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PENGUIN BOOKS

SIR VIDIA’S SHADOW

Paul Theroux was born in Medford, Massachusetts in 1941 and published his first novel, Waldo, in 1967. His subsequent novels include The Family Arsenal, Picture Palace, The Mosquito Coast, O-Zone, Millroy the Magician, My Secret History, My Other Life, and, most recently, A Dead Hand. His highly acclaimed travel books include Riding the Iron Rooster, The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express, Fresh-Air Fiend, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star and The Tao of Travel. He divides his time between Cape Cod and the Hawaiian Islands.

Books by Paul Theroux

FICTION

Waldo

Fong and the Indians

Girls at Play

Murder in Mount Holly

Jungle Lovers

Sinning with Annie

Saint Jack

The Black House

The Family Arsenal

The Consul’s File

A Christmas Card

Picture Palace

London Snow

World’s End

The Mosquito Coast

The London Embassy

Half Moon Street

Doctor Slaughter

O-Zone

The White Man’s Burden

My Secret History

Chicago Loop

Millroy the Magician

The Greenest Island

My Other Life

Kowloon Tong

Hotel Honolulu

The Stranger at the

Palazzo d’Oro

Blinding Light

The Elephanta Suite

A Dead Hand

CRITICISM

V. S. Naipaul

NON-FICITION

The Great Railway Bazaar

The Old Patagonian Express

The Kingdom by the Sea

Sailing Through China

Sunrise with Seamonsters

The Imperial Way

Riding the Iron Rooster

To the Ends of the Earth

The Happy Isles of Oceania

The Pillars of Hercules

Sir Vidia’s Shadow

Fresh-Air Fiend

Nurse Wolf and Dr Sacks

Dark Star Safari

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

The Tao of Travel

Sir Vidia’s Shadow

A Friendship Across Five Continents

PAUL THEROUX

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PENGUIN BOOKS

PENGUIN BOOKS

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First published in the United States of America by Houghton Mifflin 1998
First published in Great Britain by Hamish Hamilton 1998
Published in Penguin Books 1999
Reissued in this edition 2011

Copyright © Paul Theroux, 1998, 1999
All rights reserved

The moral right of the author has been asserted

Portions of this book have appeared in the New Yorker

The Afterword originally appeared, in different form, in
The New York Times Book Review and the Observer in 1998

Grateful acknowledgement is made to Faber and Faber for permission to reproduce extracts from ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ from Collected Poems by Phillip Larkin and ‘As John to Patmos’ from Collected Poems 1948–1984 by Derek Walcott. The quotation from ‘Poetry of Departures’ by Philip Larkin is reprinted from ‘The Less Deceived’ by permission of The Marvell Press, England & Australia

Every attempt has been made to contact copyright holders. The publisher will be happy to make good any error or omission in subsequent printings

Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

ISBN: 978–0–141–97160–5

You must give me the pleasure of seeing what I look like. It would be like hearing one’s voice, seeing oneself walk down the street. You must feel free. I know, for instance, that I was once young; and that I have changed; lost and gained and sometimes strayed, as I have grown older. Show me!

V. S. Naipaul, in a letter to Paul Theroux, April 17, 1970

That one person should wish to arouse in another memories relating to a third person is an obvious paradox. To pursue this paradox freely is the harmless intention of all biography. The fact of my having known Carriego does not, I contend – not in this particular case – modify the difficulty of the undertaking.

– Jorge Luis Borges, Evaristo Carriego

Contents

Part One Africa

  1. Famous in Kampala

  2. ‘I’m Not Everyone’

  3. The Kaptagat Arms

  4. On Safari in Rwanda

Part Two The Writer’s Writer

  5. Christmas Pudding

  6. Excursion to Oxford

  7. Air Letters: A Correspondence Course

  8. The 9:50 to Waterloo

  9. ‘I Must Keep Some Secrets’

10. Lunch Party

Part Three Sir Vidia’s Shadow

11. The Householder

12. My Friend’s Friend

13. Death is the Motif

14. Tainted Vegetables

15. ‘It’s Major’

Part Four Reversals

16. Poetry of Departures

17. A Wedding is a Happy Funeral

18. Literature is for the Wounded and the Damaged

19. Exchanges

20. Sir Vidia’s Shadow

   Afterword: Memory and Invention

   Postscript, 2011

PART ONE

Africa

1

Famous in Kampala

It is a good thing that time is a light, because so much of life is mumbling shadows and the future is just silence and darkness. But time passes, time’s torch illuminates, it finds connections, it makes sense of confusion, it reveals the truth. And you hardly know the oddness of life until you have lived a little. Then you get it. You are older, looking back. For a period you understand and can say, I see it all clearly. I remember everything.

It can be a brief passage, for a revelation. Only a few days after Julian first met him, he realized that what he had taken to be a smile on the face of U. V. Pradesh was really a look of exquisite, almost martyrlike suffering. The man’s whole name, Urvash Vishnu Pradesh, was the slushiest Julian had ever heard, a saliva-making name like a cough drop that forced you to suck your cheeks and rinse your tongue with sudsy syllables.

The fact that many people in Kampala had never heard of U. V. Pradesh made him more important in Julian’s eyes. He was said to be brilliant and difficult. He was smaller, more frenetic than any local Indian – the local Indians could be satirical, but they were sly. U. V. Pradesh’s face, tight with disapproval, gleamed in the Uganda heat. His hair was slick from his wearing a hat. Ugandan Indians didn’t wear hats, probably because Ugandan Africans sometimes did.

U. V. Pradesh seldom smiled – he suffered a great deal, or at least he said he did. Life was torture, writing was hell, and he said he hated Africa. He was afraid. Much later he explained to Julian that he felt intimidated by ‘bush people.’ He had ‘a fear of being swallowed by the bush, a fear of people of the bush.’ New to Uganda, U. V. Pradesh looked at the place with his mouth turned down in disgust. From some things he said about African passions and his own restraint, Julian had a sense in him of smothered fires.

Actually, U. V. Pradesh had reason to be afraid. The Kabaka of Buganda, Sir Edward Frederick Mutesa, whom Ugandans called King Freddy, was being threatened with overthrow and death by soldiers from the northern tribes. The mess came later, and was in turn buried by greater calamities that were much sadder and more violent even than U. V. Pradesh had predicted.

‘Listen to me, Julian.’

Julian did nothing but listen, and he wanted U. V. Pradesh to call him Jules, as his family and friends did.

‘Julian, this will go back to bush,’ U. V. Pradesh said, sometimes in a scolding way, sometimes as a curse. And that suffering grimace again. He walked in the slanting sun of Kampala, his shadow like a snare. ‘All of it, back to bush.’

Sure of something, or pleased by the sound, he repeated the phrase, a verbal tic called bis. He was always sure, so his repetitions were frequent, a little chant and echo in his speech, still with the faintest singsong of the West Indies – U. V. Pradesh’s birthplace, the setting of many of his novels – lingering in the intonation.

Julian started out knowing nothing, not any of this, not even what the initials U. V. stood for, and it was only long after that he understood. He was too young to look back, and knew only the terror of always having to look ahead at the looming darkness, and instead of reassurance seeing uncertainty and awful choices, or no choices, and risk, and doubt, feeling afraid.

When Julian was young and he squinted at the big unreadable map of his life, even the magnificent light of Africa was no help. Yet he was hopeful. He felt he had what he wanted, and especially he had baraka, as they said in Swahili – good fortune, blessings. He was a teacher, but he spent most of his time writing. It did not matter to him that he was unknown in America. He was famous in Kampala.

‘Be grateful for what you have, Jules,’ his father had told him before he left home. ‘No one owes you a thing.’

It was wise advice for someone going to an African country. Julian felt lucky every time something good came his way, and luckiest of all his first full year in Uganda – his third in Africa. He had a good job, a reliable car, and a well-shaded house. Uganda was the greenest place he had ever seen. He was in love with an African girl. She was nineteen and he was twenty-four. He was at work on a novel. His life had at last begun.

The African girl, Yomo Adebajo, was Julian’s own height, nearly six feet, and slender, from a tall, stately tribe in Nigeria’s Western Region. Julian had been traveling there the year before. He invited her to East Africa and, just like that, she crossed Africa to join him. In Uganda, which was a hothouse of steamy gossip and expatriate scandals, their liaison was singled out – their not being married, their living together, their aloofness from others in Kampala, and the way she dressed. West Africans, rare in Uganda, were much more exotic than whites or Indians. Ugandan women wore skirts and dresses – ‘frocks’ was their word – and Mother Hubbards, all drapes and frilly leg-of-mutton sleeves, oldfangled words for outdated fashions, designed by turn-of-the-century missionaries for the sake of modesty. Yomo stood out like a princess in a fable in her yellow and purple robes, her stiff brocade turban, and her sash that was woven with gilt thread.

This young woman had the dark, drugged eyes and sculpted face you see in certain bewitching bronzes from her region of Nigeria. In poor provincial Uganda she was taken to be an Ethiopian or an Egyptian – ‘Nilotic,’ people said, believing her to be a visitor from the upper Nile, someone who, from her looks, might have arrived sitting upright, cross-legged, on a flying carpet.

Ugandans goggled at Yomo – they were smaller and had to look up – as though she were from some nation of the master race of blacks that lived beyond the Mountains of the Moon.

She just laughed at them and said, ‘These people in Uganda are so primitive.’

Yomo was even more sensual than she looked. When she and Julian made love, which was often and always by the light of candles, she howled eagerly in the ecstasy of sex like an addict injected, and her eyes rolled up in her skull and she stared, still howling, with big white eyes like a blind zombie that sees everything. Her howls and her thrashing body made the candle flames do a smoky dance. Afterwards, limp and sleepy, stupefied by sex, she draped over Julian like a snake and pleaded for a child.

‘Jules, give me a baby!’

‘Why do you want one?’

‘Because you are clever.’

‘Who says?’

‘Everyone says.’

He was well known in Bundibugyo; people said hello to him in Gulu and West Nile; he was famous in Kampala. Part of the reason was that he wrote recklessly opinionated pieces in the local magazine Transition. He defended the Indians, he mocked the politicians, he insulted the tea planters and the sugar barons. A white planter wrote to the magazine and said he would hit this man Julian Lavalle if he saw him in the street.

But the deeper reason for his fame in Kampala had nothing to do with his writing. It was the fact that he had been named in court, in a prominent divorce case, as the Corespondent, the delicate legal term for the outside party who fornicated in an adultery. He had been promised that nothing would be revealed, but the day after the case was heard, his name was published in the Uganda Argus. Everyone read it, and he was put down as a sneak and a rogue because the cuckold (called the Petitioner) was his best friend.

Julian had not laid a hand on this man’s wife (called the Respondent), though the friend swore Julian had done so repeatedly, as detailed in paragraph 5 – ‘That on or about the 23rd day of August 1965 the said Respondent committed adultery with JULIAN HENRI LAVALLE (hereinafter called Corespondent) at Kampala’ – and paragraph 6: ‘That from the 23rd day of August 1965 the said Respondent has frequently committed adultery with the said Corespondent on dates and at addresses unknown to the Petitioner save that some were in Kampala, Uganda, as aforesaid.’

There were more lies: ‘That the Petitioner has not in any way condoned the said adultery.’ No, his best friend had said that if Julian wanted to make it true, and if this woman agreed, Julian could sleep with her all he wanted. And: ‘The Petitioner has not in any way been accessory to or connived at the said adultery.’ No, he had urged it, he had set it up, he had begged Julian to connive with him. And: ‘That this Petition is not presented or prosecuted in collusion with the Respondent or the said Corespondent.’ No, it was all collusion.

A disturbing knock on Julian’s door one day was that of an Indian solicitor’s clerk, who handed over a prettily made-up document. It was signed and sealed. The official seal of Uganda showed a native shield with wavy and dancetté divisions between the gules tincture, full sun argent above a native drum argent, crossed spears behind the shield, with two creatures shown, the dexter supporter a gazelle rampant and the sinister supporter a crested crane rampant. The compartment ground beneath the full achievement was strewn with native flora, and below that, Uganda’s motto on a scroll: ‘For God and My Country.’

The document was a Summons to Enter Appearance at the High Court of Uganda, signed by E. A. Oteng, the Acting Deputy Chief Registrar. It contained a warning. If Julian failed to enter an appearance by a specified date, the plaintiff – the Petitioner, his conniving friend – could proceed with the suit, and the judgment would be rendered in his absence.

‘I wouldn’t ask just anyone to do this,’ his friend had said. ‘I asked you because I respect you more than anyone else I know.’

Then the friend promised that nothing about the divorce case would appear in the newspaper. The ruse would remain a secret. So Julian agreed, and the two friends concocted the story of an adulterous relationship in order to speed the divorce. The man wanted to remarry. The woman wanted to enter an ashram in southern India. Fornication was unlawful, but Julian was much more a lawbreaker for his lies – in Uganda, connivance in such a case was a greater crime than adultery.

‘Isn’t this Mr Lavalle a friend of yours?’ the magistrate had asked.

‘Yes, my lord.’

‘Some friend!’

The following morning, Julian’s name was published in the Argus. The tiny print in the ‘Court Proceedings’ might as well have been a headline.

‘These shenzi Africans let you down every time!’ the friend said. Shenzi meant worthless. ‘I was a fool to trust those idiot typesetters on that shenzi paper!’

So Julian became notorious. This wickedness fit the image he had of the writer. Writers then were not the frequent and genial faces they are now in this age of promotion, when they are involved in the selling and distribution of their books – reading before a small, solemn throng of people you might mistake for early Christians at your corner bookshop; chatting to the bland man with fish eyes and lacquered hair on morning television; bantering on the radio or late at night with an interviewer, who is the authentic celebrity and the real reason for the vulgar and overfamiliar encounter.

Before this age of intense peddling, which is the selling of the author rather than the book, the writer was an obscure and somewhat mythical figure, inevitably a loner, the subject of whispers – an outlaw, an enigma, an exile. Writers were the more powerful for their remoteness and their silences; the name alone was the aura. In many cases, the author had no public face and all you knew was the work. Today the face is first, the book comes last. A writer then was gnomic, priestlike, a magician, not merely writing a book but making a world and creating a new language. This was when Julian was growing up, the fifties and early sixties. A writer was a hero.

In Kampala Julian was an upstart, known for his American brashness in this African town. He had an inkling of his impudence and considered it and thought: I am alone. I am making my own life. He had the freedom to do anything he wanted, but he had limited means. He saw himself staying in Africa, going deeper into the bush as the years passed, and finally setting up house somewhere beyond the Mountains of the Moon with Yomo, his Nigerian. He knew just the place, at a clearing near the village of Bundibugyo, in the shadow of the steep Ruwenzoris, in the damp mossy shade and vitreous greenness of the Ituri Forest, among the Mbuti Pygmies and the Bwaamba people, a small settlement on the Congo border in the heart of Africa.

He had made many visits there and loved it for its being unknown. The Verona Fathers at the Bundi mission just chuckled at the wilderness. They had long ago given up hope of a widespread conversion, and one priest in his mid-eighties working on a dictionary complained to Julian, reader confiding to reader, that the local Africans, Mbuti and Bwaamba alike, often contradicted each other on the definition or the precise pronunciation of a word. The language was uncertain. Ndongola was Creator – no, it was Gongora – wait a minute, it was Gangara. The old priest knew he would never finish his translation of the Gospels. But it hardly mattered. The priests had been there so long they had fallen under the spell of the Bwaamba and gone bush in many of their habits. They even chattered and procrastinated like the Bwaamba and the Pygmies. At least one priest had produced some of the coffee-colored children who played near the rectory and who filled Julian with the desire to see his own dark children playing on that frontier.

‘These people are so primitive,’ Yomo said, with her deep Nigerian laugh and haughty heavy-lidded eyes that made her beautiful. But she said she would go with him. She imagined that she and Julian would be the only true humans there. She also said that she would go anywhere with him, and he loved her for that. This small wet valley behind the mountains, hemmed in by the vastness of the eastern Congo, was an ideal place in which to vanish. It was not on any map, and so it was for Julian to draw the map. As a writer he wanted that most of all, a world of his own, and he could make it himself, basing it on this almost blank and inaccessible place. It was not Bundibugyo, it was near Bundibugyo, and where was Bundibugyo?

It suited Julian, trying to write, that he lived in a mostly illiterate republic. It did not matter that so few people could read. His secret was safe, the very act of writing was improbable, and he spoke to no one about it, because he had accomplished so little. He knew the worth of being famous in Kampala. Anyway, he was much better known for being a named adulterer than a published author. And Yomo, who knew the true story of the court case, found it a hilarious deception, of a Nigerian sort, and the better for there being no victim, except the law.

Yomo slept late, her black nakedness starkly mummified in white sheets, calling out ‘Julian!’ and demanding a kiss, and kissing him, howling into his mouth, demanding a baby. Then he left to teach. After a few classes, he walked up to the Senior Common Room in the main building and had coffee and read the papers. He had lunch at home with Yomo, and then a nap, and she plucked off his clothes and they made love: ‘Give me a baby!’ In the late afternoon he picked up his mail, went to the Staff Club, and drank until Yomo came by to have a drink and tell him dinner was ready. The Ugandan men flirted with Yomo, but when they got too explicit she said, ‘Fock you,’ and they faded away.

The country was thickly forested, full of browsing elephants and loping giraffes, with soft green hills and yellowing savannah scattered with flat-topped thorn trees. The lakes were large. Lake Victoria was an inland sea. Even Uganda’s crops were pretty, for there was nothing lusher than a hillside of tea bushes, jade-colored with fresh leaves. Coffee plants looked brilliant and festive when the berries were ripe. The cane fields were dense, and for a reason no one could explain, the road past them, on the way to Jinja, was always carpeted with white butterflies, so thick at times that cars had been known to skid when their wheels crossed them. There were hippos wherever there was water, and there were crocs in the White Nile. At Mubende a witch tree was particularly malevolent, but an offering of a snakeskin or feathers served as counter-magic. An old smoky-brown skull mounted in the roots of a banyan tree at Mityana was so ominous no one dared remove it. The nail driven into the skull was not an after-thought but rather the cause of death. A prince had carried out the execution, but a king had ordered it. Uganda was a country of kings with extravagant titles – the Kabaka of Buganda, the Omukama of Toro, the Omugabe of Ankole, the Kyabazinga of Busoga – and all of them lived in fragile and tumbledown palaces surrounded by stockade fences of sharpened bamboo stakes.

Down the dusty roads Julian drove with Yomo, stopping in villages to talk to rural teachers. He was in the Extra-Mural Department, which required him to travel in remote parts of the country: in the north at Gulu, Lira, and Rhino Camp; in West Nile, where Yomo was taken to be a Sudanese; at Trans-Nzoia near Mount Elgon, a perfect volcano’s cone; to the border of Rwanda, where in the purple mist they saw a whole range of green-blue volcanoes.

Uganda had been a protectorate, not a colony, and had known such insignificant white settlement that there was no resentment against whites, and none had been hoofed out of the country as they had elsewhere in Africa. Muzungus were a curiosity, not a threat. Ugandans were proud of their kings, who were superior to any European – they had been more than a match for explorers as ingenious as Burton and for all foreign politicians. The lesson for missionaries was Uganda’s notoriety in having produced many of Africa’s first Christian martyrs, when King Freddy’s grandfather, Mutesa I, burned thirty of them alive. But these deaths only excited religious activity, and Uganda’s martyrology served as an inspiration to the missionaries who stalked the bush.

Indians were a separate category – muhindis, ‘Asians.’ People muttered about them, but perhaps no more than Indians muttered about themselves, for they were divided between Muslims and Hindus, and they made jokes about each other, revealing some sense of insecurity. Many Indians seemed genuinely liberated from caste consciousness. Africans envied and disliked them for their supposed wealth and cliquishness. Indians regarded Africans as weak, unreliable, and backward ‘Hubshees,’ which meant Ethiopians. Yet Indians also felt that Africans were unfairly privileged for their political independence, to which some Indians had contributed but from which they were excluded. Indians thought it was laughable that Westerners paid so much attention to Africans. Money given to Africans was money wasted. Indians and Africans were in constant contact, for Indians were shopkeepers and Africans were their customers. There were no marriages between the two groups. Each said the other smelled.

They were all colonials, Indian and African alike. Just a few years earlier they had all been singing ‘God Save the Queen.’ Before each movie at the Odeon, on Kampala Road, there was a full minute’s footage of the Union Jack flapping in a stiff wind and a trooping-the-colors close-up of Queen Elizabeth on horseback, in a crimson tunic and black military beret. Now that was gone, though the memory was fresh. Some butcher shops labeled the poorer cuts ‘boys’ meat’ – the stuff bought for servants to eat – and the ‘cook boy’ might be a gray-haired man of sixty or more, and the ‘garden boy’ another grandfather.

‘The housegirl is hopeless,’ Yomo said.

Yomo had the African monomania regarding diet. A country where pounded yam and palm wine were unobtainable was a Nigerian’s nightmare. She nagged on this subject effortlessly but with such passion that Julian was moved by how much she cared, how singleminded she could be on the subject of survival. She would be a good mother.

‘The girl never heard of kola nuts!’ Yomo said.

This housegirl was a married woman, thirty or so, with three kids whom Julian had allowed to play in the kitchen. Yomo exiled them to the back verandah.

‘You said you liked kids,’ Julian said.

‘I want one of my own,’ said Yomo. ‘Give me one.’

Two months of trying, at least twice a day, yet there was apparently no progress. Julian remained complacent. His luck so far had been wonderful. It seemed right to him to leave the matter of children to chance, as that priest on the Congo border had done. If Julian meddled or fretted, it would surely go wrong. Whatever happened would be right. He suggested that Yomo go to his Indian doctor, but she procrastinated. From her various oblique remarks, always referring to bush clinics in Yorubaland, Julian suspected that she was afraid of doctors.

Yomo did not know what to make of his Indian friends, could not understand a word they said; nor could they understand the way she talked. But she was patient. She sat and smiled and afterwards she always said, ‘They are so oggly!’ She also said that Indian men smelled of Indian food, and Indian women of coconut oil.

The Indians in Uganda, despairing of India, loved living in East Africa – loved the weather, the mangoes, the empty roads, the greenery, and especially loved the parks where they promenaded every Sunday, airing their women and letting their children run. They put walls around their houses. The walls worked; the walls kept them private. There was profit everywhere, there was space. In many ways Uganda the republic resembled Uganda the British protectorate. Institutions worked well – the post office, the telegraph, the police, the railway trains, the ferries on Lake Victoria.

One day when Julian was talking with Indians about India, one of them mentioned U. V. Pradesh. It was the first time Julian had heard the name.

‘You want to know the difference between East African Indians and the babus in India?’ this man, Desai, said. ‘Read Mother India by U. V. Pradesh.’

No one knew what the initials stood for. The initials gave the name a blunt, impersonal sound, like a weighty name you might see lettered on the door – a large door that was closed – of someone in authority you were anxiously waiting to see: a dentist, a headmaster, an inspector, someone unfriendly, possibly intimidating. That was how the name seemed to Julian, unconsoling, and so far the name was everything.

Whenever a book was recommended to Julian by someone whose intelligence he respected, he read it. Mother India was a book he took to immediately. He skipped to the portrait of the East African Indian, in the chapter ‘Degrees.’ This man was a liberated soul, a free spirit in Africa, but on a visit back to India he was lost, encumbered and bewildered by caste prejudice. Julian recognized the man, he trusted the book, and then he read the whole thing from the beginning. It was skeptical, tender, comic, complex, and the narrative voice was never raised, never hectoring, always finding the connection and the paradox. The dialogue was beautifully chosen and always telling. Yet U. V. Pradesh was only a name. At one point he made a reference to ‘my companion,’ but that only confused the issue. ‘Companion’ could not have been more ambiguous, and it also looked like deliberate concealment.

‘You are still reading that book, Jules!’ Yomo made his name sound like ‘Jewels.’ She was stretched out on the couch, an odalisque, knees apart, touching herself, deliberately trying to shock him.

‘I like it, so I’m reading it slowly.’

‘Come over here and bring your friend and give me a baby.’

She said no more than that, but the way she said it and stroked herself did shock him, and tempted him. He loved her for being able to speak directly to his body, and she seldom failed to get a hook into his guts.

So life went on. Yomo waited for him to finish work and they were together the rest of the time. She laughed at the Ugandans for being primitive. They stared at her with bloodshot eyes. Julian wrote poems and worked on his novel and took George Orwell’s and U. V. Pradesh’s essays as his models for nonfiction. On weekends he gathered up Yomo and they headed into the bush.

‘Always the bush,’ she said.

‘I like the bush.’

Every morning he was in Kampala, he had coffee in the Senior Common Room. All the lecturers and staff sat there in shorts and knee socks, like a lot of big boys, yakking. He read the Argus – now he was a peruser and student of the Court Proceedings. He drank coffee. He read his mail. In a country where telephones were rare and unreliable and no one phoned overseas, the arrival of the mail was an important event.

One day, a man named Haji Hallsmith sat heavily on the sofa next to Julian in the Senior Common Room. The exertion was intended to call attention to himself. His proper name was Alan, but he had converted to Islam in order to marry a Punjabi. The young woman’s brothers had objected, given Hallsmith a severe beating, and spirited the woman away, and all that remained of the adventure was the religion and his nickname, though he had not gone on the haj.

His face fattening with mockery, his eyes glassy, Hallsmith leaned towards Julian, who could see that he was drunk, could smell it too, the tang of waragi, banana gin.

‘What’s in that cup?’ Julian said.

Hallsmith laughed. He had probably been on a bender and was still drunk from the previous night, drinking coffee now to prepare himself for a class. He was a lecturer in the English Department.

‘Just coffee.’

‘You’ve been drinking more than coffee,’ Julian said. ‘I think waragi, mingi sana.’

‘So what?’ Hallsmith said with a drunkard’s truculence.

‘Isn’t that against your religion?’

‘Drinking is sanctioned, except during prayers!’ Hallsmith shouted.

Perhaps from the effort of summoning the strength to speak, he belched and brought up a mouthful of air, more banana stink.

‘Do you know about U. V. Pradesh coming?’ he asked.

Julian said that he didn’t but that he was pleased. He was more excited than he let on, not merely because he had just read Mother India, but because he had never met such an esteemed writer, one of the powerful priestly figures whom he thought about all the time.

The larger world was elsewhere, and the little town and university were seldom visited. Occasionally experts flew in – the Pygmy specialist, the cautious economist, the elderly architect, the agitated musicologist; never a poet, never a novelist.

People from beyond Africa were welcome. The expatriates needed company, for they had no society. They needed visitors and witnesses to bring them news of the outer world, to listen to their stories – because the expatriates were sick of listening to each other, irritated more by the sameness of the stories than the lies and liberties in them – and most of all they needed strangers to measure themselves against.

‘I’ve ordered Pradesh’s books,’ Haji said. ‘They’re in the bookshop. I’m planning a drinks party for him next week at my flat. He’s staying with me for a bit. Come and meet him.’

So Haji Hallsmith had appropriated U. V. Pradesh as his listener and witness. Haji also did some writing: confessional poems that embarrassed his friends. Yet they read them, always looking for clues to that brief, bewildering Muslim marriage.

‘What about my malaika?’ Julian asked.

It meant angel, and Hallsmith knew who he was talking about.

‘Your splendid malaika is always welcome, Jules.’

That same afternoon, Julian went to the bookshop and bought all the U. V. Pradesh titles it had in stock – The Part-Time Pundit, Calypso Road, and several others. While he read The Part-Time Pundit, Yomo read Calypso Road.

She said, ‘These Trinidad people talk like Nigerians.’

‘What do you mean?’

She read, ‘ “If you vex with she, give she a dose of licks, and by and by she come quick-quick when you bawl.” ’

‘That’s Nigerian?’

‘For sure.’

The character Pundit Ganesh Ramsumair, in The Part-Time Pundit, was unlike anyone Julian had ever met in fiction. The narrative, sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, was simple and strong, unusual, funny, oblique, very sure of itself. It described a world Julian knew nothing about. Every name, every character, every setting was new, and yet it was familiar in its humanity. Among other things, it was about transformation.

He read three more U. V. Pradesh books. They were also fantastical, assured narratives of transformation. He saw no literary influences, no antecedents. They were original and powerful, too plain to be brilliant, with a pitiless humor that gave them pathos.

The voice of the narrator he recognized from Mother India: impartial, remorseless, almost cold. In his essay on Charles Dickens, Orwell had said you could see a human face behind all third-person narration, yet there was no face that Julian could discern here. About U. V. Pradesh personally Julian knew nothing beyond the fact that he had been born in the West Indies, was educated in England, resided in London, had won a number of prizes, was about forty – nearly elderly, so Julian thought. The biographical note in the back of Pradesh’s books was short and unrevealing.

Pradesh took no sides in these works of fiction. One, about an election, was plotty and sprawled improbably. Another, set in London, could have been written by an old, wise Englishman, and its observations about age and frailty gave it a morbid power. Calypso Road was slight but charming, full of curious characters. They were all confident, fresh, spoke with the concision of poetry and with an originality that was like news to Julian.

‘So what you tink?’ Yomo said. Reading made her impatient, lust corroded her English. She was tugging at his sleeve, pulling his hand between her legs.

‘I like this book.’

The extraordinary ending of The Part-Time Pundit, so unexpected and yet so logical a transformation, overwhelmed him. Why had he not seen it coming? It made him wish he had written it himself. The best of it was this: after all his changes of direction, the Trinidadian pundit Ganesh vanishes, only to reappear in London years later.

The nameless narrator, now a grown man in London, looks ‘for a nigrescent face,’ sees the pundit from his island approaching him.

‘Ganesh?’ he says in disbelief.

The pundit seems utterly changed, wearing a tweed jacket and soft hat and corduroy trousers and sturdy shoes. He carries a walking stick and is marching through a railway terminal.

‘Pundit Ganesh?’ the narrator repeats, seeing Ganesh Ramsumair.

‘“G. Ramsay Muir,”’ he said, coldly, and the brown man scuttles away.

‘Why are you smiling?’ Yomo asked.

Julian was thinking, I’m going to meet the real man.

2

‘I’m Not Everyone’

His smile was not a smile but his laugh was more than a laugh, especially when he –

Wait, wait, wait. You know I’m lying, don’t you? This is not a novel, it is a memory.

The man is not ‘U. V. Pradesh.’ It is V. S. Naipaul, and the book I mentioned in the previous chapter is The Mystic Masseur, and the hero is Ganesh Ramsumair of Trinidad, who turned into G. Ramsay Muir in London. Yomo is Yomo, and Hallsmith is Hallsmith, but the young man is not Julian Lavalle. It’s me, Paul Theroux, and I am shining my light upon the past. I cannot improve on this story, because Naipaul always said, Don’t prettify it, and The greatest writing is a disturbing vision offered from a position of strength – aspire to that, and Tell the truth.

It is a morning in June on Cape Cod, bright and dry – hasn’t rained for more than a month – and I have set myself the task of putting down everything that happened thirty years ago in Africa, when I first met him, because it all matters. I cannot change any of this. I am writing with a ballpoint on a pad at my desk. How can this be a novel? This narrative is not something that would be improved by the masks of fiction. It needs only to be put in order. I am free of the constraint of alteration and fictionalizing.

You would say ‘Isn’t that V. S. Naipaul?’ in any case.

There is so much of it. This was going to be a short memoir, but now I see it will be a book, because I remember everything. Where was I? Yes. He was laughing.

– especially when Naipaul was laughing at one of his own pointed remarks. It was a surprised bellow of appreciation, deepened and made resonant by tobacco smoke and asthma. It made you wonder whether he saw something you didn’t see. I learned all this within seconds of our first meeting, at Hallsmith’s party. With a disgusted and fastidious face, Naipaul had commented on how dirty Kampala was. Having just read The Mystic Masseur – a better title than The Part-Time Pundit; I will stick to the facts – I said, quoting his shopkeeper in the book, ‘It only looks dirty.’

With his deep, fruity smoker’s laugh booming in his lungs, he showed me his delight and then gave me the next line, and the next. He recited most of that page. He could have given me the whole book verbatim. I was thinking how he knew his work well. He told me later that he knew each of his books by heart, storing them during the slow process of writing and rewriting them in longhand.

After he was introduced to more people, his martyred smile returned. He was soon in distress. When Yomo said, ‘Your characters in your books talk like Nigerians,’ he merely stared at her and frowned.

‘Really.’

To someone with no sense of irony, his tone was one of shimmering fascination. He was thrown by Yomo’s innocent statement, and perhaps by Yomo herself, who was very dark with high cheekbones and those drowsy eyes; in her stiffly wound turban she towered over him. She had the effect of making shorter people seem always to be ducking her. Naipaul behaved that way, moved sideways, nearer to me, dodging her, as if he were unused to discussing his work with such a tall, self-assured black woman.

‘Where are you staying?’ I asked.

‘Here, I’m afraid,’ he said, clearly intending to say more when his wife interrupted him.

‘Vidia,’ she said in a cautioning voice. That was the first time I heard his name, a contraction of it, which was Vidiadhar.

‘Patsy,’ he said, acquiescing, smiling in misery.

His wife, Patricia, was a small pale woman with a sweet face, premature gray hair, lovely pale blue eyes, and full lips with the sort of contour and droop that even in repose suggests a lisp. She was pretty, about ten years older than me, and though she was assertive, she seemed frail.

‘They’ve promised us a house,’ he said. ‘Mr Bwogo. Have I got it right? Mr Bwogo.’ He nodded and seemed to recite it, giving it too many syllables: ‘Bah-wo-go.’ ‘It seems nothing can be done without Mr Bwogo.’

‘He’s the chief housing officer,’ I said.

‘Chief housing officer,’ Naipaul said, and just saying it, reciting it again in his gloomy voice, he made the title ridiculous and grand and ill suited to describe Mr Bwogo.

‘I’m sure he’ll take care of you,’ I said.

With sudden insistence, as if demanding a drink, he said, ‘I want to meet people. Tell me whom I should meet.’

This baffled me, both the question and the urgent way he made me responsible for the answer. But I was flattered too, most of all because of the intense way he waited for a reply. Nerves of concentration tightened in his face, and even his muscles contrived to make his posture more than just receptive – imploring. On that first meeting I had an inkling of him as an intimidating listener.

‘What is it you want to know?’ I asked.

‘I want to understand,’ he said. ‘I want to meet people who know what is happening here. People who read books. People who are still in the world. You can find them for me, can’t you? I don’t mean only at Makerere.’

He smiled, making a hash of the university’s name, pronouncing it ‘Maka-ray-ray.’

‘Because I suspect a lot of fraudulence,’ he said. ‘One hears it. One has vibrations.’

Pat had winced at ‘Maka-ray-ray’ and said in an exasperated way, ‘He has no trouble at all with the most difficult Indian names.’

‘Do you know Rajagopalachari’s translation of the Mahabharata?’ Naipaul said, and laughed hard, the laughter in his lungs like a loud kind of hydraulics.

I introduced him to my head of department, an expatriate Englishman named Gerald Moore, who was an anthologizer as well as an evangelizer of African poetry. Having spent some time in Nigeria, Gerald occasionally attempted a Yoruba salutation upon Yomo, whose way of replying was to mock his mispronunciation by repeating it in a shriek, opening her mouth very wide in Gerald’s pink face. But he was a friendly fellow, and he had hired me. He mentioned his African anthology to Naipaul.

‘Really,’ Naipaul said, mocking in his profoundly fascinated way, and now I understood his tone as utter disbelief and dismissal.

The irony was not lost on Gerald, who fidgeted and said, ‘Some quite good poems.’

‘Really.’

‘Leopold Senghor.’

‘Isn’t he the president of something?’

‘Senegal,’ Gerald said. ‘And Rabearivelo.’

‘Is he a president too?’

‘Dead, actually. Madagascan.’

‘These names just trip off your tongue.’

‘I could give you a copy,’ Gerald said. ‘It’s a Penguin.’

‘A Penguin, yes,’ Naipaul said. ‘You are so kind.’

‘I also do some writing. I’d like to show you. See what you think.’

Naipaul smiled a wolfish smile and said, ‘Are you sure you want me to read your poems? I warn you that I will tell you exactly what I think.’

‘That’s all right.’

‘But I’m brutal, you know.’

Gerald winced, and later on the verandah he said to me, ‘He’s different from what I expected.’

‘In what way?’

‘Rather patrician.’

But I thought: I want to show him my work. I want to know exactly what he thinks. I had never shown anyone my novel. I wanted him to be brutal.

I saw Naipaul talking to Professor Dudney, an authority on the pastoral Karamojong people of Karamoja, one of the northern provinces of Uganda. The Karamojong went mother-naked, and the men were often photographed posing unashamed, letting their penises hang as impressively as prize aubergines. Dudney had married a Karamojong woman, who was just as attracted to Kampala cocktail parties as Dudney was to Karamojong rituals during which the blood of cattle was guzzled.

At about five o’clock, Haji Hallsmith started turning the knobs of a large wooden radio. He urged the guests to be seated, to listen to the program, one he had made himself with his African students. I knew the producer, Miles Lee, an authentic Gypsy whose training for Radio Uganda consisted of working for many years as a fortuneteller at the Goose Fair in Nottingham. He too had become a Muslim, changing his middle name, Allday, to Ahmed, and could be found drinking with Haji Hallsmith. He was another one who said, ‘Of course Muslims can drink. But not during prayers.’

The radio program was called In Black and White, and its subject was African writing. After some music, the pluckings of a seven-stringed instrument called a nanga, Hallsmith, suffering mike fright, began to introduce the poets in a shrill old-auntie voice.

Naipaul settled into his chair, his face darkening as the program continued. It was a look of intense concentration, or perhaps of desperate boredom. Poems were being read on the crackly radio, Africans reciting African poems, muffled by the cloth on the grille of the big speaker. Naipaul might not have realized that the hour for this welcoming party had been chosen because it was also the hour for the weekly In Black and White.

– And now Winston Wabamba is going to read his poem ‘Groundnut Stew.’

Naipaul’s face hardened into an expression of extreme impatience. I could see it was also a martyr’s death mask. When Hallsmith smiled at him, Naipaul’s eyes went out of focus, for it was a hot afternoon, the sun blazing through the windows over the tops of palms and tulip trees. There were jeers and curses from the low brick warren of huts where the servants lived.

Everyone else in the room was attentive, gathered around the radio, our heads cocked to one side or bowed in a meditative way. Gerald Moore massaged his eyes with his fingertips in concentration. We were mocked by the parrot squawks and cockcrows out the window, and as the sun dropped there was another sound, almost unearthly, like a riot of radio waves in a Martian invasion, a squealing and a mad ripping of the air.

Naipaul was startled.

‘Bats,’ I said.

He looked wildly at the bats streaking past the window and slumped again.

I had never before heard the whole radio program. It was broadcast at the time of day when I was usually headed to the Staff Club. Now that I was compelled to listen to the entire thirty minutes, I was reminded of how sentimental and inept the poetry was. It did not look so bad on the pages of the university’s literary magazine, but when declaimed on Radio Uganda, under the supervision of Miles Ahmed Lee, it sounded hollow and clumsy, and the clichés were the feebler for being spoken aloud with an attempt at feeling.

Was I also hearing it with Naipaul’s ears? He was a newcomer. He had never heard it before. The poems sounded awful to me. The room was hot with the exhausted air of the day, the last blaze of the low sun, the dust and humidity and bird complaints, the servants’ curses and bus horns.

When the program was over Naipaul got to his feet and, staggering slightly because of his mood, said, ‘Splendid, splendid.’

‘Can we go home now?’ Yomo said, reaching into my front trouser pocket.

Naipaul was surrounded by party guests, but by the time we got to the door he had broken away from them, and he called out, ‘Find me some people – I want to meet people.’

‘It was a pleasure to meet you,’ I said.

He followed us through the door to the verandah.

‘I read Miguel Street last night,’ Yomo said. ‘The whole thing.’

Naipaul stared at her pityingly, shaking his head. He said, ‘You must sip it like good wine.’

‘Ha! I don’t sip wine!’ Yomo was laughing. ‘I drink up the palm wine! I’m from Nigeria.’

‘Really.’ Naipaul looked indifferent. ‘Uganda must fascinate you.’

‘These Uganda people are primitive.’

Naipaul’s mask slipped and he laughed. Then, sizing me up, he asked me what I thought of the radio program.

At first I hesitated to tell him I really had not liked it, because it seemed too unkind to Hallsmith, the host. And when he’d been seated in his armchair, Naipaul had looked enigmatic, if not disapproving, and afterwards hadn’t he said ‘Splendid’?

But I liked him, I liked his writing, I wanted to take a risk, I wanted to be truthful.

‘I thought it was awful,’ I said.

‘Yes!’ he said, and he laughed his deep, appreciative laugh. ‘Dreadful! Dreadful!’

He looked happier saying that, less lonely and less tormented than he had appeared in the room. With conviction and a solemn friendliness, he touched my arm.