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The Root of Rootlessness : A WAY IN THE WORLD, By V. S. Naipaul (Alfred A. Knopf: $23; 380 pp.)

May 22, 1994|RICHARD EDER

The word Caribbean may conjure up all kinds of vivid colors, but to V.S. Naipaul it suggests gray: a land and seascape bleached out by unmediated sun and a counterfeit history. It is the gray in the face of a professional entertainer the morning after a late night.

The displacing and alienating effects of a colonial past on today's post-colonial peoples has been Naipaul's leading theme ever since, once past his early Trinidad novels, he broke through the colors to the gray underneath. He has pursued it in his fiction and nonfiction, set in Britain, Africa, South America and India, the home of his forebears.

He is one of literature's great travelers and also one of its oddest. He seeks not roots but rootlessness. He travels not for acquaintance but for alienation. Paul Theroux does that, to an extent, but the difference is very large. For one thing, Naipaul, who can be petty, vain and cruel, both uses and transcends his defects. His theme is the terrible inauthenticity that history has imposed on the heirs of colonialism's subjects. But by refusing to conceal or temper his own crabby vision--a walleyed sensibility that tends to swivel inward--he achieves at his best moments a unique authenticity.

His nightmare Argentina, for example, can be unrecognizable but there is no question about the nightmares that it produces in Naipaul. When he is not displaying a certain haste and roughness (on purpose, perhaps, like a musician asserting his freedom to play sour), he is a great writer. In a magical and redeeming phrase he will suddenly link up the particular estrangements he acquires, wherever he goes, to the estranged wanderer in all of us.

"A Way in the World" is a series of partly autobiographical and partly fictional variations on his theme. Each centers on a different personage, and Naipaul himself appears in many of them. The principal characters differ widely. There is a Trinidadian who uses his color sense as both a funeral parlor cosmetician and a cake decorator; and a conservative Port of Spain lawyer who unexpectedly reveals his flaming commitment to black power. There is a supercilious English writer who helps and patronizes the narrator; an itinerant Caribbean radical--"an impresario of revolution"--who is lionized by the radically chic in London and New York, and an enterprising Venezuelan who has submerged his identity as a Trinidadian Hindu.

Some of the figures are historical. Naipaul writes a vivid fictionalized account of Sir Walter Raleigh, aged and desperate, seeking to discover El Dorado as a way out of his political troubles at home. He paints a poignantly imagined portrait of the early Venezuelan revolutionary, Francisco de Miranda, lifted up and let down by his British patrons and finally, betrayed by the supporters of Bolivar, dying in a Spanish prison.

At first glance there seems to be little connection among the real, part-real and fictional characters he writes of. The styles differ considerably too: from factual documentary to a first-person combination of memoir and commentary to poetic evocation. In fact all of the protagonists are linked by their passage through the world of the Caribbean. It is a world that, instead of evolving gradually through slow migrations and evolution, was created in a kind of cataclysm.

In the space of a few years, the Spanish, the French and the British landed, fought each other, and shoved aside the Native Americans as unfit for their purpose. Their purpose was sugar plantations; and to accomplish it they brought over slaves from Africa and indentured laborers from India. And then, after a couple of centuries, they were gone; leaving behind a fragmented culture resting on a jumbled, conflicting, half-dreamed past. Naipaul doesn't draw the comparison, but one thinks of Prince Sigismund in Calderon's "Life Is a Dream." Arbitrarily immured in a tower from infancy, he suddenly finds himself--arbitrarily released and royal once more--in a wide and terrifying universe.

Sigismund went temporarily mad. Naipaul's characters are put together out of pieces that don't fit. Though not usually mad, they maneuver hybrid and uncertain identities through a world constructed of misapprehensions and are visited by undissolved bits of a heritage they are unconscious of.

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