Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Bend in the River - VS Naipaul

 I finished reading VS Naipaul’s A Bend in the River. I had known the book for a long time and had expected it to be very different from how I found it. The opening line of the book eulogizes the importance of success in life – “The world is what it is; people who don’t make it have no place in it,” which is also the title of VSN’s biography  – and I thought it would be the story of someone’s rise against odds, but the book is about other things. It’s about identity, history, worldview, imperialism, the bequest of the white man and the struggle of the black man to find his own identity and pride based on his own culture and history and his opposition to the white man even as he looks upto him, copies his ways to raise himself in the estimate of his own people and find his approval. Naipaul has chosen Africa as his setting to explore these themes.
Salim comes from a decently off family that has stayed in Africa for a few generations now. His doesn’t have great professional opportunities in the place and takes up a shop dealing in this and that and located in a town in Africa, that’s situated at the bend of a river. White rulers have just withdrawn from the town and tribals have come to power. Initially there is some quite and Salim’s shop flourishes but the tranquil is broken by a coup which brings an African chieftain – President – to power.  
Through the President, Naipaul shows insecurities of a tyrant who wants to use his African background to his political advantage and at the same time shows off his white connections to heighten himself in the estimate of his people.  Naipaul uses this small town, its people and their antagonism toward the white man to show how while they are opposed to the white man ruling them and want to erase all his vestiges, they don’t know how to rule themselves and left to themselves they can only bring chaos and killing. I was thinking that this has become an obsolete pro-empire view today, but then Afghanistan came to mind.

Salim goes to England briefly and returns to the town to find that the President has nationalized all private properties, and his shop is one of them. The shop has been put under a trust and an African, who Salim knew, has been entrusted to oversee it. Salim works as a manager in the shop for a while before is he arrested by police one day because the President is to visit the town and once released, Salim leaves the place for good together with may other ‘outsiders’.
The book is disturbing in many ways in that it forces you to visit things about you and your country which you don’t want to and Naipaul has an acerbic and mocking way of putting things. But what’s surprising about it is although written almost 30 years ago, it reflects the global realities of today and reminds you that themes like empire and identity never become dated.
Salim the protagonist thinks to himself that colonizers need to make statues to themselves because their needs are complex: they need to glorify their rule to the posterity by making statues and also enjoy the material benefits of their rule when it lasts. But simple people from simple civilizations don’t have such multi-tiered necessities.  
The book can be slow sometimes but finally rewards you for holding on till the end.


Pat Garcia Schaack said...

I read your blog ove A Bend in the River. Because of my own faith, I see things a little differently. I don't know whether I would read this book, but appreciate your very accurate description of it.

indrablog said...

Thanks, Pat, for visiting my post.

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