A Bend in the River is V. S. Naipaul’s (17 August 1932 – 11 August 2018) masterwork of displacement and dispossession, a summary statement from a distinguished writing career documenting what John Updike has called “one of the contemporary world’s great subjects—the mingling of its peoples.” In his fiction, travel writing, and essays, Naipaul has embraced his role as an uprooted, homeless global wanderer reporting on the collapse of the past imperial order and the uncertain postcolonial future, seeking evidence supporting his contention offered in his 2001 Nobel Prize lecture that “The world is always in movement. People have everywhere at some time been dispossessed.” None of his many works better expresses this theme than A Bend in the River, Naipaul’s postcolonial repossession and revision of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It is a return to Africa as a symbolic center that cannot hold, where things continue to fall apart, the novel that Naipaul’s biographer, Patrick French, has asserted, “brought together all his experience and the uniqueness of his perspective, a late twentieth-century global narrative that could have been written by no one else.” More than a century after Joseph Conrad and his fictional surrogate Marlow journeyed upriver into the center of Congo to confront the lies of the colonial mission and the paltriness of civilization in the face of an overwhelming wilderness and human evil, Naipaul stages a return visit into the heart of a newly independent African nation by Salim, an Arab-African of Indian descent whose family has lived on the eastern coast of Africa for generations. What Salim discovers about himself and the world as he sets up shop in a partially revolution-ravaged interior town at the bend in the river constitutes Naipaul’s disturbing assessment of the postcolonial experience and modern angst. As Salim observes, “The political system we had known it was coming to an end, and that what was going to replace it wasn’t going to be pleasant.” A Bend in the River is, according to the literary scholar Bruce King, “perhaps the last modernist epic, using Africa as a symbolic wasteland for the collapse of a universal European order.”
Naipaul’s perspective of global dispossession and alienation is informed by his background, which has contributed to what Salman Rushdie has identified as a “stereoscopic vision” of the insider who is also an outsider. Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born in the small rural town of Chaguanas, Trinidad, in 1932, a third-generation descendant of Indian laborers who had gone to Trinidad as indentured servants to find work on the island’s plantations after slavery had been abolished. “My background is at once exceedingly simple and exceedingly confused,” Naipaul has commented. “. . . Trinidad is not strictly of South America, and not strictly of the Caribbean. It was developed as a New World plantation colony, and when I was born in 1932 it had a population of about 400,000. Of this, about 150,000 were Indians, Hindus and Muslims, nearly all of peasant origin, and nearly all from the Gangetic plain.” Growing up as a member of the Asian-Indian minority in black-dominated Trinidad, a former British colony that was not quite Caribbean and not quite South American, half a world away from an ethnic and cultural homeland, contributed to Naipaul’s sense of a global identity under pressure by the forces of history and modernity. Naipaul’s father, Seepersad Naipaul, was a journalist and short story writer who encouraged his son’s literary ambitions. “At really quite an early age,” Naipaul has observed, “I thought of myself as a writer . . . because of this overwhelming idea of its nobility as a calling.” In 1938, his family settled in the capital of Port of Spain, and, after attending Queens Royal College, Trinidad’s leading secondary school, Naipaul won a government scholarship to study abroad, which led him to University College, Oxford, in 1950. His time at Oxford was not happy. Missing his home and struggling to fi nd a place in England, Naipaul would later confess that the only reason he did not commit suicide was that the gas meter in the fl at where he was living was too low. After graduating in 1954, Naipaul worked as a writer and editor for the BBC program, Caribbean Voices, for which he produced his first short stories based on his childhood in Trinidad, many of which would be collected in Miguel Street (1959). His first published work was the novel The Mystic Masseur (1957), about a Hindu in Trinidad who progresses from masseur to pundit and politician while gradually losing his hold on his community and his identity. The search for autonomy and a sustaining habitation would become the dominant theme of Naipaul’s third novel and early masterpiece, The House of Mr. Biswas (1961), a tragicomic life story, based partly on Naipaul’s father, of a Trinidadian Hindu’s determined effort to achieve his dream of owning a home and thereby repossessing his own life and place.
The House of Mr. Biswas gained Naipaul worldwide recognition while it brought to a close the initial phase of his career that drew on his recollections and experiences of his upbringing on Trinidad. Increasingly, Naipaul would widen his perspective through extensive travel as his writing began to reflect a global assessment of the postcolonial world and a shared sense of loss and alienation he had dramatized locally in his fiction. The Middle Passage (1962), An Area of Darkness (1964), India: A Wounded Civilization (1977) are nonfiction works based on his travel to and observations of postcolonial conditions in the Caribbean, Africa, and India. Naipaul’s fiction would keep pace with his travels as well. Mr. Stone and the Knight’s Companion (1964), Naipaul’s first novel without a Trinidad setting, is the story of a Caribbean man living in England. After a 1966 appointment to teach at Makerere University in Uganda, Naipaul published The Mimic Men (1967), the search of a migrant from the Caribbean living in London for authenticity and a usable past. Naipaul’s next novel, In a Free State (1977), which won the Booker Prize, is an innovative, mixed-genre work combining short fiction and travel narratives linked by common themes of colonialism and migration set around the world. The title novella with its African setting in particular enhanced Naipaul’s reputation as a dissenter from Western liberal notions of an optimistic postcolonial African future and an “intrepid and brutally honest chronicler of the Third World.” Following Guerrillas (1975), set on a Caribbean island recently liberated from colonial rule, Naipaul returned to an African setting for A Bend in the River.
Drawing upon his stay in East Africa in the 1960s and an extensive 1975 visit to Zaire under the autocratic rule of Mobutu Sese Seko who came to power in 1965, the novel was inspired, as reported by his biographer French, by “a chance encounter in Kisangani, his [Naipaul’s] plane had been taken out of service, and he found himself at the airport talking to a young Indian man.” “The hotels were closed because Mobutu was in town,” Naipaul recalled, “and he said come and sleep at my fl at. Everything that happened over the next two days, I used in A Bend in the River. He was a businessman running a shop, and his ‘Jeeves’ talked a lot of rubbish about going to Canada. He told me about his private life, that there was a woman, and took me to look at her house. She was a Vietnamese woman; that disappears in my narrative. We can call him Salim. The essence of the book is: what is this man doing here?” Naipaul’s answer to that question would be shaped not just by his field observations but by two essays Naipaul produced based on his Congo experience, “A New King for the Congo: Mobutu and the Nihilism of Africa” and “Conrad’s Darkness,” republished in the essay collection The Return of Eva Perón (1980). Zaire, formerly the Belgian Congo and the setting for Joseph Conrad’s great anti-imperial novella, Heart of Darkness, based on Conrad’s own experiences there as riverboat captain, had overthrown its colonial rule but remained, in Naipaul’s bitter assessment, one of the “dark places on earth.” As Naipaul writes in “A New King for the Congo,” “To Joseph Conrad, Stanleyville—in 1890 the Stanley Falls station—was the heart of darkness. It was there, in Conrad’s story, that Kurtz reigned, the ivory agent degraded from idealism to savager y, taken back to the earliest ages of man, by wilderness, solitude and power, his house surrounded by impaled human heads. Seventy years later, at this bend in the river, something like Conrad’s fantasy came to pass. But the man with ‘the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, no fear’ was black, and not white; and he had been maddened not by contact with wilderness and primitivism, but with the civilization established by those pioneers who now lie in Mont Ngaliema, above the Kinshasa rap-ids.” Naipaul finds correspondences to Conrad’s anatomy of the hollowness of the colonial venture in the postcolonial reign of Mobutu, depicted as a corrupt and violent sham, an exemplum with strong associations to Nai-paul’s biography and aspirations as a writer. In “Conrad’s Darkness,” Naipaul summarizes:
To be a colonial was to know a kind of security; it was to inhabit a fixed world. And I suppose that in my fantasy I had seen myself coming to England as to some purely literary region, where, untrammeled by the accidents of history or background, I could make a romantic career for myself as a writer. But in the new world I felt that ground move below me. The new politics, the curious reliance of men on institutions that were yet working to undermine, the simplicity of beliefs and the hideous simplicity of actions, the corruption of causes, half-made societies that seemed doomed to remain half-made: these were the things that began to preoccupy me. There were not things from which I could detach myself. And I found that Conrad—sixty years before, in the time of a great peace—had been everywhere before me. Not as a man with a cause, but a man offering, as in Nostromo, a vision of the world’s half-made societies as places which continuously made and unmade them-selves, where there was no goal, and where always “something inherent in the necessities of successful action . . . carried with it the moral degradation of the idea.” Dismal, but deeply felt: a kind of truth and half a consolation.
A Bend in the River revisits one of these Conradian half-made places that barely conceals the void beneath its surface. As the novel opens, the narrator, Salim, describes his weeklong journey into the interior of an unnamed revolution-ravaged central African state to take over management of an abandoned shop in a settlement at the bend in the river partially destroyed in the violence that preceded independence. “Africa was my home,” Salim observes, “had been the home of my family for centuries. But we came from the east coast, and that made the difference. The coast was not truly African. It was an Arab-Indian-Persian-Portuguese place, and we who lived there were really people of the Indian Ocean. True Africa was at our back. . . . These were also the lands of our ancestors. But we could no longer say that we were Arabians or Indians or Persians, when we compared ourselves with these people, we felt like people of Africa.” A dispossessed, alienated African outsider, Salim decides to leave the coast and his settled Muslim community for a self-made, uncertain future in the interior. “To stay with my community,” Salim acknowledges, “to pretend that I had simply to travel along with them, was to be taken with them to destruction. I could be master of my fate only if I stood alone.”
Salim’s fate, however, is far from masterful. His shop and most of the town is in shambles, and Salim doggedly awaits the prosperity promised by the Big Man, the former military strongman turned tribal leader, modeled on Mobutu. Agreeing to look after Ferdinand, the son of an African trader and magician named Zabeth so he can attend the local lycée run by a Belgian priest Father Huismans, a collector of African antiquities, Salim also takes in one of his family’s slaves, Ali (later Metty), displaced in the persecution of the coastal Muslim community. Father Huismans will be found mutilated with his head cut off and displayed on a spike, a victim of efforts to purge the state of European influences. Through his childhood friend, Indar, Salim is introduced to some of the residents of the huge government complex outside the city called the Domain, most notably a European historian named Raymond, known as “The Big Man’s White Man,” an adviser to the regime whose influence is waning, and his wife Yvette. Complying with Indar’s philosophy that “You trample on the past, you crush it,” Salim begins a passionate affair with Yvette. Initially liberating and fulfilling the promise of his self-made future, the relationship breaks down in disillusionment and violent rage as Salim comes to realize that he is simply being used by Yvette, and the supposedly glamorous world of Raymond and Yvette and its proximity to power are exposed as tawdry and illusory.
New insurrections are followed by bloody reprisals that drive Salim out of Africa for a time to London where instead of escape he finds “neither the old Europe nor the new. It was something shrunken and mean and forbid-ding. . . . In the streets of London I saw these people, who were like myself, as from a distance. I saw the young girl selling packets of cigarettes at midnight, seemingly imprisoned in their kiosks, like puppets in a puppet theatre. They were cut off from the life of the great city where they had come to live, and I wondered about the pointlessness of their own hard life, the pointlessness of their difficult journey.” Finding no satisfying place for himself in Europe, Salim returns to discover his shop, like all property owned by “foreigners,” has been nationalized and handed over to a drunken, incompetent African manager. Now working in the shop he formerly owned, Salim begins dealing in gold and ivory to amass as much money as possible out of the country. Jailed, Salim is released through the intercession of Ferdinand, who has progressed from culturally shocked schoolboy to a government official with authority over the town. Ferdinand convinces Salim that he has no future there and that “we’re going to hell and every man knows this in his bones,” and Salim departs on the steamer with its towed passenger barge carrying a full cargo of the similarly displaced. The closing paragraph is a descent into the darkness and equivalent of Kurtz’s recognition of the “horror” in Conrad’s masterpiece:
At the time what we saw was the steamer searchlight, playing on the riverbank, playing on the passenger barge, which had snapped loose and was drifting at an angle through the water hyacinths at the edge of the river. The searchlight lit up the barge passengers, who behind bars and wire guards, as yet scarcely seemed to understand that they were adrift. Then there were gunshots. The searchlight was turned off; the barge was no longer to be seen. The steamer started up again and moved with-out lights down the river, away from the area of battle. The air would have been full of moths and flying insects. The searchlight, while it was on, had shown thousands, white in the white light.
In Naipaul’s sobering assessment, the world is caught between a collapsed imperial order and a dehumanized, adrift postcolonial future. Only Salim’s persistent adaptability and survival instinct oppose the social and historical forces aligned against him and his search for authenticity and a sustainable existence.