Friday, 5 May 2017

Book Review: A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul, independence and self-determination are values that we hold high in esteem in our modern western-style democracies, but to gain as well as to keep them often had and sometimes still has a high price. In the name of freedom many wars have been fought and many people have been killed everywhere on this planet, notably in Africa. Unfortunately, to throw out foreign rulers and chase away home-bred tyrants has seldom been enough because what followed far too often was a ferocious and violent struggle for power between opposing political or/and social groups. In the novel A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul, the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2001, a young Indian-Muslim shopkeeper who came from the East Coast to an unspecified country at the heart of Africa to make his fortune gives testimony of the chaos after independence that made possible the rise of the “Big Man”.

Vidiadhar Surajprasad “V. S.”Naipaul was born to parents of Northern Indian descent in Chaguanas, Trinidad & Tobago, British Empire, in August 1932. In the early 1950s, he moved to Oxford, England, U.K to study English Literature on a scholarship. He made his literary debut in 1957 publishing the prize-winning novel The Mystic Masseur, immediately followed by the comical novella The Suffrage of Elvira (1958) and the short story collection Miguel Street (1959), but only after the successful release of his most famous novel A House for Mr. Biswas (1961) he became a full-time writer. The most notable among his novels, short stories, essays and travel writings are An Area of Darkness (1964), The Mimic Men (1967), In a Free State (1971), A Bend in the River (1979), and Among the Believers (1981). In 1990 V. S. Naipaul was knighted and in 2001 he received the Nobel Prize in Literature “for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories”. The latest publications of the prolific author are the novel Magic Seeds (2004) and the essay collection The Masque of Africa (2010). V. S. Naipaul died in London, England, U.K., in August 2018.

In the early 1960s Salim leaves his Indian-Muslim family at the African East coast (maybe Dar es Salaam in Tanzania) to run a shop of his own in a city somewhere in A Bend in the River in Central Africa (maybe the Congo or former Zaïre). The city is half in ruins after the frenzy and tribal conflicts following independence.
“… The shops were empty; water was a problem; electricity was erratic; and petrol was often short. Once for some weeks we were without kerosene. […] On those keroseneless mornings I had to boil my water on an English-made cast-iron charcoal brazier—part of my shop stock, intended for sale to village Africans. I took the brazier to the landing of the external staircase at the back of the house, squatted and fanned. All around me people were doing the same; the place was blue with smoke. …”
Salim doesn’t care and just goes on selling his cheap goods for everyday use. The situation calms down, business improves and the city grows again. When the fight for independence shakes also the African East coast, Salim’s family sends a young house servant and illegitimate relative called Ali to live with him and to help in the store. Ali soon becomes known as Metty, a hardly flattering derivative of French “metis” meaning half-caste that he is proud of, though. As time passes, modern life reaches the city and business opportunities arise, but Salim is content with his small shop that yields good profits and doesn’t follow the example of his friends. The President changes the overgrown former European suburb into a State Domain to show his power to create a new Africa, but the buildings remain empty and the fields untilled.
“… And then at last a use was found for the buildings. The Domain became a university city and a research centre. The conference-hall building was turned into a polytechnic for people of the region, and other buildings were turned into dormitories and staff quarters. Lecturers and professors began to come from the capital, and soon from other countries; a parallel life developed there, of which we in the town knew little. …”
Among the residents are Raymond, a historian and former protégé of the increasingly authoritarian President called the Big Man, and his much younger wife Yvette who try to establish some kind of intellectual life on the compound. Only thanks to a childhood friend who is guest professor at the university Salim gets to know the impressive couple. Salim and Yvette begin a passionate though short-lived affair, while the political atmosphere in the country grows ever more hostile against prosperous foreigners like Salim and even Raymond. And Metty becomes ever angrier at Salim’s continuing unconcern and inactivity in view of looming disaster...

Under the title A Bend in the River a first-person narrator unfolds an African tale of independence after centuries of colonialism. The city as principal scene of the entire novel remains without name and could be almost anywhere on the continent although an attentive and well-informed reader may just like me be inclined to locate it in a specific region of the former French and Belgian colonies rather than in another part of Africa. However, with good reason the author wished to avoid singling out a distinct nation and its dictatorial regime. Many newly independent countries went through post-colonial chaos almost straight to one-party, if not one-man rule like in the novel. The point of view of the narrator-protagonist is that of an unconcerned outsider and observer, because as descendant of Indian Muslims who settled down in Africa centuries earlier, he belongs neither to the once ruling colonial power nor to the ruled native African population. Still, he isn’t objective. Quite on the contrary, many passages show his prejudices against those who are African down to the last root, while he is less critical of Europeans and his own community. The tone of the story is rather matter-of-fact and yet engaging which makes it a pleasurable read.

All things considered, I really liked A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul although it didn’t impress me quite as much as The Roots of Heaven by Romain Gary (»»» read my review) set in the Chad a couple of years earlier. In a way Naipaul’s novel also didn’t feel entirely authentic to me because the narrator-protagonist stays strangely aloof not just to what is going on in his surroundings but also to his very own fate. Still, the story is captivating and gives at least a vague idea of how life in an African city could have been after the former European colonies had become independent nations. It would be interesting to read a genuinely African version of it and make the comparison. However, I enjoyed the book and therefore gladly recommend it.

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  1. I have been reading Naipaul in publication order. My next one will be Mr Stone and the Knights Companion from 1963. So I won't be getting to this one for a while. I thought that Chinua Achebe's No Longer at Ease gave a native person's views of the experience of moving towards independence and the conflicts with the white colonial world. I have read other novels about that as well but can't quite think of one right now.

    1. Thanks for reminding me of Chinua Achebe! I don't know why I didn't think of him myself.


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