The Root of Rootlessness : A WAY IN THE WORLD, By V. S. Naipaul (Alfred A. Knopf: $23; 380 pp.)

The word Caribbean may conjure up all kinds of vivid colors, but to V.S. Naipaul it suggests gray: a land and seascape bleached out by unmediated sun and a counterfeit history. It is the gray in the face of a professional entertainer the morning after a late night.

The displacing and alienating effects of a colonial past on today's post-colonial peoples has been Naipaul's leading theme ever since, once past his early Trinidad novels, he broke through the colors to the gray underneath. He has pursued it in his fiction and nonfiction, set in Britain, Africa, South America and India, the home of his forebears.

He is one of literature's great travelers and also one of its oddest. He seeks not roots but rootlessness. He travels not for acquaintance but for alienation. Paul Theroux does that, to an extent, but the difference is very large. For one thing, Naipaul, who can be petty, vain and cruel, both uses and transcends his defects. His theme is the terrible inauthenticity that history has imposed on the heirs of colonialism's subjects. But by refusing to conceal or temper his own crabby vision--a walleyed sensibility that tends to swivel inward--he achieves at his best moments a unique authenticity.

His nightmare Argentina, for example, can be unrecognizable but there is no question about the nightmares that it produces in Naipaul. When he is not displaying a certain haste and roughness (on purpose, perhaps, like a musician asserting his freedom to play sour), he is a great writer. In a magical and redeeming phrase he will suddenly link up the particular estrangements he acquires, wherever he goes, to the estranged wanderer in all of us.

"A Way in the World" is a series of partly autobiographical and partly fictional variations on his theme. Each centers on a different personage, and Naipaul himself appears in many of them. The principal characters differ widely. There is a Trinidadian who uses his color sense as both a funeral parlor cosmetician and a cake decorator; and a conservative Port of Spain lawyer who unexpectedly reveals his flaming commitment to black power. There is a supercilious English writer who helps and patronizes the narrator; an itinerant Caribbean radical--"an impresario of revolution"--who is lionized by the radically chic in London and New York, and an enterprising Venezuelan who has submerged his identity as a Trinidadian Hindu.

Some of the figures are historical. Naipaul writes a vivid fictionalized account of Sir Walter Raleigh, aged and desperate, seeking to discover El Dorado as a way out of his political troubles at home. He paints a poignantly imagined portrait of the early Venezuelan revolutionary, Francisco de Miranda, lifted up and let down by his British patrons and finally, betrayed by the supporters of Bolivar, dying in a Spanish prison.

At first glance there seems to be little connection among the real, part-real and fictional characters he writes of. The styles differ considerably too: from factual documentary to a first-person combination of memoir and commentary to poetic evocation. In fact all of the protagonists are linked by their passage through the world of the Caribbean. It is a world that, instead of evolving gradually through slow migrations and evolution, was created in a kind of cataclysm.

In the space of a few years, the Spanish, the French and the British landed, fought each other, and shoved aside the Native Americans as unfit for their purpose. Their purpose was sugar plantations; and to accomplish it they brought over slaves from Africa and indentured laborers from India. And then, after a couple of centuries, they were gone; leaving behind a fragmented culture resting on a jumbled, conflicting, half-dreamed past. Naipaul doesn't draw the comparison, but one thinks of Prince Sigismund in Calderon's "Life Is a Dream." Arbitrarily immured in a tower from infancy, he suddenly finds himself--arbitrarily released and royal once more--in a wide and terrifying universe.

Sigismund went temporarily mad. Naipaul's characters are put together out of pieces that don't fit. Though not usually mad, they maneuver hybrid and uncertain identities through a world constructed of misapprehensions and are visited by undissolved bits of a heritage they are unconscious of.

In his gentle corpse-and-cake decorator, Naipaul sees an ancestral ghost of "the dancing groups of Lucknow, lewd men who painted their faces and tried to live like women." He adds: "He frightened me because I felt his feeling for beauty was like an illness; as though some unfamiliar deforming virus had passed through his simple mother to him and was even then . . . something neither of them had begun to understand." The lawyer, Evander, a properly British-mannered black professional in a still-colonial Trinidad, receives a courtesy visit from young Naipaul, about to depart for London on a prized scholarship. There is a starchy moment or two; then, startlingly, Evander raises his fist, smiles, and says: "The race! The race, man!"

It was meant as a secret, confraternal sign to a youth who was off to learn from the enemy and come back to fight. Except that Naipaul wasn't. He was off to gather the rewards that the British colonial authorities had implied would be his when he reached London with his prize. Instead there were years of misery, condescension and the grinding struggle to find himself as a writer. In his portrait of Foster Morris, an established author who helps him generously and then mortally offends him, Naipaul vents with gleeful malice his feelings toward the grip of British attitudes, not only on his country but also on his own divided nature.

But Evander mistook young Naipaul in another respect, as well. As a member of Trinidad's Indian minority, he felt no kinship with the black nationalist current that was to accompany independence in Trinidad and other parts of the Caribbean. On the contrary, he felt his own identity threatened; as he would years later in Africa, where the Indian middle class was a particular target of black politics.

Doubly rootless, doubly colonized, Naipaul draws his most blistering portrait when he writes of Lebrun. A cultivated, brilliant black Communist, Lebrun was adviser to a number of nationalist leaders in the independence days. Once in power, they had no use for him; his ideology was good for building up their strength but they had no intention of actually setting up a Marxist regime.

Still, he remained much in demand among left-wing circles in Britain and the United States. A penetrating review of Naipaul's early work--Lebrun saw a political and social significance that the author himself was unaware of--led to a short-lived friendship. Soon, Naipaul felt he was being colonized once more and broke away. The fashionable '60s formula for the Caribbean--socialism--was just as much an imperial imposition as anything the British had devised. In any case, like black nationalism, it took no account of Naipaul. His pursuit of Lebrun through a later career advising African dictators is perceptive, cruel and, like one or two other pieces, far too long.

Naipaul's angers can be useful as well as shrill, and usually directed at those--British and black--who exercise power. The finest portraits are of figures torn and fluttering through their lives and identities. His Miranda is one of the best things he has done, and he writes of the deluded Raleigh with unusual compassion. And there is the Indian whom Raleigh, assuming he comes from El Dorado, takes back to London to make up for the gold he couldn't find. In fact, Don Jose comes from the well-settled province of Nueva Granada (Colombia). His reflections on Raleigh and on European dreams have a haunting simplicity. Asked years later what difference he finds between the Europeans and the Indians, he answers with an irony that points up what Naipaul is after:

"I've thought a lot about that. And I think, Father, that the difference between us, who are Indians, or half Indians, and people like the Spaniards and the English and the Dutch and the French, people who know how to go where they are going, I think that for them the world is a safer place."

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