“The town in the interior, at the bend in the great river, had almost ceased to exist”. The name of the town is never mentioned. We are told it is located in the heart of Africa, at the end of the navigable river, just below the cataracts. The President, too, is unnamed, and usually referred to as the Big Man. Clearly, though, A Bend in the River is closely based on the newly independent Zaire under President Mobutu. As a story of a country and a people searching to find – or reclaim – their identity, it is fascinating, even essential, reading.
A British writer of Indian descent, V. S. Naipaul’s early works were relatively light-hearted sketches set in the country of his birth, Trinidad and Tobago. A Bend in the River, while it contains comic elements, is a deeper and darker narrative, set in post-colonial Africa in the early 1970s. It tells the story of Salim, the son of Indian merchants living in East Africa at a time when the country is breaking its ties with Europe. Many non-African residents are anxious about the future. As Salim’s wealthy friend Indar puts it, “We’re washed up here, you know. To be in Africa you have to be strong. We’re not strong. We don’t even have a flag.” When another family friend, Nazruddin, offers to sell Salim his shop at a bargain basement price, the young man jumps at the chance to break away from his family and community . . . and perhaps avoid marriage to Nazruddin’s daughter, Kareisha.
The shop is located in a town in the remote interior of the country – the journey takes a week. Talking his way through frontier border guards and men with guns, it occurs to Salim that he’s reversing the centuries-old trek made by slaves and their captors; like the slaves, he is, in the end, simply anxious to arrive. On arrival, he finds a kind of ghost town – “a place where the future had come and gone”. The old colonial statues and buildings have been defaced or destroyed, the Europeans have left, and the Africans have fled to their tribal villages. There has been a great deal of violence. But Africa was big: “The bush muffled the sound of murder, and the muddy rivers and lakes washed the blood away.”
While he waits for his customers to return, Salim makes friends with some of the others who have stayed on. He becomes close to an attractive Indian couple who run a shop across from the main hotel and has lunch with them twice a week. Shoba and Mahesh live in their own isolated world; devoted to each other, they pay little attention to the events occurring around them. Shortly after arriving, he is joined by Ali, a half-African boy later known as Metty. His family were once slaves owned by Salim’s family; now they live on as servants in the family compound. Metty has been sent to live with Salim, to care for him and be cared for by him. Salim accepts that he has no choice in the matter – the tradition of care is on both sides.
One of Salim’s first customers is Zabeth, an African woman believed to have magical powers, who makes the treacherous journey down the river in a dugout, several times a year. She buys razor blades, needles, enamel basins and so on from Salim and then takes them back to her village to sell. When her son, Ferdinand, comes to live in town to attend the lycée, Zabeth asks Salim to watch out for him – to act as a kind of protector to the boy. Ferdinand, who has grown up in the bush, seems ambivalent about the idea that Salim is meant to be his guide. He visits the shop once a week, as his mother wishes, but very quickly comes to prefer Metty’s company to that of Salim.
After a second rebellion, white mercenaries appear and rout the troublemakers. With peace restored, the town begins to flourish. Government agencies spring up, soldiers and European visitors are everywhere – teachers, students, foreign aid workers. Salim’s friend Mahesh invests in a Bigburger franchise which is a success; everyone, it seems, is making money. A large section of bush next to the river is cleared out and levelled, to make way for a new town on the site of what had been a rich European suburb. This is the Domain, a symbol of the new Africa. It is here that Salim is introduced to Raymond, a former professor and adviser to the Big Man, and his much younger wife, Yvette. Raymond, like other academics Naipaul knew at the time, has bought into the idea of a “postindependence African renaissance”, and shut his eyes to the tyranny and corruption around him. Now, however, he is out of favour and has been effectively exiled from the capitol. He spends his days in a kind of limbo, working on a collection of the Big Man’s speeches, waiting to be recalled to his side.
In the meantime, Salim and Yvette become lovers, a liaison that is a first for Salim; up to this point his sexual encounters have all been with prostitutes. The intensity of the relationship leads to occasional violence on his part, but breaks off only when he becomes aware that his life here, including his affair with Yvette, has become essentially meaningless. As things begin to fall apart, Salim travels to England to visit Nazruddin, who is now a landlord in London. There he encounters other foreigners like himself, all trying to make money, all searching for somewhere better than the places they came from. He and Kareisha, Nazruddin’s daughter, become engaged and he flies back to Africa to tie up loose ends.
But things have changed. The President has instituted a program of “radicalization” under which Salim’s shop has been taken over by the State and given to an African. He can stay on as manager; Metty, no longer a servant, does errands for the new owner. Desperate to make money so that he can leave the country for good, Salim becomes involved in the illegal ivory trade, burying tusks in the earth under his doorstep. Metty, lost and insecure, becomes increasingly frantic to get away. He begs Salim to give him money so he, too, can leave the country. When Salim refuses, he reports him to the police. Unable to pay his fine, Salim is arrested and put in jail. A few days later, he’s brought before the Commissioner, who turns out to be his former protégé, Ferdinand. He’s released, thanks to Ferdinand, and smuggled out of the country on a steamer.
Claire Tomalin wrote in the Sunday Times, “V. S. Naipaul uses Africa as a text to preach magnificently upon the sickness of a world losing touch with its past.” But what past, exactly? The continent of Africa has had many pasts. It has been colonized by Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, and Italy. The Arab slave trade transported Africans across the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Sahara Desert. The Atlantic slave trade sent them overseas, to work the plantations of the New World. It’s unclear where Naipaul stands on the issue. Salim, the outsider, feels believable enough, but many of the African characters, such as Metty, are painted as somewhat malevolent, childlike creatures, unable or unwilling to accept the responsibility of independence. Ferdinand, in particular, remains a mystery. After going away to be educated, he rises quickly in the government bureaucracy, becoming very much a New Man of Africa. And yet, in Salim’s eyes, he looks “withdrawn and ill, like a man recovering from fever . . . He was, after all, like other high officials. I wondered why I thought he would be different.”
In awarding the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature to V. S. Naipaul, the committee called him Joseph Conrad’s heir “as the annalist of the destinies of empires in the moral sense: what they do to human beings”. His human beings, as chronicled here, are unforgettable.