Skip to main content

You are here

V. S. Naipaul and the Dream of Blood: Atavisms in Universal Civilization

Summer/Fall 2009 - Vol. 51, Nos. 3 - 4

THOMAS F. BERTONNEAU is a visiting professor of English at SUNY-Oswego and a frequent contributor to Modern Age.

Revolution as blood and punishment, religion asblood and punishment: in [Mullah] Khalkhalli's mind thetwo ideas seemed to have become one.And in fact, the double idea, of blood, fitted revolutionaryIran. Behzad, my interpreter . . . had his owndream of blood. His hero was Stalin. Behzad said, "Whathe did in Russia we have to do in Iran. We too have to doa lot of killing. A lot."1


Nobel Prize winner V. S. Naipauloften finds himself bracketed withJoseph Conrad as a writer about the incursionsof the West into the non-Western—the African or Asian—world, bothby those critics who would praise and bythose who would condemn him. Criticismcategorizes both men as chroniclers of thegreat imperial project and of "the whiteman's burden." Of course, Conrad wrotein the heyday of the European empires andNaipaul writes in their extended and agonizedaftermath—he writes both in andof the era of independence. Conrad was aBritish subject of Polish origin and Naipaulis an Anglophone West Indian of Hinduparentage who has thoroughly assimilatedhimself to British culture. Yet discussionsof the Conrad-Naipaul succession thatstress either the cartographic or the ethnographictheme, as it were, tend to be superficial; they remain tied to Bandung-Conferencetopics such as "race," "the ThirdWorld," "colonialism," or "exploitation"(all vintage 1955 and of Marxist pedigree)that provoke much emotional heat but shedlittle philosophical or belletristic light.

The significant point of contactbetween the two writers lies less in theirgeopolitical treatment of the Europeanand Afro-Asian collision than it does intheir common examination of the peculiarbloodthirsty melding in the modern worldof resentment and ideology. We think ofConrad as the novelist of the Congo or ofthe Malay Peninsula, and we leave out hisabiding and massively informed treatmentof revolution and nihilism in the Europeanhomeland of the nineteenth-centuryoverseas empires, as in Under Western Eyes(1911) or The Secret Agent (1907). As forNaipaul, even when he writes about Africaor Asia, his interest is often in what Westernradicals do in the decolonized nationsto destabilize societies no longer directlygoverned by this or that imperial poweror how so-called independence becomescontaminated by the worst traits of "theUniversal Civilization." The "Big Man" ofA Bend in the River (1979), modeled afterZaire's Mobutu, is, for example, a massmurderer convinced of his own godhood,but he draws much strength in his delusionsfrom his Western advisors, academictypes in charge of his university, whocynically inculcate on the local scene thewretched Marxism cum existentialism thathas failed—and failed again—in the West.These political mentors, often working inlavish institutes and polytechnics, supplya sophistical justification for their patron'scriminal regime and so contribute to a blatantand destructive propaganda. A certaindeformed conviction about life, the ideathat the world's basic structure entails a personalhumiliation and that one is ordainedto shift that structure, issues, given theright encouragement, in a demand likethat of the Iranian Communist quoted byNaipaul in Beyond Belief (1998): "We toohave to do a lot of killing." This "dream ofblood," married with what is called theory,savaged the twentieth century. What Naipaulknows together with Conrad is thecombined psychological and anthropologicalexplanation of the destructive—thedemonic and sacrificial—ideologies thathave besieged modernity and of those whoespouse them. With an eye toward Naipaul'sGuerrillas (1975), then, a masterlyexposition of the criminal-revolutionarytemperament, let us begin by consideringthe plain criminality of Conrad'stwo characters, "Gentleman Jones" andhis "secretary" Martin Ricardo, from theSouth Seas novel Victory (1915).

Jones and Ricardo bring nemesis toVictory's central persona, Axel Heyst, wholives with his young wife Lena and a Chineseservant, Wang, amidst the detritus ofhis failed steamship colliery on an island("Sumbaran") of the Indonesian chain.The Surabaya hotelier Schomburg is thefirst to have contact with the pair: whenthe "Gentleman"2 comes ashore at Schomburg'swaterfront lodging establishment,Conrad notes for us the brigand's "carelessyet tense attitude" and his "black, cavernous,mesmerizing glance";3 the "secretary,"for his part, strikes even the lessthan-astute Schomburg as "toneless"4 and"mesmerizing,"5 while suggesting at thesame time an "astonishing ferocity."6 Jonesmainly lets Ricardo speak for him, hangingin the background so that, as Conradsays, he "lolled"7 while the secretary stood.Ricardo can be voluble; Jones remainslaconic. Conrad will repeatedly invoke thevegetable indolence of his menacing pair,especially of Jones, as the two seek somestimulus to rouse them to violent action.Schomburg holds a grudge against Heyst.He gets rid of the two malingerers by stimulatingtheir predatory interest in Heyst.

Of Ricardo—and implicitly, althoughqualifiedly, of Jones—Conrad says thathe is "not used . . . to self-control"8 andregards those who do submit to restraintas contemptible, or, in Jones's term, as"tame."9 The pair's "predatory instinct"10does not contradict Conrad's insistence ontheir laziness—or, in the Gentleman's case,a tendency to vegetate at a low level whennot "imagining the swag."11 Ricardo, borrowinga sophisticate's vocabulary fromJones, refers again to ordinary people as"ypocrits,"12 which would be a synonym oftame. Filled by Schomburg's mendaciousstories with the vision that the reclusiveHeyst (in fact, a failure) hides on his islandamidst a miserly cumulus of lucre, Ricardoimprecates the man's supposed "dirty tameartfulness."13 That the well-being of othersfunctions as an ontological scandal bothfor the Gentleman and his secretary is ananalysis upheld by Jones's habitual insistencethat he is "not ordinary,"14 that heis "a person to be reckoned with,"15 andby a "contemptuous tone"16 in all his relationsof ego to alter. The Gentleman's unsolicitedprotestations of his own remarkablepersonhood suggest his assumption a priorithat the mere presence of others constitutesa presumptive low opinion and thathe must correct the error.

Jones's deep-seated ressentiment (he isentirely a creature of it) comes out starklyin his reaction to Heyst's insular realmwhen he arrives there, intent on plunder.Despite the entirely unpropitious povertyof the scene, the Gentleman remains convincedthat Heyst is hiding "secrets."17 Saysthe interloper to the unluckily disarmedSwede: "A man living alone . . . on an islandtakes care to conceal property."18 Jones seesthe world as a conspiracy to lead him intoa forfeiture of what is rightly his. Conrad'srepeated use of the charged term spectral tocharacterize Jones points to a purely derivativeexistence. Jones does not live exceptunder the allure of those whom he conceivesas possessing the being of which he iswrongly denied; he is a specter who hauntsthe established order of custom and tradition,of rights and property, of morality andthe law. The Marxian connotation seemsunavoidable. Jones tells Heyst:

Not everyone can divest himself ofthe prejudices of a gentleman as easilyas you have done, Mr. Heyst. Butdon't worry about my pluck . . . .We are adequate bandits; and we areafter the fruit of your labours as a—er—successful swindler. It's the wayof the world—gorge and disgorge!19

This specimen of self-justifying criminalrhetoric inverts all actual values inherent tothe scene and chicanes the two terms laborand swindle with a cheating deftness worthyof the most concerted examples of moderntruth-twisting figuration. This patternof the concupiscent personality has a longhistory, appearing, for example, in Plato'scharacter of Callicles in the dialogue Gorgias,who argues to Socrates that "naturalright consists in the better and wiser man,"by which the speaker designates himself,"ruling over his inferiors and havingthe lion's share."20 By "better and wiser,"as Socrates shows, Callicles simply means"stronger" or "people who have the abilityto carry out their ideas, and who will notshrink from doing so through faintness ofheart."21

Many, perhaps most, of Conrad's villainsfit a similar pattern. Take the bankerswindlerde Barral ("the great de Barral")from Chance (1920), a man "lawless andproud"22 who exhibits "no pity, no generosity,nothing whatsoever of these finefeelings."23 Like Jones, de Barral strikesothers as a "haunting"24 presence, an indicationagain of an essentially derivativesense of selfhood; like Jones, the ex-financiernurses himself on a sense of "outrage,"25 gravitates to "plunder,"26 takesanimation from a "furious jealousy,"27 andviews the world as a vast cabal intent onleaving him wretched and deprived: "Ihave been locked up by a conspiracy,"28 heremarks on his conviction for investmentfraud, when he has really only been dulyprocessed by the courts. Particularly relevantto the discussion of what cues Naipaulpicks up from Conrad, however, isthe character of Victor Haldin, the nihilistbomb-thrower and assassin of a governmentminister in Under Western Eyes, all themore so because after his arrest and executionhe becomes a martyr in the eyes ofthose—the revolutionary underground—who have supported him and provide thediscursive rationale for his action. Haldin'smother, by no means a Christian, neverthelesscompares her son to Christ: "Evenamong the apostles . . . there was found aJudas,"29 she says in reference to her son'sdeletion by a police informer. It is nakedoratorical opportunism.

Where Jones and de Barral seek vindicationof their deeds in their hatred of theworld and in their ability to mislead others,when it succeeds, Haldin has assimilated anelaborate rhetoric of rectification throughviolence with distinctly religious (sayrather religiose) overtones; his confederatesinterpret his crimes in light of this perversefaith in "spectral ideas,"30 with its eschatologyof absolute destruction visited on theancien régime, after which a vague utopiawill ensue. One always senses that the ageof fire and sword—what Naipaul, two generationslater, calls in his work the "dreamof blood"—means more to the faithful thanthe ensuing paradise on earth. One sponsorof revolution, a slumming lady aristocratwith access to her deceased husband'sfortune, maintains in her house, where theconspirators meet in their Geneva exile,an "atmosphere of scandal, occultism, andcharlatanism."31 She urges candidly, "It isnot despair we want to create . . . but indignation,"32 and speaks of her plan "to spiritualisethe discontent."33 Haldin tells KyriloRazoumov, his eventual delator, whom hehas recklessly made to look an accomplicein the assassination: "You suppose that I ama terrorist, now. But consider that the truedestroyers are they who destroy the spiritof progress and truth, not the avengers whomerely kill the bodies of the persecutors ofhuman dignity."34 A short while later hedenies having committed murder, declaringthat his actions constitute "war": "Myspirit shall go on warring in some Russianbody till all falsehood is swept out of theworld. The modern civilization is false, buta new revelation shall come out of Russia."35 Conrad's narrator judges Russia aland of "spectral ideas."36

This "war" that Conrad puts in Haldin'smouth is once again "the dream ofblood." Haldin differs from Jones andde Barral, mainly in that he does notact alone but joins his agenda under thecollective sign of "retributive justice"37against "the fi lthy heap of iniquity"38 thatconstitutes all non-revolutionary humanityand submerses it in the theosophicalaura enwrapping the insurrection, bothon its Russian home ground and in Swissexile. These are important differences,but they should not obscure the fact thatall the plaintiffs against normative orderin Under Western Eyes show the same basicpersonality-structure as Jones and de Barral.

To the loner's ressentiment, Conrad addsthe liturgical trappings of a secular religion,to borrow Raymond Aron's term. As Aronsays, "Revolution, then, the crucial elementin what might be called socialist eschatology,is not merely a social upheaval, thereplacement of one regime by another. Ithas a supra-political value that marks theleap from necessity to liberty."39 Yet alongsidethe "supra-political value" stands asub-revelatory, anti-Biblical animus. Thesecular religions of the century just past areboth contributions to the chaos of modernityand symptoms of modernity's creepingdisintegration. The simple existenceof civilized order strikes the rebellious egoas an affront. Jones would kill Heyst, deBarral the husband of his daughter, Haldinthe representative of governance, purelyand simply. It is the Dionysiac sparagmos,which, as a political program, inevitablybecomes a holocaust.

Hence the schedule of the Iranian mullahs,as Naipaul has accurately accountedfor it in Among Believers (1981) and BeyondBelief. In 1979, the hanging judge, MullahKhalkhalli, who had already condemnedhundreds, struck Naipaul as both "a figureof revolutionary terror"40 and as a clown.41During an interview in Qom shortly afterKhomeini's accession, Khalkhalli said toNaipaul that he had begun life as a shepherd boy so that "right now I know howto cut off a sheep's head."42 The otherspresent during the interview, on hearingthe mullah's statement, "rocked withlaughter."43 In addition to having butcheredmany "sheep," boasted Khalkhalli, hehad also "killed Hoveida, you know"44—Hoveida being the deposed Shah's primeminister. Again, catching the reference,the other guests "threw themselves aboutwith laughter."45 Khalkhalli all but promisedmore of the same, saying, "the mullahsare going to rule now," and forecastinga hyperbolic "ten thousand years ofthe Islamic republic."46 Twenty years later,as Naipaul records, Khalkhalli insistedgrudgingly that, despite two decades ofhis own zeal, the revolution of the Imamswas "only thirty per cent"47 fulfilled. Thejudging and killing obviously could not besuspended, as long as seven-tenths of theregime's enemies remained beyond reachof the hand of justice. Naipaul describes theIranian revolution as a peculiar mixture ofthe fantastic and the pragmatic, the holyand the secular. In the early days of Khomeini'sreturn, for example, the Islamistsand the Communists (Tudeh) cooperated;a mutual hatred of the Palavhi dynastyunited them. One latterly disaffected participantof those times told Naipaul: "Wewere always fascinated by stories of theFrench Revolution [as] something done byGod . . . . We were hypnotized by . . . storiesof the French Revolution. We thought[that] revolution was something beautiful. . . as though we were in a theater."48 Atheater of blood, Iranian Islamism—quitelike Leninism and Stalinism—needed twokinds of victims: enemies of the Law andmartyrs to it.


Jimmy Ahmed, Jimmy Leung, thehomicidal central character of Naipaul'sprescient Guerrillas, has taken a Muslimname; he has also adopted his rhetoric ofretribution from a vulgar form of Marxism.Naipaul bases his character Ahmedon an actual Trinidadian person, Michaelde Freitas, also known as Michael AbdulMalik or Michael X. In his essay, "MichaelX and the Black Power Murders" (1975),Naipaul writes:

Malik had spent fourteen years inEngland . . . . In Notting Hill . . . hehad become a pimp, drug pusher andgambling-house operator; he hadalso worked as a strong-arm man forRachman, the property racketeer,who specialized in slum properties,West Indian tenants, and high rents.A religious-political "conversion"had followed. Michael Freitas becameMichael X. He was an instant successwith the press and the underground.He became a Black Power "leader,"underground black "poet," black"writer."49

For Jimmy Ahmed, Guerrillas implies asimilar background, leaving out only theparticular designation of Trinidad as thenative place; instead, Naipaul establishesan anonymous Caribbean island-nationwith demographics similar to Trinidad's,struggling with the disappointments of itspost-colonial independence. Like the realMalik, the fi ctional Ahmed fancies himselfa poet and a leader. In his essay on Malik,Naipaul quotes from fragments of a novelleft to posterity by its author, whom theTrinidadian authorities hanged on convictionfor two murders (he had probablycommitted others) in Port of Spainin May 1975. Malik is his own protagonistbarely disguised; most of the passagesare egocentric reports put in the mouth ofthe Englishwoman narrator, whose interestis gushingly sexual. Describing themain character's house, the lady sees "agigantic bookshelf Shakepeare [sic] ShawMarx Lenin Trotsky Confucius Hugo."50She notes of the man that "he not onlyhave [sic] the books but actually reads andunderstands them I was absolutely bowld,litteraly."51 Ahmed's literary sallies resembleMalik's, although Naipaul gives thema slightly less sub-literate cast. The viewpointis the same, that of a female outsidersmitten by the misunderstood loner.

The Malik-Ahmed amalgam resemblesConrad's character pattern of the criminalcum revolutionary. A creature of ressentiment,Ahmed automatically assumes hisown diminutive status in the perceptionof others and habitually feels compelledto protest, as Gentleman Jones might say,that he is "not ordinary" or is "a personto be reckoned with." Malik-Ahmed alsoexhibits Jones's moody alternation betweensleepy inanition over long periods and violencein bursts. Malik killed two membersof his inner circle whom he falselysuspected of having betrayed him; he alsomurdered a confused, middle-class Americangirl, Gale Benson, who had come toTrinidad attracted by the aura of counter-cultural vulgarity and radical chic.In Guerrillas, Ahmed kills Jane, closelymodeled on Benson, while incorporatingadditional meaningful references. To thedetails of Jane's killing, I will return.

In Under Western Eyes, Conrad subtlybut insistently underscores the revolution'stheosophical atmosphere. In Guerrillas, Naipaullinks Ahmed's machinations with anoutbreak of degenerate religiosity in theslums and towns of the island nation. Thismixture of social disintegration and ressentiment,abetted by pseudo-religiosity anda politicizing rhetoric of retribution, producesthe politico-Dionysiac frenzy on theisland. Ahmed's notion of politics appears inthe placards that ornament the drive of hiscompound in the hills outside the island'scapital city: "THRUSHCROSS GRANGE/ PEOPLE'S COMMUNE / FOR THELAND AND REVOLUTION / Entrywithout prior permission strictly forbiddenat all times / By Order of the High Command,/ JAMES AHMED (Haji)."52

Ahmed's foil, Peter Roche, points outto his live-in lover, Jane, that the term Hajidenotes "a Muslim who's made the pilgrimageto Mecca, but Jimmy uses it tomean 'mister' or 'esquire.' "53 Ahmed hasin fact not made the Haj, so his adoptionof the etiquette is a fraud; yet the gesturedoes possess significance: it seizes cannilyenough on the non-Western, non-Christian,hence counter-normative value ofIslam as a symbol pour épater les bourgeois.No doubt but that Islam's reputation as anaggressive military and religious movementalso appeals to Ahmed, the self-dubbed"High Command" on his premises. Themoniker "Thrushcross Grange" derives ofcourse from Charlotte Bronte's WutheringHeights, one of the few books that Ahmedhas read, or tried to read, and to which, duringhis English sojourn, his flatterers haveevidently made reference, suggesting thatthey saw their Trinidadian guest-celebrityas Heathcliff. "PEOPLE'S COMMUNE"hints at Mao, while the invocations ofland and revolution recall themes of Castro'sCuban utopia. Ahmed's placard-pronunciamentothus reverberates with similar broadsidesvisible all over the island, especiallyin the poor neighborhoods of the capitalcity: "Basic Black," "Don't Vote,"54"I'mNobody's Slave or Stallion,"55 and "After IsraelAfrica,"56the last sometimes shortened to"AIA." Roche thinks of them as merely"semi-political."57

Naipaul uses his character Harry daTunja (the sole redeemable persona in thenovel) to make pithy, if not quite analytical,comments on the developing conditionsof the island. Da Tunja tells Roche,"There are a lot of mad people in thisplace," adding that "it's a damn frightening thing."58 Da Tunja describes an incidentinvolving himself, his friend Sebastien,and a street beggar: "When he reachus he stop in the road, he raise his handand point at me and he say, 'You! You is aJew!'"59 When Roche guesses that the man"was probably drunk," Harry says: "Butwhat the hell does it mean to him? Whatkind of funny ideas are going around thisplace?"60 Discussions by Roche, da Tunja,and others about Ahmed use similar termsto those applied to the social milieu:"mad,"61 "dangerous," and able "to createchaos."62 Meredith Herbert, a local politician,remarks that Ahmed's "dynamic," asJane calls it, eventuated in England in "rapeand indecent assault" and "will take him tothe same end here."63 Ahmed, like the inebriatedanti-Semite, requires a scapegoatto provide actual and convenient form forhis pent-up hostility and confusion, hisunbearable sense that the world ought tocorrespond to his wishes but does not. Hewill discover one.

It is during a visit to da Tunja's seasidehouse that da Tunja, Roche, and Jane witnessa strange ceremony on the beach:

[While] radios played the reggae[they saw] men and women gownedin black or red rang bells and chanted,facing the sea . . . a black-gownedman, standing up to his waist in thesea, ringing a bell with one hand,holding a little raft steady with theother hand, a blindfolded woman ina pink chemise beside him, with alighted candle in her hand . . . . Afat, barefooted woman, with threeelderly women attendants in white,was preaching, shouting, chanting . .. . She looked down at the beach; sheseemed to be addressing someonestretched out there, for whom, fromher gestures, she continually spread animaginary rug or sheet . . . . A blindfoldedgroup was being prepared fora walk out to the sea. [Others] stoodand swayed as though infected by therhythm of the bells and the stamp ofthe six blindfolded marchers . . . .64

An American preacher on an evangelicalmission to the Caribbean contributes tothe disorientation. Roche's housekeeper,Adela, attends his meetings: "He say thatIsrael is in her glory and the power is nowon the Ni-gro people. He ask us . . . tohold hands and to pray hard, so that everyman would heal his neighbor."65 Like hismodel, Malik, Ahmed seeks rather tocreate a synthetic cult around himself ascharismatic and anointed "savior."66 Inthe early 1970s, Naipaul writes, Trinidadwas "moving towards revolution."67 Elsewhere:"Political life in the newly independentisland was stagnant; intellectualsfelt shut out by the new men of the newpolitics; and American Black Power, driftingdown to Trinidad, was giving a newtwist to popular discontents."68 Riotingin fact broke out in Port of Spain, but thepolice kept it from spreading. When Malikreturned to Trinidad in 1971, despite havingmissed the disturbance, he claimedto have been its leader in absentia. In thewould-be insurrectionist's imagination,"Negroes existed now only that Malikmight lead them."69 He came home notonly as a Muslim but as an explicit anti-Semite who had written to the Kuwaitiambassador to Great Britain complainingabout the Jews: "We must get them off ourbacks."70 He also railed against the Chinese,accusing them of imprisoning Trinidadiangirls in brothels. He consulted fortune-tellers. At his trial, one witness spokeof the "atmosphere of violence"71 withinMalik's commune on the outskirts of Portof Spain. But Malik's violence belongedto his glamour—it exerted the attractionthat brought Gale Benson to him—andtook some of its charge, at least, from theambient racial suspicion and ressentiment ofisland society.

Naipaul recreates all this in the novel.Ahmed's commune—a fake—finds supportin guilt-motivated largesse fromisland businesses. Roche works for one,Sablich's, which has donated tractors andfarm equipment. The machinery standsamong the scruffy acres rusting, rather likethe abandoned machinery in the OuterStation in Conrad's Heart of Darkness.Amidst the general lassitude and decay,Jane notices "human excrement laid intwo places"72 on a vegetable garden pathway.The commune merely serves Ahmedas a convenient headquarters from whichhe maintains contact with gangs in the cityand in which he hides himself with theslum boys who bunk in a barracks and poseas agricultural trainees. When the policekill a popular gang leader, Ahmed fansthe resultant ire and succeeds in fomentingwhat looks like a general social revolt.As authority breaks down, placards appearpraising Ahmed as "the Arrow of Peace."73Herbert's prediction seems to have cometrue. The dream of blood has broken free.

Like Conrad's Jones and his model,Malik, Ahmed vacillates between vegetableinanition and homicidal outrage.Roche notes that "Jimmy is easily bored."74Ahmed again resembles the revolutionariesin Under Western Eyes in finding thejustification for his destructive deeds invisions, never fixed in their details, of avast rectifi cation of injustice. Like de Barralin Chance, he sees himself as entitledto "privilege and splendor"75 and unfairlybarred from it. One other important componentcontributes to Naipaul's picture ofthe sociopath and ties him to his context.This is Ahmed's sexual psychosis, whichhas, in fact, its prefiguration in Conrad—for example in the plausible homosexualbond between Jones and Ricardo and inRicardo's rapacity toward Lena, or in thefact that the chief revolutionary plotter inThe Secret Agent (1907) seeks cover in Londonas a purveyor of cheap pornographyto sailors. For Conrad, a callous violenceis hardly separable from a callous attitudetoward sexual expression. But Naipaul'sworld has advanced farther into corruptionthan Conrad's, and its quality of perversionshows a difference. Ahmed's homosexualliaison, a slum boy named Bryant,frequents "interracial sex-films"76 popularamong the lower classes. When Janeinvolves herself sexually with Ahmed forthe first time, she notices in his bedroom"two paperback books" printed on "cheappaper curling in the heat," one of themdisplaying "a pornographic cover" nextto which sits "a shallow round jar of somecream."77 Ahmed craves "the hard stuff."

Naipaul merges the pornographictheme with the quasi-religious, the cultic,theme by means of the ubiquitous musicof the island—reggaeblasted around theclock from portable radios. Naipaul callsits chief characteristic "rhythmic throb."78Nor should readers forget that Ahmed haspreviously committed "indecent assault."Elsewhere Naipaul indicates Ahmed's fascinationwith rape. "The story of the rapeof a white girl at the beach by a gang"79moves him deeply, if ambiguously. Sex andviolence belong together in the "Haji's"behavioral repertory. Sexually obsessive,he sees through Jane immediately. Like theactual Gale Benson, Jane wanders throughlife "adrift, enervated, her dissatisfactionsvague, now centering on the world, nowon men."80 She has tacked, so to speak,promiscuously from lover to lover and, inher psychological and political confusion,finds Ahmed exotic. The erotic perversionsin Guerrillas fit coherently in the patternof a social crisis.

Ahmed has miscalculated his opportunity.The riots he has urged to erupt—inthe belief that general retributive violencewould deliver him his crown—spendthemselves in random killings, looting,and arson until American soldiers arrivein helicopters to restore order from theoutside. It is a classic Deus ex machina butone that has happened often enough in theactual world. Ahmed now must face thefact that he is "washed up."81 For one whohas likened himself to "a bronzed god,"82and who eagerly wants both "to make animpression" and "display himself,"83 failurecan hardly appeal. Worse, his sexualencounter with Jane ended up a fiasco."Do you always make love in your Maoshirt?" she asks, after his few seconds.84

Eschatological and sexual defaults thushumiliate Ahmed. He falls back on hiserotic bond with Bryant, the unwashed frequenterof sex-films. Ahmed says to Bryant,after Jane has snubbed the boy duringher first visit to the commune, "I'll give herto you."85Give, as though he held peremptorylicense over another. In effect, Ahmedpromises an offering. The cultic implicationcannot be set aside. Once again, Naipaultranslates from the actual details of Malik'shomicidal career. Of Gale Benson's rolein Malik's commune, Naipaul notes thatshe "wore African-style clothes and hadrenamed herself Halé Kimga,"86 an anagramof her own name and that of hercommune lover, Hakim Jamal, a lieutenantto Malik. "White, secure, yet in herquiet middle-class way out-blacking themall: Benson could not have been indifferentto the effect she created."87 Naipaulsees in Benson's role-playing "the greatuneducated vanity of the middle-classdropout."88 When Malik's plans go awry,his ire naturally alights on Benson.

Her execution, on January 2, 1972,was sudden and swift. She was heldby the neck and stabbed and stabbed.At that moment all the lunacy andplay fell from her; she knew who shewas then and wanted to live. Perhapsthe motive for the killing lay only inthat: the surprise, a secure life endingin an extended moment of terror.89

Malik's power agenda sprang, as Naipaulsays, "from an almost religious convictionthat oppression can be turned intoan asset, race into money."90 He expressedthese yearnings in his endless self-centeredscribbling. In the murder of Benson, the"dream of blood" tries desperately to staveoff its imminent dissolution in a recalcitrantreality: Benson has become a scandal,the sign of an order that Malik's fantasiescannot touch and that therefore mocks himintolerably. It is the same with the fictionalAhmed's murder of Jane, certainly one ofthe most horrifi c homicides in literature.

Jane has decided to leave the island.She fully understands Ahmed's doublehumiliation and her own contributing rolein it; casualness is simply the way she hasalways treated men. Incredibly (except thatthe model is Benson's slavish attitude toMalik), she decides to visit Ahmed on herway from The Ridge to the airport. Contemplatinga sexual au revoir, Jane allowsAhmed to lead her to his bedroom. Onceshe sheds her clothes, Ahmed forces her tothe bed and demonstrates what "indecentassault" means. Naipaul makes it clear thatfor Ahmed, sexual liaison entails aggressionand dominance—and the recompenseof perceived diminution; his libidodemands a ritual degradation of the intolerableoffender and is itself a calculatedoffense. This is not the end of it. When hehas violated and intimidated her, he coercesher to walk from the house with him tosee Bryant. "Bryant and I are not friendsnow,"91 he says, referring to an estrangement,stemming from Ahmed's previousliaison with Jane. Asking in a menacingvoice whether Jane has "a nice house inLondon,"92 Ahmed leads his victim to abare field where Bryant is waiting:

He cried, "Jimmy! Jimmy!"Jimmy locked his right arm aboutJane's neck and almost lifted her infront of him, pulling back the cornersof his mouth with the effort,and slightly puffing out his shavedcheeks, so that he seemed to smile.He said, "Bryant, the rat! Kill the rat!"Her right hand was on the arm swellingaround her neck, and it was onher right arm that Bryant made thefirst cut.The first cut: the rest would follow.93

Many elements combine in this ritualisticscene, with the victim being led tothe preordained place of slaughter: ressentiment;nihilism; sacrifice; murder as therevenge of the humiliated and the culminationof what Roche calls Ahmed's "littlepower game."94 The setting symbolizesthe evil nullity of the deed: "No shade,the bush laid waste, the land sterile."95Nor will the victim's blood fructify thesterility. Ahmed's killing of Jane puts thecrimson patent on a sequence of rebelliousfantasies.


Ahmed and Bryant are culpable in the murder,but are others entirely free from culpability?I have urged that if Conrad were thedocumenter of colonialism, then Naipaul,as his successor, would be the documenterof post-colonialism. Yet the second half ofthe assertion requires modification. Naipaulseems to document a second colonialismculturally far more devastating than thefirst. The clue to understanding this secondcolonialism lies in two things: first, in theexistence of the flatterers who, in the caseof Malik, convinced a petty criminal thathe was a revolutionary leader and so senthim back to Trinidad assured of his messianicrole in a Manichaean war betweenblacks and whites; second, in the existence,among Western elites, of a pervasive rebellionagainst all order—often tending towardwhat Naipaul calls the dream of blood.

In tracing the roots of Malik's "BlackPower Murders in Trinidad," Naipaulcites Conrad's short story "An Outpostof Progress" (1897) as an analysis of "thecongruent corruptions of colonizer andcolonized, which can also be read as a parableabout simple people who think theycan separate themselves from the crowd."96He also makes a bold, but careful, assertionabout Gale Benson who "as shallowand vain and parasitic as many middleclassdropouts of her time . . . became ascorrupt as her master; she was part of thecorruption by which she was destroyed."97Naipaul condemns "those who helped tomake Malik" and "those who continue tosimplify the world and reduce other men—not only the Negro—to a cause."98 Thecategory includes "people who substitutedoctrine for knowledge and irritation forconcern," "revolutionaries who visit centersof revolution with return air tickets,"and "people who wish themselves on societiesmore fragile than their own."99 Theexportation to the former colonies of exacerbatingideologies serves the ideologues,who can stir passions and then go home,but hardly those to whom the doctrinemongersappeal. In an essay on "Power"(1970), Naipaul writes that a people who"have seen themselves as futile, on theother side of the real world," will inevitably"want something more than politics,"which is what comes, as a practical matter,with independence; "like the dispossessedpeasantry of medieval Europe," they willyearn for "crusades and messiahs."100

A Malik or an Ahmed resembles an Iranianmullah by ambition and an Americancriminal—a Charles Manson, say—by hisbehavior. The eponymous term "guerrilla"is at stake in the comparison. Adiminutive, Naipaul's use of it emphasizesthe implied limitation in the "littlewarrior's" struggle, his vanity, his strikingout against a neurotic certainty of his ownmoral dwarfi shness. Ahmed is not theonly guerrilla in the novel. Jane makes aleitmotif of "the wrongness of the world"and likes to say that the established ordershould "go up in flames."101 She believesthat she "has never exercised choice"102and exhibits a "casual, instinctive crueltytoward people with whom she [is] notconcerned."103 Roche fares little better.He embodies liberal guilt, as exemplifiedby his having accepted the job of corporatewelfare agent channeling wealth fromSablich's enterprise to Ahmed's "Grange."By the time he can say to himself, with referenceto Ahmed and everyone connectedwith him, "I loathe all these people, I hatethe place,"104 the evil has already run itscourse. Herbert asks him during a radiointerview, "Didn't you ever think thatThrushcross Grange was a cover for theguerrillas?"105

Naipaul repeatedly stresses the unoriginalityof Third World radicalism. In the1960s and 1970s, the rage was for "BlackPower," already an import, which in Trinidadand Jamaica catered to "the old apocalypticmood of the black masses," offering"rage, drama . . . revolutionary jargon,"106but led to nothing constructive. Some ofthe worst race riots in history took placein Jamaica under the demagogic leadershipof Prime Minister Michael Manley inthe early 1970s. While race politics meant"Cuba and China," it also meant, "drinkingholy water, eating pork and dancing."107The mixture of the politically tendentiouswith the collectively delirious could hardlybe more pronounced.

Naipaul has spoken of "Our UniversalCivilization," and has describedhimself as a grateful participant in andbeneficiary of it. This civilization, Naipaulsays, takes the form of "a particulartype of society [that] has a certain degreeof commercial organization [and] certaincultural or imaginative needs . . . .[a]nd it has the means of judging the newthings that are offered"108 to it, whetherfrom within or without. "And if I haveto describe the universal civilization Iwould say that it is the civilization thatboth gave the prompting and the idea ofthe literary vocation; and also gave themeans to fulfi ll that prompting."109 Onecharacteristic of the universal civilizationis that it cherishes its own past, notuncritically, but assiduously. It conservesand contemplates. The universal civilizationthus resists "philosophical hysteria."110Naipaul explains how he formed the ideaof the universal civilization. It was not, hesays, "until eleven years ago, when I traveledfor many months in a number of non-Arab Muslim countries to try to understandwhat had driven them to their rage.That Muslim rage was just beginning tobe apparent."111 In a typically controversialremark, Naipaul describes how the fundamentalistvariety of Islam had "abolishedthe past"112 in places, like Iran, where ithad come to power. "And when the pastis abolished . . . more than the idea of historysuffered. Human behavior, and idealsof good behavior, could suffer."113

It is not merely revivalist Islam, however,that flails against the settled past: it isany form of antinomian rebellion—Muslim,communist, and nihilist. Each ofthese sees life through the distorting redof its sanguine vision. Each would suspendthe hard-earned order of inherited societyto impose the libido of some savior or messiahbloodily on the world.


  1. V. S. Naipaul, Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions amongthe Converted Peoples (New York: Vintage, 1999), 201.
  2. Joseph Conrad, Victory (New York: Signet, 1991), 76.
  3. Ibid., 77.
  4. Ibid., 77.
  5. Ibid., 77.
  6. Ibid., 78.
  7. Ibid., 76.
  8. Ibid., 213.
  9. Ibid., 87.
  10. Ibid., 213.
  11. Ibid., 206.
  12. Ibid., 220.
  13. Ibid., 204.
  14. Ibid., 85.
  15. Ibid., 282.
  16. Ibid., 79.
  17. Ibid., 285.
  18. Ibid., 285.
  19. Ibid., 286.
  20. Plato, Gorgias, trans. W. Hamilton (New York: Penguin,1971), 87.
  21. Ibid., 89.
  22. Joseph Conrad, Chance (NewYork: Penguin, 1974), 290.
  23. Ibid., 313.
  24. Ibid., 298.
  25. Ibid., 306.
  26. Ibid., 304.
  27. Ibid., 306.
  28. Ibid., 307.
  29. Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes (New York: Signet,1987), 79.
  30. Ibid., 22.
  31. Ibid., 112.
  32. Ibid., 153.
  33. Ibid., 152.
  34. Ibid., 12.
  35. Ibid., 14.
  36. Ibid., 22.
  37. Ibid., 181.
  38. Ibid., 180.
  39. Raymond Aron, "The Futureof Secular Religions," in The Dawn of Universal History,trans. B. Bray (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 179.
  40. V.S. Naipaul, Among Believers (New York: Vintage, 1982),53.
  41. Ibid., 55.
  42. Ibid., 55.
  43. Ibid., 55.
  44. Ibid., 55.
  45. Ibid., 55.
  46. Ibid., 55.
  47. V. S. Naipaul, Beyond Belief(New York: Vintage, 1998), 212.
  48. Ibid., 171.
  49. V.S. Naipaul, "Michael X and the Black Power Killingsin Trinidad," in The Writer and the World (New York:Knopf, 2002), 141–42.
  50. Ibid., 182.
  51. Ibid., 182.
  52. V.S. Naipaul, Guerrillas (New York: Vintage, 1990), 6.
  53. Ibid., 6.
  54. Ibid., 3.
  55. Ibid., 103.
  56. Ibid., 165.
  57. Ibid.,100.
  58. Ibid., 132–33.
  59. Ibid., 126.
  60. Ibid., 127.
  61. Ibid., 23.
  62. Ibid., 137.
  63. Ibid., 137.
  64. Ibid., 116–17.
  65. Ibid., 113.
  66. Ibid., 33.
  67. Naipaul, The Writer andthe World, 166.
  68. Ibid., 166.
  69. Ibid., 169.
  70. Ibid.,170.
  71. Ibid., 148.
  72. Ibid., 14.
  73. Naipaul, Guerrillas,182.
  74. Ibid., 203
  75. Ibid., 64.
  76. Ibid., 30 & 181.
  77. Ibid., 159.
  78. Ibid., 175.
  79. Ibid., 60.
  80. Ibid., 43.
  81. Ibid., 186.
  82. Ibid., 33.
  83. Ibid., 15.
  84. Ibid., 74.
  85. Ibid., 85.
  86. Naipaul, The Writer and the World, 143.
  87. Ibid., 143.
  88. Ibid., 143.
  89. Ibid., 143.
  90. Ibid., 189.
  91. Naipaul, Guerrillas, 236.
  92. Ibid., 238.
  93. Ibid., 238.
  94. Ibid., 110.
  95. Ibid., 237.
  96. Naipaul, The Writer andthe World, 190.
  97. Ibid., 190.
  98. Ibid., 190.
  99. Ibid.,190.
  100. "Power to the Caribbean People," (New YorkReview of Books 15, No. 4, 1970): 135.
  101. Guerrillas,95.
  102. Ibid., 93.
  103. Ibid., 131.
  104. Ibid., 155.
  105. Ibid., 208.
  106. Naipaul, The Writer and the World, 136.
  107. Ibid., 136.
  108. Naipaul, "Our Universal Civilization,"(originally a speech at the Manhattan Institute,10/30/90) in The Writer and the World, 506.
  109. Ibid.,506–07.
  110. Ibid., 513.
  111. Ibid., 507.
  112. Ibid., 509.
  113. Ibid., 509.