The facts of September 11 have been so crushing, there has been little occasion as yet for the fiction. But at noon on November 1, members of the Manhattan Institute gathered in a burgundy chamber upstairs at the Harvard Club to lunch on Napoleon of chicken escalope and welcome Nobel Prize story spinner V. S. Naipaul.
In 1990, Naipaul gave a lecture at the institute on Muslim fury. Faced with Western prosperity, he said, the Muslim “can only utter a howl of rage and frustration.” It was a prophetic talk, Myron Magnet declared in his introduction at the club: “We recently heard that howl loud and clear not three miles from this spot.”
Naipaul is “the great global novelist,” Magnet extolled, who can help us come to terms with “a new world … where barbarism and fanaticism coexist with refinement and enlightenment.”
True to his persona, Sir Vidia seemed a tad put out by the task. He has a speech to give in Stockholm this month, after all, he grumbled. And “it isn’t as though I have spare things in my pocket … I’m drained.” But then, as Great Men do, Naipaul went to work. “This is a war declared by civilizations or people outside … who passionately want one thing” – he paused dramatically – “a green card.”
There was laughter as people perked up at the idea that behind the terrorists’ hatred lies nothing more than envy. Naipaul recounted how he had visited Iran just after the revolution and discovered “people wounding the thing they terribly admire.” Citizens of corrupt religious states like Iran and Afghanistan are not Arabs, he pronounced, and are therefore suffering from – his pet theory – “the great neurosis that comes with conversion.”
Naipaul, an outsider who calls traditional Western culture “our universal culture,” was especially welcome at the conservative think-tank. Even in far-off Trinidad, he elected Britain the center of the world, immigrated, and won his way to knighthood (without affirmative action!).
An angry voice in the audience spoke up: “Tony Blair said they were hijacking not just airplanes but also a religion. But hardly anyone has dared to say that there is something in their religion that brought this on.” Naipaul affirmed the centrality of jihad in Islam.
Then came a wrinkle: revision required. “Osama bin Laden and his followers really are Arab,” a man pointed out.
“That’s a new thing,” Naipaul snapped crossly. People waited for him to do something with this new thing, but he didn’t. Instead, he wrapped things up – the Great Man makes ambiguity his ally – and hustled out.
“I’m sure he’ll write another novel,” a woman commented wistfully. “About September 11 – with Arab characters.”