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RICHARD EDER

The Big Chill

SIR VIDIA'S SHADOW: A Friendship Across Five Continents.\o7 By Paul Theroux (Houghton Mifflin: 368 pp., $24)\f7

October 25, 1998|RICHARD EDER

Suppose that James Boswell, resenting his own long deference, had appended to his immortal account of Samuel Johnson a sneering denunciation of his subject's work, arrogance, bad table manners and physical ugliness. Or that Robert Louis Stevenson, saddle-sore and irked by some final bit of stubbornness, had ended his engaging "Travels With a Donkey" with a savage lambasting of the furry Modestine.

The damage down the centuries would not be done to Johnson or Modestine. It would be done to the vital balance of two remarkable books and to their authors.

Paul Theroux has been condemned for writing an account of his longtime friend and mentor, V. S. Naipaul, that some critics have called "pathography," Joyce Carol Oates' clever term for a fashion in biography that portrays the warts--subject and all.

"Sir Vidia's Shadow" is not pathography but something better and, disastrously, unnecessarily, worse. For most of its length it is a complicated but ultimately exhilarating portrait of its complicated subject. Theroux, whose acerb work has been helped and influenced by the acerb Naipaul, is a thorn bush writing about a thorn bush. The prickles fit together in complementary fashion, though, producing an odd semblance of velvet. Until the end, that is, when Theroux looses a lethal blast of defoliant. It is his own leaves that drop off.

There is painfulness, to be sure, from the very start of the long relationship. Painfulness, inherent to Naipaul's own writing, particularly to his extensive nonfictional explorations of the Third World, is inherent in Theroux's as well. Like Naipaul's, his wanderings ("The Great Railway Bazaar" and others) illuminate through estrangement rather than sympathy, and the result can be to wither rather than to expand. Whereas Naipaul, in both fiction and nonfiction, can rise through anger to genius, Theroux does not rise past intelligence.

Ironically, it may be in "Sir Vidia's Shadow" that he rises the furthest--for a while. Affection and admiration keep his angers off-balance, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they provide a difficult, transcending balance.

In 1963 Theroux was an itinerant 23-year-old American teaching at the University of Uganda and struggling to become a writer. In the provincial circle of expatriate teachers, the arrival of Naipaul, a London literary celebrity, was a considerable event.

Theroux and Naipaul quickly hit it off. Naipaul was gratified by Theroux's reciting a passage from "The Mystic Masseur" and his uninhibited eagerness to learn from him. Perhaps, to this Trinidadian so morbidly attuned to British snobbery, there was the fact that Theroux, as an American, was free from the tiny class codes and twitches of his expatriate university colleagues. Theroux, looking for a mentor and a glimpse of how you got into the literary world, welcomed Naipaul's interest.

Theroux became Naipaul's companion and guide on expeditions into the back country; in turn, the Trinidadian shared with him the intransigences, furies and visions that went into his own hard and solitary progress from obscure island boyhood to London literary stardom.

Ruthless with students' work at the university--he agreed to judge a writing contest on condition that the highest award would be third prize--Naipaul was both demanding and encouraging with Theroux's efforts. The support became mutual: In the decades that followed, each man could count on the other's appreciation and understanding, an exchange that grew more even-handed once Theroux became successful.

There are priceless scenes of Naipaul on his back-country tours in full safari regalia and spouting patronizing ex abruptos about a country whose future, he insisted, was, once again, "the bush." The most sympathetic character he encounters, in fact, is a fulminating ex-major from the Indian Service who runs a hotel up-country. The two struggle happily to out-Blimp each other.

Hosted by the Indian ambassador in Nairobi, Naipaul urges that Kenya's ports be shelled in retaliation for measures taken against Indian shopkeepers. "Who would do this?" the ambassador politely inquired. "The Indian Navy," was the reply.

If he often sounds like Evelyn Waugh, it is because his intransigence is both comedy and abyss. Arriving at a frontier town, the two find nowhere to stay until the American consul makes a guesthouse available. Naipaul tells Theroux he is lucky to have a country whose embassy would help him. What about your country? Theroux asks. "I have no country," Naipaul replies, and it is the heart of this colonial writer's darkness.

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