The genius and tragedy of Shiva Naipaul



Shiva Naipaul, the younger brother of VS Naipaul, was born in Trinidad in 1945. He died in London in 1985, of a heart attack, at the age of 40. A life cut brutally short, an end brought on, some say, by his excesses and lack of discipline.

His career as a published writer lasted only 15 years. But in that too-short span, he produced work that has long outlived him. His first two novels, Fireflies (published when he was only 25 years old) and The Chip-Chip Gatherers are acknowledged masterpieces, and – on the authority of writers such as Martin Amis and the late Christopher Hitchens – earn him a place in the canon of contemporary English literature.

Like VS, Shiva won a scholarship to Oxford. Like VS, he had a nervous breakdown while at university. Like VS, he became a published writer at a precocious age. The brothers shared an editor – Diana Athill at Andre Deutsch.

The brothers also had a fascinating and fraught relationship. It could not have been easy to have been VS Naipaul’s brother. It must have been infinitely harder to have been VS Naipaul’s writer brother. To emerge from that shadow was nearly impossible. Even in his author bio, he is called ‘the younger brother of the novelist VS Naipaul’.

But it was in his writing that Shiva came out of the shadow of his famous elder brother. Last year, Penguin Modern Classics published a new edition of Shiva’s Fireflies. To read that novel is to be made aware of the genius of Shiva Naipaul.

Shiva mines the Trinidad he grew up in, a territory already annexed by VS in his first few books, and, most memorably, in his own early-career masterpiece, A House for Mr Biswas. The choice of material could have been an act of astonishing writerly audacity. It could have been that, having found his material, Shiva could do nothing but to embrace it. Or it could have been, as Amit Chaudhuri puts it in his introduction to the new edition (read a condensed version of the introduction here), Shiva wrote Fireflies all the while schooling himself to pretend that A House for Mr Biswas did not exist.

Fireflies was published in 1970 – by which time the status of Biswas, which had appeared nine years previously, was assured its status as a classic. Fireflies is warm, compassionate, funny, poignant and deeply affecting. Hitchens called it the “great tragicomic novel of our day”. Amis, four years younger than Shiva, said that on first reading it, he was thrilled to be alive at the same time as a writer such as Shiva Naipaul.

Shiva never wrote anything as great as his first two novels, although a collection of his essays and short fiction, Beyond the Dragon’s Mouth (which appeared the year before his death) is strikingly good. His reputation rests on his first two novels, both published by the time he was only 28 years old.

Today, Shiva is not remembered as well as he ought to be. Even in 1985, as these obituaries from The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times show, his reputation was on the wane.

Which is why it is important to read those two novels. It is particularly important to read Fireflies. In its complexity, ambition, characterisation and, to borrow from Chaudhuri, “its mixture of randomness and predestination”, as well as its “tantalasing, slightly alarming, circular musicality”, Fireflies is every bit as great a novel as A House for Mr Biswas.

I have just finished it. And I have not returned to Biswas for several years. Why, at this moment, it seems to me that Fireflies – a first novel published when the author is 25 years old – is a greater achievement than A House for Mr Biwas.

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