“The Mongoose,” by Derek Walcott, has a bigger bite than one might think (1.2)

“It’s going to be nasty,” Derek Walcott said, prefacing his war on V. S. Naipaul with a warning. “The Mongoose” was the last of Walcott’s new poems at the Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica last weekend [May 2008]. He’d wondered whether he ought to read it, Walcott said, “and then I figured if I don’t do it, I’ll say: what the hell, you should have done it… I think you’ll recognize Mr. Naipaul.” (source)

Two literary greats of the Caribbean, going into the ninth round, reaching for hammers. Paint brushes are not an option: this is not the moment for whitewashing, or for painting oneself in camouflage, or in the distracting phosphorescence of reflected glory, or the cool gesso of objectivity, in preparation for just-in-time application of mind-screwing heat-shimmers.

“Gladiatorial excess” is what some of the more conservative accounts called this. The dense prudes who caution prudence, who would narrow a debate by setting the terms for acceptable style, were aghast that ferocious antagonism, however beautifully crafted, should erupt to spoil their placid and insipid evenings of poetry. When they assumed that they could safely sit on yet another training session, where they would be trained to sustain their roles as good, cultured, law abiding, cosmopolitan citizens, what did they instead get? Derek Walcott Unplugged, and what a breathtaking poem is The Mongoose, narrowly understood and chastised by the grown up versions of the classroom prefect. “This just is not done, I mean, it’s not professional, it’s not poetry, it’s…it’s…it’s not polite,” as some hens might cluck.

Both Derek Walcott (born in St. Lucia, grown in Trinidad), and Sir Vidiadhar Surujprasad Naipaul (born in Trinidad, fled to England), are recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature. On this blog, Derek Walcott stands as the hero, so there is no point in my feigning a pretentious objectivity. You can see Walcott videos in the vodpod on the sidebar, and you can see references to this poetic clash incorporated in my own little attempt at poetry on this site, the so-called “spectroscopic survey” I posted this week. I don’t want to say more about the personal conflict between these two word warriors, mostly because so much has been written on it already (see the links that follow), and I want to focus instead on some of the broader themes that come out of this latest round. (And don’t cry for Naipaul — he always “settles accounts” as he himself says.) Before doing anything else, let’s listen to The Mongoose:

I want to draw attention to the anti-colonial, and anti-Eurocentric theme in the poem that casts grave doubt on “cosmopolitanism” as presently fashioned by Western intellectual elites. Do note the current geopolitical context in which cosmopolitanism is rising to the top of journals’ agendas and ask if this is not an intellectual counterinsurgency against all those monstrous “fundamentalists”, much as when anthropologists imported and perverted a Marxist anti-state critique of “invented traditions” and reshaped it into anti-indigenism, at the same time — coincidentally? — that the movement toward the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was gaining ground and when American Indians would assert sovereignty over the remains of their ancestors housed in ghoulish temples of Western “science,” the university and the museum. So that’s at least twice in the last twenty years that a “theoretical” trend in anthropology has moved critical attention away from the powerful and instead trained its sights on the powerless. No wonder then, that anthropology remains the whitest of the disciplines. But let’s get back to Walcott….

The anti-colonial, anti-Euro-cosmopolitan themes in Walcott’s poem come out in lines such as these–note also that Walcott undermines Naipaul’s European footing by relocating him to the ranks of Indian indentured labourers in the cane fields of central Trinidad, reminding him of his origins, just as Naipaul wishes to proclaim very different origins and orientations:

Cursed its [the mongoose, Napiaul’s] first breath for being Trinidadian,
Then wrote the same piece for the English Guardian….
Imported from India and trained to ferret snakes and elude Africans,
The Mongoose takes its orders from the Raj….
…climbed to club- and gate-house with good manners,
The squirearchy from the canefields of Chaguanas….
For five years he [Naipaul] waited.
India and England were in his citation
Of gratitude, but not the Negroid nation
That nursed his gift….

Speaking to the moderator before he read his poem, still in front of the Jamaican audience gathered for the festival, Walcott had this to say about American empire and Caribbean arts:

There’s a very dangerous thing that is happening in the Caribbean, and that is: we are dictated to, still, by what used to be the empire. The new American empire is the world empire, and whatever the tastes of the empire are, they’re inflicted on the colonies of that empire. So we are the intellectual colonies of America; so is a lot of the world. So if people say in America now – which they do – that painting is finished, and now what you have is installation or some other thing, then the young Caribbean artist feels that he’s out of it if he or she doesn’t do what the empire thinks if fashionable. And what fashionable, or unfashionable, is that you don’t tell stories, you don’t mold character, you don’t have a beginning, a middle, an end. That’s old fashioned. Well, it’s a great thing that the Caribbean art is old-fashioned, because you still tell stories, which is what the human heart craves. And you still have a culture that speaks directly to its people in terms of songs, and the lyrics of songs. There aren’t that many cultures that still do that. How many people in Germany sing a German folk song?

You see, there’s an urgency in America to make it new, to get famous. And you can get very famous in America, and make a lot of money. When Rent came out, I thought: Rent! Who wants to see a thing called Rent? Many years later the author is dead, and the composer is dead, but he’s a multi-millionaire. Now the danger here is to think in terms of being a multi-millionaire in any of the forms, including painting, because there are some terrible painters who make millions of dollars in the States because they’re so terrible… So we have a very very different life here in terms of a balance that is not too affected, not too provincial, not too rootsy or something. The individual has to choose where it’s going. And I think it’s a very healthy condition we’re in now.

Walcott has some comments on style and character, very interesting, almost counterintuitive since for a poet style matters tremendously:

I’m very irritated about style – style in painting, style in music. Style is a way of attracting attention to the creator of the thing, right? What we want is to be anonymous, and transparent, ultimately, I think. Now there can be a very high transparency, Dante’s transparency. You don’t look at Dante’s writing. You just have the poetry, and it’s like looking through glass. You look through the poem like stained glass, into the source of the poem. You don’t look at Dante’s psychology. That would be the last thing he’d want. But this is an age in which everything is based on character, so the more interesting you make your own character, the more interesting you can become. Nobody strives for anonymity. That’s almost a contradition, but that’s what art strives for. I would like to evaporate in front of the poem…

And then he read his poems, one of which was the Mongoose that you heard above.


After writing this post, I remembered the time I saw Derek Walcott speak at York University, some time in the late 1980s. At the end of the presentation, Walcott invited questions, and was met with silence. He said, if I recall correctly, “Don’t worry, I don’t bite,” and then he added, “but I may bite back.” How true, as Naipaul should know, having been nominated for the Nobel by Walcott among others, and then publish acidic remarks about Walcott having been strangulated by his colonial environment, and racializing his message to make his audience cope better with its misery.

For further reading, please see:

Calabash ’08: First, the Fire Works (May 28, 2008)

Daniel Trilling, “Being Nasty to Naipaul,” New Statesman, May 29, 2008.

Nicholas Laughlin, “The Distraction of Walcott vs Naipaul,” The Guardian Blogs, June 5, 2008.

Nicholas Laughlin, “DW vs VSN: addendum,” Antilles: The Weblog of the Caribbean Review of Books, June 6, 2008.

Paul Theroux, “Paul Theroux claims new biography reveals the true monster in V S Naipaul,” The Sunday Times, April 6, 2008.