The International Literary Quarterly

November 2008


Gillian Beer
Amit Chaudhuri
Jonathan Dunne
Tsvetanka Elenkova
Ernest Farrés
Paul Giles
Mina Gorji
Geoffrey Hartman
Christopher Lane
Andrew Motion
Wendy O' Shea-Meddour
Tanyo Ravicz
Lawrence Venuti
Stanley Wells
Augustus Young

Founding Editor: Peter Robertson
Art Editor: Calum Colvin
Consulting Editor: Marjorie Agosín
Consulting Editor: Jill Dawson
Consulting Editor: Denise Duhamel
Consulting Editor: Beatriz Hausner
Consulting Editor: Mimi Khalvati
Consulting Editor: Suzanne Jill Levine
Consulting Editor: Margot Livesey
Associate Editor: Neil Langdon Inglis
Assistant Editor:
Jeff Barry
Assistant Editor: Ana de Biase
Assistant Editor: Sophie Lewis
Issue 5 Guest Artist: Tom Phillips

Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. A Gothic Tale: “Muslims” and V.S. Naipaul by Wendy O'Shea-Meddour  

V. S. Naipaul’s travel book Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Amongst the Converted Peoples (1998), is set in the non-Arab Muslim world and based on five months of travel in Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia. It is the follow up to Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981) and charts a return voyage in which the narrator goes looking ‘for people from the past’ (p. 153). Unsurprisingly, it is impossible to reconcile the conflicting critical responses that Naipaul’s ‘Islamic excursions’ have received. Critics that are left wing, liberal or anti-imperialist in outlook have condemned Naipaul for his neo-imperialist attitudes, attributing them to a range of personality flaws and postcolonial insecurities. They are particularly disturbed by his politics, accusing him of Islamophobia, racism and, more recently, Hindu fascism. Rightwing critics (and those who condone American foreign policy in the Middle-East) view Naipaul’s Muslim journeys rather differently. They celebrate his ‘fearless truth-telling’, commend his ‘moral’ insights and praise him for his willingness to tackle ‘cultural irrationalism’.

To date, both the angry criticism and enthusiastic praise elicited by Naipaul’s travelogues focuses on “Naipaul-the man”. This is highly problematic because it assumes that the text is transparent – an idea that has been repeatedly undermined by recent developments in literary theory. The idea that the “traveller’s ‘I’ ”  in the text is “the traveller” outside of the text is, of course, encouraged by the travel genre. Travelogues aim to convince the reader of their truth. But if we are too readily beguiled by the text, then our conflation of “Naipaul – the man” with “Naipaul – the narrator” will lead to the conflation of “characters in the text” with “real subjects”. This will blind us to the complicated effects of both language and narration in the textual construction of “the real”. It is important, therefore, to remember that the “Naipaul” in Beyond Belief is a literary character and the “Muslim reality” presented is constituted in and out of skilfully crafted, though frequently disturbing, textual strategies. I choose the word “disturbing” because, unlike most travel narratives, Beyond Belief has gothic realism at its core. As the plot unfolds, we follow “Naipaul – the narrator” on his “Islamic Excursion” through lands inhabited by brainwashed subjects and haunted by unspeakable horrors.

Although literary critics overwhelmingly accept that there is an ambivalent relationship between travel writing and fiction,1 travel writing is still largely referred to as non-fictional literature. This label is misleading as it detracts from the fact that travel writing is an established literary genre full of narrative conventions and fictional devices. Travel writing and fiction frequently overlap and intertwine and one of the main characteristics of the travel form is to convince the reader of its transparency: its ability to present us with a reliable account of an unfamiliar world. Whilst critics continue to celebrate Naipaul for his “moral integrity” and “commitment to truth”, it is not surprising that Beyond Belief continues to be read as if it were a factual text. Repeatedly, we are promised that Naipaul’s travel writing will “enable” western readers to gain an “insight” into the life of Muslims and the text repeatedly encourages this sort of reading. In the prologue to Beyond Belief, the narrative voice assures us that “THIS is a book about people. It is not a book of opinions.” (Naipaul 1998, 1) Following in the tradition of the travel narrator, the Naipaul that guides us through our narrative journey promises that “the truth” will be presented to us in an undistorted manner. Moreover, the sophisticated and highly educated narrator at the centre of Beyond Belief is sensitive to the ways in which obtrusiveness can undermine the authority of a “non-fictional” text, and therefore promises that the “writer will be less present, less of an inquirer”. Instead, the voice of the Prologue informs us, he will be “in the background, trusting to his instinct”(2). Already, the narrator has split into a least two characters – the voice of the Prologue and the voice of the main narrative. Modelling himself on a figure esteemed by nineteenth century English romantics, the Naipaul of the Prologue claims to be a pure, natural and instinctive artist. In this manner, he assures us that we can rely on the later narrator’s objectivity.

Victorian literary conventions not only influence the characterisation of the text’s narrator. In this literary period, the English novel as a genre had not yet found a narrative device that could provide the illusion that the reader could enter the mind of the character. Modernist conventions such as the ‘stream of consciousness” were yet to emerge. Consequently, the “internal” drama was displaced onto an excessively responsive physical body or environment. Nineteenth century literature twitches with hysterical characters prone to excessive blushing, hyperventilation, trembling and faints. For example, in Wilkie Collins’ novel, The Woman in White, “womanish tears”, shivering skin and severe bouts of “nervousness” besiege the main characters. All the doubts and concerns that the characters have are played out on the surface of the skin. Similarly, in a novel such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, we know when the central character is angry or frustrated because, at these moments of crisis, a backdrop of scarlet coloured soft furnishings and violent rainstorms suddenly appears. This technique of narrative displacement is repeatedly evident when the narrator encounters Muslims in Beyond Belief.

The symptoms that the narrator exhibits are not the typical shivers, faints or sweats of the Victorian hero or heroine. Instead, Naipaul’s internal anxiety and, in some cases, clear disgust, manifests itself in a very specific manner. On encountering practising Muslims, Naipaul begins to suffer from severe breathing restrictions and experiences an accompanying change in air quality. The first incident occurs when our narrator visits Imaduddin’s office. Imaduddin lives in Indonesia and is referred to as an “unusual man” because he is “a man of science” and “a dedicated man of the faith”. Naipaul is uncomfortable with this “contradiction” (despite their long and intertwined history, science and Islam are, in the narrator’s view, incompatible). It is clear that Naipaul also regards Imaduddin to be a hypocrite: he takes exception to Imaduddin’s wealth, preferring “his” Muslims to be pious and poor. Despite the kindness that Imaduddin shows his guest, his “Muslimness” causes Naipaul to experience unpleasant physical reactions. Naipaul enters the office and, loyal to nineteenth century realism, begins to make his inventory of the room:

On one side of the laptop was a well-handled Koran; on the other side was a pile of shoddily produced paperback books, perhaps a foot high, of similar size and in electric blue covers, which had been published in Egypt and might have been a very long commentary on the Koran: no doubt like meat and drink to Imaduddin. (Naipaul 1988, 16)
Naipaul is safe whilst Imaduddin remains in the room, but when Imaduddin answers the adhan (call to prayer) and deserts Naipaul, the very presence of what Naipaul suspects to be a set of “Islamic books” (he cannot read Arabic and guesses the books’ contents) is enough to provoke serious health implications for our guide. We are informed that
without the man himself […] his missionary paraphernalia felt oppressive […]. It was only someone like Imaduddin who could give point and life to the electric-blue Egyptian paperbacks on the glass-topped desk. (19-20)
In his heightened state of anxiety, Naipaul transforms Imaduddin’s private reading material into “dangerous missionary paraphernalia” with awesome powers. They are the “meat and drink”, the life-blood upon which Imaduddin apparently survives. The “electric-blue” covers suggest that these books are made of hazardous, explosive materials and, being only ‘shoddily-produced”, they are set in stark contrast to the laptop computer and glass-desk upon which they rest. Naipaul prefers not to ask Imaduddin about the content of these books, for this would deflate the tension of the passage. Naipaul reassures himself with the thought that this possible commentary on The Qur’an “is something that only a man like Imaduddin could give point and life to”. However, mere proximity to these potentially “Muslim” books causes Naipaul to suffer from the “oppressive” atmosphere that they generate (19-20). This episode offers a foretaste of what is to come and Naipaul endures far more severe reactions when he is exposed to the material presence of Islamic literature in Pakistan.

The second change in atmospheric quality occurs when Naipaul visits Mohammed Akram Ranjha at a commune run by, in the narrator’s words, “the most important of the fundamentalist groups: Jamaat-i-Islami”. Imprisoned for kidnapping and possibly helping to murder his brother’s wife (the narrator’s  choice of Muslim “interviewees” is not, as he earlier claims, quite “representative”), Mohammed shares a cell with a “political prisoner”. This leads to his “jailhouse conversion.” Eventually, a lawyer - who we are told is “crazed with religion” - helps Mohammed get into Law College. Whilst practicing law, Mohammed becomes politically active on behalf of Jamaat-i-Islami. His son, a thirty-four year old senior customs officer called Saleem, agrees to drive Naipaul to the commune on the edge of Lahore. This is when Naipaul realises that he has made his first major mistake: he failed to accept Saleem’s “offer of air-conditioning”. Naipaul refused the offer because he feared catching a “chill”. He comes to regret this decision because the closer he gets to the commune, the more “choked” he becomes. Significantly, Naipaul’s breathing restrictions once again coincide with the call to prayer. Like Imaduddin before him, Saleem deserts the afflicted Naipaul in order to worship (316). When Saleem returns, he takes Naipaul to his study and library. It is at this point in the journey that Naipaul encounters yet another set of “Islamic books”: “Half the wall facing the door carried those Islamic sets in decorated binding […]. I soon stopped looking at the books. I began to choke in the stale, enclosed air. I felt I was becoming ill” (317). The room of “Islamic learning” appears to be drained of oxygen. We are told that it is “entirely sealed”. Naipaul tries to rectify this immediately and asks someone to open the window and switch the “air-cleaner” on. Sitting on the only chair in the room, one brought up at his specific request, he sits by the window, inhales some slightly less polluted air, and begins to recover. However, the relief he enjoys is short-lived.

Naipaul’s breathing restriction reaches its peak during the following dialogue in which Saleem proudly introduces his young son:

Saleem said, “He is going to learn the whole Koran by heart.”
“The whole Koran,” the old man said, picking up the duet with his son.
I asked, “How long will that take?”
Saleem said, “Five or six years.”
I couldn’t stay. My breathing had become very bad. Downstairs, the servants, thin and dark and dingy, behind the sacks with the split golden paddy. Outside, the fumes and grit of the Multan road. Saleem’s driver drove me back to the hotel. Saleem didn’t come with me. (321)
So violent is Naipaul’s reaction in the Akram household that he is unable to stay and hear Saleem’s little boy recite a couple of verses. Instead, he is forced to flee back to the safety of his hotel in Lahore.

As one can see from these passages, the narrator’s fear of Islamic literature, mosques, indeed, any form of Muslim worship, are clearly reflected in both his physical environment and personal ailments. Poor air-quality is an indicator of the presence of Islam and timely asthmatic responses reveal the narrator’s irrepressible hostility towards Muslims. Fawzia Mustafa observes that Naipaul uses “physical discomfort [...] as a gauge for reading the functioning, or completeness, or societal health of the place in which he finds himself” (Mustafa 79). However, she curiously fails to mention that physical discomfort reaches its peak when Naipaul is in the presence of the “believers”. Muslims of various persuasions, traditions and character, or simply their possibly Islamic artefacts, induce violent physical responses from this narrator of supposed “moral integrity”. In Beyond Belief, the presence of practising Muslims compels the narrator to rush out of “interviews”, escape “oppressive” atmospheres, reach for “air-cleaners”, and struggle to open windows in search of fresh air. Though it may well be true that Naipaul – the man –  has a sensitive physical disposition, his commitment to this particular aspect of Victorian fiction helps to explain the persistence of faith-dependent air quality, the narrator’s regular bouts of asthma, and their sudden onset in the presence of practising Muslims.

The presence of gothic realism in Naipaul’s “Islamic travelogue” is multifaceted in its effects. Occasionally, the narrator is abandoned to the dictates of gothic realism so completely it produces rather humorous results. The typical plot of the gothic novel is that of the delicate but curious heroine who is lured into the ancestral home of a seemingly innocent but fearsomely dangerous count or aristocrat. Naipaul recycles this plot, placing his traveller’s “I” at the centre. It goes like this. The inquisitive Naipaul visits Imaduddin’s house in order to “hear a little more about his past – his ancestry” (41). But Naipaul arrives late and, to his disdain, is left to wait in an empty room. Once again, he fulfils the familiar role of “realist observer” and describes the objects surrounding him:

On the pillars of the sitting room there were two or three decorative little flower pieces and, surprisingly, a picture of a sailing ship. About the sitting room were small mementoes of foreign travel, tourist souvenirs, showing a softer side of Imaduddin (or his wife), a side not connected with mental training, if indeed the house was theirs, and if their mementoes had truly tugged at their hearts (and did not, rather, preserve the memory of some pious giver) (Naipaul 1998, 42-43)
As the description develops, the language becomes increasingly gothic in style. On the surface, the room has the appearance of familiarity, even comfort, but there is the suggestion that this might just be a deceptive cover. In the narrator’s  view, Islamic education (“mental training”) is simply not compatible with a love of travel, sentimentality, or a liking for nautical scenes. Therefore, the collection of ‘sentimental objects” become suspect and Naipaul doubts whether the house actually belongs to Imaduddin and his wife. The implication is that these comforting artefacts are being displayed in order to lure Naipaul into a false sense of security. The narrator’s nerves get the better of him and he begins to experience a deep sense of panic: “how long […] should I stay where I was, violating the house, and how when the time came […] might I get away from the curious trap I had appeared to have fallen into” (43). This passage could have been lifted straight out of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey or Brahm Stoker’s Dracula. Naipaul, in his loyalty to the gothic narrative, has written his traveller’s “I” into the role of a vulnerable, innocent heroine at the mercy of a dark lord. As if aware of the narrative trap that he has fallen foul of, and the weak narrative position that he has been accorded, the narrator attempts to recover narratorial authority with a well-used Naipaulian weapon: a toilet joke. Having discovered Imaduddin was engaging in nothing more menacing than having a massage, the narrator claims he had suspected Imaduddin’s “bathroom problems” were the cause of his wait all along (43). However, the mark of the gothic genre in the text is usually more disturbing in its effects.

Gothic language is used to portray both Islam and Muslims throughout Beyond Belief and its powers of manipulation are alarming. In the section on Indonesia, Islam is described as having spread in a Dracula-like fashion: “Islam had come here not long before Europe. It had not been the towering force it had been in other converted places. […] It had not completely possessed the souls of people” (24). According to the text, Indonesia only narrowly escaped this ghoulish fate. We need only glance at the description of Muslims (or “possessed souls”) answering the adhan in order to see the importance of the gothic genre in Naipaul’s narration.

Within the office, no doubt from the carpeted and rumpled open space at the end of the corridor, hesitant scraping sounds developed into a shy chant. […] The chanting from the corridor became more confident. It couldn’t be denied now. I could see that Imaduddin wanted to be out there, with the chanters and the prayers. The chanting now filled the corridor […] he couldn’t be held back. (18-20) 
This passage is infused with gothic tension: the “hesitant scraping sounds” and rising “chants” suggest the actions of a frightening and possibly sub-human sect rather than a group of Muslims at prayer. Muslims don’t chant before beginning the main prayer. If a Muslim arrives early, he or she might do two rakats (bowing cycles), but this is always done in silence. It does not involve “hesitant scraping sounds”. In Naipaul’s view, by merely answering the call to prayer, Imaduddin reveals himself to be one of the walking dead, a mindless being seduced against his will. (Notably, those who are not Muslims in Beyond Belief are repeatedly referred to as being “their own men.”) As in numerous instances in the text, the use of gothic imagery tells us more about the narrator’s fears and prejudices than about “reality”. This can also be seen in a later description of the character Saleem. When Saleem hears the adhan, he is described as responding in a spasmodic and zombie-like fashion: “in sudden haste” he “took off his tie and threw his jacket on the car seat and went to join in the prayers.” (316) That Muslims are captured souls at the mercy of a mind numbing and unstoppable force is a persistent theme in Naipaul’s text. According to the narrator, “cultural depression” causes “religious teaching and a knowledge of Islam” to flourish. Learning how to recite The Qu’ran, “how to have ablution” and “how to do the right prayers”, we are told,  involves an “isolating and beating down and stunning of the mind”, a “kind of pain” (34). Once again, it is suggested that Muslims are like the living dead, their brains anaesthetized by pain and suffering. This theme is extended when Naipaul describes the theological school of Qom. Naipaul’s translator, Mehrdad, informs him that “ ‘special night prayers involve a lot of bowing and rubbing of the forehead against the earth.” “ Naipaul describes these “very pious people” as having ‘something like a scorch mark on their forehead; this was because they heated the cakes of earth for their prayers” (238). The underlying references have a powerful impact. Muslims, with their scorched foreheads, answer the call to prayer in zombie like fashion. The women who walk through the streets of this centre of learning are described in an equally sinister manner. Like enslaved creatures, they “held the chador over their face with their hands or bit an end of it between their teeth; they looked like people who were muzzling themselves.” (217) Though it is traditional in a number of cultures for women (especially those of the older generation) to hold their headscarf between their teeth, the language infers that it proves these ‘subhuman” women have given up their souls and are suffering torturous consequences. The presence of the gothic genre in these passages reinforces the opinion that political Islam is “a complete form of control” that “deform[s] people’s lives” (240).

The narrator fails to comment on the fact that, in the same areas in which he identifies this frightening “form of control”, non-Islamic practices abound. For example, he encounters brothels, the caste system, local superstitions, fast-breakers, scantily clad women, military dictatorships and so on. Furthermore, and as Amin Malak remarks in response to Naipaul’s earlier travelogue:

Two of the four countries – Pakistan and Indonesia – are under military dictatorships, the third (Iran) is undergoing a revolutionary process, and the fourth (Malaysia) is suffering from racial tension […]. No wonder then that his search for Islamic institutions or Islamic law in practice becomes an exercise in futility, it would be hard to imagine stable and legitimate social structures existing, let alone functioning, in the political climates of the four countries visited. (Malak 1984, 565)
Nevertheless, the narrator persists in his claim that all the ills of the people he meets have their origin in Islam. The text’s message is clear: non-Arab Muslims are to be pitied because they have given away their souls.

It is no accident that Beyond Belief frequently reads like a gothic novel. The gothic genre is dominated by vulnerable characters who submit their will, often subconsciously, to a higher demonic force that feeds off their life blood and leaves them void. In the narrator’s view, the men who are “unable to resist” the call to prayer and the women who “muzzle themselves” have signed such a contract of submission and have agreed to abolish “the self”. Although I have warned against the unproblematised conflation of the “Naipaul – the narrator “ with “Naipaul – the man”, such conflations are clearly encouraged by Naipaul’s public appearances. At a reading of his book Half a Life at Queen Elizabeth Hall in October 2001, Naipaul claimed that “Islam” demanded an “abolition of the self” that “was worse than the similar colonial abolition of identity […] much, much worse in fact.” 2 The narrator in Beyond Belief similarly asserts that “converted peoples have to strip themselves of their past; of converted peoples nothing is required but the purest faith (if such a thing can be arrived at), Islam, submission. It is the most uncompromising kind of imperialism” (Naipaul 1998, 72). Naipaul the narrator and Naipaul the man, repeatedly assert that Islam demands that people annul their individuality. With regards to Pakistan, the narrator argues that “the fundamentalists wanted people to be transparent, pure, to be empty vessels for the faith. It was an impossibility: human beings could never be blanks in that way.” (311) Yet, we are told, such people exist. Those who are “empty”, those who are suffering from cultural depression and an ignorance about their past are identified as being those most “at risk” of conversion. In the narrator’s view, certain people or cultures are more vulnerable to Islam than others. For example, in Beyond Belief the narrator states that Indonesians are susceptible to conversion because “they have no idea of themselves.” (72) A vacuum of identity is stipulated as being the ideal environment in which Islam can prosper. Like the weak and vulnerable women that faint and submit to blood-sucking vampires in the gothic novel, Naipaul’s text suggests that non-Arab Muslims, with their delicate mental constitutions, have inadvertently become the living dead.

Naipaul’s evident concern with the mental health of Muslims constitutes another area of similarity between Beyond Belief and Victorian literature. Although not a genre as such, mental instability became a preoccupation in nineteenth century fiction, reaching its peak towards the latter part of the century. Instead of locking madness in the attic (such is the fate of Bertha Mason, the “madwoman” in Jane Eyre), fin-de-siècle novels brought madness downstairs to be “analysed”. Central characters become increasingly “unstable” and even those marginal characters that are included in order to “cure” the afflicted begin to show signs of insanity. For example, one of the doctors of psychiatry in Dracula becomes slowly addicted to drugs whilst the other is prone to alarming bouts of hysteria. This ambiguous line between madness and sanity can also be seen in Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness and Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. The readiness to address the causes, symptoms and fluidity of madness in literature ran parallel to the increasingly influential academic discipline of psychiatry. During this period, the language of psychiatrists such as Andrew Wynter (The Borderlands of Insanity,1875) and Henry Maudsley (The Pathology of the Mind, 1895), and later, Sigmund Freud, entered into popular discourse (Chamberlain and Gilman). Reflecting contemporary cultures’ anxieties, characters in these novels regularly slip in and out of madness, experiencing hysteria, degeneration, insanity and other newly defined (or redefined) psychological states. In much fin-de-siècle literature, characters and narrators utilise the discourse of psychology in order to authoritatively “define” and explain the psychological states of others. Such “mental assessments” are not confined to those “qualified” to offer opinions. Madness is such a pervasive discourse that everyone, including the patients, is eager to practice amateur psychology. For example, in Dracula, Dr Seward classifies the character Renfield as a “zoophagous patient” (explained by his penchant for eating flies) (Stoker 115). However, between fly eating episodes the “pet lunatic” Renfield asserts: “Since I myself have been an inmate of a lunatic asylum, I cannot help but notice that the sophistic tendencies of some of its inmates lean towards the errors of non causæ and ignoration elenchi” (233). In fin-de-siècle literature, authors eagerly experiment with this new authoritative discourse of the mind and narrators and characters alike define and classify the liberal spread of madness with ‘scientific” enthusiasm. Yet again, Naipaul does not fail in his allegiance to nineteenth century fiction. Whilst travelling in the “Muslim world”, his traveller’s “I” regularly faces “irrational behaviour” and is quick to offer his diagnosis regarding the mental health of the “converted peoples”:

Islam is in its origins an Arab religion. Everyone not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert. Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It makes imperial demands. A convert’s world view alters. His holy places are in Arab lands; his sacred language is Arabic. His idea of history alters. He rejects his own; he becomes, whether he likes it or not, a part of the Arab story. The convert has to turn away from everything that is his. The disturbance for societies is immense, and even after a thousand years can remain unresolved; the turning away has to be done again and again. People develop fantasies about who and what they are; and in the Islam of converted countries there is an element of neurosis and nihilism. These countries can be easily set on the boil. (Naipaul 1998, 1)

Neurosis, a tendency towards nihilism, self-delusions, latent aggression and fantasy lives are, according to the narrator, characteristics of these simmering Muslims. Of Pakistan, we are told:

The local people would hardly be there, in their own land, or would be there only as ciphers swept aside by the agents of the faith. It is a dreadful mangling of history. It is a convert’s view; that is all that can be said for it. History has become a kind of neurosis. Too much has to be ignored or angled; there is too much fantasy. This fantasy isn’t in the books alone; it affects people’s lives. (329) 
Islam is found guilty of inducing mental illness on a national scale because it is an “Arab” religion with sacred places in Arab lands. According to this peculiar thesis, Arabs do not suffer from neurosis because they are not “converts.” The narrator fails to mention that Arabs were generally polytheists at the time of the prophet Muhammad and in order to become Muslim necessarily “converted.” Perhaps this point is dismissed because the narrator believes that the ‘sacred places” of Arabs are “in their own lands”? Assuming that this is the reasoning, it would follow that European and American Christians and Jews suffer from a similar “neurosis” because their “sacred places” are abroad. However, it is clear that in the narrator’s opinion, Western Christians and Jews are mentally sound. The logic behind Naipaul’s argument is impossible to follow. As Eqbal Ahmed asks,
Who is not a convert? By Naipaul’s definition, if Iranians are converted Muslims, then Americans are converted Christians, the Japanese are converted Buddhists, and the Chinese, large numbers of them, are converted Buddhists as well. Everybody is converted because at the beginning every religion had only a few followers. Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, all prophetic religions developed through conversion. In that sense, his organising thesis should not exclude anyone. (Ahmad 9-10)
Michael Gilsenan dismisses the argument that non-Arab Muslims suffer from “neurosis” with the accusation that this line of reasoning is made of ‘shallow stuff” (Gilsenan 1998). The narrator’s attempts to identify and explain “the irrational energies of the faith” (Barnouw 61 & 63)3 are poorly reasoned and his pains to assume the role of psychiatrist are less convincing than his literary predecessors.

In Beyond Belief, a variety of narrative techniques – a number of which are found in the gothic novel – combine to create a disturbing portrayal of the Muslim world. Literary conventions persuade us to “believe” in the transparency of the text, particularly in the character of the vulnerable yet “honest narrator”, with whose sufferings we are encouraged to sympathise. These sufferings are repeatedly provoked by mosques, the call to prayer, Islamic literature, Islamic dress and Muslim households. All generate an oppressive and suffocating atmosphere; one that results in choking fits, breathing restrictions and a compulsion to escape. Naipaul’s use of Victorian literary conventions are rhetorically powerful and it is difficult for the reader to resist sharing the narrator’s relief when windows are opened and uncontaminated non-Muslim fresh air is available once more. Having seduced the reader in this manner, the text becomes increasingly gothic in style. As we all know, the gothic genre is designed to terrify. Gothic novels teem with demonic forces that clamour to possess the souls of the weak and vulnerable. Bloodthirsty vampires and immortal beasts take over the minds of their victims and threaten civilisation, reason, modernity and sanity. By studying the text’s depiction of eerie Muslim households, threatening Islamic artefacts, and brainwashed Muslims at prayer, one can see how the presence of the gothic genre helps to create a powerful piece of propaganda. Followers of Islam are repeatedly referred to as being violent and irrational, numbed by pain, and suffering from a nihilistic form of neurosis.

Of course, one could read the text subversively: there is no compunction to be beguiled by the narrative. In fact, one could argue that the realist conventions (that create the illusion of transparency) are simultaneously undermined by strategies of representation that draw attention to the allegiances and biases of the narrator. Unlike many mid-Victorian travel books, the narrator in Beyond Belief refuses to efface his own presence and the text often highlights his integral role in the scene of representation. By identifying incoherencies and contradictions in the text, it is therefore possible to read Beyond Belief without aligning with imperialism or Islamophobia. Unfortunately, this is not how Naipaul’s Islamic excursions have been read.

Contemporary western metropolitan culture chooses to overlook the narrative strategies and contradictions in Naipaul’s Islamic travel narratives, preferring to ignore their strikingly gothic character. This is perhaps best typified by the judges’ comments on awarding Naipaul the Nobel Prize in October 2001. The Academy declared that Naipaul had been chosen because he had produced ‘the most outstanding work in an ideal direction’ and united ‘perceptive narrative’ with ‘incorruptible scrutiny.’4 Could gothic horror really be confused with transparent objectivity! Unfortunately, naive readings that fail to question the travel narrator’s claim to ‘truth’ or engage with the narrative strategies that constitute the text persist when Beyond Belief is at the centre of discussion. In these very difficult times, when relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims are fraught with tension, suspicion and mistrust, such lazy literary engagement is surely cause for concern?



1. As Kabbani reminds us in Europe’s Myths of Orient: Devise and Rule, writers of travelogues are still “writing fiction, the non-fiction genre of the travelogue is a creative convention only” (122, author’s emphasis).

2. Quoted by Fiachra Gibbons in “V.S. Naipaul Launches Attack on Islam” (The Guardian, Oct. 4, 2001).

3. Barnouw praises Naipaul for following “reasoned evidence wherever it takes him” in order to help the reader understand the “irrational energies of faith.” Though Barnouw’s Naipaul’s Strangers masquerades as literary criticism, it becomes clear that she  is merely using Naipaul to express her own highly cultivated prejudices.

4. Interview with the 2001 Nobel Laureate in Literature by Horace Engdahl, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, December 12, 2001. The whole interview can be heard online

Works Cited
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Collins, Wilkie. 1996. The Woman in White [1860]. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Cowley, Jason. 2002. “Don’t give up the Day Job yet, Sir Vidia”, September 22,
(Accessed January 2003).
Gibbons, Fiachra. 2001. “V.S. Naipaul Launches Attack on Islam”. The Guardian, October. 4.
Gilsenan, Michael. 1998. “Manager of Stories”. London Review of Books, 20:17.
Gottfried, Leon. 1984. “Among the Believers: Two Views: A Skeptical Pilgrimage”,
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Kabbani, Rana. 1988.  Europe’s Myths of Orient: Devise and Rule (1986). London:
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