Naipaul V.S. : “A Bend In The River”. Discussed 26/2/09

V.S. Naipaul was born in Trinidad in 1932, and came to London in 1950. ‘A Bend in the River’ was published in 1979. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001.

Naipaul’s writing includes fiction and extended essays on cultural, geographical and political themes. He has a particular interest in the legacy of colonialism, and in the experiences of displaced individuals and populations.

The proposer described how he was led to his choice via another book: ‘Blood River’ by Tim Butcher, a factual account of a journey through central Africa. He also cited the book and film ‘The African Queen’. Later in the discussion, Joseph Conrad’s novella ‘Heart of Darkness’ also came up as part of the European backdrop of writing about the Congo. A more recent book, ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ by Barbara Kingsolver set in the Congo during the post colonial period, was also referred to later.

The proposer’s introductory remarks on his experience of reading ‘A Bend in the River’ indicated that he found it well-balanced, descriptive, analytical and thought-provoking. The book demonstrated a broad humanist philosophy, and a fascination with how people could achieve self-improvement.

There followed some speculation as to the precise locations Naipaul had in mind when writing. He does not mention the name of either the country or the town where the novel is set, but there was general agreement that the country was based on Zaire (previously the Belgian Congo), and that the town might well be a version of Kisangani on the River Congo. The political leader in the background of the story was perhaps drawn from Mabutu Sese Seko, who seized power in 1965.

Discussion moved onto the fact that no one in the group had visited central Africa, which made it harder to evaluate the accuracy of the portrayal. There was debate about whether racist attitudes were expressed towards Africans either implicitly by Naipaul or explicitly by his narrator Salim, (both members of the Indian diaspora). It was pointed out that one of the most heavily satirical passages of the book had as its target the Indian consulate in London.

One member of the group discussed the portrait of Raymond, a recognizable figure to him through his own academic contacts. White academics such as Raymond did indeed exercise some influence in Africa during the 1960s, as many African leaders came to Britain for their higher education. However, it was agreed that Raymond was in fact not a power behind the throne, but ultimately a powerless and undermined individual.

Continuing to look at characterization, we turned to Salim, the novel’s narrator. As is usual when a writer undertakes first person narration, there was speculation about the degree to which Salim was a self-portrait. Elements of his behaviour – misogyny in particular – were compared with aspects of Naipaul’s own personal biography. The view was expressed that Salim was in many respects an ‘empty’ character – an observer of events rather than an active protagonist. He seems predominantly passive, awaiting events or developments that will show him how to lead his life. In this context, the opening sentence of the novel was much admired: ‘The World is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.’ As a starting point for an open story that invites a variety of interpretation, this was seen as a very well crafted beginning.

Staying with characterization, Ferdinand was considered as representing the fluidity of the continent in general. In fact, all the characters had a role in expressing aspects of Africa. There was a lack of dynamics between them, it was felt. They were all essentially isolated, even Matty and Salim who had spent their lives together. They were also, it was agreed, not particularly sympathetic or appealing characters. Of course, we see them primarily through the eyes of Salim, and it was suggested that Salim himself was not a perceptive observer. In fact he is quite openly uncomprehending about some of the people he encounters, which places a substantial barrier between the reader and the characters.

In spite of this sense of being held at a distance from characters, there was widespread admiration for Naipaul’s prose style. One of the group pointed out for example the book’s fascination with the river itself, and the precision and variety of natural descriptions.

We turned to themes, and wondered if ultimately it was a rather depressing book. Ferdinand’s final words to Salim, when he has got him out of jail and recommends that he flees, suggest capitulation to a nightmarish breakdown of ethics, culture and order. There seems to be no choice left between right and wrong, because there is no right any more. Salim’s efforts to make a success of his life in this place have come to nothing, and all that is left is to run away. At this particular bend in the river and at this point in central Africa’s history, civilization has failed.