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  • Written by V.S. Naipaul
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And Other Comic Inventions

Written by V.S. NaipaulAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by V.S. Naipaul

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On Sale: October 20, 2010
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

V. S. Naipaul’s legendary command of broad comedy and acute social observation is on abundant display in these classic works of fiction–two novels and a collection of stories–that capture the rhythms of life in the Caribbean and England with impressive subtlety and humor.
The Suffrage of Elvira is Naipaul’s hilarious take on an electoral campaign in the back country of Trinidad, where the candidates’ tactics include blatant vote-buying and supernatural sabotage. The eponymous protagonist of Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion is an aging Englishman of ponderously regular habits whose life is thrown into upheaval by a sudden marriage and unanticipated professional advancement. And the stories in A Flag on the Island take us from a Chinese bakery in Trinidad–whose black proprietor faces bankruptcy until he takes a Chinese name–to a rooming house in London–where the genteel landlady plays a nasty Darwinian game with her budgerigars. Unfailingly stylish, filled with intelligence and feeling, here is the work of a writer who can do just about anything that can be done with language.

Excerpt

i. The Bakshes

Democracy had come to Elvira four years before, in 1946; but it had taken nearly everybody by surprise and it wasn't until 1950, a few months before the second general election under universal adult franchise, that people began to see the possibilities.

Until that time Baksh had only been a tailor and a man of reputed wealth. Now he found himself the leader of the Muslims in Elvira. He said he controlled more than a thousand Muslim votes. There were eight thousand voters in County Naparoni, that is, in Elvira and Cordoba. Baksh was a man of power.

It was a puzzle: how Baksh came to be the Muslim leader. He wasn't a good Muslim. He didn't know all the injunctions of the Prophet and those he did know he broke. For instance, he was a great drinker; when he went to Ramlogan's rumshop he made a point of ordering white puncheon rum, the sort you have to swallow quickly before it turns to vapour in your mouth. He had none of the dignity of the leader. He was a big talker: in Elvira they called him 'the mouther'.

Chittaranjan, now, the other power in Elvira, was aloof and stiff, and whenever he talked to you, you felt he was putting you in your place. Baksh mixed with everybody, drank and quarrelled with everybody. Perhaps it was this that helped to make Baksh the Muslim leader, though the position should have gone in all fairness to Haq, a fierce black little man who wore a bristle of white beard and whiskers, and whose eyes flashed behind steel-rimmed spectacles when he spoke of infidels. Haq was orthodox, or so he led people to believe, but Haq was poor. He ran a grubby little stall, just twice the size of a sentry-box, stocked only with cheap sweets and soft drinks.

Baksh made money. It was hard not to feel that for all his conviviality Baksh was a deep man. He was a talker, but he did things. Like that shirt-making business. For months Baksh talked. 'Make two three dozen cheap khaki shirts,' he told them in Ramlogan's rumshop. 'Take them to Princes Town and Rio Claro on market day. A cool seventy dollars. Some damn fool or the other come up to you. You tell him that the shirts not really good enough for him. You say you going to make something especially to fit him pussonal. You pretend you taking his measure, and when you go back the next week you give the damn fool the same shirt. Only, you charge him a little extra.' He talked like that for months. And then one day he actually did it all as he had said. And made money.

He lived in a tumbledown wooden house of two storeys, an elaborate thing with jalousies and fretwork everywhere, built for an overseer in the days of the Elvira Estate; but he used to say that he could put up something bigger than Chittaranjan's any day he chose. 'Only,' he used to say, 'they just ain't have the sort of materials I want for my house. This Trinidad backward to hell, you hear.' He kept the designs of Californian-style houses from American magazines to show the sort of house he wanted. 'Think they could build like that in Trinidad?' he would ask, and he would answer himself: 'Naah!' And if he were at the door of his tailoring establishment he would spit straight across the ragged little patch of grass into the deep gutter at the roadside.

For a tailor he dressed badly and he said this was so because he was a tailor; anyway, 'only poorer people does like dressing up, to try and pretend that they ain't so poor.' He dressed his children badly because he didn't want them 'running about thinking they is superior to poorer people children'.

In June 1950, when Harbans drove into Elvira to see Baksh, there were seven young Bakshes. The eldest was seventeen; he would be eighteen in August. The boy's name was not generally known but everyone called him Foam, which was short for Foreman.

*

The decorated Dodge lorry came to a stop in a narrow trace opposite Baksh's shop. Harbans saw the sign:

m. baksh

London Tailoring Est.

Tailoring and Cutting

Suits Made and Repair at City Prices

A flock of poorer people's children, freed from school that Friday afternoon, had been running after the lorry ever since it entered the Elvira main road. Many of them were half-dressed according to the curious rural prudery which dictated that the top should be covered, not the bottom. They shouted, 'Vote Harbans for Elvira, man!' and made a chant of it. Harbans resented the whole thing as an indignity and was tempted to shoo the children away when he got out of the lorry, but he remembered the election and pretended not to hear.

He wasn't a tall man but looked taller than he was because he was so thin. He walked with a clockwork jerkiness, seeming to move only from the knees down. His white shirt, buttoned at the wrist, was newly ironed, like his trousers. The only rakish touch in his dress was the tie he used as a trousers-belt. Altogether, there was about him much of the ascetic dignity of the man who has made money.

Foam, Baksh's eldest son, sat at the Singer sewing-machine near the door, tacking a coat; an overgrown bony boy with a slab-like face: you felt that the moment he was born someone had clapped his face together.

Foam said, 'Candidate coming, Pa.'

'Let him come,' Baksh said. If Harbans had heard he would have recognized the casual aggressiveness he had been fearing all afternoon. Baksh stood at a counter with a tape-measure round his neck, consulting a bloated copy-book and making marks with a triangular piece of yellow chalk on some dark blue material. At one end of the counter there was a pile of new material, already cut. A yardstick, its brass tips worn smooth, was screwed down at the other end.

Light came into the shop only through the front door and didn't reach everywhere. Age had given the unpainted wallboards the barest curve; darkness had made them a dingy russet colour; both had given the shop a moist musty smell. It was this smell, warm and sharp in the late afternoon, not the smell of new cloth, that greeted Harbans when he walked over the shaky plank spanning the gutter and came into the yard.

Foam kept on tacking. Baksh made more marks on his cloth.

Two months, one month ago, they would have jumped up as soon as they saw him coming.

Harbans suffered.

'Aah, Baksh.' He used his lightest coo. 'How you is?' He flashed his false teeth at Foam and added all at once, 'And how the boy is? He doing well? Ooh, but he looking too well and too nice.'

Foam scowled while Harbans ruffled his hair.

'Foam,' Baksh said, very gently, 'get up like a good boy and give Mr Harbans your bench.'

Baksh left his chalk and cloth and came to the doorway. He had the squat build of the labourer and didn't look like a leader or even like the father of seven children. He seemed no more than thirty. He seated Harbans and spat through the door into the gutter. 'Ain't got much in the way of furnishings, you see,' he said, waving his hands about the dark windowless room with its gloomy walls and high sooty ceiling.

'It matters?' Harbans said.

'It matter when you ain't have.'

Harbans said, 'Aah.' Baksh frightened him a little. He didn't like the solid square face, the thick eyebrows almost meeting at the bridge of a thick nose, the thick black moustache over thick lips. Especially he didn't like Baksh's bloodshot eyes. They made him look too reckless.

Harbans put his hands on his thin knees and looked at them. 'I take my life in my hands today, Baksh, to come to see you. If I tell you how I hate driving!'

'You want some suit and things?'

'Is talk I want to talk with you, Baksh.'

Baksh tried to look surprised.

'Foam,' Harbans said, 'go away a lil bit. It have a few things, pussonal, I want to say to your father.'

Foam didn't move.

Baksh laughed. 'No, man. Foam is a big man now. Eh, in two three years we have to start thinking about marrying him off.'

Foam, leaning against the wall under a large Coca-Cola calendar, said, 'Not me, brother. I ain't in that bacchanal at all. I ain't want to get married.'

Harbans couldn't protest. He said, 'Ooh,' and gave a little chuckle. The room was too dark for him to see Foam's expression. But he saw how tall and wiry the boy was, and he thought his posture a little arrogant. That, and his booming voice, made him almost as frightening as his father. Harbans's hands began to tap on his knees. 'Ooh, ooh. Children, eh, Baksh?' He chuckled again. 'Children. What you going to do?'

Baksh sucked his teeth and went back to his counter. 'Is the modern generation.'

Harbans steadied his hands. 'Is that self I come to talk to you about. The modern world, Baksh. In this modern world everybody is one. Don't make no difference who you is or what you is. You is a Muslim, I is a Hindu. Tell me, that matter?' He had begun to coo again.

'Depending.'

'Yes, as you say, depending. Who you for, Baksh?'

'In the election, you mean?'

Harbans looked ashamed.

Baksh lay down on a low couch in the darkest corner of the dark room and looked up at the ceiling. 'Ain't really think about it yet, you know.'

'Oh. Ooh, who you for, Foam?'

'Why for you bothering the boy head with that sort of talk, man?'

Foam said, 'I for you, Mr Harbans.'

'Ooh, ooh. Ain't he a nice boy, Baksh?'

Baksh said, 'The boy answer for me.'

Harbans looked more ashamed.

Baksh sat up. 'You go want a lot of help. Microphone. Loudspeaking van. Fact, you go want a whole campaign manager.'

'Campaign what? Ooh. Nothing so fancy for me, man. You and I, Baksh, we is very simple people. Is the community we have to think about.'

'Thinking about them all the time,' Baksh said.

'Time go come, you know, Baksh, and you too, Foam, time go come when you realize that money ain't everything.'

'But is a damn lot,' Foam boomed, and took up his tacking again.

'True,' Harbans fluted.

'Must have a loudspeaking van,' Baksh said. 'The other man have a loudspeaking van. Come to think of it, you could use my loudspeaker.' He looked hard at Harbans. 'And you could use my van.'

Harbans looked back hard into the darkness. 'What you saying, Baksh? You ain't got no loudspeaker.'

Baksh stood up. Foam stopped tacking.

'You ain't got no loudspeaker,' Harbans repeated. 'And you ain't got no van.'

Baksh said, 'And you ain't got no Muslim vote.' He went back to his counter and took up the yellow chalk in a businesslike way.

'Haa!' Harbans chuckled. 'I was only fooling you. Haa! I was only making joke, Baksh.'

'Damn funny sorta joke,' Foam said.

'You going to get your van,' Harbans said. 'And you going to get your loudspeaker. You sure we want loudspeaker?'

'Bound to have one, man. For the boy.'

'Boy?'

'Who else?' Foam asked. 'I did always want to take up loudspeaking. A lot of people tell me I have the voice for it.'

'Hundred per cent better than that Lorkhoor,' Baksh said.

Lorkhoor was the brightest young man in Elvira and Foam's natural rival. He was only two-and-a-half years older than Foam but he was already making his mark on the world. He ran about the remoter districts of Central Trinidad with a loudspeaker van, advertising for the cinemas in Caroni.

'Lorkhoor is only a big show-offer,' Foam said. 'Ever hear him, Mr Harbans? "This is the voice of the ever popular Lorkhoor," he does say, "begging you and imploring you and entreating you and beseeching you to go to the New Theatre." Is just those three big words he knew, you know. Talk about a show-offer!'

'The family is like that,' Baksh said.

'We want another stand-pipe in Elvira,' Harbans said. 'Elvira is a big place and it only have one school. And the roads!'

Foam said, 'Mr Harbans, Lorkhoor start loudspeaking against you, you know.'

'What! But I ain't do the boy or the boy family nothing at all. Why he turning against a old man like me?'

Neither Baksh nor Foam could help him there. Lorkhoor had said so often he didn't care for politics that it had come as a surprise to all Elvira when he suddenly declared for the other candidate, the man they called Preacher. Even Preacher's supporters were surprised.

'But I is a Hindu,' Harbans cried. 'Lorkhoor is a Hindu. Preacher is Negro.'

Baksh saw an opening. 'Preacher giving out money hands down. Lorkhoor managing Preacher campaign. Hundred dollars a month.'

'Where Preacher getting that sort of money?'

Baksh began to invent. 'Preacher tell me pussonal'--the word had enormous vogue in Elvira in 1950--'that ever since he was a boy, even before this democracy and universal suffrage business, he had a ambition to go up to the Legislative Council. He say God send him this chance.' Baksh paused for inspiration. It didn't come. 'He been saving up,' Baksh went on lamely. 'Saving up for a long long time.' He shifted the subject. 'To be frank with you, Mr Harbans, Preacher have me a little worried. He acting too funny. He ain't making no big noise or nothing. He just walking about quiet quiet and brisk brisk from house to house. He ain't stick up no posters or nothing.'

'House-to-house campaign,' Harbans said gloomily.

'And Lorkhoor,' Foam said. 'He winning over a lot of stupid people with his big talk.'

Harbans remembered the sign he had had that afternoon: the women, the dog, the engine stalling twice. And he hadn't been half an hour in Elvira before so many unexpected things had happened. Baksh wasn't sticking to the original bargain. He was demanding a loudspeaker van; he had brought Foam in and Harbans felt that Foam was almost certain to make trouble. And there was this news about Lorkhoor.

'Traitor!' Harbans exclaimed. 'This Lorkhoor is a damn traitor!'

'The family is like that,' Baksh said, as though it were a consolation.

'I ain't even start my campaign proper yet and already I spend more than two thousand dollars. Don't ask me what on, because I ain't know.'

Baksh laughed. 'You talking like Foam mother.'
V.S. Naipaul

About V.S. Naipaul

V.S. Naipaul - The Nightwatchman's Occurrence Book

Photo © Carolyn Djanogly

V. S. Naipaul was born in Trinidad in 1932. He went to England on a scholarship in 1950. After four years at University College, Oxford, he began to write, and since then has followed no other profession. He has published thirty books of fiction and nonfiction, including A House for Mr. Biswas, A Bend in the River, A Turn in the South and a collection of letters, Between Father and Son. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001.

Praise

Praise

“V. S. Naipaul is the world’s writer, a master of language and perception.” –The New York Times Book Review

“As delightful as anything Naipaul has written.” –The New York Review of Books

“V. S. Naipaul has a substantial claim as a comic writer. . . . This humor, conducted throughout with the utmost stylistic quietude, is completely original.” –Kingsley Amis, The Spectator

  • The Nightwatchman's Occurrence Book by V.S. Naipaul
  • July 09, 2002
  • Fiction - Literary; Fiction
  • Vintage
  • $15.00
  • 9780375708336

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