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An effect of the realism of Naipaul’s writing style is that his portraits of individuals, e.g., Simon, manager of the company in Zaire, appear so unvarnished.
Rather than being a dismissal of non-Europeans, “barbarian” draws on an historical parallel to characterize the ambiguous status of the inhabitants of the former imperial possessions.
, Naipaul’s 1967 novel, was the first fictional exploration of the problematic assimilation of a former colonial society, the fictional Caribbean island of Isabella, to the institutions and ideology of the London imperial center.
Living in a no-man’s land of the soul, their relation to the West was that of “mimic men.” Thus Simon (in the 1975 essay “A New King for the Congo”), manager of a nationalized company in the former Zaire, who had “a background of the bush”: It is with people like Simon, educated, moneymaking, that the visitor feels himself in the presence of vulnerability, dumbness, danger.
Because their resentments, which appear to contradict their ambitions, and which they can never satisfactorily explain, can at any time be converted into a wish to wipe out and undo, an African nihilism, the rage of primitive men coming to themselves and finding that they have been fooled and affronted.
The reference to “Malays” at the end of that passage might alert a careful reader that Britain’s former colonial possessions are meant here, standing to London as once had stood the peoples on the periphery of the Roman world to its great capital city.
If London before World War II represented the center of the civilized world, its imperium consisted, in the same sense, of numerous barbarians (as the Greeks had referred to surrounding peoples, ignorant of Greek customs), unable to speak the mother language (or spoke it poorly) or understand its customs, but who were nonetheless expected to pay tribute to the center’s institutions.
His critics simply could not get past its present connotations, which, besides the contrast to “civilized,” suggest depravity and evil.
The word appears in context in Cities like London were to change.
Again, Naipaul resorted to an historical analogy, drawing on the Western literary tradition, especially the , with London being textually associated with Rome.
And, yet, while the destructive symbiosis described in the novel makes abundant use of classical allusions, they are multivalent and serve as sardonic or ironic commentary on the inadequacies or instability of the center’s professed ideals.