Review: Beyond Belief

Beyond Belief
Beyond Belief
V. S. Naipaul
Random House, Inc., New York, 1998

Review Copyright © 1998 Garret Wilson — September 19, 1998, 7:30pm

V. S. Naipaul claims in Beyond Belief that his work is "not a book of opinion," but "a book of stories." This is not exactly true; Naipaul might better have stated that it is "not a book about opinions," because, as each of us knows, a book of stories often inherently includes the opinions of the author. Beyond Belief is no different: while telling the stories of his encounters with Muslims in non-Arab Islamic countries around the world (Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, and Malaysia, in that order), Naipaul’s opinions of the laws and conditions of these countries shine through.

But Beyond Belief is definitely not about opinions — it is truly a book of stories. If your opinions are close to those of Naipaul’s (what westerner would not be appalled about helicopters hunting for satellite dishes bringing religiously incorrect material to homes in post-revolutionary Iran?), you’ll soon see that Naipaul has a flair for presenting details of his excursions in a way that will seemingly place you inside his head. It is as if the reader has suddenly become the author, not only seeing everything he does, but thinking, wondering, assuming, and making the same mistakes.

Naipaul therefore goes beyond what he sees, explaining what thinks. What might be. A bound book on the study of a zealous Muslim: is that a commentary on the Koran, perhaps? A library of books: are these the same books that were setting on the shelves of the library in Iran, which might have been the same books on the desk of the Muslim previously visited? These are simple assumptions, and although they at first appear to be the product of an author wanting to tell more than he knows, this tendency quickly is shown to be a technique for putting the reader in the author’s place.

The technique V. S. Naipaul uses during his travels, if I interpreted the few references to this correctly, is to experience an event, take little or no notes, and then afterwards write everything down, after arriving at a hotel, at a home, or back at the "home base" city or village the next day. The author must have quite a memory if this is an accurate representation of his modus operandi — the details one gets are numerous and reasonably intricate.

Naipaul not puts the reader in the author’s place by giving events their proper perspective, he also furthers the experience by putting the events in their proper location in time. If Naipaul made a false assumption at the beginning of a trip (to assume that a certain person will not be at a certain location after the author’s being extremely late, for example), he will allow the reader to make the same assumption for the time being. If this person is (surprise!) still waiting after such a long time, you might not find that out until Naipaul actually reaches that person’s home, for example. This further helps to put the reader in the author’s shoes.

Towards the end of the book, some of the events gave me the impression of "more of the same." Even though each country exhibited Islam in a unique way, it was easy to feel as if the later chapter had already been read, or were maybe just reworded. Perhaps this is due to the similarities of different countries under the same religion. Perhaps it is from traveling to different countries with the same author.

Don’t expect Beyond Belief to be a perfect work of literature, though. Naipaul’s several attempts at literary novelty did not strike me as extremely successful. His end-of-chapter reflections on the scenery in Iran in particular did not impress me and seemed superfluous. Likewise, imagining a certain set of gates to be the ones through which execution victims were hauled, and then referring to these gates in later instances as if its use had been factually established, seemed less than perfect. ("In [the wall] were high, blue gates, through which non doubt, after the revolution, the trucks came out at night with the bodies of the executed," (188), and then, "People were being killed all the time in Evin Prison and trucks were taking away the bodies through the blue gates at night" (200).) Nevertheless, the other technique found here, that of repeating points made and facts discovered earlier in the book, helped both to bring the stories to life and to fix again in the reader’s mind earlier encounters.

In short, Beyond Belief is a wonderful way to visit the "converted" Islamic countries — those non-Arabic countries that have adopted Islam. The book allows you to be virtual visitor with V. S. Naipaul on his second trip to these sites as he renews acquaintances and meets new people. And though Naipaul’s personal beliefs sometimes shine through, you’ll see both how Islam has changed the lives of the people, and how the people have changed the faces of Islam. That’s what this book is really about.