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Sir Vidia Takes on Politics

Nobel Prize Laureate V.S. Naipaul

I have just finished reading V.S. Naipaul’s sixth novel, The Mimic Men (1967)—a semi-autobiographical work about what it is like to win fame and renown while coming from a place like the island of Trinidad, which he calls Isabella in the book. About fifty pages in, I came across his musings on politics and politicians, which I excerpt here:

Politicians are people who truly make something out of nothing. They have few concrete gifts to offer. They are not engineers or artists or makers. They are manipulators; they offer themselves as manipulators. Having no gifts to offer, they seldom know what they seek. They might say they seek power. But their definition of power is vague and unreliable. Is power the chauffeured limousine with fine white linen on the seats, the men from Special Branch outside the gates, the skilled and deferential servants? But this is only indulgence, which might be purchased by anyone at any time in a first-class hotel. Is it the power to bully or humiliate or take revenge? But this is the briefest sort of power; it goes as quickly as it comes; and the true politician is by his nature a man who wishes to play the game all his life. The politician is more than a man with a cause, even when this cause is no more than self-advancement. He is driven by some little hurt, some little incompleteness. He is seeking to exercise some skill which even to him is never as concrete as the skill of the engineer; of the true nature of this skill he is not aware until he begins to exercise it. How often we find those who after years of struggle and manipulation come close to the position they crave, sometimes indeed achieving it, and then are failures. They do not deserve pity, for among the aspirants to power they are complete men; it will be found that they have sought and achieved fulfilment elsewhere; it takes a world war to rescue a Churchill from political failure. Whereas the true politician finds his skill and his completeness only in success. His gifts suddenly come to him. He who in other days was mean, intemperate and infirm now reveals unsuspected qualities of generosity, moderation and swift brutality. Power alone proves the politician; it is ingenuous to express surprise at an unexpected failure or an unexpected flowering.

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