History: This is 1979 novel by a Nobel laureate.
Plot: Set in an unnamed African country after independence, the book is narrated by Salim, an ethnically Indian Muslim and a shopkeeper in a small, growing city in the country's remote interior. Though born and raised in another country in a more cosmopolitan city on the coast during the colonial period, as neither European nor fully African, Salim observes the rapid changes in his homeland with an outsider's distance.
Salim's family is of Indian descent and has lived on the eastern coast of Africa for generations. Aware of the country's growing unrest, Salim becomes unsure of the future of his family in that area. He buys a store in the interior of the country. The town is a natural market point by a bend in the river. There he works and waits for the town to rebuild from the destruction of the revolution.
Other characters include an older Indian couple and Ferdinand, the son of a local African woman Zabeth who buys goods from the shop to sell in her village. At first, the story is gentle, following the lives of these people, seen through Salim’s eyes. Then an older white man, Raymond, appears, and with him his beautiful wife. At the same time, the presence of the dictator becomes noticeable.
Raymond, it transpires, is close to the Big Man and is an “Africanist”, an academic specialising in the then new Western study of the continent’s social and cultural history. But it is his wife, Yvette, who provides a key pivot on which the novel turns. Salim’s life grows more complicated as the world in which he lives becomes less secure, descending into darkness and terror.
A family servant Ali comes to stay with him, and tells Salim that his hometown was attacked and that his family has scattered. Salim slowly makes friends with other people, who are waiting for the town to re-emerge. He meets a woman who buys his merchandise and returns to a remote village. She is able to make this journey once a month. She brings her son Ferdinand to stay in the village, to introduce him to other men, lifestyles, and cultures. Ferdinand and Ali become close friends.
The uprising settles down, but the uncertainty is still there. Salim’s boyhood friend comes to visit; he is a lecturer who has schooled in London. He introduces Salim to Yvette and Raymond, a married couple that work for the president. Yvette and Salim enter into a relationship; Salim loves Yvette but realizes the relationship is doomed, so he beats her up.
In the end, Salim is jailed, but is rescued by Ferdinatnd.
Review: The post colonial future seen in A Bend in the River is bleak. The country seems stranded between a past it cannot return to and a future it cannot attain. There is no real leadership, and people seem incapable of creating something new. Salim says early on, "The political system we had knows it was coming to an end, and that what was going to replace it wasn't going to be pleasant."
For sheer abundance of talent there can hardly be a writer alive who surpasses V. S. Naipaul. Whatever we may want in a novelist is to be found in his books: an almost Conradian gift for tensing a story, a serious involvement with human issues, a supple English prose, a hard-edged wit, a personal vision of things. Best of all, he is a novelist unafraid of using his brains--he would surely jeer at the common American notion that the exercise of mind saps a writer's vital juices. His novels are packed with thought, not as lumps of abstraction but as one fictional element among others, fluid in the stream of narrative.
Born to Hindu parents in Trinidad in 1932, Naipaul has lived as an outsider, first by virtue of fate and then, apparently, by clear-minded decision. His knowledge of the India from which his family stems is not large, nor his feeling for it secure. He resides in England, but no one could take him for an Englishman. What, then, is he? I would say: the world's writer, a master of language and perception, our sardonic blessing.
"Every writer," Naipaul has remarked, "is, in the long run, on his own; but it helps, in the most practical way, to have a tradition. The English language was mine; the [English] tradition was not." Yet precisely from this deracination he has drawn novelistic strength. It enables a steely perspective, the scraped honesty of the margin. It spurs him to a cool precision, trusting his own eyes. In novels such as "In a Free state" (a dazzling tour de force), "Guerrillas" and now, perhaps best of all, "A Bend in the River," Naipaul struggles with the ordeals and absurdities of living in new "third world" countries. He is free of any romantic moonshine about the moral charms of primitives or the glories of blood-stained dictators. Nor does he show a trace of Western condescension or nostalgia for colonialism. He is a tough-spirited writer, undeluded about the sleaziness of much contemporary history and not especially hopeful about its consequences.
But since publishing that book in 1961, Naipaul has grown more astringent. In recent fictions set in the Caribbean and Africa, he is hardly even a "likable" writer, for he no longer performs and barely troubles to please. He is now in the grip of a complex entangling vision of what happens in those unfortunate countries that have just toppled out of a tribal past, or freed themselves from colonial rule, but cannot reach the uncertain blessings of modernity. He is obsessed with the shallowness of proclaimed liberations and the low cost of spilling blood. Reading his novels, one finds oneself driven to discomfiting reflections on how precarious is the very ideal of civilization--reflections that jolt intellectual biases and political preconceptions. But that is one of the things literature should do.
"A Bend in the River" is set in an unnamed East African country, a bit perhaps like Uganda, but finally Naipaul's own turf. Independence has been won, civil war concluded. "The Big Man," president for life, rules by rhetoric, guile, sorcery and a strong helping of terror. There is a new dispensation: "black men assuming the lies of white men."
At the novel's center is Salim, a Muslim of Indian family whose people have lived for several generations in a coastal town, trading quietly, rutted in traditionalism. Both the narrative voice and dominant consciousness, Salim is a decent fellow, impressionable, thoughtful, not at all intellectual. (This creates problems, since Naipaul has to force some decidedly complex observations through Salim's limited awareness.) "Our way of life," Salim tells himself about the Indian settlement in Africa, "was antiquated and almost at an end." He is an outsider, watching with the outsider's nervousness.
The country, presumably Salim's too, has now entered modern history, or at least a coarse parody of it. Impressive buildings go up, for no clear purpose; local toughs are bundled into the army; young people are sent off to schools and universities; the population listens to three-hour radio orations by the Big Man. For the blacks in the bush, for the Indians on the coast, even for the quavering elite supposed to run the country, everything is unsettled, dependent on the whim of the Big Man. It's a country perhaps, but hardly a coherent society. The fading of the tribes, the feebleness of all social classes in the towns, the absence of a self-assured intelligentsia: all lead to making the army the single source of power, and within and over the army, the Big Man.
I put this abstractly, as I must. Naipaul renders it in exact, vibrant detail. When Salim travels inland, to a town on the bend of the river, there to set up a little shop selling cloth and linoleum, he encounters the first wave of "African rage," as if in answer to decades of imperial humiliation. "The big lawns and gardens had returned to bush; the streets had disappeared; vines and creepers had grown over broken, bleached walls of concrete or hollow clay brick." It's a ghost town, but the ghosts soon come back. Rebuilding starts up, and Salim finds a modest niche.
The two main lines of event--meditation and narrative--form a shadowy parallel. Salim's consciousness occupies the foreground space, struggling conscientiously to understand the new Africa; just behind occur the often capricious and fearful political acts set in motion by the Big Man. These acts are not rendered in detail: Naipaul contents himself with a few mordant touches. An order to disinfect the town transforms every official into a "disinfector. . .playing hide and seek with taxis and trucks among the hills of rubbish." A local official has an ominous dream in which the Big Man summons his subordinates to an early-morning execution at which only one of them will die--but no one knows which it will be. On the surface, "A Bend in the River" emerges mostly as a web of caustic observation, less exciting than its predecessor, "Guerillas"; but it is a much better and deeper novel, for Naipaul has mastered the gift of creating an aura of psychic and moral tension even as, seemingly, very little happens.
Each of the surrounding characters contributes to this tension. Another Indian, Mahesh, tries willfully to make family life into a bulwark against the assaults of history. A Belgian priest keeps collecting tribal masks, though the masks are visibly decaying, like the world from which they came. A powerful woman from the bush comes to trade and begs Salim to look after her son, Ferdinand, now a student in town and starting to parrot the slogans of national pride.
Most spectacular of all is Raymond, a white intellectual who dresses up the Big Man's speeches with Parisian rhetoric. In capturing Raymond's high nonsense, which sounds as if it came straight from the pages of "Les Temps Modernes," Naipaul is wonderfully wicked. Lecturing his provincial admirers on the Big Man's greatness, Raymond asks them to listen in those interminable speeches for "that note. . .of the young man grieving for the humiliations of his mother, the hotel maid. . .I don't think many people know that earlier this year [the Big Man] and his entire government made a pilgrimage to the village of that woman of Africa. Has that been done before? Has any ruler attempted to give sanctity to the bush of Africa? This act of piety is something that brings tears to the eyes."
Parody is followed by pathos. Raymond is soon dumped by the Big Man, to become another used-up intellectual whose phrases are no longer handy.
The Big Man has a genius for destructive manipulation, cutting down his army (through a brilliantly evoked gang of white mercenaries, crew-cut killers) in order to quash potential rivals. The country's new elite--raw, fearful, greedy, but specked with idealism--is kept constantly on edge: it is a tool in the hands of the Big Man, but a tool he has reason to fear. To the disenchanted Indian, Mahesh, "It isn't that there's no right and wrong here. There's no right." To the more patient Salim, the moral obligation of "outsiders" is to wait, be patient, try to avoid passing judgment.
Inexorably he is pushed into a kind of despair, saddened by a growing persuasion that, at least in the Big Man's country, human effort must burn itself out into waste, while ideas and ideals shrink to mere covers for power. Civilized norms are all we have to defend ourselves against ourselves, and they form, at best, a thin shield.
At the end, the Big Man has "radicalized" the country and assigned Salim's little shop to Citizen Theotime, who "wanted me to acknowledge him as the boss. At the same time [Theotime] wanted me to make allowances for him as an uneducated man and an African. He wanted both my respect and my tolerance, even my compassion. He wanted me, almost, to act out my subordinate role as a favor to him."
Arrested, thrown into jail, Salim is finally saved by the town's new commissioner, Ferdinand, only yesterday a stumbling boy from the village. Something has happened to this Ferdinand, some partial but significant access to truth. Rescuing Salim, he makes a speech that comes as a climax to this splendid novel:
"We're all going to hell, and every man knows this in his bones. We're being killed. Nothing has any meaning. . . . Everyone wants to make his money and run away. But where? That is what is driving people mad. They feel they're losing the place they can run back to. I began to feel the same thing when I was a cadet in the capital. I felt I had given myself an education for nothing. . .I began to think I wanted to be a child again, to forget books. . .. The bush runs itself. But there is no place to go."
Beyond this, Naipaul offers no intimations of hope or signals of perspective. It may be that the reality he grapples with allows him nothing but grimness of voice. There is a complicated literary-moral problem here that cannot be solved in a few sentences, if solved at all. A novelist has to be faithful to what he sees, and few see as well as Naipaul; yet one may wonder whether, in some final reckoning, a serious writer can simply allow the wretchedness of his depicted scene to become the limit of his vision. Such novelists as Dostoyevsky, Conrad and Turgenev, also dealing with painful aspects of political life, struggled in some ways to "surmount" or "transcend" them. Naipaul seems right now to be a writer beleaguered by his own truths, unable to get past them. That is surely an honorable difficulty, far better than indulging in sentimental or ideological uplift; but it exacts a price.
I raise this question with much uneasiness, since the last thing I want to do is to badger Naipaul (a writer not easily badgered) with requests for facile tokens of "positive" belief or value. Perhaps, given the subject that grips him and the moment in which he lives, there is no choice. Perhaps we ought simply to be content that, in his austere and brilliant way, he holds fast to the bitterness before his eyes.
Opening Line: The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.
Closing Line: “The search light, while it was on had shown thousands, white, in the white light.”
Quotes: “After all, we make ourselves according to the ideas we have of our possibilities.”
Rating: Very Good.