To understand Conrad, then, it was necessary to begin to match his experience. It was also necessary to lose one's preconceptions of what the novel should do …
Joseph Conrad was the first modern writer V. S. Naipaul encountered at the age of ten; and Conrad, seaman turned author, was also someone who ‘had been everywhere before me’ and who ‘sixty to seventy years ago meditated on my world’ (CD, p. 210). Indeed, Conrad's vision of this world, as some critics have remarked, is one which Naipaul seems bound to repeat in his own work: ‘half-made societies … where there was no goal, and where always “something inherent in the necessities of successful action … carried with it the moral degradation of the idea”’ (CD, p. 208). This essay sets out with the view that Naipaul's attitude towards Conrad and Conrad's ‘world’ is not unambivalent, as is demonstrable from the opening quotation and, more extensively, from the complex manner in which colonial societies and identity are revisioned in The Enigma of Arrival. It analyses Naipaul's dismantling in the novel of the colonial fantasy of ‘security’, that is, the notion of ‘a fixed world’ comprising, on the one hand, the timeless perfection of England, and, on the other, the disorder of ‘half-made societies that seemed doomed to remain half-made’ (CD, p. 207). It argues that the dynamics of the novel are sustained upon Naipaul's constructions of himself as colonized subject, migrant, and postcolonial writer, a series of translations and self-translations in which ‘cartographic anxiety’, impinging upon conceptions of ‘the-world-as-exhibition’, becomes transformed into new perspectives and, hence, new mappings of territory and identity.
My examples below of some of the ways in which Conrad ‘meditated’ on his world are taken from the late essay ‘Geography and Some Explorers’.
I stand here confessed as a contemporary of the Great Lakes. Yes, I could have heard of their discovery in my cradle, and it was only right that, grown to a boy's estate, I should have in the later sixties done my first bit of map-drawing and paid my first homage to the prestige of their first explorers. It consisted in entering laboriously in pencil the outline of Tanganyika on my beloved old atlas, which, having been published in 1852, knew nothing, of course, of the Great Lakes. The heart of its Africa was white and big.