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V. S. Naipaul: Guerrillas

As Naipaul’s most sexually explicit novel, this book came in for much criticism. It is also one of his most violent novels. The blurb on the front cover of my copy says Universally acclaimed as a masterpiece, which may be something of an exaggeration, though it is still a very fine book. It is set on unnamed Caribbean island which may or may not be Trinidad or, at least, based on Trinidad. The opening paragraphs already give a picture of a desolate country – burning rubbish dumps, carrion crows, shanty towns, uncontrolled sprawl, bauxite dust from a bauxite loading station and graffiti everywhere. The social order is also breaking down, as Naipaul shows us throughout the book. There are three main characters. Roche is a white South African liberal, who has escaped from apartheid society (he had been imprisoned and tortured in South Africa) and come to this island to help, with his English girlfriend, Jane. There they meet Jimmy Ahmed, probably based on Michael X, a black commune leader and guerrilla. Jane is a Patty Hearst-type figure, in love with the idea of revolution and soon in love with Jimmy Ahmed. The plot is not too difficult to work out. Roche tries to help and works with Jimmy in his commune but there is a strong undercurrent of violence and Jane’s sexuality only exacerbates a potentially explosive situation, leading to the inevitable disaster.

While the sex and violence may not be typical of Naipaul – and, in reality, they are not nearly as bad as has been suggested – much of the rest of the novel takes up familiar themes. He would write about the real Michael X in The Return of Eva Perón but Jimmy Ahmed/Michael X are part of the failure of post-colonialism about which Naipaul has written so persuasively elsewhere (and will continue to do so). The story is again well told and the points that Naipaul is making are clear.

Publishing history

First published by André Deutsch in 1975