The Pequod Review:
There is an extraordinary energy and passion at the heart of Paul Theroux’s superb memoir Sir Vidia's Shadow, a real-life account of his competitive friendship and subsequent falling-out with V.S. Naipaul. Theroux and Naipaul first met in Uganda in 1966, and would be friends (albeit in an awkward and distant way) for over thirty years, until a rather casual comment led to a permanent separation. Theroux's memoir is not a flattering picture of either writer — Naipaul is persuasively portrayed as mean-spirited, arrogant and petty, while Theroux perhaps outdid him by publishing this book — but it is detailed and sharply-observed as it explores both Theroux's development as a writer and his travels across five continents. The scenes from Africa in particular are exceedingly well-written:
It was the month of bush fires, smoky skies, black hills, fleeing animals; the season of haze and hawks.
With all my love lost, I lay in the bedroom alone where we had slept together, staring at the long-nosed stains on the ceiling, goblins with the voices of the yelling Canadians upstairs. I was sorrowful without Yomo and her laughter. Naipaul — Vidia, as I now called him — was kind, but kindness was not enough. I needed a more intimate friend or else no one at all, just the consolation of the African landscape, which was a reminder to me that life goes on.
It was the season when Africans set fire to the bush, believing the blaze to be helpful to next year’s crops. I set off for the north, drove almost to the Sudan, and walked among the elephant palms to the shriek and twang of the same insects the people ate there; then I drove on to Arua, in West Nile province, on the Congo border, with its scowling purplish Kakwa people, of whom the chief of staff of the Uganda Army, Idi Amin, was the stereotype.
Hawks hovered above the grass fires and swooped down on the mice and snakes and other small creatures that were roused and panicked by the flames. There were hawks all over the smoky sky. Something about the wildfires and the hovering birds and the scuttling mice spoke to me of sex and its consequences.
At Kitgum, in the far north, I hiked in a hot wind, sinking in sand to my ankles, kicking at dead leaves to scatter the snakes. Each night in the village where I stayed a toothless old woman squatted on the dirt floor of a hut and sang a lewd song in an ululating voice. “She is beautiful and has a neck like a swan, but she has stroked the spear of every man in the district” was the way her song was translated for me. It was coarse and upsetting, but this hidden corner of Africa was peaceful for being hot and remote. Black water tumbled over Karuma Falls. To justify my trip to my department head, I traveled southwest and slipped between the Mountains of the Moon and visited schools at Bundibugyo, where Yomo and I had planned to lose ourselves in the bush. One night after rain I went outside and found thirsty children licking raindrops off my car.
Hawks, bush fires, heat, envious songs, and desperate children: so far, not much consolation on this safari.
The evening before we left for Rwanda, Vidia asked, “What would you normally be doing tonight?”
I said, “Going to the Gardenia.”
It was what I usually did before I left for the bush. I explained that it was a bar where strangers were welcome, and there were always women around.
He said, “I want to see it.”
To tell him the Gardenia was a brothel would have made it seem more efficient, more of a business than it was; to describe it as a pickup joint would have misrepresented it as sleazy. It was an African bar, outwardly a hangout but in its complexity and character a sorority of rebellious women. Far from having the sexual ambiguity and low self-esteem of cringing, pimp-bullied Western prostitutes, these African women were as liberated as men. They were not castrators. The Gardenia was a sisterhood of laughing adventuresses and cat-eyed princesses.
Young and old, they had left their villages, because African villages were full of restrictions on women. Fleeing bad marriages, ditching boyfriends and family quarrels, escaping blood feuds and hoeing and child rearing and agonizing circumcisions in mud huts, they had come to Kampala for its freedom. Most came from upcountry districts, but some were from the coast and from as far away as Somalia and the Congo. At the Gardenia every woman’s face was different. These women were not coquettes; there was no wooing involved — they wanted to dance — and as for sex, they were more direct than most men. If they wanted it, they said so, and if not, they did not waste your time. I went there to be happy; always I left in a good mood. If I happened to be going on safari, it was the best farewell.
I knew I was a dog, but so what? Such a lively place made me hate polite company and loathe the tedium of dinner parties — parties generally, all chitchat and ambassadorial bottom-sniffing. Most of the expatriates lived at a great remove from the real life of Kampala, and the diplomats were even more remote, and consequently paranoid. From the embassy residences on Kololo Hill this would have seemed like lowlife, yet African women fascinated me. Their common language was Swahili. Many spoke better English than my students. They lived by their wits. They fluttered like moths around the lights of these bars.
But the core parts of the book are about Naipaul and his role as both a friend and mentor to Theroux. Despite Naipaul's flaws, it is clear how much Theroux is indebted to him:
He was one of the strangest men I had ever met, and absolutely the most difficult. He was almost unlovable. He was contradictory, he quizzed me incessantly, he challenged everything I said, he demanded attention, he could be petty, he uttered heresies about Africa, he fussed, he mocked, he made his innocent wife cry, he had impossible standards, he was self-important, he was obsessive on the subject of his health. He hated children, music, and dogs. But he was also brilliant, and passionate in his convictions, and to be with him, as a friend or fellow writer, I had always to be at my best.
It mattered to me that he took me seriously, that he treated me like a fellow writer. No one else did, but that did not matter, because I had him.
As literary biographies go, Sir Vidia's Shadow is about as good as it gets.