The Mimic Men — A Room with a View
Novelists often make subtler political scientists than do the political scientists themselves, perhaps because a competent novelist nourishes himself on his observation of human actuality whereas the political scientist is typically the subscriber to some party-orthodoxy or the proponent of someone’s special-interest agenda. The names of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Joseph Conrad come to mind, as men of keen political perception. Dostoevsky’s Devils (1872) and Conrad’s Nostromo (1904) retain their value as brilliant forecast-analyses of Twentieth Century political radicalism and its destructive application in revolutionary activity. Both men had an uncanny sense of what lay ahead. In a sense, their prophetic power exceeds, say, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s or George Orwell’s, as both of those men had the benefit of looking back on what had already happened. Competent novelists are necessarily also anthropologists, interested supremely in reporting human facts as they see them and in making their way to essential structures of human nature, communal existence, and the cultural tradition. The tenured political-science professors strive mightily to avoid those cases where facts contradict doctrine, while the genuine novelists relish both the paradox of human nature and the tragicomic accent of the historical chronicle. A novelist after all can only be true to himself by exercising a rigorous objectivity.
I. Such a percipient connoisseur of structural irony and the law of opposite results is the native Trinidadian, of Indian ancestry, and longtime naturalized Briton, V. S. Naipaul (born 1932; knighted 1990), whose Nobel Prize (2001) came at the last possible moment, after which, the Prize Committee’s politicization being complete, no dissenter from the reigning orthodoxy – about race, the market, the West, or modernity – would receive its honor. Naipaul had diagnosed the spiritual paralysis of the West in that morbidity’s emergent phase; he foresaw, in fact, in the chaos of decolonization in the 1960s, much of what afflicts western society at large forty years later. The title of The Mimic Men (1967), a key entry in Naipaul’s development of his novelistic oeuvre, suggests how important mimesis, or imitativeness, is to the author’s view of humanity. Few people, as Naipaul sees it, manage to escape the trap of letting others define their identity; rather, most people meekly assimilate to a few ready made stereotypes, the range of which diminishes in the age of mass communication and the “consumer lifestyle.” Modern people moreover tend swiftly to assume the indignation of the resentful; they tend just as swiftly to imitate the posturing of self-described victims. The Mimic Men’s narrator, Ranjit “Ralph” Kripalsingh, usually just “Singh,” who stems from the Hindu Diaspora in the British West Indies, uses the bland term “placidity” to describe how he has often yielded to base impulses contrary to his conscience.