The Modern Library List of Books

AvatarThoughts on reading the top 100 English-language books of the 20th century

83. A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul

   “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” For Naipaul, substance is scar tissue and identity is born from conflict. The cultural substance that coheres a tribe is (arguably) a product of the struggle to survive in a particular environment, and nothing forges alliances or cements national bonds like the shared spilling of blood. Personal identity, too, is born of conflict, of the battle between personal freedom and the demands of the group. The man who is nothing hasn’t acquired these scars. But meaningful existence  – or manhood as Naipaul would have it – is a not a matter of incessant conflict; it’s a matter of choosing your battles because as the cyclical fate of the anonymous town at bend in the river shows, just as there are great costs to neglecting your personal ambitions for the goals of the group,  there are perils to going it alone in a world where fortune is fickle and power is as hard to keep a handle on as a landed trout.

   When Salim, an ethnic Indian from Africa’s eastern coast whose people have more in common with the “Hindus of northwestern India” than the Arabs with whom they share a  god, arrives in the town at the bend in the river, it, once a bustling colonial outpost with a booming economy and regular steamer service, has “almost ceased to exist.” Independence bundled peoples under a single flag whose only claim to a shared identity was their colonial humiliation and “at independence the people of [the] region [went] mad with . . .all the accumulated anger of the colonial period, and every kind of reawakened tribal fear.”  

   As the Europeans washed their hands of increasingly fractious colonies, rebellious uprisings bloodied the continent.  With no backing to their authority other than custom, with no cultural narrative other than that told by European historians, belonging no more to their adopted home than to the country from which their ancestors came generations ago, Salim’s people on the coast are especially vulnerable.  But Salim “can’t stay with [his] community, to pretend that [he] had simply to travel along with them, was to be taken with them to destruction.” He has to go it alone.

   It’s this desire to flee the destruction and insignificance that brings Salim to the town at the bend in the river. Nazruddin, an old family friend, hoping that Salim will marry one of his daughters, sells Salim his (now grossly devalued) interests in the town: a general goods store and a handful of agencies. This is Salim’s chance to throw off filial obligation, to become a self-made man, and as he travels to his new life in the interior, he can’t help but observe that the slaves “had made the same journey, but of course on foot and in the opposite direction, from the center of the continent to the east coast.” But freedom has its costs, both for Salim and the newly independent town: though a new president is in place, he has yet to demonstrate his mettle and the effective power vacuum scares off business.

   Salim has little choice,  though, but to wait for the villagers to emerge from the bush, exhausted from their tribal wars, looking “feeble and crazed” and “so much like people needing the food and the peace the town offered.” Soon, the villagers that come into the town for the market begin to stay and the steamer reclaims the river.

   And the new president installs his army.

   The village warriors resent the army’s presence and rumors of an impending rebellion spread through the town. But the president is a cunning man and he cruelly culls his army with one hand while squashing the rebellion with the other. This decisive demonstration of authority soothes anxieties and with a powerful leadership promising stability, business flourishes and the town booms.

   But accepting the auspices of  a leader can be castrating. Raymond, a white professor, enjoys the privileged status of being the president’s advisor. The president’s sentimental attachment to the grudging guidance Raymond gave him as a boy launches Raymond from his life as an undistinguished college professor to a high-ranking policy advisor. He travels abroad officially in the president’s stead and his prestigious position wins him a beautiful Belgian bridge, Yvette. The problem is: Raymond owes his position entirely to patronage and when the president decides that it’s no longer wise for an African leader to be seen seeking counsel from a white man, Raymond is banished from the capital to the town at the bend in river. Raymond runs the Domain,  the new university complex built on the ruins of the old pre-Independence European suburb. Though, life on the Domain is far from hard, Raymond wants to return to the capital. But rather than fight for his position, he waits around to be called, for the winds of president’s favor to blow once again in his direction.  In fact, Raymond’s near pathological avoidance of conflict hollows him out; cuckolded right under his nose, he floats in and out of his wife’s parties like a monomaniacal ghost, effusing support of an increasingly ridiculous regime, support he hopes will be reported in the capital. 

   In stark contrast to Raymond’s cowardly congeniality, is Salim’s friend, Indar’s stubborn contempt for the humiliations of capitalism. An Oxford graduate, Indar finds the song-and-dance required to get a job degrading and later, when his lack of prospects weakens his resolve and he finds himself reading job descriptions “growing false to [himself], acting to [himself], convincing [himself] of [his] rightness for whatever was being described”, he decides to throw off bourgeois respectability for a short post-grad stint as an actor. Eventually Indar realizes that to retain control of his destiny, he has to capitalize on his individuality and he manages to parlay his unique position as a African-not-of-Africa into a position as a sort of policy consultant for a Western NGO. Flush with Western money, he devotes himself to creating a tribe of people like himself: home-grown scholars, educated products of the new Africa.  

   Indar dreams of a pan-African intelligentsia. The irony is: for Indar’s idea to succeed, the new generation of educated Africans, Africans like Salim’s protégé, Ferdinand, a boy who came of age post-Independence without any tribal affiliations, must forgo the jobs waiting for them on graduation, and their personal ambitions, in favor of the uncertain rewards of belonging to Indar’s nascent tribe. Of course, not all personal ambitions are worth pursuing, and many of these new Africans realize much too late how stifling their government jobs are, how little control they have over their own fortunes.

   But membership is not without its benefits and so what, if anything, should bind us to each other? When the government seizes and redistributes foreign owned assets, Salim misses the signs because he, embroiled in an affair with Yvette, had turned his back on his friends, and when yet another rebel group has the town whipped into a frenzy of greed and corruption, it’s Salim’s friendship with Ferdinand that allows him to escape. The point is: we need to belong to survive, but the community we subject ourselves to should be of our own choosing, not one foisted on us by biological or historical accidents.

   I’m not going to lie: this was my first time reading Naipaul and I found his prose thrilling.  Not so much because he is a great prose stylist, but because he weights his language so well, distills so much meaning in his subtly simple sentences.  Often, I found myself reading sentences, paragraphs, over and over again, in awe at Naipaul’s breathtaking sophistication and the sustained control he exercised over his prose. So much harder than it looks. An example:
Nobody wanted to move that rubbish. But the taxis stank of disinfectant; the officials of our health department were fierce about taxis. And for this reason. In the colonial days public vehicles had by law to be disinfected once a year by the health department. The disinfectors were entitled to a personal fee. That custom had been remembered. Any number of people wanted to be disinfectors; and now taxis and trucks weren’t disinfected just once a year; they were disinfected whenever they were caught. The fee had to be paid each time; and disinfectors in their official jeeps played hide and seek with taxis and trucks among the hills of rubbish. The red dirt roads of our town, neglected for years, had quickly become corrugated with the new traffic we had; and these disinfectant chases were in a curious kind of slow motion, with the vehicles of hunters and hunted pitching up and down the corrugations like launches in a heavy sea.

Needless to say, I’m looking forward to number 72 and A House for Mr. Biswas.


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