A Bend in The River

Review

Set in postcolonial Africa, A Bend in The River is considered by many as one of Naipaul’s best on the topic of post-colonialism, though not one of my favourites. What Naipaul has in common with other authors such as Salman Rushdie (Midnight’s Children) and Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart) is that acute sense of being trapped between two states of being; the past and the present – the future being nothing more than an idea. The themes of defragmentation and alienation run like veins throughout the entire narrative. Born of Indian blood on the soil of Trinidad and adopted by Britain, he is a man of no single world; his allegiances can easily be blown away by the wind of change and chance. We see Naipaul in Salim and vice versa.

Salim works his way into the heart of Africa. One might say he made the reverse journey that the slaves made. Salim is a different kind of slave. He is a slave of chance and opportunity. Within his voice, one can hear the voices of Nazruddin, Raymond and Yvette, Indar, Mahesh and Shoba, Ferdinand, Metty, even Zabeth. Through the mirrors of his eyes, Africa is displayed as stark, harsh and unapologetic and one can observe the unravelling of the very delicate fabric that makes up postcolonial Africa.

Salim, the narrator and main character of Indian Muslim origin, strives against the turmoil of the country but he eventually ends up being drawn into it. The possibility of retreating from the dead-end of his life that was the Indian Muslim community in which he lived was what made him accept Nazruddin’s offer of becoming a shopkeeper in a small town at the bend in the river. Whether he realises it or not, he has only traded one dead-end for another and it takes a visit from his childhood friend Indar for him to realise that all his ambitions were going unfulfilled.

The bend in that river is almost an omen of danger. The notion of not knowing what lies beyond the ‘bend’ is as frightening as not knowing what could happen in a community plagued with social and political unrest as is evidenced in the brutal killing of Father Huismans. His beheading is symbolic of the sundering of his beliefs and notions of what Africa was really about. He dedicated his life to sowing seeds of European culture and values into a society that wished very much to be rid of it. He misread the signs, believing that one day the mingling of cultures at the bend in the river could spread to other parts of Africa.

Father Huismans was the complete opposite of Raymond who based his writings on interviews and historical anecdotes he had read. Unlike Father Huismans, Raymond has never gone beyond the pages of the books from which he gets his information. The words he writes do not come from the lips of those who spoke of their experiences nor are they accumulated from his personal observations and this is why Father Huismans’ loss was a tragedy that Salim felt. Both Raymond and Father Huismans are somewhat keepers of European history. But the stronghold that they had on the past is being weakened in the present and most likely would be non-existent in the future.

In the Domain, which is the president’s pet project, one cannot help but notice that its stark European-ness is incongruous in the wild abandon of Africa. It is a status symbol and a mockery of the African bush and its primitive power. The Big Man as the president is called, symbolizes the distortion of ideologies and this distortion manifests itself in the Domain and the vandalism and ruination of anything reminiscent of European influence. It is then unsurprising that the Domain eventually goes the same way as the rest of the monuments of Europe – it is eventually abandoned and falls into ruin – the unmaking of the vision of the Big Man.

Perhaps Salim would have fared better had he had some sort of grounding. He talks about not knowing about history except for what he had read about in history books. He is homeless in every sense of the word. He is without a culture that he understands and without any direction that is his own. His decision to eventually marry Nazruddin’s daughter and settle in England cannot really be owned by him and this sense of restlessness is echoed by Indar, who after his education in England cannot find his way home. His rebuff and ridicule at India House was the last straw. He didn’t belong to Africa. Africa would not own him and from the way he was treated by representatives of India and by extension India herself, it looked like he didn’t belong there either.

Africa would always be the lodestone around their necks not because of the African-ness of the place or the bush or the magic or the darkness but because after having succumbed to powers of first world colonial rulers time and time again, Africa isn’t ready to be thrown into a post colonial world.  They are at a severe disadvantage since after centuries of rule by the Portuguese and Belgians have left them reeling in illiteracy and dependence on those same colonial powers that could do very little to undo the damage done.

As one reads the novel there is the faintest notion that all the characters are in a limbo of varying degrees. Upon examining the relationship between Salim and Yvette, Raymond’s wife, there is that sense that these are two people who are clinging to one familiarity – the need to fulfill their physical needs. Neither one has any emotional grounding. Salim is as much an outsider in this village as he would be in India or England or even in the community where he first lived. Yvette’s emotional anchor should have been Raymond as he is her only link to her homeland. However, even in his presence, he is absent and can offer her no succour.

Nazruddin, in a desperate effort to set down roots on stable land keeps transplanting himself and his family. One failure follows another and he eventually settles in England and accepts the hand that fate has dealt him.

When Salim is arrested, it is Ferdinand – the son of the sorceress Zabeth who saves him. Perhaps because he felt he owed a debt. Domain educated and now in the employ of the Big Man as the town’s commissioner, he has stumbled upon the ultimate truth of their predicament. “We’re all going to hell, and every man knows this in his bones. We’re being killed. Nothing has any meaning. . . . Everyone wants to make his money and run away. But where? That is what is driving people mad. They feel they’re losing the place they can run back to. I began to feel the same thing when I was a cadet in the capital. I felt I had given myself an education for nothing. . . I began to think I wanted to be a child again, to forget books. … The bush runs itself. But there is no place to go.”

Ferdinand’s ominous speech precedes the final destruction of post-colonial Africa, the final descent into hell. Salim’s narrow escape aboard the steamer in the darkness of the river underlines the hopelessness of those who remained, who were trapped and destined to burn with the past.

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited:

Naipaul, V.S. A Bend in The River. New York, Vintage International Edition, 1989.

Weiss, Timothy F. On The Margins. The Art of Exile in V.S. Naipaul. The University of Massachusetts Press, First Edition, 1992.

 

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