Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A Bend In The River

A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul (Trinidad-United Kingdom 1979).

How the members of the Nobel Prize committee must have blanched and twitched as King Gustaf handed their bauble to V.S. Naipaul. The author had, by that evening in 2001, been accused of being a colonialist, a neocolonialist, an elitist, an imperialist and several other -ists that would normally put one in bad odor with the world literature crowd. But if you're in the habit of feting the world's best writers, you could stall for a decade or two, but, sooner or later, you were going to have to give Naipaul his due.

The Swedish Academy, which awards the Literature prize, stated in its official citation that it honored Naipaul “for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories." Fortunately, the prize winners write better than the prize givers.

In A Bend in the River, history -- suppressed, overt, how people make it, react to it, counterfeit it -- is as much the titular river as is the never-named Congo. The famous first line of the novel is the narrator's condemnation of people who allow their lives to be dictated by history and its sergeants-at-arms, family and culture: "The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it."

Most people don't live their own lives, Naipaul argues; most act out the lives their parents and culture planned for them. In superficially individualistic countries like the United States, most people will take offense at his argument. "I live my own life!" would be the retort.

Really? Is your life colored within these lines: same level of education (or one additional degree) than your better-educated parent, similar general class of employment as your father, marriage to a co-religionist of your race, a residence within 500 miles of a parent or in-law, at least two kids, all family and business life conducted in the languages of your youth?

Such a life, A Bend in the River argues, is a capitulation to historical forces, not a victory over them.

The novel is narrated in the first-person by Salim, an Indian Muslim merchant who grew up amid the Indo-Arabian diaspora of a cosmopolitan city on the East African coast (probably Mombasa). Salim -- a pleasant, practical man who reminded me of Saleem Sinai, the narrator of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children -- realized that, with the success of the African independence movements, the orderly world of the Arab and Indian traders was ending, a fact which escaped the notice of Salim's relatives. "They were buried so deep in their lives that they were not able to stand back and consider the nature of their lives," Salim observed.

Salim decided to leave his world before it was taken from him. To that end, he purchased a general store deep in the African interior, at a bend in the great river.

Throughout the book, Salim is quietly horrified at the way that some of his fellow villagers willingly relinquished control of their lives, unquestioningly swept away by the currents. "They seemed content to just live out their lives," Salim said of an elderly Asian couple who lost their transport business after independence. "They had done all that their religion and family customs had required them to do; and they felt -- like the older people of my own family -- that they had lived good and complete lives."

Salim's childhood friend Indar agreed. "And that is where I suppose life ends for most people, who stiffen in the attitudes they adopt to make themselves suitable for the jobs and lives that other people have laid out for them," Indar said.

The Asian couple was not alone in their capitulation. Others also repeated cycles of behavior patterned generations before.

When the militias of the independence movement took control of the coast, Salim was joined by Metty, one of his former servants. "The family servants, burdensome to the end, refusing to go away, insisting on their slave status even at this time of revolution, were being split up among the family," Salim explained. Not completely free of his historical obligations, Salim employed Metty at his store.

To Salim, even the wars of African independence were a variation on an old theme. "Some papers spoke of the end of feudalism and the dawn of a new age. But what had happened was not new. People who had grown feeble had been physically destroyed. That, in Africa, was not new; it was the oldest law of the land."

And did the wars bring true independence from the colonial powers? Salim didn't think so. The grasp of Europe on the African mind remained strong after the last gunboat left. "Europe no longer ruled. But it still fed us in a hundred ways with its language and sent us its increasingly wonderful goods, things which, in the bush of Africa, added year by year to our idea of who we were, gave us that idea of our modernity and development, and made us aware of another Europe -- the Europe of great cities, great stores, great buildings, great universities."

Individuals, couples, nations, continents -- none were as free as they thought they were, all were bound by historical forces they could not or would not best.

"After all, we make ourselves according to the ideas we have of our possibilites," Indar said. "We have to learn to trample on the past."

Salim tried. He left home and started his business; he was a freer thinker and actor than anyone else in his family. But he still accepted an arranged marriage to the daughter of a family friend, and, when the logic of African politics left him only one option, he quietly accepted his fate.

Salim was one of the strongest ones. And he failed. Where does that leave the rest of us?

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5 Comments:

Anonymous Tom said...

Where's that leave the rest of us?

Leaves me in a nice house in Mass. and not owning a general store in the Congo.

I'm sure I missed a point somewhere.

11:09 PM  
Blogger Paul Karl Lukacs said...

Naipaul's argument isn't that we can't all be fat and happy. God knows I've made progress on the "fat" part.

His argument is that a person's sphere of autonomous action, his or her zone of freedom and independence, is far smaller than most people think. In Naipaul's view, the three main inhibitors are history, culture and family.

Even if people theoretically had complete autonomy, most people would choose -- again, because of historical, cultural and/or family pressures -- not to exercise their full autonomy.

Yes, a bright Irish kid from Weymouth who's good with words could learn Cantonese and corner the Hong Kong commercial real estate market, but that isn't probable. He's more likely to become a white-collar professional in greater Boston.

I don't think Naipaul would go so far as to say that no one is truly free. (He certainly thinks _he_ is free.) But he seems to think that true personal freedom is largely a pleasant myth that actually serves to keep people in line.

In any event, I highly recommend the book.

1:54 PM  
Anonymous beckett said...

"I can't go on."

"That's what you think."

7:59 AM  
Anonymous Big D said...

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan't crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.

8:02 AM  
Blogger mda said...

Why do you think that "in Naipaul's view" the three main inhibitors are history, culture, and family?

I think those pressures are far more superficial than the intrinsic factors Naipaul is getting at.

Salim reports:

"I wondered about the nature of my aspirations, the very supports of my existence; and I began to feel that any life I might have anywhere--however rich and successful and better furnished--would only be a version of the life I lived now."

In other words, Naipaul is saying that if the Irish kid from Weymouth DOES corner the market in Hong Kong, would that mean something? Would that Hong Kong life be different in essence and substance than the Boston life? Would he become the same cranky old man in the end?

Is it possible you're being inhibited by your American obsession with autonomy in your understanding of this book?

Naipaul isn't an American. He's not trying to uphold the American notions of rags to riches and breaking free from cultural ruts.

I think he's trying to communicate something that's very clear from his perspective -- that we are inherently limited by our heredity and upbringing. All we are comes from our parents. It's not a matter of getting free from our native culture and our family's expectations for us, or of broadening our perspective. Our problem, our inhibition, goes to the root of who we are.

2:24 PM  

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