Guerrillas is set in an historical moment; it is about the disaster of colonialism, or rather colonialism as disaster, unmitigated. We are in a post-colonial unnamed mixed-race Caribbean Island, probably Trinidad, Naipaul’s birthplace, sunk in such desuetude and exhaustion, it is difficult to see how it can have any functioning future. The Americans are raping the land, the locals are petty and corrupt, any political resistance is in disarray: there is no hope. The landscape reflects the life: polluted, drought-stricken, garbage-strewn etc. Into this tropical anti-paradise waltzes Roche, a failed South African revolutionary, and his girlfriend/mistress, Jane, an aimless upper-middle-class twit seeking excitement. The third in the ménage is Jimmy, another failed revolutionary but still having a go at it; he is, after all, a local. These three play off against one another in rising tension, physical and psychological.
The major figures are all men, save Jane, who is almost identical in character to the similarly placed female in the last novel of Naipaul’s I read: A Bend in the River. She is white, hypocritical, weak, sexually voracious, privileged, and seems to stand as a general symbol for the old colonial order. As such, she is an object of hate and destructive violence for those who feel disenfranchised by the colonial ‘experiment’. What happens to Jane, which is the climax of the novel, for this reader, is a case of objective symbolism merging into private misogyny, which extends throughout to a general misanthropy. There is not one likeable person in this book. Furthermore, it is plain that humans simply aren’t up to the task of managing themselves, either personally or publicly. The inevitable result is a sort of enervated chaos, with occasional outbursts of horrific violence. Nothing else seems possible, well certainly not in any post-colonial world, but Naipaul suggests that things aren’t much better in London either; the violence and chaos is masked and muted, that’s all.
It is all brilliantly done, particularly the evocation of place. Naipaul employs a dense descriptive prose, at times as suffocating as his story; the characters are complex and subtle, even if directionless. But the relentless pessimism and anger and hate, made me feel as if I was being harangued by a barroom crank, no room to disagree, and his smell lingers. The narrative methodically closes down possibilities, eventually excluding the reader.
All up, it is a very nasty tale told very well.