Book of the Week: A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul
Book 34: A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul
To be honest I’m not reading much of anything these days; however, in the late hours of the night, when I’m waiting for my baby to fall asleep, I put one ear bud in and listen to an audiobook. In a haze, I mostly follow the plot.
Earlier this year, when V. S. Naipaul died, I confess I was unfamiliar with his work. I listened to his obituary on NPR and that piqued my curiosity enough to look further. I browsed his internet bios and thought that he was a writer I should know. I wasn’t really sure where to start, but after looking at a few different options, I chose A Bend in the River mostly because Obama put his summer reading list out and included A House for Mr. Biswas. I didn’t want to read what everyone else read.
A Bend in the River is the story of Salim, the son of wealthy Indian colonists in east Africa at the dawn of African independence. Salim’s family has been in Africa for generations and own successful businesses. They live on a compound in a port city and have several African slaves. Salim, sensing that the Africans in his city are about to force independence and seize control of property owned by colonizers, decides to make his own way. He buys a shop in an interior city where the river bends, making it an essential stop for all river traffic. This city was previously a European colony and there is some hope that it will be a thriving trade port again. There, he slowly builds a life in business.
Salim’s life is an interesting look at the fall of colonialism in Africa through non-western eyes. Salim’s family is very invested in colonial Africa. Salim himself intends to get what he can out of it and then get out before he becomes persona non grata. That plan deteriorates as Salim discovers that he has no place to “get out” to. Although Salim’s dark skin and his muslim faith distinguishes him from western colonizers, his life in Africa is built upon generations-old patron relationships that require him to bring one of his family’s former slaves inland with him to care for him.
Naipaul’s Africa is an uncomfortable one. Through the eyes of Salim, the end of colonial rule is simply inevitable and it is not necessarily lamentable. Nevertheless, the narrative itself portrays African self-rule as a tragic regression in economic, cultural, and technological terms. Politically, leaders are corrupt power-brokers who use brash forms of populism in order to maintain their authority.
In the end, Salim loses everything. Even then, he does not abandon Africa. In fact, it is finally Africa that turns on him, expropriating his business, arresting him for possessing Ivory illegally, and imprisoning him. He is only released on the condition that he leave and never return. And so, Salim, the African Indian, like so many of the Indians he grew up with on the coast, discovers that he is a man without a country. He cannot return to India, because he is not a citizen of India; but he cannot stay in Africa either. Salim is an African who is told one day that he is not welcome to be an African.