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V. S. Naipaul: The Mimic Men

The narrator of this novel is Ralph Singh who is now in exile in London but was the foreign minister of the fictitious Caribbean island of Isabella. He is now writing his memoirs, trying, as he puts it, to make sense of the lack of order and doing it in the greatest disorder – London and the home counties. To be born on an island like Isabella, an obscure New World transplantation, second-hand and barbarous, was to be born to disorder. He tells us – while mixing in his life in London – of what has led him here. He was born on Isabella, came to London, where he met his wife, returned to Isabella, speculated, made money and got into politics. Things then started to go wrong. His marriage fell apart and political chaos on Isabella led to his political career also falling apart. But, above all, Singh is concerned with authenticity and order. The colonised, he maintains, are mimic men, i.e. they reject their own background and look up to that of the coloniser. In his case, he has to look back to his Indian roots as well as to what it was like to be a native of Isabella. Of course, he fails to reconstruct his authentic background, fails at bringing political order (a negotiation with the British government fails dismally and he is treated as little more than a child) and fails to solve the problems either of his marriage or his country. He ends up stuck in England, nowhere to go any more.

Singh tells his story in a series of flashbacks, which are not recounted chronologically, so that we pick up bits and pieces of the story as he goes along. Whether he represents Naipaul or not is not clear but it seems likely that at least some of his views are those of his creator. As an exposition as to what it is like to be one of the colonised and not only colonised but colonised at second hand, as the Indians of Isabelle/Trinidad came over from India as indentured servants and were generally despised by both the blacks and the whites, this is a first-class novel and Singh/Naipaul tells it well, leaving us with one of Naipaul’s foremost novels.

Publishing history

First published by André Deutsch in 1967