No other writer I know captures the essence of a society in transition as accurately as Naipaul. In his work, Naipaul writes eloquently and simply about people and cultures disconnected from their origins.
It is a milieu that he knows well.
At the age of seventeen, Naipaul made his way from Trinidad, a semi-developed island in the West Indies, to elite Oxford University on a scholarship. After graduation, he worked for BBC. But that employment was a brief interlude in what was to become a storied writing career. He wrote several books, comic and tragic, about his native land in Britain. After exhausting material from Trinidad, Naipaul went in search of stories to societies and cultures in ferment. Those travels resulted in the penning of several books, some fiction but mostly non-fiction.
A Bend In The River is the product of a visit to Zaire in the late 1970s, He had earlier documented this period in “A Congo Diary.”
The novel is a fictional story about an unnamed town located at the bend of a river in the heart of Africa. Commerce is beginning to change the town. Education has introduced new thought and the bush way of life is giving way to modernity.
An uneasy truce exists between the past and the present at the time that Salim, Naipaul’s narrator, arrives there. Salim is an African-Indian businessman, who has escaped, rather run away, from problems in another unnamed town on the east coast of Africa. As the novel progresses, Salim builds a business and a home in the town at the bend of a river.
Change almost seems possible in the town until it collapses under the weight of its history. A rebel force lays siege to the town, destroying markers of its civilization. Police outposts and schools are destroyed. Businesses are nationalized as incompetent locals take over foreigner-owned businesses (such as Salim’s grocery business). Finally, the President calls in the army and there are executions.
As the novel ends, Salim is on the move again, this time to London.
The characters and settings in A Bend In The River echo Naipaul’s tour de force A House For Mr. Biswas. Salim is not unlike Mohun Biswas in being disconnected from his immediate surroundings. Like Biswas, he is doubly removed from his immediate surroundings: he is a coastal transplant in an unnamed town and is an Indian amongst Africans.
His is the most acute type of loneliness. It is best reflected in Naipaul’s description of his apartment, where he lives with “the idea that, at a moment’s notice, I had to consider it all as cost.” His furniture is “always there, never really mine, reminding me now only of the passing of time.”
Even when there is a siege in the town, Salim witnesses it from the outside. He sees change but remains immobile. Only after he spends time in jail and sees Africans “indifferent to notice, indifferent to compassion, contempt, faces, not yet vacant or passive or resigned” does he become aware of the conflict’s toll on his immediate surroundings.
Other characters are similarly without groundings.
Metty, Salim’s servant, follows him from the coast and fathers a child in the town. By the end of the novel, he is pleading with Salim to take him away from there. Raymond and Yvette, a Belgian couple, who live in the town’s European quarters and are documenting its history, owe their jobs to the country’s President. When he is deposed, they disappear. Indar, Salim’s childhood friend from the East Coast, escapes to London for education and comes back to teach briefly. Outwardly, he seems to be at ease with his career and life. But, a long monologue during a walk by the town river reveals the volatility simmering beneath his persona. Even Ferdinand, the only fleshed out African in the novel, is isolated from his origins in the bush.
The novel provides pointers to the structure of Naipaul’s future work. Although Salim is the central character and we hear much of the story through him, other voices are also present. They speak in long monologues describing their frustrations and hopes. As is typical in much of Naipaul’s non-fiction work, tension is built up through a series of incidents and occurrences. In turn, these incidents provide insight into the character.
Along with Guerillas, this book opened up Naipaul to charges of racism. It is not difficult to guess why. In a novel about Africa, there are hardly any Africans.
As I mentioned earlier, Ferdinand is the only sharply-etched character. The other Africans are bit characters or parodies. They are illiterate and unaware of their history or society. They know only that they belong to the bush and that they are the original inhabitants of this place. That certainty leads them to reclaim the town and attempt to drive out foreigners. It also leads to chaos, imprisonment, and dictatorship.
In contrast, the town’s foreigners are cultured, educated and compassionate. But they live in a self-constructed bubble that bursts when the natives assert themselves. The novel itself is written from the inside of a expatriate bubble that Naipaul must have probably experienced while teaching in Uganda during the 1960s.
Eventually, though, the novel is about change and its discontents. Much of our reading of globalization (and upheaval in societies) is about success, about individuals who created a better life for themselves elsewhere. A Bend In The River is about an external change that is not accompanied by an internal one.