Being nasty to Naipaul

Observations on a literary feud

The setting of the Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica was idyllic, the content less so. On the second day, the Nobel Prize-winning Caribbean poet Derek Walcott premiered a stinging attack in verse on his contemporary (and fellow Nobel laureate), the Trinidadian-born novelist V S Naipaul.

"I'm going to be nasty," announced Walcott at the end of an enthusiastically received reading session, and proceeded to read "The Mongoose", a long, vituperative poem which opened with the couplet: "I have been bitten. I must avoid infection/Or else I'll be as dead as Naipaul's fiction."

The poem launches a savagely humorous demolition of Naipaul's later novels Half a Life and Magic Seeds: "The plots are forced, the prose sedate and silly/The anti-hero is a prick named Willie." Further on, Walcott expresses disbelief that this latter-day Naipaul can be the same author as the one who wrote the masterpiece A House for Mr Biswas.

The motivation for this attack seems to be a mix of the personal and the political. Walcott criticises newspaper editors for indulging Naipaul's controversial public persona. And a mention of "the English Guardian" in the poem appears to be a reference to Naipaul's essay on Walcott, published in that paper in August 2007. While it praised Walcott's work, many took it to be a back-handed compliment, as Naipaul enthused about the poet's writing from his teenage years in the 1940s, implying he hadn't written anything as good since.

Walcott is also incensed by what he sees as Naipaul's rejection of his Caribbean heritage in order to gain acceptance from the British literary Establishment. In particular, he is outraged that Naipaul, whose ancestors were Indian labourers who moved to Trinidad in the 19th century, thanked Britain and India in his Nobel acceptance speech, but not the country of his birth. The poem's title refers to an animal that was also imported from India under the British empire. As Walcott puts it: "The mongoose takes its orders from the Raj."

The most disturbing section of the poem describes Naipaul returning to Trinidad and taking Walcott on a hunt for prostitutes. It culminates in a reference to Naipaul's disparagement of his birthplace: "He doesn't like black men but he loves black cunt."

If this all sounds supremely bitchy, the poem is lifted by its final stanzas. As one would expect from a writer often acclaimed as the greatest living English-language poet, it ends with a powerful evocation of the Caribbean landscape, an allusion to Shakespeare, and a final couplet that puts the squabble in perspective: “Far off the mongoose raves/And time draws close with its slow judging waves.” The two septuagenarians have rowed for years – Walcott once nicknamed Sir Vidia “V S Nightfall” in verse – but perhaps this is the final word on the matter from the poet. Walcott told the NS that he would make no further comment about his new poem.