Sir Vidia's Shadow

by Paul Theroux

Published by Houghton Mifflin

288 pages, 1998

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A Voyeur's Look at Vidia

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


My best friend through late childhood and adolescence was a girl called Penny. We shared our dreams and ambitions. We were inseparable at school and during holidays. We burned up the phone lines when we were apart. We were best friends.

In our late teens our lives separated, as they must. I suppose I saw this as a natural widening of lives: we were going our own ways, I thought, but I couldn't then imagine a time when she wouldn't play a part in some aspect of my life.

In our mid-20s I felt a shift: one that I didn't like. There was a new coldness in my friend when I saw her. And, though inexplicable to me, I felt her pushing me out of the small spot that I still held in her life. I fought this push in an instinctual sort of way, to no avail: especially since I didn't really understand what was happening. She appeared unannounced at my door one evening and asked to speak with me.

"I guess you've noticed how I've been acting." I told her that I had. "I just can't be friends with you anymore." In a discussion that would last several hours, she told me that our friendship had become unbearable to her. "Everything has always been so easy for you," it hadn't, but that was her perception. What else mattered? She told me that she had been eaten alive by my successes -- paltry as they were at 25 -- and consumed with jealousy over the good things in my life. That this was unfathomable to me made no difference. Nor did the fact that I'd always admired her and the things she accomplished, the things she'd overcome.

We parted with a hug, but we parted and no future attempts of mine to see her or mend whatever bridge she felt she'd burned met with any success.

I thought of Penny and what her friendship -- and its loss -- meant to me while I was reading Sir Vidia's Shadow. It is perhaps ridiculous to compare the friendship of two young girls with that of two of the finest literary talents of our age, but the ghosts came back nonetheless. Friendship, at its very essence, is not so different for any of us. As Paul Theroux writes in Sir Vidia's Shadow:

At its most profound, friendship is not a hearty, matey celebration of linked arms and vigorous toasts; it is, rather, a solemn understanding that is hardly ever discussed. Friends rarely use the word "friendship" and seldom speak of how they are linked. There is a sort of trust that is offered by very few people; there are favors very few can grant: such instances are the test of friendship.

At its heart, then, Sir Vidia's Shadow is about friendship: how it takes root, blossoms and -- in the case of Theroux -- comes to fruit. It is also about the loss of friendship and how such a loss can affect the human heart: or so I think after reading Sir Vidia's Shadow.

I think other things as well. I think that sometimes deep and public reflection -- such as the publication of a book -- should be undertaken after the heat has worn off and the wounds have had time to heal. Sometimes Theroux's pain is so close it's almost a tangible thing and the objectivity that would make this an important work -- a "Major work" -- is some years distant. Too late: because the book is here now.

Sir Vidia's Shadow is the non-fiction account of Paul Theroux's 30 year friendship with the writer V.S. Naipaul: a friendship that came to an end just a few years ago. We are given an intimate look at this friendship: sometimes too intimate. Did I really want to know about Theroux's fantasies regarding Lady Antonia Fraser? Did I really need to know that Theroux once lusted for Vidia's first wife? Was it required that I know about the publicist Naipaul brought to tears in Portland, Oregon? We learn more: that Naipaul never picked up the check. That he was prone to public tantrums. That he was an overly-fastidious eater. That he once refused to sleep on his bed after a workman had "defiled" it by sitting on it. That... well, you get the point: in the 357 hardcover pages there is plenty of room for humiliating anecdotes.

This is not to say that Sir Vidia's Shadow is Theroux's public trashing of his old friend: it's not. There is much that is good in this book. Much, in fact, that is wonderful. But, at this point, no one will contest Paul Theroux's ability to write and write well. His travel books are seminal: The Great Railway Bazaar, Riding the Iron Rooster and others have brought faraway places into sharp focus for a generation of readers. His novels, including The Mosquito Coast, Girls at Play, Sinning with Annie and 19 others have received more than their share of literary awards and reviewer's praise. Theroux writes with compassion and conviction and a rare gift for seeing what, for most of us, is largely unseeable.

That Theroux should, at this late date, turn his immense talent on his old friend and mentor is somewhat unthinkable to me. Much of the book leaves one with the feeling of peering in on a thought or a conversation or a life where one hasn't been invited. It's a deeply personal essay and not -- one gets the feeling -- entirely without motivation. Theroux never says, "You see, Vidia: this is what I thought of you. This is what I think!" But the words are, nonetheless, not that far away.

A safari was not a hunting trip but any long journey upcountry. "He's on safari," people said when someone was out of town. But for our safari Vidia was kitted out like a hunter or a soldier: bush hat, bush shirt, thorn-proof khakis, and a stout walking stick that doubled as a club, should he wish to disable or brain an attacker. He wore heavy, thick-soled shoes that he called veldshoen, an Afrikaans word meaning skin shoes. Though he had a purposeful, marching way of walking, what wrecked this attempt to seem soldierly was his small size, his delicate hands, his tiny wrists. He had bought an expensive camera at a discount from an Indian shopkeeper in town. He wore it as an accessory, a big thing thumping on his chest or smacking his hip as he strode along. With his downturned hat brim and his downturned mouth and the way he sweated in these heavy clothes in the Ugandan hot season, Vidia appeared conspicuous and comic.

While Vidia is often portrayed as "conspicuous and comic" the part Naipaul played in Theroux's own career is not minimized. It is easy to imagine, if one believes the story as told, Theroux living out his life as a teacher at a backwater African university. Naipaul nurtured and encouraged the younger writer, introducing him not only to his publisher, but also to his uncompromising respect for the written word.

He had believed in me. He had talked a bout how in writing you served an apprenticeship. He said we were freer than any writers had been in the past. "We are free from dogma, religious and political freedom. Use that freedom." I remembered many times that he had peered into my face ("a man's life is in his face") or traced my palm and said, "You're going to be all right, Paul." What did he see?

Sir Vidia's Shadow is a fascinating account of one man's view of a long and ultimately doomed friendship. It is pure Theroux: beautifully paced. Elegantly crafted. I only wish he'd waited: it seems to me there might be some words here he'll live to regret. | February 1999


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of Death Was in the Picture.