‘ A Bend in the River’ read to me like an updating of Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, taken forward 60 or 70 years forward into the post-independence period. As with ‘Heart of Darkness’, ‘A Bend’ is set in an unnamed African country in the interior of the continent. The setting is not the only similarity between these books – both have colonialism as their principal themes, and both are pervaded with a sense of impending danger and disaster.
It would be wrong however to overstate the parallels between the novels. ‘A Bend’ is narrated by Salim, an Indian Muslim. Salim has an outsider’s perspective on the changes being experienced by this country, and thus can be reasonably expected to have a fresh pair of eyes. Naipaul travelled and lived in Africa earlier in his life, and draws upon this experience in this novel. His portrait of Africa is unblinking. There is no romanticism about the peoples or places of Africa, and independence has not proven a panacea for the problems of the continent – far from it, to such an extent that some critics have assumed that Naipaul is suggesting independence from European rule was a mistake, and that without white supervision the native Africans will revert to tribalism, superstition, and ultimately brutality.
Salim, having grown up in the Indian community on the east coast, buys a business from a friend in a town at “a bend in the river” in the heart of Africa. This phrase is repeated insistently, to stress its significance, although I admit I wasn’t able to identify why the town’s precise location on the river mattered. Possibly the bend is to be taken as a turning point, and as such as a metaphor for the history of Africa, where it has to choose between progress and reversion to tribalism?
Salim’s store is an unlikely, risky, venture. The town has been ravaged by the locals – it is suggested that this came in response to their suppression during colonial times. Old tribal distinctions have become important again. Slavery for Salim and his immediate circle is a relatively recent memory, and becomes an important theme in the novel. Salim is joined by his assistant Metty who comes from a family of “house slaves”. One of his steady customers is Zabeth. Zabeth is introduced in such a manner as to suggest she is going to be an important character, but her appearances in the novel are few, and her only role is to introduce her son, Ferdinand, who attends the local school run by a Belgian priest. Life in the town slow improves, and Salim’s decision to move seems vindicated when he learns that the Indian community on the East coast is attacked, and later when the town enjoys a short period of economic success and expansion, including the building of a ‘Bigburger’ restaurant. The character of the President – “the Big Man” – steadily assumes a more significant part in the novel. His portrait is displayed everywhere, and his ideas come to dominate the narrative.
This progress is clearly built on sand, and finds parallels in Salim’s private life. He goes to a party in the new “Domain” quarter and meets Raymond, a former advisor and mentor to the President, and Yvette, his much younger wife. Raymond is a remote academic figure, and very predictably Salim and Yvette start an affair, one of the key moments of the novel. In shocking scenes, a few weeks into the affair, Salim brutally assaults and then spits on Yvette. He shows no remorse or regret for his actions, which are coldly passed over by the narrator. As a random act of violence it of course pre-figures the tribal violence that hangs over the town, and shows that Salim is not immune to the forces that threaten to overwhelm people at any point.
Seeing trouble brewing, Salim travels to London where becomes engaged to an old family friend’s daughter, but feeling out of place in London returns to Africa. There he learns that his shop has been expropriated. Salim is retained as manager and chauffeur, and reluctantly accepts this change. In the novel’s final scenes Salim is betrayed by Metty, jailed, and then freed by Ferdinand, who is now the town’s commissioner. Ferdinand tells him to flee: “We’re all going to hell, and every man knows this in his bones. We’re being killed. Nothing has any meaning.” Salim takes the last steamer before the President arrives at the town, and in a final symbolic scene the barge attached to the steamer breaks loose and drifts down the river. The novel ends suddenly and inconclusively at this point, leaving many questions unanswered.
I didn’t enjoy this novel. The central character is unsympathetic and unconvincing, – I didn’t care what happened to him, and didn’t recognise him as a genuine character – he was just a puppet for Naipaul to move through the novel, making authorial observations about slavery, colonialisation, tribalism, etc. As I didn’t care about this character I felt no serious sense of threat – if he or any of his cast were killed off at the end of the novel (surprisingly they were not) I would not have cared or been moved in any way. The brutal description of sexual violence was presented completely out of context, and showed no empathy with the victim. I found these scenes distressing, which presumably was the point.
Naipaul won the 2001 Nobel Prize for literature, but increasingly I am coming round to the idea that this in itself is faint praise. His prose is straightforward and accessible, but there was no sparkle, not vim, no play with language or imagery. The attitudes towards colonialism demonstrated in the novel are dubious, to say the least – in some respects the themes in Conrad, in which Africa is threatening and unknowable, are simply echoed here – there is no progression, no recognition that in the near 80 years since ‘Heart of Darkness’ the world had moved on. Where Conrad was so strong, and where this novel fails short, is his understanding of the impact of colonialism on the colonialist – because Salim is such a sock puppet of a character, we get no real insight into his cultural perspective as an outsider in a newly independent Africa. The 2001 Nobel Committee thought otherwise, describing Naipaul as “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 the memory of what others have forgotten, the history of the vanquished”. Who am I to disagree with that perspective (but I do!)