Naipaul's Narrative of Decay

The final reading of our final reading (“The Circus at Luxor”) takes the audience on a temporal journey. Naipaul’s experience in Egypt can’t shake the ghosts of the past—the narrative is shot through with historical references and reflections: “the Museum was still haunted by Egyptian guides possessing only native knowledge… there was a reminder of the wars that had come with the revolution… extravagant columns, ancient in ancient times… they were giving me the room they used to give the Aga Khan… bright visions of the past” (241-2).

It’s in this context that Naipaul asks us to consider the action of the story: 1. Witnessing and spectating the circus travelers while being tourists themselves (not performers) and 2. Witnessing and intervening in an instance of abuse between security guards and Egyptian beggar children. As it relates to the latter, Naipaul is at the center of an ethical conundrum, one he tries to solve by interrupting and chastising the security guard. The problem here, though, is that the security guard is playing the “Egyptian game with Egyptian rules” (243). The security guard is doing his job just as the children are doing there’s—both are surviving in this new world of international capitalism and tourism. The guilty party could be the participants in the game, the security guard or the children. Or the Italian tourists who throw food to them as you would birds or fish. Or perhaps the other tourists who look onward when impoverished and hungry children risk their well-being for scraps of food. The whole episode has a very passive feel to it. Naipaul is unable to help the children, even after he shouts at the security guard and threatens to “report” him. All he can do is document the world that he sees and comment on it. Everyone then, even artists, are transfixed/paralyzed as “another, more remote empire was announcing itself” (247).

While the past suffuses Naipaul’s description and commentary of his journal entry, the final section offers another temporality: the future. Naipaul can’t square a nostalgic primitivism, a pre-modern utopic vision of the Egyptian cradle of civilization with what he experiences. The essay then abruptly moves to a train and the soldiers on the train who would (“seventeen months later”) “know total defeat in the desert” (247). As Naipaul collapses time here, he brings into perspective the changes that a wide view can bring to bear on a particular place. This view ultimately clashes with the very human, particular experience he communicates in the pages before. The past is a vision of connection with the land; the present a vision of unethical global capitalism and vapid tourism; the future is a vision of destruction. Ultimately Naipaul establishes a clear narrative of decay, one that is decidedly anti-modern.