"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

January 5, 2013

"A Bend in the River" (1979) by V.S. Naipaul (Book Review)

V.S. Naipaul (1932) has been called "the finest contemporary writer of English prose fiction." Unaffected by literary fashion, he has wrought a style of his own, and in his later works he even transcends the borders between fiction and non-fiction. Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001, V.S. Naipaul was born in Trinidad from Indian parents; since his university years starting in 1950 he has been a resident of England, but he has also been a great traveler, to India and Pakistan, Southeast Asia, South America and Africa (starting in 1966 with a period as writer-in-residence at Kampala University in Uganda - see Sir Vidia's Shadow). To date, he has written 15 works of fiction and 19 works of non-fiction. As the Nobel Prize website puts it: "Naipaul is Conrad’s heir as the annalist of the destinies of empires in the moral sense: what they do to human beings. His authority as a narrator is grounded in his memory of what others have forgotten, the history of the vanquished."

Naipaul is very much a cosmopolitan writer, partly by necessity due to his lack of roots: his ancestors are Indian, but he feels alienated from that country; he was born in Trinidad in the Caribbean but is unhappy about the cultural poverty of the island; and in the U.K. he has embraced the language and the literature but remains aloof from the general society, living in a sort of retirement in a small village near Stonehenge.

A Bend in the River (1979) is considered as one of his greatest novels. It is set in central Africa, in the area described by Conrad in Heart of Darkness. Although unnamed, the town that features in the novel must be Kisangani (formerly called Stanleyville), and the river in which bend the town lies, is the Congo River. The novel is narrated by Salim, an Indian whose family had lived for generations on the East Coast of Africa. He has come to this other African country inland to be free from his family - and because of a business opportunity - Salim can take over a shop with stock.

So he does and we follow him as he settles as an outsider in the nameless town which shows the traces of willful destruction. During decolonization the population has vandalized the buildings put up by the colonists, but as nothing new has taken their place, the town is a ruin. The same is true for the whole country, which - as seems to be the fate of every country liberated from colonialism - is ruled with an iron hand by a dictator, the "Big Man," a character based on Mobutu, who in reality ruled the country that he renamed "Zaire" from 1971 to 1997.

Despite everything, there is a short-lived economic boom and Salim has success with his store. He also becomes involved with Yvette, the French wife of a scholar, Raymond, who in his turn has an ambiguous relation with the “Big Man.” But finally the emerging chaos in the larger political scene causes the renewed disintegration of the local economy, which is paralleled by the disintegration of Salim and Yvette’s relationship. Salim is an outsider, a rootless person, and he realizes he has no place in Africa: "The bush runs itself." Eventually he must give up everything.

A Bend in the River is not driven by a superficial plot, but floats on the stream of the thoughts of the narrator, about Africa, about history, about the corruption of mankind. Naipaul possesses a hard-edged sort of wit; his personal vision refuses to pay homage to political correctness on either side: he unflinchingly demonstrates the absurdity of life in a decolonized but dictatorial failed state, but also evades the cliff of nostalgia for colonialism. In the end the question for Salim and other uprooted people is: what is one's place in the world? "The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to be nothing, have no place in it."
I read the Vintage edition of the novel.