V S. NAIPAUL's is an immensely articulate voice of concern, sensitive to the dilemmas of developing countries but not sympathetic to what he finds there. The Return of Eva Peron is a short collection of essays that chronicle Naipaul's visits to Argentina, Trinidad and Zaire in 1972-75, and his distress at the lack of respect these nations pay their history. He travels through African bushlands and interviews Argentine intellectuals in his obsessive search for a historical account that suits him.
In each country, Naipaul runs across the same problem: imperialism dies hard. Imperial powers left scars on the cultures as well as the economies of their colonies. With acute powers of observation, Naipaul isolates their lingering presences in the rhetoric of Third World leaders. They are entertainers who distract their followers from facing the problems of development. Their songs use borrowed words: angry, anti-imperialist jargon grafted on to desires for a Western, consumer economy.
The problem of writing history dominates the book. Imperialism robbed all the countries Naipaul writes about of histories uniquely their own. That's important, but for Naipaul to focus on it displays an unspoken Western faith in the ability of history to clarify present problems. The conditions of colonization shaped the identity, the problems of each country. It puzzles Naipaul that he finds no analysis of these conditions. Why is there no mention of the Arab slave trade in Zaire? Where are accounts of the genocide which wiped the Argentine pampas clear of Indians?
In the central essay, "The Return of Eva Peron," he speaks to terrorists, to businessmen and government officials to find an acceptable history. But even Jorge Luis Borges, Argentina's man of letters, fails him. Borges' writing is a series of intellectual games that strip away, rather than analyze, the meaning of words. "There is no history in Argentina," Naipaul concludes. "There are no archives; there are only graffiti, polemics and school lessons." He goes on to find history "less an attempt to record and understand than a habit of reordering inconvenient facts; it is a process of forgetting." Naipaul understands that Eva Peron, the brunette who dyed her hair blonde, whose autobiography is ghost-written to conceal an illegitimate birth, is the appropriate symbol for a nation which has forgotten its beginnings.
Joseph Conrad is the only accurate historian Naipaul finds, and his fiction is the subject of the fourth essay, "Conrad's Darkness." He offers Naipaul solidity: well-considered ideas that have been tested, conclusions which Naipaul can trace to their roots. His writing is a welcome change from the rhetorical fantasies of Generals Mobutu of Zaire and Peron of Argentina. "Nothing is rigged in Conrad. He doesn't remake countries. He chose, as we now know, incidents from real life; and he meditated on them."
Naipaul himself meditates in these essays, providing vivid observations, adept analysis, and a command of detail. He brings us in to the ghost town of Montevideo's stopped clocks and neglected monuments, and he makes us weary of the endless muddy river of Zaire. Details in Naipaul's hands naturally, effortlessly fill out his pictures. He uses them to emphasize the very large difference between what he sees in each country and what he hears from their leaders.
In the case of Trinidad, their angry talk is little more than a diversion:
It obscures the problem of a small independent country with a lopsided economy and the problem of a fully consumerized society--without the intellectual means to comprehend the deficiency. It is, in the end, a deep corruption, a wish to be granted a dispensation from the pains of development...
Malik, the power behind the bizarre killings in Trinidad, is Naipaul's symbol for this "deep corruption" of language. "Michael X and the Black Killings in Trinidad" tells the story of an immigrant from Trinidad who discovers Black liberation while living in London and brings a rhetoric of revolution back home. He speaks of revolution without plans or programs, and it wins him power, money and followers. When the money runs out he needs a new way to hold his followers together. The murders of two devotees provide a solution.
Using angry language to recruit support may be dangerous, as Naipaul shows; but there's a greater issue he never addresses. He won't allow the leaders their anti-imperialist rhetoric, but he doesn't offer them any other suggestions about how to bind their countries together. He wants them to write their histories "accurately," and then everything else would fall into place. But is the real Argentina European or South American? How far back in time must countries search for an identity?
Naipaul offers only one answer: countries must not look back too far and turn precolonial times into "le bon vieux temps de nos ancestres." This is the solution of General Mobutu in Zaire, a senseless one. Mobutu combines tradition and technology in a way that belongs to neither culture: African dances performed in a television studio, African art relegated to a sculpture niche in the wall of Mobutu's residence. Mobutu's "African nihilism" promises the flashy cars and gold wristwatches of Western technology while attacking their source.
So Mobutism simplifies the world, the concept of responsibility and the state, and simplifies people... The plundering of the inherited Belgian state looks so easy, the confiscations and nationalizations, the distribution of big shadow jobs. Creativity itself now begins to appear as something that might be looted, brought into being by decree.
A leader cannot will an identity on a people by angry decree; this is Naipaul's message. It is important, but only one small part of a very large problem. There is no guarantee that if leaders clean up their rhetoric, that if developing nations write their histories with the same care they use to design industry, they will be better prepared to solve their problems. In elevating culture to a position of primacy, Naipaul sometimes forgets that developing a history is no substitute for developing an economy.
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