Naipaul, 69, a British novelist and essayist born in Trinidad to parents of Indian descent, started with the West Indian island as his first subject. He extended his writings to include India, Africa, "America from south to north,'' and the Islamic communities of Asia and England, according to the citation.
The 215-year-old Swedish Academy singled out his 1987 autobiographical novel, "The Enigma of Arrival,'' saying the author created an "unrelenting image of the placid collapse of the old colonial ruling culture and the demise of European neighborhoods.''
Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul left Trinidad at the age of 18, when he traveled to England to study at Oxford. Naipaul, whose other famous books include "A House for Mr. Biswas'' and "A Bend in the River,'' writes in English. In fiction and nonfiction, Naipaul described the upheaval of newly independent nations and the people who live with one foot in the remnants of their ancient culture and one in the culture of their colonial masters. "The history I carried with me, together with the self-awareness that had come with my education and ambition, had sent me into the world with a sense of glory dead,'' Naipaul wrote in "The Enigma of Arrival.''
Academy head Horace Engdahl reached the laureate after Naipaul's wife, Nadia Khannum Alvi, had to call him several times to get him to the phone at his home in Wiltshire, England. Engdahl described him as a strong individual "which we also think is one of his qualities.'' "He was very surprised and I don't think he was pretending. He was surprised because he feels that as a writer he doesn't represent anything but himself,'' Engdahl said.
Naipaul has the reputation of being a tough-minded, misanthropic man. He does not engage in such literary rituals as publishing parties. In "Sir Vidia's Shadow,'' a highly unflattering book published in 1998, former friend Paul Theroux wrote that "he elevated crankishness as the proof of his artistic temperament.''
The Nobel Literature Prize, first awarded to French author Sully Prudhomme in 1901, is worth $943,000 in this centennial year. Last year's winner was little-known exiled Chinese novelist and playwright Gao Xingjian, a French citizen. His award was denounced by the Chinese government as political. Italy's Dario Fo and Germany's Guenter Grass are other recent winners with strong political views.
Engdahl conceded that this year's choice also might be seen as political in the wake of terror attacks in the United States and the American reaction due to Naipaul's criticism of Muslim fundamentalism in non-Arab countries like Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia and Pakistan. "The present situation perhaps will make room for a more muted reaction,'' he said. "I don't think we will have violent protests from the Islamic countries and if they take the care to read his travel books from that part of the world they will realize that his view of Islam is a lot more nuanced.''
"What he's really attacking in Islam is a particular trait that it has in common with all cultures that conquerors bring along, that it tends to obliterate the preceding culture,'' he said.
The 18 lifetime members of the academy make the selection in deep secrecy at one of their weekly Thursday meetings and nominees are not publicly revealed for 50 years, leaving the literary world with only speculation about who might be in the running. Alfred Nobel, the Swedish industrialist and inventor of dynamite, offered only vague guidance about the prizes in his will, saying only the award should go to those who "shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind'' and "who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.'' The awards always are handed out on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel's death in 1896.
The Nobels started Monday with the naming of medicine prize winners, American Leland H. Hartwell and Britons Tim Hunt and Paul Nurse, for work on cell development that could lead to new cancer treatments.
The physics award went Tuesday to German scientist Wolfgang Ketterle and Americans Eric A. Cornell and Carl E. Wieman for creating a new state of matter, an ultra-cold gas known as Bose-Einstein condensate.
On Wednesday, the economics prize went to Americans George A. Akerlof, A. Michael Spence and Joseph E. Stiglitz for developing ways to measure the power of information in a wide range of deals and investments. On the same day, Americans K. Barry Sharpless and William S. Knowles shared the chemistry prize with Ryoji Noyori of Japan for showing how to better control chemical reactions used in producing medicines.
The peace prize is to be announced on Friday in Oslo, Norway.