Picks and Pans Review: Finding the Center
by V.S. Naipaul
Like Naipaul's fiction, the two memoirs in this slim volume are full of grace, wit and a most unaffected curiosity. They also approach a subject that is at once very specific and as large as history: the confrontation between Third World countries and those of the West. In the first essay, Naipaul recalls how beginning to write fiction in London in the 1950s led him to explore his background in Trinidad. In the second memoir, he recounts a visit to the West African country of the Ivory Coast. That country's president since independence, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, is modern enough to build a classy golf course in his isolated ancestral village of Yamoussoukro; he's also traditional enough to keep on hand a few representatives of the animal from his family totem, the crocodile. Naipaul can be wonderfully poignant, as in his recounting of how, as a boy, he hung on every word of a story his father was writing. He can be trenchant, almost ruthless, as in his description of the hopeless confusion of a black woman he met in the Ivory Coast: She ended up there after having left her home in Guadeloupe to go to Paris, where she came to think of herself as French, then married an Ivorian. Most impressive is Naipaul's ability to strike a balance between European and Third World cultures. While he never romanticizes the past of "primitive" societies, he never condescends to them either. He can see in the underdeveloped (and unapologized for) glitz of Yamoussoukro "a glimpse of an African Africa, an Africa which—whatever the accidents of history, whatever the current manifestations of earthly glory—has always been in its own eyes complete, achieved, bursting with its own powers." (Knopf, $13.95)
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