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?
Labels: Africa, Book Review, Fiction, Naipaul