On the surface this is the memoir of a disgraced former colonial minister, Ralph Singh, exiled from the island country he briefly ruled and now living in a run-down hotel in London. But perhaps it’s more accurate to think of this as the trellis upon which Naipaul has woven a much deeper, much more complex examination of colonialism, politics, race, society, culture, and human psychology.
I’m struggling to figure out how to characterize a story in which much happens internally while very little actually occurs externally. One insight that occurs early is that Naipaul has chosen his narrator well. Singh’s life story provides opportunities to explore so many complex issues – from his childhood spent navigating a chaos of adolescent, intellectual, religious, racial and class issues, to his brief career as a radical politician in which he explores the complex realities of colonialism and the emptiness and futility of revolutions that arise from anger and despair, to his “retirement” in exile, which provides the opportunity for exhaustive self-examination about identity. Throughout the narrative, however, weaves at least one common theme: the extent to which a life spent mimicking the values & ambitions of others – other people, other cultures, other classes, other religions, other economies, other political systems – can ever be “true” or fulfilling. Can identity ever be wholly organic, or do we inevitably define ourselves through the perceptions and expectations of race/class/society/gender we are born into?
In 250 short pages Naipaul packs an almost indescribable amount of observation and reflection, couched in language that borders on lyrical at times. Seriously, I was underlining passages almost every paragraph – beautifully turned phrases, dazzling flashes of insight, deftly observed universal truths. Which makes for an intense intellectual experience, but possibly not riveting reading if your aim is entertainment or distraction. So consider yourself warned: while this definitely isn’t something you’d want to take with you to the beach, it will amply reward readers who are willing to devote to it the time and reflection it deserves.