Small it may be. But the English speaking Caribbean has excelled on the world cultural stage of late. Only eight years after St. Lucian Derrick Walcott was given the honour Trinidadian V.S. Naipaul has also been awarded the Nobel literary prize. And last year Jamaican Bob Marley’s Exodus and One Love were chosen as Time magazine’s album of the century and the BBC’s song of the century. Can any other region of only 5 million individuals – and West Indians surely have enough strongly shared sensibilities to qualify as a “people” - boast of such recent cultural success?


It is ironic that Naipaul should have helped to prove so wrong his condemnation of the West Indies as a half-made, borrowed society out of which nothing original could come. True to form he churlishly snubbed his homeland when told of his victory, calling it “a triumph for both England, my home, and India the land of my ancestors”. But for good or bad his Trinidadian experiences must have played a seminal role in shaping his world outlook. And is not “A House For Mr. Biswas”, the work of his that will probably live longest, a novel about life in Trinidad?


Naipaul is not everyone’s cup of tea. His “A Middle Passage” for instance is a Caribbean travelogue so ungenerous in spirit as to border on bigotry. Some have called him a sort of prophet about the Muslim world and Africa. But on the West Indies and especially Jamaica he was almost completely wrong. Take this quote.


‘Race…is the most important issue in Jamaican society today. The hypocrisy… is at last provoking anger and creating a thoroughly black racism which could conceivably turn the island into another Haiti.’


Or look at this ‘prophetic’ vision. ‘This ends in a famine, an insurrection. The regiment shoots down the mob and establishes a military dictatorship’.


Naipaul once claimed such views had been “marvelously prescient”. But no objective observer could agree. Race remains a problem in this country, but less so than almost anywhere else. And for all its troubles, independent Jamaica has proven to be one of the world’s most stable democracies. ‘The Middle Passage’ contains acute observations about the confused identity of ex-slave colonies. But Naipaul talks about the nascent West Indies as if national self-doubt is a permanent condition and countries are born with scrolls of historic deeds. This is an ignorant view of history.

An ancient Roman Naipaul would no doubt have dismissed Caesar’s Britain as an illiterate island without a future.

Was not pre-Roman Britain a barbarous and illiterate island seemingly without any future?


And only a man lacking in instinctive vitality – and he was not even 30 then - could say ‘Carnival in Trinidad has always depressed me’ and see only ‘ugliness’ in Jamaica. Nearly everyone else considers Trini Carnival a wonderful celebration of the human spirit and Jamaica perhaps the most beautiful island on earth.


Yet it is understandable that someone like Naipaul who lives mainly through books should despise societies like the English speaking Caribbean which read so little. For probably not one in a thousand Jamaicans has heard Naipaul’s name much less seen a word by him. And in his view "I can't be interested in people who don't like what I write because if you don't like what I write, you're disliking me”, though of course even in the west very few read his books.


Yet those who look down on non-readers should remember that reading has never been a majority habit anywhere. Until this century most people in even advanced societies were illiterate. Even today those who cannot read or write probably outnumber those who can worldwide.


But then there is no more unnatural human act than using symbols to represent things and ideas, for nothing remotely comparable to it exists in nature. Indeed for most of our existence human beings got along fine without written script. After all modern homo sapiens had been around for over 100,000 years before the Mesopotamians invented pictographs in about 3000 BC.


Until the early 20th century writing was the only method of recording information. But the phonograph, radio and the moving picture made it possible to transmit spoken words and visual images across time and space. With lifelike reproductions so convincing as to be indistinguishable from the real thing now available, man suddenly had no need to translate events or stories into script.


Watching realistic images and sounds is a lot more fun than trying to decipher symbolic representations of action and objects, and certainly more instinctively natural. Learning to read is a long, painstaking process which many never master. But anyone who speaks the language can understand a television show. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what is the linguistic value of a video?


But if film is clearly a better medium for creating images, print is just as obviously superior for dealing with complex information and abstract ideas. Man has ever found – and probably never will - a more profound means of expression. Only the written word can preserve and convey our deepest emotions and thoughts. Whatever Cassandras might say, books will not become extinct anytime soon. They may soon be computer rather than paper based, but this will not alter the reading process anymore than the move from papyrus to parchment.


Yet televisions and not newspapers are now the world’s main source of information. And movies and not novels or plays are the dominant form of mass entertainment. Indeed video may eventually supersede written fiction in the public mind as completely as popular song lyrics have replaced poetry. True, no film will ever have the insight of a Don Quixote or Brothers Karamazov. But not many people seem to need such profundity. And anyway, is there anything left for the novel to say?


Naipaul, surprisingly, thinks not. As he said in 1995 “I can no longer understand why it is important to write or read invented stories… There is so much reading, so much understanding of the world that I still have to do… so much knowledge is available to us … There was a time when fiction provided the discoveries of the sort I have been describing… I feel that those most important works of fiction were done in the 19th century… all that has followed since have been versions of those works.”


He has also described much modern literature as “intelligent and amusing” but of little lasting worth. Ironically critics have described his recent return to fiction in similar terms. All of which makes me wonder. Might not the awarding of the world’s greatest literary prize to a man who claims fiction is dead be seen one day as the symbolic end of literature?

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