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'Who are the mimic men?' Or the crisis of identity in V.S. Naipaul's fiction.

   "... that we live in a place
   That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves
   And hard it is in spite of blazoned days.
   We are the mimics."

   Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction (1)

In 1962 in the novel The Middle Passage (commenting on Trinidad) V.S. Naipaul wrote that "Living in a borrowed culture, the West Indian, more than most, needs writers to tell him who he is and where he stands" (2) (68). His personal background (Indian ancestry, Trinidadian childhood, education and writing career in England) positions him close to "the heart of borrowed culture than at the brink of any new identity formations" (Mustafa 4). Naipaul often refers to the idea of 'borrowed' culture and mimicry as European, Asian and African cultures permeated the Caribbean world and his native Trinidad. Colonial mimicry becomes the desire "for a reformed, recognizable "Other" as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite" (Bhabha 86). Colonial subjects desire to appear as real and authentic by means of mimicry yet they repeat the existing, rather than produce the creative and new. Homi Bhabha argues that writing as a mode of representation mocks its power to be real and representational, "the desire to emerge as authentic through mimicry--through a process of writing and repetition--is the final irony of partial representation" (88). Originality gets lost in the process of imitation and what is left, according to Bhabha, is "the trace, the impure, the artificial, the second-hand" (3) (Beya 1).

Naipaul's own identity as a writer ceased to be defined just as "a regional writer": "I've been breaking away from that tag all my life ... It's all the things I reject. It's not me" (4) (108). Naipaul's closeness to the English tradition is not a sign of betrayal of his culture and background but rather a self-discovery and self-invention. Being rootless and displaced, Naipaul was offered a new insight into himself through writing, as he was taking imaginary leaves and returns in his journey: "To become a writer, ... I had thought it necessary to leave. Actually to write, it was necessary to go back. It was the beginning of self-knowledge" (5) (47). The characters of his novels often attempt to "discover themselves" by writing, struggling to find a self-definition and a belonging in the chaotic world of social and political changes. The goal of this essay is to examine the theme of mimicry and its forms of individual identities in V.S. Naipaul's novels The Mystic Masseur (1957) and The Mimic Men (1967). One of the aims is to explore whether mimicry is a casual choice, necessity or a means of survival for the characters; does mimicry imply a simulation of self-discovery and therefore self-annihilation? Can the characters create or just imitate, living in the illusion of 'reality'?

V.S. Naipaul's sensibility as a colonial is revealed in the theme of identity and its various transformations. His protagonists often accommodate themselves in the hostile environments or societies to "which their authentic identity is perpetually opposed" (Anderson 510). They do not necessarily find their true self, but rather adopt a role they perform in society. Erving Goffman (6) differentiates the performed and the real identity: a person who appears in front of others "knowingly and unwittingly projects a definition of the situation, of which a conception of himself is an important part" (213). Therefore, the individual will play the role he is assigned to rather than be his authentic self. Often the reason for the role-playing is the lack of choices or even the basic survival skill.

The character of The Mystic Masseur, Ganesh, is a chameleon who does not play imposter for the sake of survival but for the financial security and profit. From the school days, he is not comfortable with his identity as he prefers being called Ganesh rather than by his Indian name: "He was so ashamed of his Indian name that for a while he spread a story that he was really called Gareth" (Naipaul 13). Ganesh tries to pursue a teaching career in the school system where the motto is: "what is the purpose of the school? Form not inform" (Naipaul 16). School prepares young Trinidadians to be imitators, to form a resemblance with the authentic. Ganesh changed from being a school teacher to a 'successful' politician, rejecting his identity of Hindu and allying with the other tricksters (his name appears on the list as an honor member of British Empire). Irony permeates that his success can only happen in a third-world island: "Although its politicians have taken to calling it a country, Trinidad is a small island" (Naipaul Preface 4). He becomes almost a 'hero' for the displaced postcolonial Trinidad as the novel traces his career evolution from his autobiography The Years of Guilt, his masseur-healer role, his publishing business and political campaign, and finally to his status as G.R. Muir, Esq. In his acting for identity, Ganesh "has become the supreme mimic man" (Mann 470).

From the beginning of the novel, Ganesh, according to his biographer-narrator appears as an absolute fake: "Later he was to be famous and honored throughout the South Caribbean; he was to be a hero of the people and after that, a British representative at Lake Success. But when I first met him he was still a struggling masseur ..." (Naipaul 5). His transformation from a masseur to a hero is comic and absurd as the society itself that makes him a hero. The narrator implies people's preference of trickery and fraud to authenticity: "in those days people went by preference to the unqualified masseur or the quack dentist" (Naipaul 5). Ganesh thanks the power of providence for his success yet the narrator reveals the 'real' scheming: "I had always ... considered it as settled.... It all seemed preordained" (Naipaul 33). His marriage to Leela and later a writing career are not a coincidence or a blessing but a preplanned scheme. The mix of standard English and dialect intensifies the irony of real and false in the dialogue between Ganesh and Leela: " 'As you say, man.' 'Good. Let me see now. Ah, yes Leela, have you lighted the fire?' 'No, just gimme a chance. Is 'lighted' or 'lit', girl?' 'Look, ease me up, man. The smoke going in my eye.' 'You ain't paying attention, girl. You mean the smoke is going in your eye'" (Naipaul 57). By imitating the speech and actions of the English, Ganesh along with other characters "journey[s] down an illusory 'road to whiteness'" (Naipaul 66). He is what Bhabba calls the "effect of flawed colonial mimesis" as being Anglicized does not mean being English (87).

Becoming a healer (another scheme he undertakes) he places an advertisement in the newspaper: "WHO IS THIS GANESH?" (Naipaul 92). When his first client, a boy with the dark cloud appears, Ganesh treats him with smoke and mirrors--another fake of reality (96-105). Ironically, he gains popularity of other healers who "were nearly all fakes ... Every obeah-man was quick enough to call himself a mystic, but the people of Trinidad knew that Ganesh was the only true mystic in the island" (Naipaul 107). As he claims his success to God and fate, "Providence indeed seemed to have guided Ganesh. Just as it told him when to take up mysticism, so it told him when to give it up" (Naipaul 159).

When Ganesh takes up writing and publishes a few books on religion, he complains that "people want a book that look big. Once it look big they think it good" (Naipaul 83). "In exposing the public's illiteracy, he [Ganesh] unwittingly reveals his own hypocrisy and the pretentiousness of his status as scholar" (Mann 471). The narrator continues exposing the phony nature of Ganesh's political success: "He fought the cleanest election campaign in Trinidad history. He had no platform" (Naipaul 154); or the time Ganesh is cheated by Ramlogan in the taxi venture as "the business Man of God," in reality he "didn't have the business mind. In fact, he despised it" (Naipaul 117). In time Ganesh's fame as a "mock-hero" grows when he becomes the "most popular man in Trinidad" and "a terror in the Legislative Council" (Naipaul 164-165). Yet his popularity is the result of bribes and favors he does for others, just as his start of a protest with a walkout (165).

The novel criticizes not only Ganesh's imitation of identity but a society of Trinidad, which is not ready for social and economic changes, it turns to "trickery and to imitation of Europe and America" (Mann 471). Ganesh's life and a wide range of careers is a metaphor for what the narrator calls "the history of our times" (11) where fraud and phony identity are an essential part of countries like Trinidad. Similarly to the Hindu elephant God, Ganesa, (7) known for his gluttony, Naipaul's protagonist is 'hungry' for both fame and financial stability, he defrauds others in various schemes to gain profit and 'popularity' for himself. As Ganesh's wealth grows, his wife Leela mimicks the Western ladies of leisure in her dress, jewelry, need for a holiday (108) and even charitable work: "Every day Leela became more refined. She came back with expensive saris and much heavy jewelry. But the most important change was in her English. She used a private accent which softened all harsh vowel sounds; her grammar owed nothing to anybody ..." (Naipaul 119).

The settings and landscape often intensified the disintegration of identities of Trinidadians and their need for imitation: Beharry keeps his books in a rundown shop, with "dingy distemper flaking off the walls" (Naipaul 6); Ramlogan attempts to modernize his shop and win Ganesh as a future son-in-law by modern gifts "The most spectacular of these was the introduction of a new glass case. It was given pride of place in the middle of the counter; it was so bright and clean it looked out of place" (Naipaul 25). These items "dramatize the confusion of origins and loyalties, customs and aspirations, which is the setting of Ganesh's success" (White 65). Ganesh himself owns fifteen hundred books, half of which he never read, he wears Hindu clothes to practice his mysticism, preferring European clothes on his days off, his house is decorated with Hindu sculptures outside, yet he has a refrigerator full of Coca-Cola.

Ganesh, according to Mann, is the most challenging character, who combines "East and West, spiritual and secular, orthodox and modern, conservative and revolutionary to his advantage" (474). For instance, during his wedding, he refuses food till he gets a substantial dowry from Leela's father; or later he uses his spirituality for the business ventures and becomes the member of the Legislative council. By the end of the novel, he transforms from Ganesh to G.R. Muir, Esq., therefore rejecting his identity and Hindu ancestry that helped him succeed in the mystic business. Ganesh is what life and others make him to be: "We never are what we want to be, ... but what we must be" (Naipaul 55). He performs the roles of a masseur, a mystic, a writer and a politician and "falls easily into mimicry and fraud, which he accepts as the human condition" (Mann 474). Yet despite his frauds, his life (with a few positive exceptions; for instance, when he exposes the government scandals, helps the poor) offers a fantasy of success for the islanders. Mann argues that the narrator himself relies on Ganesh's writing as a source of information "to reconstruct imaginatively scenes and dialogues involving a host of characters he has hardly set eyes upon or never met" (476). The narrator is fascinated by Ganesh and his fakery which leads to writing his biography. The writer (along with his character and the narrator) becomes the illusionist, in mimicking the reality he begins "with very vague ideas ... and the act of writing, or devising a story or form, is such an artificial thing: you have to woo life into this artificial thing--which doesn't even exist" (8) (Naipaul 721).

The Mimic Men continues to explore the subject of mimicry as the protagonist assumes his identities in "the society that goes from colonialism to formal independence" (Cudjoe 92). It is a story of a forty year old postcolonial politician, Ralph Singh, living in exile in London suburbs and writing memoirs to "clarify and order his life and to repair his abiding sense of loss and inauthenticity" (McSweeney 162). He attempts to grasp the past and present, the life of London and the colonial world of Isabella, examining why his journey to self-discovery ends in "the greater shipwreck that had come to me already" (Naipaul 214). The novel opens with the protagonist looking out the window on the life of London streets. The window is a "symbolic proscenium through which Singh enters the theatrical space of his past" (Lindroth 519). His writing by the window is not only a sign of his being an artist but it becomes a "miniature stage" for his performance. Singh's intentions to write a book change with his life, and the writing itself becomes his "existence, mimicry of a life, mimicry of a writer's life" (King 74). Resembling Ganesh, Ralph Singh plays roles of a student, a lover, a politician and a writer. James Lindoth suggests that above all stands the figure of Singh's father, Gurudeva, whose creation of "a meta-theater defines and refines the figure of Ralph as secular performer" (519).

Similar to a number of characters from the earlier novel, Ralph Singh is in the search for belonging, being a "castaway" in between two worlds. His only "real hope for finding the security ... would appear to lie in his Hindu background" (Thieme 514), which he attempts to reject. In school he changes his name from Ranjit Kripalsingh to a new 'stage' one--Ralph Singh. Later he gains political success due to his Hindu background, being a son of a rebel (similarly to Ganesh from The Mystic Masseur). His new name is very significant to him as he can impress teachers and friends, it also masks both his "secret name and private self" that helps him to avoid torment and ridicule of his fellow students. Ralph experiences fear by losing his racial and cultural identity which leads him to "attitudes of superiority, ... a dandyism, and the cultivation of disdain for that which is flawed and imperfect" (King 72). He feels "contaminated" by his Hindu past, yearning for the ideal Aryan past, which is just a part of his idealism. However, his "Hindu self proves inescapable" (Thieme 516) and his origins remain with him throughout his political career: as people begin to listen to him and regard him as a leader, his "dream of Aryan chieftaincy" is 'almost achieved' (Thieme 516). When the people call for his protection, he refuses to lead them, "distancing the actual world" (King 70) as "'something in the book'" (Naipaul 241 qtd. in King 70).

Ralph Singh decides to follow a Sartrean concept that "it was up to me to choose my character" (Naipaul 20 qtd. in King 69) as his life becomes a play-acting. In each special context (whether it is school or his hotel) Singh puts on a dramatic performance in front of his audience: "'There was competition to serve'; says Singh to the group of political players who from round himself and Browne, 'and among these helpers there was, as we knew, murder in the wings'" (Naipaul 233). A typical politician, he manipulates rhetoric knowing when to joke and when to "abolish[ed] the past" (Naipaul 236). He uses theatrical techniques "to figure himself as the star performer in political events on Isabella" (Lindroth 520): "So we brought drama of a sort to the island. I will claim this as one of our achievements. Drama, however much we fear it, sharpens our perception of the world, gives us some sense of ourselves, makes us actors, gives point and sometimes glory to each day. It alters a drab landscape" (Naipaul 256). His recollection of bloodshed is very general and blurred without any details of the assaults and the injured. Singh pictures himself as a heroic prisoner of the war, just as he saw on the picture of a man, who was "blindfolded, on his knees, far from home ... this central figure had seemed to me ... heroic and very private" (Naipaul 288). He admits later in his memoirs his playing a role of a politician is not his vocation and ends as a fiasco: "I believe I have also established, ... his unsuitability for the role into which he was drawn, and his inevitable failure. From playacting to disorder: it is the pattern" (Naipaul 220). Singh refers to the political collapse on Isabella he and Browne attempt to prevent: "We had created drama. I had already seen Browne, as black folk-leader ... But by returning, by putting myself at the passive center of events, by being the dandy, the picturesque Asiatic, I gave direction of a sort to the struggle" (Naipaul 286). He constructs a different role, that of a dandy, who is responsible for the events leading to the strife on Isabella: "the persona of the dandy allows for the protection of the secret self" (Lindroth 521).

Ralph Singh adjusts to the new self in his personal relationship with Sandra, whom he marries and later Lady Stella, with whom he has a brief encounter. In his relationship with Sandra, he becomes a heroic movie star, with the mysterious life and past. As their marriage is over, he continues to dramatize the break-up: "For me it was a moment of another type of drama: the aeroplane the cinematic symbol: Bogart in Casablanca, macintoshed, alone on the tarmac, the Dakota taking off into the night" (Naipaul 219). In a different scene where he walks around the empty house, he still performs a role, touching Sandra's things in a theatrical gesture: "I knew that the gesture, however self-regarding and theatrical, of handling Sandra's abandoned shoes and dresses, yet held something of truth: as that other gesture, in London of the magical light, on the day of my first snow, of holding the creased photograph of an unknown girl ..." (Naipaul 220). Singh tries to assert his identity in the past and "through a deft rhetorical maneuver confirms the validity of his present performance as writer" (Lindroth 522).

In the beginning of the relationship with Ralph, Sandra herself plays various roles, modeling her speech and behavior after someone from "one of Bernard Shaw's plays" (Naipaul 50-51). She draws Ralph into her staged act, as he later admits that "no one had a greater capacity for occasions" (Naipaul 53). Quite unexpected is her demand for the marriage proposal, that years afterwards Ralph explains as being fallen under an actress's spell: "I suppose that if the idea had been put to me as a plea rather than as an order, if there had been the slightest suggestion that it issued from uncertainty rather than firmness and lucidity, I might have reacted otherwise" (Naipaul 55-56). Her sexuality, which she exposes to her audience, is alluring and tempting; however, it is frightening to Ralph who takes an 'escape' from his new wife after the ceremony: "... I thought of myself. I stood away from the pensive figure and considered him and his recent, terrible adventure" (Naipaul 59). If Sandra fulfills a role of a seductive actress, making Ralph play a hero, Lady Stella, quite opposite, reduces him to the level of childish innocence from The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book, that he "read, as I had been directed, as a child ... And soon I was saddened, but pleasurably, not only by the loss ... but by that limpid, direct vision of the world, neither of which had been mine, neither vision, of delight nor world, of order" (Naipaul 275). Lady Stella also 'plays' Ralph according to her game plan and when it fails, the role of the lover is dismissed: "No relationship, especially a play-relationship like ours, recovers from such a failure" (Naipaul 277).

Ralph's father sets an example for his son influencing him as an imitator. At one time of his life, Gurudeva also begins to play the role from The Missionary Martyr of Isabella which Ralph discovers in his father's books: "All of him was hidden except for his white turban, which the sun caught and turned to dazzle; and she thought then she saw an angel flying in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting Gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth" (Naipaul 106). His father is very effective in his choice of costume to create drama in front of the audience. Later in life he continues to assert his identity under various masks. Shamed by his father's insecurity and distress (he leaves his family for the political fame), Ralph tries to be a part of his mother's family, which becomes rich by bottling Coca-Cola. As a result, his father takes out his anger on the shop where the drink is sold: "He broke ninety-six bottles in all, four full cases, breaking one bottle after another, methodically, as though he had been paid to do it; he didn't just lift a Coca-Cola case and smash it on the floor" (Naipaul 125). The destruction of Coca-Cola makes him a 'celebrity,' a 'hero' similarly to Ganesh in the eyes of the people: "He, who before had kept himself to himself, now had no hesitation in asking a street idler to help him mend a bicycle puncture or dig the garden. It was astonishing how readily he got the help he asked for" (Naipaul 126). This new role gives him power over others now he seems to control. It includes his own family which he decides to take for a Sunday drive: he is living a new role he is completely submerged in. The family experience ends in a disaster due to Gurudeva's recklessness as the car rolls down and stops "slightly on its side" (Naipaul 147).

The next transformation Gurudeva undergoes is his role as a guerilla leader as he leaves his job in an education department to organize a strike of dock workers who follow him into the woods. As "the riots and burnings" take place on Isabella, Gurudeva offers people "disorder and drama" (Naipaul154). Ralph becomes a part of his father's drama, acquiring a role of "the son of the leader suddenly found" (Naipaul 157). Soon the drama wears itself out on Isabella as workers end their strike and move to town. Ralph's father has to find another role to play, another mask of self-failure. It happens before the Christmas horse racing when he steals the horse and performs a sacrifice (Naipaul 167). A fire of "sugar, pitchpine, butter and coconut" shocks the audience: "Primitive, bestial, degraded: those were some of the words used. ... I shared their horror" (Naipaul 167, 169). The horse sacrifice in his father's mind represents the victory "to celebrate the expulsion of the Greeks from Aryavarta, the Aryan land" (Naipaul 169).

Ralph, in the acts of self-dramatization, puts on various identities: he has been a "dandy and a poseur" in his college days, a politician who fails people's needs, a "householder who has failed to put down roots in any of the numerous houses he occupies" (Thieme 517). In reality, Ralph Singh's life has never been 'real'; he has always imitated various roles as "the world I was born in was never real" (Naipaul 271). He is one of the "mimic men" of the New World "who pretended to be real, to be learning, to be preparing ... for life" (Naipaul 175). Ralph Singh wishes to "have cleared the decks, and ... prepared myself for fresh action" (Naipaul 300), positioning himself as a "free man," however, he is a "self-deceived ... fraud" (Thieme 517). He lacks "identity and authenticity, [that] leads to his posturing, dandyism and flights into exile" (King 78). The writing of memoirs is nothing more than artificial sense of reality and experience as his journey to the self-discovery leaves him annihilated and dispossessed.

In his novels, Naipaul explores the power of colonial mimicry that destroys people's past and defrauds them of their identities. "To mimic, one needs a mirror, ... our pantomime is conducted before a projection of ourselves which in its smallest gesture is based on metropolitan references" (Walcott 6). Every act, gesture and word become uncreative and lack authenticity as people are reduced to the level of colonial parrots. Mimicry offers these characters a chance to grasp at their aspirations, yet the feeling of achievement is false. Jacques Lacan (9) states that mimicry is "like camouflage, not a question of harmonizing with the background, but against the mottled background, of becoming mottled ..." (85). As chameleons, the characters attempt to adapt to the external, often hostile environment, creating a new idea of self. Animals use mimicry as a camouflage, a defense and a lure. Do men in a postcolonial world need mimicry to survive and preserve themselves? A number of characters, such as Ganesh, Ralph Singh and many others have entered the 'mirror,' "where there can only be simulations of self-discovery" (Walcott 7). The mimic men of the New World have no other choices but self-annihilation, migration and exile.

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Irina Strout

University of Tulsa

United States of America

(1) Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems. New York: A. Knopf, 1954.

(2) Naipaul, V.S. "Trinidad" ,in The Middle Passage: Impressions of Five Societies--British, French and Dutch--in the West Indies and South America (New York: Vintage,1981): 68.

(3) See Beya, Abdennebi Ben. "Mimicry, Ambivalence and Hybridity". Postcolonial Studies Reader at Emory. 1998. <>.

(4) See Michener, Charles. "The Dark Visions of V.S. Naipaul." Newsweek 98 (November 16, 1981): 108.

(5) Naipaul, V.S. Finding the Center: Two Narratives. (New York: A. Knopf, 1984): 34.

(6) Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London, Garden City, NY, 1969.

(7) For names and their meaning, see Danielou, Alain. Hindu Polytheism. Bollingen Series 73 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1961): 291-97.

(8) See Henry, Jim Douglas. "Unfurnished Entrails--the Novelist V.S. Naipaul in Conversations with Jim Douglas Henry," The Listener 25 (November 25, 1971): 721.

(9) Lacan, Jacques. "The Line and the Light." See Bhabha, Homi. "Of Mimicry and Man: the Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse." The Location of Culture (New York and London: Routledge, 1994): 85, 90.
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Title Annotation:Essays/Ensayos
Author:Strout, Irina
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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