A Bend in the River’ was issued when author VS Naipaul was nearly fifty. It is one of the paramount novels about the process of ‘becoming’ or developing, contrasting to ‘being’ a nation, especially after the colonizing powers have departed.
It is overwrought with a stiff hyper-awareness and information of every tinge, subtext, context and history of the various blend of peoples in the unnamed Central African country where the book is located.
Indwellers, Arab traders, Europeans, the diasporic people of the Indian Ocean (to which our first-person narrator, Salim, belongs); visitors; expatriates, this has it all. It makes one wonder — ‘White Teeth’ wasn’t quite the first multicultural novel.
“We shape ourselves with regard to the ideas we have of what might become of us”, says Fahim, an avid reader. Each time I read ‘A Bend in the River’, it is like reading a new book.
At times, it is a book about the tension between being and becoming, played out on the crest and trough of the distinct and the universal; at others, about the silent, patient coiling down of history; about how free, if it is possible, one can be of history and its burdens.
It is, in due course, a contemplation about a genre that incorporates all others, history, of which we are subjects and which we are subjected to. It is entirely in accord with the book that the two great historians of empire, Gibbon and Mommsen, should draft multiple references.
The prose is pared down, unobtrusive, and the deceptively simple sentences can wield a surgical knife at the flick of a comma.The profundity of the novel lies exactly in this complexity of examination into the biggest question — what is one’s place in the world and how does one fit into it? — The most basic question about existential crisis and what philosophers ache to find out.
Any other novel asking these questions would likely spin them into tales of love and redemption. Naipaul uses them to achieve nothing short of an archaeological study of the destiny of nations and peoples.
No one has deconstructed with such distinction and aggressivelucidity the collapse of a nation, the complex web of causes behind it and the groups of peoples caught up in that colossal unravelling. He has shown us harsh, inflexible truths, which have not agreed with the ideologies of the liberalists and the politically correct police force of the post-colonial industry. Their fashionable rage against him is, to paraphrase another writer, the rage of Caliban looking at his face in the mirror.
His willingness to look honestly at the deterioration of conditions in former colonies when the Europeans withdraw and his criticism of the natives of these lands has earned Naipaul the enmity of many. But his novels offer an important corrective to the romantic view of the Third World and they were especially useful at the time, the 60’s & 70’s, when they were published.
Md Saifuddin Al Quaderi