travelling in India describes his encounter with a force in his life which shocked him into an awareness of a need for self-examination and self-explanation.

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