Rhyme and punishment for Naipaul

Daniel Trilling

Daniel TrillingWell into their seventies and with a Nobel Prize apiece, they are the elder statesmen of world literature: one is acclaimed as the greatest living English-language poet, whose best-known work is a narrative epic, Omeros, based on Homer's Odyssey; the other is a similarly novelist and travel writer.

But last week the St Lucia poet Derek Walcott used his talent in the pursuit of less lofty ideals as he reignited a simmering row with VS Naipaul by unveiling a stinging attack on the author - in verse.

Walcott's new poem, The Mongoose, is a fast-paced, savagely humorous demolition of Naipaul's work and personality that begins with the opening salvo: 'I have been bitten, I must avoid infection/Or else I'll be as dead as Naipaul's fiction.' It was premiered at the Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica.

Telling the audience, 'I think you'll recognise Mr Naipaul ... I'm going to be nasty', Walcott launched into The Mongoose amid a hubbub of surprised gasps and nervous laughter from the crowd.

By way of some vicious rhyming couplets, the poem criticises Naipaul's writing technique ('each stabbing phrase is poison'), specifically in his later novels Half a Life and Magic Seeds: 'The plots are forced, the prose sedate and silly/The anti-hero is a prick named Willie.'

Walcott bemoans latter-day Naipaul's 'self-abhorrence' and expresses surprise at how distant he seems from the author who wrote the 1961 masterpiece A House for Mr Biswas, before taking a more personal line: he describes Naipaul's 'bushy beard/To cover features that have always sneered'.

The poem then changes tack. Walcott attacks what he sees as the Trinidadian-born Naipaul's rejection of his Caribbean heritage in order to win acceptance from the British literary establishment. Its title, The Mongoose, refers to an animal that was brought to the Caribbean from British India - Naipaul is descended from Indian indentured labourers who moved to Trinidad in the 19th century.

Walcott's poem likens the novelist, who has previously described his fellow Trinidadians as 'monkeys', to this creature: 'the mongoose takes its orders from the Raj'. Another section recounts an occasion when Naipaul went in search of prostitutes in Trinidad. It culminates in the line: 'He doesn't like black men but he loves black cunt.'

After an hour-long session in which Walcott had read a selection of works from his forthcoming book, White Egrets, this parting shot of a poem was unexpectedly vituperative. The British poet Jackie Kay, who also performed at the festival, described The Mongoose as 'the most electrifying poem that I've ever heard read out anywhere in the world. I remember the whole audience just suddenly leaning forward with a new kind of attention'.

So far the incident, reported in the New Statesman, has elicited a mixed response. The Jamaican daily newspaper the Gleaner seemed to come out in support of the poet, with a story headlined: 'Walcott broadsides Naipaul.' One of the Calabash Festival organisers, the Jamaican poet Kwame Dawes, told The Observer that people in the Caribbean were likely to side with Walcott, given Naipaul's long-running antipathy to the region of his birth: 'It's not so much a case of "Naipaul had it coming", as "Naipaul constantly has it coming", because he's such an easy target.' But the writers and critics who attended the festival were less sure. 'Some people felt that it was demeaning for someone of Walcott's stature to write such a vitriolic and nasty poem,' Kay told The Observer. The poem itself, though, is not devoid of literary merit.

According to Kay, 'it sounded like a very well-written poem ... [Walcott] had gone to elaborate lengths to create these quite wonderful rhymes. And there was a lot of humour in it.'
ccording to Naipaul's official biographer, Patrick French, the dispute between the two writers has 'a lineage going back to the 1960s'.

For years, the writers discreetly sniped at one another in print and in interviews. Naipaul's inclusion of an essay on Walcott in his 2007 memoir A Writer's People - and its attendant publication in the Guardian - delivered a backhanded compliment by effusively praising Walcott's earliest work, and seems to have provoked the poet into making such a public attack.

Indeed, an allusion to 'the English Guardian' in The Mongoose suggests just that. 'Because [Naipaul] said all that stuff in public,' explains French, 'Derek stopped biting his lip.'

Since the reading, Walcott has refused to comment further on his poem, not even to say if it will ever be published. As for Naipaul - who was on vintage form last week, describing the audience at the Hay literary festival as 'ugly' - his publicist told The Observer that he 'couldn't and wouldn't' comment.

But Walcott's attack is unlikely to be ignored. French says that Naipaul will most likely wait until he has devised a suitably literary way of striking back. 'Knowing Naipaul, he'll say nothing and then at some point he will lash out. I remember him saying to me once: "I settle all my accounts, I settle all my accounts." He gets even in his own way, even if he has to bide his time.'

An extract from 'The Mongoose'

I have been bitten, I must avoid infection
Or else I'll be as dead as Naipaul's fiction
Read his last novels, you'll see just
what I mean
A lethargy, approaching the obscene
The model is more ho-hum than Dickens
The essays have more bite
They scatter chickens like critics, but
each stabbing phrase is poison
Since he has made that snaring style
a prison
The plots are forced, the prose
sedate and silly
The anti-hero is a prick named Willie
Who lacks the conflict of a Waugh or Lawrence
And whines with his creator's

The Observer
Sunday June 01 2008

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