What’s in a name?

Richard Johnstone reviews Shiva Naipaul’s The Chip-Chip Gatherers

12 January 2013



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The Chip-Chip Gatherers
By Shiva Naipaul
Penguin Modern Classics | $22.99

SHIVA Naipaul’s first novel, Fireflies, appeared in 1970, when the author was twenty-five years old. It was an immediate and very public success, winning several literary awards, including the prestigious John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. Three years later came a second novel, The Chip-Chip Gatherers. Set, like its predecessor, among the Indian community of Naipaul’s native Trinidad, Naipaul’s second novel was hailed, again like its predecessor, as a richly comic exploration of thwarted ambition, of the doomed quest for authenticity in an imitative, irredeemably colonial world. It won the Whitbread Prize, confirming that another Naipaul had very much arrived.

It was not just the settings that reminded readers of the work of Shiva’s elder brother, V.S. Naipaul. There was – and is – something about the tone of urbane weariness, of the assumption that nothing good will come of it, whatever “it” might be, that suggests, if not exactly imitation, then a kind of familial deference. Patrick French, in The World Is What It Is: The Authorised Biography of VS Naipaul (2008), puts it rather more strongly. “He was a gifted writer,” says French of Shiva Naipaul, “but his books reverberate with the echo of his brother’s voice.” It is a harsh judgement, made harsher by the elegance of the formulation and the preliminary concession that Shiva was, after all, gifted.

And there is an extra sting: that Shiva Naipaul, who focused in his novels on the dilemma of those obliged to imitate, to strive from the colonial margins for a metropolitan authenticity that will forever elude them, might himself have been just such an imitator, never quite finding his own voice. There are those who will put the opposite case; Christopher Hitchens, for instance, reviewing the Patrick French biography in the Atlantic, took the opportunity to identify Fireflies as “one of the great tragicomic novels of our day,” though it is perhaps significant that the opportunity arose in the context of discussing the other Naipaul.

Shiva Naipaul died, of a heart attack, in 1985, at the age of forty. He had published one more novel, and a volume of short stories, in the twelve years between The Chip-Chip Gatherers and his premature death, but for the most part he focused on journalism and non-fiction – on travel writing and caustic commentaries on the Third World and what he saw as the determination of Western liberals to romanticise the distinctly unromantic. In Black and White (1980), he wrote about the Jonestown massacre, the induced suicide in 1978 of almost 1000 adherents of the People’s Temple, who had followed their leader from California, where their activities were attracting unwelcome attention, to the remote reaches of Guyana, where they would build a socialist utopia. Echoing a theme from the novels, such notions of escape are merely delusions.

In the 1970s, when Shiva Naipaul was making his reputation, it was not uncommon for the two writers with the distinctively euphonious surname to become mixed up in the public mind. Such confusion is unlikely now. V.S. Naipaul is a Nobel Prize winner, a writer whose extraordinary achievements are widely acknowledged, even by those who condemn the man for his alleged sins, of ruthlessness and ingratitude and exaggerated self-regard. Shiva is the other one, remembered largely for his first two novels, which have now been reissued as Penguin Modern Classics. Of the two – novels, that is – Fireflies is the funnier, even if the fate of its central character, Baby Lutchman, is overwhelmingly sad.

The Chip-Chip Gatherers (“a truthful, compelling, tragic, painfully comic masterpiece,” says the review quotation on the cover), is a more complex blend of comic and tragic. It is also a more original novel, forsaking any thought of a hero or a heroine or even a central character, skipping instead from one member of the large cast to another, as if to emphasise the arbitrariness of fate. You can be in the spotlight one minute, and consigned to the wings the next. The novel questions the value of much of what modernity takes as a given – the value of education, of ambition, of the will to better oneself, to take control. Such determination ends up being rather a waste of time. “Most of us don’t have a choice in the way we live,” says Sita, a young girl with grand plans who gradually abandons them in favour of going with the flow. “We’ve simply got to make do with what we have.”

The novel’s spotlight focuses initially on Egbert Ramsaran. (He changes his name to the antique and unmusical Egbert in the mistaken belief that it is a name that “nobody could laugh at”; and besides, he reasons, it is much easier to pronounce than his given name, Ashok.) Through application and hard work, Egbert escapes not only his birth name but the small backwater – “the Settlement” – to which fate has initially confined him, moving first to Port-of-Spain and then to Victoria, where he establishes a trucking business and achieves his goal of independence and prosperity.

Heroic determination does not, however, make him a hero. He is and remains selfish, self-obsessed, obnoxious and cruel. His wife, Rani, who suffers most of all from his cruelty, tries in vain to hold a life together. She collects stamps and clay ornaments. If one of her clay ornaments gets broken, she does not try to repair it. She simply keeps the pieces. Whatever grace and elegance there is in Egbert’s and Rani’s life belongs to the flies; as Egbert sits down to dinner, the creatures circle expectantly and “balletically round the naked electric light bulb,” a phrase repeated later in the novel as a kind of mocking refrain.

The focus shifts and shifts again, taking in, among others, Egbert and Rani’s son Wilbert, who is destined to take over the trucking company and who – it seems to be almost by chance – is chosen to carry the novel through to its conclusion. Wilbert falls, like his father, into marriage, because it is the thing to do. The wedding ceremony, described by Naipaul in a brilliantly comic set-piece that occupies much of the last chapter, takes place in the “‘Marriage Room’ of the Registry Office.” The Marriage Room, we are told, is “sandwiched between the ‘Births Room’ and the ‘Deaths Room.’” This characteristically reductive note – marriage is something that happens between birth and death – together with Naipaul’s apparent favouring of quiescence over self-assertion, of inaction over action, can seem altogether too contemptuous of human aspirations and of people’s capacity to change themselves and their circumstances for the better.

Naipaul’s obituary in the Times described Fireflies as “striking but misanthropic” and The Chip-Chip Gatherers as displaying “an outdated social Darwinism in which only the most unpleasant were allowed to be the ‘fittest.’” A response was published a few days later, objecting to this unsympathetic assessment, emphasising instead Naipaul’s unusual capacity for “detachment” and for telling the truth. Perhaps these apparently contrasting views are merely aspects of one another; one person’s misanthropy might well be another’s detachment. What does seem clearer now, reading The Chip-Chip Gatherers forty years after its initial appearance, is an underlying thread of authorial sympathy for the characters, a sympathy that persists in spite of Naipaul’s ruthless chronicling of their faults. The most effective expression of this comes at the very end, when the reader – or rather the reader who is not already familiar with the details of Trinidadian life and culture – discovers what chip-chips are, and how the gathering of chip-chips involves a great deal of effort for very meagre reward. •

Richard Johnstone is an emeritus professor at the University of Technology Sydney. His paperback reviews appear online monthly in Inside Story.

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