V.S. Naipaul, “A Bend in the River” (1979) – Naipaul looked to hit nerves, and he hit few nerve clusters more sensitive more often than the raw bundle around colonialism. It must have been an irresistible target for a man who, say what you want about his talents, was a vicious asshole.
But he wasn’t just any asshole and it wasn’t just asshole-ery that made the postcolonial world such a compelling target. He was a postcolonial subject himself, hailing from the Asian middle classes (which were still pretty poor by our standards) in Trinidad. This put him in an odd and uncomfortable dual place that Fanon-inflected anticolonialism doesn’t account for: not with the colonizer and not really the subject that anticolonialism has in mind. He clearly resents those more clearly placed communities, the poor black majority of Trinidad and the Indians of the subcontinent, with their more straightforward relationship to colonialism, their anticolonialism into which they can easily slot, the sloppiness and complacency of thought Naipaul perceived coming with that surety.
Naipaul wasn’t sloppy and he wasn’t complacent, in thought or prose. He didn’t do the easy thing of trucking in imperial nostalgia, at least not in what I read. What he did, and what many will never forgive him for (not that he ever condescended to ask), was plainly state what was in front of him, regardless of who it embarrassed (this included himself, depicted as an obnoxious little swot who exploits his father in “A House for Mr. Biswas,” and I’d say many of his more boorish public utterances fall into that category too). He cuts no slack, except possibly (and crucially) in where he puts his camera- he never wrote a novel mocking the eminently mockable literary Tories who made his career. This made for some interesting contrasts, to put it politely, in places where many of us — people who aren’t vicious assholes — would tend to cut some slack… like in the world emerging from colonialism in the mid-20th century.
I guess I should talk about what this book is about! It’s about Salim, an Indian from a family of traders in East Africa. He ups sticks and moves up an unspecified river that’s almost surely the Congo and sets up shop at the titular bend. From here, he sees the comings and goings among his fellow expatriates and with those Africans with whom he deals. He’s partially responsible for a descendant of his family’s half-Asian, half-African slaves, and for the son of one of his African customers who comes to town to go to school. He’s drawn in to the life of intellectual expats and has an affair with a young Belgian woman married to an aging white court intellectual now out of court with the Big Man, the Mobutu-figure who rules the country.
All of these figures and situations provide ample room for Naipaul’s depiction of human folly, all in his usual sharp, smooth, gom-jabbar prose. The young men he takes care of reflect the hope and failures of Africa’s time of optimism in the 1960s, all admirable growth paired with adolescence arrested by external factors. They can never work out what to make of Salim, and vice-versa. The other merchant expats deploy various strategies of keeping it together through instability but none of them do — maybe none of them can — really join the country, they just make burger franchises there. Yvette, the Belgian woman, was drawn to Africa by the false promise of her husband the intellectual, who in turn was lured by the false promise of what the life of the mind could offer the developing world. Even allowing for the slack decent people might cut, it all feels all too real, including Salim’s inability to relate to women and Africans as equals (wonder where Naipaul drew that from, hmmmm).
There’s a good amount of incident but the book isn’t plot-driven even to the extent of the cyclical activity of “A House for Mr. Biswas.” So it’s the characters, the scene, and above all the prose that carry the reader through. In the end, Salim finds himself without a place in the world he lives in and goes in search of somewhere else. The end, no moral! ****’